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Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible

Colossians, Epistle to the

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1. Authenticity . This Epistle is one of the ten Epistles of St. Paul included in Marcion’s collection (a.d. 140). It appears to have been accepted without question as genuine both by Churchmen and by heretics, and is referred to by the Muratorian Fragment, by Irenæus, and by Clement of Alexandria. Its authenticity remained undisputed till the early part of last century, and was then contested only on internal grounds of style and subject-matter.

As to the first objection, the Epistle is marked, to a greater degree than St. Paul’s earlier writings, by ‘a certain ruggedness of expression, a want of finish that borders on obscurity.’ The vocabulary also differs in some respects from that of the earlier writings, but this is amply accounted for by the difference of subject. As a matter of fact, the resemblances in style to St. Paul’s other writings are as marked as the differences; and in any case arguments from style in disproof of authenticity are very unreliable. The later plays of Shakespeare, as compared with those of his middle period, show just the same condensation of thought and want of fluency and finish.

The argument from subject-matter is more important. The Epistle was regarded by earlier German critics as presupposing a fully developed system of Gnostic teaching, such as belongs to the middle of the 2nd cent., and a correspondingly developed Christology. But a more careful study of the Epistle has shown that what St. Paul has in view is not a system of teaching, but rather a tendency. Words like plçrôma , to which later Gnosticism gave a technical sense, are used in this Epistle with their usual non-technical signification. And our study of early Christian and Jewish thought has shown that Gnostic tendencies date from a much earlier time than the great Gnostic teachers of the 2nd cent., and are, indeed, older than Christianity. The Christology of the Epistle certainly shows an advance on that of St. Paul’s earlier Epistles, especially in the emphasis laid on the cosmical activity of the pre-incarnate Christ. This may be accounted for in part by the special purpose of the Epistle (see below), and in part by a development in St. Paul’s own Christological ideas. It is irrational to deny the authenticity of an Epistle claiming to be St. Paul’s, merely because it shows that the mind of the Apostle had not remained stagnant during a period of imprisonment that must have given him special opportunities for thought. (See Ephesians.)

Many German critics, such as Harnack and Jülicher, are now in agreement with the leading British scholars in accepting the Epistle as St. Paul’s. The authenticity of the Epistle is sustained by its close relation to the Epistle to Philemon, the Pauline authorship of which is hardly seriously disputed. (On the relation of our Epistle to the Epistle to the Ephesians see Ephesians.)

2. Integrity and Text . The integrity of the Epistle is now generally admitted, though certain obscurities in the text have given rise to some conjectural emendations. Holtzmann attempted to prove that this Epistle and the Epistle to the Ephesians are recensions of one original Epistle of St. Paul’s, which he tried to reconstruct by extracting a Pauline nucleus of about forty verses; but his conclusions have not been accepted by later scholars. More recently, von Soden has proposed the rejection of about nine verses, but not on any adequate grounds. It would have been no easy task to interpolate a genuine Epistle of St. Paul’s, jealously guarded as it would have been by the Church to which it was sent.

3. Time and Place of Writing . The Epistle to the Colossians belongs to the group of four Epistles written by St. Paul in captivity ( Colossians 4:3 ; Colossians 4:18 ). Of this group three the Epistles to ‘the Ephesians,’ to the Colossians, and to Philemon were written at the same time and sent by the same messenger, Tychicus. The remaining Epistle of the group that to the Philippians was almost certainly written from Rome towards the end of St. Paul’s two years’ imprisonment there. The other three Epistles were most probably written from Rome, though some critics have dated them from the period of St. Paul’s imprisonment at Cæsarea.

4. Occasion and Purpose . Most of St. Paul’s Epistles were written under some definite external stimulus. In the case of this Epistle two events seem to have led to its composition. (1) Epaphras, who had been the first evangelist of the Colossians, and who seems to have held at Colossæ a position somewhat similar to that which Timothy is represented in the Pastoral Epistles as holding in Ephesus, had come to Rome bringing information as to the special needs and dangers of the Colossian Church. As he elected to remain at Rome, and apparently shared for a time the Apostle’s imprisonment ( Philippians 1:23 ), Tychicus was sent to Asia, taking with him this letter. (2) Onesimus, a runaway slave from Colossæ, had found his way to Rome and had there come under the influence of St. Paul. The Apostle took advantage of Tychicus’ journey to send Onesimus back to his master at Colossæ, with a letter of commendation (see Philemon).

The special purpose of the Epistle, as distinct from its general purpose as a message of goodwill, was to warn the Colossian Christians against a danger of which Epaphras had no doubt informed St. Paul. The exact nature of the so-called Colossian heresy is a matter of some uncertainty. On its doctrinal side it was probably a blend of Jewish Kabbalistic ideas with floating Oriental speculations. It appears to have denied the direct agency of God in the work of creation, and to have inculcated the worship of angels and other mysterious powers of the unseen world (Colossians 2:18 ). On its practical side it combined rigorous asceticism ( Colossians 2:23 ) and strict observance of Jewish ceremonial ( Colossians 2:18 ) with an arrogant claim to special enlightenment in spiritual things ( Colossians 2:18 ). Its special danger lay in the fact that it tended to obscure, or even to deny, the unique grandeur of the ascended Lord, the one Mediator, through faith in whom the life of the Christian was lifted into the new atmosphere of liberty. On one side, therefore, this Epistle may be compared with He I, where the supremacy of the Son over all angels is strongly insisted on, while on the other side it takes up the line of thought of the Epistle to the Galatians the relation of the Christian life to external ordinances. The way in which St. Paul deals with the question can best be seen by a short summary of the Epistle.

5. Summary . After the usual salutation, thanksgiving, and prayer, in which St. Paul associates Timothy with himself (perhaps because he was known personally to the Colossian Church), he plunges at once into a doctrinal statement ( Colossians 1:13 to Colossians 2:3 ) of the Person and Work of Christ, who is the image of the invisible God, the origin and goal of all created things, in whom all the fulness ( plçrôma ) of the Godhead abides. After a personal reference to his own commission and to his sufferings for the Church, he passes to the directly controversial part of the Epistle ( Colossians 2:4 to Colossians 3:4 ), warning the Colossians against being led astray by strange philosophies. The fulness of the Godhead is in Christ; He is over all principalities and powers; the life of externally imposed ordinances ‘Touch not, taste not, handle not’ is a life to which the Christian has died in Christ. He has risen to a new life whose centre and secret are in heaven. He must still mortify the deeds of the flesh, but from a new motive and in the power of a new life. The third section of the Epistle ( Colossians 3:5 to Colossians 4:6 ) applies this principle to various relations of life the mutual relation of Christians, husbands and wives, children and fathers, slaves and masters; and lastly, to the relation of St. Paul to them, and to their relation with the world. The closing section ( Colossians 4:7-18 ) deals with personal matters with the mission of Tychicus, with whom St. Paul tactfully associates Onesimus; with St. Mark’s proposed visit, in connexion with which St. Paul writes a word of special commendation, showing how completely the former discord has been healed. Then follow a warm commendation of Tychicus, greetings from Luke and Demas, instructions for exchanging letters with the neighbouring Church of Laodicea, and a final message for Archippus, who had apparently succeeded, in Epaphras’ absence, to the supervision of the Colossian Church.

J. Howard B. Masterman.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Colossians, Epistle to the'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. 1909.

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Wednesday, June 3rd, 2020
the Week of Proper 4 / Ordinary 9
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