The Epistle to Colossians

COLOSSIANS, THE EPISTLE TO kə lŏsh’ ənz (πρὸς Κολοσσαει̂ς). A letter of Paul to the church at Colossae.

1. Background and destination

2. Occasion and purpose

3. Place of origin

4. Authorship and date including unity

5. Theology

6. Content

7. Canonicity and text

Background and destination.

The city of Colossae lay in the valley of the Lycus river, a tributary of the Maeander, in the southern part of ancient Phrygia which would be located in the W of modern Turkey. As the city was situated on a main trade route from Ephesus to the E, it is not surprising that ancient historians refer to it in their descriptions of military movements of generals, such as Xerxes and Cyrus. Herodotus, in the 5th cent. b.c., calls it “a great city” (Histories, vii, 30), while a cent. later the chronicler Xenophon describes it as “a populous city, both wealthy and large” (Anabasis, i, 2, 6). Its commercial importance was due also to its place as an emporium of the wool and weaving industries. The importance of Colossae, however, became diminished in Rom. times largely because the city’s neighboring centers, Laodicea and Hierapolis, had expanded and grown more prosperous. At the beginning of the Christian era, the geographer Strabo could only describe it as a small town (Geography, xii, 8, 13). The present-day site is uninhabited.

When Paul wrote to the Christians living at Colossae, the city’s population consisted of indigenous Phrygian and Gr. settlers, but Josephus (Antiquities, xii, 149) records the fact that Antiochus III in the early part of the 2nd cent. had brought several thousand Jews from Mesopotamia and Babylon and settled them in Lydia and Phrygia. Colossae was thus a cosmopolitan city in which diverse cultural and religious elements met and mingled—a fact which is important to remember when the origins of the “Colossian heresy” (as Lightfoot called the false teaching which had made an inroad into the infant church in the city) are sought.

Occasion and purpose.

During one of Paul’s imprisonments (see section 3), news came to him of a threat to the Colossian church. The bearer of this news was evidently Epaphras, who reported on the church’s life (Col 1:8) and vitality (1:6). Perhaps quite unconsciously, the church was exposed to a false teaching which Paul regarded as both subversive of and inimical to the faith. The occasion of this letter may be traced to this threatened danger and the need to rebut the error which lay at the heart of the strange doctrine. The letter to the Colossians is thus “Paul’s vigorous reaction to the news of the strange teaching which was being inculcated at Colossae” (F. F. Bruce); but as H. Chadwick has shown, Paul’s defense of the faith goes hand in hand with an apologetic statement of that faith to the intellectual world of his day (NTS, I [1954-1955], 270ff.). In this sense his letter to the Colossians is one of the earliest Christian “apologies” extant.

What was the exact nature of the error which Paul combats? Nowhere in the letter does Paul give a formal definition of it, and its thrust only can be inferred. There are some clear pointers and guidelines, and the main elements of the false teaching are such as to show that it was a fusion of pagan and Judaic speculation, which resulted in a syncretism. The features of this religious amalgam were forms of ascetic practice and discipline, the cult of angelic worship and a pride in superior wisdom and knowledge (Gr., gnōsis). It was this last named characteristic which was to give its name to the full flowering of the heresy in 2nd cent. Gnosticism, against which Irenaeus and Tertullian wrote. On its Christological side, the “Colossian heresy” implied that there were spirit-powers which controlled the natural world and which were to be revered as mediators between God and His creation. Both the person and work of Christ were underrated by this system of angelic mediators, and His sole office as Lord of creation and all-sufficient Redeemer of the Church seriously imperiled. For this reason Paul vehemently and without compromise branded the false teaching a mortal danger to be resisted and rejected (2:8, 16) and subversive of the apostolic teaching which alone could confirm the readers in their security in Christ (see 2:5, 6).

The nature of the erroneous teaching may be described in the following way. Much was made of astrology which centered on the importance accorded to “the rudiments of the world” (2:8, 20, KJV). This phrase is rendered by RSV “the elemental spirits of the universe” and most likely refers (as in Gal 4:3, 9) to angelic powers which were thought of, in ancient cosmological systems, as the rulers of the heavenly bodies and so in control of human destiny upon earth. These star-gods were held to exercise power over men who were victims gripped by a pitiless fate and helpless to break free. The Hel. mystery religions did offer some escape, however, along the path of mysticism, occultism and ascetic practices (all these features appear in this letter as part of the false cult opposed by Paul: see Col 2:18, 21-23). But a special way to “salvation” was promised by seeking fellowship with some angelic power which might raise its protégés above the hopeless round of fate and determinism and above the region controlled by the powerful astral deities. The details of this “way of salvation” for which the 1st cent. world yearned are given in R. P. Martin (Carmen Christi: Philippians ii. 5-11, [1967], 306-309). To a situation of pessimism and despair these esoteric teachings offered hope by promising an access to God by spanning the gulf between the universe and His presence. This inter-stellar space called “the fullness” (Gr., plērōma), could be bridged only by a recognition of and reverence paid to these “elemental spirits.” Only in this way could a man hope for union with God as he learned the “wisdom” and the “mystery” of what the false teachers offered to their initiates who were always a select group, specially favored.

Another tenet of the Colossian errorists was “dualism” in which the high God was thought of as remote from matter which, in turn, was considered to be alien to Him. To attain to God man must be delivered from the evil influences of material things; and this “liberation” was achieved along two quite diverse routes. One path to Gnostic salvation was asceticism which summoned the devotee to a life of abstinence and self-punishment. Paul preserves the actual wording of the slogans which were being advocated at Colossae (2:21, 23), and retorts that such denials are of no value to counter “the indulgence of the flesh,” that is, they are powerless, as he found according to Romans 7:13-25, to check the “evil impulse”—a Rabbinic phrase which describes the tendency to evil in the human heart and which leads to immoral living. “Flesh” (Gr. sarx) in this v. refers to this “evil impulse” rather than to man’s appetite or instinct. Coupled with these ascetic practices advocated to the Colossian Christians was a code clearly influenced by Jewish legalism, esp. in the observances of the Sabbath, feast days and new moon celebrations (2:16), the practice of circumcision (2:11) and possibly Jewish dietary laws (2:16, 21f.). Lightfoot (Commentary, 81-91) drew a comparison between these restrictions and taboos and the practices of the Essenes; and recently the Qumran texts from the Dead Sea area have shown that similar calendar details were highly regarded among the Essene monks in that community (see J. van Goudoever, Biblical Calendars [1959]). It is doubtful if Essenism had penetrated to the Lycus valley. More interesting is the suggestion of a connection between the prohibitions in Colossians and the type of heresy countered in Hebrews (see T. W. Manson, BJRL, XXXII [1949], 3ff.), for which also parallels in the DDS have been cited (see F. F. Bruce, NTS, IX [1962-1963], 217ff.).

The other direction in which practice stemming from a Gnostic dualism flowed was toward libertinism. If matter had no relation to God (the argument ran), then the material body has no relation to religion. Therefore man can indulge his body without restraint or conscience. To be sure, there is no explicit reference in this epistle to an antinomian tendency, but it may well have called forth Paul’s vehement and stringent moral warnings (3:5-8) as well as underlie the cryptic allusions to the “fleshly mind” (2:18). One may compare a similar phrase in Romans 8:6, 7. That “mind” (Gr. nous) in Colossians is virtually synonymous with the same word (representing the Gr. phronēma) in Romans 8 seems to be shown by reference to Romans 7:25.

“The Colossian heresy represented a form of Jewish Gnosticism combined with Christianity” (Kümmel, Introduction, 240); and the soil of Phrygia was fertile ground for the growth of this strange combination. But whatever its precise origin, Paul views this syncretism as a deadly danger to the incipient church and clearly exposes it.

Place of origin.

The submission that Paul wrote to the Colossians from Caesarea has never been strongly advocated, although W. G. Kümmel in his Introduction to the New Testament (E. T. [1966], 245) lends it the weight of his support. He grants, however, that such a small city as Caesarea could hardly have been the home of active missionary work requiring the presence of a number of Paul’s helpers of Gentile origin (4:11), and J. Moffatt’s objection (An Introduction to the Literature of the NT, 3rd ed. [1918], 169: Caesarea “cannot be said to have been the center of vigorous Christian propaganda”) tells strongly against this view.

The traditional placing of the letter (a view which goes back to Chrysostom) during the time of Paul’s custody at Rome (Acts 28) has many points to commend it. Not least is the intimate association of the letter with Ephesians which also is best placed at the end of Paul’s life as “the crown of Paulinism.” But the present writer has recently argued for an Ephesian origin of Colossians. See bibliography.

Authorship and date.

If, as is usually believed, Colossians was dispatched from Rome, it may be dated in the two-year period of a.d. 58-60. Clearly this view assumes that Paul was the author, as both the internal evidence of the letter (Col 1:1; 2:1; 4:18) and the external attestation in the church confirm.

The first denial of Pauline authorship came in 1838 with the publication of T. Mayerhoff’s Der Brief an die Kolosser which rejected the letter mainly because of its dependence on Ephesians (a view recently ventilated by F. C. Synge, Philippians and Colossians [1951], 51-57, who takes Ephesians to be genuine and Colossians a pale and inadequate imitation) and its non-Pauline ideas. F. C. Baur and the Tübingen school discredited the Pauline authorship in the belief that Colossians reflected acquaintance with 2nd cent. Gnosticism. Both these arguments are to be questioned. The relationship of Ephesians and Colossians does not warrant Synge’s theory (see, however, J. Coutts, NTS IV [1957-1958], 201ff.); and the heresy combated in the letter is not the fully developed Gnosticism of the 2nd cent. but a proto-gnostic syncretism (the term is J. Munck’s) which may well have arisen in the apostolic age and for which there are early parallels in nonconformist Judaism.

More recently attempts have been made to drive a wedge between Colossians and the Pauline “capital epistles” (Hauptbriefe) because of some postulated differences of terminology (e.g., it is argued that the term “body of Christ” is used differently in 1 Corinthians-Romans where its usage is fig. of the church, from Colossians, in which the author speaks of the body as a cosmic reality [1:18, 24; 2:19; 3:15] of which Christ is the Head) and some traits which suggest that the Colossian letter belongs to the era of “early Catholicism” (Frühkatholizismus: one such feature detected by W. Marxsen [Einleitung in das Neue Testament (1963), 160] is the status of Epaphras who, in 4:12, is treated as a successor to Paul and so represents the apostolic succession). These interpretations are open to serious doubt, and R. H. Fuller (Critical Introduction to the New Testament [1966], 62) rightly concludes: “All of the doctrinal differences can be adequately accounted for on the supposition that Colossians represents a later development of Paul’s thinking in response to a more developed situation.”

An intermediate position on the question of authorship is taken by Ch. Masson (Épître aux Colossiens [1950]) who postulates an authentic Pauline letter which has been interpolated with additional material by the author of Ephesians. He concludes: “in its actual form (Col) is a revision and development of the primitive epistle of Paul to the Colossians by the author of Ephesians who, publishing both letters under Paul’s name, has related them closely together one to the other” (op. cit. 86). A similar view is maintained by P. N. Harrison, AThR XXXII (1950), 268-294. But Kümmel (op. cit. 244) shows how flimsy these views are, and endorses the traditional view which goes back to Marcion’s canon, to Irenaeus and Clement of Alexandria that the letter is “doubtless Pauline” (op. cit. 244).



Much of the contents of the letter have been mentioned above. A threefold division seems obvious. Christ’s Person and work of creation and reconciliation (1:3-2:7); a statement by inference of the false teaching and Paul’s antidote, both Christological and practical (2:8-3:4); and the Christian life (3:5-4:6). There are opening salutations (1:1, 2) and concluding personal memoranda (4:7-17), with Paul’s own personal interest (4:18).

Text and canonicity.

Little comment is required on the textual interest of this epistle, and the reader is referred to J. N. Sanders’ note on textual criticism appended to C. F. D. Moule’s commentary (37-42). The chief characteristic is that throughout the document there is a doubt as to whether the correct reading is first or second person sing. But, this is a minor matter, and only rarely does it affect a large question (e.g., 1:7 on which cf. Moule, op. cit. 27 n. 1). Certain key vv. are unfortunately a little obscure both textually and exegetically. Indeed, the text determines the true exegesis in e.g., 2:18 where many MSS insert a negative before the verb and so read, “what he has not seen.” The canonical status of the epistle was recognized early (e.g., it appears in Marcion’s 2nd cent. list) and is not in dispute.


There are good treatments of the provenance and message of Colossians in the introductions to the NT written by Moffatt, Kummel and Fuller (noted above). Add D. Guthrie, New Testament Introduction: The Pauline Epistles (1961), 161ff. and E. F. Harrison, Introduction to the New Testament (1964), 301ff. Serviceable commentaries are by H. M. Carson (Tyndale Commentaries); F. F. Bruce (New International Commentary) and C. F. D. Moule (Cambridge Greek Testament), while much background data are given in Dibelius-Greeven in HNT and Ch. Masson in Commentaire du Nouveau Testament. The Pauline authorship is stoutly defended by E. Percy, Die Probleme der Kolosserund Epheserbriefe (1946); and bibliography for special problems in the letter may be seen in the writer’s article in EQ, XXXVI, 4 (1964), and F. F. Bruce, BJRL (1966), 268ff. Most recent commentaries are E. Lohse, Colossians and Philemon ET (1971) and R. P. Martin, Colossians: The Church’s Lord and the Christian’s Liberty (1972).