Introduction. The letter to the church at Colossae is one of the lesser-studied books in the Pauline letters. Because it is quite short it can be overshadowed by Romans or 1-2 Corinthians, yet the book has a great deal of theological depth, especially as Paul presents Jesus in the first chapter. A major concern of most commentaries on the book is the Christology. Some find it too advanced and therefore date the book to a later writer within the Pauline circle (similar to Ephesians). This is not necessary, however, since Paul’s view of Christ in Col 1 is quite similar to that of Philippians 2:5-11.
Another unique feature in Colossians is the identity of the “opponent.” Clearly Paul has some false teaching in mind in the second chapter, but there is a wide range of views as to the identity of these agitators. Clint Arnold wrote a monograph on the topic and there are many articles attempting to describe this early defective view. See Arnold’s The Colossian Syncretism: The Interface Between Christianity and Folk Belief at Colossae (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1996).
Colossians Commentaries are often combined with Philemon since the two letters are related. Unfortunately this means that the brief note to Philemon gets tagged to the end of a larger commentary like an appendix and is not given the full treatment it deserves. It also bothers me that I cannot sort my books in canonical order, but that might just be me.
James Dunn, Colossians and Philemon (NIGTC; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1996). Dunn is always interesting to read and the New International Greek Text series is always excellent. Based on the theology of the book, Dunn thinks that the book was not written by Paul, even if it is “Pauline.” The issue of authorship is not as critical an issue as for other books, Dunn refers to the writer as Paul despite expressing doubts that he was the actual author. He is warm to the possibility that the book was written from a hypothetical Ephesian imprisonment, but cannot state this (or any alternative view) with certainty. The opponents addressed by the letter are from the local Jewish synagogue. As Dunn says, to call this a “heresy” is “quite inappropriate” since the “competing philosophy” does not come from within the church. The body of the commentary is based wholly on the Greek text, with detailed lexical and syntactical comments. Dunn is well-versed in Second Temple Period Jewish literature as well as Greco-Roman works and integrates this material into his commentary well. In particular, material from the Dead Sea Scrolls is used to illustrate the “Jewishness” of Paul’s opponents.
Douglas Moo, Colossians and Philemon (PNTC; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2008). Moo’s commentary is fairly traditional with respect to introductory matters (Paul wrote the letter during his Roman imprisonment). He deals with objections to Paul as the author, primarily perceived differences in theology when Colossians is compared with Romans, Corinthians and Galatians. The main problem with non-Pauline authorship, for Moo, is that he is not comfortable with pseudepigraphical authorship. It would be quite remarkable that the author would prohibit lying in 3:9 then claim to be Paul! With respect to the opponent, Moo engages Dunn’s arguments that Paul has a “standard Judaism” in mind. The fact that Colossians lacks the sort of engagement of the Hebrew Bible found in Galatians is a good argument that the opponents are not Judaizers in the Galatians-sense of the word. Moo prefers to see a kind of syncretic philosophy behind the opponents, mixing Judaism and mysticism. The body of the commentary is based on the English text (various translations are compared), Greek words appear transliterated. Moo engages a wide range of scholarship, including Dunn and Wright. The result is a very useful commentary for a pastor or teacher preparing to present Colossians to their congregations.
Peter T. O’Brien, Colossians, Philemon (WBC; Dallas: Word, 1982). O’Brien’s introduction has one of the more detailed survey’s f the “Colossian Heresy,” but since he writes before Wright and Dunn, his section on Judaism as the source of the problem is light. In the end, he sees a Jewish / mystical syncretism as the problem Paul addresses in the letter. With respect to authorship, O’Brien is not particularly dogmatic. While he rejects most of the non-Pauline arguments, he is aware of the problems associated with Paul as the author. He is happy enough to consider the letter authentic, even if Paul was the source and someone else (Timothy) was the author. The body of the commentary is based on the Greek text, all sources are cited in-text (with frequent references to TDNT for lexical studies). As with all the Word series, the bibliography at the head of each section is invaluable, although now twenty years out of date. I would love to see this excellent commentary updated along the lines of Martin’s update to Hawthorne’s Philippians WBC commentary.
N. T. Wright, Colossians and Philemon (TNTC; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1986; now published by Intervarsity, 2008). The Tyndale series has been around for many years, Wright’s little commentary replaces 1960 Tyndale commentary by Herbert Carson. At only 192 pages, Wright’s commentary is brief, yet extremely helpful. The style is stimulating to read and will be helpful for any pastor or teaching preparing a sermon on Colossians. As expected, Wright has a fairly unique view of the Colossian heresy. He thinks that Paul is writing against the same sort of Judaizers he encountered in Galatia, considering Judaism as if it was just another philosophy in the marketplace of ideas of first-century Colossae. (This approach is similar to Dunn’s, Wright’s commentary pre-dates Dunn by a decade). This observation allows Wright to read the letter with the lens of the New Perspective on Paul (pages 24-30 make this point clear). As the commentary progresses, Wright consistently highlight’s Paul’s polemic against Judaism, as opposed to other suggested sources. The commentary is on the English text with occasional Greek appearing in transliteration. There is awareness of other scholarship, but the style of the commentary limits interaction with other commentaries.
Brian J. Walsh and Sylvia C. Keesmaat, Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2004). This is an unusual book, and I was initially hesitant to include it in a list of commentaries. It is an important book to me since this book was the first evangelical post-modern commentary I encountered. In fact, I am not sure I want to call it a commentary in the traditional sense of the word. As the authors imply by the title, they are “remixing” the letter in order to present it to 21st century America. As such, this is part sermon, part commentary, and part prophetic indictment. I recommend a careful study of Colossians, then reading this book from cover to cover – you will be challenged!
Conclusion. Dunn’s commentary is my first choice, but there are others which are worthy of attention. I have not spent sufficient time with Eduard Lohse’s commentary in the Hermenia series. The same is true of Jerry Sumney’s recent volume in the New Testament Library. I like Charles Talbert’s volume in the Paidia series as well. So, what have I missed? What “classic” would you add to this list?
Index for the Top Five Commentary Series
Matthew Mark Luke John Acts
Romans 1 Corinthians 2 Corinthians
Galatians Ephesians Philippians Colossians
1-2 Thessalonians Pastoral Epistles Philemon
Hebrews James 1 Peter 2 Peter & Jude
Letters of John Revelation