New Testament Words and Verses
Colossians 2 and Paul's Opponents
The Apostle Paul, and my assumption is that he wrote Colossians, faced a series of complex issues as he penned this letter. On the one hand, he never visited Colossae or started a church there, and thus he had no personal knowledge of the affairs of the place. His advice, therefore, is a bit removed from the intimate urgency of, for example, the Corinthian epistles. As a result, instead of focusing on specific issues, such as church order or ethical lapses in the congregation, he was free to focus more on the ideas that shaped his understanding of the Christian faith and how Christian faith is different from other competing faith expressions of late antiquity. In this essay I will just briefly mention his theological focus and the two groups of his intellectual opponents.
One of the endearing and enduring features of Colossians is its focus on Christ as the central reality of faith. But Paul is playing for much higher stakes than straightforward doctrinal affirmations relating to the redemptive significance of Christ’s death or the believer’s identifications with Christ in his death and resurrection. What is at stake for Paul is to develop a doctrine of what one might call the “fulness” or “plenitude” of Christ and then to argue that such a fulness completely replaces or reduces in significance all other possible claims to a person’s faith allegiance.
The fulness of Christ is first broached in 1:15ff, a passage that is perhaps more powerful when studied from a rhetorical than a denotative perspective. What I mean by that is Paul is not so concerned to say something like ‘Christ’s superiority or fulness is manifest in creation, in redemption, in consummation,’ and then detail how that might be true in each of those spheres, but he piles up words that arguably are all of shadowy or unclear significance as a way of stressing Christ’s excellence.
We see that, for example, in 1:16. We are told that all things were created in him, and then examples of those “all things” are given:
εἴτε θρόνοι εἴτε κυριότητες εἴτε ἀρχαὶ εἴτε ἐξουσίαι·
“whether thrones or lordships or rulers or authorities.”
So lacking in specificity are these words that the following are various ways they are translated:
NISV: thrones powers rulers authorities
KJV: thrones dominions principalities powers
Good News: spiritual powers lords rulers authorities
ISV kings lords rulers powers
Do they differ from each other? And, what is the meaning of each? I think this is Paul’s way of playing “rhetorical overkill” and stating that Christ’s superiority is evident in that all manifestations of human power were created by him. But it wouldn’t be a productive use of time to try to differentiate among these four terms.
Yet, this kind of issue shouldn’t blind us to the reality that Paul’s central interest in Colossians is to show how Christ contains the fulness of God. Col. 2:9-10 captures the idea best:
9 ὅτι ἐν αὐτῷ κατοικεῖ πᾶν τὸ πλήρωμα τῆς θεότητος σωματικῶς, 10 καὶ ἐστὲ ἐν αὐτῷ πεπληρωμένοι, ὅς ἐστιν ἡ κεφαλὴ πάσης ἀρχῆς καὶ ἐξουσίας.
“For in him all the fulness of the Godhead dwells in a bodily form, and you are brought to fulness in him, who is the head of all rule and authority (finishing with the last two words of 1:16).”
Twice in two verses is the idea of “fulness.” Paul will never unpack or explain this fulness in Colossians; he will mostly just pile up words that have a pleasant sound to them, which he never either defines or differentiates. Words such as “knowledge” or “the will of God in all wisdom and spiritual understanding” are no doubt central to his rhetorical strategy, but leave eager readers gasping and grasping for more.
Opponent # 1 Jews
Jews may have not played a large role in the life of the city of Colossae, and they never come in for direct mention in Colossians. But Paul’s generally unsuccessful attempt to develop a replacement theology here through the concept of the χειρόγραφον (see essays on that subject) indicates that there wasn’t a strong community focus on the Jewish law and the need to maintain its vitality. That is, if people had been stressing the importance of the Jewish law for Christian faith, Paul would most likely have attacked the issue directly. But his attempt to bring in a rather obscure concept to talk about the law’s demise, as well as his lack of precision on the nature of legal prohibitions laid on new Christians (2:16) suggests to me that there wasn’t an organized Jewish community actively opposing the Church.
Opponent # 2 Greeks
When I say “Greeks,” I mean those who were culturally Greek, using that as their native language, even though their primary allegiance would have been to Rome. Col. 2 mentions several efforts to lead the Christian believers astray, but they are frustratingly unclear. Paul tells the Colossians, for example, to see to it that no tries to “steal them away/take them captive” (a rare verb: συλαγωγῶν, 2:8) through “philosophy.” That isn’t very clear or helpful. This philosophy is described as “empty deception” that is “according to human traditions.” Again, nothing to go on. The most specific reference to the possible lure of a philosophy is to “the elements of the world” (τὰ στοιχεῖα τοῦ κόσμου, 2:9). Scholars have been wracking their collective brains for two centuries to decide if these are allusions to some kind of “proto-Gnosticism,” which itself is a problematic and unclear concept.
Later in Col. 2, we have other Greek-origin beliefs which Paul attacks. In this latter case the author again uses an extremely rare verb to describe someone who might “deprive” the Christians “of their rights” (καταβραβευέτω, v 18), but that translation might reflect more of a 19th century view of human rights than an ancient understanding of the sentence. I would render μηδεὶς ὑμᾶς καταβραβευέτω as “let no one take advantage of” you or “let no one disqualify you. . .” but who really knows?
But the content of what Paul is pointing to is even more unclear. These people supposedly desire the Colossians’ “humility” (ταπεινοφροσύνῃ), which happens to be a virtue in Eph 4:2 and Phil. 2:3, but obviously isn’t meant to be a virtue here. Then, they also require “worship of angels.” Was there a kind of cult of angels in Colossae? Some suggest there was, but what that consisted of and how prevalent it might of been is also a cipher. The rest of Col. 2:19 is unclear: “which he has seen by walking in/stepping in (stepping into spaces where this worship took place?), and then “in vanity being puffed up by the mind of his flesh.” The last phrase is a kind of generic attack on people that doesn’t yield much light.
Thus, we can say that the anchor concept of Colossians is the “fulness” of Christ, a concept not really defined or developed, but ringed with rich rhetoric. Of two opponent groups, Jews and Greeks, the latter seem more dangerous, but we only get the most vague sense of who they are, what they believe and how great a threat they pose. I think the development of the “fulness of Christ” doctrine functions as an intellectual and theological lure to keep people from falling under the influence of the Greeks. It is as if Paul is saying, ‘We have all the fullness here; how could you ever want anything over there?’
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