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Epistle to Laodiceans

LAODICEANS, EPISTLE TO. Writing to the Colossians, Paul mentions a letter “from Laodicea,” which he instructs them to have read in their church (Col 4:16). This phrase has been much discussed (see Lightfoot, Colossians [1875], 340ff; the pagination differs in later editions). Three main suggestions have been advanced, each with several subordinate alternatives attached: (a) that it was a letter written by the Laodiceans; (b) that it was written by Paul from Laodicea; and (c) that it was addressed to the Laodiceans. The first two, on any of the alternatives suggested, present considerable difficulties, and the third is beyond question the most natural explanation; but it immediately raises the further question of identification. If written by Paul, the letter was presumably a companion to Colossians, but was it one of the extant letters (and if so, which?) or a letter now lost? According to Tertullian (Adv. Marc. V. xi), the Marcionites identified it as Ephesians, but other suggestions also have been made. The Muratorian Canon mentions a letter to the Laodiceans “forged in Paul’s name for the sect of Marcion.”

A Lat. Epistle to the Laodiceans is found in many MSS, the oldest being the Codex Fuldensis, written for Victor of Capua in the 6th cent. Its existence even earlier is proved by the warnings of the Fathers, esp. Jerome (vir. ill. 5), but despite these warnings it was widely disseminated in the W. This was due at least in part to the influence of Gregory the Great, who, although he limited the canonical epistles to fourteen, states nevertheless that Paul wrote fifteen, and was thus understood to affirm its authenticity. That it was read in the E in the 8th cent. is shown by the warning issued by the Second Council of Nicaea (a.d. 787).

Despite the arguments of Harnack, the Marcionite origin of this document remains uncertain. In fact, it contains nothing specifically Marcionite or calculated to promote the interests of the sect. Nor can one be sure of its identity with the letter mentioned in the Muratorian Canon. Its date can therefore be placed only approximately, between the 2nd and 4th centuries. In ancient MSS the letter is extant only in Lat., although it was to be tr. into western vernaculars, notably Eng., but its use in the E and the evidence of the Gr. Fathers suggest that a Gr. VS was once current. Lightfoot notes that it “has not the run of a Latin original,” but contains frequent Grecisms, and differs widely both from the Old Lat. and from the Vul. VS of the Pauline letters, although it is largely a cento of passages from Paul. Accordingly he argues for a Gr. original, and offers a retranslation into Gr. Another Gr. VS is given in Elias Hutter’s Polyglot New Testament (1599), while a MS in St. Andrews dated 1679 presents the epistle in Lat., Gr. and Heb. (see Ebied, Biblica 47 [1966] 243ff.). Survival of an authentic Gr. text to so late a date, when all the older MS tradition is in Lat., would be highly unlikely, and, in fact, this is Hutter’s Gr. VS (with some transcriptional errors), of which he writes that, having found the letter only in a volume of apocrypha, “operae pretium esse iudicavi ut eandem et in reliquas linguas converterem.” The letter is in fact no more than a patchwork of Pauline phrases, beginning with the opening words of Galatians but heavily dependent on Philippians. Enslin (IDB III. 72) aptly quotes the comment of Erasmus, that there is “no argument which will more effectively convince that this is not by Paul than the epistle itself.” The forgery was quite obviously occasioned by the desire to make good a gap in the Pauline Corpus by supplying the letter mentioned in Colossians 4:16.


Tr. in ANT 478f.; tr. with full discussion in NTA p. II. 128ff. See also Lightfoot, Colossians (1875) 240ff., (1890) 272ff.; Harnack, Die apokryphen Briefe des Paulus an die Laodicener und Korinther (1905, 21931); Enslin, IDB III. 71f.