COLOSSIANS 1 Colosse (or Colossae) was located in the Roman province of Asia Minor in the Lycus valley about 120 miles (194 km) east of Ephesus in today's south-western Turkey.2 An ancient city of Phrygia, it was situated on the southern bank of the Lycus River, about 11 miles (18 km) from Laodicea and 13 miles (21 km) from Hierapolis. The site is currently unoccupied and has not been excavated, although a few surface inscriptions have been found.What little we know of Colosse comes from numismatics (the study of coins and related objects) and from comments made by ancient writers, but until the city can be excavated our understanding of its history will remain clouded.

The historian Herodotus (History, 7.30) referred in 480 B.C. to Colosse as"a great city of Phrygia," and Xenophon (Anabasis,1.2.6) described it in 400 B.C. as large and prosperous. Colosse, standing on the most important trade route from Ephesus to the Euphrates, was a place of great importance from early times. The Persian king Xerxes visited it in 481 s.c., as did Cyrus the Younger in 401. By the time of Paul the city may have diminished somewhat in significance. Its economy depended upon trade and textiles, and particularly on a distinctive purple wool called colossinus.

The church at Colosse was established on Paul's third missionary journey, during his three years in Ephesus, not by Paul himself (2:1) but by Epaphras (1:7,12-13),a native of Colosse and an evangelist in nearby Laodicea and Hierapolis (see 4:13). Paul loved and admired him,calling him"our dear fellow servant," "a faithful minister of Christ" and a "fellow prisoner" (Phm 23). Epaphras was the one who told Paul at Rome about the Colossian church problem and thereby stimulated Paul to write this letter.The name Epaphras is a shortened form of Epaphroditus (from "Aphrodite," the Greek goddess of love), suggesting that he was a convert from paganism. He is not the Epaphroditus of Philippians 2:24 and 4:18. Archippus also exercised a fruitful ministry in Colosse (Col 4:17; Phm 2). Philemon was an active member of this church, as was Onesimus (Col 4:9).

Colosse lost its importance due to a change of the road system, after which Laodicea became the greater city. During the seventh and eighth centuries its open position exposed it to the terrible raids of the Saracens, and the people moved to Chonae (now called Chonas), a fortress on the slope of Mount Cadmus, about three miles (five km) farther south. During the twelfth century A.D. the Turks destroyed the city. Archaeologists have unearthed ruins of an ancient church.

Greek Philosophical Schools

COLOSSIANS 2 Hellenistic (Greek) philosophy may be divided into several schools or traditions in the first century A.D.:

    • Classical philosophy: Plato was still deeply influential.Those who adhered most closely to his teachings (among whom Philo of Alexandria is most notable) are known today as Middle Platonists. Aristotle's followers, known as the Peripatetics, were also still active.

    • The Skeptics: The linear descendants of Plato's Academy took a more negative view about the possibility of gaining true knowledge and accordingly became known as the Skeptics. This tradition is said to have begun with Pyrrho of Elis (fourth century B.C.); hence the designation of Skepticism as Pyrrhonism. While some Skeptics determined that "suspension of judgment" was the most reasonable approach to philosophy, others modified this to include a measure of probability.

    • The Stoics: The Skeptics were highly critical of the most influential school of Hellenistic philosophy, the Stoics (named after the stoa, or colonnade, from which their founder, Zeno of Citium, taught). Known for their high moral standards and devotion to duty, the Stoics taught that reality is ultimately material and that it is governed by a logos, a kind of fiery, divine substance that pervades the cosmos and confers upon it order and direction. This logos, in their view, is also resident within people, enabling them to make sense of the universe. The goal for Stoics was thus a life lived "in accordance with Nature." There was ultimately little difference in Stoic discourse between nature, logos and God.

    • The Epicureans: This school of philosophy was founded by Epicurus (fourth century B.c.). Its adherents sought to counter traditional views of the gods, relegating them to the intermundia, the region "between the worlds," from which they were assumed to take no notice of human affairs. Followers of Epicurus anticipated modern evolutionists in their belief in a closed universe emerging from the chance collision of atoms within a void. In terms of ethics, they regarded pleasure as the ultimate good. Pleasure for them did not signify devotion to sensual excess but a life lived in moderation,since the traditional virtues of prudence and justice in their view yielded true happiness.

The Mystery Religions

COLOSSIANS 3 Mystery religions were secret cults that flourished during the Greco-Roman period and involved the worship of deities from Greece, Egypt and the Near East. Unlike official religions (such as the imperial cult),' which involved little more than pledges of loyalty, these religions offered personal salvation and a sense of belonging to a community. Members participated in rituals and were expected to keep both the rites and the teachings secret; hence the designation "mystery religions." Famous examples are the Greek Eleusinian and Dionysian mysteries,2 the Mithras mysteries and the Egyptian cult of Isis and Osiris.

Each cult was distinct, but many mystery cults shared a motif of death and afterlife.The Eleusinian mysteries centered upon the myth of the annual descent of Persephone, the daughter of Demeter, into Hades and her subsequent return to the land of the living. The cult of Isis and Osiris was similar. In Egyptian religion Osiris, the lord of the dead, was also believed to be a source of life and renewal. Osiris had been murdered by his brother Set, but his wife/sister, Isis, had located his scattered remains and effected for him a kind of resurrection.

Some cults focused on cosmic power. The Mithras cult, which became popular with Roman men around the second century A.D., is widely thought to have been Persian in origin, but recent research indicates that its teachings may have been indigenous to the Greco-Roman world. Worship was carried out in a small, cavelike chamber called a Mithraeum, which contained cryptic inscriptions and symbols, the primary clues to the nature of the religion. The central motif centered around a man, Mithras, who had purportedly slain a bull. In the iconography Mithras is accompanied by a dog, a snake, a raven and a scorpion. All of these creatures equate to constellations (Taurus, Canis Minor, Hydra, Corvus and Scorpio, respectively), and thus the cult may have been astrological in orientation and based upon the belief that Mithras was the ruler of the cosmos. Members of the cult ascended through a hierarchy of seven ranks, corresponding to the seven planets; solar and lunar icons are invariably found in a Mithraeum.

The cults frequently focused upon fertility, were often accompanied by erotic symbolism and included secret rituals that were sometimes either gory or orgiastic.The Dionysian mysteries, which involved a kind of ecstatic madness, were in fact for a time outlawed by the Roman Senate. Popular fear of and fascination with the bacchanalian frenzy is reflected in ancient literary works such as The Bacchae by Euripides and the Metamorphoses by Ovid. In many mystery religions the initiate underwent a ritual death and rebirth through either ecstatic frenzy or secret ritual. One inscription in a Mithraeum describes the initiate as having been "piously reborn." Some have suggested that Paul may have been influenced by these cults in his understanding of the "mystery" of the gospel of Christ. It is more likely, however, that the apostle used the term "mystery" to refer to the fact that the Old Testament prophecies, which include much that is mysterious, find their meaning and fulfillment in Christ. Certainly nothing indicates that converts to Christianity were sworn to keep its tenets or practices a secret. In addition, Paul probably did want to communicate to his Gentile converts that the true way to rebirth and resurrection is through Christ, and the word "mystery" helped him to convey that reality.

The Letter from the Laodiceans

COLOSSIANS 4 In Colossians 4:16 Paul instructed the Colossians to read the "letter from Laodicea." Most likely Paul was referring to a letter he had written to the believers in that city. Attempts to identify this letter have included suggestions that it was an Apocryphal Latin document, Paul's letter to the Ephesians or a text that no longer exists.

  • The Latin "Epistle to the Laodiceans" strings together many Pauline phrases found in Philippians and Galatians and then directs the readers to exchange letters with Colosse. It is doubtful that Paul wrote this document and likely that its true author forged the letter on the basis of Colossians 4:16.

  • Some scholars identify the book of Ephesians as the "letter from Laodicea" because Marcion, a second-century heretic, referred to the book of Ephesians by this name. Additionally, some early manuscripts of Ephesians do not specify Ephesus as the destination of that letter at Ephesians 1:1) Paul may have intended to circulate Ephesians among several churches throughout the Lycus Valley, including Laodicea and Colosse.This does not require, however, that we regard Ephesians as the missing letter of Colossians 4:16.

  • Many of Paul's letters have been lost to us. It is therefore quite possible that the letter referred to in Colossians 4:16 simply has not survived.