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Colossians, The Letter of Paul to the

The Oxford Companion to the Bible What is This? Provides authoritative interpretive entries on Biblical people, places, beliefs, events, and secular influences.

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    Colossians, The Letter of Paul to the


    • I. Introductory greeting (1.1–2)
    • II. Thanksgiving: Faith‐love‐hope and the gospel (1.3–8)
    • III. Praying for knowledge and godly conduct (1.9–14)
    • IV. Christ the Lord in creation and reconciliation (1.15–20)
    • V. Reconciliation accomplished and applied (1.21–23)
    • VI. Paul's mission and pastoral concern (1.24–2.5)
    • VII. False teaching and its antidote (2.6–3.4)
    • A. The all‐sufficiency of Christ (2.6– 15)
    • B. Freedom from legalism (2.16–23)
    • C. Seek the things above (3.1–4)
    • VIII. The Christian life (3.5–4.6)
    • A. Put away the sins of the past (3.5–11)
    • B. Put on the graces of Christ (3.12–17)
    • C. Behavior in a Christian household (3.18–4.1)
    • D. Watch and pray (4.2–6)
    • IX. Personal greetings and instructions (4.7–18)


    The Pauline authorship of Colossians has often been challenged over the last hundred and fifty years. The grounds for this questioning concern the language and style of the letter; more recently it has been argued that there are major differences between Colossians and the theology of the main Pauline letters, particularly in relation to the person and cosmic work of Christ, the church as the body of Christ, and early Christian tradition.

    But such arguments against the authenticity of Colossians are not conclusive. First of all, it must be admitted that many expressions used in Colossians show decided Pauline peculiarities of style. The similarities and points of contact extend to theological terminology, such as the expressions “in Christ” (1.2, 4, 28), “in the Lord” (3.18, 20; 4.7, 17), and “with Christ” (2.12, 20; 3.1, 3), including exposition about being united with Christ in baptism (2.11–12). Second, the thirty‐four words that occur in Colossians but nowhere else in the New Testament ought to be considered in light of the fact that such hapax legomena also turn up in considerable numbers in other letters that are acknowledged to be Pauline (Galatians, for example, has thirty‐one words that recur nowhere else in the New Testament). It is reasonable to assume that several unusual terms appear in Colossians because of the heresy that Paul is combating. Third, the theological developments are consistent with the apostle's earlier teaching.

    Colossians, as well as its companion letter Philemon, is present in the Pauline corpus as far back as we can trace its existence, that is, at least as early as Marcion, about 140 CE.


    Colossians is one of three or four letters written by Paul at about the same time and sent to various churches in the Roman province of Asia. He was then in prison (probably in Rome), and so these letters are called the captivity epistles. Colossians seems to have been written fairly early in this imprisonment, about 60–61 CE.

    The Church at Colossae.

    The Christian community at Colossae came into existence during a period of vigorous missionary activity associated with Paul's Ephesian ministry (ca. 52–55 CE), recorded in Acts 19. Paul was assisted by several coworkers through whom a number of churches were planted in the province of Asia. Among these were the congregations of the Lycus Valley, Colossae, Laodicea, and Hierapolis (Map 14:E3), which were the fruit of Epaphras's endeavor (Col. 1.7, 8; 4.12, 13). A native of Colossae (4.12) who probably became a Christian during a visit to Ephesus, Epaphras was “a faithful minister of Christ”; as Paul's representative (1.7) he had taught the Colossians the gospel.

    The many allusions to the former lives of the readers suggest that most were gentile converts. They had once been utterly out of harmony with God, enmeshed in idolatry and slavery to sin, but God had reconciled them to himself (1.21–22). 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). As members of his body, they had his life within them and could look forward to the day when they would share in the fullness of his glory (3.4).

    The picture is thus drawn of a Christian congregation obedient to the apostolic gospel, and for which the apostle can give heartfelt thanks to God (1.4–6). He knows of their “love in the Spirit” (1.8) and is delighted to learn of their orderly Christian lives and the stability of their faith in Christ (2.5).

    Occasion of the Letter.

    Epaphras had paid Paul a visit in Rome and informed him of the state of the churches in the Lycus Valley. While much of the report was encouraging, one disquieting feature was the attractive but false teaching recently introduced into the congregation; if unchecked, it would subvert the gospel and bring the Colossians into spiritual bondage. Paul's letter, then, is written as a response to this urgent need.

    The Colossians' “Heresy.”

    Nowhere in the letter does Paul give a formal exposition of the Colossians' “heresy”; its chief features can be detected only by piecing together and interpreting his counterarguments. Some have questioned whether there was a “Colossian heresy” at all. But in light of 2.8–23 with its references to “fullness,” specific ascetic injunctions (“Do not handle!” etc., v. 21), regulations about food and holy days, unusual phrases that seem to be catchwords of Paul's opponents, and the author's strong emphasis on what Christ has already achieved by his death and resurrection, it is appropriate to speak of a “heresy” that had just begun to make inroads into the congregation.

    The teaching was set forth as “philosophy” (2.8), based on “tradition” (an expression that denotes its antiquity, dignity, and revelatory character), which was supposed to impart true knowledge (2.18, 23). Basically, the heresy seems to have been Jewish, because of the references to food regulations, the Sabbath, and other prescriptions of the Jewish calendar. Circumcision is mentioned (2.11) but did not appear as one of the legal requirements.

    This Judaism was different from that against which the churches of Galatia had to be warned; rather, it was one in which asceticism and mysticism were 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 strict observances. This teaching is to be read against the background of ascetic and mystical forms of Jewish piety (as evidenced, for example, at Qumran). It was for a spiritual elite who were being urged to press on in wisdom and knowledge so as to attain true “fullness.” “Self‐abasement” (2.18, 23) was a term used by the opponents to denote ascetic practices that were effective for receiving visions of heavenly mysteries and participating in mystical experiences. The “mature” were thus deemed able to gain spiritual entrance into heaven and join in the angelic worship of God as part of their present experience (2.18).

    Paul's Reply.

    The apostle issues a strong warning to the Colossians to be on their guard lest the false teachers carry them off as spoil “by philosophy and empty deceit” (2.8), from the truth into the slavery of error. Although they had set forth their teaching as “tradition,” Paul rejects any suggestion of its divine origin. It was a human fabrication, and in reply he sets it over against the tradition of Christ—not merely the tradition that stems from the teaching of Christ, but that which finds its embodiment in Christ (2.6). Jesus Christ is the image of the invisible God (1.15), the one who incorporates the fullness of the divine essence (2.9). In a magnificent hymnic passage in praise of Christ as the Lord in creation and in reconciliation (1.15–20), it is asserted that Christ is the one through whom all things were created, including the principalities and powers that figured so prominently in the Colossian heresy. All things have been made in him as the sphere, through him as the agent, and for him as the ultimate goal of all creation (v. 16).

    Those who have been incorporated into Christ have come to fullness of life in the one who is master over every principality and power (2.10). They need not seek perfection anywhere else but in him. It is in him, the one in whose death, burial, and resurrection they have been united (2.11, 12), that the totality of wisdom and knowledge is concentrated and made available to all his people—and not just in some elite group.

    The apostle's criticisms are trenchant, even devastating (2.16–23). To place oneself under rules and regulations like those of v. 21 is to return to slavery to the forces overthrown by Christ (v. 20). Any teachers who lay claim to exalted heavenly visions as a prelude to fresh revelations are puffed up. Worst of all, the arrogance in these private religious experiences comes from not maintaining contact with Christ the head: they are severed from the source of life and unity (v. 19).

    Ethical Teaching.

    Often in Paul's letters, doctrinal instruction is followed by ethical teaching (cf. Rom. 12.1; Gal. 5.1). The same feature is evident in Colossians where the conjunction “therefore” (3.5) links the practical injunctions with the theological basis for right behavior. A lengthy hortatory section (3.5–4.6) follows, with four distinctive catchwords of early Christian catechesis at the head of each paragraph: “put to death” (3.5–11; cf. also “put away,” v. 8); “put on” (3.12–17); “be subject” (3.18–4.1); and “watch and pray” (4.2–6). In the third of these, “be subject,” directions about the mutual duties of members of a Christian household are given.

    See also Ethical Lists


    Peter T. O'Brien

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