🔼The name Onesimus in the Bible
The name Onesimus occurs twice in the New Testament, namely in Colossians 4:9 and Philemon 1:10, and it's generally assumed that this refers to the same man.
In his letter to the Colossians, the apostle Paul mentions Tychicus and Onesimus, whom he sent to the Colossians specifically to convey information (and presumably also to deliver the letter). In his letter to Philemon, Paul discusses Onesimus and his abscondence as slave from his master and subsequently contrition, conversion and return. But as casual and friendly as all this may seem, there is something quit suspicious about the whole affair.
Most forms of early Christianity were illegal in the Roman empire (on account of them being "atheistic", that is without idols, and their objections to the obligatory worship of the state and emperor) and Paul would have been very careful with using his friends' real names. When a fugitive slave got caught he was severely punished, and by harboring a runaway, Paul himself was violating Roman law (whilst in prison). Paul would also have been very careful to not openly discuss politics, or refer to certain military events, lest he be taken for a revolutionary rather than a theologian (Acts 21:38).
Paul wrote Colossians and Philemon mere years before the Great Jewish Revolt would culminate into general Titus' destruction of the temple of YHWH, which in turn meant the end of Judaism as it had existed for a millennium. The magnitude of this disaster can not possibly be overstated, but what might help is to imagine that on 9/11 not just the World Trade Center was destroyed but also the heart of Washington DC, and that millions of Americans had been hanged in the streets and the rest deported to Afghanistan.
Paul saw the holocaust of 70 AD coming, and his writings largely dealt with trying to prevent it, namely by hammering on the importance of unarmed resistance and respectful dialogue. The temple was finally destroyed simply because certain Jewish factions (known as Zealots) foolishly decided to raise up arms against the Roman army. The evangelists, who wrote after the destruction, largely dealt with the question of what was to become of the Jewish mission to be a blessing to all people (Genesis 12:3).
It seems unlikely that Paul would invest his precious resources into a note that was both violently incriminating and theologically rather flimsy, and more so that this flimsy letter went viral in the early Christian world. In those days, correspondence was colossal, and it's an enigma why Paul's letter to Philemon became one of the most popular texts in human history.
The obvious answer is that we moderns have this work pegged entirely different from how the original audience viewed it.
🔼Etymology of the name Onesimus
The name Onesimus is an ordinary albeit infrequently used adjective that means useful, profitable or beneficial:
🔼Who was Onesimus?
Here at Abarim Publications we seriously doubt that Onesimus was some nobody who just happened to be in Paul's life and who was good at delivering letters. And we also doubt that Paul's letter to Philemon is about what it seems to be about.
It may take some getting used to, but in the first century AD, people conveyed information quite differently than we do in our fast world today. When the prophet Agabus came from Jerusalem to Caesarea to warn Paul about the plans of the Jewish elite, he didn't simply inform Paul about the matter, but bombastically stripped Paul of his belt and tied himself with it (Acts 21:11).
Paul urged his audience to express themselves by quoting psalms, hymns and spiritual songs (Ephesians 5:19, Colossians 3:16). Prior to the printing press, this was how texts were preserved, and by quoting some evergreen proverb, a speaker could easily refer to the whole context it was known to exist in. This was not a new thing, but highly effective indeed. Jesus, after all, by saying "My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?" referred to the entire song we now know as Psalm 22 (Matthew 27:46, Psalm 22:1).
Apart from an inconsequential Onesimus mentioned by Polybius in relation to Hieronymus of Syracuse and Hannibal of Carthage (Hist.7.3), the only other Onesimus in writing up to Paul was mentioned in Book 44 of Livy's tome History of Rome, Ab Urbe Condita Libri, which was published around the year Jesus was born. This famous Onesimus had worked at the court in republican Rome. He was "a son of Pytho(n), a Macedonian of distinction":
"He had always advised the king to peaceable measures, and recommended to him, that, as his father Philip had, to the last of his life, made it an established rule to read over twice every day the treaty concluded with the Romans, so he should, if not daily, yet frequently, observe the same practice. When he could not dissuade him from war, he at first began to absent himself on various pretences, that he might not be present at proceedings which he could not approve. But at last, having discovered that suspicions were harbored against him, and that he was tacitly accused of the crime of treason, he went over to the Romans, and was of great service to the consul". (Hist.44.16.5-6).
The king whom Livy's Onesimus had advised, and from whom he had fled to the Romans, was Perseus of Macedon, son of Philip V, who inherited Philip's throne of Macedonia (made great by Alexander) in 179 BC. In 171 BC king Perseus decided to teach the Romans an armed lesson. In 168 BC he was forced to surrender and was shipped off to a Roman jail and heard from no more. The magnificent kingdom of Macedonia ceased to exist and in 146 BC, after some more armed revolting, Macedonia became the Roman province of that same name.
King Perseus should have listened to his servant Onesimus, and that's what Paul's letter to Philemon is about. Paul's Onesimus, who had ran away from his master and was now serving Paul in Rome is a literary representation of Livy's Onesimus, who had ran away from king Perseus and served the Romans senate.
🔼The prisoner of the Lord
A whopping five times in his small letter to Philemon, Paul mentions that he is the prisoner of the Lord (1:1, 1:9, 1:10, 1:13, 1:23). And with that he undeniably refers to the "other" famous prisoner of the Lord, namely Jeremiah, who also urged the people to cooperate with the invaders (Babylon, at that time) lest they would destroy the temple, which they ended up doing.
Paul also appeals to his rank as elderly (Philemon 1:9), which seems rather redundant and is more likely yet another subliminal reference, but to Homer's Odyssey this time:
After a decade of war and another one of wandering, old man Odysseus finally arrived at his home, only to find his wife Penelope pestered by a crowd of over a hundred young Suitors. The Suitors decided to mock the old man, and one of them uttered the famous words: "Would that the fellow might find profit (ονησις, onesis) by proving that he can string this bow" (Od.21.401). Much to their great but short grief, the old man was quite able to string the bow, and as arrows zipped the Suitors dropped.
Old nurse Eurycleia finally recognized the old man to be the Father of the house (son Telemachus knew it the whole time!) and ran up to where Penelope had earlier retreated, and cried: "Awake, Penelope, dear child, that with your own eyes your may see what you desire all your days. Odysseus is here and had come home, late though his coming has been, and has slain the proud wooers who vexed his house and devoured his substance and oppressed his son!" (Od.23.9).
Poor Penelope couldn't believe Eurycleia and spoke of the madness of the wise, and accused her of teasing, but in stead of pummeling her out the door she decided to gracefully honor Eurycleia's years and said: "to thee old age shall bring this profit (ονησις, onesis)" (Od.23.24).
In his influential tragedy Ajax, the poet Sophocles had explained that after the period described in Homer's Illiad, but prior to the Trojan war's end, the Greek hero Ajax had been terribly upset because Achilles' armor was given to Odysseus in stead of to him, and had vowed to kill the latter. After much doings, Ajax decided to bury the sword he obtained as a gift from his greatest enemy Hector (and ultimately kill himself with it) and uttered the bitter words:
"I have gotten no good from the Greeks. Yes, men's proverb is true: the gifts of enemies are no gifts and bring no good (ονησιμος, onesimos). And so, hereafter, I shall first know how to yield to the gods, and second learn to revere [Menelaus and Agamemnon]. They are rulers, so we must submit. How could it be otherwise? Things of awe and might submit to authority" (Aj.664-670).
The name Onesimus means Useful, Profitable or Beneficial but serves in the New Testament as part of Paul's perpetual plea to resist the temptation of taking up arms against an enemy that can't be beaten, and who will destroy and annihilate anyone foolish enough to try.
Like Odysseus, the Lord of Life will suddenly come to His temple (Malachi 3:1), and vengeance is His (Deuteronomy 32:35, Romans 12:19). Until then, we wait and do not raise arms (Exodus 14:14, Matthew 26:52).
Also read our article on the Great Illyrian Revolt of 9 AD.