1902 Encyclopedia > Epistle to the Colossians

Epistle to the Colossians

THE EPISTLE TO THE COLOSSIANS belongs to the third of the four groups under which the Pauline epistles may be chronologically arranged,—a group which occupies a midway position between the letters sent to Corinth, Galatia, and Rome, in the apostle's third missionary journey, and the letters known as the Pastoral Epistles. By similarity of language and matter the epistle to the Colossians is intimately connected with that to the Ephesians ; and the notices of St Paul's companions, and of Onesimus and Archippus, which occur in the epistle to Philemon, show that this last epistle was also written and sent at the same time as the other two. The epistle to the Philippians belongs to the same group, and the most probable view is that it was from Rome that all four were written by Paul, " the prisoner of Jesus Christ" (comp. Philem. 1; Col. iv. 10, 18; Eph. iii. 1, iv. 1, vi. 20; Phil, i. 13, 14, iv. 22). Some critics—among whom may be meutioned Schulz, Bottger, Thiersch, Meyer, and Reuss, whose opinion is strongly advocated by I)e Pressense' in his Histoire des Trois Premiers Siecles—contend that at least three of the epistles were written from Cassarea; but the traditional view that all four were written from Rome is supported by most modern writers, and is freest from difficulties. The date of the epistle to the Colossians may be placed about 62 or 63 A.D. Assuming for the present its genuineness, we may gather from the contents of the oepistle itself its occasion and object. Epaphras, who is spoken of in high terms by the apostle, and may with some probability be considered the founder of the church at Colossae (i. 7), has brought tidings to St Paul which make him anxious concerning the Christians in Colossae and its neighbourhood (ii. 1, iv. 13). False teachers are there endeavouring to beguile them with plausible talk (ii. 4), and Paul, as a minister of the gospel earnestly labouring in the cause of proclaiming Christ to the nations (i. 24-29), feels his heart called out towards those whose faith is being insidiously assailed, although he is absent from them, and has never personally visited Colossse or Laodicea (ii. 1). He accordingly writes an epistle the polemical purport of which is patent. Paul's polemic, however, is no mere negative protest. He sets up, as against the " false philosophy " which he so strenuously repudiates (ii. 8). a " theological conception of the person of Christ, " which strikes at the root of all vain speculations concerning the unseen world, and shows that the work of reconciliation effected by Christ is complete, so that in Him Christians are to see the one Mediator through whom God is to be known, approached, served. The latter part of the epistle consists of various practical exhortations, both general and specific; and it closes with several notices of a personal character. Tychicus was the bearer of this letter (iv. 7), as he was also of that known as the epistle to the Ephesians, which by some critics is identified with " the letter from Laodicea' (iv. 16).
But are these letters genuine ? There is no historical ground for doubting the Pauline authorship, or for the theory which has been advanced that the two epistles are inventions of a later age, or for the supposition that, whilst one of them is genuine, the other is made up of materials derived from that one which was really written by St Paul. The fact that opponents of the genuineness of the letters do not agree as to which was the original is significant. Mayerhoff thinks, indeed, both epistles to be spurious, but considers that the epistle to the Colossians was compiled from that to the Ephesians ; while De Wette holds the epistle to the Ephesians to be a " verbose enlargement" of that to the Colossians, and advocates the genuineness of the latter. The opponents of the Pauline authorship rest mainly on three lines of argument, viz., the similarity of the two epistles, the peculiarity of their contents, and peculiarities of style.
The objection founded on the similarity of the language and matter of the two epistles is one that cannot be substantiated. For whilst there are striking resemblances, there are no less striking differences ; and whilst the resemblances can be very naturally accounted for by the contemporaneousness of the letters, the differences are so markedly in accordance with the apparent designs of the separate letters,—that to the Colossians being primarily polemic, and that to the Ephesians being of a mystic and devotional character,-—that we may fairly use of each epistle the words applied by Meyer to the epistle to the Colossians,—" The supposed forgery of such an epistle would be far more marvellous and inexplicable than its genuineness."
Another objection brought forward is that in these epistles we have sentiments that savour of heresies latei than the apostolic age. This objection seems to be based upon very superficial grounds, and to spring from prejudice rather than from research. What definite ground is there for asserting that " Gnostic and Montanist" sentiments are to be found in these epistles 1 While certain false teachings and tendencies are alluded to, which evidently go beyond the more naked Pharisaic Judaism controverted in the epistle to the Galatians, nothing can be produced to show that the heretical teaching animadverted upon in the epistle to the Colossians, or even in the later epistles of Paul to Timothy and Titus, is Gnosticism in the sense in which that term is applied to later systematic theosophies and cosmologies, such as those of Basilides and Valentinus. And would it not be natural, as Neander points out, to postulate, even if we had np records to testify to the fact.

the existence of certain transitional links between the gnosis of the 2d century and the earlier stages of the apostolic preaching 1 Such links are found in the incipient Gnosticism, if so it is to be called, of which we have traces in the epistles of the imprisonment and the subsequent Pastoral Epistles.
A third objection has been made to the genuineness of the epistle to the Colossians, as well as to the Ephesian epistle, on the ground of the peculiarity of their style and of certain terms used in them, some of which are asserted to be technical terms, as ceon, pleroma, &c, and others are words not elsewhere used in the Pauline writings. The answer to this objection is that the peculiar terms are not used in the sense which they acquired in heretical writings of a later period, and that the unusual words are to be attributed partly to the nature of the subject and partly to the disposition of the writer's mind at the time. If, indeed, we are to condemn any writing of an author for containing peculiarities not exhibited in other writings of the same author, the questions arise, whence are we to take our standard of judgment, or how are we to know in what cases we should apply so vague a critical canon ? Bleek says, sensibly enough, in view of this line of objection, " We do not for a moment deny that the epistle to the Colossians contains much which is peculiar to itself ; but its contents, such as they are, do not tell against its coming from the same author as the other epistles of St Paul, for even those which Baur allows to be genuine contain much that is distinctive and peculiar, e.g., the Galatians as com-pared with the Corinthians, and 2 Corinthians as compared with 1 Corinthians." The fact is that in the Tubingen school " subjective criticism" has run to riot. The phenomena to be investigated are interpreted according to a preconceived theory, rather than fairly looked at, examined, and explained. The testimony of the early church to the Colossian and Ephesian letters is unexceptionable. In the case of the epistle to the Colossians, there are indications of its recognition in allusions by Justin Martyr and Theophilus of Antioch; it occurs in the Vluratorian canon (circ. 170 A.D) ; it is cited by Irenseus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, and Origen ; Eusebius places it among the " acknowledged" books of the apostolical writings ; and it occurs in Marcion's list, as given by Epiphanius. Nor is there anything in the epistle itself that is out of accordance with the circumstances of the apostle Paul, or the condition of the Asiatic churches in the seventh decade of the 1st century.
We must now briefly notice the character of the teaching against which St Paul directed the controversial portion of the epistle to the Colossians (ii. 4-23). His warnings are against a philosophy which is vain and fallacious; against a system of multiplied religious observances and distinctions of meats; against an arbitrary system of angel-worship ; and against certain rigorous rules of asceticism. The basis of this alien teaching was unmistakably Judaic, but the Judaizing effort was of a mystic and ascetic type ; and it is not unreasonable to see in the theosophical speculations and ascetic ordinances, indicated in St Paul's picture of the dangers which beset the Colossian Christians, an admixture of Jewish and Oriental elements. Professor Lightfoot has shown that Oriental notions concerning the evil of matter and the need of rigid abstinence, together with " an esoteric doctrine relating to angelic beings " and a tendency to sun worship, appear in Essenism, which he suggests might be called Gnostic Judaism. The Essene side of Judaism was doubtless represented among the Jews who were settled in, or journeyed to and from, various places in Asia Minor; and all mystic and ascetic ideas would find a congenial soil in Phrygia The teaching and tendencies alluded to iti the epistle to the Colossians, and subsequently in the Pastoral Epistles, form the intermediate link between the " Gnostic Judaism " of the Essenes and teachers allied to them and the " Judaizing Gnosticism" of the 2d century.
The question whether Paul himself planted the church at Colossse is one of minor importance, which has been much discussed by commentators. Lardner argues elaborately in favour of a visit by Paul to Colossse and Laodicea. He bases his view upon a passage cited from Theodoret, in which ch. ii. 1 is interpreted so as to distinguish between the Colossians and Laodiceans on the one side and the " as many as had not seen Paul's face " on the other. This view has been controverted in detail by Davidson, but is advocated by Wordsworth. Bleek mentions Schulz, Wiggers, and others as following Theodoret, but he takes the contrary view himself, as do also Alford, Conybeare and Howson, and Lightfoot. The last-named commentator says that Theodoret's interpretation is " opposed alike to grammatical and logical considerations."
Another disputable though not very important point is whether the Ephesian or the Colossian letter was written first. Critics are divided, and it is somewhat difficult to gather from a comparison of the epistles which view is most probable. We are inclined to favour the view that the briefer, more controversial, and in some respects more vigorous letter was written first, and was followed by the fuller and more mystic one. It has been said that this epistle is characterized by a " ruggedness of expression and want of finish that borders on obscurity " (Lightfoot), and it has been suggested that the absence of personal connec-tion on St Paul's part with the Colossian church might partially account for " the diminished fluency of this letter," as compared with other and earlier ones. We do not think this explanation a satisfactory one. The " rugged-ness " should rather be attributed to the intensity of feeling wherewith the apostle, confined as he was in his far-off place of imprisonment, threw himself into the controversy with the false teachers,—persons whom he must have regarded as among the " grievous wolves," of whom he had forewarned the elders at Miletus some few years previously (Acts xx. 29, 30), men who should "arise out of the Christian community itself, and speak perverse things to draw men after them." This explanation is somewhat corroborated by what Alford points out, viz., that the majority of peculiar expressions in the epistle occur in the second chapter. And Professor Lightfoot himself adds— " No epistle of St Paul is more vigorous in conception or more instinct with meaning. It is the very compression of thoughts which creates the difficulty. If there is a want of fluency there is no want of force. Feebleness is the last charge which can be brought against this epistle."
The value of this epistle to the church historian, to the Christian theologian, and to any one who wishes fairly to estimate the " philosophic" bearings of Christian dogma is very great. A commentator of the 17th century, H. Suicer, mentioned by Walch in his Bibliotheca Theologica, calls the epistle to the Colossians theologies Christiana compendium.
Authorities for what has been said, and references to further literature upon the subject, may be found in " Introductions," such as those by Davidson and Bleek, and in " Prolegomena" of commentators, e.g., Alford, Wordsworth, and Braune in Lange's BibeJwerk, a treasury of information made accessible to English readers in Dr Schaff's edition, published by T. <fc T. Clark. Frequent reference has been made in the course of this article to the recent very valuable commentary of Professor Lightfoot. In addition to the exegetical notes, he gives us thorough dissertations on " the churches of the Lycus," the "Colos-sian heresy," and " the Essenes." There is also a digest

of the principal various readings, containing an ingenious conjecture as to the original reading in chap. ii. 18. Attention is drawn to the fact that the epistles to the Ephesians and the Colossians, alone among the Pauline epistles, are exposed to those " harmonizing tendencies " in transcribers which have had such an influence on the text of the gospels. Professor Lightfoot deals, also, in a most exhaustive manner, with the subject of the apocryphal letter to the Laodiceans (connected with Col. iv. 16), which appears in a considerable number of MSS. of the New Testament, and shows it to be " a cento of Pauline phrases strung together without any definite connection or any clear object." Paley, in his Horce Pavlince, has a very satisfactory section on the similarity of the epistles to the Ephesians and the Colossians. On the character of the heretical tendencies in Asia Minor the general reader will find all requisite information in Neander, History of the Planting, &c, of Christianity, and Pressensé, Histoire des Trois Premiers Siècles de l'Église Chrétienne. Mansel, in bis Gnostic Heresies, has a chapter devoted to Notices of Gnostici sm in the New Testament. Both Neander and Pressensé draw attention to the arbitrary and unsound theorizing of the Tubingen school in respect to the group to which the epistle to the Colossians belongs. (w. s. s.)

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