Who Was Onesimus?

Philemon 8–10 (ESV) — 8 Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, 9 yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you—I, Paul, an old man and now a prisoner also for Christ Jesus— 10 I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment.

We now come to the heart of this letter. Paul writes to Philemon to make an appeal. The matter involves Onesimus, who has become acquainted with Paul and his ministry. Paul seems to have a great affinity for Onesimus and desires to bring reconciliation between him and his master, Philemon.

So, what is the issue between Philemon and Onesimus? The text does not give us the details, though some have offered different possibilities. I have outlined a few of the most popular options below:

  1. The traditional view, and still most widely held, is that Onesimus is a runaway slave who had stolen from his master, Philemon. Verses 15-18 are used to make this case. Onesimus made his way to Paul and was eventually converted to Christianity. At some point, Onesimus admitted his circumstances to Paul and now Paul was attempting to help in the reconciliation process.
  2. Another view is that Onesimus was not a runaway, but that he had been sent to Paul by Philemon and the church to assist the missionary in his ministry. In this view, Paul’s letter was sent to ask for Onesimus’ stay to be extended because his help had proven so useful to Paul.
  3. A third possibility is that Onesimus is neither a runaway slave nor one who was sent to Paul to assist him. Instead, he was a slave who had come into some kind of conflict with his master, Philemon. The exact nature of their conflict is never given. Onesimus had gone to Paul, who was a friend of Philemon, to ask him to help in the situation. This would not have made Onesimus a runaway and this kind of situation was not unheard of in the Roman world.

There are other views. However, these are the most popular. Perhaps one of the best takeaways from this passage is that we need to be careful in how we can read things into the text. We often try to fill in the gaps with details that we simply are not given. When we do that, we can make the text say almost whatever we want. Can you think of any other passages where we may do this and not even realize it?

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