16 February 2013

With the Saints in Lent (4): Saint Onesimus, 16 February

Remains of the basilica in Ephesus ... Onesimus is said to have been Bishop of Ephesus before he was martyred (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Many Church Calendars have traditionally commemorated the freed slave Onesimus as a saint on 16 February. Saint Onesimus (Ὀνήσιμος, Onēsimos, “useful”) is also called Onesimus of Byzantium and the Holy Apostle Onesimus in some Eastern Orthodox Churches.

Onesimus was a slave of Philemon of Colossae, a man of Christian faith, and is sometimes identified with Onesimus who is named by Ignatius of Antioch as Bishop in Ephesus.

The name Onesimus appears in two New Testament epistles, in the Letter to Philemon and in the Epistle to the Colossians.

The Epistle to Philemon was written by the Apostle Paul to the slave-master Philemon about a runaway slave, Onesimus. He was a Phrygian by birth, the slave to Philemon, a person of note of the city of Colossæ, and was converted to Christianity by Saint Paul. Trying to escape punishment for a theft he was said to have committed, this slave found his way to the place where Saint Paul was in prison – in Rome, Ephesus or Caesarea.

After hearing the Gospel from Saint Paul, Onesimus converted to Christianity. Saint Paul, who had earlier converted, tried to reconcile the two by writing the letter to Philemon. In this letter, Paul recommends Philemon to set Onesimus at liberty, and sent back to his spiritual father.

Saint Paul asks Philemon to accept Onesimus “no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a beloved brother – especially to me, but now much more so to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. If he has wronged you in any way or owes you anything, charge it to my account.” (Philemon 16-18).

In Colossians 4: 9, we come across a man named Onesimus who accompanies Tychicus on his visit to the Christians in Colossae, but nothing more is said about him there.

It may be that this Onesimus is the same Onesimus who became a bishop in Ephesus after Saint Timothy, who had been succeeded first by Saint John and then by Caius.

During the reign of Emperor Domitian and the persecution of Trajan, Onesimus was imprisoned in Rome and may have been martyred by stoning, although other traditions say he was beheaded. Saint Jerome and other Fathers say he was a preacher of the Gospel and a bishop who was martyred under Domitian in the year 95.

The traditional Western commemoration of Saint Onesimus is on 16 February, but the Eastern Churches remember him on 15 February and 22 November.


O Almighty God, you have knit together your elect into one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord. Grant us grace so to follow your blessed saints, including Saint Onesimus, in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to the unspeakable joys which you have prepared for those who unfeignedly love you; through the same Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.


Ezekiel 20: 40-42; Philemon 1-25; Mark 8: 34-38.

Tomorrow (17 February):

Archbishop Janani Jakaliya Luwum.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and an Adjunct Assistant Professor at the University of Dublin (Trinity College Dublin).

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