THE ASSIGNMENT was to read a selected book of the New Testament (in my case, The Epistle to the Colossians) and answer selected questions. A five-page paper was assigned as well as a 10-12 mins presentation.
What Problem is Being Addressed?
This depends on who is writing and when. Is this letter written by Paul (mid-50s to early-60s), by a disciple of Paul but in Paul’s name (50s – 70s), or is it “in a Pauline style” but much later (-90s?)? If it is by Paul or a disciple the issue could well be the same. If it is from a later date the content and reasons are different. Please note that sources are listed at the end of the paper.
Those who say the letter is pseudonymous point out that there are multiple terms used in this letter not used in other letters. Additionally, it does not fit into the accepted chronology of Paul’s writing: “This means Paul would have written Colossians sometime before his Letter to the Romans, creating the difficulty that Romans often betrays less development than Colossians with regard to some key concepts such as “body of Christ,” the relation of baptism to resurrection, and emphasis on Christ’s future coming.” If this text is from a later period then all of what follows is to be seen as didactic (here are some rules to follow) rather than pastoral (there are some problems so let’s talk). The author is creating a “Pauline slapdown” for their community rather than helping any local Christians deal with issues. Thus the argument seems to be, “Paul already had to deal with stuff like this 20 years ago and he did this… so y’all fall in line.” The unknown author seems to be making claims in support of some specific parties in a local church over other parties. (All the preceding is summarized from Havener.) Our class text indicates that the author wants to “… respond to the challenge presented by ‘the philosophy’ (2:8), and… to provide some support for Epaphras (1:7)…”
Considered as actually from St Paul, though, this letter is very interesting! It is traditionally paired with Philemon. The text does respond to some cultural challenges and a good bit of encouragement for a congregation of new Christians. The text is also part of a one-two punch delivered to Philemon and addresses issues on interpersonal relationships in the new community.
Assuming the text to be what it claims to be, the issue is one of how to live as Christians in the culture. Kreeft and our textbook both think that the issue is some sort of Jewish legalism and proto-Gnosticism. Other scholars suggest that there is more a sort of two-way pressure: from the Pagan side there was Epicurean philosophy as well as the normal Roman Paganism (worship of the Roman gods). From the Jewish side, there is legalism – a pressure to follow the full scope of Jewish religious laws.
I find these two sides pushing images makes more sense to me than thinking most (all?) of the pushback was from the Jewish community: certainly as Catholics that we are challenged both by the culture of the secular world (our local Paganism) as well as by other religions. We are also challenged by the legalism within our own tradition. More on that in a few moments though!
God is in control; that is to say, “Christ is in Control.” The opening passages of this letter (Colossians 1:12-20) are a hymn from the early Church. We also sing this at Vespers on Wednesdays. Christ is described in a great number of titles, each listing Christ as the top of some theological category. All of the sources refer to this hymn as describing the Cosmic Christ.
This Cosmic Christ is presented as a counter to “philosophy” as well as to local paganism, on the one hand, and, on the other, as in opposition to adherence to the law itself. It is our being (through baptism) in Christ that means we are no longer subject to the Jewish law or the superstitions of the Pagan world. We no longer need to dig into mysterious/occult ways, since Christ is the culmination of all mysteries.
1) The Cosmic Christ
The hymn in 1:15-20 gives a number of titles and descriptions to Christ that are very much beyond the “carpenter’s son of Nazareth”:
He is the image of the unseen God and the first-born of all creation, for in him were created all things in heaven and on earth: everything visible and everything invisible, Thrones, Dominations, Sovereignties, Powers- all things were created through him and for him. Before anything was created, he existed, and he holds all things in unity. (etc)
“The hymn… makes clear that Christ is the ruler of the cosmos;… [and]has a very high view of the divinity of Christ, but it is a step in the development of doctrine, not its completion…” (Smiles)
2) In Christ (ἐν Χριστῷ)
The expressions “in Christ” and the variations “in him/ whom” and “in the Lord” appear extensively in Paul’s writings, some two hundred times… In Colossians, in Christ (and the variations) occurs nineteen times. …Paul used (in all of his writings – DHR) fourteen compound words beginning with sun, the preposition translated “with.” Three of them are found in Colossians, co-buried (2:12), co-raised (2:12; 3:1), and co-quickened (2:13). (Martin)
One could be tempted to read “in Christ” as a mere psychological or spiritual “identification” with Christ, but the Catholic understanding of “in Christ” implies the doctrine of theosis or divinization and it means that the believer participates in Christ fully by Grace. There is a mystical way in which the believer is being Christ or mediating Christ in the present situation.
¶1691 “Christian, recognize your dignity and, now that you share in God’s own nature, do not return to your former base condition by sinning. Remember who is your head and of whose body you are a member. Never forget that you have been rescued from the power of darkness and brought into the light of the Kingdom of God.”
¶1692 The Symbol of the faith confesses the greatness of God’s gifts to man in his work of creation, and even more in redemption and sanctification. What faith confesses, the sacraments communicate: by the sacraments of rebirth, Christians have become “children of God,” “partakers of the divine nature.” Coming to see in the faith their new dignity, Christians are called to lead henceforth a life “worthy of the gospel of Christ.” They are made capable of doing so by the grace of Christ and the gifts of his Spirit, which they receive through the sacraments and through prayer.Catechism of the Catholic Church, Section III “Life in Christ”
Kreeft points out that the main argument is “(1) Christ is divine. (2) And you are in Christ. (3) Therefore, ‘if then you have been raised with Christ… set your minds on the things that are above not on the things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hid with Christ in God’ (3:1-3).” Paul spends most of chapters 2 and 3 walking the reader through the implications.
3) Jesus’ Primacy Over the Powers
Jesus is cited as head over all things, therefore we do not need to submit ourselves to any spiritual “others” such as angels, elemental powers, etc. Is Paul addressing worship of local deities or some proto-Gnosticism? Most of the sources think there’s something like Gnosticism going on here. Paul uses the term “Philosophy” (love of wisdom) in 2:8. Greco-Roman paganism had “taboo” days where certain things could not be done. Many superstitions command “do not touch” and “do not eat” so the contents in the Epistle do not need to refer to Judaism alone. What, exactly, is Paul referring to? At this great remove, we might be unable to know for certain, but there are many examples today of people who make Christ one of a “pantheon” in their spiritual-but-not-religious way. Paul is saying that’s not following Jesus who is higher than all other beings. This is the prime insight, really, of the entire letter. In Christ is our Hope, and our action, our life, our one true religion.
4) Relationships in the Home in theory and practice.
Jesus’ primacy is not only a theological or spiritual claim: we must act as if it’s really real. Paul points out that the Cosmic Christ has implications in the home noting that contrary to the abusive family structures common in the Roman world, the Lordship of Christ requires our families to change. The Bible Project makes it clear that the way a Roman Pater Familias ran his home was nothing like a Christian Father exercising his headship in Christ. What Paul describes would not be very recognizable to the “secular” Roman world.
Then Paul gives an example in the relationship between Philemon and his slave Onesimus. Paul does not demand the political overthrow of a system, but the change he makes in the relationship between a Roman Master and a Roman Slave will, eventually, change even our country. But we know the laws are only part of the work: it is still hearts that must be changed.
5) Comments on Legalism
Legalism (which will not save us) is part superstition and part politics. The legalism mentioned in the Epistles is usually referring to circumcision, dietary laws, and the sabbath, but as I noted Roman Paganism has such rules as well. Today we practice a sort of reverse legalism rather than evangelism. Paul wants us to change hearts and relationships, to win souls for Christ. He doesn’t give us new rules for the household, he shows us how love plays out. Paul wants the Colossians and – especially? – Philemon to do the hard work of changing hearts – their own hearts and others. Following rules does not save us.
How often in our modern world do we try to change laws to make people comply with Christian morality rather than doing the hard work of changing hearts?
Further Notes (for speaking)
Paul is writing a letter of encouragement. He has been visited in prison by his friend Epaphras – who founded this community – and he has sent a letter to them by the hands of Tychicus and Onesimus. Now, Onesimus is the slave of one Philemon, a member of the Colossian community. Paul is also sending a personal letter to Philemon to ask for some special favors.
The church in Colossae may meet in Philemon’s house.
The Colossians are facing cultural pressure to conform from two different directions: the Pagans in Colossae as well as from the Jewish Community. Are these Jewish Christians or Jewish Jews? Well, at a certain point in time there was no division here. If this letter is written by Paul in the middle of the 1st Century the Jews who believe Jesus is the Messiah are worshipping in the Synagogue along with the Jews who do not believe. The practice seems to have been for Jews to meet on Friday night and Saturday for Sabbath and then, after the Havdala service, marking the end of Sabbath, Jews who believed in Jesus as Messiah gathered with Gentiles for the Eucharistic supper. (Keonig)
I would like to suggest that Jews outside the community may have wondered at Jews eating with Pagans. We can imagine the conversation being something like this:
Why do you eat with them late Saturdays?
Are they righteous Gentiles?
Oh, then they should come to synagogue, at least. They can sit in the back. You know they should keep Kosher, though…
Hey, you know… brothers… if you tried to blend in more, it would be easier for all of us. Just pretend you’re Jews…
Additionally, Paul was addressing a Church arising in a pagan culture and needed to move Christians from their own cultural assumptions towards a more Christ-centered life. Paul believes that, in baptism and through the Holy Spirit, the Christians are endowed with the grace to make this change in their lives.
There are mystery religions as well as normal Roman paganism (worship of Jupiter/Zeus, etc). In this world, they would imagine Jesus to be just another deity. One Anglican scholar has noted that while there were miracle-working Rabbis in Jewish tradition, there were no such cases in Pagan culture. That Jesus was a miracle worker would, in Pagan eyes, imply that he was divine. He would be in danger of just getting added to “the list”. (Dix.)
Paul’s letter of encouragement says Jesus is more than all that. Jesus is everything.
Legalism was (at one time) the idea that following the law would save us. Paul says it is Christ who saves us and urges us to live into that (to act in trust – fideo – on our beliefs – credo). What do we do to “outsiders” though? We could evangelize them, but we often take the shortcut: to pass laws that make them obey our morality even if they are not part of the faith. We feel much safer in a society with a veneer of Christian uniformity. Integralism is legalism in reverse: sure, we have faith. We save the law for the outsiders.
Jerusalem Bible, 1968, Doubleday.
The Feast of the World’s Redemption: Eucharistic Origins and Christian Mission. John Koenig, 2000.
Jew and Greek, a Study in the Primitive Church, Dom Gregory Dix, 1953.
New Testament (New Collegeville Bible Commentary) Daniel Durken, series editor. Article on Colossians, Vincent M Smiles; article on Philemon, Terence J. Keegan, OP.
New Testament (Collegeville Bible Commentary) Robert Karris, OFM, general editor. Article on Colossians and Philemon, Ivan Havener, OSB.
You Can Understand the Bible, Peter Kreeft.
Bible Project. Video introductions to Colossians and Philemon.
Poster Summary for Colossians.
Poster Summary for Philemon.
Colossians, Philemon, by Ernest D. Martin (Believers Church Bible Commentary). Retrieved on 3 Mar 22.