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Onesimus (Philemon)

Role: Messenger; Literate Worker

Gender: Male

Date: mid-first century CE

Place: Ephesus?

Language:  Greek

Literary Genre: Letter

Title of Work: Philemon

Reference: Philemon 10; Col. 4:9

Original Text:

Παρακαλῶ σε περὶ τοῦ ἐμοῦ τέκνου, ὃν ἐγέννησα ἐν τοῖς δεσμοῖς, Ὀνήσιμον, όν ποτέ σοι ἄχρηστον νυνὶ δὲ [καὶ] σοὶ καὶ ἐμοὶ εὔχρηστον, ὃν ἀνέπεμψά σοι, αὐτόν, τοῦτ’ ἔστιν τὰ ἐμὰ σπλάγχνα·  ὃν ἐγὼ ἐβουλόμην πρὸς ἐμαυτὸν κατέχειν, ἵνα ὑπὲρ σοῦ μοι διακονῇ ἐν τοῖς δεσμοῖς τοῦ εὐαγγελίου, χωρὶς δὲ τῆς σῆς γνώμης οὐδὲν ἠθέλησα ποιῆσαι, ἵνα μὴ ὡς κατὰ ἀνάγκην τὸ ἀγαθόν σου ᾖ ἀλλὰ κατὰ ἑκούσιον. (NA28 Philem. 10-16)

σὺν Ὀνησίμῳ τῷ πιστῷ καὶ ἀγαπητῷ ἀδελφῷ, ὅς ἐστιν ἐξ ὑμῶν· πάντα ὑμῖν γνωρίσουσιν τὰ ὧδε. (NA28 Col. 4:9)

English Translation:

I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful both to you and to me. I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you. I wanted to keep him with me, so that he might be of service to me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel;  but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced. Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother—especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.

(Phlm. 10-16)

He [Tychicus] is coming with Onesimus, the faithful and beloved brother, who is one of you. They will tell you about everything here. (Col. 4:9)


Onesimus was an enslaved man who appears in two Pauline epistles and worked as a messenger. In Colossians 4 he is identified as a companion of Tychicus in his journey to Colossae. Onesimus is primarily associated with the Letter to Philemon, however, where he is identified as a self-emancipated (“runaway”) enslaved worker who had fled from his enslaver Philemon and sought out the imprisoned Paul in Ephesus (Phlm. 8-16). Traditional scholarship argues that after he had left Philemon’s household Onesimus had undergone a conversion. In the diplomatically styled Letter to Philemon Paul advocated on Onesimus’s behalf to Philemon, his enslaver.

Paul requests that Philemon receive Onesimus back into his household as a “beloved brother” (Phlm. 16). The language of siblingship may be metaphorical and religious but it might also refer to the very real situations in which homeborn enslaved workers and the head of household (paterfamilias) were biological half-siblings. The language of Paul’s request plays on the common ancient Roman conception that enslaved workers were living tools caught between the will of enslavers (Harrill, p.16).

Onesimus’s name, which means “useful,” and his description in the letter may also evoke the specter of sexual violation and exploitation. Joseph Marchal has tentatively suggested that Onesimus may have been sexually exploited by Paul himself as well as others. Elsewhere in the Pauline corpus, remarks Marchal, the language of utility deployed in Phlm. 11 has clear sexual connotations (e.g. Rom 1:26–27). The request for manumission, moreover, did not release Onesimus from any of his obligations as formerly enslaved workers continued to be sexually exploitable after manumission (Seneca, Contr. 4 Praef. 10). 

Onesimus’s role in Colossians positions him as a messenger. A lengthy subscription to Colossians found in several manuscripts (K, L)  reads:  “To the Colossians, written from Rome (and delivered) through Tychicus and Onesimus (ἐγράφη ἀπὸ Ῥώμης διὰ Τυχίκου καὶ Ὀνησίμου).”  Similar claims have been made for his role in the delivery of Philemon itself. Building upon earlier scholarship and based on the rhetorical form of Philemon as a ‘letter of recommendation,’ Peter Head argues that Onesimus was also the messenger.. He further posits that Onesimus would have acted as an interpreter of sorts, fleshing out and resolving any ambiguities in the written communication.

As Paul was imprisoned at the time of writing Philemon it is possible, as Roth has discussed, that Onesimus provided material support to Paul during his confinement much as Epaphroditus did on a different occasion (Phil. 2:25–30). That Paul does not seem to have come to an agreement with Philemon about Onesimus’s role suggests that if this took place then it was not as part of a formal arrangement. Perhaps an extended absence away from Philemon without prior agreement forms the background to the letter and Paul’s request. In either case it is likely that Onesimus’ role included rendering a wide range of support services for Paul. Onesimus was likely part of Paul’s “survival strategy” while he was incarcerated (Meggitt).   

Even if Onesimus was not explicitly identified as enslaved in Philemon, his name is suggestive of servile origins. “Usefulness” was one of the chief characteristics valued in enslaved workers in this period (Marchal). It 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 1996). The name is used of enslaved and formerly enslaved men 242 times in urban inscriptions (e.g. CIL 6.10395; CIL 15 4973; CIL 15.5398a; of a priest of Cybele CIL 6.496). 

There is some suggestion that Onesimus was subsequently manumitted and became the bishop of Ephesus mention in Ign., Eph. 1-2 and 6. Later tradition elevates all of the individuals named in Philemon to the rank of bishops of various communities but identifies a different seat for Onesimus: “(Bishop) of Laodicea in Phrygia, Archippus. Of Colossae, Philemon. Of Beroea in Macedonia, Onesimus, once the servant of Philemon” (Const. Ap. 7. 46. 12f: τῆς δὲ ἐν Φρυγίᾳ Λαοδικείας [ἐπίσκοπος] Ἄρχιππος, Κολασσαέων δὲ Φιλήμων· Βεροίας δὲ τῆς κατὰ Μακεδονίαν Ὀνήσιμος ὁ Φιλήμονος)

Keywords: Christian; Literate Worker; Messenger; New Testament; Paul

Related Entries: Tychicus; Onesimus (Ign. Eph. 1-2 and 6)


Charles, Ronald. The Silencing of Slaves in Early Jewish and Christian Texts. London: Routledge, 2020.

Harrill, J. Albert, Slaves in the New Testament: Literary, Social, and Moral Dimensions. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2006.

Head, Peter M. “Onesimus the Letter Carrier and the Initial Reception of Paul’s Letter to Philemon.” JTS 71.2 (2020): 628–56.

Johnson, Matthew V., James A. Noel, and Demetrius K. Williams, ed. Onesimus Our Brother: Reading Religion, Race, and Culture in Philemon. Paul in Critical Contexts. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2012.

Marchal, Joseph A. “The Usefulness of an Onesimus: The Sexual Use of Slaves and Paul’s Letter to Philemon.” JBL 130.4 (2011): 749-770.

Meggitt, Justin. Paul, Poverty, and Survival. Studies of the New Testament and Its World. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1998.

Osiek, Carolyn. Philippians, Philemon. ANTC. Nashville: Abingdon, 2000.

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

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. Stuttgart: Steiner, 2001.

How to Cite:

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


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