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Epistle To the Laodiceans

la-od-i-se’-anz, (en te Laodikeon ekklesia .... ten ek Laodikias, "in the church of the Laodiceans .... the epistle from Laodicea," Col 4:16):


1. Written by the Laodiceans?

2. Written by Paul from Laodicea?

3. An Epistle Addressed to the Laodiceans


1. Marcion’s Opinion

2. References in Ephesians and Other Epistles

3. Ephesian Church Jewish in Origin

4. Ephesians and Colossians, Sister Epistles

5. Recapitulation


1. A Circular Epistle

2. Proof from Biblical Prologues


Paul here writes to the Colossians, "And when this epistle hath been read among you, cause that it be read also in the church of the Laodiceans; and that ye also read the epistle from Laodicea." What was or what is this epistle?

I. Explanations of Paul’s Statement.

The words used by the apostle may mean:

(1) a letter written by the Laodiceans;

(2) an epistle written by Paul from Laodicea;

(3) an epistle written to the Laodiceans, and to be procured from them by the Colossians.

1. Written by the Laodiceans?:

The words may mean a letter written by the Laodiceans. But here it is sufficient to refer to the fact that Paul enjoins the Colossians to procure and to read "the epistle from Laodicea." How could a command of this kind be given in reference to an epistle written by third parties? How could Paul know that a copy of it had been made by the Laodiceans before sending it off? How could he tell that the Laodiceans would be willing to give away a copy of it? The suppositions involved by this hypothesis are incredible. Besides, the context regards the Epistle to the Colossians, and "that from Laodicea," as companion epistles, of which the two churches are to make an interchange, so that each church is directed to read both.

2. Written by Paul from Laodicea?:

Or, the words may refer to an epistle written by Paul from Laodicea. And it has been suggested that the epistle of which we are in search may be 1 Timothy, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, or Galatians. But in the case of these epistles, the probability is that every one of them was written elsewhere than from Laodicea. At the time when Paul wrote to Colosse, he was a prisoner in Rome, and for this reason alone, it was impossible that he could, at any recent date, have written any epistle from Laodicea. But his own statement (Col 2:1) is that those in Laodicea had not seen his face in the flesh. As he had never been in Laodicea, he could, not have written any epistle from that city.

3. An Epistle Addressed to the Laodiceans:

A third possibility is a letter written:

(1) not by Paul, but by some other person. But the whole tone of the passage does not favor this suggestion in the least;

(2) by Paul, but that the epistle is lost; this is the ordinary interpretation;

(3) the apocryphal Latin epistle. "To the Laodiceans."

This spurious epistle is a mere compilation clumsily put together; it has no marks of authenticity. Lightfoot (Col, 282) gives its general character thus: it "is a cento of Pauline phrases strung together without any definite connection or any clear object. They are taken chiefly from the Epistle to the Philippians, but here and there one is borrowed elsewhere, e.g. from the Epistle to the Galatians. Of course, it closes with an injunction to the Laodiceans to exchange epistles with the Colossians. The apostle’s injunction in Col 4:16 suggested the forgery, and such currency as it ever attained was due to the support which that passage was supposed to give to it. Unlike most forgeries, it had no ulterior aim. It has no doctrinal peculiarities. It is quite harmless, so far as falsity and stupidity combined can ever be regarded as harmless" (Lightfoot, in the work quoted 282).

See Apocryphal Epistles.

(4) The only other alternative is that "the epistle from Laodicea" is an epistle to the Laodiceans from Paul himself, which he directs the Colossians to procure from Laodicea. There seems to be not only a high degree of probability, but proof, that the epistle from Laodicea is the epistle known as the Epistle to the Ephesians. Paul therefore had written an epistle to Laodicea, a city which he had twice already mentioned in the Epistle to the Colossians, "For I would have you know how greatly I strive for you, and for them at Laodicea" (Col 2:1): "Salute the brethren that are in Laodicea, and Nymphas, and the church that is in their house" (Col 4:15). Accepting Col 4:16 to mean that he wrote to Laodicea at the same time as he wrote to Colosse, what has become of the former ep.? Do we know nothing more of it now than is contained in this reference to it in Colossians? The fact that it was, by Paul’s express command, to be communicated to at least the two churches in Colosse and Laodicea, would make its disappearance and loss very strange.

II. Evidence Favoring Epistle to Ephesians.

But is there any warrant for concluding that it is lost at all? A statement of the facts of the case seems to show that the epistle which Paul wrote to the Laodiceans is extant, but only under another title. The lines of evidence which seem to show that the so-called Epistle to the Ephesians is in reality the epistle written by Paul to the Laodiceans are these:

It is well known that the words "at Ephesus" (Eph 1:1) in the inscription of the epistle are very doubtful. The Revised Version (British and American) reads in the margin, "Some very ancient authorites omit `at Ephesus.’" Among the authorities which omit "at Ephesus" are the Vatican and Sinaitic manuscripts, the best and most ancient authorities existing.

1. Marcion’s Opinion:

Tertullian asserts that the heretics, i.e. Marcion, had altered the title, "the Epistle to the Ephesians," to "the Epistle to the Laodiceans." But this accusation does not carry with it any doctrinal or heretical charge against Marcion in this respect. "It is not likely," says Moule (Eph, 25), "that Marcion was guilty here, where the change would have served no dogmatic purpose." And the fact that at that very early period, the first half of the 2nd century, it was openly suggested that the destination of the epistle was Laodicea, is certainly entitled to weight, especially in view of the other fact already mentioned, which is of no less importance, that "at Ephesus" is omitted in the two great manuscripts, the Vatican and the Sinaitic.

2. References in Ephesians and Other Epistles:

The "Epistle to the Ephesians" could not be, primarily at least, addressed to Ephesus, because Paul speaks of his readers as persons in regard to whose conversion from heathenism to the faith of Christ he had just recently heard: "For this cause I also, having heard of the faith in the Lord Jesus which is among you, and the love which ye show toward all the saints, cease not to give thanks for you, making mention of you in my prayers" (Eph 1:15 f). These words could not well be used in regard to the church at Ephesus, which Paul himself had founded, and in reference to persons among whom he had lived for three years, and where he even knew personally "every one" of the Christians (Ac 20:31).

And in Eph 3:1 f the King James Version, he writes: "For this cause I, Paul, the prisoner of Jesus Christ for you Gentiles, if ye have heard of the dispensation of the grace of God which is given me to you-ward." But how could he ever doubt that the elders of the church in Ephesus (Ac 20:17), as well as the members of that important church, were ignorant of the fact that a dispensation of the grace of God had been given to him? The inquiry, whether his readers had heard of the one great fact on which his ministry was based, could not apply in any degree to the Christians in Ephesus. The apostle and the Ephesians had a clear and intimate mutual knowledge. They knew him and valued him and loved him well. When he bade the elders of the church farewell, they all fell on his neck and kissed him (Ac 20:37).

Clearly therefore the statement that he had just recently heard of their conversion, and his inquiry whether they had heard that a dispensation of the grace of God had been entrusted to him, do not and cannot describe the members of the church in Ephesus. "It is plain," writes Moule (Eph, 26), "that the epistle does not bear an Ephesian destination on the face of it."

In the Epistle to the Corinthians there are many local references, as well as allusions to the apostle’s work in Corinth. In the Epistle to the Galatians there are also many references to his work among the people of the churches in Galatia. The same is the case in the Epistle to the Philippians, several names being mentioned of persons known to the apostle. In the two Epistles to the Thessalonians, references also occur to his work among them.

Turning to the Epistle to the Colossians, and to that to the Romans--Colossae and Rome being cities which he had not visited previous to his writing to the churches there--he knows several persons in Colosse; and in the case of the Epistle to the Romans, he mentions by name no fewer than twenty-six persons in that city.

How is it then that in "the Epistle to the Ephesians" there are no references at all to the three years which he spent in Ephesus? And how also is there no mention of any one of the members of the church or of the elders whom he knew so intimately and so affectionately? "Ephesians" is inexplicable on the ordinary assumption that Ephesus was the city to which the epistle was addressed. The other theory, that the epistle was a circular one, sent in the first instance to Laodicea, involves no such difficulty.

3. Ephesian Church Jewish in Origin:

Another indication in regard to the primary destination of the epistle is in the words, "ye, the Gentiles in the flesh, who are called Uncircumcision by that which is called Circumcision, in the flesh, made by hands; that ye were at that time separate from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of the promise, having no hope and without God in the world" (Eph 2:11,12). Do these words describe the church in Ephesus? Was the church there Gentilein its origin? Very far from this, for as a matter of fact it began by Paul preaching the gospel to the Jews, as is narrated at length by Luke in Ac 18. Then in Ac 19, Paul comes again to Ephesus, where he went into the synagogue and spake boldly for the space of three months, but when divers were hardened and believed not, but spake evil of the Way before the multitude, he separated the disciples, disputing daily in the school of one Tyrannus.

Here, therefore, is definite proof that the church in Ephesus was not Gentilein its origin. It was distinctly Jewish, but a Gentileelement had also been received into it. Now the church to which Paul writes "the Epistle to the Ephesians" was not Jewish at all. He does not speak to his readers in any other way than "you Gentiles."

4. Ephesians and Colossians Sister Epistles:

But an important consideration is that the "Epistle to the Ephesians" was written by Paul at the same sitting almost as that to the Colossians. These two are sister epistles, and these along with the Epistle to Philemon were written and sent off at the same time, Onesimus and Tychicus carrying the Epistle to the Colossians (Col 4:7,8,9), Onesimus being the bearer of that to Philem, while Tychicus in addition to carrying the Colossian epistle was also the messenger who carried "the Epistle to the Ephesians" (Eph 6:21).

A close scrutiny of Colossians and "Ephesians" shows, to an extent without a parallel elsewhere in the epistles of the New Testament, a remarkable similarity of phraseology. There are only two verses in the whole of Colossians to which there is no parallel in "Ephesians." The same words are used, while the thought is so varied and so rich, that the one epistle is in no sense a copy or repetition of the other (see list of parallelisms, etc., in Paul’s Epistles to Colosse and Laodicea, T. and T. Clark, Edinburgh). Both epistles come warm and instinct with life from the full heart of the great apostle who had not, up to that time, visited either city, but on whom, none the less, there came daily the care of all the churches.

5. Recapitulation:

To recapitulate:

(1) The words "at Ephesus" in the inscription of the epistle are wanting in the two oldest and best manuscripts.

(2) Paul speaks of his readers as persons of whose conversion to Christ he knew only by report. Similarly he speaks of them as knowing only by hearsay of his commission as an apostle of Christ. Also, though he had lived in Ephesus for three years, this epistle does not contain a single salutation.

(3) He speaks of his readers as forming a church exclusively of the Gentiles. But the church in Ephesus, so far from being exclusively gentile, was actually Jewish in origin.

(4) "Ephesians" was written at the same sitting as Colossians, and the same messenger, Tychicus, carried them both.

Therefore as the epistle was not, and could not be, addressed to Ephesus, the conclusion is that it was addressed to some church, and that it was not a treatise sent to the Christian church generally. The words of the first verse of the ep., "to the saints that are," proves that the name of the place to which it was addressed is all that is lost from the manuscripts, but that the name of the city was there originally, as the epistle came from Paul’s hand.

Now Paul wrote an epistle to Laodicea at the same time as he wrote to Colosse. He dispatched both epistles by Tychicus. The thought and feeling and even the diction of the two epistles are such that no other explanation is possible but that they came warm from the heart of the same writer at the same time. On all these grounds the conclusion seems inevitable that the Epistle to Laodicea is not lost at all, but that it is identical with the so-called "Epistle to the Ephesians."

III. Laodicea Displaced by Ephesus.

1. A Circular Epistle:

How then did Ephesus displace Laodicea? It is explained at once if theory is adopted that the epistle was a "circular" one addressed not to Laodicea only, but to other cities. We know e.g. that the apostle orders it to be taken to the church in Colosse and read there. So also it might have been sent to other cities, such as Hierapolis (Col 4:13) and Ephesus. Hence, if the church in Laodicea were not careful to see that the epistle was returned to them, by those churches to whom they had sent it, it can easily be understood how a copyist in any of those cities might leave out the words "in Laodicea," as not agreeing with the name of the city where the manuscript actually was at the time. As copies were multiplied, the words "in Ephesus" would be suggested, as the name of the chief city of Asia, from which province the epistle had come to the knowledge of the whole Christian church, and to which, in point of fact, Paul had sent it. The feeling would be natural, that it was in keeping with the fitness of things, that Paul, who had rounded the church in Ephesus, should have written an epistle to the church there.

2. Proof from Biblical Prologues:

In an article upon "Marcion and the Canon" by Professor J. Rendel Harris, LL.D., in the The Expository Times, June, 1907, there is reference to the Revue Benedictine for January of that year, which contained a remarkable article by de Bruyne, entitled "Biblical Prologues of Marcionite Origin," in which the writer succeeded in showing that a very widely spread series of prefaces to the Pauline Epistles, which occur in certain Latin Bibles, must have been taken from a Marcionite Bible. Professor Rendel Harris adds that the prefaces in question may go back to Marcion himself, for in any case the Marcionite hand, from which they come, antedates the Latin tradition in which the prologues are imbedded. "It is clear from Tertullian’s polemic against Marcion, that the Pauline Epistles stood in the following order in the Marcionite Canon: Galatians, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Romans, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, then Ephesians (which Marcion calls by the name of the Epistle to the Laodiceans), Colossians, Philippians, and Philemon. .... Let us turn to the prologues that are current in Vulgate (Jerome’s Latin Bible, 390-405 A.D.) and other manuscripts for Ephesians and Colossains: the Ephesian prologue runs as follows: `Ephesii sunt Asiani. Hi accepto verbo veritatis perstiterunt in fide. Ho conlaudat apostolus, scribens eis a Roma de carcere!’ When, however, we turn to the Colossian prologue, we find that it opens as follows: `Colossenses et hi sicut Laodicenses sunt Asiani. Et ipsi praeventi erant a pseudapostolis, nec ad hos accessit apostolus sed et hos per epistolam recorrigit,’ etc.

"From this it is clear that originally the prologue to the Laodiceans preceded the prologue to Colossians, and that the

Ephesian prologue is a substitute for the Laodicean prologue, which can be partly reconstructed from the references to it in the Colossian prologue. We can see that it had a statement that the Laodiceans belonged to Asia Minor, that they had been under the influence of false apostles, and had never been visited by Paul, who corrects their error by an epistle ....

"We have now shown that the original Canon had `Laodiceans, Colossians.’ It is interesting to observe how some Latin manuscripts naively admit this: `You must know that the epistle which we have as that written to the Ephesians, the heretics, and especially the Marcionites, entitle the Epistle to the Laodiceans.’"

IV. Reason for Such an Epistle.

Assuming therefore that the "Epistle to the Ephesians" is the epistle which Paul wrote to the Laodiceans, various questions arise, such as, Why did he write to the church there? What was there in the state of the church in Laodicea to call for an epistle from him? Was there any heresy there, like the false teaching which existed in the neighboring church in Colosse?

The answer to such questions is that though we do not possess much information, yet these churches in the province of Asia had many things in common. They had originated at the same time, during the two whole years of Paul’s residence in Ephesus. They were composed of men of the same races, and speaking the same languages. They were subject to the same influences of doctrinal error. The errors into which any one church fell could not fail to affect the others also. These churches were permeated to a large extent by the same ideas, derived both from the current philosophy and from their ancestral heathen religions. They would, therefore, one and all, require the same apostolic instruction and exhortation. This epistle, accordingly, bears a close resemblance to the Epistle to the Colossians, just for the reason that the circumstances of the church in Laodicea were similar to those of the church in Colosse; and also, that the thoughts which filled Paul’s heart as he wrote to Colosse were adapted, in the first place, to counteract the false teaching in Colosse, but they are also the foundation of all Christian experience, and the very life of all Christian truth and doctrine. These are the great thoughts of Christ the Creator of all things, Christ the Upholder of all things, Christ the Reconciler of all things. Such thoughts filling Paul’s heart would naturally find expression in language bearing a close resemblance to that in which he had just written to Colosse.

It is no more astonishing that Paul should have written to Laodicea, than that he also wrote to Colosse, which was probably the least important of all the cities and churches mentioned in the apostle’s work and career. Neither is it any more to be wondered at that he should have written so profound an epistle as that to "the Ephesians," than that he should also have given directions that it be sent on to Colosse and read there; for this reason, that the exposition of Christ’s great love to the church and of His giving Himself for it--the doctrine of the grace of God--is the very corrective required by the errors of the false teachers at Colosse, and is also the groundwork of Christian truth and experience for all agesú

NOTE: A very remarkable circumstance in regard to the apocryphal Epistle to the Laodiceans is mentioned by Nestle in the preface to his edition of the Latin New Testament, published in Stuttgart in 1906. He writes that "the Epistle to the Laodiceans was for a thousand years part of very many Latin Bibles, and obtained a place in pre-Lutheran German Bibles, together with Jerome’s Epistle to Damasus."