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Does the Greek text of 2 Tim. 1:16-18 imply that Onesiphorus had already been dead by the time of writing these words?:

The Lord give mercy unto the house of Onesiphorus; for he oft refreshed me, and was not ashamed of my chain: But, when he was in Rome, he sought me out very diligently, and found me. The Lord grant unto him that he may find mercy of the Lord in that day: and in how many things he ministered unto me at Ephesus, thou knowest very well.

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The key of this text is the phrase that day, which occurs in the following three verses:

2 Tim 1:16-18 (NASB)
16 The Lord grant mercy to the house of Onesiphorus, for he often refreshed me and was not ashamed of my chains; 17 but when he was in Rome, he eagerly searched for me and found me— 18the Lord grant to him to find mercy from the Lord on that day—and you know very well what services he rendered at Ephesus.

2 Tim 4:8 (NASB)
8 in the future there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day; and not only to me, but also to all who have loved His appearing.

2 Tim 1:12 (NASB)
12 For this reason I also suffer these things, but I am not ashamed; for I know whom I have believed and I am convinced that He is able to guard what I have entrusted to Him until that day.

If the author of the epistle refers to himself as receiving his reward of due compensation on that day, and the author was alive when he wrote these words, then why should we assume that Onesiphorus was necessarily already dead just because he too was supposed to receive his reward of due compensation on that day?

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I think that we need to understand firstly that Paul is contrasting Onesiphorus and his household with those people he mentions in v14. He is commending them for their care of him.

The fact that it is just Onesiphorus' household that Paul speaks of in v15 and not Onesiphorus himself suggests that he wasn't there at the time. That might mean that he was dead, or it could simply mean he was elsewhere, after all Paul refers to the household of Stephanas in 1 Cor 16:15 when he is very much alive (just not at home 1 Cor 16:17)

It is easy to read a lot into the term "The Lord grant mercy to" in v15 and conclude that Paul was praying for comfort for the household. But that is not what he says. Notice in v18 he also prays for mercy for Onesiphorus as well and it doesn't seem to me that praying for mercy for one already dead would fit with Paul's theology. Paul is always praying/ asking for mercy or grace for people. Many of his letters open with such a prayer: Rom 1:7, 1 Cor 1:3, 2 Cor 1:2, Gal 1:3, Eph 1:2, Phil 1:2, Col 1:2, 1 Thess 1:1, 2 Thess 1:2, 1 Tim 1:2, 2 Tim 1:2, Tit 1:4, Phm 1:3

In the end the evidence is not conclusive either way, so it seems clear that Paul presumed Timothy would know the situation, and that beyond our own curiosity the question does not have a great significance. By that I mean that we should not build a doctrine upon this as a key text, or even use it as a proof text for 'prayer for the dead' etc. The ambiguity precludes it's worth to that end.

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  • "it doesn't seem to me that praying for mercy for one already dead would fit with Paul's theology." Begging the question. Nice try though. :) – user862 Feb 14 '15 at 10:40
  • Not really but if you require me to enlarge upon that point I will. – Jonathan Chell Feb 14 '15 at 11:59
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    In Phil 1:23 Paul taught that upon death the believer enters immediately into God's presence. In 2 Cor 5:1-8 he speaks of 3 states of existence, this one we experience now, and intermediary state (without flesh) and a final (eternal) state. Nowhere else in his words do we read of him actually teaching people to pray for the dead (except this passage that is ambiguous at best). It seems to me to draw that conclusion from this text is to set Paul against Paul and as a conservative Christian I cannot do that – Jonathan Chell Feb 14 '15 at 12:07
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    Thanks for your answer. "By that I mean that we should build a doctrine upon this as a key text" - Did you mean to say "we should NOT" instead? – brilliant Feb 14 '15 at 12:55
  • Yes I did. My mind works faster then my fingers sometimes – Jonathan Chell Feb 14 '15 at 13:02
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The text provided in the question is an accurate translation of the Greek text seen here. This does not state that Onesiphorus is already dead, but gives us clues that lead to that conclusion. First, the mention of Onesiphorus' grieving family ("The Lord give mercy unto the house of Onesiphorus"), then the hope that the Lord will grant mercy in that (Judgement) day. 2 Timothy 4:19 says: "Greet Prisca and Aquila 9 and the family of Onesiphorus," once again implying that Onesiphorus is dead, or at least absent.

We can pause from looking at the actual words of the passage, to look at the context in which Second Timothy was written. Although traditionally attributed to Saint Paul, most modern critical scholars argue that 2 Timothy was written after Paul's death. Paul never mentioned Onesiphorus in his undisputed epistles, so it is likely that Onesiphorus was a literary construct invented by the actual author of 2 Timothy.

Returning to the meaning of Greek words in this passage, the name Onesiphorus means ‘bringing advantage’. When we consider that Onesiphorus is singled out as someone not ashamed of Paul’s imprisonment and was the one person who sought out Paul in Rome, when others had abandoned him, then he truly did bring advantage. Although Greeks were sometimes given aspirational names, the appropriateness of Onesiphorus in this case is further evidence that he was a literary construct and existed only within Second Timothy. Onesiphorus was not dead if he never lived.

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  • ".. so it is likely that Onesiphorus was a literary construct invented by the actual author of 2 Timothy" - So you are saying here that the name Onesiphorus here is not actually a name that would be a reference to one particular person, but rather some phrase with the meaning of "bringing advantage", right? If so, then how should this verse be translated then? Something like "The Lord give mercy unto the house of the one who was to my advantage; for he oft refreshed me, and was not ashamed of my chain" or something? Will this rendition not be quite a stretch and rather awkward looking? – brilliant Feb 13 '15 at 14:37
  • @brilliant A parallel is Luke/Acts which were addressed to Theophilus, generally accepted as a real person although his name means "Lover of God." But it could be that the author meant it symbolically. Onesimus was a common name for slaves, meaning ‘useful’, but is also phonetically similar to Onesiphorus. We know that Onesimus really lived, because Philemon is an undisputed Pauline epistle. I am saying that when the anonymous author of 2 Tim was looking around for a name, he chose a name appropriate for the situation and was perhaps inspired by Onesimus, who also helped Paul in prison. – Dick Harfield Feb 13 '15 at 20:11
  • To make a point that is outside the scope of the question, and which I therefore did not include in my answer, the 'Pastorals' (1 & 2 Tim, Titus) were written so long after the time of Paul that everyone he knew was already dead when they were written. – Dick Harfield Feb 13 '15 at 20:13
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    That is one scholarly opinion, but there are others which do accredit Paul with this letter and date it around AD67. Bear in mind that the early church seems to have accepted it as authentic, for example Polycarp (c. 69-155) quotes what we now know as 1 Tim 2:12 in his Letter to the Philippians – Jonathan Chell Feb 15 '15 at 8:33
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    Twentieth-century scholars adhering to Pauline authorship or Pauline origin of the Pastorals include W. Lock (1924), O. Roller (1933), D. Guthrie (1957), J. N. D. Kelly (1963), J. Jeremias (1963), C. F. D. Moule (1965), C. Spicq (1969), B. Reicke (1976), W. Metzger (1976), and D. E. Hiebert (1978). – Jonathan Chell Feb 15 '15 at 8:54
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Onesiphorus, I believe, was not dead because Paul would not have prayed for him. Besides those who die in Christ need no one to pray for them, as they are "in Christ". That's a guarantee.

And the LORD, he it is that doth go before thee; he will be with thee, he will not fail thee, neither forsake thee: fear not, neither be dismayed.
-- Deuteronomy 31:8 (KJV)

I believe wholeheartedly that those who pray for the dead are wasting their time and know not the Lord in truth. Let's use our time praying for the living and not the dead. Much more profitable!

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According to the current official teaching of the RCC, purgatory is not a place to PAY for one's venial sins, but a place of purification to prepare the deceased 'Christian' to live in heaven. Thus, purgatory implies that the person enduring it already has full pardon or mercy in Jesus. The person's sins are redeemed by Jesus' death on the cross. The person in purgatory is said to already be forgiven. The person is assured heaven in the official view and so we cannot conclude that 2 Timothy 1:16-18 is proof of purgatory. So is it then proof of hell then? We cannot conclude that either for the fact that mercy is assured to the one who has met the conditions of divine pardon in this life. If Onesimus was dead and Paul was praying for mercy, then it would imply Paul was praying that Onesimus would be able to avoid hell. And such an interpretation would also be speculation.

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