One of the main issues we need to sort out for understanding the letter to the Colossians is the nature of the false teaching which was causing problems in the church. Paul clearing thinks that it is important enough to write a letter to a church which he did not found in order to correct the problem. Paul says that members of the church are being help captive to this inadequate theology, which he calls a philosophy and an empty deceit (Col 2:8).
James D. G. Dunn suggested that the problem in Colossae was the same as in Galatians and other early Pauline epistles – Jews were arguing that the gentile Christians were not really “saved” since they did not keep the ceremonial law of the Jews, especially Sabbaths and food laws. This is the “normal” Jewish critique of Gentile Christianity. While this adequately accounts for the Jewish aspect of the Colossian heresy, there is nothing in Galatians which leads to the conclusion that worship of angels or visions were part of the Judaizer’s agenda.
Fred Francis has argued that the Colossian church was influenced by the merkabah mysticism of early Judaism. This mystical form of Judaism stressed visions of heaven and the throne room of God. This sort of vision is found in the Enoch literature and likely does date to the pre-Christian era. A potential problem for this view is that most of the merkabah-type literature we know about is found in Judea, not Asia Minor.
At his presidential address at the 2011 ETS conference, Clint Arnold suggested that the false teaching in Colossae was related to the type of Jewish exorcisms we find in the sons of Sceva (Acts 19). In that passage these Jewish exorcists attempt to cast out a demon in the name of Jesus, but are soundly beaten by the demon possessed man. Arnold discussed parallels in the Testament of Solomon, which is more or less a manual on how to diagnose a demon possession. If the demon’s name could be discovered, then the appropriate angel may be invoked to bind that demon and free the person from oppression.
I thought that Arnold did a good job supporting his claims, and it is a connection which ought to be obvious for anyone who reads the Testament of Solomon. He illustrated his point with several images of magical amulets found in Asia Minor which invoke angelic names as magic charms and occasionally depict Solomon as conquering demonic powers. While Arnold did not take it this far, it is possible that a Jewish mystic / exorcist came to faith in Jesus as savior, but failed to move away from his esoteric practices to deal with demon possession or other illness. Like the Corinthians, some individuals in the Corinthian church were continuing to believe and practice in ways which were not compatible with their new faith. Instead if visits to the Temples, as in Corinth, these believers were clinging to their esoteric knowledge which they believed controlled demons and illness. For Paul, this is an inadequate view since Jesus created these spiritual powers (Col 1:15-20) and has alread rendered them powerless.
Thinking of the Colossian heresy in these terms provides another level of application which may be overlooked. For new believers in the non-western world, it is difficult to leave certain culturally accepted folk beliefs because they seem to “work.” But there are ways in which believers in the west fail to “take every thought captive” to Jesus (2 Cor 10:5)
J. D. G. Dunn, “The Colossian Philosophy: A Confident Jewish Apologia,” Biblica 76 (1995): 153-81.
Fred Francis, “Humility and Angel Worship in Col 2:18”, in Conflict at Colossae, 163-95.