Get the CD Now!

An Introduction to the New Testament



Occasion. Between the material world and the divine spirit the ancients felt that there must lie a great gulf almost impossible to bridge. Yet man must cross it if he was to realize his religious destiny and enter into communion with God. Some thinkers found a way through the doctrine of Aeons, intermediate qualities or even beings, probably derived from the Platonic "Ideas." These aeons were conceived as rising, tier above tier, toward God; and by communing with one after another one might, through reflection, asceticism, and self-discipline, rise from material things into full fellowship with the Divine. It was like climbing a vast spiritual ladder.

When such thinkers entered the Christian church, they of course brought much of their old philosophical thinking with them and fitted it to their new Christian faith and experience. To them Christ became at once one of these divine aeons—the greatest, perhaps, but still only one of many. Communion with him seemed perfectly natural to them. So their old philosophy and their new faith fitted together. Their communion with these aeons was stimulated, they believed, by ascetic practices—fasts, vigils, and the observance of set days.


This type of Christian thought and life had appeared at Colossae, one of the cities on the Lycus River in the Roman province of Asia. Christianity had probably reached Colossae and the near-by cities of Hierapolis and Laodicea as a result of Paul's work at Ephesus, when, as Acts says, everyone in Asia heard the Lord's message. Acts 19:10, 26. The leader of the Colossian church was Epaphras, and in his distress at the philosophic views of these Colossian brothers he sought out Paul in his prison at Rome and laid the situation before him. Col. 1:7, 8; 4:12, 13.

Not only did this system rob Christ of his supremacy in Christian experience; it also created within the church an esoteric group of Christians, claiming superiority over the rank and file of the brotherhood. It created classes within the fellowship and was at variance with the strong democratic strain that marked the early church. In the face of these difficulties Epaphras would very naturally seek out the man who had brought the Christian gospel to the province of Asia in the first place, and ask his counsel.

Contents. So to Rome, to those rented lodgings which Acts mentions and which the Philippians probably paid for, came Epaphras with his problem, 1:7,8. Paul deals with it in a letter written probably in A.D. 60 or 61. He begins with a paragraph of thanksgiving and prayer for them, going on to describe the place Christ has in the Christian experience. He sees in Christ the embodiment of the divine Wisdom, through which God had made the world and which was the


reflection of his nature.[1] Paul had realized the important fact that thought, feeling, conviction, and truth have only a very limited reality unless they are embodied in someone. In Jesus he saw the very Wisdom of God embodied in a human life. Christ was the sole head of the church and possessed all the divine fullness. Christians needed no other intermediaries, or mediators, to help them scale the heights and make their way into the presence of God, 1:3-23.

This idea of the reincarnation of Christ in them is the supreme mystery, the central inner secret, of Christianity. The Colossians were familiar with mystery religions, with their dying and rising savior heroes in whose life and experience the initiate, through initiatory rites and a sacred meal, was made to participate. Such faiths had their "mysteries"— not only their rites of initiation but their disclosures of secret spiritual truths. Here, then, is indeed such a "mystery" or secret—Christ within them, in their hearts, the promise of a future glorification.

There is nothing aristocratic or exclusive about this possession; it is the property of all. There are to be no classes in the church, no superior and inferior groups. The highest levels of Christian achievement are open to all. They must not be misled by specious arguments but live in vital union with Christ, rooted and built up in him, 1:24-2:7.

What these specious arguments were is indicated in the following paragraph. No one must be allowed to exploit them through philosophic pretensions. In

[1] Wisd. of Sol. 7:26; 9:9.


Christ all the fulness of God's nature lives embodied, and in union with him all believers will be filled with it too. He is the head of all their principalities and dominions, their intermediary aeons, and makes them all superfluous. They have been united with him in the rite of baptism, buried with him there to rise again to life with him. His death is the token of their forgiveness and the defeat of all these imaginary powers which were absorbing their attention, 2:8-15.

On the practical side, no one could call them to account for what they ate or drank or did about fixed days—external matters with no meaning or value for the spiritual life. Petty rules, such as "You must not handle," "You must not taste," "You must not touch," are mere human regulations, of no religious value. The Colossians must not let themselves be imposed upon by the conceit of philosophic pretensions and ascetic poses. These self-imposed devotions, self-humiliation, and self-mortification are really only a catering to the flesh they seem to deny, 2:16-23.

Having disposed of the ideas and practices of the Colossian errorists, 1:1-2:23, Paul proceeds with some practical admonitions. As they have died with Christ, they must fix their thoughts on things that arc above. They must treat their physical nature as dead, as far as evil is concerned. They have put on a new self. Old distinctions of Greek and Jew no longer matter, for Christ is in them all. They must clothe themselves with kindness, forbearance, and love. They must live their whole life as followers of the Lord Jesus, 3:1-17.


Special instructions are given to wives and husbands, children and fathers, slaves and masters. It has been suggested that these reflect existing household rules, but thus far no substantial evidence has been produced for the existence of such household rules in antiquity. The reappearance of these injunctions in Ephesians and I Peter is of course due to the direct literary influence of Colossians upon their writers, 3:18-4:1.

Tychicus is the bearer of the letter and with him travels the young Onesimus, a runaway slave, who is returning to his master Philemon. But a notable band of Paul's lieutenants is gathered about him at Rome; Aristarchus of Thessalonica—who had gone with him when he carried the poor fund back from the shores of the Aegean to Jerusalem—Mark, Jesus Justus, their own minister Epaphras, Luke the doctor, who had been with Paul on his voyage and shipwreck, Demas— all these are with Paul at Rome. The presence of such a significant group of his close friends with him possibly suggests that his affairs are nearing a crisis, when as many of his intimates as possible would naturally want to gather about him. Paul himself is clearly facing an examination or trial, when he must try to make the authorities understand his message and mission, 4:2-14.

Colossians closes with a reference to a "letter from Laodicea," which they are told to read. The Colossians are to share their letter with the church at Laodicea and to read the letter that is coming from there. They are also to give a message to Archippus,


who seems from the connection to belong to the Laodicean church and to have some special responsibility, 4:15-18.

What was this letter from Laodicea, and what has become of it? What was the special responsibility that belonged to Archippus, and why should the Colossians join in urging him to perform it? These are questions that Colossians does not answer, but on which important light is thrown by its companion letter, Philemon.

Problems. The problem of Colossians is its authenticity—its genuineness as actually a work of Paul himself. Some scholars have felt that the almost Gnostic character of the views that are opposed in the letter points to a time considerably later than Paul's day, while the doctrine of Christ that it presents in order to correct these views is out of keeping with the Christology that marks Galatians, Corinthians, and Romans. The letter is certainly unlike Paul's accepted letters in some ways, but it is a mistake to suppose that he always talked about the same things or talked in the same way. This unlikeness, so far as it exists in Colossians, is naturally explained by the novelty of the problem set before Paul by the situation at Colossae. This reflects the existence there of what may be considered an incipient form of that Gnosticism that ran riot in second-century Christianity. But it may just as well be viewed as a phase of Neo-Platonism, with its system of intermediary aeon-ideas. Indeed the Colossian error, as Paul considered it, may be thought of as standing midway between that older


philosophy and its later reflorescence in Christian Gnosticism.

But, further than this, the supposition that someone was imitating Paul and writing letters in his name implies that Paul was already well known as a writer of letters, and this would come about only through the collection and publication of his letters, which would lead people to think of him as a letter-writer and be prepared to respect a letter that bore his name. But he was not so regarded until long after his death, indeed until after the publication of Luke-Acts, which knows nothing about him as a letter-writer. This point has been neglected in the consideration of the authenticity of II Thessalonians, Colossians, and other 'terns in the Pauline literature, but it must be steadily borne in mind. No one would think of putting forth a letter of his own written under Paul's name unless he had somehow become accustomed to respect letters bearing Paul's name and to think of him as characteristically a writer of letters. But that would come about only through the collection and publication of his letters.

And Colossians, so far from being subsequent to the first collection and publication of Paul's letters, was a part of that first collection and was freely drawn upon by the writer of Ephesians, as we shall see, along with the other genuine letters of Paul, in writing his letter.[1] The possibility that Colossians was not written by Paul is reduced by this fact almost to the

[1] I Clem., chap. 46, cf. Lightfoot, Clement of Rome (2d ed., London, 1890). I, 397, II, 140.


vanishing-point. Paul's references in II Thessalonians to a possible letter purporting to be from him, 2:2 (cf. 3:17), do not mean that pseudo-Pauline letters are going about—only that he is determined not to be misquoted at Thessalonica on the point he is making. Paul's early fame in the church was as a missionary and preacher, as Acts plainly shows. It was not until some of his letters were collected for publication that people would begin to think of him as characteristically a writer of letters, and so it would occur to anyone to produce letters in his name.

Neither Philippians nor Colossians is explicit about where it was written; it is clear only that Paul is in prison. He was in prison often, however, as he states in II Cor. 11:23—he had known "far more imprisonments" than his rivals had experienced. Acts, however, records only one imprisonment of Paul up to the time when he wrote this part of II Corinthians—that at Philippi, Acts 16:22-40. Of course. Acts is not a biography of Paul and, if it has the apologetic interests that are often claimed for it, would bear lightly upon Paul's prison record. But some scholars maintain that Paul was imprisoned for a time in Ephesus and wrote some or all of the prison letters there.

It is true that Paul was, even according to Acts, the subject of a serious disturbance in Ephesus, 19:23-20:1. He also speaks in his final letter to the Corinthians, II Cor. 1:8-10, of the heartbreaking experiences of his last days in Ephesus; he had been utterly crushed, actually despaired of life, felt the end must be death, so deadly was the peril. In his second letter to


Corinth, I Cor. 15:32, written from Ephesus, he speaks of having fought wild animals at Ephesus. All these touches are interpreted by some as pointing to an imprisonment at Ephesus.

Moreover, Ephesus would be a much more convenient and natural place for the slave Onesimus to take refuge in, when he ran away from Laodicea, and for Epaphras of Colossae to journey to, to consult Paul, and for the Philippians to send Epaphroditus to, with their funds for Paul's defense and other needs.

Certainly Paul experienced more imprisonments than we know of, and one of these may very well have been in Ephesus, though his words in the first paragraph of II Corinthians more probably refer to his inward agony of mind over the hostility of the Corinthians. The fight with beasts at Ephesus certainly must be figurative, perhaps referring to his encounter with the mob, Acts 19:29-31.

It does not however follow that Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon were written from his Ephesian prison. As for the flight of Onesimus, he may just as well be thought of as wishing to get to Rome and see the world, and to get a safe distance away from his injured owner; to take refuge in Ephesus might have been easier for him, but it would not have been half so effective. I know a runaway German boy whose first stop was Australia, and an Edinburgh runaway of my acquaintance brought up on the Mississippi River; it is a mistake to judge runaways by the sober standards of us stay-at-homes.

Nor is it unlikely that Epaphras would be sufficiently


in earnest about consulting Paul to journey from Colossae to Rome. Paul had traveled from Antioch to Ephesus to preach the gospel there, and his converts were, many of them, his equals in zeal if not in power.

The vital question is in which of the two atmospheres each of these letters reads most appropriately. The references in Philippians to the imperial guard, 1:13, and to the emperor's household, 4:22, to the rival preachers, 1:14-18, to the representative character of Paul's case, 1:7, 30, and to the seriousness of his situation, 1:20-26; 2; 17, 18, rather favor Rome as the place of Paul's prison. Nor would there be anything like the need for Philippian aid if Paul was in prison in Ephesus, surrounded by his Ephesian friends;

to send Epaphroditus to him to wait on him at Ephesus would be gratuitous, to say the least. It is safe to say Philippians is not written from Ephesus.

As for Colossians and Philemon, Col. 1:24, 29; 2:1; 4:3, 4, seem to reflect a similar view of his trial as a test case, more appropriate in the Roman situation than at Ephesus. On the whole, the letters seem to fit better in Paul's final imprisonment at Rome than in a hypothetical one at Ephesus.

The researches of Weidinger into earlier lists of household rules (Haustafeln) have failed to disclose any serious literary parallels for Col. 3:18-4:1; the Wisdom of Phocylides (second century B.C.), to which he appeals, lacks precisely the balance—wives, husbands; children, fathers; slaves, masters—which is the distinctive feature of the Colossian passage (cf. Karl


Weidinger, Das Problem der urchristlichen Haustafeln [Leipzig, 1928]; Die Haustafeln .[Tübingen, 1928]).

As Dr. John Knox has suggested, the passage is probably best explained on the ground that the matter of the relations of masters and slaves has been raised in an acute form by the return of Onesimus to his master. Col. 4:9 (cf. Philemon, vss. 10, 16). The very meager and inadequate statement of the duties of wives and husbands and of children and parents is no more than a foil for the really acute matter of slaves and masters to which they lead up, and which is given twice as much attention as both of them together.

In his interesting and valuable Preface to Morals (1929), Mr. Walter Lippmann has expressed the opinion that no great ancient teacher of high religion ever thought of teaching the highest wisdom to everybody. But this is just what Paul expressly sought to do: "In spreading the news of him, we warn everyone and teach everyone all our wisdom, in order to bring everyone to Christian perfection," Col. 1:28. Paul could hardly have been more explicit or emphatic; everyone—everyone—all—everyone—perfection. But Mr. Lippmann says: "Yet no teacher has ever appeared in the world who was wise enough to know how to teach his wisdom to all mankind. In fact, the great teachers have attempted nothing so Utopian. They were quite well aware how difficult for most men is wisdom, and they have confessed frankly that the perfect life was for a select few. It is arguable, in


fact, that the very idea of teaching the highest wisdom to all men is the recent notion of a humanitarian and romantically democratic age, and that it is quite foreign to the thought of the greatest teachers" (Preface to Morals, p. 199). It is interesting to find Paul in Colossians emphatically teaching the very thing modern progressive thinkers have found out for themselves and consider new. So timely and modern is this central idea of Colossians.


Abbott, T. K. Epistles to the Ephesians and to the Colossians (New York, 1909).

Lightfoot, J. B. St. Paul's Epistles to the Colossians and Philemon (3d ed.; London, 1879).

The HTML for this chapter was crafted by Wally Williams.

Go to the Table of Contents for An Introduction to the New Testament

Please buy the CD to support the site, view it without ads, and get bonus stuff!

Early Christian Writings is copyright © Peter Kirby <E-Mail>.

Get the CD Now!

Kirby, Peter. "Historical Jesus Theories." Early Christian Writings. <>.