Here is some background information to get us started. Hopefully it gives you a better picture of the circumstances surrounding the church in Colossae. Future posts will not be so academic.
Who wrote the Colossians?
Paul (1.1; 1.23; 4.18), though Timothy may have had a significant part (1.1), possibly serving as the amanuensis of the letter.
Where was it written from, who was it written for, and when was it written?
Provenance: Although it’s difficult to decide on the place of writing, I tend to favor the traditionally held belief that Paul penned this letter during his “first” Roman imprisonment (Acts 28.11-31; Col 4.3, 18 where Paul is in “chains”). Ephesus presents itself as a viable alternative, but in the end Rome gets my vote. And since it doesn’t really affect our interpretation of the text, I’m going to resist the temptation to explain all the reasons why I suspect Rome to be the most likely place of writing (you have no idea how hard that is for me—such a nerd!).
Along with Colossians, Paul also likely wrote Philemon, Ephesians, and Philippians during this Roman imprisonment (circa a.d. 60-62). These four letters are often referred to as the “Prison Epistles.”
Date: Most likely written in a.d. 60-61, corresponding to Paul’s imprisonment in Rome and prior to the earthquake that demolished Colossae in approximately a.d. 61 or shortly thereafter.
Audience: “To God’s holy people in Colossae” (1.2). Colossae was located in the region of Phrygia, a Roman province of Asia. It’s location on a major highway brought many different ethnic groups to the area, making for a diverse population with lots of different religious viewpoints and philosophies. While the majority of the population in Colossae would have been Gentile, there are good reasons for believing that a substantial minority would have been Jewish.
The church was founded by Epaphras (1.7), a fellow co-worker and perhaps fellow prisoner (Philemon 23) of Paul’s. Moo suggests that Epaphras heard and believed the word of God during Paul’s three year ministry stint in Ephesus (Acts 19). After his conversion, he presumably returned to minister to his own community in Colossae (4.12) (Moo, Colossians and Philemon, 27). Perhaps Epaphras was having difficulty with Colossian church and journeyed to Rome (or Ephesus) to enlist the apostle’s help (ibid.).
Why was the letter written?
The trouble at Colossae: It appears that some “false teachers” (these words are not actually used in the letter, but the title’s convenient) are plaguing the congregation of Colossae with their “hollow and deceptive philosophy” (2.8). And with such great emphasis on the cosmic significance of Jesus’ Lordship, one can reasonably assume that their errant views or attitudes entailed an insufficient understanding of Christ.
But it’s difficult to know who exactly these false teachers are and to what extent they’re troubling the community. The situation is in Colossae is somewhat unique in comparison to Paul’s other letters: we don’t find the overt polemic that is so typical of Paul when addressing those who distort the gospel (e.g., like we see in Gal, 2 Cor, and Phil). In fact, the tone of the letter is generally positive (1.3-5; 2.5; 3.7). The lack of an outright denunciation of the opponents has led some to suggest that the label, “false teachers” is misleading and does not accurately portray the situation in Colossae. And to some extent, this may be true. But, then again, while the community might not be dealing with false teachers in the same sense that we find in the other letters—with outsiders actively proselytizing the church—the fact remains that the teaching, attitudes, and/or practices of some (2.8, 16, 18) threaten to jeopardize the believers’ relationship with Christ (2.19) (Moo, 50). A chief concern of the letter, therefore, is to combat this influence that attracts the Colossian Christians, so that they do not succumb to this trend or philosophy.
Colossians 2.8-23 provides the best insight into the false teaching and aids us in our attempt to further pinpoint the false teachers’ identity.
The false teaching…
(The following observations are taken from Moo, 50-52)
- Is a hollow and deceptive philosophy (2.8)
- Depends on human tradition (2.8)
- Depends on elemental spiritual forces of this world (2.8)
- Does not depend on Christ (2.8)
- Promotes food restrictions and observance of Jewish holy days (2.16)
- Promotes ascetic disciplines (2.18, 21, 23)
- Involves “worship of angels” (2.18)
- Includes visionary experiences (2.18)
- Characterized by arrogance (2.18)
- Causes those involved with the heresy to lose connection with the head of the body, Christ (2.19)
- Propagates various rules that are worldly (2.20-23)
According to Moo, we can be less sure about the following:
- False teachers advocate circumcision (2.11, 13; 3.11). This is very possible and perhaps even probable. Though the casual metaphorical reference to circumcision does not necessarily demand that Paul had the false teaching in view.
- The false teaching denigrates Christ. Some assume that the strong emphasis on Christ’s superiority indicates that the false teachers were questioning Christ’s deity. However, it could be that the false teachers were attempting to supplement (as opposed to replace) the gospel message, or Christ, with the above elements (i.e., ascetic disciplines, visionary experiences, rules based on tradition and worldly or spiritual forces, etc.).
- False teachers suggest that they have the inside track to the “fullness” (1.19; 2.9, 10). The amount of ink spilled over these references to “fullness,” is indicative of the lack of scholarly consensus and numerous suggestions of meaning. For now, we may reasonably conclude that the proponents of the errant way were advocating spiritual fullness outside of Christ and the gospel message.
Regarding these last two points, I think it’s appropriate to assume that ethical problems existed because of their insufficient views of Christ and because of their spiritual pride. Perhaps their “spiritual insight,” which entailed a preoccupation with visions, ascetic practices, and other rules, was distracting them from the “things above” (3.2; i.e., all things pertaining to Christ), thereby affecting their ability to live godly lives, as the gospel demands (see ethical demands of chapter 3).
So, what does all that info tell us about the identity of the false teachers and their philosophy?
It’s clear that the “heresy” contains Jewish elements. In fact, James D.G. Dunn argues persuasively that all of the elements can be traced back to basic Judaism. For example, circumcision likely served as a Jewish badge, so to speak, showing that one belong to Israel, God’s chosen people (2.11-3.11). The threefold reference, “a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day” (2.16) most likely refers to Jewish “holy days.” The concerns for tradition and purity rules (2.8, 16, 20-23) can (possibly) be explained in light of Jewish preoccupation with following Torah and commitment to maintain their distinctive identity as a “clean” and “holy nation,” i.e., a people set apart by God (This was no doubt a very difficult struggle for first century Jewish Christians, who often attempted to hold onto their Jewish identity, even after placing their faith in Christ. But such ethnocentrism runs contrary to the Gospel and the message of Christ, which affirms God’s love for all people; e.g. Col 3.11). And worship of angels may find significance in Jewish apocalyptic literature (FYI: The Greek for “worship of angels” is ambiguous. It could mean “worship produced by angels” or “worship directed toward angels”—we’ll deal with that later) (see Dunn, Colossians and Philemon, esp. 31, 33-34).
On the other hand, most scholars suggest that the heresy contains cultural and/or religious elements outside of basic Judaism. While recognizing a Jewish component(s) to the heresy, these scholars contend that the references to ascetic disciplines, elemental forces of this world (though see Gal 4.3, 9), visionary experiences, and worship of angels are better explained by folk or mystic religions and/or other cultural influences. Many who hold this position refer to Clinton Arnold’s compelling study, which maintained that the Colossian heresy consists of various elements of Phrygian folk belief, local superstitions, mysticism, and local Judaism. And it’s possible that the preoccupation with angels and spiritual elements might reveal the community’s angst over a common Hellenistic belief that such beings could have influence over peoples’ lives (Moo, 59-60). In addition, scholars appeal to the diverse population and religious views that would have been prevalent in Colossae.
At this point, I’m not willing to make any definitive conclusions (sorry to disappoint; I guess that’s why commentators write introductions after they’ve done their research). I’m more inclined, however, to agree with Moo who suggests that the Colossian community likely faces a local syncretistic movement made up of primarily Jewish elements with some local Hellenistic influences. Perhaps the false teachers are settled Jews who have been influenced by the culture that surrounds them. The diversity of Colossae and the overall complexity of the situation, leads me to believe this is the best option. But we’ll hold this position lightly as we interpret the text.
Big Idea: Whatever the case, it seems that many within the church are finding, or are tempted to find, their security in things other than Christ. Paul therefore feels compelled to tell the Colossians that their security and everything that they need for life in the Kingdom can be found in Christ, the Lord of the universe—he is the fullness.
Structure (i.e., Blog Schedule): I’ve decided against providing an outline that would determine our blog schedule, mainly because over the past few weeks I have come to realize that I don’t have time to blog; but I’m going to try! By the way, I’m open to other vocations that would provide more free time at night—let me know.
Now, I realize that for many of you this post was about as interesting as collecting stamps. But it’s necessary for us to have a good understanding of the background in order to be able to properly interpret the text. After all, Colossians was a letter written to a particular group of people, in a particular church, who were facing real issues. We do well to treat it in its historical context. Though, not to worry, we’ll also attempt to relate the Scripture to life in today’s world.