1. They fail to notice that there is a pattern of abbreviated name forms in Philemon 23-24 and therefore assume that Paul would use the same name-form for the same individual in this text as in Philippians.
2. They suppose that Epaphroditus was a native of Philippi and that Epaphras was a native of Colossae, and they see little connection between the 'two' men.
Was Epaphras from Colossae? This is assumed on the basis of Col 4:12-13. This may well be true, but we cannot be sure since, as I will argue in my next post in this series, the author of Colossians was not a careful historian.
Was Ephroditus really from Phillipi? Phil 2:25-29 reads,
Still, I think it necessary to send to you Epaphroditus - my brother and co-worker and fellow soldier, your messenger and minister to my need; for he has been longing for all of you, and has been distressed because you heard that he was ill. He was indeed so ill that he nearly died. But God had mercy on him, and not only on him but on me also, so that I would not have one sorrow after another. I am the more eager to send him, therefore, in order that you may rejoice at seeing him again, and that I may be less anxious. Welcome him then in the Lord with all joy, and honor such people, because he came close to death for the work of Christ, risking his life to make up for those services that you could not give me.
Paul here stresses the close relationship between Epaphroditus and the Philippians: "your messenger", "he has been longing for all of you", "has been distressed because you heard that he was ill". This, I assume, is what makes people assume that Epaphroditus was from Philippi, but Paul uses similar language when commending himself to the Roman church, and when commending Titus to the Corinthians. See Rom 1:9-11 and 2 Cor 8:16-17. It is sometimes assumed from Phil 2:26 ("he has been longing for all of you") that Epaphroditus was homesick, but why would Paul mention that? It seems more likely that Paul is here promoting good relations between Epaphroditus and the Philippians by emphasizing Ephaphroditus's loyalty to them. Paul's request that the Philippians welcome Epaphras with joy seems strange. Some have felt compelled to assume from this that there had been some rift between Epaphroditus and the church of Philippi, but this become unnecessary if we take him to be a non-Philippian. So, we cannot be confident that Epaphroditus was from Philippi.
Is there reason to connect Epaphroditus to Epaphras? Epaphroditus is described as a "co-worker" of Paul. This places him in a select group of companions. The named individuals with this designation are Prisca and Aquila (Rom 16:3), who are named first of the ~26 people greeted in Rom 16; Urbanus (Rom 16:9), who is named 8th; Timothy (Rom 16:21), who is named first of the greeters and was Paul's closest companion; Titus (2 Cor 8:23); Philemon (whom Paul wants to Paul encourages to be a fellow-worker by calling him one); and finally, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke (Philemon 24). The term is therefore reserved for close co-workers. Now, Epaphras, while not explicitly described as a co-worker, could not have been much further from Paul's inner circle since in Philemon 23-24 he is mentioned before the others, who are designated "co-workers". So, Ephaphroditus and Epaphras belong to a small group of close associates of Paul.
But there is more. Both were with Paul for at least part of his time in prison. Furthermore, Epaphras was Paul's "fellow prisoner", and Epaphroditus is described in similar terms as "fellow soldier". Many commentators infer that Epaphras had voluntarily chosen to share Paul's confinement to be able to minister to his needs. This would fit Epaphroditus very well. It would explain how Epaphroditus had been a "minister to my need", and how he had become ill, and how he had been "risking his life to make up for those services that you could not give me". Both Epaphras and Epaphroditus therefore seem to have ministered to Paul's needs in prison.
3. Finally, the commentators believe that Epaphroditus was a "common" name. This is invariably asserted without evidence. The term "common" here is very vague. What constitutes "common"? This kind of sloppy imprecision would not be tolerated in other disciplines, so why must we put up with it in biblical studies? There is no excuse now that we have the "Lexicon of Greek Personal Names", which provides the basic statistics through free on-line searches. Here are some data:
As you can see, there are 300584 people in the database, of which 515 (0.17%) are called Epaphroditus, and just 123 (0.04%) are called Epaphras. I estimate that in the five published volumes about ten thousand references can be dated with confidence to the first century, and of these, 22 (0.23%) are called Epaphroditus, and just 6 (0.06%) are called Epaphras. Most believe that our Epaphroditus was from Philippi, but there is no evidence that the name was common there in the first century. Of the 16 cases of the name "Epaphroditus" in Macedonia, none can be dated with certainty before 150 AD, and none can possibly pre-date the imperial period. It should also be remembered that the database does not include most Latin names, so many of Paul's associates would be excluded. This reduces the probabilities further.
In conclusion, then, the probability of an associate of Paul in the Aegean region being called Epaphroditus is about 0.2%. For "Epaphras" the probability is about 0.05%. Now, Epaphras and Epaphroditus were both among Paul's close associates during his imprisonment(s). How many such people were there? 10? 20? 50? Let's be generous and assume that there were 100! The probability that Epaphras and Epaphroditus were different people would then be just 100*(0.2%+0.05%)/(1+100*(0.2%+0.05%) = 20%, and that's being generous. So, Epaphras was almost certainly Epaphroditus. And even if, by some fluke, Epaphras was not the Epaphroditus of Philippians, we would still conclude that his full name was probably Epaphroditus.