Colossians, Epistle to the
COLOSSIANS, EPISTLE TO THE
This letter follows the regular structure of Pauline letters: greeting (1:1–2); thanksgiving and prayer (1:3–23); exposition (1:24–3:4); exhortation (3:5–4:6); messages and closing (4:7–18). The letter includes some blocks of traditional material: a hymn (1:15–20); baptismal catechesis (2:6–15); lists of vices and virtues (3:5–17); and a household code (3:18–4:1).
The precise situation that the letter addresses is not easy to determine. The Colossian Christians seem to have been converts from paganism. This is borne out by the references, both direct and indirect, to their former Gentile status (1:12–13, 27; 2:13), by the mention of vices that were more proper to paganism than to Judaism (3:5–7), and by the general failure to make use of arguments from the Old Testament. However, the frequent mention of Judaizing tendencies must also be accounted for. The dietary
and cultic scruples described in 2:16–17, 20–21 must have at least a partially Jewish background. To explain these apparent inconsistencies, it is assumed that Judaizing elements in Asia Minor had made their influence felt among the Christian communities. It is known that the Jewish population in Asia Minor had grown ever since the Hellenistic conquest. It is clear from the Acts of the Apostles that, while many of these Jews accepted Christianity, there was a decided tendency among them to resist the abandonment of any of their Jewish practices. It is suggested by some that there existed, especially in this area, a syncretistic Judaism that had been influenced by the philosophy and mysticism of a Hellenized Asia Minor. Such a Jewish heterodoxy would account for the type of speculation, asceticism, and mysticism attacked in Colossians. Specific Gnostic elements, such as characterized later groups, are not present here, and the possible Gnosticizing tendency (2:8, 18) can be explained on the basis of similar tendencies found in both Jewish and Gentile circles even before this time (see gnosis).
Specific ethical recommendations, the Haustalfen, made toward the close of the letter, may have been occasioned by particular circumstances in the Colossian community. Especially encouraged is the proper Christian attitude of wives and husbands, children and parents to one another (3:18–21). And receiving more than the usual attention is the attitude of slaves and masters to one another (3.22–4.1).
Doctrine. In response to these dangers the author presented some profound statements, which can be summed up under three headings: (1) Christ, (2) the Church, and (3) the Christian.
Christ. No higher christology is found anywhere in the New Testament than in 1:5–20. Preexistence, equality with the Father, a cosmic dimension both in creation and in Redemption through Him, and absolute superiority over all creatures—these are all boldly stated of Jesus Christ. To sum up and to explain all this, the letter refers to the πλήρωμα (fullness) that God has made to dwell in him (1:9). Its meaning is much discussed. Many scholars see Christ as containing within himself everything that God is. Others see it rather in relation to the universe, so that Christ possesses the fullness of any excellence found in it. Because of this fullness Christ is the perfect mediator between God and humans.
The absolute superiority of Christ over the angels (1:6) is such that He has despoiled them of any power they may have had over man before this (through the regime of the Law) and has made their inferiority to himself publicly manifest (2:5). In relation to the hurch Christ is the "head," an attribute that is His in the order of time by reason of His being "the firstborn from the dead" (1:8) and in the order of grace by reason of His reconciliation of all things to himself (1:20).
The Church. In this epistle the church, too, takes on new dimensions. It refers here, as in Ephesians, not only to the local gathering of Christians (4:6) but primarily to the universal church, which is more clearly seen to be organically connected with Christ; he is now, for the first time, explicitly called its head, and the Church is his body (1:8, 24). The realism of the assertion has been emphasized in recent exegesis. This is not a mere figure of speech, nor does it signify simply a social entity, in which case the Church would be merely a body of "Christians" who are named after Christ. It is the body of Christ inasmuch as its members are united through baptism to the physical but resurrected body of Christ and as a consequence are really his own members.
The Christian. The connatural emergent of this theology of Christ and the Church is the meaning it has for the Christian. Here, too, the epistle offers profound insights. Central is the Christian's relation to Christ already mentioned. The assimilation to Christ is described here in a way that recalls Rom 6:3–11; the Christian repeats sacramentally in baptism the saving acts of Christ (Col 2:12). For this reason it can be said that the Christians receives of the fullness of Christ (2:10). So real is this resulting union that the writer could say that the Christian is filling up in the flesh of his or her own body "what is lacking of the sufferings of Christ" (1:24); it is Christ who is suffering in the Christian.
All of this is possible only through the saving work of Christ. It was his body, subjected to that state in which sinful man finds himself, that was the place where reconciliation of mankind was effected through death (1:22). For if the Christian does die to sin and rise to life, it is because he or she dies, is buried, and rises "with Christ," i.e., is joined to Christ (2:12). When God brought His Son to life, He brought the Christian along with him (2:13). Once this is understood, then it is evident how useless are those humanely devised practices that presume to possess within themselves the power to save (2:16–23), including a false asceticism (2:20–22). This does not mean that the author condemned all asceticism or mortification. In almost the same breath that he attacked the erroneous practices he also encouraged a life of mortification that is "in Christ" (3:5). Here Christians meet once again the familiar tension between the indicative and the imperative in the Christian life, between "you have put on Christ" and "put on Christ." In Baptism a renovation has already taken place, a complete incorporation into the resurrected Christ. It is now for the Christian to live in accord with this new life, to "strip off the old person and its deeds, and put on the new" (3:9–10; see also 2:11).
Authenticity. Debate about the authenticity of the letter has focused on two areas: language and theology. Some characteristically Pauline terms, e.g., "righteousness," "to believe," "law," and "to save," do not occur in Colossians. Moreover, the christology, eschatology, and ecclesiology show some marked differences from the undisputed Pauline letters. Christological statements that have no parallel in Paul include the following: Christ is the mystery of God (1:27; 2:2–3); believers have been raised with Christ (2:12); Christ forgives sins (1:13–14; 3:13); Christ is victorious over the principalities and powers (2:15). Whereas Paul expected the parousia in the near future (1 Thes 4:15; 1 Cor 7:26), there is a lessening of expectation in Colossians (2:12; 3:1), but in the undisputed letters resurrection is a future expectation (1 Cor 6:14; 2 Cor 4:14).
The chief difference in ecclesiology between Colossians and the undisputed Pauline writings is that, whereas in the Pauline writings the term "church" usually designates the local church in a specific way, in Colossians the church is a universal entity, the body of which Christ is the head (1:18, 14; 2:19; 3:15). The weight of these and other differences from the genuine letters has persuaded many modern scholars that Paul did not write Colossians (E. Lohse, J. Gnilka, W. A. Meeks, E. Käeman, J. A. Fitzmyer, M. Y. MacDonald), although the authenticity of the letter is still defended by some (R. P. Martin, G. B. Caird, C. F. D. Moule). The issues raised in the community suggest that the letter was written after Paul's lifetime, between a.d. 70 and a.d. 80, by someone who knew the Pauline tradition.
Bibliography: m. p. horgan, The Letter to the Colossians, The New Jerome Biblical Commentary (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey 1990) 876–82. j. knox, "Philemon and the Authenticity of Colossians," Journal of Religion 18 (1938) 144–60. j. e. crouch, The Origin and Intention of the Colossian Haustafel (Göttingen 1973). r. deichgrÄber, Gotteshymnus und Christushymnus in der frühen Christenheit (Göttingen 1967). e. lohse. Colossians and Philemon (Philadelphia 1971). r. p. martin, Colossians and Philemon (London 1981). m. y. macdonald, Colossians. Ephesians (SacPag 17; Collegeville Liturgical 2000). For additional bibliography, see captivity epistles.
[e. h. maly
m. p. horgan]