The title “to the Colossians” (pros Kolossaeis) is secondary and is derived from the introduction of the letter (1:2): tois en Kolossais hagiois kai pistois adelphois en Christō (“to the holy and faithful brothers in Christ in Colossae”). In the oldest manuscripts (e.g. P46, A, B*, K), the name of the city is spelled differently in the title (Kolossaeis), whereas most witnesses read Kolossais in 1:2. This indicates that the title was added later and probably at a different place (Metzger 1987, p. 303).

Canonical Status.

The canonical status of Colossians has never been questioned and the existence of the letter is attested early. Ignatius of Antioch (early second century) possibly alludes to 1:23 in his letter to the Ephesians (10:2), and the letter is included in Marcion's canon, the Apostolikon, around the middle of the second century. The apostolic status of Colossians is recognized by several of the early church fathers around or shortly after 200, such as Irenaeus of Lyon, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen. Colossians also appears in two other important documents, the Muratorian Fragment from circa 190, which contains the oldest list of accepted New Testament writings, and a catalog, possibly from the third century, included in Codex Claromontanus (see Metzger). The oldest extant textual witness to Colossians is the Chester Beatty papyrus (P46) from around 200.

Four Pauline letters claim to have been written while Paul was imprisoned, the so-called Prison Letters (Eph, Phil, Col, Phlm). In modern editions of the New Testament, Colossians is grouped together with two of them—Ephesians and Philippians.

Authorship.

While the authenticity of Colossians was never doubted in antiquity, many modern scholars believe the letter to be deuteropauline. The reasons are mainly stylistic and theological. There are many linguistic features that distinguish Colossians from the letters considered authentic. While Paul tends to write short and concise sentences, the author of Colossians writes in a more complex style involving far longer sentences with many subordinate clauses (see, e.g., 1:3–8 and 1:9–20). The use of relative clauses and strings of epexegetical genitives are also more prevalent in Colossians, as is paronomasias and pleonasms, while diatribes, so frequent in the recognized letters, are almost completely missing. The vocabulary in Colossians also differs from the authentic letters. More than thirty terms in Colossians are otherwise not found in the New Testament, and another thirty or so are not found in the authentic letters. Furthermore, some important concepts in the undisputed letters are completely absent in Colossians (e.g., hamartia, dikaiosynē, pisteuō). (See Bujard 1973 for a full discussion.)

Obviously it cannot completely be ruled out that stylistic differences are a result of Paul simply having changed his way of writing, or, as some scholars have suggested, that the stylistic peculiarities are a consequence of liturgical influences or because of the “heresy” the author is fighting (Kümmel 1983, p. 300; cf. however Pokorný 1991, p. 3). However, the fact that the theology of Colossians also differs from the undisputed letters in important ways has convinced most scholars that Paul cannot be the author of the letter. First, the christological reflection in 1:15–20 and 2:9–10, where Christ is identified with the divine, preexistent wisdom, seems to go beyond what we find in the undisputed letters. Similarly, the ecclesiology in 1:18 appears to differ from that found in, for instance, Romans 12:4–8 and 1 Corinthians 12, where the ekklēsia simply denotes the assembly of Jesus-believers. In Colossians, the ekklēsia rather assumes cosmic proportions (van Kooten 2004). Moreover, Colossians exhibits a rather different eschatological outlook (so-called realized eschatology) as compared to the authentic letters. In the undisputed letters, Paul certainly claims that the believer has participated in Christ's death, but also emphasizes that the resurrection with Christ still lies in the future (see e.g., Rom 6:5, 8; 1 Cor 6:14; 15:22–23; 2 Cor 4:14). The author of Colossians, however, argues that the believer has already been raised together with Christ (2:12; 3:1), that is, precisely the idea that Paul vehemently counteracts in Corinth (cf. 1 Cor 4:8; 15:22–23). While it is possible that Paul had changed his mind on these matters, it seems more plausible that someone else, who had access to several of Paul's letters, wrote Colossians. At any rate, if Paul really is the author of Colossians, some of the ideas put forward in the letter must be considered a major new development in his theological thinking.

Scholars who doubt the authenticity of the letter point to Paul's close co-worker, Timothy, as the likely author (e.g., Dunn 1996, pp. 38, 41) or a more general Pauline school, perhaps in Ephesus (e.g., Lohse 1971, p. 181). Scholars who defend the authenticity of the letter include Barth and Blanke, Caird, Houlden, Moo, and Witherington.

Historical Context and Date of Composition.

Colossae was located in Phrygia in the fertile Lycus Valley in the southern part of the Roman province of Asia, on the main road from Ephesus to Tarsus. In the second half of the first millennium B.C.E., Colossae was a large and wealthy city famous for its wool industry (Herodotus, Hist. 7.30.1; Xenophon, Anab. 1.2.6.; Strabo, Geogr. 21.51). During the first century C.E., however, its status had been significantly reduced, mainly because of the increasing development of two other cities in the proximity: Laodicea, the financial center of the region, and Hierapolis, well-known for its hot springs. Both cities are mentioned in Colossians (2:1; 4:13, 15–16).

During the first century C.E., the population of Colossae consisted of native Phrygians, Greeks, and a large Jewish community. Many of the Jews were descended from the two thousand Jewish families, who, according to Josephus (Ant. 12.149) had been forced to migrate from Mesopotamia and Babylonia to Phrygia and Lydia during the reign of Antiochus III (223–187 B.C.E.). Dunn (p. 22) estimates the Jewish population in Colossae during the first century at around three thousand. The ekklēsia in Colossae was not founded by Paul, who probably had never visited the community (1:9; 2:1) (but see Reicke 1973), but by one of his coworkers, Epaphras (1:7; 4:12).

Colossae was apparently destroyed in an earthquake in 60/61 C.E. that affected parts of the Lycus Valley, which means that the letter, if authentic, must have been written before this disaster. However, as some scholars have pointed out (e.g., Pokorný, p. 20), if someone wanted to promote a pseudonymous letter as authentic, addressing it to a no-longer existing community would be an effective strategy. If this is the case, the address “to the holy and faithful brothers in Christ in Colossae” is purely fictional and the letter was rather used in another location such as Laodicea (4:16). The dating of the letter is thus connected to whether or not it should be considered authentic.

If authentic, Colossians should probably be dated near the time of Paul's letter to Philemon. As in Philemon, Paul is presented as being imprisoned (4:3, 18), and several people mentioned in the greeting list in Colossians (4:7–17) are also addressed in Philemon (2, 10, 23, 24). In both letters, Timothy is named as coauthor together with Paul. This would point to the late 50s or the beginning of the 60s, before the earthquake probably destroyed the city. This dating, however, reduces the time span from other authentic letters, such as 1 Corinthians and Romans, which makes the theological differences more conspicuous. If it was pseudonymous (the more likely option), Colossians probably originated in the late 60s or early 70s.

Structure and Content.

Ancient letters typically have three parts: introduction, main body, and conclusion. All Pauline letters (including the pseudonymous ones) follow this basic structure, although with some modifications caused by influences from Hellenistic Jewish literary traditions. (On letter writing in antiquity, see Stowers 1986.) The main purpose of Colossians is to counteract the influence of a teaching, a “philosophy” (2:8) considered deviant by the author. Exactly what the author refers to has been subject to an extensive debate.

After the introduction (1:1–2), which indicates Paul and Timothy as authors, and the initial thanksgiving (1:3–8), the author proceeds with an extended prayer for the recipients in which Christ is depicted as the full expression of the divine and identified with the preexistent wisdom (1:9–23). Parts of this section (1:15–20) may be an already formed hymn. In a personal statement, the author elaborates on his mission as an apostle to the nations and on his sufferings (1:24—2:5). In the next section (2:6—4:6), the author first deals with the main theme of the letter: the false teaching described as “philosophy and empty deceit” (2:8). The recipients are assured that they already enjoy the full benefits of salvation; in fact, they are already raised together with Christ (2:12) and can thus safely refrain from observing food regulations and celebrating specific holidays and feasts (2:16–23). Instead, the author points to the new life in Christ in a concluding paraenesis or exhortation, which culminates in a household code or table (3:18—4:1). Some final practical matters and greetings to the Colossian ekklēsia follow, and Paul's personal greeting (“with my own hand”) concludes the letter.

Interpretation.

One of the most debated issues regarding the interpretation of Colossians concerns the nature of the “philosophy” the author reacts against (2:6–23). An influential theory since the late nineteenth century is that Colossians deals with a syncretistic, pre-Gnostic movement, perhaps in the form of a mystery cult (see e.g., Lohse, pp. 127–31). However, the evidence to substantiate such a claim is scant, and many scholars identify the “philosophy” inColossae with some kind of Hellenistic-Gnostic Jewish mysticism (e.g., Bruce 1984, pp. 17–26). Recently, van Kooten has suggested that the philosophy should be identified with Middle Platonism.

The mention of “circumcision” (2:11), food regulations, and the Sabbath (2:16), however, certainly point to Judaism (see van Kooten, pp. 138–39). Dunn (pp. 23–35) has argued that it is more plausible that the “philosophy” in Colossae should be understood as one of several ordinary expressions of Jewish identity. Given the diverse nature of first-century Judaism, the Colossian “philosophy,” rather than being a “heretical” movement, offered a Jewish alternative to Christ-oriented Judaism.

Reception History.

Colossians has exercised considerable influence in Christian tradition, especially with regard to soteriology, ecclesiology, and Christology. Thus, the hymn in 1:15–20 was frequently commented upon by the church fathers and was important, for instance, in the development of the doctrines of the preexistence of Christ and the two natures of Christ. The polemic against the ascetic doctrines of the “heresies” (2:16–23) provided a model for condemnations of asceticism and led to discussions on the relation between asceticism and proper Christian conduct involving self-control and self-denial (Wiles 1967). The household code (3:18—4:1) attracted less attention from church fathers, but gained importance later, in discussions on the role of women and the institution of slavery.

It is possible, however, that the earliest reception of Colossians is found within the New Testament. There are numerous parallels between Colossians and Ephesians and even though this overlap between the letters is rarely verbatim, the language, style, and content are conspicuously similar. Since most scholars think that Colossians was composed before Ephesians, it could be argued that the first extant reception of the symbolic world of Colossians is represented precisely in Ephesians, provided that both letters were not penned by the same author (see Barth and Blanke 1994, pp. 72–114).

[See also EPHESIANS; LETTERS; PAUL, LETTERS OF; and PHILEMON.]

Bibliography

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  • Bruce, F. F. The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1984.
  • Bujard, W. Stilanalytische Untersuchungen zum Kolosserbrief als Beitrag zur Methodik von Sprachvergleichen. Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1973.
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  • Kümmel, W. G. Einleitung in Das Neue Testament. 21st ed. Heidelberg, Germany: Quelle & Meyer, 1983.
  • Lohse, E. Colossians and Philemon. Translated by W. R. Poehlmann and R. J. Karris. Hermeneia. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1971 [1968 in German].
  • Metzger, B. M. The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development, and Significance. Oxford: Clarendon, 1987.
  • Moo, D. J. The Letters to the Colossians and to Philemon. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2008.
  • Pokorný, P. Colossians: A Commentary. Translated by S. S. Schatzmann. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1991 [1987 in German].
  • Reicke, B. I. “The Historical Setting of Colossians.” RevExp 70 (1973): 429–438.
  • Schweizer, E. The Letter to the Colossians. London: SPCK, 1982 [1976 in German].
  • Stowers, S. K. Letter Writing in Greco-Roman Antiquity. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1986.
  • Wiles, M. E. The Divine Apostle: The Interpretation of St. Paul's Epistles in the Early Church. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1967.
  • Witherington, B. The Letters to Philemon, the Colossians, and the Ephesians: A Socio-rhetorical Commentary on the Captivity Epistles. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2007.

Magnus Zetterholm