1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Colossians, Epistle to the

COLOSSIANS, EPISTLE TO THE, the twelfth book of the New Testament, the authorship of which is ascribed to the Apostle Paul. Colossae, like the other Phrygian cities of Laodicea and Hierapolis, had not been visited by Paul, but owed its belief in Jesus Christ to Epaphras, a Colossian, who had been converted by Paul, perhaps in Ephesus, and had laboured not only in his native city but also in the adjacent portions of the Lycus valley,—a Christian in whom Paul reposed the greatest confidence as one competent to interpret the gospel of whose truth Paul was convinced (i. 7; iv. 12, 13). This Epaphras, like the majority of the Colossians, was a Gentile. It is probable, however, both from the letter itself and from the fact that Colossae was a trade centre, that Jews were there with their synagogues (cf. also Josephus, Ant. xii. 149). And it is further probable that some of the Gentiles, who afterwards became Christians, were either Jewish proselytes or adherents who paid reverence to the God of the Jews. At all events, the letter indicates a sensitiveness on the part of the Christians not only to oriental mysticism and theosophy (cf. Sir W. M. Ramsay, Cities and Bishoprics of Phrygia, and Church in the Roman Empire), but also to the Judaism of the Diaspora.

Our first definite knowledge of the Colossian Church dates from the presence of Epaphras in Rome in A.D. 62–64 (or A.D. 56–58), when Paul was a prisoner. He arrived with news, perhaps with a letter (J. R. Harris, Expositor, Dec. 1898, pp. 404 ff.), touching the state of religion in Colossae. Paul learns, to his joy, of their faith, hope and love; of the order and stability of their faith; and of their reception of Christ Jesus the Lord (i. 4, 8; ii. 5-7). He sees no sign of an attack upon him or his gospel. On the contrary, loyalty to him and sympathy with him in his sufferings are everywhere manifest (i. 9, 24; ii. 2; iv. 8); and the gospel of Christ is advancing here as elsewhere (i. 6). At the same time he detects a lack of cheerfulness and a lack of spiritual understanding in the Church. The joy of the gospel, expressing itself in songs and thanksgivings, is damped (iii. 15, 16), and, above all, the message of Christ does not dwell richly enough in them. Though the believers know the grace of God they are not filled with a knowledge of his will, so that their conduct is lacking in that strength and joy and perfection, that richness of the fulness of knowledge expected of those who had been made full in Christ (i. 6, 9-11, 28; ii. 2, 7, 10). The reason for this, Paul sees, is the influence of the claim made by certain teachers in Colossae that the Christians, in order to attain unto and be assured of full salvation, must supplement Paul’s message with their own fuller and more perfect wisdom, and must observe certain rites and practices (ii. 16, 21, 23) connected with the worship of angels (ii. 18, 23) and elementary spirits (ii. 8, 20).

The origin and the exact nature of this religious movement are alike uncertain. (1) If it represents a type of syncretism as definite as that known to have existed in the developed gnostic systems of the 2nd century, it is inconceivable that Paul should have passed it by as easily as he did. (2) As there is no reference to celibacy, communism and the worship of the sun, it is improbable that the movement is identical with that of the Essenes. (3) The phenomena might be explained solely on the basis of Judaism (von Soden, Peake). Certainly the asceticism and ritualism might so be interpreted, for there was among the Jews of the Dispersion an increasing tendency to asceticism, by way of protest against the excesses of the Gentiles. The reference in ii. 23 to severity of the body may have to do with fasting preparatory to seeing visions (cf. Apoc. Baruch, xxi. 1, ix. 2, v. 7). Even the worship of angels, not only as mediators of revelation and visions, but also as cosmical beings, is a well-known fact in late Judaism (Apoc. Bar. lv. 3; Ethiopic Enoch, lx. 11, lxi. 10; Col. ii. 8, 20; Gal. iv. 3). As for the word “philosophy” (ii. 8), it is not necessary to take it in the technical Greek sense when the usage of Philo and Josephus permits a looser meaning. Finally the references to circumcision, paradosis (ii. 8) and dogmata (ii. 20), directly suggest a Jewish origin. If we resort solely to Judaism for explanation, it must be a Judaism of the Diaspora type. (4) The difficulty with the last-mentioned position is that it under-estimates the speculative tendencies of the errorists and ignores the direct influence of oriental theosophy. It is quite true that Paul does not directly attack the speculative position, but rather indicates the practical dangers inherent therein (the denial of the supremacy of Christ and of full salvation through Him); he does not say that the errorists hold Christ to be a mere angel or an aeon, or that words like pleroma (borrowed perhaps from their own vocabulary) involve a rigorous dualism. Yet his characterization of the movement as an arbitrary religion (ii. 23), a philosophy which is empty deceit (ii. 8), according to elemental spirits and not according to Christ, and a higher knowledge due to a mind controlled by the flesh (ii. 18); his repeated emphasis on Christ, as supreme over all things, over men and angels, agent in creation as well as in redemption, in whom dwelt bodily the fulness of the Godhead; and his constant stress upon knowledge,—all these combine to reveal a speculation real and dangerous, even if naïve and regardless of consequences, and to suggest (with Jülicher and McGiffert) that in addition to Jewish influence there is also the direct influence of Oriental mysticism.

To meet the pressing need in Colossae, Paul writes a letter and entrusts it to Tychichus, who is on his way to Colossae with Onesimus, Philemon’s slave (iv. 7, 9). (On the relation of this letter to Ephesians and to the letter to be sent from Laodicea to Colossae, see Ephesians, Epistle to the.) His attitude is prophylactic, rather than polemic, for the “philosophy” has not as yet taken deep root. His purpose is to restore in the hearts of the readers the joy of the Spirit, by making them see that Christ fulfils every need, and that through faith in Him and love from faith, the advance is made unimpeded unto the perfect man. He will eliminate foreign accretions, that the gospel of Christ may stand forth in its native purity, and that Christ Himself may in all things have the pre-eminence.

The letter begins with a thanksgiving to God for the spiritual growth of the Colossians, and continues with a prayer for their fuller knowledge of the divine will, for a more perfect Christian life, and for a spirit of thanksgiving, seeing that it is God who guarantees their salvation in Christ (i. 1-14). It is Christ who is supreme, not angels, for He is the agent in creation; and it is solely on the basis of faith in Him, a faith expressing itself in love, that redemption is appropriated, and not on the basis of any further requirements such as ascetic practices and the worship of angels (i. 15-23). It is with a full message that Paul has been entrusted, the message of Christ, who alone can lead to all the riches of fulness of knowledge. And for this adequate knowledge the readers should be thankful (i. 23—ii. 7). Again he urges, that since redemption is in Christ alone, and that, too, full redemption and on the basis of faith alone, the demand for asceticism and meaningless ceremonies is folly, and moreover robs Christ, in whom dwells the divine fulness, of His rightful supremacy (ii. 8-23). And he exhorts them as members of the Body of Christ to manifest their faith in Christian love, particularly in their domestic relations and in their contact with non-Christians (iii. i-iv. 6). He closes by saying that Tychichus will give them the news. Greetings from all to all (iv. 7-18).

A letter like this, clear cut in its thought, teeming with ideas emanating from an unique religious experience, and admirably adjusted to known situations, bears on the face of it the marks of genuineness even without recourse to the unusually excellent external attestation. It is not strange that there is a growing consensus of opinion that Paul is the author. With the critical renaissance of the early part of the 19th century, doubts were raised as to the genuineness of the letter (e.g. by E. T. Mayerhoff, 1838). Quite apart from the difficulties created by the Tübingen theory, legitimate difficulties were found in the style of the letter, in the speculation of the errorists, and in the theology of the author. (1) As to style, it is replied that if there are peculiarities in Colossians, so also in the admittedly genuine letters, Romans, Corinthians, Galatians. Moreover, if Philippians is Pauline, so also the stylistically similar Colossians (cf. von Soden). (2) As to the speculation of the errorists, it is replied that it is explicable in the lifetime of Paul, that some of the elements of it may have their source in pre-Christian Jewish theories, and that recourse to the developed gnosticism of the 2nd century is unnecessary. (3) As to the Christology of the author, it is replied that it does not go beyond what we have already in Paul except in emphasis, which itself is occasioned by the circumstances. What is implicit in Corinthians is explicit in Colossians. H. J. Holtzmann (1872) subjected both Colossians and Ephesians to a rigorous examination, and found in Colossians at least a nucleus of Pauline material. H. von Soden (1885), with well-considered principles of criticism, made a similar examination and found a much larger nucleus, and later still, (1893), in his commentary, reduced the non-Pauline material to a negligible minimum. Harnack, Jülicher and McGiffert, however, agree with Lightfoot, Weiss, Zahn (and early tradition) in holding that the letter is wholly Pauline—a position which is proving more and more acceptable to contemporary scholarship.

Authorities.—In addition to the literature already mentioned, see the articles of Sanday on “Colossians” and Robertson on “Ephesians” in Smith’s Bible Dictionary (2nd ed., 1893), and the article of A. Jülicher on “Colossians and Ephesians” in the Encyclopaedia Biblica (1899); the Introductions of H. J. Holtzmann (1892), B. Weiss (1897), Th. Zahn (1900) and Jülicher (1906); the histories of the apostolic age by C. von Weizsäcker (1892), A. C. M’Giffert (1897) and O. Pfleiderer (Urchristentum, 1902); and the commentaries of J. B. Lightfoot (1875), H. von Soden (1893) T. K. Abbott (1897), E. Haupt (1902), Peake (1903) and P. Ewald (1905).  (J. E. F.)