Today is the feast of St. Onesimus, the slave of Philemon and the subject of Paul’s letter which is found in the New Testament. According to tradition, Onesimus was set free by Philemon, became the bishop of Ephesus and eventually was martyred. But he quite possibly also had a major role in the development of our New Testament canon. Here is how it happened.
We know that eventually thirteen of Paul’s letters were included in the New Testament canon. The question is: why those letters? Paul most definitely wrote other letters (he even mentions one of them in his correspondence with the Corinthians), so why were they not included? And why did a letter like Philemon get included?
In the late 1st century and early 2nd century, many of Paul’s letters were being circulated throughout Asia Minor, the main area of his preaching and the location of most of his letters. It was the bishops of that area who were primarily responsible for copying and circulating his letters (as they were the only ones with the reason and resources to do so), and three of the most prominent bishops of this era were Onesimus, Polycarp of Smyrna and Ignatius of Antioch.
In the early 2nd century, St. Ignatius of Antioch was on his way to Rome to be martyred. Along the way, many bishops met him along his journey to encourage him and pray with him. One of these meetings involved Onesimus and Polycarp, along with other bishops, in Smyrna. It was at this meeting that Onesimus presented his collection of Pauline letters, which had the Letter to the Ephesians as the first in the collection and included an odd little personal letter concerning a runaway slave. After this meeting, this collection of Paul’s letters was always included in any Scriptural canon.
Admittedly, we do not have clear-cut proof for the above scenario, but we do have strong evidence in its favor:
1) Ignatius in his letter to the Ephesians, written after this meeting, alludes to Paul’s letter to Philemon and compares his situation with that of Onesimus.
2) A slave who was brought to Christ and then freed would have understood the power of Paul’s letters and would have promoted them heavily.
3) A bishop of Ephesus would have had the resources to compile such a collection.
4) The fact that Philemon is included is the strongest evidence: why would this little letter dealing with one specific situation be included in the collection being distributed? Perhaps it was because the subject of that letter was the one doing the distribution.
(Note: these arguments can be found in “The Formation of the New Testament Canon” by William Farmer and Denis Farkasfalvy, pp. 77-79).
I always find it quite fascinating to consider the human factor in the working of God’s will in this world. The role of St. Onesimus in the formation of the NT canon is an especially interesting story of that “human” element in the plan of salvation.
St. Onesimus, pray for us!