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Epistle To the Colossians

ko-losh’-ans, ko-los’-i-anz: This is one of the group of Paul’s epistles known as the Captivity Epistles (see Epistle To Philemon, for a discussion of these as a group).

I. Authenticity.

1. External Evidence:

The external evidence for the Epistle to the Colossians, prior to the middle of the 2nd century, is rather indeterminate. In Ignatius and in Polycarp we have here and there phrases and terminology that suggest an acquaintance with Colossians but not much more (Ignat., Ephes., x.3, and Polyc. x.1; compare with Col 1:23). The phrase in Ep Barnabas, xii, "in him are all things and unto him are all things," may be due to Col 1:16, but it is quite as possibly a liturgical formula. The references in Justin Martyr’s Dialogue to Christ as the firstborn (prototokos) are very probably suggested by Col 1:15, "the firstborn of all creation" (Dial., 84, 85, 138). The first definite witness is Marcion, who included this epistle in his collection of those written by Paul (Tert., Adv. Marc., v. 19). A little later the Muratorian Fragment mentions Colossians among the Epistles of Paul (10b, l. 21, Colosensis). Irenaeus quotes it frequently and by name (Adv. haer., iii.14, 1). It is familiar to the writers of the following centuries (e.g. Tert., De praescrip., 7; Clement of Alexandria, Strom., I, 1; Orig., Contra Celsum, v. 8).

2. Internal Evidence:

The authenticity was not questioned until the second quarter of the 19th century when Mayerhoff claimed on the ground of style, vocabulary, and thought that it was not by the apostle. The Tubingen school claimed, on the basis of a supposed Gnosticism, that the epistle was the work of the 2nd century and so not Pauline. This position has been thoroughly answered by showing that the teaching is essentially different from the Gnosticism of the 2nd century, especially in the conception of Christ as prior to and greater than all things created (see V below). The attack in later years has been chiefly on the ground of vocabulary and style, the doctrinal position, especially the Christology and the teaching about angels, and the relation to the Ephesian epistle. The objection on the ground of vocabulary and style is based, as is so often the case, on the assumption that a man, no matter what he writes about, must use the same words and style. There are thirty-four words in Colossians which are not in any other New Testament book. When one removes those that are due to the difference in subject-matter, the total is no greater than that of some of the acknowledged epistles. The omission of familiar Pauline particles, the use of genitives, of "all" (pas), and of synonyms, find parallels in other epistles, or are due to a difference of subject, or perhaps to the influence on the language of the apostle of his life in Rome (von Soden). The doctrinal position is not at heart contradictory to Paul’s earlier teaching (compare Godet, Introduction to the New Testament; Paul’s Epistles, 440 f). The Christology is in entire harmony with Php (which see) which is generally admitted as Pauline, and is only a development of the teaching in 1Co (8:6; 15:24-28), especially in respect of the emphasis laid on "the cosmical activity of the preincarnate Christ." Finally, the form in which Paul puts the Christology is that best calculated to meet the false teaching of the Colossian heretics (compare V below). In recent years H. Holtzmann has advocated that this epistle is an interpolated form of an original Pauline epistle to the Colossians, and the work of the author of the Epistle to the Ephesians (which see). A modification of this theory of interpolation has recently been suggested by J. Weiss (Theologische Literaturzeitung, September 29, 1900). Both these theories are too complicated to stand, and even von Soden, who at first followed Holtzmann, has abandoned the position (von Soden, Einleitung., 12); while Sanday (DB2) has shown how utterly untenable it is. Sober criticism today has come to realize that it is impossible to deny the Pauline authorship of this epistle. This position is strengthened by the close relationship between Colossians and Philemon, of which Renan says: "Paul alone, so it would seem, could have written this little masterpiece" (Abbott, International Critical Commentary, lviii). If Philemon (which see) stands as Pauline, as it must, then the authenticity of Colossians is established beyond controversy.

II. Place and Date.

The Pauline authorship being established, it becomes evident at once that the apostle wrote Colossians along with the other Captivity Epistles, and that it is best dated from Rome (see Epistle To Philemon), and during the first captivity. This would be about 58 or, if the later chronology is preferred, 63 or 64.

III. Destination.

IV. Relation to Other New Testament Writings.

Beyond the connection with Ephesians (which see) we need notice only the relation between Colossians and Rev. In the letter to Laodicea (Re 3:14- 21) we have two expressions: "the beginning of the creation of God," and "I will give to him to sit down with me in my throne," in which we have an echo of Colossians which "suggests an acquaintance with and recognition of the earlier apostle’s teaching on the part of John" (Lightfoot, Colossians, 42, note 5).

V. The Purpose.

The occasion of the epistle was, we may be sure, the information brought by Epaphras that the church in Colosse was subject to the assault of a body of Judaistic Christians who were seeking to overthrow the faith of the Colossians and weaken their regard for Paul (Zahn). This "heresy," as it is commonly called, has had many explanations. The Tubingen school taught that it was gnostic, and sought to find in the terms the apostle used evidence for the 2nd century composition of the epistle. Pleroma and gnosis ("fullness" and "knowledge") not only do not require this interpretation, but will not admit it. The very heart of Gnosticism, i.e. theory of emanation and the dualistic conception which regards matter as evil, finds no place in Colossians. The use of pleroma in this and the sister epistle, Eph, does not imply Gnostic views, whether held by the apostle or by the readers of the letters. The significance in Colossians of this and the other words adopted by Gnosticism in later years is quite distinct from that later meaning. The underlying teaching is equally distinct. The Christ of the Colossians is not the aeon Christ of Gnosticism. In Essenism, on the other hand, Lightfoot and certain Germans seek the origin of this heresy. Essenism has certain affinities with Gnosticism on the one side and Judaism on the other. Two objections are raised against this explanation of the origin of the Colossian heresy. In the first place Essenism, as we know it, is found in the neighborhood of the Dead Sea, and there is no evidence for its establishment in the Lycus valley. In the second place, no references are found in Colossians to certain distinct Essene teachings, e.g. those about marriage, washings, communism, Sabbath rules, etc.

The Colossian heresy is due to Judaistic influences on the one hand and to native beliefs and superstitions on the other. The Judaistic elements in this teaching are patent, circumcision (Col 2:11), the Law (Col 2:14,15), and special seasons (Col 2:16). But there is more than Judaism in this false teaching. Its teachers look to intermediary spirits, angels whom they worship; and insist on a very strict asceticism. To seek the origin of angel worship in Judaism, as is commonly done, is, as A. L. Williams has shown, to miss the real significance of the attitude of the Jews to angels and to magnify the bitter jeers of Celsus. Apart from phrases used in exorcism and magic he shows us that there is no evidence that the Jew ever worshipped angels (JTS, X, 413 f). This element in the Colossian heresy was local, finding its antecedent in the worship of the river spirits, and in later years the same tendency gave the impulse to the worship of Michael as the patron saint of Colosse (so too Ramsay, Hastings, Dictionary of the Bible (five volumes), under the word "Colossae"). The danger of and the falsehood in this teaching were twofold. In the first place it brought the gospel under the bands of the Law once more, not now with the formality of the Galatian opponents, but none the less surely. But as the apostle’s readers are Gentiles (Col 1:27) Paul is not interested in showing the preparatory aspect of the Law. He simply insists to them that they are quite free from all obligations of the Law because Christ, in whom they have been baptized (Col 2:12), has blotted out all the Law (Col 2:14). The second danger is that their belief in and worship of the heavenly powers, false ideas about Christ and the material world, would develop even further than it had. They, because of their union with Him, need fear no angelic being. Christ has triumphed over them all, leading them as it were captives in His train (Col 2:15), as He conquered on the cross. The spiritual powers cease to have any authority over the Christians. It is to set Christ forward, in this way, as Head over all creation as very God, and out of His relation to the church and to the universe to develop the Christian life, that the apostle writes.

VI. Argument.

The argument of the Epistle is as follows:

Colossians 1:1,2:


Colossians 1:3-8:

Thanksgiving for their faith in Christ, their love for the saints, their hope laid up in heaven, which they had in and through the gospel and of which he had heard from Epaphras.

Colossians 1:9-13:

Prayer that they might be filled with the full knowledge of God’s will so as to walk worthy of the Lord and to be fruitful in good works, thankful for their inheritance of the kingdom of His Son.

Colossians 1:14-23:

Statement of the Son’s position, from whom we have redemption. He is the very image of God, Creator, pre-existent, the Head of the church, preeminent over all, in whom all the fullness (pleroma) dwells, the Reconciler of all things, as also of the Colossians, through His death, provided they are faithful to the hope of the gospel.

Colossians 1:24-2:5:

By his suffering he is filling up the sufferings of Christ, of whom he is a minister, even to reveal the great mystery of the ages, that Christ is in them, the Gentiles, the hope of glory, the object of the apostle’s preaching everywhere. This explains Paul’s interest in them, and his care for them, that their hearts may be strengthened in the love and knowledge of Christ.

Colossians 2:6-3:4:

He then passes to exhortation against those who are leading them astray, these false teachers of a vain, deceiving philosophy based on worldly wisdom, who ignore the truth of Christ’s position, as One in whom all the Divine pleroma dwells, and their relation to Him, united by baptism; raised through the faith; quickened and forgiven; who teach the obligation of the observance of various legal practices, strict asceticisms and angel worship. This exhortation is closed with the appeal that as Christ’s they will not submit to these regulations of men which are useless, especially in comparison with Christ’s power through the Resurrection.

Colossians 3:5-17:

Practical exhortations follow to real mortification of the flesh with its characteristics, and the substitution of a new life of fellowship, love and peace.

Colossians 3:18-4:1:

Exhortation to fulfill social obligations, as wives, husbands, children, parents, slaves and masters.

Colossians 4:2-6:

Exhortation to devout and watchful prayer.

Colossians 4:7-18:

Salutations and greeting.


Lightfoot, Paul’s Epistles to the Colossians and Philemon; Abbott, Ephesians and Colossians, International Critical Commentary; Peake, Colossians, Expositor’s Greek Testament; Maclaren, Colossians, Expositor’s Bible; Alexander, Colossians and Ephesians, Bible for Home and School; Moule, Colossians, Cambridge Bible; Haupt, Meyer’s Krit. u. Exeg. Kom.; von Soden, Hand-Kom. zum New Testament.

C. S. Lewis