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published: 7/2/13

Book of Colossians



Facts and summary

Acts is the twelfth book of the Christian New Testament. The author of the book is traditionally understood to be the Aposlte Paul. The writing of Colossians is dated to around 60 A.D. It is believed that Paul wrote this letter from Rome. The original recipient was the Christian church at Colossae. Colossians is four chapters long. The purpose of the letter was to refute the Colossian heresy, which seems to have been ascetic, ritualized, focused on secret knowledge, and reliant on human wisdom. It was probably an early form of Gnosticism. Its teaching emphasis is Christ's divinity and adequacy contrasted with the inadequacy of the false teachings.

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 (Grk: 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).



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, and during the first captivity. This would be about 58 or, if the later chronology is preferred, 63 or 64.

Destination

The epistle was written, on the face of it, to the church at Collosae, a town in the Lycus valley where the gospel had been preached most probably by Epaphras (Col 17; 4:12), and where Paul was, himself, unknown personally (1:4,8,9; 2:1,5). From the epistle it is evident that the Colossian Christians were Gentiles (1:27) for whom, as such, the apostle feels a responsibility (2:1 ff). He sends to them Tychicus (4:7), who is accompanied by Onesimus, one of their own community (4:9), and urges them to be sure to read another letter which will reach them from Laodicea (4:16).

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 (Rev 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).

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. Grk: Pleroma and Grk: 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 (2:11), the Law (2:14,15), and special seasons (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 (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 (2:12), has blotted out all the Law (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 (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.

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