The Glossary of Terms



Young People's Bible Dictionary

by Barbara Smith (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1965)

Colossians, The Letter of Paul to the. N.T. book written by Paul, probalbly when a prisoner in Rome around A.D. 62, to the church at Colossae (also to the church at Laodicea, ch. 4:16). It was delivered by Tychicus and Onesimus, possibly along with the letter to Philemon. False teachers had been misleading the Colossians, and Paul wrote to correct their ideas.

Harper’s Bible Dictionary

edited by Paul J. Achtemier (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985)

Colossians, the Letter of Paul to the, a letter written either by the apostle Paul or, more probably, by one of his early followers to the Christian community at Colossae and included subsequently in the nt canon.


The Letter of Paul to the Colossians

Background: The immediate cause for this letter was the appearance at Colossae of Christian teachers announcing a ‘philosophy’ or ‘tradition’ (Col. 2:8) to which the author of Colossians took strong exception. The exact identity of this so-called Colossian heresy is much debated. There are links with Judaism: the teachers demanded circumcision (Col. 2:11), the observance of festivals, new moons, and sabbaths (2:16), dietary restrictions (2:16, 21), and what the author terms the ‘worship of angels’ (2:18). This last, clearly alien to more traditional Judaism, probably represented an effort to propitiate the heavenly powers or ‘elemental spirits’ (2:8, 20)—in Judaism these could be called ‘angels’—who were thought to control the movements of the stars and planets and thereby to influence human destiny. Those who observed the ascetical and ritual practices advocated by the teachers sought harmony with God and with the ruling spirits of the cosmos, a harmony perhaps confirmed by visionary experiences (Col. 2:18). While some have ascribed these teachings to Gnostic or Essene sources, they more likely derive from a form of Jewish Christianity modified by influences from Hellenistic astrology and perhaps from the pagan mystery cults. The reference in Col. 4:11 to the few Jewish Christians who remain as co-workers of Paul perhaps reflects this situation.

Content: In reply to such teachings the author of Colossians emphasizes the unique and all-powerful role of Christ and the present, saved existence of the Christian community. Christ, the ‘image’ of God (1:15) in whom ‘the whole fulness of deity dwells bodily’ (2:9; see 1:19), creates (1:16), gives coherence to (1:17), and has absolute power over (1:18-20) all beings whether earthly or heavenly. Indeed, the cosmic ‘principalities and powers’ have no independent authority but are mere captives in Christ’s triumphal procession (2:15). The community does not need some new form of protection or deliverance; it already has been ‘delivered’ and ‘transferred’ to the kingdom of the Son (1:13), even resurrected with Christ (2:12). The author stresses that ‘forgiveness of sins’ (1:14; 2:13; 3:13) is a present reality; perhaps some had viewed the rigorous new teaching as a solution for moral imperfection. Men and women, insists Colossians, need not retreat from the world in order to live upright lives; they have power here and now from Christ through baptism to act morally. Indeed, for Colossians the family household is a privileged locus for ethical activity (3:18-4:1).

Style and Authorship: In style and diction Colossians differs markedly from the clearly genuine Letters of Paul. Many of its sentences are long and involved, e.g., 1:9-20 and 2:8-15. Everywhere synonyms and parallel expressions appear in abundance, and the author delighted in stringing together without clear subordination various types of modifying phrases. Colossians has 34 words found nowhere else in the nt (Galatians, however, has 31 and Philippians 36) and 53 other words not found in the clearly genuine Pauline Letters. More importantly, a number of connective words and particles frequently utilized by Paul do not appear in Colossians. Certain theological themes in Colossians seem at variance with Paul’s usual perspectives. The cosmic rule of Christ, the ‘headship’ of Christ over the body (now viewed as the worldwide Church), and the present existence of Christians as ‘risen with Christ’ (i.e., a ‘realized’ rather than a ‘future’ eschatology) are stressed; and Christ’s death is mentioned but rarely (1:20; 2:14).

Those who defend Paul’s authorship of Colossians argue that the particular situation faced by the apostle evoked these stylistic divergencies and trace the theological shifts to natural developments in his thought. Accordingly, Paul would have written Colossians toward the end of his life (ca. a.d. 58-60) during his imprisonment at Rome or, less likely, at Caesarea.

However, the accumulated force of the above arguments suggests that someone other than Paul composed Colossians. Epaphras (Col. 1:7-8; 4:12), Onesimus (4:9), and, more plausibly, Timothy (1:1) have all been proposed as authors but no candidate is a clear favorite. Authorship was, nonetheless, attributed to Paul (1:1) because the actual writer wished to indicate firm adherence to his teachings. Colossians almost certainly does not describe a fictional situation but was written to an actual community that presumably knew many of the Pauline followers mentioned in 4:7-17. Further, its author refers clearly to Philemon but to none other of the Pauline Letters. Colossians must therefore be early (ca. a.d. 65-70), and its author probably lived in some city in Asia Minor not too far from Colossae.

See also, which provides a further explanation regarding Paul having not been the author of 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, Ephesians, Colossians, or 2 Thessalonians.

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