Given the name Onesimus means "profitable or useful" and Paul writes in vrs 11:

[Onesimus,] who once was unprofitable to thee, but now is profitable to thee and to me:

Is Paul making a pun with the meaning of the slave's name?

I couldn't find any similarities in the Greek (I'm the complete opposite of knowledgeable here); and it hadn't come up in any commentaries I read.

Bonus: Archippus means "Master of the horse" and Paul calls him "a fellow soldier" -- is this similar?

2 Answers 2


Adding to Der Übermensch's answer is the irony of the situation. Onesimus was Philemon's servant and Philemon's house was a place where Christians met. Undoubtedly Onesimus would have been involved in helping with whatever was needed to prepare and conduct "church" gatherings. For example, likely Onesimus prepared and/or served meals and/or washed feet. Despite serving Christians in a house owned by a Christian where a church met, Onesimus was not a Christian, nor did he become one. Rather, he ran away from that situation where he became a Christian in a prison. Now Paul was sending Onesimus back to Philemon (and the church that meets at his house) hoping he will be accepted.

Onesimus does mean profitable or useful. When Paul says he was once "not profitable" and now is "profitable" there is more than a play on words or a pun because it also means he was not Onesimus but now he is Onesimus. In other words, since he is now a Christian, he is truly Onesimus.

The two words Paul uses to describe profitable and and unprofitable are ἄχρηστος and εὔχρηστος. Each share the same etymology:

  • ἄχρηστος = ἄ/χρηστος
  • εὔχρηστος = εὔ/χρηστος

The prefix ἄ in ἄχρηστος negates what follows. The prefix εὔ means "good" or "well." Essentially what Paul is saying is Onesimus was once a "not-χρηστος" and now is a "good-χρηστος." When the letter is read aloud, there is a greater irony because χρηστος is pronounced khrā-sto's which sounds a lot like Χριστός, khrē-sto's ("Christ"). Paul chose words with a root which is a homonym to Christ.

The audible effect when the letter was read to the church which met at Philemon's house adds to the irony. Onesimus was once not useful to Philemon: he was not "Onesimus" or a Christian. Paul is sending him back (to Philemon and the church which meets at his house) because he is useful: he is "Onesimus;" he is a Christian.


There is an allusion to the meaning of the name Onesimus’ (Greek Ὀνήσιμος), “profitable or useful,” in v. 11 by means of the synonym εὔχρηστος (“profitable”) and its antonym ἄχρηστος (“unprofitable”). However, the actual pun occurs in v. 20:

Κʹ ναὶ ἀδελφέ, ἐγώ σου ὀναίμην ἐν κυρίῳ· ἀνάπαυσόν μου τὰ σπλάγχνα ἐν Χριστῷ. NA28, ©2012

20 Yes, brother, let me benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ. NASB, ©1995

Heinrich August Wilhelm Meyer commented on Philemon 1:20,

German text:1 enter image description here

English translation:2 enter image description here

According to Wilke (translated by Thayer),3 Ὀνήσιμος is derived from the noun ὄνησις (“profit”), which is related to the verb ὀνίνημι (“to profit”).4 The word ὀναίμην in v. 20 is a verb conjugated from ὀνίνημι.


1 Meyer (translated by Moore), p. 413
2 Meyer, p. 537
3 Wilke, p. 447
4 LSJ, p. 1231


Liddell, Henry George; Scott, Robert; et al. A Greek-English Lexicon. 9th ed. with revised supplement. Oxford: Clarendon, 1996.

Meyer, Heinrich August Wilhelm. Critical and Exegetical Handbook to the Epistles to the Philippians and Colossians, and to Philemon. Trans. Moore, John C. Ed. Dickson, William P. New York: Funk, 1889.

Meyer, Heinrich August Wilhelm. Kritisch exegetischer Kommentar über das Neue Testament, Neunte Abtheilung, Kritisch exegetisches Handbuch über die Briefe Pauli an die Philipper, Kolosser und an Philemon. 5th ed. Vol. 9. Göttingen: Vandenboeck and Ruprecht, 1886.

Wilke, Christian Gottlob. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Being Grimm Wilke’s Clavis Novi Testamenti. Trans. Thayer, Joseph Henry. Ed. Grimm, Carl Ludwig Wilibald. Rev. ed. New York: American Book, 1889.

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