PAUL'S PRISON LETTERS


The letters that Paul wrote during his first Roman imprisonment are commonly referred to as his "prison letters," for obvious reasons.

 

THE LETTER TO THE COLOSSIANS


1. Who wrote the Letter to the Colossians?

1.1. What does Col 1:1 indicate about the authorship of the Letter to the Colossians?

It indicates that Paul and Timothy were the authors of the Letter to the Colossians.

1.2. Even though Timothy is identified as a co-author of Colossians, the first person plural occurs only in the epistolary thanksgiving (1:3-12) and three other times (2:28; 4:3a; 4:14) (The use of the first person plural in 1:13-14 refers generally to believers.) The first person singular occurs more frequently (1:23-25, 29; 2:1-5; 4:3b-4, 7-10, 13, 15, 18). The fact that Paul identifies himself as the principal writer in 1:13 ("This is the good news...of which I, Paul, have become a servant") implies that Timothy's role in the composition of the letter was secondary.

1.3. In Col 4:7-9, Paul informs the Colossians that he is sending to them Tychicus, who will tell them of news about him, and Onesimus (Col 4:7-9). It is probable that this pair carried the letter to the church at Colossae. In addition, since in Col 4:16 Paul refers to a letter that he sent to the nearby city of Laodicea, which is now lost, it is probable that Tychicus and Onesimus also delivered that letter to its intended destination. (Unless he made two trips to Asia while Paul was incarcerated, Tychicus probably also stopped at Ephesus and delivered the Letter to the Ephesians to the church there; moreover, Onesimus likely also carried the personal letter sent by Paul to his master, Philemon.)

1.4. What does the fact that Paul writes a greeting with his own hand imply about the composition of the Letter to the Colossians (4:18)?

The fact that Paul includes a greeting written with his own hand implies that he is using an amanuensis to write his Letter to the Colossians. The identity of and the exact contribution to the letter by this amanuensis, however, are unknown.

1.5. Contrary to the explicit claims in the text itself (1:1, 13; 4:18), some scholars question the Pauline authorship of Colossians. It used to be argued that Colossians must be from the sub-apostolic period because the author is combating a form of Gnosticism, which is a second-century phenomenon. But such a position is now rejected as unsupportable. If it even has any connection to later Gnosticism at all, it is preferable to call the Colossian heresy a proto-gnosticism, and so the letter does not require a second-century historical context. Nevertheless, those who reject Pauline authorship point to other indicators of the letter's non-authenticity: vocabulary and style.

1.5.1. Objections to Pauline Authorship

The following are features of the vocabulary and style of Colossians that some interpret as pointing to its non-Pauline authorship.

A. Vocabulary

1. In the Letter to the Colossians, there are thirty-four hapaxlegomena, words that occur nowhere else in the New Testament.

proakouô (to hear before) (1:5) areskeia (good pleasure) (1:10) horatos (visible) (1:16)
prôteuô (to be the first) (1:18) eirênopoieô (to make peace) (1:20) metakineô (to remove, change) (1:23)
antanaplêroô (to complete, fill up) (1:24) pithanologia (beguiling speech) (2:4) stereôma (firmness) (2:5)
sulagôgeô (to ensnare) (2:8) philosophia (philosophy) (2:8) theotês (deity) (2:9)
sômatikôs (bodily) (2:9) apekdusis (putting off) (2:11) cheirographon (written code) (2:14)
prosêloô (to nail) (2:14) apekduomai (to putoff) (2:15; 3:9) neomênia (new moon) (2:16)
katabrabeuô (to disqualify) (2:18) embateuô (to go into detail) (2:18) dogmatizô (to have regulations imposed) (2:20)
apochrêsis (use) (2:22) ethelothrêskia (self-imposed worship) (2:23) apheidia (severity) (2:23)
plêsmonê (indulgence) (2:23) aischrologia (obscene language) (3:8) Skuthês (Skythian) (3:11)
momphê (complaint) (3:13) brabeuô (to hold sway) (3:15) eucharistos (thankful) (3:15)
athumeô (to become discouraged) (3:21) antapodosis (reward) (3:24) anepsios (cousin) (4:10)
*
parêgoria (comfort) (4:11)
*


2. The letter also has twenty-eight words that appear elsewhere in the New Testament but not in the other Pauline letters.

apokeimi (to lie prepared) (1:5) sundoulos (fellow servant) (1:7; 4:7) dunamoô (to strengthen) (1:11)
klêros (lot or inheritance) (1:12) thronos (throne) (1:16) sunistêmi (to be established) (1:17)
apokruphos (hidden) (2:3) paralogizomai (to deceive) (2:4) exaleiphô (to destroy utterly) (2:14)
hupenantios (opposite or standing against) (2:14) deigmatizô (to put on public display) (2:15) heortê (festival) (2:16)
skia (shadow) (2:17) thrêskeia (worship or religion) (2:18) krateô (to hold fast) (2:19)
geuomai (to taste) (2:21) thigganô (to touch) (2:21) entalma (comand) (2:22)
ta anô (that which is above) kruptô (to hide) (3:3) teleiotês (perfection) (3:14)
plousiôs (richly) (3:16) pikrainô (to make bitter) (3:19) halas (salt) (4:6)
artuô (to season) (4:6) apokrinomai (to answer) (4:6) ponos (work) (4:13)
*
iatros (physician) (4:14)
*

3. There are typically Pauline words that are missing from the Letter to the Colossians: hamartia (sin), apokalupsis (revelation), dikaiosunê (righteousness) / dikaioô (to declare righteous) / dikaiôma (righteous act) / dikaiôsis (process of being declared righteous), dokimazô (to test or examine) / dokimê (testing or approved character) / dokimos (approved), eleutheria (freedom) / eleutheroô (to make free), epaggelia (promise) / epaggelomai (to promise), katergozomai (to achieve), kauchaomai (to boast) / kauchêma (boasting), koinos (common) / koinônia (communion or fellowship), loipos (other, rest), nomos (law), pisteuô (to have faith), peithô (to persuade) / pepoithêsis (persuasion), sôzô (to save) / sôtêria (salvation), hupokoê (obedience). Likewise, Colossians lacks typically Pauline connective words and phrases (ara, mallon, ei mê, oude, oute, ei tis, ei kai, eipôs, eiper, monon, ou monon de—alla kai, eti, ouketi, meketi, te). Finally, in most of the other Pauline letters Paul addresses his readers as "brothers" (adelphoi) or "my brothers" (adelphoi mou) but not in Colossians.

B. Style

Stylistically, the Letter to the Colossians is characterized by long sentences, owing to the use of subordinate clauses, participial and infinite constructions (with either purpose or a result as the meaning) and substantives with the preposition en (in), which is a stylistic feature of the letter. (For example, Col 1:9-20 and 2:9-15 each represents one sentence.) Often there occur expressions that combine etymologically related words. Examples include: "strengthened with all strength" (en pasê dunamei dunamoumenoi) (1:11); "according to his working, the one that works" (kata tên energeian autou tên energoumenên) (1:29); "You are circumcised with a circumcision not done with hands" (perietmêthête peritomê acheiropoiêtô) (2:11); "grows with the growth of God" (auxei tên auxêsin tou theou) (2:19). The pleonastic use of synonyms is also frequently found. Examples include:

1:9: "praying and asking" (proseuchomenoi kai aitoumenoi) 1:11: "all endurance and patience" (pasn hupomonên kai makrothumian)
1:22: "holy and blameless and without fault" (hagiou kai amômous kai anegklêtous) 1:23: "established and steadfast" (tethemeliômenoi kai hedraioi)
1:26: "for ages and generations" (apo tôn aiônôn kai apo tôn geneôn) 2:7: "rooted and built up" (errizmenoi kai epoikodomoumenoi)
3:8: "anger and wrath" (orgên, thumon ) 3:16: "teaching and admonishing" (didaskontes kai nouetountes)
3:16 "psalms, hymns spiritual songs" (psalmois, humnois, ôdais pnematikais) 4:12: "perfect and filled" (teleioi kai peplêrophorêmenoi)

Similarly, in the letter are often found series of dependent genitives that are sometimes epexegetical, that is, explanatory of that to which they are joined in a genitive relationship.

1:5: "in the word of the truth of the good news" (en tô logô tês alêtheias tou euaggeliou) 1:12: "in the portion of the inheritance of the holy ones" (eis tên merida tou klêrou tôn hagiôn)
1:13 "into the Kingdom of the son of his love" (eis tên basileian tou huiou tês agapês autou) 1:20: "by the blood of his cross" (dia tou haimatos tou staurou autou)
1:24: "that which is lacking of the afflictions of Christ" (ta husterêmata tôn thlipseôn tou Christou) 1:27: "the riches of the glory of this mystery" (to ploutos tês dozês tou mustêriou toutou)
2:2: "all the riches of the full wisdom of understanding" (pan ploutos tês plêrophorias tês suneseôs) 2:2: "knowledge of the mystery of God" (epignôsin tou mustêriou tou theou)
2:11: "in the putting off of the body of flesh" (en tê apekdusei tou sômatos tês sarkos) 2:12: "through the faith of the working of God" (dia tês pisteôs tês energeias tou theou)

Finally, the use of the phrase "which is" (ho estin) to introduce an explanation occurs twice in the letter (1:24; 3:14), but nowhere else in Paul's letters.

1.5.2. Defense of Pauline Authorship

The data related to the vocabulary and style of the Letter to the Colossians do not necessarily point to the conclusion of the non-authenticity of the letter.

A. The vocabulary of the Letter to the Colossians does not support the hypothesis of the non-Pauline authorship of the Letter to the Colossians. All of Paul's letters have hapaxlegomena and words that occur elsewhere in the New Testament but not in another Pauline letter. Colossians is not completely unique in this regard, although the number of such unique words is about one-third higher than other, undisputed Pauline letters. But it must be noted that about half of these unique words are found in the non-Pauline hymn quoted in Col 1:15-20 and his refutation of the false teachers in Col 2:8-23: Paul had to use the false teachers' theological vocabulary in order to refute it. Besides, there are many words and expressions that do occur in other Pauline letters, and eleven words appear only in the Letter to the Colossians and at least one other Pauline letter, but nowhere else in the New Testament, which suggests that the former derives from Paul: "to authorize" (hikaneô); "steadfast" (hedraios); "to be absent" (apeimi); "to be buried with" (sunthaptomai); "to triumph over" (thriambeuô); "without reason" (eikê); "to be puffed up" (phusioomai); "passion" (pathos); "to provoke" (erethizô); "fairness" (isotês); "fellow-prisoner" (sunaichmalôtos). The fact that a group of typically Pauline words is not present in the letter is not significant because the same phenomenon occurs in other Pauline letters and the vocabulary of the letter is determined largely by the threat of the false teachers. For example the word dikaios (righteous) does not occur in 1 Corinthians or 1 Thessalonians, and nomos (law) is neither in 2 Corinthians nor 1 Thessalonians. Likewise, Paul does not use every connective word or phrase in every letter, so the absence of some typically Pauline connective words or phrases is not significant. For instance, the connective word ara is also not found in Philippians. Finally, the absence of the address of the readers as "brothers" or "my brothers" is not unique to the letter, but also occurs in the Letter to the Ephesians and the Pastorals.

B. The stylistic indicators of non-Pauline authorship have more argumentative weight. The Letter to the Colossians is not completely unique stylistically, because similar stylistic features can be found in other Pauline letters, but usually not in such heavy concentrations. In part, it is arguable that the stylistic differences are tied to the content of the letter, which necessitated some aspects of the style adopted. Nevertheless, it must be conceded that the letter is distinctive in style. The question that needs to be addressed, however, is whether there is another way to explain the stylistic uniqueness of Colossians besides postulating its non-Pauline provenance. Apart from the fact that an author's style can change over time and even vary depending on his intended readers, what is often overlooked in such debates over Pauline pseudepigraphy is the fact that Paul made regular use of amanuenses when writing his letters. Indication that Paul used amanuenses is as follows:  Rom 16:22 (Tertius wrote the letter); 1 Cor 16:21 (Paul wrote greetings with his own hand); Gal 6:11 (Paul makes large letters writing with his own hand); Col 4:18 (Paul wrote greeting with own hand); 2 Thess 3:17 (Paul wrote greeting with own hand; he claimed to do this with every letter, implying that every letter was written by an amanuensis). The contribution of an amanuensis could vary from merely taking down verbatim what Paul dictated to actually writing the letter under Paul's direction and supervision. Why does the fact that Paul made use of an amanuensis at times make it difficult to argue for the pseudepigraphy of any of Paul's letters on the basis of style (and vocabulary)?

Since it  is impossible to separate the style (and vocabulary) of Paul from those of his amanuenses, it is impossible to establish in principlethat a particular letter was not written by Paul on the basis of differences in style (and vocabulary).


2. To whom was the Letter to the Colossians written?

2.1. What do Col 1:2 and 4:16 indicate about the intended readers of the Letter to the Colossians?

These passages indicate Paul wrote the Letter to the Colossians to the holy and faithful brothers in Christ in Colossae and intended that the letter be read by the church in Laodicea, a nearby city.

2.2. Colossae was a Phrygian city in the Roman province of Asia. It was situated in the Lycus River valley, c. 160 km. east of Ephesus on the south bank of the Lycus River (a tributary of the Meander). Along with the neighboring cities of Laodicea and Hierapolis, it was a center of the textile industry. Its dark red or purple wool, called Colossinum, was much valued in the ancient world (Geog. 12.8.16; Pliny, Nat. Hist. 25. 9. 67; 21. 9.27). Colossae used to be an important city in Phrygia. In the fifth century BCE, Herodotus wrote that Colossae was "a great city of Phrygia (7.30) and at the time of Alexander the Great, it was called "a populous city, prosperous and great" (Xen. Anab. 1.2.6). But by the first century Colossae had declined in importance in relation to the two neighboring cities of Laodicea and Hierapolis. Writing about two generations before Paul, Strabo refers to Colossae as a "town" (polisma), as opposed to Laodicea, which he identifies as one of the two largest of the cities in Phrygia (Geog. 12.8.13). Likewise, Pliny excludes Colossae from his catalogue of "most renowned cities" (oppida celeberrima) in Phrygia (Nat. Hist. 5.32.41). Colossae naturally was populated by Phrygians and Greeks, but also had a sizable Jewish population. Josephus reports that Antiochus the Great (who reigned 223-187 BCE) moved 2,000 Jewish families from Babylonia and Mesopotamia into the regions of Lydia and Phrygia (Ant. 12.147-53); undoubtedly, the descendants of these immigrants still lived in the region and in Colossae, in particular, in the first century. (In Acts 2:10, Phrygia is mentioned as a place with representatives in Jerusalem for Pentecost.) In 62 BCE, Flaccus, the Roman propraeter of Asia at the time, confiscated twenty (Roman) pounds (pondus) of gold at Laodicea, collected by Jews to be exported to Jerusalem to pay the annual, half-sheckel Temple tax (Cicero, Pro Flacc. 28/67-69; Josephus, Ant. 14.7.2. [quoting Strabo]). Such a large sum of money clearly points to a considerable Jewish population in the region.

2.3. From what Paul says in Col 1:4, 23; 2:1 what do you conclude about Paul's relationship with this church?

It appears that Paul had never been to Colossae at the time of writing of his Letter to the Colossians. He says that he and Timothy have only heard about the Colossians' faith and love (1:4), as opposed to experiencing them firsthand. Similarly, he refers to the "good news that you have heard," implying that the Colossians did not hear it directly from him (1:23). Finally, and most importantly, Paul writes that he has been praying for the believers at Colossae and Laodicea and then identifies himself as one whom they have not met personally (lit. "those who have not seen my face in the flesh") (2:1). Paul knew the Colossian believers and those from the nearby cities of Laodicea and Hierapolis only indirectly.

2.4. According to Col 1:4, 7-8, 23; 4:12-13, what do you conclude about the beginning of the church in Colossae, as well as the churches in Laodicea and Hierapolis?

Probably Epaphras founded the church in Colossae and churches in the nearby cities of Laodicea and Hierapolis. In Col 1:7-8, Paul states that the Colossians learned the good news from Epaphras and it was he who told him of their "love in the Spirit." The good news that they heard originated with Epaphras (1:23), and Paul heard of the Colossians' faith and love from him (1:4). If the reading in Col 1:7 of "on our behalf" (huper hêmôn) is correct (as opposed to "on your behalf"), then it seems that Epaphras preached the good news in Colossae, Laodicea and Hierapolis as a representative of Paul and his associates. Paul's statement that Epaphras continually wrestles in prayer on behalf of the Colossians and is working hard for them as well as the believers in Laodicea and Hierapolis makes sense if he is the founder of the church in those cities (4:12-13).

2.5. According to Philemon 23, why is Epaphrus with Paul, and not in Colossae or somewhere else?  (This assumes, correctly, as will be seen, that Paul writes his Letter to the Colossians and his Letter to Philemon during the same period of time.)

In Philemon 23, Paul describes Epaphras as his "fellow prisoner," implying that he also is in prison.  How and why Epaphras ended up incarcerated is not clear.

2.6. Apart from his role as evangelist in Colossae, Laodicea and Hieraplis, Epaphras is otherwise unknown in the early church. He somehow came into contact with Paul while he was in Ephesus during his third missionary journey, when he spent three years in the city. Luke provides a hint that Paul and his associates did not restrict their evangelistic work to Ephesus, but visited other areas on the Roman province of Asia. In Acts 19:26, Paul is accused of leading astray "large numbers of people not only from Ephesus but nearly the whole province of Asia." Paul went through Phrygia on his second missionary journey (Acts 16:6) and his third missionary journey (Acts 18:23, but did not visit the Lycus valley, the location of Colossae, Laodicea and Hierapolis. It is conceivable that Paul sent his associates to various places in Asia, where he had not been, including Epaphras to the Lycus valley. He was a natural choice for the task since he was a native of Colossae (Col 4:12). At the time of the composition of Colossians, however, Epaphras was with Paul, as indicated (Col 1:8; 4:12).

2.7. There is a greeting sent to a woman named Nympha in whose house the church in Colossae met: "Give my greeting to...Nympha and the church in her house" (4:15). This woman is otherwise unknown. (It is possible that this Nympha is a man, because a variant reading has "his house" rather than "her house.") The early church met in the homes of wealthy believers (see Rom 16:5; 1 Cor 16:19; Acts 12:12). It is also possible that there was another house church in Colossae, which met in the house of Archippus; this assumes that he was a resident of Colossae and not Laodicea, (4:17; Philemon 2). (The fact that Paul does not mention Archippus until after he gives instruction to the Laodiceans to exchange letters with the Colossians has been interpreted to mean that he was a resident of Laodicea.)


3. When was the Letter to the Colossians written?

3.1. What do Col 4:3, 10, 18 imply about Paul's situation at the time of writing the Letter to the Colossians?

These passages imply that Paul was in prison when he wrote the Letter to the Colossians.

3.2. From what you know about Pauline chronology, when could Paul have written the Letter to the Colossians? (It must be remembered that Paul was in prison in Caesarea for two years sometime during the period of 54-60, and his first Roman imprisonment, lasting at least two years, occurred sometime during the period of 56-62.) 

Depending on whether he did it during his Caesarean or his first Roman incarceration, Paul may have written the Letter to the Colossians as early as 54 or as late as 62. 

3.3. The evidence suggests that Paul did not write from Caesarea but from Rome. (As will become evident, Paul sent Colossians and his Letter to Philemon at the same time to the same destination; some of the following arguments for a Roman provenance of the letter presuppose this fact.)

3.3.1. When he was on his way to Jerusalem, where he was subsequently arrested, Paul stayed in Caesarea Maritima with the evangelist Philip, further identified as "one of the seven" (see Acts 6:1-6) and as having four daughters who were prophetesses (Acts 21:8-14). It seems unusual that, in a letter written from Caesarea Maritima, no greeting from Philip is included, nor even mention of him or his four daughters is made. This suggests that Paul was not writing during his Caesarean imprisonment. The only other alternative is that he was writing while a prisoner in Rome.

3.3.2. Paul tells Philemon, a resident of Colossae, that he plans to visit Colossae in the near future (Phlm 22). For Paul to write such a thing suggests that he was in Rome when he wrote his Letter to Philemon and therefore also his Letter to the Colossians. If he were in Caesarea Maritima, Paul would probably not have promised a visit to Colossae in the near future, because he was anxious next to go to Rome and then to Spain (see Rom 1:10-12; 15:22-24, 28). Indeed, when he was under arrest in Jerusalem, "the Lord," i.e., Jesus, appeared to Paul and announced to him that he must testify of him in Rome (Acts 23:11). This revelation, in part, may have been Paul's reason for appealing to Caesar, since, it must have seemed to him, that he would not leave Caesarea and go to Rome otherwise (Acts 25:11, 25; 27:24). But if he was in Rome when he wrote these two letters, Paul's promise to visit Colossae in the near future makes sense, since Paul expected to be released soon (see Phil 2:24; Acts 28:21) and he has not been to the churches in the east for perhaps five years. While in Rome Paul was able to speak to all who came to him, even though still a prisoner (Acts 28:30-31), so his aspiration of ministering in Rome had been fulfiled.

3.3.3. Onesimus, the runaway slave, met up with Paul at the location where Paul wrote his Letter to Philemon and Colossians. The question is whether a fugitive would be more likely to go to Caesarea or Rome. The latter is more probable since it was larger than Caesarea and so afforded better protection from detection by the authorities.

3.4. There was an earthquake in Laodicea in 60, which would have devastated not only the city but also the surrounding region, including Colossae. As Tacitus writes: "One of the famous cities of Asia, Laodicea, was that same year overthrown by an earthquake, and, without any relief from us, recovered itself by its own resources" (Ann. 14.27; see also Sib. Or. 4.107). It seems that if Paul wrote after this event that he would have made some reference to the earthquake, if he had known about it. From this it follows that Paul probably wrote Colossians before 60.

3.5. Taking all the evidence into consideration, when would you date the composition of the Letter to the Colossians?

The evidence suggests that Paul wrote his Letter to the Colossians when he was a prisoner in c. 56-62. But since he does not mention the earthquake that happened in the region in 60, Paul probably wrote c. 56-60.


4. Where was the Letter to the Colossians written?

4.1. From the data related to the previous question on the date of the Letter to the Colossians, where most likely was Paul when he wrote?

Paul probably wrote his Letter to the Colossians from Rome, while he was a prisoner there.

4.2.  It has been argued that Paul wrote the Letter to the Colossians during an incarceration in Ephesus, of which Luke says nothing in the Book of Acts. (All Luke says is that there was a riot in Ephesus.)  If true, then the date of the letter would be earlier than usually thought. Although this hypothesis is possible, the evidence in favor of an Ephesian provenance for the letter is far from compelling. In fact, one datum speaks against its acceptance. Paul writes that Luke sends greeting to the Colossian believers, implying that he is with Paul, wherever Paul is (4:14). It is probable that Luke was not with Paul in Ephesus, because Paul's time in Ephesus is not part of one of the "we-sections" in the Book of Acts, in which Luke, the author, includes himself in the narrative thereby indicating that he was a participant in the events described. Luke does not rejoin Paul and his company until Paul travels to Philippi after spending the winter in Achaia (Acts 20:5).
 

5. What is the Letter to the Colossians?

Outline of the Letter to the Colossians

A. 1:1-12

This represents the introduction of the letter.

1. 1:1-3

This represents the salutation of the letter.

2. 1:4-12

Paul gives thanks to God for the Colossians because of the faith, love and hope that they have. He says that he has heard these things from Epaphras. He says that he and his colleagues pray for the Colossians that they would know God's will in order that they lead lives pleasing to God. Paul prays that they would be strengthened and prepared to endure all things while giving thanks to the Father.

B. 1:13-4:6

This represents the main body of the letter.

1. 1:13-20

Paul teaches about the nature of Christ, presumably to counter false teaching.

a. 1:13-14

Paul describes how the Father has rescued the Colossians from the power of darkness and brought them into the kingdom of his beloved son, in whom they have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.

b. 1:15

Paul teaches that Christ is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of creation.

c. 1:16-17

Paul describes Christ as instrument through which the universe was made and is sustained.

d. 1:18

Paul explains that Christ is the head of the church.

e. 1:19-20

Paul describes Christ as one in whom God's fullness dwells and through whose death God reconciles the universe.

2. 1:21-23

Paul describes how the Colossians were once estranged from God but now reconciled by Christ through his death, provided that they remain believers.

3. 1:24-29

Paul explains his role as apostle and the nature of his good news. His suffering as an apostle fills up what is lacking with respect to Christ's suffering. Paul sees himself as being called to make known the mystery hidden throughout the ages, namely, "Christ in you, the hope of glory."

4. 2:1-7

Paul exhorts the Colossians to hold fast to a true understanding of Christ. He speaks about the mystery of God, Christ, in whom is found all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.

5. 2:8-23

Paul refutes the doctrine of the false teachers in Colossae.

a. 2:8-10

He warns against the empty philosophy according to human tradition and the elemental spirits of the universe. He says that all the fullness of deity dwells in Christ bodily and that his readers have fullness in Christ, who is above all spiritual rulers and authorities.

b. 2:11-15

Paul explains that the Colossians became circumcised spiritually when they were baptized into Christ. Paul describes how God made them alive with Christ, forgiving their sins. He says that Christ has disarmed all spiritual powers.

c. 2:16-17

Paul warns against ritual observances, because these were but a shadow of Christ's work.

d. 2:18-19

Paul warns against asceticism, the worship of angels and receiving visions from communing with them. Rather, they should hold fast to the head, Christ.

e. 2:20-23

Paul warns that, since they have died to the elemental spirits of the universe, his readers should reject asceticism with its regulations, because they are of no value in checking self-indulgence.

6. 3:1-4:6

Paul moves from doctrine to practical instruction.

a. 3:1-4

Paul exhorts his readers to seek the things that are above, not on things on earth, because their life is hidden with Christ in God.

b. 3:5-17

Paul gives a series of exhortations against specific sins.

c. 3:18-4:1

Paul gives household regulations. He instructs wives to submit to husbands, children to parent and slaves to masters. He also instructs masters to treat their slaves justly.

d. 4:2-6

Paul gives a series of miscellaneous exhortations.

C. 4:7-18

This represents the conclusion of the letter, in which Paul tells his the Colossians to expect Tychicus and Onesimus and sends greetings.
 

6. Why was the Letter to the Colossians written?

Paul probably wrote the Letter to the Colossians in response to a request from Epaphrus for help in dealing with false teachers who had infiltrated the Colossian church and were threatening to infiltrate or had already infiltrated the churches in Laodicea and Hierapolis. (Paul was in communication with another Colossian, Onesimus, who also may have given him information about these false teachers.) It seems that this false teaching was a syncretism of Hellenistic and Jewish elements, which Paul calls "empty and deceptive philosophy, according to the traditions of men" (Col 2:8). It is probable that a false teaching arose that combined elements of Jewish religious thought with compatible and complementary Hellenistic elements to form a syncretistic religious system. It seems that the false teachers called their teaching a "philosophy" (philosophia); if so, in the Hellenistic environment of Colossae, they would be understood as offering to their initiates access to a type of esoteric knowledge. Jews would often present their religious beliefs as a type of "philosophy" to non-Jews (see 4 Macc 5:11; Philo, Leg. ad Gaium 156; Josephus, War 2.119; Ant. 18.11). That these false teachers claimed to be Christians is self-evident, for otherwise they would not have been able to gain entrance into the Colossian church; they do not seem to oppose the Pauline good news, but aim to supplement it with a higher teaching. Suggestions as to the identity of the Colossian false teaching, based on known parallels in the ancient world, such as mystery religions, Gnosticism and Essenism, are widely divergent. For this reason, it is preferable merely to describe inductively the Colossian false teaching, however many unknowns still remain. Although there are many unanswered questions about its nature, some aspects of the Colossian heresy can be pieced together from what Paul says in refutation of it in Col 2:8-23, but only the barest of outlines is possible. What makes the reconstruction particularly problematic is the difficulty of distinguishing between Paul's own theological terminology and what he is borrowing from the false teachers.

6.1. Col 2:8, 16-17, 21-22

The false teachers are demanding the observance of feasts, new moon festivals, and Sabbaths, which are clearly a part of the Jewish festival calendar. They also adhere to dietary prescriptions, which are probably Jewish in origin, although they do not seem to be the biblical dietary laws, since Paul says of them that "they are based on human commands and teaching" (2:22). Thus it is possible that oral law (halakah) forms part of the their false teaching, in which they clarify and elaborate on biblical law. If so, then Paul's statement in 2:8 that the false teaching is "according to the traditions of men" could refer, in part, to this same oral law. As already indicated, there were many Jews in Colossae and the surrounding region, and so Jewish religious belief would be familiar to most gentiles in Colossae. After he criticizes the Colossian for submitting to the regulations imposed upon them (dogmatizesthai) by the false teachers, it seems that Paul makes a caricature of them when he writes, "Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!" What the false teachers were forbidding their initates contact with was probably certain types of food, but which foods and under which conditions remains unknown.

      Paul rejects the observance of the Jewish festival calendar and dietary prescriptions, saying that these are nothing more than shadows of things that were to come and have already come (i.e., Christ) (Col 2:17). In other words, the Jewish festival calendar anticipated the coming of Christ. Of the dietary prescriptions, Paul says that all foods are meant to be consumed ("perish with use"), and the false teachers' dietary restrictions are merely human commands and teaching: "the commandments and teachings of men" (see LXX Isa 29:13) (Col 2:22).

6.2. Col 2:20-23

The false teachers advocate asceticism as a means of restraining sensual indulgence. The term "severe treatment of the body" (apheidia tou somatos) may derive from the false teachers and express what they consider to be the preferred lifestyle. Following ascetic practices is seen as an expression of wisdom (sophia), presumably because to do so leads to higher knowledge. The asceticism advocated by the false teachers may indicate the adoption of a type of philosophical dualism between matter (body), which is the origin and abode of evil, and spirit or the intelligible realm, which is good. It is possible that the false teachers have adopted a version of the Platonic view of the human being as consisting of an eternal spirit that has unfortunately become trapped in the material world, in a body. (Paul's use of the terms "shadow" (skia) and reality (sôma) sound Platonic, and so could be borrowed from the false teachers [see Philo, De conf. ling. 190; De migr. Abr. 12; Josephus, War 2.28; see also Philo, De post. Caini 112; De decal. 82; De Somn. 1.206; Leg. all. 3.99-103].) If so, then they may have viewed obedience to the Law and perhaps a supplementary oral law (halakah) as a means by which the material body may be subdued and made obedient to the spirit (2:20b-21); in this way they may have combined Judaism and Platonism. Paul rejects the practice of asceticism as useless in restraining sensual indulgence (2:23). He probably also rejects the Platonic dualism more than likely adopted by the false teachers.

6.3. Col 2:8, 18-19, 20a, 23

The false teachers practice what Paul calls "worship of angels" (thrêskeia tôn aggelôn) (Col 2:18). (He says that they "taking delight in humility and worship of angels.") Whether this is how the false teachers describe what they are doing is unclear. Likely the phrase "worship of angels" denotes having angels as the object of one's worship (objective genitive) as opposed to the angels' own worship (subjective genitive). The details of this "worship of angels," however, are not provided. Moreover, it seems that the false teachers and their followers seek encounters with these angelic powers in visions; this is suggested by Paul's statement: "what he has seen," i.e., in an ecstatic state. The result is that they become conceited in their "fleshy" minds by these experiences (2:18). Possibly, their ascetic regime prepares them for such spiritual experiences (Col 2:18). The nature of the "humility" characterizing the false teachers that is associated with "worship of angels" is difficult to determine (2:18, 23). It may refer to the fact that, because of a sense of their unworthiness, the false teachers seek contact only with the lower angels rather than God. Although many Jews believed in a vast angelic hierarchy, in being of one community with angels, and even in the possibility of visions of angels (see 1QM 10.10-11), it seems difficult to combine Jewish elements into a syncretism that allows for the worship of angels, which for Judaism is a compromise of monotheism.

      The phrase "the elements of the world" (ta stoicheia tou kosmou) (2:8, 20) may also refer to the angels "worshipped" by the false teachers (The other possible meaning of the phrase is "basic teaching of the world). If so, whether this is Paul's term or whether it derives from the false teachers is unknown. In the Hellenistic world, the word element (stoicheion) can refer to one of the basic material principles, and in the Orphic hymns these basic material principles were understood as animate (5:4; 66:4). The term "elements" (stoicheia) can also refer to gods who rule over the elements (Simplicius, Comm. in IV libros Aristotelis de caelo 1.3); in addition, the term is used to denote the stars, which were usually taken to be divine beings in the ancient world (Ps.-Callisthenes 1.12.1; 1.1.3; Paris Magical Fragment 4.1303). In some forms of Judaism, angels are associated with the stars, either as ruling over the stars or actually being identified with the stars (1 Enoch 43:1-2; 60:11-12; 69:20-25; 2 Enoch 4:1). The Hellenistic Jewish text known as Testament of Solomon has the closest terminological parallels to the Letter to the Colossians. In this text, Solomon encounters seven spirits who identify themselves as "the elements, the cosmic rulers of darkness" (stoicheia kosmokratores tou skotous) (8.2) and another group of thirty-six spirits who refer to themselves as "the thirty-six elements, the cosmic rulers of darkness of this age" (ta triakonta hex stoicheia, hoi kosmokratores tou skotous tou aionos toutou) (18.2). Although this text postdates the New Testament, arguably the terminology used reflects earlier usage, so that it is conceivable that Paul's Colossian opponents are using the term "elements" in this sense as a synonym for spiritual beings or angels.

      Paul rejects such involvement with all spiritual beings, claiming that Christ is superior to all of them, being the head over all these "angels" or whatever other spiritual beings exist (Col 2:19; see 1:16). Therefore, the practice of the "worship of angels" is inappropriate for a believer. If the phrase "the elements of the world" also refers to these angels, then Paul attributes the false teaching at Colossae to the influence of these beings (2:8). Thus, unknown to the false teachers, these so-called angels are actually evil spirits, who seek to lead the Colossian believers away from God. This means that acceptance of this false teaching is submission to the influence of evil spirits. This is not compatible, however, with the believer's status of having "died with Christ to the elements of the world" (2:20), by which he means that the believer is no longer under the pernicious influence of such spiritual beings. In fact, Paul believes that, by his work, Christ has disarmed the "powers and authorities," which is probably a synonym for "the elements of the world" and the so-called "angels." Paul may also have had the practice of "worship of angels" in mind when he included the Christological hymn in 1:15-20, which has as its theme the preeminence of Christ.

6.4. Col 2:9 (1:19)

Paul says of Christ that "in him dwells the fullness of God bodily." He uses the term "fullness of God" (plêrôma) in this sense only in his Letter to the Colossians, so that it is probable that he is borrowing a theological term from his opponents, in order to turn it on its head, as it were. In later, second-century Gnosticism the term "fullness of God" denotes the whole divine realm with all its hierarchically-ordered emanations from the One, known variously as Bythus (Depth), Proarchê (Original Beginning) and Propator (Original Father). Perhaps, the Colossian heretics are already using the term in this sense, referring to those so-called angels whom they worshipped as divine emanations from God and seeing them as serving as intermediaries between human beings and God. Paul's aim is in saying that "all the fullness of God dwells in Christ bodily" is to deny the efficacy and relevance of these intermediate beings in favor of the preeminence of Christ. If so, then Paul, in part, may have included the hymn in Col 1:15-20 in his letter because the term "fullness" (plêrôma) occurs in it: "For God was please to have the fullness dwell in him." This would serve as an implicit refutation of the false teaching about "the veneration of angels." In addition, for Paul to include the adverb bodily may also be a polemic against the anti-materialistic dualism of the false teachers.

6.5. Col 2:11; 3:11

Paul contrasts literal, physical circumcision with the circumcision not done with hands, in which "the body of the flesh" (sinful nature) is removed (2:11). In addition, he stresses that the distinction between circumcision and uncircumcision does not exist in the church (3:11). In both cases, Paul could be engaged in polemic against the false teachers, who may have been recommending circumcision to the predominantly gentile church in Colossae (see 1:21, 27; 2:13).


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