The letter to the Colossians
Who is the Author?
The letter begins with “Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, and Timothy our brother…” so the claim of authorship is clear, it is from Paul and secondly Timothy (Likely Paul’s dictation and Timothy is with him where he is).
The author claims to be Paul elsewhere as well (In Col 1:23, 25-26; 4:2-4, 18). Some sceptics try to claim the letter was written after his death. However, would the recipients accept and copy a letter they knew wasn’t from Paul considering their strict standards and the references throughout the text?
Irenaeus 180 AD makes use of the letter to the Colossians and is perhaps the first clearest quote “
in the Epistle to the Colossians, says, And though you were formerly alienated, and enemies to His knowledge by evil works, yet now you have been reconciled in the body of His flesh, through His death, to present yourselves holy and chaste, and without fault in His sight (Colossians 1:21, etc). He says, You have been reconciled in the body of His flesh, because the righteous flesh has reconciled that flesh which was being kept under bondage in sin, and brought it into friendship with God.”Irenaeus, Anti Nicene Fathers, Vol 1
This isn’t a claim to authorship, but more use of the letter as scripture. He claims to be quoting a letter which in its first verse attributes itself to Paul early on in Christian history.
Muratorian fragment (170 AD)
Around the same time, the Muratorian Fragment was written. This document dating to the late second century gives us Paul’s stamp of the letters he has written according to early church tradition. We see here it affirms Paul’s authorship: “As for the Epistles of (40-1) Paul, they themselves make clear to those desiring to understand, which ones [they are], from what place, or for what reason they were sent. (42) …Paul himself, following the example of his predecessor (49-50) John, writes by name to only seven churches in the following sequence: To the Corinthians (51) first, to the Ephesians second, to the Philippians third, (52) to the Colossians fourth, to the Galatians fifth, (53) to the Thessalonians sixth, to the Romans (54-5)”
This is one of the first letters that requires a more rigorous defense as scholarship has challenged this book for a number of reasons. So here I will discuss the case against Paul’s authorship and why we can know despite these doubts, that Paul is the author
Some have claimed the (overstated) similarities with the more popular Ephesians. Some have taken issue that Colossians is basically the same as Ephesians! Another criticism is the identity of the false teaching in Colossians is very hard to ascertain, despite advances in modern scholarship. This brings a unique challenge to interpreting the book. And so sometimes scholars for these such reasons, spring doubt to Paul’s authorship of the letter.
The arguments brought against Paul being the author of Colossians are based on comparing it with Paul’s other letters. The argument basically boils down to two main issues:
1. Colossians contains unique language not used by Paul elsewhere
Colossians contains a higher count of words that aren’t found in Paul’s other letters than is normal, and also contains a slightly different ‘style’.
2. Colossians contains unique theology that appears incongruous with Paul
Certain aspects of Paul’s theology (justification by faith, the work of the Holy Spirit, the local church, etc.) are virtually absent from Colossians, and other theological ideas (the universal church, spiritual forces, realized eschatology) that supposedly aren’t found in Paul’s other letters are present.
So are there issues?
These issues are often overstated by critical scholarship. Some who disagree with Pauline authorship on the basis of unique language argue that the theology is actually very much like Paul, while others who argue against Pauline authorship on the basis of unique theology affirm that the language is very Pauline (got that?) The issues are not as big as they’re made out to be.
The ‘occasional’ nature of the letter more than accounts for the particular language and theology found in Colossians. The Colossian church was facing a false teaching that resulted from weak Christology, which adequately accounts for Paul’s particular theological emphases within the letter. Paul was addressing a particular teaching, and many have argued he was even using the teacher’s own language against them.
The “Pauline” corpus
This problem is exaggerated because a broad selection of scholars only compare Colossians to a relatively small selection of ‘accepted’ Pauline letters. Basically, not all of what most would consider as ‘Paul’s letters’ are even brought into the discussion. Differences in language and theology are more pronounced when you have a smaller set of books you accept as Pauline (basically they’re picking and choosing sources). For example, if Ephesians were accepted as written by Paul and brought into the discussion, then authorship of Colossians wouldn’t be much of an issue at all. Can a man not prepare for different scenarios in varying ways? We certainly know Jesus could adjust his stance wether it were Jew or common folk, Samaritan or Roman. So Paul is doing here in this letter
The relationship to Philemon
Philemon is virtually unanimously accepted as Pauline for various reasons . Gordon Fee argues persuasively that both should be read together,
These letters make especially good sense together if one takes seriously that both Philemon and Onesimus would have been present for the reading of both letters in Philemon’s house church…over 50 percent of the ‘house code’ of Col 3:18-4:1 is directed toward the behavior of slaves…Gordon Fee
The connection between Philemon and Colossians is strong indeed, and the space given to slaves makes entirely more sense if one connects it to the unique situation of Onesimus and Philemon.
The connection between Philemon and Colossians is strong indeed, and the space given to slaves makes entirely more sense if one connects it to the unique situation of Onesimus and Philemon.
Gordon Fee, Pauline Christology, p. 289]
Motivations behind questioning the letters
Why is the authorship even questioned in the first place? It is not the position of early church fathers to do so, it is a modern issue. Many scholars emphasis differences, while minimizing the similarities and coherence with other letters. If you see my article on John relating to the synoptics, you’ll see there are differences with an army of similarities. Moreover, books like Romans and Galatians have inherit values similar to Colossians but scholars overlook the similarities in favour of differences which is a poor method of scholarship. Both sides need to be considered and in the appropriate context (For example, Jesus could have have some similarities to Osiris (few) but the weight of differences, context and types of detail make them quite dissimilar).
One issue is the entertaining of alternative hypothesis. But we must remember, without proof, this is just idle speculation woven by a scholar. Who else is it written by? Why does no one else claim authorship?
Manuscript evidence for Paul’s authorship P46
This is called a Bifolio from Paul’s Letter to the Romans and Paul’s Letter to the Colossians, from a codex containing the Pauline Epistles (P46), written in Greek with ink on papyrus; made in Egypt and dated around 200 AD. The manuscript is the oldest surviving almost complete copy of the Pauline Epistles (P46); 86 of its original 112 folios survive. These are divided between the Chester Beatty (56) and the University of Michigan (30).
The manuscript evidence gives witness to the name of Paul on the right in verse 23,
Stating “from the gospel you have heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, became a minister”. Considering how papyrus can deteriorate within a few hundred years, this is truly remarkable fortune and an incredible witness to Paul’s authorship as far away as southern Egypt.
Paul was a writer/composer
Here church fathers make reference to Paul passing on commands or writing letters (with or without a scribe, likely with a scribe for all of them?). It is an additional factor for all Paul’s epistles that he was known as someone who wrote, taught truth and passed on commands, given an authority the first disciples did not possess. See two references below to this.
Ignatius wrote to the Romans ca. 105-107 AD: “I may be found a sacrifice to God. I do not, as Peter and Paul, issue commandments unto you. They were apostles of Jesus Christ, but I am the very least [of believers]: they were free,”
Polycarp in his letter to the Philippians ca. 115 AD: “For neither I, nor any other such one, can come up to the wisdom of the blessed and glorified Paul. He, when among you, accurately and steadfastly taught the word of truth in the presence of those who were then alive. And when absent from you, he wrote you a letter,”
Peter endorses Paul’s writings
If 2 Peter is written in the first century (though sceptical scholars have been known to attribute it to someone in the second century) this passage would bear the mark that Peter endorses Paul writing letters also
“Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.”2 Peter 3:15-17
Audience & purpose
The church at Colossae was under attack from false teachers who were denigrating the deity of Jesus; they were teaching that He was not actually God. Though Paul had never been to the church itself, he addressed these issues head-on. The nature of Jesus Christ as Creator and Redeemer was nonnegotiable, so Paul wrote to them that he might bring his wisdom to bear on this difficult and trying situation. It was critical to him that this church know God in His greatness and glory, rather than in the deficient view given them by the false teachers (Colossians 1:25; 2:1–2).
The letters to the Colossians and Philemon should be considered together. Both letters are written from “Paul and Timothy” (Col 1:1, Philemon 1). The returning runaway slave Onesimus, now a believer, is the central figure in Philemon. Paul is sending him back (Philemon 12) in Philemon, and in Colossians he is also returning (Col 4:9-10). This seems to indicate that Colossians and Philemon were written and delivered together to the church in Collosse, along with a letter we no longer have to the Laodiceans (Col 4:16). Other characters appear in the same geographic location in both books: Archippus (Philemon 2, Col 4:17) is greeted, while Luke (Philemon 24, Col 4:14), Aristarchus (Philemon 24, Col 4:10), and Epaphras (Philemon 24, Col 4:12) are with Paul. Mark (Philemon 24) is also with Paul, but may come later to Colosse (Col 4:10).
Colossians is written while Paul is in prison (Col 4:10, 4:18). The bearer of the letters was apparently Tychicus (Col 4:7), and the collection of letters he was carrying probably included Ephesians (Eph 6:21-22). Mark has obviously now been reconciled with Paul, unlike the situation at the beginning of Paul’s second missionary journey (Acts 15:26-31). Demas (Philemon 24) is still with Paul, though later he will “forsake” him (2 Tim 4:10). The question as to the date of the letter thus comes down to which prison – Caesarea or Rome? It is impossible to be dogmatic, but the fact that Paul has few Jewish companions (Col 4:11) seems more likely in Rome than in Caesarea, which is in the land of Israel. Also, the work and gospel of Mark is connected to Rome, and since Mark is with Paul when this letter is written, a Roman origin seems more likely. This would place the letters of Colossians and Philemon at the same time, around 61-62 A.D.
What was the acceptance rate of Colossians as canonical by those early and later witnesses of the text? Ignatius uses Colossians very early on and heretics like Marcion & Valentinus also professed to use it in their canons. Generally there is a strong church acknowledgement of the letter to the Colossians as canonical in the eyes of the church fathers. Modern scholarship has wrestled with the authorship of this book as to whether it was written by Paul. But our findings above point more to their inconsistent criticisms and pick & choose methods of criticising Paul, despite his style, influence and name being mentioned throughout being present.
See this table for a list on who recognised each book as canonical (key(s) below)
It does not mention every Church Father who used the New Testament books, this is just a survey of some of the most known
- Ig = Ignatius
- Po = Polycarp
- M = Marcion
- Va = Valentinus
- JM = Justin Martyr
- IR = Irenaeus
- C = Clement of Alexandria
- T = Tertullian
- MC = Muratorian Canon
- O = Origen
- E = Eusebius
- CS = Codex Sinaiticus
- A = Athanasius
- D = Didymus the Blind
- P = Peshitta (Bible of the Syrian church)
- V = Latin vulgate
taken from ntcanon.org/table.shtml
Jesus, nor the apostles, nor Polycarp, Clement or Irenaeus left much for us to work with in terms of a formal “ok so here’s the rules of determination”. But what they did do is inform us that they had an informative way of knowing what was truth and what was not. And the truth had to have a connection to eyewitnesses.
For we did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.2 Peter 1:16
2“So now we must choose a replacement for Judas from among the men who were with us the entire time we were traveling with the Lord Jesus— from the time he was baptized by John until the day he was taken from us. Whoever is chosen will join us as a witness of Jesus’ resurrectionActs 1:21-22
One of the soldiers, however, pierced his side with a spear, and immediately blood and water flowed out. (This report is from an eyewitness giving an accurate account. He speaks the truth so that you also may continue to believe.)John 19:34-35
“God raised Jesus from the dead, and we are all witnesses of this.Acts 2:32
You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead. And we are witnesses of this fact!Acts 3:15
We are witnesses of these things and so is the Holy Spirit, who is given by God to those who obey him.”Acts 5:32
“And we apostles are witnesses of all he did throughout Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a cross,but God raised him to life on the third day. Then God allowed him to appear, not to the general public, but to us whom God had chosen in advance to be his witnesses. We were those who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. And he ordered us to preach everywhere and to testify that Jesus is the one appointed by God to be the judge of all—the living and the dead. He is the one all the prophets testified about, saying that everyone who believes in him will have their sins forgiven through his name.”Acts 10:39-43
[Paul] With Christ as my witness, I speak with utter truthfulness. My conscience and the Holy Spirit confirm it.Romans 9:1
I passed on to you what was most important and what had also been passed on to me. Christ died for our sins, just as the Scriptures said. He was buried, and he was raised from the dead on the third day, just as the Scriptures said. He was seen by Peter and then by the Twelve. After that, he was seen by more than 500 of his followers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died.Then he was seen by James and later by all the apostles. Last of all, as though I had been born at the wrong time, I also saw him. For I am the least of all the apostles. In fact, I’m not even worthy to be called an apostle after the way I persecuted God’s church.1 Corinthians 15:3-9
And now, a word to you who are elders in the churches. I, too, am an elder and a witness to the sufferings of Christ. And I, too, will share in his glory when he is revealed to the whole world. As a fellow elder, I appeal to you:1 Peter 5:1
Caius the church father in 200AD writes how they knew of two fake letters circulating in Paul’s name.
“There are also in circulation one to the Laodiceans, and another to the Alexandrians, forged under the name of Paul, and addressed against the heresy of Marcion; and there are also several others which cannot be received into the Catholic Church, for it is not suitable for gall to be mingled with honey”.Caius, Church leader
How did they work this out? How did they know what was the divinely inspired word of God? We can thank Eusebius for beginning to help us clear up this territory. In his Ecclesiastical History, he mentions his four categories of books with descriptions as to why some were accepted, disputed, rejected and seen as heretical from his survey of the church fathers history going back and into the apostolic age. This is the structure we will take when we assess the books of the New Testament and this includes investigating the books the church rejected.
So these summarised standards are these:
- Apostolicity. Was it written by an Apostle or one of their colleagues?
- Orthodoxy. Was the teaching orthodox? Consistent with Old Testament and the Christian worldview?
- Catholicity. Not the Catholic Church (that doesn’t exist for a few hundred years yet!)… This meaning widely agreed upon
- Relevance. Was it relevant to the church? Or does it seem completely detached from what we already have in the canon? (I.e. everything Gnostic)
- Inspiration. Did it have the ring of truth, the life changing power within?
We see in 2 Peter 3:15-17 accredit the works of Paul as scriptures, and Peter, being the lead apostle, can testify to apostolicity. Elsewhere in Paul’s letters, Paul has called himself inline with the apostles (Romans 1:1 for example) and several times in 1 Corinthians. In 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 we see Paul associate himself with the Apostles as those to whom the risen Jesus appeared to. So Paul is an apostle and in Galatians 2:6 the Apostles Peter and James reviewed what Paul was preaching and added nothing to his message, meaning what he was preaching was inline with them.
If Paul’s name, written in early manuscripts and accepted by the church as the author is true, that is the end of the discussion. The debate falls between the opinions of modern scholars analysing the text (I would argue inconsistently) and those voices of the church fathers and the words of the earliest manuscripts and manuscripts passed through the generations. We have no early opposition to the authorship of Colossians, nor any early documents to say this document was not written by Paul or is heretical. So we stand by Paul being the author.
Like stated on the exchange in the beginning of Galatians 2, Paul got his message verified by the apostles. Paul also has a consistent message doctrinally with what Jesus teaches. Now some have argued that Paul is inconsistent in his letter to the Colossians as they cannot find what heresy Paul is addressing, however a more in-depth study of why the letter was written will reveal what it’s doing. What this church needed was good theology, a strong position to fend of heretical views and reinforce the church. Much like John, who has a clear objective in providing clarity so heretics would not distort the synoptics like in years gone by. It is Pauline with all things Paul considered.
There has been no challenge by the early church fathers to Colossians, even heretics like Marcion and Valentinus tried to use the documents. 1st century Ignatius, a disciple of the Apostle John even makes use of the letter. There is a strong church agreement there on from these disciples of the disciples all the way through the church fathers (Even Peter as we’re discussed affirms Paul’s writings as scripture).
Paul’s message was to encourage the church of Colossae and feed them good theology against heretical positions through good, firm, biblical teaching that could all easily be understood through the gospel narratives and/or other letters of Paul. Such a letter, with its discussion about the impact of Christ is as relevant back then as it is today.
Paul is called by God (Acts 9), claims in many of his letters to be sent as an Apostle for Christ Jesus (Romans 1 for example). He has the mandate also of the Apostles (Galatians 1:17 – 2:6; 2 Peter 3:15-17) and is considered by the church Canonical, with it being in all the Christian lists of New Testament books. They could additionally as with all New Testament books recognise the ring of truth within that shows the readers of the text that it is inspired. Galatians falls into this bracket. Paul claims clearly at the beginning of his letter that the truth he receives is not from man but from Jesus Christ and God the Father and that he is sent on his behalf (Galatians 1:1). If Paul is the author, it is an inspired work. However, the church seems to attribute this work as canon as is often with scripture that has the ring of truth which goes with all other factors hand in hand.