New Testament Words and Verses
Cheirographon I, Colossians 2:14
Paul, or the author of Colossians if it is different from Paul, is at his eloquent best in Colossians 2. He starts a long paragraph discussing salvation in Christ with a rare word (συλαγωγῶν—take as booty, prize of war or spoils) when urging the Colossians not to let others “take them captive” with strange systems of thought (2:8). Then, he describes, in ever more challenging and obscure language, the “fulness” that the new believer has in Christ (2:10). He then goes from mentioning fulness to circumcision without hands (2:11), which may evoke from the thoughtful reader a query as to what could be in his mind. It gets more obscure in the “unclothing of the body of flesh” in Christ’s circumcision (2:11).
Finally, we seem to come to language that is relatively familiar to those who have studied the New Testament. Believers are “buried with him in baptism” and raised with him “through faith in the energetic working of God” (2:12). We begin to relax, thinking that we have seen this before. That view is confirmed as the Apostle continues: those dead in sin and the uncircumcision of the flesh were made alive, with sins forgiven. (2:13). Ah, one thinks, finally some clarity. Then, darkness descends in 2:14:
14ἐξαλείψας τὸ καθ’ ἡμῶν χειρόγραφον τοῖς δόγμασιν ὃ ἦν ὑπεναντίον ἡμῖν, καὶ αὐτὸ ἦρκεν ἐκ τοῦ μέσου προσηλώσας αὐτὸ τῷ σταυρῷ·
“having wiped away the bond/writing/handwriting with dogmas/decrees that was against us, which stood opposite us, and took it out from the middle, having nailed it to the cross.”
The word to describe the thing that is both against us (καθ’ ἡμῶν) and opposite us (ὑπεναντίον ἡμῖν—are these two concepts identical?) is a New Testament hapax legomenon: χειρόγραφον. The word literally means a “writing by hand,” but that helps us not at all in understanding it. In addition, we have a χειρόγραφον that was “with dogmas” or “with decrees” (τοῖς δόγμασιν) that was opposite or against us. If that isn’t perplexing enough, we have the notion that it was taken “out of the middle” (ἐκ τοῦ μέσου) when it was nailed to the cross. What then, is this mysterious χειρόγραφον on which the entire meaning of this verse seems to hang?
Well, you check the dictionary, of course, the “big” Liddell and Scott, and you begin to realize that your initial confusion isn’t really relieved by the dictionary. We have a fairly brief entry, with some of the following definitions: “Written with the hand, holograph, manuscript.” A couple of papyri are cited where one of these definitions may apply. Wow—we are really not getting anywhere. Then, the dictionary lists two other definitions, one of which may get us closer to our meaning, but the definition it says may apply to the Colossians passage is “manuscript,” something that clearly doesn’t apply. Yet, there is one more definition in the Liddell and Scott, not associated with Colossians, that may ironically take us a helpful step further: “note of hand” or “bond.” Interestingly, enough, however, Liddell and Scott associates these definitions with a few obscure inscriptions and not with Colossians.
Yet this definition, one that the dictionary doesn’t associate with χειρόγραφον in Col 2:14 (“note of hand; bond”), is probably more helpful. But, before we even try to “plug in” that definition to Col 2:14, we note also that the word appears twice in the Septuagint, the initial go-to source to help us understand the world of New Testament Greek. After all the Septuagint was translated about two or three centuries before the New Testament was written; it covers the same sacred history that the New Testament assumes; it thus provides an intellectual milieu where one might look for some help.
The two passages where χειρόγραφον appears in the LXX are Tobit 5:3 and 9:5, and the presentation in the former passage actually gives us a clear sense of what χειρόγραφον meant—at least to the author of Tobit. It is interesting that the most honored dictionary on the New Testament and early Christian literature (the Bauer/Arndt and Gingrich which has recently been expanded by the late Frederick Danker), while of course having the word χειρόγραφον, doesn’t even make reference to these passages, though it does mention the less helpful Testament of Job 11:11. Our search for meaning here is made somewhat more complicated because there are two recensions of the Greek text of Tobit, and only one of them has information that will be helpful for us here. Yet, we are on good grounds for saying the following:
The context of Tobit 5 is Tobit’s instructions to his son Tobias to go and get some money that he had deposited years previously with a relative in Media, in the East. It was a large sum, and so the son asks a reasonable question in 5:1, “How can I get it from him; indeed, he does not know me, nor do I know him?” That is, Tobias wants to get the money for his dad but he knows that the objection may be raised: ‘Sure, buddy, I will give you the dough (chuckling sardonically). I don’t know you and you tell a plausible story, but there is no proof of your identity.’