The Letter of Paul to the Colossians - Introduction
The church in Colossae, a town on the Lycus River in the Roman province of Asia, was founded by a Colossian associate of Paul's named Epaphras ( 1.7–8; 4.12–13 ). The letter begins with a highly complimentary description of the Colossians' lives, but unnamed teachers, who observe Jewish rituals and pursue mystical experiences through ascetic practices ( 2.8–23 ), pose a threat to their faith. Without an independent description of these teachings, the polemical tone of this letter (for instance, “empty deceit, according to human tradition,” 2.8 ) makes their precise identification difficult. The practices advocated are best understood as a form of Jewish apocalyptic mysticism, although some scholars have preferred to see a synthesis of Judaism with proto‐Gnostic thought, local Phrygian religious practices, or Hellenistic philosophy. The fact that Jewish practices, which did not focus on Christ, were attractive to Christians reflects the close connections between Jewish and Christian communities, as well as a typical first‐century Christian ambivalence toward Judaism: Jewish eschatological outlook and morality are central to the author's Christian vision, while Jewish practices associated with holydays, ritual, and kosher food are rejected as incompatible with Christ.
There are many similarities to the undisputed letters of Paul in the structure, theology, and even language of Colossians. However, Colossians lacks some central Pauline terms, utilizes new theological vocabulary, and is composed in a different, liturgical style. Two theological contrasts stand out: first, the vision of believers' present lives as almost completely transformed by Christ's death and resurrection, instead of Paul's usual tension between the partial experience of salvation in the present and the future resurrection that ushers in the full enjoyment of Christ's benefits; second, the use of household rules as ethical norms, which is more characteristic of other post‐Pauline literature (e.g., Ephesians and the Pastoral letters) than of Paul's own ethical instructions. Such differences have led some scholars to conclude that Colossians was written in Paul's name by one of his disciples—either during Paul's lifetime or a decade after his death—in order to lend authority to its application of Paul's thought to a new situation. Other scholars, noting Colossians' close similarities to Philemon, think the letter was written by Paul himself while imprisoned ( 4.3,10,18 ) at Rome near the end of his life, and attribute the theological contrasts to developments in Paul's thinking and the particular situation addressed in the letter. Colossians also has significant similarities to Ephesians and was probably used as a model by the author of that letter (see the Introduction to Ephesians and the list on p. 327 NT).
Colossians follows the basic structure of a Pauline letter, beginning with a greeting ( 1.1–2 ) and an introductory thanksgiving ( 1.3–8 ) and prayer ( 1.9–14 ), and ending with greetings and instructions ( 4.7–18 ). The body of the letter includes both a theological argument ( 2.6–23 ) and ethical instructions ( 3.1–4.6 ). The basis of the theological argument is laid down in 1.12–2.5 . In the elevated words of an early Christian hymn, Christ is praised as the supreme power over the cosmos and the church ( 1.15–20 ). Although demonic forces enslaved humanity in the past, Christians were freed from their influence, forgiven through Christ's death, and made full citizens of the kingdom of Christ, to whom they now owe complete allegiance and obedience ( 1.12–14,21–23 ). Christ's identity as the perfect revelation of God ( 1.19; 2.9–10 ) and as the singular source of wisdom about how to live rightly ( 1.9–10; 2.2–3 ) is emphasized as well. The main theological argument focuses on the change in believers' destiny achieved by Christ's death on the cross ( 2.9–15 ); the recurring contrasts of death and life ( 2.12–13, 20; 3.1–5 ), old and new ( 3.9–10 ), and past and present ( 1.12–14,21–23 ) emphasize the fundamental psychological and moral reorientation required of the faithful. Because Jewish rituals and mystical experiences of angelic worship do not foster allegiance to Christ and belong to the old order as well as to pagan superstitions about astrological powers, they must be rejected as implicit denials of Christ's lordship. The members of a true Christian community, rejecting their previous immoral lifestyle ( 3.5–11 ) and reorienting their entire lives around Christ as Lord ( 3.1–4 ), are to live in harmony with each other as they worship and give thanks to God and Christ ( 3.12–17 ). The Christian household, however, is only a mildly Christianized version of an ancient patriarchal family ( 3.18–4.1 ) rather than a complete renewal of family relationships based on the equality of all in the new community.