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Onesimus (Ign. Eph.)

Role: Messenger

Gender: Male

Date: early-second century CE

Place: Ephesus

Language: Greek

Literary Genre: Letter

Title of Work: Ignatius, Letter to the Ephesians

Reference: Ign. Eph. 1–2, 6

Original Text:

ἐπεὶ οὖν τὴν πολυπληθίαν ὑμῶν ἐν ὀνόματι θεοῦ ἀπείληφα ἐν Ὀνησίμῳ, τῷ ἐν ἀγάπῃ ἀδιηγήτῳ, ὑμῶν δὲ ἐν σαρκὶ ἐπισκόπῳ, ὃν εὔχομαι κατὰ Ἰησοῦν Χριστὸν ὑμᾶς ἀγαπᾶν καὶ πάντας ὑμᾶς αὐτῷ ἐν ὁμοιότητι εἶναι. (Ign. Eph. 1.3)

ὡς καὶ αὐτὸν ὁ πατὴρ Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ ἀναψύξαι ἅμα Ὀνησίμῳ καὶ Βούρρῳ καὶ Εὔπλῳ καὶ Φρόντωνι, δι᾿ ὧν πάντας ὑμᾶς κατὰ ἀγάπην εἶδον. (Ign. Eph. 2)

αὐτὸς μὲν οὖν Ὀνήσιμος ὑπερεπαινεῖ ὑμῶν τὴν ἐν θεῷ εὐταξίαν, ὅτι πάντες κατὰ ἀλήθειαν ζῆτε καὶ ὅτι ἐν ὑμῖν οὐδεμία αἵρεσις κατοικεῖ· (Ign. Eph. 6.2)

English Translation:

Since, then, I have received your entire congregation in the name of God through Onesimus, who abides in a love that defies description and serves as your bishop in the flesh—and I ask by Jesus Christ that you love him, and that all of you be like him. (Ign. Eph. 1.3)

So may the Father of Jesus Christ refresh him, along with Onesimus, Burrhus, Euplus, and Fronto, those through whom I lovingly saw all of you. (Ignatius, Eph. 2)

Thus Onesimus himself praises you highly for being so well ordered in God, because all of you live according to the truth and no heresy resides among you. (Ign. Eph. 6.2)

Text and Translation adapted from Bart D. Ehrman, The Apostolic Fathers (Loeb Classical Library 24; Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003), 150–1.


Onesimus was the bishop (overseer or ἐπίσκοπος) of the Christian community in Ephesus around the turn of the first century CE. According to Ignatius’s Letter to the Ephesians he visited Ignatius and Ignatius saw in Onesimus the entirety of the community. The notion that letter carriers or messengers embody the person and values of those whom they represent is common in Greco-Roman letters. The role of pseudepigraphical representative has been identified by some as a characteristic particularly associated with servile messengers (Londa). The same trope reappears throughout Ignatius’s letters. As Schodel has put it, Onesimus himself is received like a letter (Ign. Eph. 1.3)

A number of scholars have suggested that bishop Onesimus was the enslaved Onesimus who formed the subject of Paul’s Letter to Philemon and who carried the Letter to the Colossians. This view, espoused since Ronald Knox, is focussed on the role that Onesimus may have played in collecting and assembling the earliest collections of Paul’s letters. If Onesimus played a role in this project, argue Goodspeed and Harrison, we can understand why some letter collections place Ephesians at the head of the collection. There is, however, no firm evidence in which to ground this hypothesis. It is unclear if Onesimus might be described as a literate worker and messenger rather than simply as someone who visited Ignatius during his confinement. 

Regardless of the connection to the Letter to Philemon, the name Onesimus name is highly suggestive of servile origins and rarely used of freeborn individuals. The name means “useful” and utility was one of the chief characteristics valued in enslaved workers in this period. Onesimus was one of the ten most frequently used names for enslaved people in the city of Rome and one of the three most frequently attested Greek names for enslaved people (Solin 2001). The term is found 242 times in urban inscriptions (e.g. CIL 6.10395; CIL 15 4973; CIL 15.5398a; of a priest of Cybele CIL 6.496). Schoedel identifies some examples where Onesimus refers to freeborn individuals (e.g. Livy 44.16)

That Onesimus is identified as a bishop and a leader in the community in Ephesus does not automatically mean that he was freeborn. As demonstrated by Katherine Shaner, it was common for enslaved and formerly enslaved people to rise to positions of cultic prominence in the city of Ephesus. 

Keywords: Apostolic Fathers; Christian; Ignatius; Literate Worker; Messenger


Goodspeed, Edgar J. The Meaning of Ephesians. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1933. 

Harrison, P. N. “Onesimus and Philemon.” ATR 32 (1950): 288–94.

Head, Peter.  “Onesimus the Letter Carrier and the Initial Reception of Paul’s Letter to Philemon.” JTS 71.2 (2020): 628–656.

Knox, John. Philemon Among the Letters of Paul, A New View of its Place and Importance. New York: Abingdon, 1959.

Londa, Chris. “Letters.” In Writing, Enslavement, and Powerin the Roman Mediterranean. Edited by Jeremiah Coogan, Joseph Howley, Candida Moss. Oxford: Oxford University Press, forthcoming.

Roth, Ulrike. “Paul, Philemon, and Onesimus: A Christian Design for Mastery.” ZNW 105.1 (2014): 102-130.

Schoedel, William R. Ignatius of Antioch: A Commentary on the Letters of Ignatius of Antioch. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1985. 

Shaner, Katherine A. Enslaved Leadership in Early Christianity. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018.

Solin, H. “Griechische und römische Sklavennamen. Eine vergleichende Untersuchung.” Pages 307-30 in Fünfzig Jahre Forschungen zur antiken Sklaverei an der Mainzer Akademie, 1950-2000. Miscellanea zum Jubilaeum. Edited by Heinz Bellen and Heinz Heinen. Stuttgart: Steiner, 2001.

How to Cite:

Moss, Candida R. “Onesimus (Ign. Eph.)” Ancient Enslaved Christians. Accessed DAY MONTH YEAR <URL>



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