What was the Problem in Colossians?

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).

Burn the HereticJames 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.

In 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 already 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.

23 thoughts on “What was the Problem in Colossians?

  1. Philip, Paul blasphemed and boasted nonsense about him filling up in his flesh what was STILL LACKING in regard to Christ’s afflictions. That is a lie of Satan from the pen of Paul to the Colossians. Nothing is lacking. “It is finished.” No wonder they were confused. It’s in Paul’s letter – read it for yourself. Per your request, I have stopped posting on – and stopped reading – your blog. May I ask why these messages keep appearing in my inbox? I have no time for messages that are “one way from the pulpit” with discussion not allowed. That is the way cults like Islam and “Paul worship” keep control. The voice of their one “special Man” with his “special writings” overrides everyone else, including Jesus, and they don’t have ears to listen. I hope you will start listening to Jesus for a change, instead of your idol, Boss Paul the Pharisee. May God be with you, Matthew Perri Date: Thu, 5 Nov 2015 20:26:47 +0000 To: matthewmontebello@hotmail.com

  2. It seems that all the people that Paul writes to has many issues pertaining to fighting with what the world has to say vs. what Jesus has to say. Paul is praying for the people in Colossae, that they may not be led astray by others who are teaching falsely. “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ” (Colossians 2:8). There were people who were delighting in false humility and the worship of angels that disqualify them. Paul is just trying to protect the people and what these people were telling them could devalue Christ. Paul wanted to make sure that Christ’s supremacy and sufficiency is so thoroughly woven throughout Colossians (TTP 224).

  3. I most certainly believe that the church today has folk beliefs that are believed to work, but fail in many ways. Many of our teaching are like this. We cling to do traditional teaching about Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac, the Sermon on the Mount, and other passages of Scripture that “make sense,” but also stunt growth and true interpretation of Scripture. Many believers today also simply take what their pastors say as absolute truth with no other way for a passage to be seen, rather than delving into God’s word themselves and finding meaning from it. Certain Christian religions here also follow practices that may not be beneficial, but seem to work, such as Catholic rosaries. Some practices are viewed as necessary, beneficial, and obligatory for every believer, when the Apostle Paul talks about this issue in Romans that “Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind” about what practices are necessary for him. While this could be skewed in the wrong way, it shows that there is some flexibility in how people view certain practices, and our goal should always be striving to “continue living lives in Christ” (TTP 229).

  4. Paul’s point in writing Colossians is to say that Christ is sufficient. Longenecker says that the Colossians appear to have been supplementing the gospel. In saying this, they were not trusting in the sufficiency of Christ. Paul discourages the people from adding things to the gospel like feasts, mysticism, and food laws (224). People like something tangible so that they know for certain that what they believe is true. Paul’s whole point was to say stop adding to the gospel because Christ is sufficient (Col 2:8-9). It is easy for those in the west to look at other cultures and judge them for animism, universalism, and other additions or misunderstandings of the gospel. However, here in the west we have our own problems. For some people baptism is used to supplement the gospel. For others it can be things like church attendance or good works. Still for others it is a political agenda that must be adopted in order to be a Christian. Paul is saying that we need to disregard these things and understand that Christ is sufficient. We need not try to add anything on or rely on other things but be wholly satisfied with the gospel we have received.

  5. The “Colossian philosophy” was a “hollow and deceptive philosophy” (2:8) that Paul felt the need to write a letter to address and fix (TTP, 223). The philosophy depends on “human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ” (Col 2:8). This philosophy has a variety of proposals as to how it originated; from Jewish Gnosticism, apocalyptic, to Hellenistic philosophies and religions (TTP, 223). Longenecker and Still state that it is unclear as to where the philosophy and false teachings originated, but that those who originated the philosophy were promoting some of the Jewish religious observances, and thus, had links to the Jewish faith (224). Given this information, I would have to agree that the originators of the philosophy had some sort of connection to Judaism, even if they themselves had strayed form the Jewish faith in their beliefs.

  6. It seems to be the case in many of the early churches that the new christians tend to hold onto their old practices from their old way of life. As you were saying, the Jewish believers would tell the christians that they were not really believers because of not keeping the practices. You dismissed the idea that the views of angel stories would not have come from the Jewish people as well, but were the Jews not the ones that we have heard about angels from in other stories in the Bible? Non-Jewish people did not have the visions of the angels, but rather the Jewish believers of that time, these stories may be passed through generations and embellished. There is no support to this claim, but the implications of angels touching peoples lives in the Jewish culture are prevalent throughout scripture, so it may be possible that this heresy could be from a skewed Jewish tradition as well.

  7. The problem the Colossians were having with the “hollow and deceptive philosophy” (Col 2:8) are problems I believe the church faces today. Not everyone brings their bible to church anymore, like they used to, so they take their pastors word and do not question what he says. In 1 Cor. 14, it says that there should be two or three prophets when speaking, and the others should weigh carefully what it said. Maybe this means we need a few pastors to keep each other accountable for what is being said, to make sure each is being accurate in interpretation. At the same time, this also means the congregation should weigh what the pastor says, too, making sure he is being accurate in what he teaches. Just like the the “philosophy runs the risk of leading the Colossians astray, that is, away from Christ” (TTP 229), what preachers today can lead others astray if they don’t check if what he says is accurate with the Bible.

  8. I, sadly, read your blogs out of order. I commented on your newest blog a conclusion which is similar to the one you found. I have read Dr. Arnold’s book Powers of Darkness and found it to be a very fascinating look into a possible theological backdrop of the 1st century church.

    • The Colossians were likely like any other Greek or Roman living in the mid first century, local and family gods were honored and probably some veneration of the Empire (the emperor and his family were deified and likely honoring Roma, the goddess of the roman empire). Many were superstitious, perhaps relying on charms and spells to protect them from the “evil eye,” etc.

      Does that help?

  9. There was a philosophy circulating in Colossae that undermined the work of Christ and led to improper worship and ethics. There are several possible roots for this philosophy including Jewish Gnosticism, Jewish mysticism, and Hellenistic philosophies and religions (TTP, p.223). Paul made the claim that these philosophies were empty deceit. He also said that the teachings were inspired by the elemental spirits of the world which could mean the spirits referred to in Persian religious texts or other ancient documents. Most likely Paul is referring to demonic spirits which can influence human traditions (ESVSB p.2296). Advocates for the philosophy that Paul opposed supported practices such as Jewish observances of dietary laws and special days, worshipping angels, and visionary experiences incongruent with the gospel (TTP p.224). It also promoted severity to the body. Paul wanted the Colossians to see that this philosophy while appearing to offer wisdom, actually promoted confidence in self rather than the sufficiency of Christ. The teachers of this false philosophy claimed to have heavenly secrets from visions and spiritual interactions, but their knowledge was earthy. Paul admonished the Colossian believers to set their minds on things above and in doing so pursue a deeper knowledge of Christ himself in whom is salvation and true wisdom (ESVSB p.2298).

  10. Kellum Bridgeforth
    Professor Long
    Pauline Lit
    Blog Post #8
    Colossians is a very important Pauline epistle because there are several problems that need to be addressed, Like P.Long says when addressing the words of James D.G Dunn. Dunn’s main point as to what problems are amongst the people of Colasse are similar to those in Galatia; which in fact would be “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 a problem however Paul clearly states that these Jewish mosaic laws do not actually matter for we are all one in Christ. Colossians 3:11 is a perfect verse to put an end to that debate and problem. “Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all” (Colossians 3:11). With that being said I do not think that is the main problem that needs to be addressed in Colossae. The main problem that I personally think needs to be dealt with would be how the people of Colossae are interpreting the “Colossian Philosophy”. Paul combats the Colossian Philosophy because he thinks that it is “hollow and deceptive” (TTP 223); Pauls backs this statement by adding that it “depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ” (TTP 223). Thus, the Colossian Philosophy is not a way to live because it is not living a life according to Christ, rather it is a life living according to societal beliefs; which is a huge no no stated in previous Pauline literature. Colossians 2 is a great chapter to help address these problems that arise with Colossian Philosophy, one verse in particular is Colossians 2:6-7 “So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as LORD, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness” (Colossians 2:6-7 ). This verse by Paul is a direct victory in combat against the “Colossian Philosophy” and it is the correct way to solve and address the main problem. Paul also goes on to obliterate all oppositions with Colossians 2:8 stating “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ” (Colossians 2:8). This is huge because we are not to let anyone rule us or judge us according to societal beliefs and social customs for those are the way of human nature, and not the ways of the Gospel.

  11. There was a huge misconception about Christology in city of Colossae. This misconception about who Christ was and what he stood for led the Colossian people into believing incorrect beliefs about Christianity. Longenecker explains in TTP that the philosophy of the people of Colossae was described by Paul as, “dependent on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of the world rather than on Christ.” This addressing by Paul to the Colossians almost seems to describe the Colossians as reverting to their previous beliefs that coincided with Hellenistic traditions and philosophies. This is concerning for Paul because it almost feels like the Colossians were taking what they enjoyed about the Hellenistic or Roman religion and applying it to Christianity. This happened in the form of Angelic worship and praying to angels rather than to God or Christ. Paul addresses this worship in Colossians 2: 18 where he says, “Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind,” which means Paul wanted the shift from this worship of false ideologies back to the worship of Christ. He furthers this statement in Colossians 3 where he says, “Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.” The modern world is not too different from Colossians. We often take things we enjoy about life in put them into our religion – worshipping things we think can lead us to Christ but have no place in such thing, praying to different people that claim to be as significant as Christ, and believing that Christ isn’t the only way to get to have a spot in heaven.

  12. For a Church that is new to the Faith, it can become easy to misinterpret part of the message, as it occurred in Colossae. They had different beliefs about who Christ was and what he stood for and that, in turn, lead to the Colossians believing incorrect views about Christianity as a whole. The danger in the church that Paul sees is the “Colossian Philosophy” which is “hollow and deceptive philosophy” (2:8). Longenecker puts it like this, “depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ” (p. 223). Instead of moving forward with this Faith in Jesus Christ they are trying to revert back to the “old covenant” where a persons works is the be all end all. They know who this Jesus Christ is and what he did for them yet they continue to put him off to the side rather than make him the center of their world.

    As Long pointed out in the blog post we see this take place in Corinth, where the people start praying to angels rather than Christ who free them from their sins. Paul is seeking the Church of Colossae to rid themselves of sinful practices and develop Christian virtues (1:10-12, 28). He is reminding them what the true message and purpose of Jesus’ life was; that He has defeated the powers of darkness on the cross (2:10). No longer are they bound by works or old traditions but now they are simply bound by Faith in Christ, and they are to live in Him and for Him.

  13. We often find that new churches to the Christian faith tend to misinterpret the messages of the Bible. The city of Colossae struggled to believe in correct believes. James D. G. Dunn claims that the problem in Colossae was equal to the Galatians and the rest of the early Pauline epistles. Most of the people that Paul tries to reach to have many issues with understanding the ideas of the Christian faith. When he was sent by God, Paul’s job was to reach those who may not understand that well and change different towns into Christian faith. We see in Thinking Through Paul that the Clossian Philosophy is Hallow and and deceptive in Paul’s thoughts (TTP 223). Those that look at religion differently than we do may find it a bit harder to gain that knowledge and lose the beliefs of their old beliefs or faith.

  14. The fact that Paul is writing a letter to a church he was not the founder of shows how bad it is. It is like you are doing something stupid and soemone else’s mom steps in because you are being so out of control.
    Dunn’s theory is similar to some issues that Christians are having now. This issue is the different branches of Christianity being less holy then the others. I have a friend who is a member of an Apostolic church and is always talking about how his church is right and we are just wrong. This type of divide can even happen within a singular church. My church is very traditional and the music is played on an organ. There was a large divide within the church when it was proposed that contemporary music was played for one of the three services.

  15. The church of Colossians is struggling to follow Jesus, they were becoming distracted by the false teachings. The problem within this church was “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,” (Long, 2017). This was a problem because they generally believed that the gentile Christians were not saved because they were not keeping with the laws of Judaism. Although at this point God had already died on the cross and raise again, they were free from the law. The Gentiles did not have to follow the laws because they were saved from sin by Jesus Christ. God is sovereign to save us from our sin even if we do not follow laws. This was a major problem back then, and a great divider between the Jews and the Gentile Christians. This also happens today between Christians. Christians can be judgement towards other Christians, they tend to compare themselves to other Christians. Christian’s main goal should be to focus on Jesus Christ first and foremost and not on other Christians. As a Christian we should be building other Christians up in Godly and encouraging ways. We should be having constructive conversations and think through things in a deeper and healthier way. Believers should take their beliefs to the Bible and compare them to what the Bible states. The Bible should be the main source where Christians get their beliefs from. Christians can be quick to judge each other instead of having constructive criticism. Christians should always be building each other up.

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