Lecture 34: Colossians
Let’s deal now with some of the problems with regard to authorship issues concerning Colossians. There are in the Book of Colossians an unusual number of what are called “hapax legomenon”: words found only once. We have, for instance, 34 words in Colossians that are not found anywhere else in the whole New Testament, and in addition there are 28 further words that are not found anywhere else in Paul. So there are 62 words in Colossians not found elsewhere in Paul’s letters. Now that is a large number. An inordinate proportion of those words are found in Colossians 1:15-20, which is this Christological confession that we will look at shortly. One of the things that you always have to remember is that sometimes you’re dealing with unique situations, and unique situations involve unique vocabularies. But these unique words are the basis for a major argument against Paul having written this letter (the number of words not found elsewhere in Paul). This is partly because of the problem being dealt with -- Paul does not deal with that issue elsewhere (the issue of Gnosticism, which we’ll cover shortly).
There are also style issues. There is an unusual number of pairings of synonyms, where the same thought is being repeated. In v. 5 we have hope, truth, and gospel placed next to each other; in v. 9 praying and asking are placed side by side; in v. 11 strengthen with power and might, endurance and faith. There are a lot of synonyms placed side by side here. In addition, you have some rather long sentences, and some have simply argued that the Greek is too good for Paul. Paul didn’t write bad Greek, though.
Theological issues have also been raised. Some have suggested that the Christology is too developed for Paul. It’s interesting, sometimes Paul is seen as the one who creates the theology about Christ in the early church, and changes Christianity from a religion about God to a religion about Jesus; and now others argue that the Christology is too developed for Paul here. There are present certain kinds of thoughts that he raises. For instance, in 1:19, “…for in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,” the term “fullness” is a very technical term in second century Gnosticism – the idea of Christ as the head of the church. And the church here is not the individual church, like the church at Corinth, but the universal church; and that’s not the normal Pauline emphasis.
What’s interesting of course is that no one denies that Paul wrote Philippians, and yet, the Christology we just looked at of Philippians 2:6-11 is very developed. And in 1 Corinthians 8:6, we also see a very developed Christology. Here you have this high Christology in Paul, but this is too high for some of the critics. How high does it have to be to be too high? A lot of the normal themes that you usually find in Paul, like justification apart from the law and the emphasis on salvation -- those are not found in Colossians. So the absence of some of those themes also plays a part in this authorship discussion.
In favor of Pauline authorship is the fact that it claims to be Pauline. I know for some that doesn’t mean anything, but the letter starts out, “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God ….” You have in 1:23 again a reference to Paul. He talks about the gospel preached “… to every creature under heaven, of which I, Paul, became a minister.” And then in 4:18 he refers to the fact that he (Paul) has written the greeting with his own hand, “I, Paul, write this greeting by my own hand.” He does the same thing in 1 Corinthians 16:21, and in Galatians 6:11, and everybody accepts those. In Philemon 19, he also makes this statement: “I, Paul, write this with my own hand.” So you have a number of letters, like 1 Corinthians, Galatians, and Philemon that everybody accepts as Pauline where he writes this greeting. But here (in Colossians), this is supposedly now a counterfeit. And in 2 Thessalonians 3:17, we looked at that. To me it’s very hard to argue that a false letter is one claiming to have been one that Paul writes in his own handwriting, and a real letter is one where he writes in his own handwriting; yet we find that one critic argues against it being Pauline, and the other argues for it being Pauline. Some of those kinds of arguments are very strange to me.
There are also stylistic features in this letter that are very Pauline – that are found only in Paul. For instance (1:9), “on account of this also” “Dia touto kai” is found only in Paul. And it’s found 4 other times in Paul’s letters, but it’s only in Paul’s letters that we find it. His saints “hagiois autou” is only found in Paul -- here and 3 other times in his letters. The use of the term “charizomai” for “to forgive” is found twice in this letter, and it’s only found elsewhere in this particular sense (in Paul) in 3 other places. “Every good work” is found only here and elsewhere in Paul. So you have certain words and phrases that are only Pauline kinds of stylistic features.
There are furthermore very typical theological emphases here. The reference to being “in Christ” (that particular expression); the indicative and the imperative (we’ll look at that shortly); and the reference to being “buried with Christ in baptism” are all very Pauline sorts of theological issues. We also find a typical format here of salutation, thanksgiving, conclusion, and close ties with the Philemon letter. There are references in Colossians to people (Onesimus, Tychicus, Epaphras) referred to in the Philemon letter as well. Unlike the pastoral letters, there are critical scholars who will accept Pauline authorship of Colossians.
The church at Colossae was not founded by Paul himself. It was one of the missions that probably extended from his main time at the city of Ephesus. But in 1:7, he refers to the gospel that they received as having been learned from “… Epaphras, our beloved fellow-servant.” And he goes on, “And so from the day we heard of it ….” I, Paul heard of this successful mission in Colossae, indicating once again that he did not establish it. And then in 2:1 he says, “For I want you to know how great a struggle I strive for you, and for those in Laodicea, and for all those who have not seen my face.” In 4:12-13 he again mentions Epaphras, “Epaphras who is one of you and slave of Christ, greets you. He is always struggling in prayer on your behalf, so that you may stand mature and fully assured in all the will of God. For I can testify that he has worked hard for you and for those in Laodicea and in Hierapolis.” So during Paul’s third missionary journey, while he was at Ephesus, this church was established. He now hears word while he is in Rome imprisoned (we looked at the prison references in Colossians earlier).
The occasion of the letter, the reason why he writes this, is that Epaphras has arrived, and informed him of the situation in Colossae. He therefore writes this letter in response to the problems he’s heard, and Tychicus will be the one who brings this letter with him. Not having official mail service as a possibility, (I think Roman officials could send mail through couriers) the only way that mail could be delivered is if you had someone going that way, or if you had a friend going that way and you could give him letters to bring, etc.
Paul warns against a “dangerous false teaching” in 2:4, “I say this so that no one may delude you with beguiling speech.” And in 2:8, “See to it that you do not allow anyone to captivate you through an empty, deceitful philosophy that is according to human tradition and not according to Christ.” And in 2:20, he gives the impression that this is more than a prophylactic message, and that we should apply a mirror-reading, because this is a real problem, “If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations?” This is not hypothetical; this is a real problem, as revealed by this text. It’s not just hypothetical; a real mirror-reading should take place here. These are problems that exist there. The kinds of dangers he refers to are things that we haven’t encountered in the other letters. In 2:8, we see some sort of worship of the elemental spirits of the universe (that was not the kind of thing we read about in Galatians or Romans). Also, we see the worshiping of angels (2:18), “Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels.” 2:16, “Let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath.” (This reference could possibly be a problem of the sort that we saw in Galatians, but not the other two.) There’s a kind of ascetic behavior in 2:20,
“If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations – ‘Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used) – according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.”
There’s something to do with philosophy in 2:8, “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition.” So the kinds of things that we’re encountering here do not seem to be anything like the issues that we have encountered in any other letters up to this time.
There’s a particular vocabulary he uses in this letter. There are references to wisdom (in 1:9 he asks them to have spiritual wisdom in contrast to this other kind of wisdom, “…we prayed for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding.” He makes an emphasis on understanding, and he uses the words gnosis and epignosis, and above all the term pleroma.
This sort of word choice has caused people to say that this letter had to have been written sometime in the early or middle part of the second century, when Gnosticism was a heresy that the church had to encounter and deal with. Since Gnosticism in the sense of the second century Gnosticism did not exist in that form in Paul’s day, this letter then was not written by Paul; it had to be written by someone else. The Gnosticism of the second and third centuries tended to include the following kinds of aspects.
It tended to be dualistic, and dualism borrows from Platonic philosophy: matter is evil; spirit is good. Being a combination of those two things, you and I are in a dilemma. And this matter, however, was created (since it’s bad and evil) not by a good god (the God of the Bible, for instance); but by lesser deities whose main hope is that our spirit will never be able to be freed from our body. This prison-house of the body incorporates the spirit, and if the spirit is ever freed from this body, then these evil demons have lost. So the problem becomes: how do you escape this dilemma? Death will not solve it because when your spirit escapes, these demons will bring it back and have you reincarnated again in a different body. And there will be a continual cycle of living in this prison-house of the flesh: this evil body. The only way of escaping this will be if you possess certain knowledge (which we’ll get to in a while). So the God of the Old Testament who created the world was seen by Gnostics as being essentially evil. And this dualism incorporates everything that you have. If our soul escaped the body once and for all, then we’d have life. The idea of a resurrection makes no sense at all, because you’re saying that the spirit is finally liberated from this cursed body, and now you’re going to put it back into a body. What kind of hope is that? That only continues this imprisonment. And if you try to make the argument that the new body is a perfect, sinless body, that’s a contradiction in terms, because matter is, in and of itself, evil. So you can’t have good matter, and therefore you can’t have a resurrection as our hope.
Furthermore, this system will also deny the incarnation. That becomes very explicit in 1 John, where the real test of heresy (if you wanted to know whether someone was a heretic or not) was to ask if they believe Jesus Christ has come in the flesh. If they were a Gnostic, they’d say that no, the Son of God would never have taken upon himself a body – and you’d know they were Gnostic .But if they said yes, you would know they are not Gnostics. So here you have an anthropology where everything is based on a free spirit. The body is basically evil. There cannot be an incarnation. There can only be an “appearing like Jesus had a body”, and that was to disguise his mission. And a particular term came up and developed out of this, and that term is “Docetism”, an early Christological heresy which said that Jesus, the Son of God only looked like a person – it only seemed like he had a body. So Docetism denies the true humanity of Jesus Christ. You’ll hear that in theology – it’s a Docetic heresy that denies the true bodily existence of the Son of God.
For salvation, the doctrine of soteriology, you need to escape this body if you are Gnostic. How do you do that? When you die, your soul seeks to go back to God, the ultimate God, the pleroma, the fullness of God. But these evil spirits don’t want you to do that, and they have things like walls hindering you from getting up there. When you come to the wall, there’s only one gate; and when you come to the gate they’ll stop you. And if you have knowledge or “gnosis” (the Greek word for knowledge), you can give a password which keeps them from hindering you from going through. So imagine coming to this wall and having the evil spirits say, “Halt, who goes there?” If you have the right knowledge, you can say “Things go better with Coke,” and all of the sudden they’re powerless and you get through. But there are seven of these gates (or a number of them), and every time you get to one and you’re stopped. You would have to have the password (e.g., “Open sesame”), and then the demons are powerless to let you go through. And when the Son of God came in what appeared to be a human body (not a real body, but one that looked like one), he came to present this knowledge. And if you join our sect, we’ll show you this knowledge. So this was the kind of Gnosticism that existed in the second century.
The consequences of this ethically went to two extremes. One extreme was an extreme asceticism: In order to keep the body from corrupting the inner spirit, you would beat your body, and live a strong and disciplined life of one sort or another. The other extreme was a complete libertarianism which said that the body ultimately would be destroyed and the spirit is the only good thing, so we shouldn’t worry at all about what the body does. For instance, when you fornicate, keep clean thoughts in your head so that the mind is good while the body is bad. But it doesn’t matter what the body does. So you had these extremes in Gnosticism of either asceticism or not caring what the body does at all since it would be destroyed (as long as the mind remained pure).
That form of Gnosticism that I just described here did not exist in Paul’s day. If you read that the problem in Colossae was exactly this form of Gnosticism, then the letter had to be written later (second century). However, there may have been a proto-Gnosticism, a sort of a fore-runner to full-blown Gnosticism. There may have been these kinds of thoughts in the air. There was not a complete system, and we should not read into this that the full-blown heresy was in full swing by this time, but it is very likely that there may have been elements like this that existed in the world. And Paul seems to be arguing against some parts of these proto-gnostic things. By the time of 1 John, we clearly have various kinds of proto-gnostic things being dealt with. This letter, though, most likely addresses not the developed Gnosticism of the second century, but a proto-gnosticism, an early-developing form of this thing that had not fully developed and taken place. Proto-gnosticism, not the fully-developed Gnosticism, existed in Paul’s day.
And the way Paul seeks to refute this Gnosticism is to state that Jesus Christ is all-sufficient. We’ll look at this Christological hymn in just a minute. But if you have him, (2:3), “… in whom all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hid,” if you know (2:9) “… him in whom all the fullness of deity dwells bodily,” if you have (v. 19) “the head from whom the whole body, supported and knit together through its ligaments and sinews, grows with a growth that is from God,” if you have him you don’t have to worry about something more. If you have a big enough Christ, you don’t need anything else. When you start adding things (and this is true not just for this Gnosticism), you minimize Christ. When you have people saying that your salvation is not complete unless …, they just don’t have a big enough Christ. If your Christ is big enough, you don’t have to start adding anything. YOU want to add something to Christ’s work? If you have a big enough appreciation of what Christ has done, and you realize his greatness, you don’t ever worry about lacking something – he’s all-sufficient.
And so he emphasizes the greatness of Christ, and that Christ has defeated these elemental spirits. If he had a gospel he could talk about the exorcisms and how Christ has bound Satan and things of that nature, but he doesn’t write that in this letter. In Christ they lack nothing. In 2:10, “You have come to fullness of life in him.” You already have fullness of life. And again in 2:3, “In him all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hid.” In Christ you lack nothing. So his main argument against all this is the greatness of Christ. He’s all-sufficient.
The outline is again pretty straightforward. You have the salutation, the thanksgiving, the body which emphasizes the all-sufficiency of Christ, ethical exhortation, and a closing.
Let me share with you something of the hymn, and let me point out the balanced materials we have here. [Refer to the passage in the figure below].
1:15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation,
1:16 for by him all things were created that are in heaven and on earth visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities – all things were created through him and for him.
1:17 And he is before all things and in him, all things hold together.
1:18 He is the head of the body, the church, who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he himself may become first in all things.
1:19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell
1:20 and through him God was pleased to reconcile unto himself all things whether on earth or in heaven by making peace through the blood of his cross.
Beginning at v. 15, you have “He is the image of the invisible God …” The second stanza has a similar phrase with v. 18 (in the middle), “who is the beginning”. I’m underlining the exact phrases so you see the parallel [this transcription highlights it in blue]. Then you have in v. 15 (the latter part), “the first-born of all creation”. If you go to v. 18, you have “the first-born from out of the dead” in the second stanza [highlighted in green]. You have (v. 16) “for in him all things were created”; then you have in v. 19 “for in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” [in pink]. Then you have in v. 16, “All things were created through him and for him” matches with “through him to reconcile all things unto him.” I hope that this exercise will help you at least get a poetic understanding of it.
You see more of it in the outline I give you [below]. ”He’s the image of the invisible God” matched by the “he’s the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning ….” “The firstborn of all creation” is matched by “the first born of the dead so that he might come to have first place in everything.” “For in him all things were created in heaven and on earth, all things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers,” matches up with “For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” And finally, “All things were created in him and through him and for him,” matches up with, “And through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things whether on earth or in heaven, making peace through the blood of his cross.”
Verse Phrase Verse Phrase
15a He is the image of the invisible God 18a He is the head of the body, the church, who is the beginning 15b …the firstborn of all creation 18b …the firstborn from the dead, so that he himself may become first in all things 16a For by him all things were created in heaven and on earth, all things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities 19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell 16b All things were created for him and through him. 20 And through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things whether on earth or in heaven by making peace through the blood of his cross.
So you have here this Christological hymn, which contributes a lot of the unique vocabulary of Colossians, probably because Paul did not create this hymn – it was something that he inherited and passed on at this time to the church in Colossae. So you have this poetic balance, and you have this high Christological emphasis on Jesus Christ being the fulfillment of all these things; you don’t therefore need anything else.