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Bible Commentaries

The Expositor's Greek Testament


- Colossians

by William Robertson Nicoll






COLOSSÆ was a city of Phrygia, situated on the southern bank of the Lycus, a tributary of the Mæander. The river passes here through a narrow gorge, by sheer and rocky sides. Its water is nauseous, and impregnated to a most unusual degree with carbonate of lime, which has formed very remarkable incrustations along its course. Rising steep from the glen in which the city lay was Mount Cadmos, towering to a height of 7,000 feet. The district is volcanic and subject to earthquakes, and a very disastrous one destroyed Laodicea, and probably Colossæ and Hierapolis, in the reign of Nero. The soil was very fertile; and its pastures reared a noted breed of sheep. Both Colossæ and Laodicea were very famous for their woollen manufactures. The former town was at one time of great importance, and is mentioned as such by Herodotus (vii., 30) and Xenophon (Anab., i., 2, 6). But the foundation of Laodicea, probably in the reign of Antiochus II. (261 246 B.C.), gave the death-blow to its supremacy. This city was only eleven miles distant, lying also on the south of the Lycus, but in a position far better fitted to secure commercial success. It was one of the richest cities in the province of Asia, and recovered from its destruction by the earthquake without receiving help from imperial funds. The third town mentioned in this Epistle, Hierapolis, lay to the north of the Lycus, six miles from Laodicea, opposite to which it stood, and thirteen from Colossæ. Its name indicates its character as a sacred city, and it “was the centre of native feeling and Phrygian nationality in the valley” (Ramsay). While it was influenced, especially as to its form, by Greece, “the religion continued to be Lydo-Phrygian”. The population of Colossæ was probably for the most part Phrygian, with Greek admixture. In Laodicea the Jews were fairly numerous, though less so than at Apameia, and in this respect Colossæ probably resembled it. The Talmud says that the wines and baths, of Phrygia had separated the Ten Tribes from Israel; and we have evidence that the Phrygian Jews compromised with heathenism to an extent possible only to those who held their ancestral faith most loosely. They probably accepted Christianity readily, and thus lost their racial identity.

We have no information as to the introduction of Christianity into these cities, in all of which Churches had been planted. They had not been founded by Paul, though some of their members were known to him. They seem to have owed their origin to Epaphras, who was probably one of Paul’s converts, and since the Apostle gives emphatic approval to his teaching, they had been instructed in the Pauline type of doctrine. Apparently they consisted for the most part of Gentiles (this is suggested, though not proved, by Colossians 1:21 ; Colossians 1:27 , Colossians 2:13 , Colossians 3:7 ). We may conjecture from Colossians 4:10 that Paul had written an earlier letter to them, to which they had sent a reply by Epaphras. Recently they had been assailed by a form of false teaching, and while they remained, so far, loyal to the doctrine they had been taught (Colossians 1:4 , Colossians 2:5 ), the danger was sufficiently serious to call forth this letter, which had perhaps been preceded by a letter addressed to Laodicea. It was sent by Tychicus, who was accompanied by Onesimus, Philemon’s runaway slave, whom Paul was sending back to his master, with a letter asking forgiveness for the culprit.


Since this subject has an important relation to the false teaching in the Colossian Church, to the authenticity of the Epistle and the exegesis of several passages, it is necessary to treat it in some detail so far as this is relevant here, and more convenient to devote a special section to it. The doctrine of angels has considerable prominence in the Old Testament, but received great development in later Judaism, both among the Rabbis and in the apocalyptic literature. The influence of these ideas on the New Testament writers is very marked. In this connexion the points to be specially noticed are the relation of the angels to nature and men, their ethical character, their ranks and their association with the Law.

In the O.T. the connexion of the angels with the forces of nature is not made prominent. The cherubim, it is true, appear in close connexion with natural phenomena, and probably were originally identical with the thunder-cloud. But we have no warrant for regarding them as angels. In Psalms 104:4 God’s messengers and ministers are said to be made of wind and fire. In later literature this thought receives great extension. According to the older Jewish representation their work in nature was limited to extraordinary cases; but later this was not so, and the whole world was thought to be full of spirits and demons. In the Book of Jubilees the angels are brought into close relation with the elements. The author mentions angels of fire, wind, tempest, darkness, hail, hoar-frost, valleys, thunder, lightning, cold, heat, the seasons, dawn and evening, and all spirits of His works in heaven and earth. Similarly in Enoch lx. we read of spirits of sea, hoar-frost, hail, snow, mist, dew and rain. Again in the Slavonic Enoch xix. 4 we have “the angels who are over seasons and years, and the angels who are over rivers and the sea, and those who are over the fruits of the earth, and the angels over every herb, giving all kind of nourishment to every living thing”. In the N.T. this conception is also found, especially in the Apocalypse. Thus we read of an angel “that hath power over fire” (Revelation 14:18 ) and an “angel of the waters” (Revelation 16:5 ), Cf. also Revelation 7:1 , Revelation 8:5 ; Revelation 8:7-12 . The interpolation in John 5:4 presents us with the same idea in the angel that troubled the waters. In Hebrews 1:7 the language of Psalms 104:4 is reversed, and God is said to make His angels winds and His ministers a flame of fire. A similar belief in the evanescent personality of the angels is expressed in the Rabbinical statements of the daily creation of angels, and their transformation now into this, now into that. While these thoughts are all but unknown to the O.T., it frequently connects the sons of God with the stars. In the Song of Deborah the stars fight against Sisera (Jude 1:5 :20); in Job 38:7 the morning stars are identified with the sons of God. In Nehemiah 9:6 the host of heaven is actually said to worship God, and by this personal beings must be meant ( Cf. Isaiah 24:21 with Isaiah 24:23 ). In Enoch we read of “a prison for the stars of heaven and the host of heaven” (Enoch 18:14), and of “the stars which have transgressed the commandment of God, and are bound here till ten thousand ages, the number of the days of their guilt, are consummated” (Enoch 21:6). A similar association is found in Revelation 9:1 ( Cf. Revelation 9:11 ). A closely related function of the angels is that of ruling and representing the nations. This is first found in Deuteronomy 4:19 ; Deuteronomy 32:8 , LXX ( Cf. Deuteronomy 29:26 ). According to these passages the nations are allotted to the host of heaven or the sons of God, while Yahweh chooses Israel for Himself ( Cf. Sir 17:17 ). This undergoes a development in Daniel. In Deuteronomy the nations have their angels, while Israel has Yahweh. In Daniel Israel also has its own angel, Michael. In Isaiah 24:21-23 we find the same thought, the host of the high ones on high being connected with the kings of the earth. In Rabbinical literature we have a similar idea; the angels of the nations have a relation of solidarity with their peoples, and God punishes them before He punishes the nations themselves (Weber, System der pal. Theol. , 1880, p. 165). In the N.T. the angels of the seven churches in the Apocalypse are to be interpreted in a similar way.

From the functions which the angels exercise it might be expected that ethical distinctions would not be made prominent. In the older Biblical literature there is no reference to evil spirits, in the modern sense of the term. The angels are instruments to effect Yahweh’s will. They are good or evil not in virtue of intrinsic character, but of the mission on which they may be sent. The “angels of evil” who bring the plagues on Egypt (Psalms 78:49 ), the “destroyer” who smites the first born (Exodus 12:23 ), the evil spirit that troubles Saul, the angel that slays the Israelites (2 Samuel 24:16-17 ), or Sennacherib’s army with the pestilence, the lying spirit in the mouth of Ahab’s prophets, the cynical Satan who smites Job in property, family and person to prove that he does not serve God for nought, all alike belong to the heavenly host and are God’s servants, who live to do His will. They are evil so far as their mission is to inflict evil. Our distinction between good and evil angels is unknown; moral features, if present, are rudimentary. When they are called the “holy ones” no ethical reference is intended, but simply their consecration to the service of God. Immoral actions are attributed to them. Thus the sons of God have children by the daughters of men (Genesis 6:1-4 ), and the host of the high ones on high have to be visited with punishment for the wrongs done by the kingdoms under their charge (Isaiah 24:21 ). In Psalms 82:0 the Elohim are rebuked by God in the heavenly assembly for their unrighteous rule, and this is so also in Psalms 58:0 . In Job we have similar thoughts. Twice Eliphaz insists on the imperfection of the angels, once in his wonderful description of the spirit who said to him, “Behold He putteth no trust in His servants, and His angels He chargeth with folly” (Job 4:18 ); and again, speaking for himself, “Behold He putteth no trust in His holy ones; yea the heavens are not clean in His sight” (Job 15:15 ). (Similarly Job himself, Job 21:22 , though Duhm corrects the text.) Bildad also says that God “maketh peace in His high places,” and that “the stars are not pure in His sight” (Job 25:2 ; Job 25:5 ). In later Jewish theology, when the distinction of angels and demons has become explicit, the angels are frequently represented as far from perfect. The proof of this may be seen in Weber. The following points may be selected for mention. The angels envied Israel the Law; “the angels of ministry coveted it, and it was concealed from them”. On Sinai God gave Moses the face of Abraham, the entertainer of angels, that the angels might do him no harm. They raise objections to God’s decrees, and not in vain; they even prevent His wishes from being carried into execution. Gabriel was disobedient, and was punished on that account; but Dubbiel, who was set in his place, showed himself hostile to Israel, and was therefore replaced by Gabriel. Judgments are inflicted on the angel princes. Their sinlessness is only relative; sin is wanting only in so far as it is rooted in sensuality. A similar view is found in Enoch: the stars are punished for disobedience, and the “watchers” for their union with the daughters of men. It is also clear that where angels are thought of as elemental spirits the question of their morality can hardly arise. In the Apocalypse the angels of the Churches are praised or blamed for the spiritual condition of these Churches, which shows once more how unjustifiable is the sharp division of angels into the two classes of perfectly sinless and irremediably evil. Angels are mentioned which are not evil spirits, and yet are not wholly good.

In the O.T. not much is said which would lead us to infer any gradation of rank among angels, though in Daniel an elementary system of division is present. In Rabbinical theology we have a developed hierarchy, in which ten orders are enumerated (Weber, p. 153). In Enoch we read: “And He will call on all the host of the heavens and all the holy ones above, and the host of God, the Cherubim, Seraphim and Ophanim, and all the angels of powers and all the angels of principalities, and the Elect One, and the other powers on the earth, over the water, on that day” (lxi. 10). Similarly we read in the Slavonic Enoch that in the seventh heaven Enoch saw “a very great light and all the fiery hosts of great archangels, and incorporeal powers; cherubim and seraphim, thrones and the watchfulness of many eyes. There were ten troops, a station of brightness” (xx. 1, Cf. 3). Ranks of angels are recognised also in the N.T.

In Deuteronomy 33:2 we have in our present text, which probably needs correction, a reference to the coming of God to His people from Sinai and from “holy myriads”. The LXX reads “with the myriads of Kadesh,” but has a reference to “angels with Him on His right hand” in the next clause. This passage was interpreted to mean that the Law had been given through angels. We find this in Rabbinical writings, also in the report of a speech of Herod the Great in Josephus, Ant. , xv., 5, 3. In the Book of Jubilees we have detailed accounts of the giving of precepts by the angels. We find a reference to this function of the angels in the speech of Stephen (Acts 7:53 , Cf. ver. 38) and the Epistle to the Hebrews (Colossians 2:2 ).

Turning now to Paul, we find marked coincidences with the later Jewish view. For the connexion of the angels with nature, we have his phrase the “elements of the world” (Galatians 4:3 , Cf. ver. 9), which should be interpreted as personal elemental spirits, to which the pre-Christian world was in subjection (see note on Colossians 2:8 ). The connexion with the stars is probably present in the phrase “celestial bodies” (1 Corinthians 15:40 ), a term which suggests that they were animated by spirits. The moral imperfection of angels is also a Pauline conception. He speaks of angels, principalities and powers, which might be expected to separate us from the love of God (Romans 8:38 ), he supposes the case of an angel from heaven preaching another doctrine than what he taught (Galatians 1:8 ), women have to be veiled at the Christian assemblies because of the angels (1 Corinthians 11:10 , a precept suggested by Genesis 6:1-4 ), the principalities and powers have to be subjected to the Son (1 Corinthians 15:24 ), the rulers of this world, through ignorance of God’s wisdom, crucified the Lord of glory (1 Corinthians 2:6-8 ), Christians are to judge the angels (1 Corinthians 6:2 ). These passages, it is true, have been otherwise explained. But the exegesis has been unnaturally forced through the initial mistake of assuming that the angelic world is sharply divided into sinless and fallen spirits. Once this is surrendered the natural interpretation becomes possible. Again we find ranks of angels recognised by Paul. In Romans 8:38 we have “angels and principalities and powers,” in 1 Corinthians 15:24 we have “every principality and every authority and power,” in Thess. Colossians 4:16 the archangel is mentioned. He also shares the belief that the Law was given by the mediation of angels (Galatians 3:19 ).

When we approach the Epistle to the Colossians and its companion Epistle by this line of investigation we find nothing that should cause us any surprise. A worship of angels, such as was inculcated by the false teachers, was quite a natural application of the Jewish doctrine. Gfrörer says: “According to the testimonies cited, the entire activity of God in the world is mediated through angels. This belief was not without special dangers. One could easily fall into the error that the angels should be worshipped instead of God, since they help men more than the Eternal. That at the time of the Second Temple there really were men who taught this we see from the utterance of the Apostle Paul (Colossians 2:18 )” ( Jahrhundert des Heils , i., p. 376). A proof of the custom among the Jews is often quoted from the Preaching of Peter, in which the Jews are said to worship angels and archangels. Celsus brings a similar charge against the Jews, and numerous Talmudical prohibitions attest the prevalence of this cult. The opening section of the Epistle to the Hebrews is thought by some to be directed against angel worship, but this is improbable. Twice in the Apocalypse the angel who shows the visions to the writer restrains him from an attempt to worship him. This seems to have a polemical reference to angel worship. There is a similar passage in the Ascension of Isaiah vii. 21, Cf. 8:4, 5. In the Testament of Levi the seer asks the angel to tell him his name that he may call upon him in the day of trouble. So in the Testament of Dan, the patriarch bids his children “draw near to God and the angel”. We have no ground in the angel worship for assuming a post-Pauline date, since already before Paul’s time the conditions for it were present. That the angelic orders were created by the Son follows from the fact that the creation of all was ascribed by Paul to Christ (1 Corinthians 8:6 ), combined with the fact that, as we have seen, Paul recognised the existence of angelic orders. That he adds “thrones” and “lordships” to the list in Colossians is no proof of difference of authorship, for in the undisputed Epistles the lists, which he gives, vary. That they are included in the scope of the Son’s work of reconciliation cannot be objected to on the ground that they did not need this, for the doctrine of angelic sinlessness is contrary to the teaching of Paul, as also to that of the O.T. and Jewish theology. A more plausible difficulty may be urged as to the method of Redemption. The death of Christ was a death in the body of flesh, and thus availed to destroy the sinful flesh in humanity. But it might be said, How can this have any effect on the angelic world? Should we not say: “Not of angels doth He take hold, but He taketh hold of the seed of Abraham”? It is true that the N.T. writers, Paul included, think in the main of the effects of Christ’s death on mankind. But in face of the false teaching it was natural for Paul to draw an inference already implicit in his doctrine. Wherever sin was present, there grace was present to meet it; and this grace found its expression in the Cross of Christ. No limit could be set to its saving power; for angels as for men it made complete atonement. And the relation to the angels which this involved is just what we should expect in Paul. The redemption of man was made possible by Christ’s Headship of the race. That He was the Head of the angelic world was a natural thought to Paul, once he regarded Christ as its Creator, and realised its need for redemption. His connexion with it went back to its creation, and therefore His redeeming acts could avail for it, as for the race of men. It was also a natural thought for Paul, since the Cross abolished the Law, and the Law had been given by angels, that in the death of Christ God had despoiled and triumphed over the angelic powers. That the angels of the Law had brought about the death of Christ is the probable sense of 1 Corinthians 2:6-8 . That they did it in ignorance of God’s wisdom tallies with the statement that it is through the Church that the manifold wisdom of God is to be made known to the principalities and powers. It is not in virtue of any personal hostility to Christ that they crucified Him, but in virtue of their complete identity with the Law. The Law was against us, and Law and grace are incompatible. If so, the angels of the Law would necessarily, according to Jewish angelology, stand in opposition to Christ, till they were despoiled of the dominion they had exercised and placed in their true position. So far then from holding any position of authority, or exercising any mediatorial function, they are for the Christian as if they were not. He has died to the Law, and therefore to the angels of the Law, and all those elemental spirits, to which both Judaism and heathenism had been in subjection. All that he hoped to win through worship of them, and more than all, he has already in Christ. To serve them is to fall back into bondage to unmeaning ordinances, to miss the substance while clutching at the shadow. The angelology of the Epistle is thus in harmony with that of Paul, as gathered from the certainly genuine Epistles; and where it shows advance, the development is on thoroughly Pauline lines, and amply accounted for by the false teaching which it refutes. There is no reason to doubt the authenticity of the Epistle on the ground of its doctrine of angels. It is an interesting fact that the Council of Laodicea, about the middle of the fourth century, condemned angel worship; and the worship of Michael, which Theodoret, in the fifth century, speaks of as still carried on in the district, existed into the Middle Ages.


The false teaching against which the Epistle is chiefly directed was of a Jewish type. This is clear alike from the characteristics mentioned and the nature of the polemic. It insisted on observance of regulations as to meats and drinks, festivals, new moons and Sabbaths. It drew on the tradition of men as its source. The reference to circumcision seems to show that the false teachers attached value to it; and the declaration that the Law has been abolished, which forms the basis for the definite attack, shows that they regarded it as still binding. Other characteristics are mentioned which are not so exclusively Jewish. It is spoken of as a philosophy and empty deceit, which was plausible and gave a reputation for wisdom. It had the “elements of the world” and not Christ for its content; and was characterised by a humility which found expression in the worship of angels, but was not incompatible with fleshly conceit. It inculcated severity to the body, and imposed ordinances against certain foods. It is possible that the teachers asserted that they had visions of angels (Colossians 2:18 ), but unfortunately the phrase from which this is inferred is exegetically uncertain and possibly corrupt. The false teachers were Christians, as is clear from the words, “not holding fast the Head”; but probably they did not assign to Christ His true place. It is possible that they thought of Christ as Paul did, and did not see that their peculiar views were incompatible with their doctrine of Christ; but this seems less likely.

It is not unnatural that many scholars should have seen in this teaching something which, while partially, was not wholly Jewish. And the most obvious solution, especially for those who dated the Epistle in the second century, was to regard the heresy as a form of Judaistic Gnosticism. In favour of this were alleged the use of the term “philosophy,” the stress laid on “wisdom,” the counter-presentation of Christianity as “full knowledge of the mystery,” the asceticism which forbade drinks as well as meats, the angel worship which might rest on a doctrine of intermediaries between men and God, the emphasis on the universality of the Gospel in contrast to the exclusiveness of an intellectual aristocracy. It is certainly difficult to find full-blown Gnosticism mirrored in our Epistle. But it is also improbable that we have Gnosticism even in a rudimentary form. We are certain of the Jewish nature of the teaching, and if it can be explained from Judaism alone, we have no warrant for calling in other sources. “Philosophy” was a term used by Philo and Josephus for purely Jewish theology or sects; and in a Gentile community the common Greek term would naturally be employed, whatever the character of the system might be. Hort suggests that the term is used in a sense akin to the later use to denote the ascetic life, but this is uncertain. The stress on “wisdom” and “knowledge” may be paralleled from the Corinthian Church, where there was certainly no Gnosticism. Intellectual exclusiveness was no monopoly of the Gnostics; the Pharisees, with their contempt for the people of the land, accursed through their ignorance of the Law, were conspicuous examples of it; and it is a failing common enough in certain types of character. The angelolatry, as we have seen already, is perfectly explicable from the Judaism of Paul’s time. The prohibition of drinks, while it goes beyond the Law, is an extension of it, for which we find a parallel in Hebrews 9:10 . Asceticism, it is true, is hardly a characteristic of Judaism. Yet fasting was considered to have a religious value, especially among the Pharisees, and Paul himself buffeted the body and brought it into bondage. Nor is it clear whether asceticism was regarded as an end in itself or a means to an end. It might be practised to induce visions. But, apart from this, it is a tendency so congenial to certain temperaments that all need for postulating a Gnostic origin, through a belief in the evil of matter, disappears.

It has, with more plausibility, been suggested that we should seek for its origin in Essenism, or some form of teaching with Essene affinities. In favour of this it may be said that the Essenes were extremely rigid in keeping the Sabbath, they had some secret lore about the angels, they abstained from meat and wine, they eliminated marriage from their communal life. But there is no indication of any extreme Sabbatarianism at Colossæ; what Paul attacks is the view that the Sabbath law should be regarded as still binding. The doctrine of angels has been already amply explained apart from Essenism, while we have no proof that the Essenes worshipped angels. Nor are we acquainted with the precise view of the false teachers as to eating and drinking, whether this involved abstinence from meat and wine. In any case the precepts of the Law as to food, with the extension they appear to have received in later Judaism (Hebrews 9:10 ), seem sufficient to account for this phase of the false teaching. And there is not a word in the Epistle to warrant us in assuming that there was any attack on marriage at Colossæ. Further, there is no reference to some of the most important Essene practices. Such are their frequent washings, their alleged worship of the sun, their communal life, their “fearful oath” on initiation, their protracted and severe probation and their use of magic. And, lastly, we know nothing of Essenism at this time in Phrygia. For the most part the sect had its home by the Dead Sea, and before the destruction of Jerusalem it seems to have been unknown outside Palestine. Klöpper tries to turn the edge of these arguments by limiting this element to a dynamic influence of Essene principles on the Jews of the Dispersion, by urging that we should expect the larger movement of Essenes to Christianity after the destruction of Jerusalem to have been preceded by isolated instances, and by the reminder that we know the heresy only imperfectly. Lightfoot similarly is content to argue for Essene affinities in the false teaching. But in face of the absence from it of some of the most striking features of Essenism, and the possibility of accounting for it from contemporary Judaism, it seems much safer to set aside this theory as to its origin. In the modified form given to it by Klöpper it scarcely seems worth contending for at all.

It is noteworthy that Paul does not, as in Galatians, attack this teaching by arguments drawn from the O.T. This has been explained by the view that the errors were not doctrinal but practical. But this seems to be improbable, and it is more likely that Paul does not establish his positions by proof passages because this would have been unconvincing to his antagonists, who might perhaps have evaded their force by allegorical interpretation. His refutation consists partly in pointing the moral of their own experience, partly in a positive exposition of great Christian truths with which the false teaching was incompatible, partly in direct attack. In recalling them to their own experience of salvation, he is throughout suggesting that the Gospel which had thus proved its power in them stood in no need of being supplemented; all that was necessary was for them to hold firmly by the form in which they had learnt it, and strive continually to appropriate its meaning and power more completely. The teachers by failing to hold fast the Head were cutting themselves off from the source of life. He reminds his readers that they had passed into the kingdom of the Son from the realm of darkness, they had received deliverance, the forgiveness of sins, had been reconciled to God, and been qualified for the saints’ inheritance in light. They must be loyal to the truth they had heard, walk in Christ, rooted and built up in Him. This truth was not proclaimed to and tested by them alone, it was proved by its rapid extension in the world. Doctrinally the false teaching was tacitly refuted by an exhibition of the true place and work of the Son. He is the image of God, Lord of the universe, in whom all things were created, including all ranks of angels. They were created through Him and even for Him, so that as to origin they were dependent on, and as to end subservient to Him. The whole fulness dwelt in Him, and therefore reconciliation of all things to God, again including the angels, could be made by Him. And thus not only is there no room for angelic mediators; they themselves needed to be reconciled to God. It is in Christ that all the fulness of the Godhead dwells; it is in Him that all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden. His death abolished the Law and spoiled the principalities and powers; hence the precepts of the former held good no longer, and worship ought plainly not to be offered to the latter. Believers had died with Christ to these elemental spirits, and could no longer be subject to their restrictions. The direct attack may be thus summarised. This so-called “philosophy” is only an empty delusion resting on human tradition, with the elements of the world and not Christ for its content; in holding fast to antiquated ordinances it lets slip the substance to grasp the shadow; it is, in spite of its humility, a manifestation of fleshly conceit, but devoid of real wisdom; and the things from which it commands abstinence are so insignificant that they perish in the act of use.


The external evidence for the Pauline authorship of the Epistle is as strong perhaps as we have any right to expect. It is first referred to by name in the Muratorian Canon and by Irenæus. It was probably used by Justin Martyr and Theophilus; and it is not unlikely that there are echoes of it in Barnabas, Clement of Rome and Ignatius. But these are quite insufficient to prove acquaintance with the Epistle, still less the Pauline authorship. It is more important that Marcion included it in his canon, but this again is not at all conclusive proof of the genuineness. The question has to be settled by the evidence drawn from the Epistle itself. On the ground of internal evidence many critics have decided against its authenticity. Mayerhoff (1838) was the first to reject it. The Tübingen school, including Hilgenfeld, treated it as a second century work. Ewald thought that Timothy wrote it after consultation with Paul. Holtzmann (1872), following a view indicated by Hitzig, recognised a Pauline nucleus, but regarded more than half of the Epistle as non-Pauline. Von Soden (1885) reduced considerably the range of interpolation in a series of articles on Holtzmann’s hypothesis, but has since recognised the whole Epistle as Pauline, with the exception of Colossians 1:16 b , Colossians 1:17 , which he thinks may be a gloss, since it disturbs the symmetry.

The authenticity has been impugned on various grounds: the language and style, the false teaching, the angelology, the Christology, the likeness to Ephesians. Enough has been said already of the false teaching and the angelology, so that it is needless to add anything here. The Epistle has a considerable number of words which are peculiar to itself, but on the whole not an exceptional number (34); and the contents of ch. 2 would have made even a larger proportion not at all strange. Greater difficulties are caused by the style. It is heavier and less impetuous than in Galatians, Corinthians and Romans. Several of the logical particles most common in Paul are almost absent. There are also strange collocations of words (of which Haupt gives a good list), many being combinations of two or three dependent genitives, accumulated synonyms, numerous compound words. But these features may be partially paralleled in the earlier letters; and where they cannot be we may rightly lay stress on the difference of Paul’s circumstances and the problems with which he had to deal. Letters written in the heat of conflict with Judaisers and impugners of his authority, written too when he was in full career as a missionary and had pressing on him the care of all the Churches, must in the nature of the case be very different from a letter written, not to fight for the very existence of the Gospel, but to warn a still loyal Church against a pernicious error, and written in enforced retirement, with ample time for meditation.

The Christology, it is true, presents an advance on what we find in the earlier Epistles. Not in the position it assigns to the Son as Creator, for that is found in 1 Corinthians 8:6 , but in that it speaks of Him also as the goal of the universe. Elsewhere it is God who is thus spoken of (1 Corinthians 8:6 , Romans 11:36 ). But this is less cogent than it appears at first sight. Paul teaches that all things have to become subject to the Son, that He may deliver the Kingdom to the Father (1 Corinthians 15:24-28 ). And it would be as warrantable to conclude that Romans and 1 Corinthians were by different authors, for in the passages already mentioned creation is said to have been effected, now through God (Romans 11:36 ), and now again through Christ (1 Corinthians 8:6 ). A doctrine of Christ quite as lofty is found in Philippians; and the conclusive refutation of the false teaching was just this setting of the Son in His true position. The doctrine of Christ’s work is expressed in a thoroughly Pauline way, which bears all the marks of authenticity. It is not a slavish imitation, but a fresh and luminous presentation. And yet it is in such perfect harmony with Paul’s own doctrine that it seems improbable that it can be due to another hand; and more than improbable when we remember that no other early Christian writer known to us, with the partial exception of the author of 1 Peter, has been able to reproduce the Pauline doctrine, any more than Penelope’s wooers could bend Odysseus’ bow. The only point under this head which raises suspicion is the extension of the reconciliation to God effected by Christ to the angelic powers. What has been already said on this need not be repeated here.

Lastly, its relation to Ephesians has aroused suspicion. The problem thus presented is unique in the N.T., and has elicited numerous solutions. It has been pressed against the authenticity of Ephesians more generally than of Colossians; though Mayerhoff thought that Ephesians was genuine and Colossians the copy. If one Epistle is copied from the other, suspicion is aroused only against the copy; and since, if this is the relation, Colossians is more likely than Ephesians to be the original, we should find in this fact a proof of the genuineness of the former. For if a later writer wrote a letter purporting to come from Paul, and used in it a letter that bore Paul’s name, there is a strong presumption that the latter would be of well-attested genuineness. But the problem is hardly so simple. Holtzmann, in a work described by Godet “as a masterpiece of exactness, patient labour and wisdom,” reached the conclusion that the Epistles exhibit the phenomenon of mutual indebtedness. Sometimes Ephesians seems to be the original, sometimes Colossians. Accordingly he formulated the theory that Paul wrote an Epistle to the Colossians, on the basis of which a later writer composed Ephesians. He then returned to the original Epistle and expanded it by free extracts from his own writing, adding also a polemic against Gnosticism. This theory was examined by Von Soden, who tested very carefully Holtzmann’s reconstruction of the original Epistle. He also pointed out that it was justifiable to eliminate only such passages as Paul could not have written. He rejected only Colossians 1:15-20 , Colossians 2:10 ; Colossians 2:15 ; Colossians 2:18 b . This was in 1885. A more exhaustive study of Paulinism has led him to accept the authenticity of the Epistle as a whole in his commentary (1891). Holtzmann’s theory is examined by Dr. Sanday and Dr. Robertson in the articles “Colossians” and “Ephesians” in Smith’s Dictionary of the Bible (2nd ed.), and to these discussions the reader may refer for fuller details. J. Weiss in a review of Abbott’s commentary has recently expressed himself in favour of a solution, not precisely in Holtzmann’s form, but on his lines ( Theol. Literaturzeitung , 29th Sept., 1900). It may be said here that it is hard to understand why a writer should give himself so much trouble. His purpose would have been served by one Epistle, a still larger “Ephesians,” in which what he inserted in Colossians should have found its home. Very few have accepted the theory in its entirety. Yet if Holtzmann’s observations are correct, only two theories seem to be tenable, one the theory he has himself proposed, the other that both Epistles are genuine. His own theory is far too complicated to be probable. The similarities occur often in different contexts, and express quite different ideas, yet each is natural in its place. This is difficult to account for in an imitator, who would be fettered by the document which he was using; but in a writer such as Paul, rich in ideas but unused to formal composition, such resemblance and yet such difference In letters written together was quite to be expected. No trace of the process has been left in the textual evidence, and this is a cogent argument against the theory. The only alternative, then, to Holtzmann’s view seems to be that both letters were written by Paul; and thus his investigation becomes the firm basis for quite another result than the author contemplated. We cannot in that case speak of mutual indebtedness; the phenomena that suggested this explanation are amply accounted for by the unity of authorship. It is noteworthy that Jülicher, who has no leaning to traditional opinions, thinks that the best solution of the problem is to be found in the acceptance of the authenticity of both Epistles ( Einl. i. d. N.T. , 1894, p. 97, but compare the more dubious tone of his article in the Enc. Bibl. , 1899). This view, it may be added, is confirmed by the close connexion of Colossians with Philemon, which, if genuine, all but guarantees the genuineness of Colossians; and that it is not authentic has been argued solely to dispose of its testimony to Colossians. We may therefore accept this Epistle with confidence as the work of Paul.


Since Paul was a prisoner when he wrote it, our only alternatives are Cæsarea and Rome. Meyer, Weiss, Haupt and others have argued for Cæsarea. What Weiss regards as decisive is that Paul speaks in Philemon of going to Colossæ on his release, whereas in Philippians, written from Rome, he says that he hopes to go into Macedonia. But this proves nothing, for Macedonia might have been taken on the way; and, besides, Paul’s plans might have changed in the interval. Haupt thinks that the genuineness of the letters can be maintained only on the assumption that they were written at Cæsarea, since letters so unlike Philippians cannot have been written so near to it as their composition at Rome would demand. He thinks their peculiar character is best explained by the fact that Paul in his confinement, unable to preach, was driven in upon himself, and thought out more fully than before the implication of his Gospel. The fruit of this we find in Colossians and Ephesians. This is of too speculative a character to bear any weight. On the other hand, it is certainly more probable that a runaway slave should have fled to Rome than to Cæsarea; for although Cæsarea was nearer for Onesimus than Rome, the latter was more accessible, and afforded a far safer concealment. Paul’s expectations of release were more natural at Rome than at Cæsarea. During the latter part of his imprisonment at Cæsarea he knew that he was going to Rome. It would be necessary then to place the letter in the earlier part. But it does not well suit this, for Paul had for a long time been anxious to see Rome, and it is most unlikely that he should think of going to Colossæ first. It would be very strange, further, if Paul wrote from Cæsarea, that he should be silent about Philip, whose guest he had been shortly before, and should leave us with the impression that he was unsympathetic. The general situation presupposed in the Epistle suits Rome better than Cæsarea.

This would be practically certain if these Epistles were written after Philippians, as Bleek, Lightfoot and several English scholars suppose. But the more usual view which makes Philippians the latest of the Imprisonment-Epistles seems to be preferable. The argument from theological affinities is most precarious; and Colossians, as well as Philippians, presents striking parallels with Romans. The theological system of Paul was formed before he wrote our earliest Epistle, yet how little Paulinism there is in Thessalonians, or even in 1 Corinthians. We have no right to expect the thoughts of Colossians to reappear in Philippians, a simple letter of thanks to a Church where the Colossian type of false doctrine had not appeared. Indeed, how much there is in Colossians that does not recur in Ephesians, and how much Ephesians adds to what we find in Colossians! Yet these were written practically together. Three years at least lay between Romans and the earliest time at which Philippians could have been written, and less than eighteen months between this time and the latest date that can be assigned to Colossians. Further, Paul seems in Philippians to express a more decided conviction as to the speedy settlement of his fate than in Philemon; and he looks forward to death as a not unlikely contingency. In Philippians Paul also speaks of sending away Timothy shortly, whereas he is with Paul in Colossians. If 2 Timothy 4:19 dates, as some scholars think, from this imprisonment, this would agree best with the priority of Colossians, for in Philippians Paul speaks of sending him away, in 2 Timothy we find him gone. This, however, is not very cogent. It seems best to adhere to the usual view and to date the Epistle during the early part of Paul’s Roman Imprisonment. The year to which we assign it depends on the general view we take as to the chronology of Paul’s life. We may perhaps place it in A.D. 59. [The article on “Chronology of the New Testament” by C. H. Turner in Hastings’ Dictionary of the Bible may be consulted.]


Of patristic commentaries those of Chrysostom ( Homilies ), Theodore of Mopsuestia and Theodoret may be mentioned. Of later commentaries earlier than the modern period Calvin and Bengel are perhaps the most important. The chief modern commentaries by foreign writers are those of De Wette, Meyer, Ewald, Hofmann, Klöpper, Franke (in Meyer), Oltramare, Von Soden ( Hand-Commentar ), Wohlenberg (Strack-Zoeckler) and Haupt (latest edition of Meyer). Among English commentaries those of Eadie, Alford, Ellicott, Lightfoot, Findlay (in the Pulpit Commentary ), Beet, Moule and Abbott ( International Critical Commentary ) may be mentioned. Klöpper is important for the discussion of theological questions, especially the angelology, but the style is very diffuse. Oltramare is very full and thorough, but at times eccentric. He is also quite ignorant of English work. Von Soden is valuable, and has frequently influenced Abbott. Much the best commentary on the Epistle is that of Haupt, which, though in Meyer, is an entirely new work. For close grappling with the thought of the Epistle it has no rival. It sometimes presses the argument from the connexion too far, and is perhaps sometimes too subtle; but these are very slight defects. We still need in English a commentary of this kind, to unravel the thought of this most difficult Epistle. Our most important works, those of Ellicott, Lightfoot and Abbott, are of special value from the philological standpoint. Lightfoot is very full on points of history, and contributes a valuable excursus on the Essenes. His discussions of special words are also full and luminous. He is less strong in exegesis and Biblical theology. Abbott is “mainly philological,” and as such most thankworthy, especially for the frequent testing of Lightfoot’s results. Findlay is also excellent and deserves to be much better known. Moule rests for the most part on Lightfoot, but is very scholarly and at times independent. Maclaren in the Expositor’s Bible exhibits the insight and felicity of exposition which characterise all his work. Moule’s Colossian Studies should also be mentioned.

For critical discussions the New Testament Introductions may be consulted, and especially Sanday’s very valuable article in Smith’s Dictionary of the Bible (2nd ed.). The most thorough critical discussion is Holtzmann’s Kritik der Epheser- und Kolosserbriefe (1872), on which Von Soden wrote a series of elaborate articles in the Jahrb. f. protestant. Theol. for 1885. For the theology of the Epistle the works on New Testament Theology and on Paulinism may be consulted. Everling’s Die paulinische Angelologie und Dämonologie is the best work on a subject of great importance for the correct understanding of the Epistle. Lueken’s Michael (1898) may also be mentioned. H. St. John Thackeray’s The Relation of St. Paul to Contemporary Jewish Thought , published since this commentary went to press, contains a useful chapter on angelology. G. C. Martin’s commentary in the Century Bible appeared too late to be used in any way.

NOTE. The text of the Epistle here printed is a critically revised text, and that on which the commentary is based. The abbreviations in the notes need no explanation. The commentary was finished in September, 1898; references to later literature have been sparingly introduced in proof. The author may be permitted to add that his chief concern has been to expound the thought, since it was desirable, in view of the limits assigned, to concentrate attention mainly on one side of exegesis, and in the English commentaries on the Epistle the philological side is already amply represented. It has therefore been necessary to assume much in the way of philological results in order to gain space for the elucidation of the thought.