The question of whether Onesimus is a historical person is difficult to solve. There appears to be two principal references to him - the Pauline letter (which I called 'Pastoral' because of my assumption it is false owing to its exclusion from at least one collection) and the Ignatian letter. I think we have to look at the Ignatian correspondences and their underlying literary purpose to make sense of that. To me at least the explicit purpose, and a purpose which runs through to the pseudo-Ignatian epistles, is that Ignatius knows he is going to die and needs to find someone to find someone to take his place on the episcopal throne of Antioch. We see this in the cryptic line at the end of the first epistle, the epistle to Polycarp:
In due course in the development this 'command' transforms itself into an assertion or claim that Polycarp helped establish Hero as the replacement for Ignatius. This is especially true in the pseudo-epistles of Ignatius where the fiction is developed most fully. Polycarp here becomes one of the principal secretaries for Ignatius and in his own letter to the Philippians he is shown to actively partake in the distribution of an 'Ignatian corpus.'I salute him who is reckoned worthy to go to Antioch in my stead, as I commanded thee.
But I have a strong suspicion that the Syriac correspondences are the most original collection of letters - one step removed from an original extremely short collection that might have been written in Greek but by Polycarp himself. I don't want to get into this theory in too much depth but clearly I follow the many who assume that Perigrunus Proteus is Polycarp, that 'Ignatius' was a nickname for his insatiable quest to die by fire. The difficulty of the editor of this canon - identified in the Moscow MS as Irenaeus - was to transform basically a para-suicidal lunatic of Lucian's report into a respectable 'dignitary.' Hence my assumption that the original extremely short letters were transformed by the addition of added information into its current format -viz a dutiful bishop 'Ignatius' (no longer an epithet of Polycarp but a separate person) who knows he will be unjustly executed in Rome eagerly seeking to keep order in the Christian community by commissioning a replacement.
I think the current version of the epistles still hints at Polycarp being chosen as Ignatius's replacement. Of course it would have been problematic to have the bishop of one see chosen as the new see of Antioch. One would have to suppose that Antioch had some pre-eminent status in the early community (which in itself is not hard to imagine given that it was the original see of Peter) and its mention in Acts. I think the difficulties that this claim caused (i.e. that Polycarp switched from bishop of Smyrna to bishop of Antioch eventually facilitated the claim in the pseudo-epistles that Hero was Ignatius's man). But clear signs exist in even these short epistles that Polycarp was the original choice.
For one, the initial reference that " to Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, or rather, who has as his own bishop God the Father" already implies a pre-eminent place in the community, something akin to 'the Pope' especially in what we must assume to be the contemporary or near contemporary Alexandrian community. In a sense every bishop would have god as his bishop if we imagine a system like the Greek orthodox community where every bishop is an equal. But there are clear signs in the pseudo-epistles that the bishop of Antioch the see of Peter was conceived as the bishop of bishops - or to use the language there - the servant of the bishops.
Moreover if you go through the composition of this first epistle - note that it's placement 'first' is clearly a sign of its pre-eminence - there is an overriding sense that Polycarp has been chosen for something. The letter begins:
I think - to save us a lot of time - the letter is so arranged to imply that Polycarp has been chosen to replace Ignatius. Note the discussion of Polycarp's relationship to 'the bishop' (sg) but clearly in the context a plural sense is implied - i.e. a canon of bishops:Because thy mind is acceptable to me, inasmuch as it is established in God, as on a rock which is immoveable, I glorify God the more exceedingly that I have been counted worthy of [seeing] thy face, which I longed after in God. Now I beseech thee, by the grace with which thou art clothed, to add [speed] to thy course, and that thou ever pray for all men that they may be saved, and that thou demand(2) things which are befitting, with all assiduity both of the flesh and spirit. Be studious of unity, than which nothing is more precious. Bear with all men, even as our Lord beareth with thee. Show patience(3) with all men in love, as [indeed] thou doest.
Again the question is - in what sense should Polycarp, who is a bishop 'look to the bishop'? Clearly the author does not mean 'God the bishop' as in the incipit. Clearly he means Polycarp's role is to work with the individual bishops of each community.If any man is able in power to continue in purity, to the honour of the flesh of our Lord, let him continue so without boasting; if he boasts, he is undone; if he become known apart from the bishop, he has destroyed himself. It is becoming, therefore, to men and women who marry, that they marry with the counsel of the bishop, that the marriage may be in our Lord, and not in lust. Let everything, therefore, be [done] for the honour of God. Look ye to the bishop, that God also may look upon you. I will be instead of the souls of those who are subject to the bishop, and the presbyters, and the deacons; with them may I have a portion in the presence of God! Labour together with one another, act as athletes together, run together, suffer together, sleep together, rise together. As stewards of God, and of His household, and His servants, please Him and serve Him, that ye may receive from Him the wages [promised]. Let none of you be rebellious.
To that end the last line is most problematic:
I think the problem is solved once we go beyond the way the material is divided into chapters in the current translation following the pattern of the longer Greek text where each line now assumes a separate chapter. I would argue, following my premise that the Syriac is the more original, that the fact that each line at the ending was 'padded' with disinformation that a later editor wanted to avoid the implicit meaning in the Greek. So let's reconstruct the material as one paragraph:I salute him who is reckoned worthy to go to Antioch in my stead, as I commanded thee
I would argue that from the beginning the idea was being set up that Polycarp is the bishop who (alone) has God as his bishop. A chain of obedience has here been described, from the lowest member of the Church to Polycarp the head of the Church. Ignatius says earlier that he will be celebrating wherever unity is being displayed, hence the awkward reference to 'I salute him who is reckoned worthy to go to Antioch in my stead as I commanded thee.' Ignatius clearly means that Polycarp is his replacement, that he was chosen by God and that Polycarp will have a position of pre-eminence over the entire church.Let your spirit be long-suffering towards each other with meekness, even as God [is] toward you. As for me, I rejoice in you at all times. The Christian has not power over himself, but is [ever] ready to be subject to God. I salute him who is reckoned worthy to go to Antioch in my stead, as I commanded thee
What I think this helps solve is the reference that Irenaeus makes to he and Florinus standing in the 'royal court' with Polycarp. This is a reference to Irenaeus's knowledge (and undoubted involvement in the literary conspiracy here) of the role that Polycarp must have had as 'the Pope' of the Asian Churches. The meeting that took place between him and Anicetus was clearly then cast as a summit of equals which is quite interesting because it explains the emphasis that emerges throughout the Ignatian letters (and potentially the Pauline letters) on the college of bishops. I think that the Asian Church must have had a reputation for enthusiasm when contrasted with the Roman or Italian church. By transforming every crazy follower of the crazy Polycarp into 'bishops' order is established in the Asian Church. We know that Irenaeus had a role in negotiating with Victor on behalf of the Asian Church. These subtle developments in the earliest Ignatian letters helped facilitate that.
It is also worth noting that Ignatius's command to Polycarp to look after the widows, the slaves etc in this letter has to be taken in the context of Ignatius's role. If of course Ignatius is only commanding Polycarp to look after people that live in Antioch it makes little sense. If Ignatius is commanding Polycarp to look after the meek in his own see of Smyrna it makes even less sense as presumably he was already a bishop and knew these things when he was installed there. However if we assume that he was commanding Polycarp to look after the weak within the bounds of Ignatius's domain and as the bishop of St Peter his domain was Christendom as a whole it might explain why - as a 'bishop of Smyrna' - Polycarp's activities took him to Rome, Philippi and all the places Peregrinus says he saw him. In other words, Irenaeus the editor of these letters is basically recasting the wandering Polycarp as a 'people's bishop' one who went about the domain of Christendom 'looking after the little guy' irrespective of the individual sees he was theoretically encroaching upon.
Now getting back to the question of Onesimus, it is clear that he is said to be the bishop of Ephesus. Let's suppose that he was present in the original Ignatian letters or that - instead - Onesimus was a real person who was indeed claimed to be a 'bishop of Ephesus.' It is noteworthy that Ephesus and Smyrna are very close to one another. If the central claim of the letters was that Polycarp was being moved to the pre-eminent position (note 'Ariston' also said to be a bishop of Smyrna in the Apostolic Constitution means 'best' or pre-eminent) position surely Irenaeus would have needed a witness for this nonsense. If you read the details about Onesimus that emerge from both the Pauline letter and the Ignatian letter you get a runaway slave (slaves testimonies were inadmissible in Roman courts without torture because of their inherent dishonesty) who appears to have had his tongue cut. There is a theme of 'silence' that runs through the entire Ephesian epistle.
The author (theoretically 'Ignatius') has a strange obsession with silence. He begins by noting that he is not issuing orders (but why exactly is he telling the church of Ephesus to obey their bishop if he is a fellow bishop from another see?).
For me at least it is simply incredible that one bishop could address the flock of another bishop in this manner. It not only presupposes a 'super-bishop' - i.e. that Antioch had some supremacy over all the churches of Asia, but if we look carefully that Onesimus was a mute slave, a bishop who could not speak.I do not issue orders to you, as if I were some great person ... I speak to you as fellow-disciples with me. For it was needful for me to have been stirred up by you in faith, exhortation, patience, and long-suffering. But inasmuch as love suffers me not to be silent in regard to you, I have therefore taken upon me first to exhort you that you would all run together in accordance with the will of God. For even Jesus Christ, our inseparable life, is the [manifested] will of the Father; as also bishops, settled everywhere to the utmost bounds [of the earth], are so by the will of Jesus Christ.
Wherefore it is fitting that you should run together in accordance with the will of your bishop, which thing also you do. For your justly renowned presbytery, worthy of God, is fitted as exactly to the bishop as the strings are to the harp. Therefore in your concord and harmonious love, Jesus Christ is sung. And man by man, become a choir, that being harmonious in love, and taking up the song of God in unison, you may with one voice sing to the Father through Jesus Christ, so that He may both hear you, and perceive by your works that you are indeed the members of His Son. It is profitable, therefore, that you should live in an unblameable unity, that thus you may always enjoy communion with God.
For if I in this brief space of time, have enjoyed such fellowship with your bishop — I mean not of a mere human, but of a spiritual nature — how much more do I reckon you happy who are so joined to him as the Church is to Jesus Christ, and as Jesus Christ is to the Father, that so all things may agree in unity! Let no man deceive himself: if any one be not within the altar, he is deprived of the bread of God. For if the prayer of one or two possesses such power, how much more that of the bishop and the whole Church! He, therefore, that does not assemble with the Church, has even by this manifested his pride, and condemned himself. For it is written, God resists the proud. Let us be careful, then, not to set ourselves in opposition to the bishop, in order that we may be subject to God.
Now the more any one sees the bishop keeping silence, the more ought he to revere him. For we ought to receive every one whom the Master of the house sends to be over His household, as we would do Him that sent him. It is manifest, therefore, that we should look upon the bishop even as we would upon the Lord Himself. And indeed Onesimus himself greatly commends your good order in God, that you all live according to the truth, and that no sect has any dwelling-place among you. Nor, indeed, do you hearken to any one rather than to Jesus Christ speaking in truth.
Nevertheless, I have heard of some who have passed on from this to you, having false doctrine, whom you did not allow to sow among you, but stopped your ears, that you might not receive those things which were sown by them ... And pray without ceasing on behalf of other men. For there is in them hope of repentance that they may attain to God. See, then, that they be instructed by your works, if in no other way. Be meek in response to their wrath, humble in opposition to their boasting: to their blasphemies return your prayers; in contrast to their error, be stedfast in the faith; and for their cruelty, manifest your gentleness.
... It is better for a man to be silent and be [a Christian], than to talk and not to be one. It is good to teach, if he who speaks also acts. There is then one Teacher, who spoke and it was done; while even those things which He did in silence are worthy of the Father. He who possesses the word of Jesus, is truly able to hear even His very silence, that he may be perfect, and may both act as he speaks, and be recognised by his silence. There is nothing which is hid from God, but our very secrets are near to Him. Let us therefore do all things as those who have Him dwelling in us, that we may be His temples, 1 Corinthians 6:19 and He may be in us as our God, which indeed He is, and will manifest Himself before our faces. Wherefore we justly love Him.
To this end, I think Onesimus was taken by Irenaeus to have been a 'witness' to the story he concocted in the Ignatian epistles or perhaps Polycarp's own original witness for his having been commissioned by the apostles to a role of pre-eminence. It wasn't only dead men who couldn't tell tales but presumably mute ones as well.
Onesimus is silent in the Pauline letter - https://books.google.com/books?id=FD-bA ... nt&f=false he is silent in the Ephesian letter - https://books.google.com/books?id=BayYc ... nt&f=false