"Useless" or "Helpless?" Rethinking Paul's Perspective of Onesimus in Philemon 1:11

I took a course on Philippians and Philemon this summer, and I decided to write my final exegetical paper on Philemon—my favorite epistle in the entire New Testament. This little epistle offers a lot of complexity, considering its overall size, and one is left asking a multitude of questions that lack any sort of discernible answer. I still do not have all the answers!

However, something that many commentators agree upon is that Paul is using a pun in 1:11. Ὀνήσιμον (Onēsimos) was a very common slave name in the ancient world, and it meant something like "useful." So in Paul's advocating for Onesimus freedom (another disputable area), he uses the adjective ἄχρηστον, which commonly means "useless" and many translations render the term as such. "At one time, he was 'useless' to you" is the pun.

The Greek text reads like this:

τόν ποτέ σοι ἄχρηστον νυνὶ δὲ σοὶ καὶ ἐμοὶ εὔχρηστον

At one time [Onesimus] was useless to you, but he is useful to you and especially to me (my translation)

However, I think there is another dimension to ἄχρηστον that has not been explored and so I offer this idea as a modest proposal. Perspectivally, Onesimus was likely sent to Paul because he was "useless" to Philemon: so in the eyes of his master, Onesimus is "useless" to him, perhaps able to function in some sort of helpful way to a (likely) imprisoned Paul. Paul, I will suggest, may have his own perspective on his use of ἄχρηστον, but that will come out later.

However, the adjective is a hapax legomena in the New Testament, as in it appears only once. The same can be said of the cognate verb ἀχρειόω (c.f. Rom 3:12). It appears elsewhere in Second Temple Jewish literature and in the LXX.

Something else worthy of note is the difference between an adjective modifying a human agent and an adjective modifying a non-human object: for instance, a stone is different than a human being. Just wanted to note this.

The Second Book of Maccabees is about the Jewish revolt against the Seleucid Empire. In 2 Maccabees 7:5 a Jewish family (a mother and her seven sons) are captured and they refuse to capitulate to the king. In 7:5, we have the following text:

ἄχρηστον δὲ αὐτὸν τοῖς ὅλοις γενόμενον: "but he became entirely helpless..."

In the previous verses, the person is said to be scalped and mutilated in the presence of the King and many others. It is safe to say that this person is not "useless," but "helpless" before his torturers before he is burned alive. The context is clear that the man is not "useless;" He is an oppressed person, trapped and tortured and ultimately killed. The language of oppression and power is key to understanding this passage, so this use is a vital citation.

The Book of Wisdom (Apocrypha) contains three uses of the adjective. 2:11 is written, seemingly, from the perspective of the 'UnGodly' who speaks of 'oppressing the righteous poor man' in v.10. I am using the NRSV translation.

Let us oppress the righteous poor man;
let us not spare the widow
or regard the gray hairs of the aged.

But let our might be our law of right,
for what is weak proves itself to be useless.

“Let us lie in wait for the righteous man,
because he is inconvenient to us and opposes our actions;
he reproaches us for sins against the law,
and accuses us of sins against our training.

The voice speaks of "might" (ἰσχυρός) being their "law" (νόμος), and "what is weak proves itself to be useless (ἄχρηστον). In Wisdom literature, this is clearly a poetic way of contrasting "power" and "weak," which may sway our reading from "useless" to "helpless," as the context of v.10 and v.12 speaks of "oppressing" and "waiting" for the "righteous man." Given the language of power and hierarchy, "helpless" seems like a more contextually sensitive rendering of the adjective—especially in light of 2 Maccabees 7:5.

Wisdom 13:11 speaks in the context of idolatry, with descriptions of "gold and silver" cluing us into the difference between the God of Israel (living, powerful, dynamic) versus a "useless stone" (λίθον ἄχρηστον).

But miserable, with their hopes set on dead things, are those
who give the name “gods” to the works of human hands,
gold and silver fashioned with skill,
and likenesses of animals,
or a useless stone, the work of an ancient hand.

The contrast between the God of power and might and glory and the created corporeal nature of idols makes for a stark relationship. A stone, of course, is not comparable to the previous subjects (a person being tortured, and a poetic description of a wicked person oppressing a righteous person), but the idea of a non-living stone being of no use in terms of worship is a helpful reminder of the differences between creation and Creator.

Wisdom 16:29 is within a context of praise, where Israel speaks to God: " you gave your people food of angels" (v.20). The entire pericope concerns the goodness of God and the strength of God, preserving his people from a multitude of violence and peril (vv.22-23).

For the hope of an ungrateful person will melt like wintry frost, and flow away like waste water.

The conclusion focuses on the "hope of an ungrateful person," and the final dishonoring of the hope of that figurative person. The final phrase that is particularly relevant is the closing statement about their hope, which "flow[s] away like waste water" (ὕδωρ ἄχρηστον). Since water is, of course, not comparable to a living person, one can safely say that the context refers to "useless" water, wasted hope by the person who does not love God (c.f. v.26). It speaks to the misused or even exploited nature of something given by God, which seems to result in judgment (17:1 passim).

Hosea 8:8 (LXX) is somewhat complex. It uses similar language as Wisdom 13:11 ("vessel"), but it deploys it in a different fashion. In speaking of Israel's unfaithfulness, we see:

For they sow the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind. The standing grain has no heads, it shall yield no meal; if it were to yield, foreigners would devour it.

Israel is swallowed up; now they are among the nations as a useless vessel.

Both meanings are likely in use here. "Useless" makes good contextual sense, as Israel is unable (or unwilling) to fulfill her vocation as a light to the Nations. Her compromise and failure thus render her vocation "useless" in the eyes of Hosea. However, the other element is also embedded within the text. Israel is "helpless amongst the Nations" (ἐν τοῖς ἔθνεσιν). Given the powerful presence of other nations, it seems likely that Israel is seen as helpless before the mighty foreign powers. The use of the preposition ἐν could have a dual meaning here: "in the nations" as in Hosea has already assumed their apostasy has resulted in their being 'within' the various foreign powers. Or, as more likely, "among" is the more acceptable rendering as she is located as "helpless" amongst the nations. Israel, being a small assortment of people, has a little political power within the various kingdoms.

The final relevant New Testament citation comes in Romans 3:12, where the verb ἠχρεώθησαν (aorist middle-passive) is used:

All have turned away, together they have become helpless, there is not one who makes kindness, there is not one (my translation).  

Romans 3:9-20 is a deeply complicated passage, but the main thrust—in my opinion—is on the utter helplessness of the human person, the one's who do not know peace (v.17) and who do not fear God (v.18).

The important—the most important!—point is this, however: Νυνὶ δὲ in v.21: "but now!" The human person, the corporate body of humanity who is subject to Sin and Death, these cosmic and person powers who dominate our lives, are confronted by the apocalyptic Christ in vv.21-26. V.22 states this eloquently:

But the righteousness of God through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ, into all of the one's being faithful: for there is not difference.

V.24 is the focal point of my modest proposal:

Being declared righteous freely by his gift, through liberation in Christ Jesus.

The declaration of God for us is this: while we were still helpless, mired in Sin, subject to Death and the Powers of this world, we were given the gift of liberation in Christ Jesus. Therefore, 3:12 seems fairly decisive in proving my point: the helplessness of the human person, who is in need of the liberation of Christ, is the focal point of the passage.

This same liberation cannot be denied to Onesimus, if one holds to a coherent element of Pauline theology - what applies in Romans cannot be excluded from Philemon.

All of this data helps us reconsider the use of the adjective in Philemon.

This is my point: Paul could be using the adjective in two different ways here: he could be speaking of Philemon's own perspective ("useless"), but also of his own ("helpless"). Paul does in fact say "useless to you," which indicates that Paul does not and perhaps never shared this perspective.

Imagine this.

Onesimus: the one whom Paul 'birthed' in his bonds (v.10), the one who represents him bodily (v.12), the one whom Paul advocates (v.9-10), is to Paul "helpless." We do not know of the mental of physical state of Onesimus, but slavery in the ancient world was a deeply brutal practice. Imagine the years of abuse inflicted upon Onesimus, even at the hands of his Christian master, Philemon.

Imagine Paul receiving him, this "helpless" slave, he himself a prisoner.

Imagine Paul converting him to the Lord Jesus, speaking to him, nourishing him, seeking his well-being.

Paul had every authority "to order/command" (v. ἐπιτάσσειν) Philemon to release Onesimus, but that is too easy. Perhaps, perhaps, Paul believed reconciliation must occur before the vocation to which Onesimus was called. Whatever, the case, aspectivally, Paul cared about the body of Onesimus to the point where he identified with him, called him his own child (v.10), and said that Onesimus was "no longer a slave, but far beyond a slave, a beloved brother" (v.16).

A revolutionary idea, likely birthed by Gal 3:28 and 4:7.

3:28 - There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

4:7 - So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.

The linguistic parallels between Philemon and Galatians 4:7 cannot be denied, and it appears Paul acted upon them in a consistent manner.

In any case, the idea of Paul receiving a "helpless" slave, a person subjected to brutality and oppression cannot be dismissed. Indeed, given Paul's own theology, the Gospel was immediately necessary to the bodies of slaves, as even the Messiah - the savior of the world - became one of them (Phil 2:6-7).

Just a modest proposal. Nothing more.