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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.

“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 probably never recovered from this disaster.

ColossiansThe church at Colossae was founded by Epaphras, a disciple of Paul from Ephesus (cf. 1:7, 4:12).  Epaphras is called a “faithful minister” (verse 7).  The name is short for Epaphroditus, a name common in the first century (c.f., Phil 2:25, 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, 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.

This prayer also serves to underscore the authority of a local pastor-evangelist who was questioned 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!

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