“Without doubt…the least important church to which any epistle of Paul is addressed.” J. B. Lightfoot, Colossians, 16.
By the first century, the city of Colossae could only be described as a “small town” by Strabo, (Geography, 7.8.13.) Little is known about the town in this period other than it was nearly destroyed by an earthquake in A.D. 60/61. The cities of Laodicea and Hierapolis are quickly rebuilt; Laodicea can even be described as “rich” when the book of Revelation is written thirty years later. Colossae never recovered from this disaster. Unfortunately, the ancient site of Colossae has not yet been excavated so little is known about the city in the first century.
The church at Colossae was founded by Epaphras (Ἐπαφρᾶς, pronounced “e-paf-ras”), a disciple of Paul from Ephesus (cf. 1:7, 4:12). Paul calls Epaphras a “faithful minister” (1:7). The name is short for Epaphroditus (Ἐπαφρόδιτος), a name common in the first century meaning “lovely, fascinating, charming” (LSJ). It is also the name of the servant who delivered a gift to Paul from Philippi) (Phil 2:25 and 4:13; Philemon 23). An inscription was found in Colossae mentioning a T. Asinius Epaphroditus, although it is unlikely this is the biblical Epaphras (F. M. Gillman, ABD 2:533).
Epaphras was from Colossae (4:12) and may be an evangelist in the Lycus valley. The cities of Laodicea and Hierapolis both had thriving churches in the first century (4:12, Rev 3:14-22). Paul tells the church that Epaphras has reported their faith to Paul, and in 4:12 Paul describes himself as “wrestling in prayer” on behalf of the church while he is working hard in other churches. The Colossian believers learned from Epaphras, who learned from Paul.
The verb μανθάνω is associated with “systematic instruction” rather than a brief outline (BDAG). Perhaps Paul used this verb in order to set the gospel preached by Epaphras apart from the Colossian heresy. Epaphras was disciple by Paul and trained to be an evangelist and church planter by the apostle Paul himself. The opponents do not appear to be associated with anyone in the apostolic circle and their teaching is not approved by Paul. In fact, the bulk of the letter engages the ideas of the opponents in order to show their teaching falls short of the Gospel.
Paul may associate himself with Epaphras in this letter because his opponents in Colossae are question his credentials–who is Epaphras to be teaching the congregation spiritual things? The church may be influenced by other teachers for guidance rather than a young evangelist like Epaphras. Paul gives Epaphras has his personal approval in the opening of this letter, what Epaphras teaches is exactly what Paul taught.
Paul’s prayer serves to underscore the authority of a local pastor-evangelist who faced questions from by his church. Paul lets the church know from the first paragraph that he will be siding with Epaphras in any theological debates in the church!
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?
Galatia struggled with Gentiles who wanted to keep the Law and Corinth struggled with Gentiles who did not sufficient “depaganize” and allow Christ to transform their moral behavior. In Colossae, it appears that the problem was a Jewish mystic, possibly exorcist who advocated “secret knowledge” which only the spiritual, insiders could obtain. Possibly this esoteric, secret knowledge was the true nature of Jesus Christ, or perhaps how to use Jesus’ name as a powerful tool for dealing with other spiritual beings. This is a very pragmatic Christianity which attempts to hide knowledge of the real facts until the believer is sufficiently “prepare” to receive it. While I am not sure that the Colossian heresy was a “mystery cult” in the true sense of the word, there seem to have been some initiation for the believer before he was “let in” on the true state of things.
For Paul, Christianity is not at all an exclusive religion which hides doctrine from the outsiders. In fact, everyone is welcome and the whole gospel is preached from the very beginning. There are some deeper, more difficult doctrines, but there is nothing which is a secret. This is one of the real differences between Christianity and many of the other “mystery cults”popular in the first century (and today!) It really is easy to understand the basics of Christian claims and beliefs, whether you like them or not.
Paul therefore goes to the root of the problem and lays out in the introduction to the letter exactly who Jesus is. All the “secrets” are laid out before the reader and there is no question who Jesus is by the end of 1:20.
Christ as the image of the invisible God. By saying that Christ is in the image of God, he affirms that he is an accurate picture of what God is, and in fact, he is God. Bruce once said “To call Christ the image of God is to say that in Him the being and nature of God have been perfectly manifested—that in Him the invisible has become visible.”
Christ as the firstborn of creation. This title for has been a very troublesome exegetical point since it appears that Jesus is a created thing, the first thing that God created. But if this phrase is read against the background of the Hebrew Bible, the word “first born” is actually an expression of position – the son chosen to the the heir as opposed to the naturally born first son. A bit later Paul calls Jesus the“firstborn from among the dead,” an obvious non-literal use of the word “firstborn.”
The point that Paul is getting at is that Christ has made things, so it is pointless to give honor and worship to those things. All honor and worship is due Christ, not anything created. The command is therefore to worship Christ as God, something that would be idolatrous if Christ is a created thing himself. The centrality of Jesus is therefore the starting point for theology in Colossians, but also for ethical and moral teaching and proper worship.
Bibliography: F. F. Bruce, “Colossian Problems: Part 2: The “Christ Hymn” of Colossians 1:15–20″ BibSac 141 (1984): 99-111
Commenting on the city of Colossae , J. B. Lightfoot said “Without doubt…the least important church to which any epistle of Paul is addressed” (Colossians and Philemon, 16). Colossae was, in pre-Christian times, a station on a highway through the Lycus and Meander valleys, a highway that connected Ephesus and Phrygia. This route was a main road connecting the East with the West. By the first century, the city of Colossae could only be described as a “small town” by Strabo, (Geography, 7.8.13.) Little is known about the town in this period other than it was nearly destroyed by an earthquake in A.D. 60/61. The cities of Laodicea and Heiropolis are quickly rebuilt; Laodicea can even be described as “rich” when the book of Revelation is written thirty years later. Colossae probably never recovered from this disaster.
The Lycus Valley appeared to have had a sizable Jewish population, perhaps explaining the establishment of churches in Colossae, Laodicea and Heiropolis and the type of problem described by the book. The Jewish Population is an inference drawn from Cicero’s description of the proconsul Flacus who seized the Temple tax in Laodicea in 62 B.C. (Flac. 28.68). Cicero was the “defense attorney” for Flacus who was accused of illegally taking the Temple tax (Bruce, 4).
The church of Colossae was not founded by Paul, although there is no reference in the book of Acts to him visited the city before the church was founded. It is known that on Paul’s first missionary journey he went as far as Pisidian Antioch, which is 200 kilometers from Colossae, and that a great number of men from other areas came to Christ at that time. Sometimes it is assumed that since Colossae was connected to Pisidian Antioch it is likely that some converts there were from Colossae and they carried the Gospel back to their town, as well as to Laodicea and the rest of the Lycus valley.
Paul has only heard of their faith (1:4, 9) and has not yet met the church personally (2:1). They do seem to know one of Paul’s co-workers, Epaphras (1:7) who was from the city of Colossae (2:7). Both the Colossian letter and Philemon imply that Paul has older connections with the church at Colossae and Laodicea. it is thought that on his third missionary journey he made a swing through the area, very generally reported in Acts 18-19. It would be at this time that he made contact with the church and led Philemon and Epaphras to the Lord, as mentioned in the letters.
Bibliography: C. Arnold, “Colossae” in ABD 1:1089-1090. F. F. Bruce, “Colossian Problems – Part 1: Jews and Christians in the Lycus Valley,” BibSac 141 (1984).