In the NT, the seventh letter of Paul. Religious teachers had come into the Lycus valley and were disturbing the tranquillity of the Church at Colossae. There has been much scholarly discussion about their identity. Were they Gnostics—of the kind that flourished in the 2nd cent. CE? Or Jewish Christians? Or apocalpyticists, in view of their asceticism as a means of heavenly ascent and a share in the worship of angelic hosts (2: 18)?

Although Gnosticism was most fully manifest in the 2nd cent. CE, traces of it are already evident earlier, and some detect it as the false teaching which the epistle to the Colossians seems to reflect. Gnosticism was an eclectic mixture of speculation about the universe which it regarded as divided between good and evil powers that fought in the world. Salvation was available to the privileged group of initiates who possessed the essential knowledge (gnosis) conveyed by a revealed figure. Along with visionary experiences Gnostics promoted an extreme asceticism and distrust of the material world, so that some scholars regard the epistle’s discouragement of self-abasement and the worship of angels (Col. 2: 18) and the concept of pleroma (Col. 1: 19) as references to Gnosticism.

On the other hand, the epistle does not seem to be concerned to refute Gnostic docetism; nor were Gnostics actually given to the worship of angels—indeed these beings were thought to have had a hand in the creation of the evil world. For these reasons, another view is that the teaching which Colossians refutes is that of Jews who did have their special days of abstinence and of celebration (Col. 2: 16) and who did venerate angels as messengers of God; they refused devotion to Christ (Col. 1: 15–20), and they held the Law to be the appointed means of salvation. Moreover, the false teachers demanded circumcision. All of this points to Judaism as the heresy attacked: but they may have been Jewish Christians, since in Col. 4: 11 the author pointedly mentions those few Jewish Christians who still support him. True, the epistle contains nothing of the violent abuse in which Paul denounced Jewish Christians in Galatia (Gal. 3: 1), but in this case the whole approach is more restrained and tactful and consists more of a positive statement of Christian belief. Possibly this is because later in life and experience, Paul was learning better apologetics. But was Paul the author? It is widely doubted. The long sentences are unlike other Pauline letters. Many little words (particles like ‘so’ or ‘but’) typical of other letters are absent in Colossians; the great theological theme of the headship of Christ over the universal Church and the neglect of a future eschatology all point to another author.

Yet there remain good reasons for holding on to the traditional view. Paul was quite capable of adapting his language to the occasion (cf. 1 Cor. 9: 19–23); and there remains the expression of a hope for the future (Col. 3: 4; 3: 24) and the theme of the present life in the Spirit is already anticipated in earlier epistles. But for many readers the obvious connection with the authentic letter of Paul to Philemon (Col. 4: 9) is decisive.

The essence of the epistle’s message is that of the unique role of Christ; in him the Christian community enjoys the certainty of salvation. Paul uses the Jewish concept of wisdom (Col. 1: 9), which was also attractive to converts from paganism, and was an early example of refining concepts in order to express the Christian faith in terms intelligible to new audiences for whom an alien conservative framework was meaningless. It was a very subtle argument. In Christ the wisdom of God was made plain and his purpose executed. Other familiar words were used: ‘fulness’ (Col. 1: 19; 2: 9) and ‘mystery’ (Col. 1: 26 f.; 2: 2), by which Paul claimed that the whole being and power of God was present in Christ; there were no secondary intermediaries, such as the Jewish law (Col. 2: 14). Thus Paul, though indeed a man of the 1st cent., firmly rejected its mythologies, whether Jewish or Hellenistic, which interposed various kinds of supernatural barriers between God and humanity. For Paul the transcendence of God was absolute and God deals with humankind through the historical work of Jesus the Christ (2: 6–7). Paul supplements his warning to beware of mystical aberrations with practical ethical advice for a Christian household (3: 18; 4: 1) and a reminder about proper courtesies in a secular society (4: 5).

If the epistle was written during Paul’s imprisonment in Rome, its date would be between 60 and 64 CE.