Against Disembodied Spirituality: An Exegesis of Colossians 2:16-19


Translations of Colossians 2:16-19

Personal Translation

16 Therefore, do not let anyone judge you in eating or in drinking or in participation of feasts, new moon festivals, or Sabbaths, 17 which are a shadow of the (things) to come, but the reality (is namely) Christ. 18 Let no one rule you out, taking pleasure in false appearances of humility and the worship of angels, which he has seen upon close scrutiny, being puffed up without cause by the mind of his flesh, 19 and not holding fast (to) the head, from whom the entire body, being supported and held together by (its) ligaments and bonds, grows out of the growth of God.

 

The New Revised Standard Translation

16 Therefore, do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or Sabbaths. 17 These are only a shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. 18 Do not let anyone disqualify you, insisting on self-abasement and worship of angels, dwelling on visions, puffed up without cause by a human way of thinking, 19 and not holding fast to the head, from whom the whole body, nourished and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows with a growth that is from God.

 

Historical Context

Authorship

The apostle Paul has traditionally been held as the author of the letter to the Colossians. The letter claims Paul as its author in three separate locations: in the greeting,[1] once within the body,[2]  and again in the letter’s conclusion.[3] The case for Pauline authorship is bolstered by the mention of Timothy in the letter’s greeting[4] and by the structure it shares with other Pauline epistles.[5] Finally, some evidence of the letter’s acceptance as Pauline exists in the writings of early church fathers. However, Pauline authorship has been challenged by noticing differences in the letter’s vocabulary, style, and theological viewpoint from other Pauline epistles.[6] The understanding of Paul’s apostolic office in relation to the Colossian church, along with evidence of reliance on five other Pauline letters, presents further challenges to those who claim Pauline authorship.[7] Dunn takes evidence from both sides into account and offers a middle perspective: he believes that Paul signed off on the letter, which was written by one of his contemporaries, possibly Timothy, while he was in prison.[8]

Colossae

The city of Colossae was one of three major cities in the Lycus River Valley of Asia Minor along a crucial east-west trading route linking the Aegean coast to the Asian interior. Approximately four to five centuries prior to New Testament times, the city had become wealthy and prosperous by dealing in the wool industry, which was bolstered by the city’s prime trading location. However, by the time of Roman rule, the city’s significance in the region had waned in comparison to the neighboring cities of Laodicea and Hierapolis. The entire region seems to have been heavily populated by Jewish peoples at the time of the letter’s writing. Unfortunately, the city of Colossae, along with Laodicea and Hierapolis, were devastated by a major earthquake in 60-61 CE. Archaeological evidence suggests that Laodicea and Hierapolis were quickly rebuilt but Colossae seems to have lain dormant until late in the second century.[9] Colossae’s character as a city experiencing economic downturn may be a factor that was motivating the Colossian philosophers’ desire for a religion that emphasized spiritual and other-worldly experiences as a means of escaping their grim reality.

Occasion

The letter to the church at Colossae seems to have been written in response to a certain “philosophy” that was prevalent in the region. This philosophy was apparently beginning to threaten, or at least undermine, the Christian community.[10] The author hints at the letter’s purpose for its readers in 1:23 by sharing a hope that they “continue securely established and steadfast in the faith, without shifting from the hope promised by the gospel that [they] heard.” Some have compared the letter with the letter to Galatia suggesting a similar harsh and polemical tone, but other commentators suggest that, while it does contain some polemical content, its purpose is focused more on encouraging and building up the church at Colossae as it faces criticism and judgment from the Colossian “philosophers”.[11],[12]

Much ink has been spilled attempting to reconstruct the nature of the Colossian philosophy which prompted this letter and no scholarly consensus currently exists on this topic. However, the letter seems to suggest four primary features of the Colossian philosophy: ascetic practice, worship of angels, cosmic elements, and full knowledge of God.[13] The nature of this philosophy is important to consider because the passage this paper addresses contains evidence for both ascetic practice and worship of angels.

DeMaris identifies five broad interpretive streams used to describe the “Colossian Controversy” throughout recent history: Jewish Gnosticism, Gnostic Judaism,  Ascetic or Apocalyptic or Mystical Judaism, Hellenistic Syncretism, and  Hellenistic Philosophy.[14] He departs from these five streams and suggests that the Colossian philosophy is composed of “a distinctive blend of popular Middle Platonic, Jewish, and Christian elements that cohere around the pursuit of wisdom.”[15] According to his analysis, the Colossian philosophy is centered upon the acquisition of wisdom.[16] He notes a deep concern for purity evidenced by the philosophy’s food and calendar regulations, seen in 2:16, and suggests that the worship of angels and the practice of false humility make up the core of the philosophy’s praxis.[17]

Literary Context

This passage begins a brief section of the letter that gives warning about rules and regulations being imposed on the Colossian community that the writer views as unnecessary and dangerous. These warnings about worthless regulations conclude the author’s polemical discourse that begins in 2:8. This discourse began with a general warning about the perils of “human tradition” or “philosophy” and then offered several affirmations of this warning. Prior to this discourse, the author has gone to great lengths to affirm the apostolic gospel of Christ. Afterwards, the letter transitions to a set of exhortations for Christian living.[18] It is important to note this passage’s position at the heart of the author’s argument against the Colossian philosophy.

Interesting Words and Phrases

σκιά vs. σῶμα

The writer uses these two terms to contrast the three categories of judgment – eating, drinking, and the keeping of the religious calendar – with the person of Christ.  The term σκιά translates as “shadow” and refers to a “faint archetype which foreshadows a later reality.”[19] On the other hand, σῶμα translates as “reality,” which is the fulfillment of a corresponding archetype.[20] Together, these terms denote a copy-original type relationship that originated from Jewish Hellenistic theology.[21] However, this Hellenistic thought finds a new depth of meaning when the eschatological and Christological dimensions found in 2:17 are considered. The copy-original relationship becomes a new way for the author to describe the well-known Pauline theme of “old-aeon-new aeon.”[22]

ταπεινοφροσύνη

The term ταπεινοφροσύνη is a compound word that combining ταπεινός, “humble, lowly,” with φρήν, “thinking, understanding” to form a word that is translated simply as “humility” in the six other New Testament passages in which it appears.[23] It occurs three times in the book of Colossians and each occurrence has a unique meaning.[24] Within the polemical context of 2:18, ταπεινοφροσύνη takes on a sense of inauthenticity and suggests the false appearance of humility while remaining proud. This connotation can only be discerned from the word’s context since nothing in the word signals this change in meaning. [25] Danker interprets the term to mean “wrongly directed humility”[26] while Grundmann suggests “mortification” because he believes the term describes a specific cultic practice that was operative in the Colossian philosophy that has prompted the writing of the letter.[27] As seen above, the NRSV has translated ταπεινοφροσύνη as “self-abasement,” which offers a sense of false humility in the performance of some sort of practice. This paper has chosen the more general phrase “false appearances of humility” in order to include a wide array of practices to which the author could be referring.

θρησκείᾳ τῶν ἀγγέλων

Translated literally, this phrase simply means “worship of angels” but it could have at least three meanings.[28] The first view follows the literal translation and regards the angels as objects of specific acts of worship by the Colossian philosophers and their followers. A second meaning is based on the interpretation of θρησκείᾳ in a broader sense to denote a whole system of religion. With this meaning, the phrase could be translated as “religion instituted by angels.”[29] Finally, Dunn suggests that τῶν ἀγγέλων should be classified as a subjective genitive.[30] If this classification is accepted, the genitive, “angels,” would become the subject of the genitive’s verbal noun, “worship”, which would result in a translation akin to “worship rendered by angels” or “angels worshipping.” Dunn argues for a subjective genitive reading because he believes the Colossian philosophy to be rooted in a Jewish synagogue, where “worship of angels” would not be accepted. Instead, Dunn links the “worship rendered by angels” in Colossae with the recorded visions of angelic worship found in apocalyptic Jewish literature at the time of the letter’s writing. He suggests that the members of the synagogue viewed their worship as a participation in the heavenly worship described in the apocalyptic visions. This evidence leads Dunn to believe that the Colossian synagogue belittled the “low church” worship of the Colossian Christians.[31] However, this paper has chosen the first view which interprets τῶν ἀγγέλων as an objective genitive due to the rarity of the subjective genitive in extant Greek literature.[32]

ἃ ἑόρακεν ἐμβατεύων

The meaning of this phrase has eluded commentators for centuries. The key term is ἐμβατεύων, which does not occur at any other point in the New Testament. Literally, it could mean “to set foot upon” or “to enter” or possibly “to come into possession of.”[33] In Jewish writings, such as 2 Maccabees 2:30 Philo, it is used to denote “intense concern with or enquiry into something.”[34] However, it is also found in mystery religion writings where it described the second act of an initiation ceremony in which the celebrant enters into, or finds completion in, the true mystery.[35] Preskier rejects this view because in all the sources where it occurs ἐμβατεύων is always paired with the term that describes the first act of the initiation ceremony and the setting is always a sanctuary. Since none of these conditions are met in 2:18, Preskier argues for the Jewish sense of the term and relates it to Colossian philosopher’s desire for ecstasy.[36] According to DeMaris, “the careful inquiry conducted by one of the philosophers has produced an insight regarded as authoritative,” which the philosophers then use to coerce their followers into their practice of false humility and angel worship.[37] Danker agrees and concludes by saying simply that “the context suggests an element of posturing or pomposity.”[38]

κεφαλήν, ἁφῶν, σῶμα, and συνδέσμων

All four of these terms appear in 2:19 where the author provides the final description of those who should be allowed to disqualify the Colossians and then goes on to explain why these “disqualifiers” are themselves disqualified. These words are interesting because they all refer to physical, bodily things: κεφαλήν is “head”[39]; ἁφῶν is “ligaments”[40]; unlike in 2:16, σῶμα now refers to a human “body”[41]; συνδέσμων refers to physical “bonds.”[42] This series of physical, “down-to-earth” terms provides the reader with a sharp contrast to the high-minded philosophers who boast about their false humility, which may have included practices that diminished the body, and their worship of angels.

Synthesis

While many scholars have used this passage in their attempts to uncover the true nature of the Colossian philosophy, the letter’s original audience would have no need for these explanations. Rather, they simply needed encouragement in the truth to sustain them while they endured the attacks of those who were judging them and attempting to disqualify them. In this passage, the author makes two bold exhortations to the Colossian Christians that provide to this end.

First, the writer declares that the practices of the Colossian philosophers are mere shadows; only copies of the one reality that they truly desire. They are relics of the old age that are fit to be discarded now that the new age has begun. In this new age, Christ is the reality from which all of those shadows are cast. Now that the true reality is here, the claims of those who cling to the shadows have lost all authority.

Second, the writer paints a vivid contrast between the puffed-up, angel worshiping, ecstatic visionaries of the Colossian philosophy and the Colossian Christians who make up a physical body, held together by bonds of flesh and blood that remain connected to the head. The message is clear: the Colossian philosophers, along with their beliefs and practices, are nothing more than disembodied shells. They do not “hold fast” to the head; they are not part of one body; they are not held together and supported; and they cannot grow. In turn, the Colossian Christians are reminded that they need each other to sustain their life together under Christ.

Alternative Voices

In his commentary on Colossians, John Paul Heil provides further insight into the σκιά vs. σῶμα contrast found in 2:17. He explains that, since the readers belong to the body, they also belong to Christ, who is the body’s ruling and sustaining head. He then links this idea with the Christological statement in 2:9-10 that “in [Christ] the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” in order to reveal the author’s message to the Colossian church that they too are being filled with the fullness of deity. As a result, they can enjoy in the present what the σκιά can only anticipate.[43] Heil’s thoughts are helpful because they establish a stronger connection between the conclusions of this paper and the broader context of the letter’s argument against the Colossian philosophy.

Commentator Eduard Lohse shares an interesting ecclesiological insight from 2:19. In his view, the key relationship in this verse is between the “head” and the “body.” Similar to Heil, Lohse recalls two previous statements from the writer that define the body, of which Christ is the head, as the church.[44] He then concludes that “a person can only adhere to the head insofar as he belongs, as a member of Christ’s body, to the ‘church’ which is the domain of his present lordship.”[45] Lohse takes this paper’s conclusion one step further by issuing a direct call to active participation in “church” as a necessary requirement for belonging to Christ.

A Bible Study Outline

  1. A look at Colossae
    1. Illustrious past, bleak future
    2. The “runt” city of the region
    3. Do you know any cities like Colossae? What would it be like to live there? How would you be a different person growing up in a city like Colossae?
  2. The Colossian Philosophy
    1. Read Colossians 2:8-23 :: What does the letter writer seem to be so upset about?
    2. Briefly review scholarly opinions on the Colossian philosophy
  3. Let no one judge you
    1. How have you experienced judgment in the past?
    2. Briefly review the nature of the practices listed in 2:16
    3. Explain “shadow” vs. “reality” concept
    4. What “shadows” is our church clinging to that we may need to surrender in order to embrace the “reality” of Christ?
  4. Let no one rule you out
    1. Share a concise summary of those who are attempting to “rule out” the Colossian Christians
      1. Practiced false humility
      2. Worshipped angels in visions
      3. Puffed up and arrogant
    2. Point out the sharp contrasts between the individualist, super-mystical Colossian philosophers and the down-to-earth, communal Colossian Christians
    3. How are we disqualifying people in our church today? What values do we exalt and use as gateways for membership in our exclusive church clubs?
    4. What are some ways our church could encourage mutual support and cooperation and challenge our society’s extreme individualism?


[1] Col. 1:1 NRSV

[2] Col. 1:23

[3] Col. 4:18

[4] Col. 1:1

[5] Victor Paul Furnish, “Epistle to the Colossians,” in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 1, A – C, ed. David Noel Freedman (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 1092.

[6] Ibid., 1092-3.

[7] Ibid., 1094.

[8] James D. G. Dunn, “Letter to the Colossians,” in The New Interpreters Bible Dictionary, vol. 1, A – C, ed. Katherine Doob Sakenfeld et al. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2006), 705.

[9] James D. G. Dunn, “Colossae,” in The New Interpreters Bible Dictionary, vol. 1, A – C, ed. Katherine Doob Sakenfeld et al. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2006), 701-2.

[10] Dunn, “Letter to the Colossians”, 703.

[11] Ibid., 703.

[12] Furnish, 1090.

[13] Furnish, 1091-2.

[14] Richard E. DeMaris, The Colossian Controversy: Wisdom in Dispute at Colossae, Journal for the study of the New Testament supplem. (Sheffield: JSOT, 1994), 38-39.

[15] Ibid., 17.

[16] Ibid., 73.

[17] Ibid., 99.

[18] Furnish, 1090.

[19] J. P. Louw and Eugene A. Nida, eds. Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament: based on semantic domains (New York: United Bible Societies, 1988), 593.

[20] Ibid.

[21]Gerhard Friedrich ed. Τheological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. VII, Σ (Grand Rapids, MI: W. M. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1971), 398.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ac 20:19; Eph 4:2; Phil 2:3; Col 2:23; 3:12; 1 Pe 5:5.

[24] Gerhard Friedrich ed. Τheological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. VIII, Τ – Υ (Grand Rapids, MI: W. M. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1971), 22.

[25] Louw and Nida, 748.

[26] Frederick William Danker, ed. A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature, 3rd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000),989.

[27] Friedrich, Τheological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. VIII, Τ – Υ, 22.

[28] DeMaris, 59-60.

[29] DeMaris, 60.

[30] Dunn, “Letter to the Colossians,” 704.

[31] Ibid., 705.

[32] DeMaris, 60.

[33] Louw and Nida, 593.

[34] Gerhard Kittel ed. Τheological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. II, Δ – Η (Grand Rapids, MI: W. M. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1964), 536.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Ibid.

[37] DeMaris, 66.

[38] Frederick William Danker, The Concise Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), 124.

[39] Louw and Nida, 95.

[40] Ibid., 101.

[41] Ibid., 93.

[42] Ibid., 222.

[43] John Paul Heil, Colossians: Encouragement to Walk in All Wisdom as Holy Ones in Christ (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2010), 122-3.

[44] Col. 1:18, 24.

[45] Eduard Lohse, Colossians and Philemon, Hermeneia, ed. Koester, trans. Poehlmann and Karris (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971), 122.

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