September 7, 2019

Did the Apostle Paul Pray for the Dead? The Case of Onesiphoros

St. Onesiphoros the Apostle

Saint Onesiphoros (Sept. 7) is listed among the Seventy Apostles of the Lord, and is mentioned by the Apostle Paul with gratitude in his second epistle to Timothy: "May the Lord show mercy to the household of Onesiphoros, because he often refreshed me and was not ashamed of my chains. On the contrary, when he was in Rome, he searched hard for me until he found me. May the Lord grant that he will find mercy from the Lord on that day. You know very well in how many ways he helped me in Ephesus" (2 Timothy 1:16-18).

Because Paul speaks of Onesiphoros only in the past tense, wishes blessings upon his house (family), and mercy for him "on that day," which can mean nothing other than the Day of Judgement, many scholars believe that Onesiphoros had at this point died. Towards the end of the same letter, in 2 Timothy 4:19, Paul sends greetings to "Prisca and Aquila, and the house of Onesiphoros," again apparently distinguishing the situation of Onesiphoros from that of the still living Prisca and Aquila. Paul's reference to Onesiphoros, along with 2 Maccabees 12:40-46, is cited as one of the early biblical examples of prayer for the dead.

We should note that by the second century we start to see evidence for prayers on behalf of the dead appear more and more, especially in inscriptions in the catacombs, and most famously in the closing words of the epitaph on the tomb of Saint Abercius the Bishop of Hieropolis which is dated to 160 A.D. and reads: "Let every friend who observes this pray for me." This indicates that prayers on behalf of the dead was already an established practice among Christians.