Colosse was a small, relatively unimportant city in Roman times (a ‘small town’ according to the contemporary writer, Strabo) although it had a thriving wool industry in the fifth and fourth centuries bc. It was situated in the Lycus valley about 100 miles (160 km) east of Ephesus and, together with Laodicea and Hierapolis, belonged to the Roman province of Asia.
The Christian community at Colosse came into existence during a period of vigorous evangelism, linked with Paul’s ministry at Ephesus (ad 52–55), recorded in Acts 19. Paul was helped by several co-workers who planted a number of churches in the province of Asia. Among these were the congregations of Colosse, Laodicea and Hierapolis, which were the fruit of Epaphras’s evangelistic efforts (1:7; 4:12–13). Epaphras, a native of Colosse (4:12), who may have become a Christian during a visit to Ephesus, was ‘a faithful minister of Christ’ and as Paul’s representative (1:7) he had taught the Colossians the truth of the gospel.
Paul often refers to the non-Christian past of the readers which suggests that most of them were Gentile converts. They had once been utterly out of harmony with God, enmeshed in idolatry and slavery to sin, being hostile to God in mind and godless in their actions (1:21; cf. vs 12, 27). They had been dead because of their sins and ‘the uncircumcision of … [their] flesh’—a statement which indicates they were both heathen and godless (2:13).
God, however, had effected a mighty change in their lives: he had reconciled them to himself in an earth-shattering event, namely, Christ’s physical death on the cross (1:22). He had delivered them from a tyranny of darkness and transferred them into a kingdom ruled by his beloved Son (1:13). They now possessed redemption and the forgiveness of sins (1:14; 2:13; 3:13).
The Colossians had a hope so secure that it was stored up for them in heaven (1:5; cf. v 23) where Christ was seated and where their thoughts and hopes were to be focused (3:1–4; cf. 1:27). As Gentiles who had previously been without God and without hope they had been united to Christ in his death, burial and resurrection (2:11–12, 20; 3:1, 3). He was the same person praised as the exalted Lord of creation and reconciliation in the magnificent hymn of 1:15–20, and God’s anointed one who was at the centre of the mystery (1:27). As members of his body they had his life within them and could look forward to the day when they would share in the fulness of his glory (3:4).
Because the congregation had received Christ Jesus the Lord (2:6) when they accepted the gospel at the hands of Epaphras, they were to conduct their lives as those who had been united to Christ in his death and resurrection. As they lived under his lordship they were to be full of thanksgiving, grateful to God because of his mighty actions on their behalf (2:7; 3:15–17; 4:2; cf. 1:3, 12).
The picture is therefore drawn of a Christian congregation obedient to the apostolic gospel and for which the apostle could give heartfelt thanks to God (1:4–6). He knew of their ‘love in the Spirit’ (1:8) and was delighted to learn of their orderly Christian lives and the stability of their faith in Christ (2:5).
The letter makes clear that the apostle Paul is the writer, not only in the opening greeting (1:1), but also in the body of the letter (1:23) and at its conclusion (4:18). The character of Paul, as we know it from other letters, shines throughout this one. There was no dispute over the authenticity of Colossians in the early period. The letter is included in the earliest known canonical list of the NT books (early second century ad) compiled by Marcion, as well as in the Muratorian canon (late second or early third century). However, the Pauline authorship has been challenged on a number of occasions in the last 150 years. The arguments concern the language and style of the letter, and the supposed differences between Colossians and the theology of the main Pauline letters.
As to the language and style, many expressions are special to Paul while the differences can be explained by the particular situation which prompted the letter. Unusual terms, for example, appear as catchwords of the Colossian ‘philosophy’ or as part of the author’s answers to their special problem.
The supposed theological differences between Colossians and the generally accepted Pauline letters are in the areas of Christology (the person and work of Christ), ecclesiology (the nature of the church), eschatology (teaching about the end times) and tradition. There are differences of emphasis: for example, the stress is upon realized rather than future eschatology (on the blessings already experienced through the Spirit rather than the end times—though the latter is present, e.g. at 3:4). These differences are best interpreted as being called forth by the circumstances at Colosse (see the comments on 2:11–12; 3:1–3). The so-called ‘theological developments’ are in line with the apostle’s earlier teaching and are no reason for rejecting the apostolic authorship of the letter. The close connection between Colossians and Philemon, especially the number of people associated with Paul being mentioned in both letters (4:7–17; cf. Phm. 2:23–24) and the particular mention of Onesimus as ‘one of you’ (4:9), suggests both letters were written at the same time. There is no reason to doubt that the author of the letter was Paul.
Epaphras had paid Paul a visit in Rome (see below) and informed him of the state of the churches in the Lycus valley. While much of the report was encouraging (1:8; 2:5), one disquieting feature was an attractive, but false, teaching that had recently been introduced into the congregation and which, if it went unchecked, would overturn the gospel and bring the Colossians into spiritual bondage. Paul’s letter was written as a response to this urgent need.
The threat to faith and the ‘Colossian heresy’
Nowhere in the letter does the apostle define the ‘heresy’; its chief features can be detected only by piecing together and interpreting his positive counter-arguments. Recently several scholars have questioned whether these counter-arguments point to the existence of a ‘Colossian heresy’ at all. They prefer to speak in terms of ‘tendencies’ rather than a clear-cut system with definite points, and suggest that the young converts were under external pressure to conform to the beliefs and practices of their Jewish and pagan neighbours. But in the light of 2:8–23, with its references to ‘fulness’, specific instructions about self-discipline (‘Do not handle!’ etc. v 21), regulations about food and holy days, unusual phrases which seem to be catchwords of Paul’s opponents and the strong emphasis on what Christ has already achieved by his death and resurrection, it seems appropriate to speak of a ‘heresy’ which had just begun to make some inroads into the congregation.
The teaching was set forth as ‘philosophy’ (2:8), based on ‘tradition’ (an expression that denotes its antiquity, dignity and revelation) which was supposed to impart true knowledge (2:18, 23). Paul seems to be quoting slogans of the opponents in his attack on the teaching at: 2:9, ‘all the fulness’; 2:18, delighting in ‘false humility and the worship of angels’; 2:21, ‘Don’t handle!’ etc.; and 2:23, ‘self-imposed worship’, ‘humility’ and ‘harsh treatment of the body’. Further, observation of these taboos in the ‘philosophy’ was related to obedient submission to ‘the basic principles of the world’ (rsv ‘elemental spirits’) (2:20). How are these unusual features to be understood?
Scholars do not agree completely about the nature of the teaching. Basically, the heresy seems to have been Jewish, because of the references to food regulations, the Sabbath and other rules of the Jewish calendar. Circumcision is mentioned (2:11) but did not appear as one of the legal requirements. But what kind of Judaism? It does not seem to have been the more straightforward kind against which the Galatian churches had to be warned, but was one in which self-discipline and mysticism featured and where angels, principalities and powers played a prominent role in creation and the giving of the law. They were regarded as controlling the lines of communication between God and humankind, and so needed to be placated by keeping strict legal observances.
A number of important suggestions have been made as to the nature of the Colossian ‘philosophy’. These include a pagan mystery cult (M. Dibelius) and a combination of pagan elements and a gnosticized form of Judaism, i.e. one based on special ‘inside knowledge’ (G. Bornkamm). (The ‘worship of angels’ [2:18] has been regarded as a pagan element in the false teaching, but should be understood as ‘the angelic worship [of God]’; see the Commentary.) Other theories include ‘Sectarian Judaism of a gnostic kind (Lightfoot) and a set of beliefs combining a number of Jewish features (S. Lyonnet). Recent scholarship, however, considers that the false teaching, which advanced beyond Epaphras’s elementary gospel, was connected with ascetic and mystical forms of Jewish piety (as found, e.g. at Qumran). It was for a spiritual elite who were being urged to press on in wisdom and knowledge so as to attain true ‘fulness’. ‘Humility’ (2:18, 23) was a term used by the opponents to denote self-denying practices that opened the believer to visions of heavenly mysteries and mystical experiences. The ‘mature’ were thus able to gain entrance into heaven and join in the ‘angelic worship of God’ as part of their present experience (2:18).
In a similar way today men and women sometimes believe that if they order their lives by a series of set rules and regulations, then God will be pleased with the service they render and proper claims may then be made upon him. These rules and ordinances may turn up in different areas of life—in the social, moral, political and religious spheres. A sense of achievement or even joy is felt when the rules are kept, while feelings of failure or shame are experienced if the required standards are not met. But the whole effort is self-centred, focusing on human merit. Even believers can lapse into legalism, thinking that it would be right to repay God, if only in a small way, for the gift of salvation he has provided in his Son. Alternatively, some may think it necessary to follow rules of a religious kind in order to grow as a Christian and to become holy. But the whole enterprise cuts at the very heart of Christ’s saving work, especially his death on the cross. The error is similar to those of the false teachers at Colosse.
Paul issues a strong warning to the Colossians to be on their guard lest the false teachers carry them off as spoil (lit. ‘kidnap’) from the truth into the slavery of error by their ‘philosophy and empty deceit’ (2:8). Although they had set forth their teaching as ‘tradition’, Paul rejects any suggestion of divine origin. It was a human invention (‘the tradition of men’) and in reply to it he sets it over against the tradition of Christ—not merely the tradition which stems from the teaching of Christ, but that which finds its embodiment in him (2:6). Jesus Christ is the ‘image of the invisible God’ (1:15), the one who incorporates the fulness of the divine being (2:9). In a magnificent passage in praise of Christ as the Lord in creation and reconciliation (1:15–20), he claims that Christ is the one through whom all things were created, including the principalities and powers which figured so prominently in the Colossian heresy. All things have been made in him. He is the agent of all creation and its ultimate goal (v 16).
Those who have been incorporated into Christ have come to fulness of life in the one who is master over every principality and power (2:10). Christ Jesus is the sole mediator between God and mankind. It would be foolish for the Colossians to be misled by the false teachers into thinking it was necessary to obey the angelic powers who controlled the lines of communication between God and man. That way was now controlled by Christ who by his death is revealed as conqueror of the principalities and powers (2:13–15).
In his reply to the false teaching Paul expounds the doctrine of the cosmic Christ more fully than in his earlier letters. Hints had previously appeared in Romans (8:19–22) and 1 Corinthians (1:24; 2:6–10; 8:6), but a more detailed exposition is given in Col. 1:15–20 and 2:13–15. The apostle’s criticisms of the advocates of the philosophy with their wrong notions and odd behaviour are penetrating, even devastating (see the Commentary on 2:16–23).
The traditional view that Paul wrote Colossians during his imprisonment in Rome is more likely than that he penned the letter in Ephesus or Caesarea. No other imprisonment in Acts seems a real alternative (there are difficulties in assuming it was during the Caesarean imprisonment, Acts 24:27). The greetings from colleagues in ch. 4 suggest they had direct access to Paul, and this is consistent with the Roman imprisonment of Acts 28:30. Also the reference to Onesimus (which brings into account the letter to Philemon) is best understood in the context of the imperial capital even though some have argued that the distance between Colosse and Rome makes a Roman origin unlikely. Any supposed progression in Paul’s thinking does not help us in dating Colossians.
If the Roman suggestion is accepted then the most likely dating is fairly early in Paul’s (first) Roman imprisonment, i.e. circa ad 60–61. Those supporting an Ephesian alternative place the letter around 54–57, or even earlier, 52–55.
R. C. Lucas, The Message of Colossians, BST (IVP, 1980).
N. T. Wright, Colossians and Philemon, TNTC (IVP/UK/Eerdmans, 1986).
R. P. Martin, Colossians and Philemon, NCB (Eerdmans, 1981).
P. T. O’Brien, Colossians, WBC (Word, 1982).
———, Understanding the Basic Themes of Colossians, Philemon, QRBT (Word, 1991).
NT New Testament
rsv (New) Revised Standard Version
BST The Bible Speaks Today
TNTC Tyndale New Testament Commentary
NCB New Century Bible
WBC Word Biblical Commentary
QRBT Quick Reference Bible Topics