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An Introduction To The Book Of Colossians

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A. External Evidence: Paul is strongly affirmed to be the author of Colossians

1. Colossians was undisputedly Pauline until the nineteenth century

a. The Later Church Fathers accepted it3

b. It was not disputed in the later decades:

1) It was probably used as early Justin4

2) It was included in Marcion’s canonical list (c. 140) and in the Muratorian canon (c. 170)

2. This letter is included in the Chester Beatty papyri (P46)5

B. Internal Evidence:6 Even though there are concerns by modern, critical scholars about Pauline authorship, the evidence for Pauline authorship is not overturned:

1. The primary objections to Pauline authorship are the divergence in literary style, vocabulary, and syntax from Paul’s other writings.7 Also it was believed that Paul was combating the heresy of second-century Gnosticism

But literary differences can be explained by appealing to the new content of the letter, the heresy which he is addressing, and Paul’s adaptation of traditional material. Also, there is no need to understand the heresy as a second-century Gnosticism (see below)

2. There are close links between Colossians and Philemon (the latter of which is generally unquestioned as a genuine work of Paul):

a. Both include Paul and Timothy’s name in the opening greeting (Col. 1:1; Phm. 1)

b. Both include greetings from those with Paul at this time, namely, Aristarchus, Mark, Epaphras, Luke, and Demas (Col. 4:10-14; Phm. 23,24)

c. Archippus is called a “fellow-soldier” in Philemon 2 and directed to fulfill his ministry in Colossians 4:17

d. Onesimus, concerning whom Philemon is written, is mentioned in Colossians 4:9 as being sent with Tychicus and as bring “one of you”

3. Paul is specifically identified in the letter to the Colossians:

a. The mention of Timothy along with Paul in the prescript is customary in the undisputed letters of Paul8

b. The author follows the Pauline practice of conveying his personal greetings from his fellow workers to the congregation by means of a dispatched message (4:8)

c. The author follows the Pauline practice of closing the letter with his personal signature, as well as, making mention of his own situation as prisoner9

d. Paul is identified in the body of the letter (1:23ff)

e. Paul ties his apostleship to the same tradition of Jesus Christ (1:23ff; 2:6)

f. The expression, “I, Paul” is typical in the Pauline corpus to render his persona10


A. Location:11 Paul’s (first) Roman Imprisonment:

1. Until recently, Rome was considered by most to be the location from which Paul wrote12

2. Caesarea: Some13 understand Caesarea to be the location of writing, but this is unlikely for the following reasons:

a. It is unlikely that a runaway slave (Philemon) would have fled to Caesarea to escape detection and would have found access to Paul like he would have in Rome (where Paul was under house-arrest)

b. Paul expects to be released in the near future since he requests Philemon to prepare him lodging (Phm. 22) and this probably would not have been the case at Caesarea where Paul knew that his only hope was to appeal to Caesar

c. It is unlikely that Caesarea was the home of active missionary work requiring such a large staff of Paul’s co-workers of Gentile origin for Philemon to seek refuge, and it does not seem that this small harbor city was the center of vigorous propaganda suggested in Colossians 4:3,414

3. Ephesus:15 Some16 understand Ephesus to be the location of writing, but this is unlikely for the following reasons:

a. No evidence exists to affirm that Paul was imprisoned in Ephesus (Acts 19)17

b. It is unlikely that a runaway slave (Philemon) would have fled to Ephesus and remained there long enough to know Paul since it was no more than 100 miles away from Colossae

c. The “we” sections of Acts do not allow for Luke to have been with Paul while he was in Ephesus (Acts 16:10ff; 20:6,13ff; cf. Col. 4:14)

4. Rome:18 The most probably location of writing was probably Rome for the following reasons

a. This is a known imprisonment of Paul’s which allows for the events reflected in Colossians and Philemon

b. Acts supports Luke’s presence in Rome with Paul (the “we” sections; Acts 27:2ff)

c. Paul was under house-arrest in Rome which would have allowed him visitors such as co-workers and Onesimus

d. The imperial capital would have allowed the run-away slave Onesimus to seek anonymity and then asylum in Paul’s presence there

e. No other imprisonment in Acts seems to be a real alternative (Philippi in Acts 16:23-40; Caesarea in Acts 24:27)

f. Travel between Rome and the east was frequent and not too formidable a task to make the communications between the prison epistles possible

g. Although not determinative, the doctrinal outlook of Colossians seems to belong to a later rather than to an earlier period supporting a Roman origin over one in Ephesus19

h. It is very probable that Aristarchus accompanied Paul to Rome (Acts 27:2; cf. Col. 4:10) and thus shared in his imprisonment

i. Even though Paul intended to go on to Spain from Rome (Rom. 1:10ff; 15:19ff) it is not possible to know with certainty what he did upon his release. He could have changed his mind, or at least changed his immediate plans and thus gone to Colossae

B. Date: If the Roman hypothesis is accepted, then it is likely that Paul wrote Colossians early20 in his (first) Roman imprisonment (i.e., AD 60-61)


A. The Nature of the Heresy--Explicit and Implicit Indications about the Colossian Problem:22

1. Explicit Teaching of the Opponents:

a. It emphasized abstinence from certain foods and some types of drink 2:16,22

b. It required the observance of Jewish feasts and sabbaths at different intervals 2:16

c. It stressed “self-abasement” and visions 2:18,23

d. It involved angelic worship--either as the object of worship or as the subject of worship (i.e., doing worship) 2:18

e. It taught the need for some kind of worship which was human in origin, a “self-made religion-worship 2:23

f. It praised the value of treating the body severely 2:2323

g. It was depicted by Paul as “Philosophy and empty deceit” espousing the “elementary principles of the world” (2:8)

2. Implicit References in the Book:

a. It demoted Christ from his supreme place 1:13-20; 2:9ff

b. It seems to have as a catchword the term/phrase “fullness” [of deity] 1:19; 2:9

c. It claimed to promote higher spirituality. Paul counters with the argument that they are spiritually complete in Christ (2:10) and warns that the rules and regulations of this religious system only promote the indulgence of the flesh 2:23

d. It probably required circumcision of adherents 2:11; cf. 3:11

e. It may have misconstrued the death-burial-resurrection motif 2:12,13,20; 3:1-5

f. It cast doubt on the completeness of forgiveness in Christ 1:14; 2:13-14; 3:13

B. Possible Sources of the Heresy:24

1. Essenism:

a. B. Lightfoot was the major proponent of this position affirming many parallels between the Heresy and the asceticism of this Jewish group25

b. Even though there are some parallels, there is no evidence that they lived in the western portions of Asia Minor

c. While this explains the emphasis on higher knowledge and special revelation, it fails to explain the mystical experiences which are apparent in the epistle

2. Greek Pagan Cults:

a. There are many theories along this line of thinking: Neopythagoreanism, mystery religions, pre-Christian Gnosticism, the Iranian Redemption myth, the initiation into the Isis mysteries

b. This is an attempt to emphasize the Hellenism on the church at the time

c. While some of these “cults” actually fight against one another, there is no doubt that the Heresy in Colossae was influenced by the Hellenism of their day; it is difficult to be even more specific

3. Gnosticism:

a. Gnosticism was a “religious movement that proclaimed a mystical esotericism for the elect based on illumination and the acquisition of a higher knowledge of things heavenly and divine”26

b. However, there was not a pre-Christian Gnosticism and it is doubtful that the biblical writers were fighting a known foe called Gnosticism

c. There may well have be roots of a Christian Gnosticism (incipient Gnosticism) which later became the Gnosticism of the second and third centuries AD

4. Syncretistic Religion:

a. The heresy contains a combination of parts of many of the above views wherein Jews and Gentiles are attempting to advance beyond apostolic Christianity

b. This view is very possible and perhaps even diplomatic

5. Jewish Mysticism--the Merkabah Mysticism27

a. The merkabah mysticism consisted of “religious exercises designed to facilitate entry into the vision of the heavenly chariot (hb*K*r+m#) with God visibly enthroned above it--the vision granted to Ezekiel when he was called to his prophetic ministry (Ezek. 1:15-28)”28

b. In order to obtain such a vision it was necessary to observe:

1) The Mosaic Law concerning purification

2) A period of asceticism of 12 to 40 days

3) The mediatorial role of angels when the heavenly ascent was attempted

c. There are possible parallels to this concept in rabbinic experience, Paul’s experience (2 Cor. 12), other Jewish writings like 1 Enoch 14:8-23, Daniel 7:9-10, and later Gnostocism29

6. Conclusion:

a. A definitive conclusion about the source of the heresy is not possible since so many possibilities exist

b. It is very possible, however, that the view of Jewish mysticism is more closely tied to the heresy in view of the Jewish elements which are certainly involved

c. Perhaps this Jewish mysticism became a later expression of Gnosticism


A. The City of Colossae:

1. Was in the Lycus valley

2. Was about 100 miles east (inland) of Ephesus

3. Had the important cities of Laodicea and Hierapolis as its neighbors where Christian churches had been established (Col. 4:13)

B. The Founding of the Church:

1. It seems that Paul had never visited the church (Col. 1:4; 2:1)

2. It seems that Epaphras acquainted Paul with the Colossians’ ‘love in the Spirit’ (Col. 1:8; 4:12-13)

3. It seems reasonable to assume that the church originated as a result of Paul’s ministry among those at Ephesus (Acts 19:10)

a. Perhaps this was actually accomplished through Ephahras who instructed those in Colossae (Col. 1:12-13)

b. Therefore, perhaps Ephahras was converted through Paul’s ministry in Ephesus


A. To provide advice about the dangerous heresy which had arisen in Colossae and was threatening the security of the church in all of the Lycus valley (cf. 4:16)

B. To answer the heretical issues by asserting the absolute, direct, and continuing supremacy of Christ over all of creation (1:15--3:4)

C. To encourage his readers to live life (personally, within the church, in the home, and in their relationships) in view of Christ as supreme over all of creation (3:5--4:6)

D. To encourage the churches in the Lycus valley to maintain their orderly Christian lives as well as their stability in the faith in the face of the threat of the false teachers 2:2-530




Emphasizes the Body (Church)

Emphasizes the Head (Christ)

The spirit is pastoral

The spirit is polemical

The emphasis is on oneness in Christ

The emphesis is on completeness in Christ

1 Much of what follows is adapted from: T. K. Abbott, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistles to the Ephesians and to the Colossians, ICC, pp. xivii-lx1v; F. F. Bruce, “Colossian Problems Part 3: The Colossian Heresy”: Bibliotheca Sacra 141 (1984): 194-208; Carson, Herbert M. The Epistles of Paul to the Colossians and Philemon. Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, 11-25; Brevard S. Childs, The New Testament as Canon: An Introduction, pp. 346-350; Donald Guthrie, New Testament Introduction, pp. 454-563; Geisler, Norman L. “Colossians,” in Bible Knowledge Commentary, pp. 667-669; Everett F. Harrison, Colossians: Christ All-Sufficient, Everyman’s Bible Commentary, 7-16; H. Wayne House, “Doctrinal Issues in Colossians: Heresies in the Colossian Church.” Bibliotheca Sacra, 149 (1992): 45-59; Ralph P. Martin, Colossians and Philemon, The New Century Bible Commentary, pp. 1-41; Peter O’Brien, Colossians, Word Biblical Commentary, pp. xxvi-liv; Curtis Vaughan, “Colossians,” in The Expositors Bible Commentary, vol. 11, pp. 163-171.

2 This is not to deny that Paul may have used other materials (e.g., 1:15-20).

3 Polycarp (c. 110-150) Philippians 10:1 [cf. Col. 1:23]; 11:2 [Col. 3:5]; Ignatius (c. 110), Ephesians 10:2 [Col. 1:23]; Iranaeus (c. 130-202), Adv. Haer. 3.14.1; Turtullian (c. 150-220), De Praescr Haer 7; Clement of Alexandria (c. 150-215), Storm 1.1; ; Trallians 5:2 [Col. 1:16]; Epistle to Diognetus 10:7 [Col. 4:1]. See Geisler, A General Introduction to the Bible, pp. 188, 193.

4 C. 150-155, Dialogue, 85.2; 138.2.

5 The second Chester Beatty Biblical papyrus contains ten Epistles which are considered to be of Paul in the following order: Romans, Hebrews, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Ephesians, Galatians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians and dates from about the year AD 200 (Bruce M. Metzger, The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration, p. 37).

6 Even though Childs does not hold to Paul himself as the author due to “stylistic and philological evidence,” he must link it with Paul canonically and affirms with Schweizer that it “is not post-Pauline” (The NT as Canon , pp. 345-349).

7 The first one to seriously question the authorship of Colossians was E. T. Mayerhoff in 1838, and his theory was developed by F. S. Baur and the Tübingen school.

8 See 2 Corinthians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon.

9 See 1 Corinthians 16:21; Philemon 19; 2 Thessalonians 3:17.

10 See Philemon 19; 2 Corinthians 10:1; Galatians 5:2; 1 Thessalonians 2:18; 2 Thessalonians 3:17; Ephesians 3:1.

11 The only textual clues in Colossians that Paul is in prison are: 4:3,10,18. But none of these cite the location of the imprisonment.

12 Although the Marcionite Prologue had the opinion that the Epistle was written from Ephesus [“The apostle already in fetters writes to them from Ephesus”] even though the Prologue to Philemon claimed that that letter was written from Rome (Guthrie, NTI, p. 555).

The “subscript” which was added at a later date asserts: “written from Rome by Tychicus and Onesimus.” Also Eusebius reports that Paul was brought to Rome and that Aristarchus was with him (History, 2.22.1; see O’Brien, Colossians. p. l.).

13 Lohmeyer, Dibelius-Greeven, Reicke, J. J. Gunther, Goguel, deZwaan.

14 O’Brien, Colossians, p. lii.

15 For a more thorough discussion see Guthrie, NTI, pp. 472-478.

16 Deissmann, Michaelis, Duncan.

17 Even though Aristarchus was seized by mob-violence in Ephesus (Acts 19:29), there is no specific mention of arrest for him or for Paul.

18 See O’Brien for counter view (Colossians, p. li).

19 See O’Brien, Colossians, p. liii; Guthrie, NTI, p. 557; Childs, The NT as Canon, 346-349; Bruce, Paul, The Apostle of the Heart Set Free, pp. 411-412.

20 Philemon 9 suggests that Colossians-Philemon may have been written early in the imprisonment, “yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you--I, Paul, an ambassador and now a prisoner also for Christ Jesus--.” The term for “now” (nuniv) is more emphatic than nu'n and suggests that Paul’s imprisonment had only just begun at the time he wrote (O’Brien, Philemon, p. 290).

21 Some good reading on this subject may be found in the survey article by H. Wayne House, “Heresies in the Colossian Church,” Bib. Sac. 149 (January-March, 1992): 45-59. Although Bruce once held to an “early and simple form of gnosticism” (Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free, p. 413), he later changed to a defense of a form of Jewish Mysticism which he identifies as “Merkabah Mysticism” in “Colossian Problems Part 3: The Colossian Heresy,” Bib. Sac 141 (July-September 1984): 195-208.

22 Adapted from a paper by Herb Bateman, “Introductory Matters for Colossians”.

23 This may only be a development of points a and b above.

24 There is no way in which one can be certain about the historical origin of this heresy. Morna Hooker even disputed the existence of a heresy in the Colossian church in her paper, “Were There False Teachers in Colossae?” in Christ and Spirit in the New Testament, edited by B. Lindars and S. S. Smalley (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973), pp. 315-331. However, Bruce seems to be correct when he affirms that “Yes, there were false teachers in Colossae” (“The Colossian Heresy,” Bib Sac 141 [1984]: 195; see also Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free, p. 413).

25 J. B. Lightfoot, Saint Pauls Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon (1879; reprinted, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1959), 73-113.

26 Gershom G. Scholem, Jewish Gnosticism, Merkabah Mysticism, and Talmudic Tradition (New York: Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1960), p. 1.

27 F. F. Bruce, “The Colossian Heresy,” Bib.Sac. 141 (1984): 201-204.

28 Ibid., pp. 201-202.

29 Ibid., pp. 202-203.

30 These verses express the goal of this letter, and thus explain the applicational section which Paul picks up in chapters 3--4. The false teachers were threatening unified living under the work of Christ (in the home and toward outsiders). Paul is correcting the erroneous instruction which could lead the church astray, and then reaffirming their orderly Christian life and stable faith under the proper view of Christ.

31 Adapted from Stanley D. Toussaint, “Colossians” (unpublished class notes in 308 Pauline Epistles and Revelation, Dallas Theological Seminary, Fall 1983), p. 2.

Related Topics: Introductions, Arguments, Outlines

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