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.

Testament of Solomon: Several Biblical Expansions

After interviewing the demons, Solomon is visited by the Queen of Sheba, who is a witch in the Testament of Solomon 19. The Queen of Sheba visits Solomon in 1 Kings 10 and marvels at the glory of the Temple and Jerusalem and she is certainly not a witch. Testament of Solomon says she came before Solomon with “much arrogance” and was humbled before the king. Since the chapter is unrelated to the next, it is possible this is an insertion into the manuscripts.

Later, the queen tours the temple, including the innermost parts of the Temple. She sees the altar, including the cherubim and seraphim over the mercy seat. She contributed a great deal to the building of the temple (ten thousand copper shekels, in 1 Kings 10:10 she gave 120 talents of gold, a great quantity of spices and precious stones). This paragraph serves as brief summary of Solomon’s building activities in 1 Kings 7:13-51.

In chapter 20 Solomon demonstrates his wisdom in a variation of the biblical narrative in 1 Kings 3:16-28. Two men bring a case to Solomon an elderly son and his violent son.  The demon Ornias is laughing and explains to Solomon that the old man wants to kill the son. Solomon sends them away for three days, after which time the old man “has become childless.” The interesting element of this story is the source of the demon’s information. When Solomon asks him how he knew wha the father intended, Ornias explains that demons go up into the firmament of heaven, “among the stars,” and they hear the decisions of God concerning men.

Solomon then receives a request from the king of Arabia to deal with an evil spirit afflicting his kingdom (chs. 23-25). After seven days, Solomon sends a servant boy with a leather flask to entrap the Arabian wind demon, Ephippas. He is interrogated and placed in the “immovable cornerstone” of the Temple. Solomon asks the demon what he can do for him, in the service of the temple. He promises to raise a pillar of air from the Red Sea and set it wherever Solomon should ask. Ephippas does what he promised, and delivers the pillar to the temple, an enormous stone pillar which is floating in the air “to this day.”

The book returns to Solomon’s interrogation of demons in chapter 25. This final demon is called Abezethibou and came out of the Red Sea as a great pillar. This demon once sat in the first heaven and was responsible for hardening Pharaoh’s heart and the rebellion of Jannes and Jambres. Like Paul in Romans 9:16-17, this the presence of a demon absolves God of the guilt of hardening Pharaoh’s heart (cf. Romans 9:16-17. The tradition of two magicians in Egypt is found in 2 Tim 3:6-9. Although Exodus 7:11-13 mentions magicians, there are no names in the text. There are several rabbinic sources for Jannes and Jambres (b.Men., 85a; Exodus rabba, 7 on 7:11) and in Targum. Ps.-Jonathan. on Exod 1:15. This demon was engulfed in the waters to the crossing of the Red Sea and has been there ever since.

The final chapter of the Testament recounts Solomon’s many wives, especially his great love for a Shummanite woman. It is possible this is an allusion to Abishag, David;s concubine who was a Shummmanite, or to the woman in Song of Solomon 6:13 (a “maid of Shulam”). But the story more likely alludes to Samson’s demand for a Philistine wife in Judges 14. The woman’s parents require Solomon to worship the gods Raphan and Molech, but he refuses. They threaten their daughter with violence if Solomon does not marry her and worship these gods, so Solomon relents because he so loves the girl and does not want harm to come to her. As a result of Solomon’s compromise, the glory of the Lord departs from him.

This story provides an explanation for Solomon’s idolatry in 1 Kings 11. The canonical text indicates Solomon’s heart was not completely devoted to the Lord and he worship the gods of his wives. Here in the Testament of Solomon, Solomon is more or less forced to worship these gods in order to save his beloved from abuse and death. Nevertheless, Solomon describes himself as a “wretched man” who has become a laughingstock of demons. The phrase “wretched man” is similar to Paul’s in Romans 7, a man who knows what is right and chooses the evil instead.

Testament of Solomon: A Catalog of Demons

The Testament of Solomon begins with the story of a demon named Ornias who stole wages from a worker building the Temple and then sucked the thumb of a man’s son, sapping his strength. Solomon interrogates the boy and discovers the demon’s activities. Solomon prays to the Lord for help, and Michael gives him a ring through which he can imprison demons. He gives the ring to the boy and traps the demon. The boy turns the demon over to Solomon. The demon is brought to the throne of Solomon. Solomon asks him where he lives and he answers with a reference to the zodiac. He mentions he was once thwarted by the archangel Ouriel. Solomon prays to this angel, who comes and commands the demon to cut stones to help finish the temple. Ornias is given the ring and told to bring the prince of demons to Solomon. What follows is a list of demon names and a suggested method for exorcising the demon.


The rest of the book is a series of interrogations. Ornias brings a demon before Solomon, the demon is named, briefly described and then gives the way he might be thwarted. This usually involves invoking a powerful name, such as an angel or Jesus.Ornias goes to Beelzeboul and captures him with the ring. Solomon questions the prince of demons closely. Solomon asks Beelzeboul if there are female demons. He shows one to Solomon, Onoskelis, a beautiful woman who had the legs of a mule. Solomon questions here about her origin and activities and then commands her to spin hemp into ropes.

Chapter 5: Solomon commands Asmodeus to be brought to him, whom he also questions. He explains his origins and activities (marring the beauty of virgins and causing murders), and he explains that the angel Raphael caused him to go away by burning the liver and gall of a sheatfish (a large catfish, cf. Tobit 6:2 for this method of exorcism). Asmodeus is command to mold clay into vessels for the temple.

Chapter 6: Solomon begins to question Beelzeboul again. Beelzeboul “holds in his power the race of those bound by me in Tartarus. He is being nurtured in the Red Sea; when he is ready, he will come in triumph.” He tells Solomon he can be thwarted by several names, Eloi-I causes him to tremble and disappear. Solomon commanded this demon to cut marble for the temple.

Chapter 7: Solomon interrogates Lix Tetrax, the demon of the winds. The name Lix Tetrax appears on a tablet from Crete and is associated with Ephesian magical texts. This is a “blast demons” sometimes found Aramaic incantation texts. The demon explains his origins and activities (whirlwinds and divisions), and tells Solomon three names which will cast him out (including the name of the archangel Azael). He is forced to raise stones for the Temple.

Chapter 8: Solomon interrogates the seven stars of heaven, Deception, Strife, Fate, Distress, Error, Power, and “The Worst.” Their activities are fairly self-explanatory, but Error says “I am Error, King Solomon, and I am leading you into error, and I led you into error when I made you kill your brothers.” This refers to Solomon’s execution of his brother Adonijah (1 Kings 2:25).  Solomon commanded them to dig the foundation of the Temple.

Chapter 9: Solomon interrogates a demon called Murder, who is all limbs and no head. He claims “When infants are ten days old, and if one cries during the night, I become a spirit and I rush in and attack (the infant) through his voice” (9.5). He can only be stopped by a flash of lighting.

Chapter 10: Solomon interrogates a demon called Scepter, who was in the form of a gigantic dog.  This demon says “I deceive men who follow my star closely and I lead (them) into stupidity.” This demon helps Solomon obtain an emerald for the Temple.

Lion-Shaped Demon, Testament of SolomonChapter 11: Solomon interrogates a demon called “the Lion-Shaped Demon” who has a legion of demons under him. This demon “who sneaks in and watches over all who are lying ill with a disease and I make it impossible for man to recover from his taint” (11.2).

Chapter 12: Solomon interrogates a three-headed dragon demon who can be thwarted by the “place of the skull,” an allusion to the crucifixion. He is ordered to make bricks for the temple.

Chapter 13: Solomon interrogates Obyzouth, a female demon with disheveled hair. Disheveled hair evokes Medusa, guardian goddess of Aphrodite, but demons with wild hair also appears in Revelation 9:8. Obyzouth travels all night looking for women giving birth in order to make them strangle their baby. The angel Raphael thwarts her by writing her name on a papyri.

Chapter 14: Solomon interrogates a demon called “the so-called Winged Demon.” This demon performs perverse acts in the night and sometimes copulates with beautiful women “through their buttocks.” He is countered by an angel in the second heaven named Bazazath, a name only appearing here in the pseudepigrapha. He is forced to cut marble for the temple.

Chapter 15: Solomon interrogates a demon called Enepsigos. This female demon has countless names and can be conjured in many forms (including Kronos). The angel Rathanael can thwart her, but the Temple cannot hold her. Solomon inquires of the angel Rathanael and he is told he needs to use the seal of God. This angel prophesies to Solomon that his kingdom will be divided and the Temple will be destroyed until the Son of God comes and is stretched out on the cross.

Chapter 16: Solomon interrogates a demon called Kunopegos, a spirit in the shape of a horse in front and a fish in back (a sea-horse?).  He can change himself into a man and causes seasickness. In order to thwart this demon, one must go through a complicated ritual involving bowls and hemp ropes. Solomon sealed him with his ring and stored the demon away in the temple.

Chapter 17: Solomon interrogates a shadowy demon with gleaming eyes. He has no name, he only identifies himself as a “lecherous” demon. He is thwarted if the name of the savior is written on his head.

Chapter 18: Solomon interrogates thirty-six heavenly bodies with heads like formless dogs. Their names are listed with their activity (headaches, sore throats and other physical ailments) and the way to cast them out. This lengthy (and obtuse) listing ends the “interview” section of the book.

As can be seen from this catalog, demons were associated with a wide variety of afflictions, from “perverse acts in the night” to Kourtael, who “sends forth colics into the bowels” (18.13). The interview section of the book is more or less a manual on casting out demons: match an affliction with the demon and then follow the instruction given in the text. This is the sort of thing the Sons of Sceva attempted in Acts 19, although they failed. The Testament also gives evidence of the association of illness and demonic activity.