Ones'imus (Ο᾿μἡσιμος, profitable) is the name of the servant or slave in whose behalf Paul wrote the Epistle to Philemon (Philippians 10; Col 4:9). A.D. 58. He was a native, or certainly an inhabitant, of Colosss, since Paul, in writing to the Church there, speaks of him (Col 4:9) as ὅς ἐστιν ἐξ ὑμῶν, "one of you." This expression confirms the presumption which his Greek name affords that he was a Gentile, and not a Jew, as some have argued from μάλιστα ἐμοί in Philippians 16. Slaves were numerous in Phrygia, and the name itself of Phrygian was almost synonymous with that of slave. Hence it happened that in writing to the Colossians (3:22-4:1) Paul had occasion to instruct them concerning the duties of masters and servants to each other. Onesimus was one of this unfortunate class of persons, as is evident both from the manifest implication in οὐκέτι ὠς δοῦλον in Philippians 16, and from the general tenor of the epistle. There appears to have been no difference of opinion on this point among the ancient commentators, and there is none of any critical weight among the modern. The man escaped from his master and fled to Rome, where in the midst of its vast population he could hope to be concealed, and to baffle the efforts which were so often made in such cases for retaking the fugitive (Walter, Die Geschichte des Romans Rechts, 2:63 sq.). It must have been to Rome that he directed his way, and not to Caesarea, as some contend; for the latter view stands connected with an indefensible opinion respecting the place whence the letter was written (see Neander, Pflanzung, 2:506). Whether Onesimus had any other motive for the flight than the natural love of liberty, we have not the means of deciding. It has been very generally supposed that he had committed some offense, as theft or embezzlement, and feared the punishment of his guilt. This is grounded upon ἠδίκησε, in Philippians 18, in connection with the context; the meaning, however, is somewhat uncertain (see Notes in Ep. to Philippians by the Amer. Bible Union, p. 60). Commentators at all events go entirely beyond the evidence when they assert (as Conybeare, Life and Epistles of Paul, 2:467) that he belonged to the dregs of society that he robbed his master, and confessed the sin to Paul. Though it may be doubted whether Onesimus heard the Gospel for the first time at Rome, it is beyond question that he was led to embrace the Gospel there through the apostle's instrumentality. The language in ver. 10 of the letter (ὃν ἐγέννησα ἐν τοῖς δεσμοῖς μου) is explicit on this point. As there were believers in Phrygia when the apostle passed through that region on his third missionary tour (Ac 18:23), and as Onesimus belonged to a Christian household (Philippians 2), it is not improbable that he knew something of the Christian doctrine before he went to Rome. How long a time elapsed between his escape and conversion we cannot decide; for πρὸς éραν in the 15th verse, to which appeal has been made, is purely a relative expression, and will not justify any inference as to the interval in question'. After his conversion the most happy and friendly relations sprung up between the teacher and the disciple. The situation of the apostle as a captive and an indefatigable laborer for the promotion of the Gospel (Ac 28:30-31) must have made him keenly alive to the sympathies of Christian friendship, and dependent upon others for various services of a personal nature, important to his efficiency as a minister of the Word. Onesimus appears to have supplied this twofold want in an eminent degree. We see from the letter that he won entirely the apostle's heart, and made himself so useful to him in various private ways, or evinced such a capacity to be so (for he may have gone back to Colossae soon after his conversion), that Paul wished to have him remain constantly with him. Whether he desired his presence as a personal attendant or as a minister of the Gospel is not certain from Ι῞να διακονῇ in ver. 13 of the epistle. Be this as it may, Paul's attachment to him as a disciple, as a personal friend, and as a helper to him in his bonds, was such that he yielded him up only in obedience to that spirit of self-denial, and that sensitive regard for the feelings or the rights of others, of which his conduct on this occasion displayed so noble an example. Onesimus, accompanied by Tychicus, left Rome with not only this epistle, but with that to the Colossians (Col 4:9). It is believed that Onesimus, anxious to justify the confidence which Paul reposed in him, by appearing speedily before his master, left Tychicus to take the Epistle to the Ephesians, and hastened to Colossae, where he doubtless received the forgiveness which Paul had so touchingly implored for him as "a brother beloved" (Canon. Apost. 73).
There is but little to add to this account, when we pass beyond the limits of the New Testament. The traditionary notices which have come down to us are too few and too late to amount to much as historical testimony. Some of the later fathers assert that Onesimus was set free, and was subsequently ordained bishop of Bercea, in Macedonia (Constit. Apost. 7:46). The person of the same name mentioned as bishop of Ephesus in the first epistle of Ignatius to the Ephesians (Hefele, Patrum Apost. Opp. p. 152) was a different person (Winer, Realw. 2:175). SEE ONESIMUS, ST. It is related also that Onesimus finally made his way to Rome again, and ended his days there as a martyr during the persecution under Nero. His name is found in the Roman martyrology under date of March 2, 95.
We mistake if we consider that the occasion on which Paul interfered was really small. Throughout the Roman empire the number of the enslaved was perhaps seven times the number of the free. It was important that a practical exemplification should be given by Paul himself of the meaning of his own language, that in the new creation there is "neither bond nor free, but Christ is all and in all." There is no violent interference with the prescriptive rights of ownership which Philemon had acquired; Paul gently states that while his natural impulse was to retain Onesimus for the sake of his services (Philippians 13), yet, apart from Philemon's consent, he would forego the comfort which the presence of such a Christian brother was able to impart. Yet the language in which Paul speaks of Onesimus clearly shows that Philemon could no longer maintain those rights without forfeiting his Christian character. Slavery is nowhere expressly condemned in Scripture any more than polygamy; the duty of emancipating slaves is not expressly inculcated any more than the duty of family worship. The influence of vital Christianity implicitly forbids the permanency of a system which defeats the apostle's injunction: "Masters, give unto your servants that which is just and equal, knowing that ye also have a Master in heaven." Where the owner is Christianized, the bondsman is enfranchised. The interference of Paul in behalf of Onesimus may thus be considered a divine act of emancipation, illustrating the legitimate and necessary influence of Christian principle. Amid all the defects and corruptions of the Christian Church we can discover proofs of its divine origin in every age and in every clime, by its tendency to build the heavy burdens, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke; the Church has very generally felt that the command, "He who loveth God should love his brother also," strikes at the root of a system which severs the domestic relations of husband and wife, of parent and child, while it blasts the oppressor with the blinding and hardening effects of arbitrary rule and irresponsible power. SEE PHILEMON.