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.

15 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?

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