New Testament Words and Verses
Colossians 2:14, Cheirographon II, An Idea That Didn't Work
Yet, Tobit has provided for this eventuality years before, and the longer recension goes on to describe what he did. Tobit says, in 5:3:
τότε ἀποκριθεὶς Τωβιθ εἶπεν Τωβια τῷ υἱῷ αὐτοῦ χειρόγραφον αὐτοῦ ἔδωκέν μοι καὶ χειρόγραφον ἔδωκα αὐτῷ καὶ διεῖλον εἰς δύο καὶ ἐλάβομεν ἑκάτερος ἕν καὶ ἔθηκα μετὰ τοῦ ἀργυρίου,
“Then Tobit answered and said to his son Tobias, ‘He gave his χειρόγραφον to me and I gave a χειρόγραφον to him, and I divided (it) in two and each of us took one (part) and placed (it) with the silver.”
Tobit is describing the exchange of two parts of a torn certificate between the relative and Tobit. There is some confusion in the text because it suggests at first that each of the parties gave a χειρόγραφον to the other, but after reading the whole the natural meaning is that only one certificate was exchanged. It was torn in two, each of the parties was given one of the portions, and then they departed. When the son Tobias showed up, he would bring his dad’s half of the certificate that would “match” the half held by the relative with the money, and thus the identity of the son Tobias could be established. There is no mention if anything was written on the χειρόγραφον, but it is natural to think that this paper was divided in two and on each half was a “note of debt,” or a brief written description of what that half or portion of the χειρόγραφον entitled the bearer to demand. If I were making up my own writing I would have said, “The owner of this money/silver is Tobit, and this certificate entitles him to claim the money” or something to that effect. Since the major point of the story is not to try to describe the nature of a χειρόγραφον, we shouldn’t expect such a full treatment. But there is enough here to give us the sense that it functioned as something that established a debt and who was the owner of money. The other appearance in 9:5 doesn’t add anything to this discussion.
Thus, when we return to Col 2:14, we have a bit of a richer context, though we still may find things frighteningly obscure. Let’s try. Christ has “forgiven us our sins” (2:13), having “wiped away the χειρόγραφον.” Most translators talk about “cancelling the debt” but the literal meaning of the verb ἐξαλείφω is to wipe out or erase something. “Erase/wipe out the debt against us” may be more than a defensible way of rendering the Greek phrase: ἐξαλείψας τὸ καθ’ ἡμῶν χειρόγραφον. It would be saying that we were the holders of a debt instrument, and that somehow the debt that we owed had been wiped away.
But the text doesn’t stop there. Because the world of the χειρόγραφον is from economics and indebtedness, while theology eventually wants to get to the language of salvation, there had to be a concept that bridges the gap between those two worlds. That, it seems is the function of τοῖς δόγμασιν ὃ ἦν ὑπεναντίον ἡμῖν, “with/in the dogmas/decrees which were opposite us.” So, the issue is how to talk about or translate the idea of a debt that was “in” or “with” dogmas.
One would think that word δόγμα would appear dozens of times in the New Testament. Isn’t it about “teaching” or “dogma”? But, surprisingly, the word only appears five times, and the first three are clearly referring to decrees of Roman authorities. We can’t see how that would apply to us here. It would make no sense to say that salvation was based upon some kind of debt cancellation to Roman authorities or Roman decrees. The other two appearances of δόγμα are in Eph 2:15 and here, Col 2:14. Those two passages are similar to each other, but the Eph 2 passage connects δόγμα with ἐντολή or “commandments,” which much more clearly takes us into the realm of law, and probably the Jewish law.
So, it wouldn’t be a huge leap to conclude that the confusing phrase in the first part of Col 2:14 can best be rendered “He wiped out the debt standing against us in the commands of the Jewish law, which stood opposite to us.” We still have a certain roughness with the concept, but a world of clarity is starting to emerge. Somehow the law (δόγμα) laid on us some kind of debt instrument, where χειρόγραφον would be taken as a general term for the world of “indebtedness” rather than the very precise meaning it took on in Tobit, which was a certificate or paper that authenticated a debt. The theological point would be that through the “dogmas” of the Jewish law, a concept that was rarely expressed in early Christianity, a kind of “indebtedness” was laid upon people, that was then “wiped away/erased.” There are enough echoes of more traditional Christian doctrine in this explanation confirm its reasonability as a suggestion.
But, Alas. . .
What is interesting, however, is that the infrequency of use of χειρόγραφον even in antiquity made this potentially striking way to describe salvation almost immediately useless. It wasn’t as if everyone would immediately go around exulting, “My, my χειρόγραφον has just been erased!” The general reaction to such a claim would probably be “Huh”? Or “start speaking Greek, man!” Hymns celebrating an erased
χειρόγραφον would probably sound as hollow as singing about raising one’s “Ebenezer” in twenty-first century hymnody. So, in the final analysis we look at the phrase “to erase the indebtedness through the dogmatic utterances” as immediately quaint and a little jarring to the ear. No one seemingly picked up on it, certainly in the New Testament and other early Christian literature. Christ may indeed have erased the χειρόγραφον but no one could make that concept really thrive. The verb καταργέω, “release or abolish,” combined with νόμος, “law” was the path that seemed to work better—but that is another story.