Sunday, December 28, 2014

Colossians: a Book Report

The following is from a work-in-progress called "The Bible: a Book Report" in which I read each book of the Bible, summarize it in my own words, and occasionally give some commentary.

Colossae was located in Asia Minor (modern day Turkey)

The letter to the church in Colossae presents itself as having been written by Paul, though most scholars today believe it to be non-authentic, and written by second or third generation Christian writers.  The reasons for this are literary (the use of non-Pauline language), theological (the author’s view of Christ and the apocalypse differ from Paul), and practical (the letter concerns itself with household/social relations which Paul does not consider).  Scholar Peter Zaas writes that the so-called “household codes” of Colossians “are likely the products of second or third generation New Testament writers, aware that the second coming of Jesus is not likely to occur in the near future, and needing to provide guidelines on how his followers should live.”  Colossians, like other later (non-Pauline) letters presents a kind of “domesticated” Christianity.

Not much remains of the ancient city of Colossae, and it has never been excavated.  WTF?!

The author of Colossians challenges intellectual/theological opponents who follow Jewish and Greco-Roman ideas that do not square with the author’s view of orthodox belief and practice.  One irony of Colossians is that the author uses Greek rhetoric and Jewish ideas to argue against people using Greek rhetoric and Jewish ideas.  Scholar Luke Timothy Johnson alerted me to the value of understanding  Greek rhetoric (format and argument) when reading New Testament letters, which were all written in Greek and reflect Greek rhetorical conventions.  Many of the letters begin with a familiar pattern characteristic of Greek letter-writing: Salutation, followed by Thanksgiving (sending of good wishes).

After these formal niceties, the author of Colossians gets into his main arguments.  First, the author presents a theological understanding of Christ which echoes the beginning of John’s gospel.  This is a later “high” view of Jesus, which focuses mostly on his divinity, and very little on his human life and teachings.  For the author of Colossians, Jesus is “the image of the invisible God” through whom “all things in heaven and on earth were created…and in him all things hold together.”  This is a “cosmic” Jesus.  Gone is the human rabble-rouser from rural Palestine.  This Jesus is God!  

Here are some ruins of an ancient theater in Colossae (It is not well-preserved).

In addition to being the force of all creation, Jesus is also (for the writer of Colossians) the conduit of God’s redemption of humanity from sin and death: “through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.”  It is interesting to note that for the author of Colossians, as for Paul, the main significance of Jesus is his cosmic death and resurrection, not his extensive teachings and parables, as recounted in the gospels.

In light of this cosmic redemption, Christians are to be transformed into a new creation, and united in love.  After presenting this “correct” view of Jesus and the gospel, the author goes on to argue against intellectual and theological opponents: 

1.) Those who want to follow traditions of Judaism.  As we have seen, this conflict with Judaism is a recurrent theme throughout the New Testament.  This makes total sense because Jesus and pretty much all of his earliest followers were observant Jews.  It is only when Paul begins taking his essentially Jewish faith to the gentile world that tensions arise.  As time went on, for various complex reasons, Paul’s ultimately non-Jewish version of the gospel would prevail, and Jewish Christians (like Peter, James, and John) would become the minority.  The author of Colossians dismisses Jewish practices as “a shadow of what is to come” and “simply human commands and teachings.”

2.) The other opponents addressed in Colossians are church members interested in exploring new philosophical and religious ideas.  The author writes, “See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not to Christ.”  In this verse, I detect a mindset that is still somewhat prevalent in modern evangelical Christianity—a suspicion of non-Christian intellectual pursuits as somehow dangerous.  This way of thinking is, to a curious academic like me, problematic.  This suspicion of “human” philosophy is ironic because the author, in describing the division between the “shadow” of the Torah and the “substance” of Christ is actually using the language/ideas of the pre-Christian Greek philosopher Plato.

"The Miracle of St. Michael at Colossae" (15th century Russian icon).  Click HERE to learn more!

As with other New Testament letters, Colossians promotes gender inequality: “Wives be subject to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.”  Equally problematic is Colossians ideas regarding slavery: “Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything, not only while being watched and in order to please them, but wholeheartedly fearing the Lord.”  The New Testament here, and elsewhere, does not condemn slavery.

This afternoon, I went with my parents to visit some relatives in Los Angeles, and on the way we discussed Colossians.  After sharing my book report in progress, we discussed this question: “What is the main idea, or thesis, of Colossians?”  As a teacher of college academic writing, I would normally look for a thesis of some kind.  But I couldn’t detect a thesis in Colossians, and I think this is because it is a letter, not an academic paper.  Nowhere in the New Testament (or the Old Testament for that matter) do we find systematic theology.  We find stories, letters, poetry, wisdom writings, but nothing like what later Christians like Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, or Martin Luther would write concerning systematic theology.  For some people, who want easy coherence, this fact may prove frustrating.  But for me, it is endlessly interesting, and I think it's why there are so many variations of Christianity today (thousands of denominations).  If we read the Bible without familiar creeds or preconceived ideas of “the gospel” we find a world of endless fascination, and endless debate regarding meaning.  I like this.

First page of Colossians from a 12th century Greek manuscript.

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