Book Review: Scot McKnight, Colossians (NICNT)

McKnight, Scot. Colossians. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2018. lx+442 pp.; Hb.; $55.00. Link to Eerdmans   

McKnight begins this major commentary on Colossians with the observation that the letter is Paul’s “apostolic vision that sought to redesign the Roman Empire” (1). That “redesign” is based on Paul’s gospel of Jesus Christ and Paul’s gospel, McKnight says, can be reduced to the term “mystery,” Paul’s “term in this letter for God’s plan to reconcile Gentiles with Jews, slaves with free, and all manner of social identities into one large family called the church” (4). According to the letter to the Colossians, this new family challenges the dark powers of the present age, whether they are Greco-Roman gods and emperors or the nationalism and imperialism of the modern age.

Scot McKnight, Colossians, CommentaryWith respect to the authorship and date of Colossians, McKnight begins with a critique of the method usually used in Pauline authorship discussions. He questions the validity of comparing Colossians to the other letters which are known to be authentically from Paul. The problem, says McKnight, is we really do not have proof Galatians (for example) was written by Paul. In fact, all ancient letters were mediated through a secretary, or perhaps even a series of scribes. Paul’s letters were often written along with others who worked with him, Timothy for example.

Although there are differences in vocabulary and style, McKnight lists several clear similarities between Colossians and the other so-called authentic letters: the authority of Paul, Christology, ecclesiology, and eschatology. In each case there are some unique elements and distinctive nuances, but each theological area does not contrast with the “pure Paul” of Romans and Galatians (16). The doctrine of justification and an emphasis on the Holy Spirit are missing from Colossians, but this is not part of the themes of the letter. He concludes his discussion of authorship with the curmudgeonly conclusion Paul did not write any of his letters, but Paul is behind all his letters (18).

McKnight favors the view Paul was in Ephesus when he wrote Colossians (and Philemon) in the mid-50s, perhaps as late as 57. The traditional view Paul wrote from Rome sometime in the early 60s is problematic because of the travel notes in Colossians and Philemon. Of course the main weakness of an Ephesian origin for the letter is there is no explicit reference to an Ephesian imprisonment. Yet an origin in Ephesus allows the interpreter to hear echoes of the culture of Ephesus in the letter, especially the presence of exorcists and magicians from Acts 19:13-20 and (I would add), the “powers” from the letter to the Ephesians (39).

The other introductory issue unique to Colossians is the nature of the opponents against whom Paul writes. McKnight calls them “the Halakic Mystics of Colossae.” The matter is complicated by the fact we know very little about Colossae compared to other Greco-Roman cities such as Ephesus. McKnight interacts at length with Jerry Sumney’s Identifying Paul’s Opponents (Bloomsbury, 2015) and agrees with Sumney’s call for caution in the case of the opponents at Colossae, but he would allow for more evidence to be drawn from the ethical section of the book. McKnight agrees with Ian Smith’s Heavenly Perspective: A Study of the Apostle Paul’s Response to a Jewish Mystical Movement at Colossae (T&T Clark, 2006) and “riffs” on Smith’s major points (29). The opponents were operating with a Jewish set of ideas allied with the kind of dualism found both in Judaism and Hellenism. This dualism led to a “world-denying asceticism.” Although they tended to “entangle themselves” with the elemental powers of this world, it is doubtful they actually worshiped angels.

The final section of the introduction to the commentary is a sketch of Paul’s theology in the letter. In reviewing recent scholarly discussion of Paul’s theology, McKnight concludes it is necessary to construct a Pauline theology which “transcends the soteriological schemes of Western theology” (51). He has three recent theological contributions in mind when he makes this statement. First, he acknowledges the contributions of James Dunn’s Pauline Theology (Eerdmans, 1998) and N. T. Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God (Fortress, 2013), but also sees recent contributions by Louis Martyn and Douglas Campbell and the “apocalyptic Paul” to be on the right track and renders the old perspective versus the new perspective passé (46).

The second recent contribution to Pauline studies which bears on Pauline theology in Colossians in John Barclay’s Paul and the Gift (Eerdmans, 2015). Barclay’s rich description of Paul’s understanding of grace in the literature of the Second Temple Judaism ought to be required reading before any scholar attempts to sketch out Paul’s theology (or write a commentary on a Pauline letter). Third, McKnight considers recent series of monographs by of Michael Gorman “some of the finest articulations of a Pauline theology” (49). Gorman is sometimes cited as an example of participationist theology and balances all the emphases of modern Pauline studies (50). He does suggest a modification to Gorman’s term cruciformity, with a suggestion of missional-Christoformity (a phrase appearing often in the commentary itself.

In his own fourteen page sketch of Pauline theology, McKnight attempts to “slightly reorient Dunn and Wright and Gorman” building on where “Wright ends his Paul and the Faithfulness of God and where Gorman lands: reconciliation and mission” (51). Perhaps it is time for McKnight to turn his attention to a fully developed Pauline theology textbook.

The body of the commentary proceeds through the outline of Colossians in smaller units. Each section begins a short orientation and translation of the text with numerous notes comparing the NIV and CEB. The commentary itself moves from phrase to phrase with technical details and Greek grammatical comments relegated to copious footnotes. When Greek words appear in the main body of the commentary they are transliterated so readers without Greek training will be able to follow the argument. Most interaction with scholarship appears primarily in the footnotes, making for a remarkably readable commentary. On occasion he must deal with technical details or theological problems (such as the meaning of baptism in 2:11). In these cases he provides material in the footnotes to point interested readers to more detailed articles and monographs.

Conclusion. McKnight’s prose is engaging and there are occasionally rhetorical flourishes intended to amuse the reader. Rarely does a technical commentary entertain as well as educate. But McKnight also demonstrates his pastoral heart, never straying from Paul’s pastoral purposes in the letter. This commentary will be useful for scholars, pastors, teachers, and interested laypersons who want to dig deep into the text of Colossians.

Usually commentaries on Colossians also include a section on Philemon. Scot McKnight’s commentary on Philemon in the New International Commentary on the New Testament series was originally intended to be included with this forthcoming Colossians commentary, However, Eerdmans decided to publish Philemon separately (see my review of his Philemon commentary here). McKnight also contributed a commentary on James in this series (Eerdmans, 2011).

 

NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

Published on August 15, 2018 on Reading Acts.

God has Reconciled Us (Colossians 1:22)

Colossians 1:22 begins with “but now” (νυνὶ δὲ). These are two very important words in the Greek, indicating an important contrast. The contrast is between time when we were enemies of God and the present time when we have experienced reconciliation with God. Reconciliation means the relationship is fixed, walls that existed between the two parties are torn down, and that they can now go about the business of building that relationship.

God has reconciled us through the death of Jesus. The basic idea behind reconciliation (καταλλαγή, καταλλάσσω) is the restoration of friendship between two estranged parties. This assumes an offense has separated two parties (political, social, familial, or moral, TLNT 2:263). In non-biblical Greek the word is virtually never used in religious sense primarily because the relationship between the gods and men is not personal. For most of the Greco-Roman world, worship appeased the gods, so a form of ἱλαστήριον (propitiation) would be used.

Josephus reflects the same usage of reconciliation. He uses the related term διαλλάσσομαι for a political agreement between Archelaus and Alexander (the son of Aristobulus) and Herod the Great. After a political arrangement is made, including due honors and gifts, the estranged parties entered into a formal friendship and they “spent their time feasting and agreeable entertainments” (War 1.513, 514).  In this example, Herod is in a far superior political position, but he honors Archelaus with great gifts in order to preserve the dignity of all parties.

Unlike secular Greek, Josephus uses καταλλάσσω in a religious sense.  In the context of the story of the twelve spies, Moses sought to reconcile God and the people (Ant. 3:315, using the noun.)  Similarly, when Saul offended God by sparing the Amalekites (Ant. 6:143), Samuel prays that God “be reconciled” to Saul (using a passive infinitive).

Returning to the earlier analogy of estrangement, the opposite of an estranged relationship is an reconciliation.  Rather than a divorce, the married couple overcomes their differences and has decided to remain married, they have reconciled their differences. God saw that we would not turn to him, so he had to provide the method of reconciliation himself.   Because the cause of the estrangement was our sin, and the fact that we could not pay for it ourselves.

God therefore provided a way for the debt of sin to be paid. He sent his own son to be killed as an atoning sacrifice so the problem of sin could be permanently solved, once for all.

Paul therefore describes a new state of being for the one who is in Christ. If this is the case and those who were once enemies have now been reconciled through the Cross, what are some implications for how we live out this in Christ life? Paul answers this in the second half of Colossians.

Are We Alienated from God? (Colossians 1:21)

Paul beings by pointing out humans are alienated from God, or perhaps “estranged.” In English, estranged can simply mean separation, “a man and his estranged wife…” This doesn’t mean that the one of the marriage partners are wrong.  It means that the couple has had marital problems and they are no longer living together. That is the relationship that we have with God before we are saved. We are “separated,” we have left God are living a life which is anti-God in every way we can.

EnslavedPaul uses this same word in Ephesians 2:12 and 4:18 to describe our state before Christ.  Gentiles are not just ignorant of God, they are darkened and hardened (Romans 1:18-32). The grammar is carefully chosen to highlight the rebelliousness of humans – “still more forcibly the persistence of the state of things” (BDF 352, a perfect passive participle).  At one time, we were persistently and wholeheartedly “As such they did not serve God; rather, they were enmeshed in idolatry and slavery to sin.” (O’Brian, Colossians, 66).

Put simply, before Christ, humans are “enemies of God.” This is a state of hostile towards an enemy. Think of the (many) countries who consider America an enemy: They are committed to harassing us at every turn, and they want to harm us as best they can. That is the way that we were before we were saved, we hated God, and didn’t want to have anything to do with Him. We were estranged, and we hated the one we were alienated from. We had walked out of the relationship ourselves, and we were the ones who turned our backs on God.

Before humans encounter Christ, they are in this state of hatred.  But God did not hate us, in fact, he still loved us with an intense self-sacrificing love that was very patient. it was God who did something to reconcile that relationship, and God alone.

Both of these conditions is a result of our “evil behavior.”  Obviously this could refer to paganism, the lifestyle out of which the Colossians were saved.  “These phrases denote the actions of the unbelieving world, which belong to the ways of darkness rather than the ways of light, and which ultimately lead to death.” (O’Brien, Colossians, 67).

Is this true of all unsaved people?  Were we really “enemies of God” before Christ? We are enemies of God because we are a part of the human race, although not all of us are playing the role of “enemy insurgent.” Just as when Iraq was at war with America, all Iraqis are technically the enemy; not all Iraqis are actively attacking American interests.  Some are more active enemies than others, but all are enemies by definition.

Does this accurately describe the human condition?

The Image of the Invisible God (Colossians 1:15-20)

Colossians 1:15-20 appear to have been an early Christian hymn.  There is evidence this was poetry, perhaps pre-dating Paul and well known to the congregation.  Paul uses material like this in other contexts (Phil 2:5-9, for example).  It is likely Paul is drawing on a well-known “statement of faith” passed along to the church as part of their education in who Jesus was and is, then drawing some implications from this hymn which are specific to the problem at hand – a group within the church which has some misunderstandings about who Jesus is.

ColossiansWhy use a hymn to relate theology?  One possibility is that it is a call back to the foundational understanding of Jesus they received through Epaphras (and hence through Paul).  A second possibility is this hymn may have been used and adapted by the false teachers in the Colossian community.  We know that in the first century Jews were beginning to speculate seriously about wisdom and were developing the idea of an incarnate Wisdom through whom all things were created. It is possible the false teachers were poking around in the nature of wisdom. Paul says by means of this hymn that if they want real wisdom, they ought to look to Jesus not their own philosophy.

Paul begins by identifying Christ is the “image of the invisible God” (1:15).  The word εἰκών is usually translated “image” as in the image an emperor’s head on a coin (BAGD).  It is an exact duplicate that is integrally a part of the original. 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.  L&N 58.35, “that which has the same form as something else.” This is the word chosen by the LXX to translate the Hebrew µl,x{{, in Genesis 1:26-27; 5:3, and 9:6. In Genesis, it is humans who are the image of the invisible God, in the sense that we are God’s representatives in this world; the Law makes it clear no other image of God is to be made.

The word ἀόρατος, “invisible,” is used only five times in the New Testament. In every case it refers to some quality of God, although here in Col 1:16 it refers to the (unseen) spirit world.   The use of this word for the spirit world is somewhat common. “Rulers both visible and invisible” appears in Ignatius’s To the Smyrnaeans 6.1, for example.

God as “invisible” is both a Jewish and a Greek idea.  In the Hebrew Bible God is never to be represented as an idol or an image, and although there is a great deal of representation of the gods in Greco-Roman paganism, Plato and other philosophers (Stoics, for example), believed in a real god who was invisible, immovable, and totally transcendent.

“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.” (F. F. Bruce “Colossian Problems: Part 2: The ‘Christ Hymn’ of Colossians 1:15–20” BSac 141 (1984): 101). Romans 1:20 refers to God’s “invisible qualities.” This is said not to separate Christ and God into two separate categories, but to show that they are part and parcel of the same being, which we refer to as the Godhead, one invisible, the other visible.

Paul seems to be claiming a great deal about Jesus in this verse. What is the theological at stake in this line? Or perhaps to think in about it in another way, what is the Colossian church questioning about Jesus that prompts Paul to respond with this rather audacious claim about Jesus?

 

 

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.

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)

Bibliography:

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.

Ephesians 4-6 as an Apostolic Didache

It can be argued that the material in Ephesians 4-6 and Colossians 3-4 reflect an early form of apostolic teaching or catechism material. The terms kerygma and didache are used to distinguish between two types of apostolic message.  Kerygma is the “preaching” material of the gospel for sinners (Christ’s death and resurrection), while didache is the teaching material aimed at the person that has already accepted this message and is concerned with the living out of that message in terms of ethical behavior.

didache-largeThis may imply some pre-existing documents that eventually are used in the production of the New Testament books, although these types of materials also circulated orally.  The kerygma material, for example, may include 1 Corinthians 15:3-5 or Phil 2:5-11.  But this is not to say that there was any single document called “kerygma” – the word simply refers to the material that was used in evangelism by various preachers in the early church.

The same applies to the term didache.  There would have been a core of teaching that Paul used in establishing churches and training leaders.  That material would have been generally the same in every church (i.e. qualifications for elders and deacons) but flexible enough to adapt to a slightly different cultural situation (the difference between the qualifications list in 1 Timothy and Titus, for example, show some adaptation for the situation on Crete where Titus was to appoint elders). By the end of the first century a short book of church practice known as Didache did circulate, although the contents are not quite the same as this collection of material.

This core of teaching is found as early as Acts 2:42, where we are told that the new converts were devoted to the daily instruction of the apostles. Since all of these converts in the early part of Acts are Jews, and likely observant Jews in Acts 2, the need for ethical instruction would have been less of a priority than instruction in the teachings of Jesus (i.e. doctrine – Christology (who was Jesus, what did he teach) and Eschatology (the Christ is returning very soon).  It is not unlikely that at this stage that the stories of Jesus’ acts and his teachings began to be passed from the Apostles to their disciples.

What are the implications that Paul might have used and adapted a kind of “standard teaching” in these two letters? Does this “early Christian standard” of ethics help us understand how the Church was teaching ethics in the first century?

Some bibliography: E.  G.  Selwyn, The First Epistle of St.  Peter, 363-466; Philip Carrington, The Primitive Christian Catechism; A. M. Hunter, Paul and his Predecessors; C. H. Dodd,  The Apostolic Preaching and its Developments;  Everett F.  Harrison, “Some Patterns of the New Testament Didache” BSac V119 #474 (Apr 62) 118-129; V. P. Furnish, Theology and Ethics in Paul, 68-111.

Who is Epaphras? (Colossians 1:1-8)

“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.

ColossiansThe 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!