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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

Onesimus.

1.

Although the figure of Onesimus is not introduced until almost half-way through the letter (in v. 10 ), the interpretation of this figure has typically framed how the epistle has been approached. Onesimus generally is seen in one of three ways: (1) as a runaway slave (cf. Lohse 1971; R. P. Martin 1974; Caird 1976; Nordling 1991 ); (2) as an estranged slave, appealing to his owner's friend (amicus domini) (cf. Lampe 1985; Rapske 1991; Bartchy 1992 ); or (3) as a slave, sent by Philemon, to serve Paul in prison (cf. Knox 1959; Winter 1984; 1987; Wansink 1996 ).

2.

The first two characterizations generally focus on vv. 11, 15 , and 18 , and, as discussed in the commentary below, tend to undervalue Greek wordplays, conventions of ancient slavery and, particularly, Paul's location (in prison). For a number of additional reasons, it seems unlikely that Onesimus either ran away or was estranged from his master: (1) If Onesimus had run away or faced estrangement, his owner probably would not have known where he was. Here, however, Philemon appears to have known that Onesimus was with Paul (Winter 1987 ). (2) It seems unreasonable to believe that Onesimus would run away from his master in order to escape into prison. Such a hypothesis seems to ignore Paul's imprisonment. (3) If Onesimus were estranged from Philemon and in need of reconciliation, his conversion to the Christian faith—under such conditions—could well appear feigned and opportunistic. (4) Although Paul asks that Philemon support Onesimus, he does not request pity or forgiveness on behalf of Onesimus. Onesimus is not presented in any way as remorseful or repentant.

3.

It appears that Onesimus neither ran away nor was estranged from his master. Writing from prison, Paul thanks the recipients of the epistle for their support. He sees his relationship with them as similar to that of ‘partners’. And when he returns a person who had been with him in prison, he feels justified in asking that this person be received with respect and care. That is the situation in Paul's letter to the Philippians. That is also the situation in Philemon. In Philippians, Epaphroditus was messenger and minister to Paul's needs. He had been sent to Paul by the Philippians, he had served this prisoner on their behalf, and he then returned to his community. Onesimus, similarly, appears to have been sent by Philemon to serve Paul while he was in prison. During this service, however, something unique happened. Onesimus became a Christian and Paul had now found a new colleague in ministry. If the pagan slave Onesimus was sent by his owner to ‘refresh’ the imprisoned, if he was no runaway looking for quick redemption and forgiveness, generations of Christian interpreters have cheated Onesimus out of the integrity of his faith.

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