Philemon and Onesimus—United in Christian Brotherhood
ONE of the apostle Paul’s divinely inspired letters deals with a delicate problem involving two men. One was Philemon, and the other was Onesimus. Who were these men? What made Paul take an interest in their situation?
Philemon, the letter’s recipient, lived in Colossae in Asia Minor. Unlike many other Christians in the same area, Philemon was acquainted with Paul, having embraced the good news because of the apostle’s preaching activity. (Colossians 1:1; 2:1) Paul knew him to be a ‘beloved fellow worker.’ Philemon was an example of faith and love. He was hospitable and was a source of refreshment to his fellow Christians. Philemon was evidently also a man of some means, since his home was big enough to accommodate meetings of the local congregation. It has been suggested that Apphia and Archippus, two other individuals addressed in Paul’s letter, may have been his wife and son. Philemon also had at least one slave, Onesimus.—Philemon 1, 2, 5, 7, 19b, 22.
A Fugitive in Rome
The Scriptures do not tell us why Onesimus was over 900 miles [1,400 km] from home with Paul in Rome, where the letter to Philemon was written about 61 C.E. But Paul told Philemon: “If [Onesimus] did you any wrong or owes you anything, keep this charged to my account.” (Philemon 18) These words make it clear that Onesimus was in trouble with his master, Philemon. Paul’s letter was written with the aim of reconciling the two men.
It has been suggested that Onesimus became a fugitive after robbing Philemon in order to finance his flight to Rome. There he intended to lose himself in the thronging masses.a In the Graeco-Roman world, runaways constituted a major problem not only for slave owners but also for the public administration. Rome itself is said to have been “notorious as a customary refuge” for runaway slaves.
How did Paul encounter Onesimus? The Bible does not tell us. When the novelty of freedom wore off, however, likely Onesimus realized that he had placed himself in an extremely precarious situation. In the city of Rome, a special police corps hunted down fugitive slaves, whose offense was one of the most serious known to ancient law. According to Gerhard Friedrich, “runaway slaves who were caught used to be branded in their foreheads. They were often tortured . . . , thrown to the beasts in the circus, or crucified to dissuade other slaves from imitating their example.” Probably, suggests Friedrich, after Onesimus ran out of the stolen money and in vain sought a hiding place or a job, he asked for the protection and mediation of Paul, about whom he had heard in Philemon’s home.
Others believe that Onesimus purposely ran to one of his master’s friends, hoping that through that one’s influence, he might be restored to good relations with a master justly angry with him for some other reason. Historical sources indicate that such was “a common and widespread resort of slaves in trouble.” If so, then Onesimus’ theft was “more probably committed to facilitate his arrival before the mediator Paul than part of a plan to flee,” says scholar Brian Rapske.
Paul Lends a Hand
Whatever was the reason for flight, Onesimus evidently sought Paul’s help to become reconciled with his irate master. That presented Paul with a problem. Here was a former unbelieving slave who was a criminal fugitive. Should the apostle try to help him by prevailing on a Christian friend not to exercise his legal right to mete out severe punishment? What was Paul to do?
By the time Paul wrote to Philemon, the runaway had evidently been with the apostle for a while. It had been long enough for Paul to say that Onesimus had become a “beloved brother.” (Colossians 4:9) “I am exhorting you concerning my child, to whom I became a father while in my prison bonds,” said Paul of his own spiritual relationship with Onesimus. Of all the possible outcomes, this must have been the one that Philemon least expected. The apostle said that the slave who had formerly been “useless” was returning as a Christian brother. Onesimus would now be “profitable,” or “useful,” thus living up to the meaning of his name.—Philemon 1, 10-12.
Onesimus had become very useful to the imprisoned apostle. In fact, Paul would have kept him there, but apart from being against the law, this would have been an infringement on the rights of Philemon. (Philemon 13, 14) In another letter, written about the same time to the congregation that met in Philemon’s home, Paul referred to Onesimus as “my faithful and beloved brother, who is from among you.” This indicates that Onesimus had already given proof of his trustworthiness.—Colossians 4:7-9.b
Paul encouraged Philemon to receive Onesimus kindly but did not use apostolic authority to command him to do so or to free his slave. Because of their friendship and mutual love, Paul was sure that Philemon would “even do more” than he was asked. (Philemon 21) What ‘even more’ may have meant is left vague because only Philemon could rightly decide what to do about Onesimus. Some have read into Paul’s words a tacit request for the runaway to be ‘sent back so that he could go on helping Paul as he had already begun to do.’
Did Philemon accept Paul’s pleas for Onesimus? There seems to be little doubt that he did, though this may have displeased other Colossian slave owners who might have preferred to see Onesimus get exemplary punishment to dissuade their own slaves from imitating his example.
Onesimus—A Changed Man
In any case, Onesimus returned to Colossae with a new personality. His thinking transformed by the power of the good news, he undoubtedly became a faithful member of the Christian congregation in that city. Whether Onesimus was eventually emancipated by Philemon is not disclosed in the Scriptures. From a spiritual standpoint, however, the former runaway had become a free man. (Compare 1 Corinthians 7:22.) Similar transformations occur today. When people apply Bible principles in their lives, situations and personalities change. Those who were previously considered useless to society are helped to become model citizens.c
What a difference conversion to the true faith made! Whereas the former Onesimus may have been “useless” to Philemon, the new Onesimus doubtless lived up to his name as a “profitable” individual. And surely it was a blessing that Philemon and Onesimus became united in Christian brotherhood.
a Roman law defined a servus fugitivus (fugitive slave) as ‘one who left his master, with the intention of not returning.’
b On this journey back to Colossae, apparently Onesimus and Tychicus were entrusted with three of Paul’s letters, now included in the Bible canon. In addition to this letter to Philemon, these were Paul’s letters to the Ephesians and the Colossians.
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Slaves Under Roman Law
Under Roman legislation in force in the first century C.E., a slave was entirely at the mercy of his master’s whims, lusts, and temper. According to commentator Gerhard Friedrich, “fundamentally and juridically, the slave was not a person, but an object that his owner could use freely. . . . [He] was placed on the same level as domestic animals and tools and was not afforded any consideration by civil law.” A slave could not seek any legal redress for injustices suffered. Basically, he just had to carry out his master’s orders. There was no limit to the punishments an angry master might impose. Even for a slight offense, he wielded the power of life and death.*
While the rich might have had several hundred slaves, even a comparatively modest household may have included two or three. “The tasks performed by domestic slaves were extremely varied,” says scholar John Barclay. “We find slaves as janitors, cooks, waiters, cleaners, couriers, child-minders, wet-nurses and all-purpose personal attendants, not to mention the various professionals one might find in the larger and wealthier houses. . . . In practical terms, the quality of life of a domestic slave depended very much on the disposition of the master and that could cut both ways: proximity to a cruel master could result in suffering an unlimited range of evils, but a kind and generous master could make life both tolerable and hopeful. There are famous examples of cruel treatment recorded in classical literature, but also plenty of inscriptions witnessing to the warmth of feeling between some owners and their slaves.”
*On slavery among God’s people of ancient times, see Insight on the Scriptures, published by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc., Volume 2, pages 977-9.