Unlike Paul’s other writings, Colossians was addressed to a Christian community with whom he had no direct connection for the primary purpose of combating a deviant form of teaching. He had learned of their faith by report (1:4) and was unknown to them by face (2:1). Epaphras appears to have been responsible for starting this church (1:7; cf. 4:12-13), perhaps having learned the gospel through Paul’s ministry in Ephesus (Acts 19:10). Colossians is the least personal letter in the Pauline corpus, with 46% more second person terms than first person (151/55), underscoring its uniqueness and comparative lack of intimacy. Colosse is considered to have been the least important city to which any Pauline document was sent.
Colossians shares an affinity with Paul’s correspondence to Philemon. In both letters Timothy is named as co-sender, reference is made to Epaphras, Archippus and Onesimus (Col. 1:7; 4:9, 17; Philm. 2, 10, 23), and included as Paul’s immediate companions are Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke (Col. 4:10, 14; Philm. 24).1 Since Onesimus was a resident of Colosse (Col. 4:9) and was Philemon’s slave (Philm. 15-16), the obvious conclusion is that both letters were sent to the same city to perhaps two separate congregations, one of which met in the home of Philemon (Philm. 2).2 Onesimus was to accompany Tychicus to Colosse (Col. 4:7-9) and return to Philemon (Philm. 12).
Colossians also shares a close relationship with Ephesians. The commendation of Tychichus is very similar in both letters (Col. 4:7-8; Eph. 6:21-22). There are also a number of mutual themes and some common vocabulary between the two. It has been estimated that of the 155 verses in Ephesians, 75 are paralleled in Colossians. Ephesians appears to be a further development of Colossians, with Colossians having been written with a specific situation in mind and shortly thereafter Ephesians was composed with broader purposes to a different audience.3
Questions of Authorship
While the self-acknowledged author of Colossians is Paul (1:1a, 23; 4:18), Timothy’s collaborative role is more apparent in this epistle than in most other Paulines. The letter opens with the typical address from ‘Paul an apostle of Christ Jesus,’ with the added phrase, ‘and Timothy the brother’ (1:1b).4 After naming Timothy as co-sender, the introductory thanksgiving (1:3) is plural: eucharistoumen (‘we give thanks’), in relation to peri humōn (‘concerning you’). Since Paul’s introductory thanksgiving is typically singular, it is only natural to conclude that Timothy plays a more substantial role in the drafting of this letter. In fact, of all the “we” references in Colossians, nearly 77% are employed in the exclusionary sense (i.e., distinct from the readership), evidently inclusive of Timothy and Paul.
Despite the self claims of the text, however, Colossians has been counted among the “disputed” Pauline letters for the following reasons: (a) the language and writing style differ somewhat from that found in Paul’s genuine letters; (b) the christology, ecclesiology, and eschatology are more developed than in the undisputed letters, suggestive of a later time period; and (c) the heresy described in Colossians seems much later than Paul, indicative of a 2nd-century situation.6
In response to these objections, consider the following. (a) With respect to the hypothetical “Pauline style,” suffice it to say that Timothy’s collaborative involvement is adequate to explain any apparent differences in presentation. Further, the special circumstances being addressed and the particular error being refuted easily account for any peculiarities of language, especially if some of the language was borrowed from the false teachers to make a case against them. Colossians actually exhibits a great deal of distinctively Pauline vocabulary, style, and theology, and R. E. Brown concedes, “were the name ‘Paul’ missing from 1:1, 23; 4:18, surely the letter would still be placed in the Pauline ambiance” (An Introduction to the NT 610).
(b) Any alleged differences in theology tend to be overstated and/or based on biased assessments. Even in the “undisputed” letters Paul shows an exalted view of Christ (1 Cor. 8:6), an appreciation of the universal church (Gal. 1:13; 1 Cor. 12:28; 15:9), and a sense of a realized eschatology (Rom. 6:4-5; 2 Cor. 5:14-17; Gal. 2:20; Phil. 1:21). The concept of a slow and gradual development of New Testament theology rests on subjective evolutionary presuppositions, often discounting the role of divine revelation (see Biblical Authorship Part 2).
(c) There is so much guesswork involved in trying to determine the precise nature of the false teaching described in Colossians (see next post), any argument based on it is pure speculation. The case against Pauline authorship can readily be answered, and it is unreasonable to so casually dismiss the self-claims of authorship (1:1, 23; 4:18; cf. 1:24-25; 2:1-5; 4:3-14), not to mention the abundant manuscript evidence and the consistent testimony of the early church.
--Kevin L. Moore
1 The only persons named in the letter to Philemon who are not mentioned in Colossians are Philemon himself and Apphia (his wife?) – those to whom the former letter is sent to deal with a situation concerning their household.
2 Note that Colossians is not addressed to the ekklēsia (‘church’) but to the hagiois (‘saints’ or ‘sanctified ones’) in Colosse. The church meeting in the home of Nympha/s (Col. 4:15) may have been a third congregation? The tri-cities of the Lycus River valley were Laodicea, Hierapolis, and Colosse (the smallest), the latter of which was about 110 miles (177 km) from Ephesus (cf. Col. 4:13). The letter to the Colosse saints was to be shared with the church of the Laodiceans and vice versa (Col. 4:16).
3 See E. Best, “Who Used Whom?” 72-96; also D. A. Carson and D. J. Moo, Introduction to the NT 481, 485, 520-21. That Ephesians was written after Colossians is also suggested by the fact that Timothy is named as co-sender in all of Paul’s prison epistles except Ephesians, which may indicate that Ephesians was penned after Timothy had been sent away to Philippi (Phil. 2:19-23).
4 Unless otherwise noted, all scripture quotations are the author’s own translation. The opening of Colossians is identical to that in 2 Corinthians, and except for the mention of a co-sender it is also the same as in Ephesians and 2 Timothy. Besides here, Timothy is named as co-sender in 2 Corinthians, Philippians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, and Philemon.
5 The only other Pauline letters in which the introductory thanksgiving is plural are the co-authored Thessalonian epistles. The introductory thanksgivings in Col. 1:3 and 1 Thess. 1:2 are identical. In Colossians the “we-you” contrast is maintained through verse 12, whereas in the Thessalonian correspondence it runs throughout.
6 Pauline authorship of Colossians was first disputed by E. T. Mayerhoff in 1838 (Der Brief an die Kolosser), and today there is a fairly even split among critical commentators concerning its authenticity. R. E. Brown estimates that about 60% of today’s critical scholarship holds that Paul did not write the epistle (An Introduction to the NT 610), although Brown’s assessments tend to be somewhat exaggerated. For good discussions on the arguments for and against Pauline authorship, see E. D. Freed, Critical Introduction 312-14; D. Guthrie, NT Introduction 551-55; P. T. O’Brien, “Colossians,” in DPL 150-52.
Related Posts: Letter to Colossians Part 2, Paul's Prison Epistles, Paul's Letter to Philemon, Authorship of Ephesians