In the New Testament, Colossians is an epistle written, according to the text itself, by Paul the Apostle. The epistle addresses the church in Colossae, a rather insignificant Phrygian city near Ephesus in Asia Minor. Members of the congregation had incorporated pagan elements into their practice, including worship of elemental spirits. Paul declared Christ's supremacy over the entire created universe and exhorted Christians to lead godly lives.
The letter is in two parts, first a doctrinal section, then a second regarding conduct. In both sections, Paul opposes false teachers who have been spreading error in the congregation. In the doctrinal sections, Paul explains that there can be no need to worship anyone or anything but Christ because Christ is supreme over all creation. All things were created through him and for him, and the universe is sustained by him. God had chosen for his complete being to dwell in Christ. The "cosmic powers" revered by the false teachers had been "discarded" and "led captive" at Christ's death. Christ is the master of all angelic forces and the head of the church. Christ is the only mediator between God and humanity, the unique agent of cosmic reconciliation. Further, Paul also denounces the ascetic practices or avoiding certain foods because Christ's death put an end to such distinctions. Believers are one in Christ, not divided between circumcised and uncircumcised, slave and free, and so on. He then calls on his audience to fulfill all domestic and social obligations. The letter ends with customary prayer, instruction, and greetings.
During the first generation after Jesus, Paul's epistles to various churches helped establish early Christian theology. Written in the 60s while Paul was in prison, Colossians is similar to Ephesians, also written at this time. Increasingly, critical scholars ascribe the epistle to an early follower writing as Paul. The epistle's description of Christ as pre-eminent over creation marks it, for some scholars, as representing an advanced christology not present during Paul's lifetime. Defenders of Pauline authorship cite the work's similarities to Philemon, broadly accepted as authentic.
Content of the letter
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Like most of Paul's epistles, this consists of two parts: a doctrinal part and a practical part.
The doctrinal part comprises the first two chapters. His main theme is developed in chapter 2. He warns them against being drawn away from Him in whom dwelt all the fullness of the deity (2:9), and who was the head of all spiritual powers. Christ was the head of the body of which they were members; and if they were truly united to him, what needed they more?
Paul could see that they had grown spiritually because of their love for all the set-apart ones in Christ (1:4 & 8). He knowing this wanted them to grow in wisdom and knowledge that their love might be principled love and not sentimentality (1:9-11). "Christ in you is your hope of glory!" (1:27)
The practical part of the epistle (3-4) enforces various duties naturally flowing from the doctrines expounded. They are exhorted to mind things that are above (3:1-4), to mortify every evil principle of their nature, and to put on the new man (3:5-14). Many special duties of the Christian life are also insisted upon as the fitting evidence of the Christian character.
Tychicus was the bearer of the letter, as he was also of that to the Ephesians and to Philemon, and he would tell them of the state of the apostle (4:7-9). After friendly greetings (10-14), he bids them interchange this letter with that he had sent to the neighbouring Laodicean Church. (The apocryphal Epistle to the Laodiceans is almost universally believed to be a forgery based on this instruction.) He then closes this brief but striking epistle with his usual autograph salutation. There is a remarkable resemblance between this epistle and that to the Ephesians.
The letter is supposed (or intended) to be written by Paul at Rome during his first imprisonment there (Acts 28:16, 30), probably in the spring of AD 57, or, as some scholars think, 62, soon after he had written his Epistle to Ephesians. If the letter is not considered to be an authentic part of the Pauline corpus it might be dated during the late first century, possible as late as the 80's
Occasion of writing
Like some of his other epistles (e.g., those to Corinth), this seems to have been written in consequence of information which had been conveyed to him of the internal state of the church there by Epaphras(1:4-8). Its object was to counteract false teaching. A large part of it is directed against certain speculatists who attempted to combine the doctrines of Eastern mysticism and asceticism with Christianity, thereby promising believers enjoyment of a higher spiritual life and a deeper insight into the world of spirits. Paul argues against such teaching, showing that in Christ they had all things. He sets forth the majesty of his redemption. The mention of the "new moon" and "sabbath days" (2:16) shows that Gnostic ascetics were judging the body of Christ for "eating and drinking" and observing the "feasts, New Moons, and Sabbaths." In response, Paul commands the saints to "let no one judge you...but the body of Christ," i.e. the Church itself, which was observing these biblical holy days (Matt. 5:17-19; Rom. 3:31). Paul focuses much of his epistle to the Colossians in combating the teachings of the early Gnostic sects, particularly ascetics (see Col. 2:4-23).
The letter's author claims to be Paul, a view that was uncontested until the development of critical exegesis in the 1800s. Paul's authorship is also confirmed by many of the church's early key figures such as Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Origen of Alexandria, and Eusebius, though most of these references are much later than Paul, and several of them have proved unreliable for other identifications.
Most contemporary scholars, however, conclude that Paul did not write Colossians. The epistle's language seems not to match Paul's, as 48 words appear in Colossians that appear nowhere else in the Pauline corpus, of which 33 occur nowhere else in the N.T. The epistle features a strong use of liturgical-hyminic style which appears nowhere else in Paul's work as extensively.. The epistle's themes related to Christ, eschatology, and the church have no parallel in Paul's undisputed works. Compared to undisputed Pauline epistles, in which Paul looks forward to an imminent Second Coming, Colossians presents a completed eschatology, in which baptism relates to the past (a completed salvation) rather than to the future.
However, the differences between these elements in this letter and one commonly considered the genuine work of Paul (e.g. 1 Thessalonians) are explained by advocates of Pauline authorship by human variability, and the apparent use of a secretary (or amanuensis) in composition.
- Textual variants in the Epistle to the Colossians
- "Colossians, Epistle to the." Cross, F. L., ed. The Oxford dictionary of the Christian church. New York: Oxford University Press. 2005
- Harris, Stephen L., Understanding the Bible. Palo Alto: Mayfield. 1985. "Colossians" p. 337-338
- May, Herbert G. and Bruce M. Metzger. The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha. 1977.
- Mack, Burton L. Who Wrote the New Testament? San Francisco:Harper Collins, 1996.
- “The earliest evidence for Pauline authorship, aside from the letter itself ... is from the mid to late 2d cent. (Marcionite canon; Irenaeus, Adv. Haer. 3.14.1; Muratorian canon). As with several epistles attributed to Paul, scholars disagree over whether Paul wrote Colossians and when it was written. This traditional view stood unquestioned until 1838, when E. T. Mayerhoff denied the authenticity of Col, claiming that it was full of non-Pauline ideas and dependent on Eph. Thereafter others have found additional arguments against Pauline authorship." New Jerome Biblical Commentary
- MacArthur, John. The MacArthur Bible Handbook. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2003.
- “The cumulative weight of the many differences from the undisputed Pauline epistles has persuaded most modern scholars that Paul did not write Col ... Those who defend the authenticity of the letter include Martin, Caird, Houlden, Cannon, and Moule. Some... describe the letter as Pauline but say that it was heavily interpolated or edited. Schweizer suggests that Col was jointly written by Paul and Timothy. The position taken here is that Col is Deutero-Pauline; it was composed after Paul’s lifetime, between AD 70 (Gnilka) and AD 80 (Lohse) by someone who knew the Pauline tradition. Lohse regards Col as the product of a Pauline school tradition, probably located in Ephesus.” [TNJBC 1990 p. 877]
- Koester, Helmut. History and Literature of Early Christianity, Introduction to the New Testament Vol 2. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter & Co, 1982,1987.
- Kummel, Georg Werner. Introduction To The New Testament, Revised English Edition, Translated by Howard Kee. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1973,1975
- “The theological areas usually singled out for comparison are christology, eschatology, and ecclesiology. The christology of Col is built on the traditional hymn in 1:15-20, according to which Christ is the image of the invisible God... These themes are developed throughout the letter, and other christological statements that have no parallel in the undisputed Pauline writings are added: that Christ is the mystery of God... that believers have been raised with Christ ... that Christ forgives sins... that Christ is victorious over the principalities and powers..." New Jerome Biblical Commentary
- “The eschatology of Col is described as realized. There is a lessening of eschatological expectation in Col, whereas Paul expected the parousia in the near future (I Thes 4:15; 5:23; I Cor 7:26)... The congregation has already been raised from the dead with Christ ... whereas in the undisputed letters resurrection is a future expectation... The difference in eschatological orientation between Col and the undisputed letters results in a different theology of baptism... Whereas in Rom 6:1-4 baptism looks forward to the future, in Col baptism looks back to a completed salvation. In baptism believers have not only died with Christ but also been raised with him.” The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, Edited by Raymond E. Brown, S.S., Union Theological Seminary, New York; NY, Maurya P. Horgan (Colossians); Roland E. Murphy, O. Carm. (emeritus) The Divinity School, Duke University, Durham, NC, with a foreword by His Eminence Carlo Maria Cardinal Martini, S.J.; Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1990 1990 p. 876
- N.T. Wright, Colossians and Philemon, Tyndale IVP 1986 (ISBN 0-8028-0309-1)
- TIB = The Interpreter's Bible, The Holy Scriptures in the King James and Revised Standard versions with general articles and introduction, exegesis, [and] exposition for each book of the Bible in twelve volumes, George Arthur Buttrick, Commentary Editor, Walter Russell Bowie, Associate Editor of Exposition, Paul Scherer, Associate Editor of Exposition, John Knox Associate Editor of New Testament Introduction and Exegesis, Samuel Terrien, Associate Editor of Old Testament Introduction and Exegesis, Nolan B. Harmon Editor, Abingdon Press, copyright 1955 by Pierce and Washabaugh, set up printed, and bound by the Parthenon Press, at Nashville, Tennessee, Volume XI, Philippians, Colossians [Introduction and Exegesis by Francis W. Beare, Exposition by G. Preston MacLeod], Thessalonians, Pastoral Epistles [The First and Second Epistles to Timothy, and the Epistle to Titus] , Philemon, Hebrews
- TNJBC = The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, Edited by Raymond E. Brown, S.S., Union Theological Seminary, New York; NY, Maurya P. Horgan [Colossians]; Roland E. Murphy, O. Carm. (emeritus) The Divinity School, Duke University, Durham, NC, with a foreword by His Eminence Carlo Maria Cardinal Martini, S.J.; Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1990
- A.C.= The New Testament of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. The text carefully printed from the most correct copies of the present Authorized Version. Including the marginal readings and parallel texts. With a Commentary and Critical Notes. Designed as a help to a better understanding of the sacred writings. By Adam Clarke, LL.D. F.S.A. M.R.I.A. With a complete alphabetical index. Royal Octavo Stereotype Edition. Vol. II. [Vol. VI together with the O.T.] New York, Published by J. Emory and B. Waugh, for the Methodist Episcopal Church, at the conference office, 13 Crosby-Street. J. Collord, Printer. 1831.