contiguous to

Epistle to the Colossians

The Epistle to the Colossians is a book of the Bible New Testament. Although its authorship is disputed, the book takes the form of a letter from Paul to the church in Colossae.


While traditionally attributed to Paul, disagreements exist among scholars because of issues such as language (48 words appear in Colossians that appear nowhere else in the Pauline corpus, 33 of these occur nowhere else in the N.T.), style (This letter has a strong use of liturgical-hyminic style which is used nowhere else in Paul's work as extensively), and the presence or absence of characteristic Pauline concepts. However, the differences between these elements in this letter and one commonly considered the genuine work of Paul (e.g. 1 Thessalonians) are explained by advocates of pauline authorship by human variability, and the apparent use of an amanuensis in composition. Paul's authorship is also confirmed by many of the church's early key figures such as Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Origen of Alexandria, and Eusebius, though most of these references are much later than Paul, and several of them have proved unreliable for other identifications. It has also been suggested that the epistle was co-authored by Paul's "apprentice," Timothy (Colossians 1:1). This might be one of the causes for so much controversy over authorship. For more details, see the article Authorship of the Pauline epistles.

“The earliest evidence for Pauline authorship, aside from the letter itself ... is from the mid to late 2d cent. (Marcionite canon; Irenaeus, Adv. Haer. 3.14.1; Muratorian canon). This traditional view stood unquestioned until 1838, when E. T. Mayerhoff denied the authenticity of Col [Colossians], claiming that it was full of non-Pauline ideas and dependent on Eph [Ephesians]. Thereafter others have found additional arguments against Pauline authorship.
“The theological areas usually singled out for comparison are christology, eschatology, and ecclesiology. The christology of Col is built on the traditional hymn in 1:15-20, according to which Christ is the image of the invisible God... These themes are developed throughout the letter, and other christological statements that have no parallel in the undisputed Pauline writings are added: that Christ is the mystery of God... that believers have been raised with Christ ... that Christ forgives sins... that Christ is victorious over the principalities and powers...

“The eschatology of Col is described as realized. There is a lessening of eschatological expectation in Col, whereas Paul expected the parousia in the near future (I Thes [Thessalonians] 4:15; 5:23; I Cor [Corinthians] 7:26)... The congregation has already been raised from the dead with Christ ... whereas in the undisputed letters resurrection is a future expectation... The difference in eschatological orientation between Col and the undisputed letters results in a different theology of baptism... Whereas in Rom [Romans] 6:1-4 baptism looks forward to the future, in Col baptism looks back to a completed salvation. In baptism believers have not only died with Christ but also been raised with him.” [TNJBC 1990 p. 876]

“All commentators recognize the peculiarities of style in this epistle. The features which help to cast doubt upon the authenticity of Ephesians are present here also, though less pronounced – the long and involved sentences; the concatenation of genitives; the measured liturgical cadences; the absence of the quick and eager dialectic. The characteristic differences will be perceived in a moment [!] by anyone who takes the trouble to read in Greek such a passage as I Cor. 2:6-16, and to compare it with the treatment of substantially the same theme in Col. 1:25-27. The nervous vigor of I Corinthians has entirely disappeared in a cumbrous, overweighted sentence in which it is hard to recognize the working of the same mind.” TIB 1955 XI p. 144

“The cumulative weight of the many differences from the undisputed Pauline epistles has persuaded most modern scholars that Paul did not write Col ... Those who defend the authenticity of the letter include Martin, Caird, Houlden, Cannon, and Moule. Some... describe the letter as Pauline but say that it was heavily interpolated or edited. Schweizer suggests that Col was jointly written by Paul and Timothy. The position taken here is that Col is Deutero-Pauline; it was composed after Paul’s lifetime, between AD 70 (Gnilka) and AD 80 (Lohse) by someone who knew the Pauline tradition. Lohse regards Col as the product of a Pauline school tradition, probably located in Ephesus.” [TNJBC 1990 p. 877]

“The epistles to the Colossians, to the Ephesians, and to Philemon form a little group of their own within the Pauline corpus. In this group Colossians holds the central position: it is linked to Philemon by the long series of personal references which are common to the two epistles; and to Ephesians by the remarkable parallelisms in language and in ruling ideas which are not represented, or at the most are barely shadowed forth, in the other epistles which are commonly ascribed to the apostle.

“There is unfortunately no general agreement among scholars touching the authenticity of these epistles. The Tübingen school ... took the position that all three were pseudonymous writings of the second century. Among the great critical scholars of the present century, on the other hand, a fair number ... have found themselves inclined to accept all three as genuine works of the apostle whose name they bear. It may be said, however, that the opinion now most prevalent among the few who are competent to judge of such matters is that Philemon and Colossians are from the hand of Paul, but that Ephesians is the work of a disciple of the second generation. ... Philemon, which is really unassailable in spite of the perverse attacks of the Tübingen critics, is the chief support of the authenticity of Colossians...

“Curiously enough, the authenticity of Philemon was assailed in some quarters during the fourth century; it is defended by Jerome, Chysostom, and Theodore of Mopsuestia, in terms which suggest that the attack came from theologians of the orthodox party, not from Arians. ... “The Pastorals [I and II Timothy, and Titus], once reckoned among the ‘imprisonment epistles,’ do not enter into any consideration of interrelationships among the Pauline letters, for they are no longer regarded as authentic. Even if it can be shown that they contain some genuine fragments of Paul’s writings...” TIB 1955 XI pp. 133-134

“An excellent review by William Sanday [1893] of the course of German criticism is still the best defense of the authenticity of the epistle available in English. Since the publication of Sanday’s article, the majority of New Testament scholars have accepted Colossians as authentic, whatever view they have taken of Ephesians. Nevertheless the verdict of scholarship is not unanimous, and the question must be regarded as open....

“Authentic or not, the substantial integrity of the epistle is almost beyond dispute; the various theories of interpolation have proved convincing to few but their own creators. It is impossible to imagine an editor capable of such ingenious dovetailing as Holzmann’s elaborate theory requires...

“It may be said that the center of interest has shifted from the work of Christ to the person of Christ. The doctrine of the saving, life-giving effects of his death and resurrection is still brought forward, but it is now subordinated to a doctrine of his place in relation to a system of transcendental reality; the soteriological interest is subordinated to the cosmological. For those who seek to defend the Pauline authorship of the epistle this particular difficulty is sufficiently met by the reflection that Paul is compelled to enter the field of cosmological speculation because the debate has been carried there by his opponents.” TIB 1955 XI p. 144-145


“Colossae was not an important city in itself. It was situated on the Lycus River, a tributary of the Meander, ten or twelve miles above the twin cities of Laodicea and Hierapolis and some hundred-odd miles from the famous city of Ephesus, the capital of the Roman province of Asia... It lay just within the western border of the ancient region of Phrygia...

“Paul himself had not visited the Lycus region; Colossae and its neighboring cities appear to have been evangelized by his colleague Epaphras.

“It is interesting to speculate that the famous Stoic teacher Epictetus may have met Epaphras or heard his preaching of the gospel in his native city of Hierapolis. When the Christian missionary first came into that region, Epictetus, a slave, was just coming into young manhood; and the gospel of freedom must have run like wildfire through the slave population of all these cities, and can hardly have failed to stir the blood and quicken the imagination, especially of the younger slaves. Though his fundamental doctrine is founded upon Stoic tenets, the writings of Epictetus show some remarkable coincidences in language with the epistles of the New Testament; and it is tempting to think that he had some personal acquaintance with the teaching of the Christians, which was certainly accessible to him in his formative period.

“... the thought of Colossians, especially in Christology, marks an advance far beyond anything that we find in the other Pauline letters, apart from Ephesians; foreshadowing indeed, as is recognized by critics of all schools, the Christology of the Epistle to the Hebrews and of the Johannine writings. Even if we grant that there are passing indication of this ‘cosmic’ Christology in some other epistles – though no one has been able to find it suggested except in I Cor. 8:6 – and that Paul was compelled to bring this always latent thought into the foreground in order to meet the specific problems of the Colossian heresy, it is still hard to imagine that once he had developed and elaborated his thinking along these lines it would again recede to the back of his mind, to leave no trace in such a masterwork as Romans. We have, therefore, a good deal of justification for feeling that this is the latest of the extant epistles.

“The assumption that Colossians and its companion letters were written from Rome was not seriously challenged until the nineteenth century, when it was attacked in 1829 by D. Schulz, who appears to have been the first to favor Caesarea. ... [But]... Theodor Zahn has pointed out [that] Paul had been entertained in the home of Philip the Evangelist in Caesarea not many months earlier, on his way to Jerusalem ... and it is scarcely conceivable that this tried and approved preacher of the gospel, the first man to break the barriers of Jewish exclusiveness by preaching the word in Samaria, should not be reckoned among the few who were ‘a comfort’ to Paul [Col. 4:11].

“The hypothesis that the ‘imprisonment epistles’ were written at Ephesus is a ‘novelty of twentieth-century criticism.’ It has little to commend it.

“There is, in short, no cogent reason for abandoning the traditional hypothesis that Colossians was written in Rome. Indeed, a demonstration, if it were possible, that the external circumstances envisaged in the letter are incompatible with a Roman origin, would at the same time end all hope of defending its authenticity..." TIB 1955 XI pp. 134-140

Occasion of writing

The letter is supposed (or intend) to be written by Paul at Rome during his first imprisonment there (Acts 28:16, 30), probably in the spring of AD 57, or, as some scholars think, 62, soon after he had written his Epistle to Ephesians. If the letter is not considered to be an authentic part of the Pauline corpus it might be dated during the late first century, possible as late as the 80's

Like some of his other epistles (e.g., those to Corinth), this seems to have been written in consequence of information which had been conveyed to him of the internal state of the church there by Epaphras(1:4-8). Its object was to counteract false teaching. A large part of it is directed against certain speculatists who attempted to combine the doctrines of Eastern mysticism and asceticism with Christianity, thereby promising believers enjoyment of a higher spiritual life and a deeper insight into the world of spirits. Paul argues against such teaching, showing that in Christ they had all things. He sets forth the majesty of his redemption. The mention of the "new moon" and "Sabbath days" (2:16) shows that Gnostic ascetics were judging the body of Christ for "eating and drinking" and observing the "feasts, New Moons, and Sabbaths." In response, Paul commands the saints to "let no one judge you...but the body of Christ," i.e. the Church itself, which was observing these biblical holy days (Matt. 5:17-19; Rom. 3:31). Paul focuses much of his epistle to the Colossians in combating the teachings of the early Gnostic sects, particularly ascetics (see Col. 2:4-23).

“The whole discussion is relevant only if the Pauline authorship of the epistle is admitted. If Paul did not write it, we shall of course have to date it some years after his death; and it will then be conjectured that it originated in Pauline circles in Asia, possibly in one of the cities of the Lycus Valley, where the type of teaching represented by the ‘Colossian heresy’ was first perceived to be a really dangerous threat to the sound doctrine of the gospel.

“The system of religious teaching which is combated in Colossians is usually called a ‘heresy,’ but this is not altogether a proper description. At this period the word could be used only by a kind of prolepsis, for until something in the way of formal standards of orthodoxy have been established, there is no basis for defining any particular variety of teaching as heretical. Even the great Gnostic schools of the second century are called heretical only in relation to the standards of orthodoxy which were established in the very effort to discredit them. In the apostolic age no such standards existed; Christianity was characterized by an extraordinary freedom of spirit and variety of activity and thought; and as new interpretations of the gospel were offered by different teachers, they had to be judged on their merits, not dismissed out of hand as ‘heretical.’

“The teaching was described by its proponents as a ‘philosophy’; Paul suggests that it would be better styled ‘vain deceit’... They made appeal in some sense to ‘tradition’ – probably claiming for their system the support of a secret tradition handed down from remote antiquity, giving it the glamour of an immemorial wisdom stemming from some ancient seer. The system itself seems to have rested upon a doctrine of angelic beings, called the elemental sprits of the universe’... who were to be worshiped... These spirits were held to be organized in a celestial hierarchy, with titles to denote their several ranks – ‘thrones... dominions... principalities ... authorities’... They are taken to have important functions as mediators between man and the highest divinity, which is, as it were, unfolded in them; in their totality they constitute the pleroma (‘fullness’...) – the full complement of divine activities and attributes. They offer men redemption, but in some sense not compatible with the Christian gospel – neither consisting in the forgiveness of sins.... nor mediated through Christ in his passion and resurrection.

“On the practical side this transcendental doctrine issued in an artificial asceticism, coupled with the bondage of a Pharisaic legalism. Here we meet with traces of Jewish influence. The leaders of the new cult judged men ‘in respect of eating and drinking, and in the matter of festival, new moon, and sabbath’... It imposed dietary obligations which went beyond the requirements of the Jewish code, since they applied not only to food but to drink; and it prescribed ritual observance of the sacred seasons of the Jewish calendar. Further it had codified some of its legal requirements in a set of taboos... which again go far beyond any of the prohibitions of the Jewish law...

“The place of the individual in the cosmos, rather than the place of the person in the social order, was the fundamental problem of the contemporary [mystery cult] schools. The explanation of this emphasis lies in the fact that the meteoric career of Alexander the Great had destroyed all the old focuses of social order – the city-states of the Greek world and the empire-states of the ancient Orient alike – and nothing had yet been devised to replace them. With this disintegration of ancient society the old gods, the divine guardians of the historic communities, fell from their place of reverence and esteem which derived from the society in which they were worshiped... In the philosophical schools the same tendencies led inevitably to a nature pantheism, with the feeling that the cosmos was instinct with divinity and that this same divine principle was likewise latent in the individual human soul

“But the individual, thinking of himself as an individual in the cosmos, with no significant relation other than that which he bears to the cosmos, is a lonely figure... A few strong souls made the vain attempt to satisfy themselves with the resources of philosophy – to learn the Stoic autarkei (‘self-sufficiency’) or the Epicurean ataraxia (impassivity’); just as the ideal Buddhist sage ‘wanders lonely as a rhinoceros.’ But though these philosophies have elements of nobility, they are ultimately the outcome of an effort to seek in the mind itself a refuge from deep-seated despair. They brought men neither joy nor hope, but only a certain power to endure... They sought and welcomed a doctrine which brought divinity near to them in a more accessible form than in the vast unity of the cosmos; and this they found in the various ‘Gnostic’ schools which flourished all through this period. In them the physical speculations of philosophy were interwoven in an incredibly complex amalgam with odds and ends of cult practices borrowed without discrimination from many sources, compounded with large elements of magic and astrology; and the whole fabric was commended by the pretense of a secret tradition going back to immemorial antiquity. For the ‘knowledge’ of which the gnostic boasted was invariably a revealed knowledge; not the accumulated results of observation and reflection upon the data of experience, but a revealed doctrine of God, man, and the world, and of the means by which man is to achieve his destiny or – more accurately – to realize his potentialities.

“It might seem that all this sort of thing would have little appeal for Jews, who possessed in their scriptures and in their national tradition a knowledge of the living God and a conception of his rule over the world, beside which all these Hellenistic myths and speculations would seem but feeble and distorted reflections of divine truth. But in fact we know that even in Palestine, Judaism was not immune to this Hellenistic syncretism; and in the Diaspora, less restrained by the conservative power of the temple cult, by the constant discipline exercised by official classes, and by the jealous watchfulness of scribes and Pharisees, it found itself powerfully moved by these trends. On the philosophical side we see the Old Testament and the whole system of observances of Judaism reinterpreted in terms of Platonism by such men as Philo of Alexandria; all over the Roman Empire there were to be found Jews addicted to the practice of magic (Acts 13:6; 19:13ff); and in several of the mystery cults – notably that of Sabazios, who was identified with Yahweh-Sabaoth, ‘the Lord of Hosts’ – there are clear evidences of Jewish influence, with a reciprocal influence of the mysteries upon Jewish circles. Now it happens that in Phrygia there were thousands of Jews; their settlement in the area contiguous to Colossae dates from at least as early as the second century B.C. Moreover, this colony was transported there in the first instance from Mesopotamia, where its ancestors had been in touch with Iranian religion for centuries and could hardly have maintained their Judaism unimpaired; in fact, they could never have been directly subjected to the rigorous Judaism of the second temple at all. Such a group would be particularly amenable to the prevailing syncretism of Hellenistic times, and we can hardly go wrong in attributing to them at least a share in the peculiar Judeo-pagan fusion which threatened to seduce the converts of Epaphras at Colossae

“The doctrine of ‘elemental spirits’ (2:8, στοιχεια [stoikheia])... has a double background in philosophy and astrology. In the language of the Ionian hylozoists and the early physical philosophers in general, stoicheia was used of the ultimate components of matter, in the sense in which modern chemistry speaks of ‘elements.’... The word maintained itself in this sense throughout the history of Greek philosophy and is one of the technical terms of the post-Aristotelian schools, particularly of the Stoics and the neo-Pythagoreans. The type of teaching which was in evidence at Colossae is several stages removed form the great systems of the Hellenistic masters, and stands on a far lower level of thought, but it is a product of the same mental climate....

“In astrology stoicheia was used of the heavenly bodies; and these were taken to be the abodes, or more literally the bodies, of celestial spirits as the human frame is the body which clothes the human spirit...

“The worship of these spirits (2:18) suggests the intermingling of a third strand in the conception of their nature – that is, their identification with the Amesha Spentas (“Immortal Beneficent Ones”) of Iranian religion, who are hypostatizations of the attributes of the supreme deity Ormazd. In the long interpenetration of Iranian and Babylonia cultures the Amesha Spentas came to be identified with the great astral deities of the Semites, as the masters of events and of individual destiny. It should be kept in mind that the whole doctrine of angels in later Judaism, at least as regards the conception of an angelic hierarchy with defined classes and categories, each with its proper sphere and functions, also stems from the Iranian religion.

“The teaching of the epistle is governed by the necessity of exposing the errors and weaknesses of the so-called philosophy ... which threatened to make inroads on the ranks of the Colossian Christians... the apostle is compelled in his counterattack to bring out the implications of the gospel in respect of the person of Christ in such wise as to show that Christ alone embraces in himself all the functions that are falsely ascribed to these lesser beings, and that he freely bestows all the blessings of redemption which men vainly seek to win through cultic rites and by ascetic observances. The depth and power of the thought will begin to appear only as we study the epistle itself, verse by verse and almost word by word; for ‘every sentence is instinct with life and meaning’ (Lightfoot) and does not yield its treasures to a cursory glance.” TIB 1955 XI pp. 134-140

Content of the letter

Like most of Paul's epistles, this consists of two parts: a doctrinal part and a practical part.

The doctrinal part comprises the first two chapters. His main theme is developed in chapter 2. He warns them against being drawn away from Him in whom dwelt all the fullness of the deity (2:9), and who was the head of all spiritual powers. Christ was the head of the body of which they were members; and if they were truly united to him, what needed they more?

Paul could see that they had grown spiritually because of their love for all the set-apart ones in Christ (1:4 & 8). He knowing this wanted them to grow in wisdom and knowledge that their love might be principled love and not sentimentality (1:9-11). "Christ in you is your hope of glory!" (1:27)

The practical part of the epistle (3-4) enforces various duties naturally flowing from the doctrines expounded. They are exhorted to mind things that are above (3:1-4), to mortify every evil principle of their nature, and to put on the new man (3:5-14). Many special duties of the Christian life are also insisted upon as the fitting evidence of the Christian character.

Tychicus was the bearer of the letter, as he was also of that to the Ephesians and to Philemon, and he would tell them of the state of the apostle (4:7-9). After friendly greetings (10-14), he bids them interchange this letter with that he had sent to the neighbouring Laodicean Church. (The apocryphal Epistle to the Laodiceans is almost universally believed to be a forgery based on this instruction.) He then closes this brief but striking epistle with his usual autograph salutation. There is a remarkable resemblance between this epistle and that to the Ephesians.



  • N.T. Wright, Colossians and Philemon, Tyndale IVP 1986 (ISBN 0-8028-0309-1)
  • (Karissa), "The World we cannot see"
  • TIB = The Interpreter’s Bible, The Holy Scriptures in the King James and Revised Standard versions with general articles and introduction, exegesis, [and] exposition for each book of the Bible in twelve volumes, George Arthur Buttrick, Commentary Editor, Walter Russell Bowie, Associate Editor of Exposition, Paul Scherer, Associate Editor of Exposition, John Knox Associate Editor of New Testament Introduction and Exegesis, Samuel Terrien, Associate Editor of Old Testament Introduction and Exegesis, Nolan B. Harmon Editor, Abingdon Press, copyright 1955 by Pierce and Washabaugh, set up printed, and bound by the Parthenon Press, at Nashville, Tennessee, Volume XI, Philippians, Colossians [Introduction and Exegesis by Francis W. Beare, Exposition by G. Preston MacLeod], Thessalonians, Pastoral Epistles [The Fist and Second Epistles to Timothy, and the Epistle to Titus] , Philemon, Hebrews
  • TNJBC = The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, Edited by Raymond E. Brown, S.S., Union Theological Seminary, New York; NY, Maurya P. Horgan [Colossians]; Roland E. Murphy, O. Carm. (emeritus) The Divinity School, Duke University, Durham, NC, with a foreword by His Eminence Carlo Maria Cardinal Martini, S.J.; Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1990
  • A.C.= The New Testament of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. The text carefully printed from the most correct copies of the present Authorized Version. Including the marginal readings and parallel texts. With a Commentary and Critical Notes. Designed as a help to a better understanding of the sacred writings. By Adam Clarke, LL.D. F.S.A. M.R.I.A. With a complete alphabetical index. Royal Octavo Stereotype Edition. Vol. II. [Vol. VI together with the O.T.] New York, Published by J. Emory and B. Waugh, for the Methodist Episcopal Church, at the conference office, 13 Crosby-Street. J. Collord, Printer. 1831.

External links

Online translations of the Epistle to the Colossians:

Related articles:

Search another word or see contiguous toon Dictionary | Thesaurus |Spanish
Copyright © 2014, LLC. All rights reserved.
  • Please Login or Sign Up to use the Recent Searches feature