Bibliotheca Sacra 149 (Jan.-Mar. 1992) 45-59.

          Copyright © 1992 by Dallas Theological Seminary.  Cited with permission.

 

 

 

                                     Doctrinal Issues in Colossians

                                              Part 1 (of 4 parts):

 

                Heresies in the Colossian Church

 

 

                                              H. Wayne House

                               Vice-president for Academic Affairs

                            Western Baptist College, Salem, Oregon

 

            During the middle years of the first century, the Apostle Paul

addressed a letter to the church at Colosse, a city in the southwest-

ern portion of Asia Minor. Whereas the apostle had sent a letter

that came to be known as Ephesians to a group of churches of which

Colosse was a part, he felt it necessary to write a letter directly to

the Christians at Colosse (as well as to those in nearby Laodicea,,

Col. 4:16) to correct some deviations from orthodox thought. These

deviations, grouped together, are referred to as the Colossian

heresy.1 What was this heresy and who were the heretics? Many

pages have been written in response to these questions. This article

surveys the many views on these opponents of Paul at Colosse and

the nature of their error.

 

 

                        Perspectives on the Colossian Heresy

 

            One writer says 44 opinions on the identity of these opponents

have been held by 19th- and 20th-century scholars.2  Some say Paul's

opponents were pagans who were influenced by the mystery religions

 

1 Morna Hooker has disputed the existence of a heresy in the Colossian church. In-

stead she believes Paul was warning his addressees not to be influenced by the pres-

sures of the contemporary culture, in the way a preacher might do today, rather than

addressing a particular group in the congregation (Morna D. Hooker, 'Were There

False Teachers in Colossae?" in Christ and Spirit in the New Testament, ed. B. Lin-

dars and S. S. Smalley [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 19731, 315-31).

2 J. J. Gunther, St. Paul's Opponents and Their Background: A Study of Apocalyptic

and Jewish Sectarian Teachings, Novum Testamentum Supplement (Leiden: Brill,

1973), 3-4.

                                                45

 



46        Bibliotheca Sacra / January–March 1992

 

of the day.3 Others think they were Judaistic in outlook, with such

differing perspectives as Merkabah mysticism or apocalyptic Essen-

ism.4  Still others believe the opponents were of a Gnostic stripe5

that was either Jewish or pre-Christian in nature. Another theory is

that the foes at Colosse represented a syncretistic group who shared

views from several of the above groups.6

 

ESSENISM

            In 1879, J. B. Lightfoot wrote a 40-page essay on the Colossian

heresy that is still referred to in discussions on this subject.7  Light-

foot began by noting the Judaistic character of the problem, citing

references to the Sabbath, new moons, and other Jewish elements.8

He also recognized a type of mysticism that was not Jewish (a view

discussed later in this article). He considered these Jewish elements

and the mysticism as Gnostic tendencies, and his essay develops the

fusion of these two elements, rather than debating one over the

other. Lightfoot's discussion is less concerned with the chronology of

the problem (i.e., when Gnosticism came on the scene) than with how

it developed. In this connection he formulated his theory of a link

with the Essenes, a Jewish sect more mystic and legalistic than the

Pharisees. According to Lightfoot, strict adherence to Mosaic Law

and asceticism characterized this little-known group of Jews.9

            To distinguish the Essenes further, Lightfoot described them as

abstainers from marriage, meat, wine (they ate bread and vegeta-

bles), body oil, and gratification of physical desires.10 This is simi-

lar to Gnostic dualism. Compared to Judaism, they were unorthodox

 

3 Eduard Lohse, Colossians and Philemon, Hermeneia (Philadelphia: Fortress,

1971), 127-30; and Randall Argall, "The Source of a Religious Error in Colosse," Calvin

Theological Journal 22 (April 1987): 6-20.

4 F. F. Bruce, "The Colossian Heresy," Bibliotheca Sacra 141 (July—September 1984):

195-208.

5 Gunther Bornkamm, "The Heresy of Colossians," in Conflict at Colossae, ed. Fred

O. Francis and Wayne A. Meeks (Missoula, MT: Society of Biblical Literature, 7.973,

originally published as "Die Haresie des Kolosserbriefes," Theologische Liter-

aturzeitung 73 [1948]: 11-20 and reprinted in Das Ende des Gesetzes [Munich: Chr.

Kaiser Verlag, 1952], 139-56), 123-45.

6 H. M. Carson, Colossians and Philemon, The Tyndale New Testament Commen-

taries, ed. R. V. G. Tasker (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1984), 12, 15-18.

7 J. B. Lightfoot, Saint Paul's Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon (1879;

reprint, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1959), 73-113.

8 Ibid., 83.

9 Ibid., 85.

10 Ibid., 86.



             Heresies in the Colossian Church                           47

 

in their view on the immortal soul housed in a "prison-house" body,

in their refusal to sacrifice at Jerusalem, and in their involvement

(possibly) in some sun worship. Other divergences include angel wor-

ship, attempts at magic (involving the use of herbs and charms), and

an exclusive spirit regarding knowledge.11

            However, did the Essenes ever travel to or reside in Colosse?

Lightfoot quotes Philo, who said the Essenes were not limited to the

Dead Sea area, where their monasteries were located, but that they

had settlements in Judea, Palestine, and Syria.12 From these Jewish

dispersions he concluded it is highly conceivable that they spread

into Asia Minor. The Jewish exorcists spoken of in Ephesians were

similar to those of the Essenes, as reported by Josephus, the well-

known Jewish historian.13 While conclusive proof is not available,

Lightfoot felt this Judaistic tendency was not fully Pharisaic in na-

ture, but more easily fit in with the Essenes.

            Josephus, who at one time was an Essene, wrote about certain

characteristics of the Essenes that may correlate with tendencies in

the Colossian heresy.14 He spoke of their strict asceticism, their

negative attitude toward marriage, their belief in the body as a

prison, and their high view of angels. Concerning their where-

abouts, he wrote, “They occupy no one city, but settle in large numbers

in every town.”15 He also pointed out that Jews had been in the Lycus

Valley for some time. Josephus recorded that 2,000 Jews were

brought to Lydia and Phrygia by Antiochus III from Babylon and Me-

sopotamia in the second century B.C.16 In Hieropolis, graves have in-

scriptions of a Jewish nature. Flaccus, a Roman governor, in 61 B.C.

forbade Phrygian Jews to send gold to Jerusalem for the temple tax.17

Agreeing with Lightfoot, Hendriksen quotes passages from Josephus,

Philo, and Pliny indicating that the Essenes were not restricted to

Judea.18 However, though the Essenes lived in various places other

than the Dead Sea, no evidence exists that they lived in the western

 

11 Ibid., 87-92.

12 Ibid., 95. On Essenism being in Palestinian Syria see Philo Quod omnis probus liter

sit ("Every Good Man Is Free"), Loeb Classical library, vol. 9 (Cambridge, MA: Har-

vard University Press, 1967), XII, 75:53-54.

13 Flavius Josephus Life of Flavius Josephus xviii (Philadelphia: David McKay,

n.d.), 10.

14 Ibid.

15 Ibid.

16 Ibid.

17 Ralph Martin, New Testament Foundations, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans,

1978), 209-10.

18 William Hendriksen, Exposition of Colossians and Philemon, New Testament

Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1964), 19-20.



48                    Bibliotheca Sacra / January—March 1992

 

portions of Asia Minor. Their strict Judaistic and communal practices

would seem to argue against their association with the pagan world

represented in Colosse.

 

MERKABAH MYSTICISM

            Along with most scholars, Bruce views the Colossian heresy as

primarily Jewish in its origins.19  Certain mystic elements definitely

existed in Judaism, as is evident from the letter to the Galatians.

The source of these mystic elements, Bruce suggests, was Judaistic

sects, not Greek or Iranian influences, though he is quick to recognize

the syncretistic element of all the above mentioned sects as being

pertinent to the heresy at hand in Colosse. While affirming Light-

foot's scholarship on the Essene/Qumran community, Bruce feels the

Jewish mysticism present at Colosse is too broad to be labeled Essene

or Qumran, but that it falls into what may be called "Jewish noncon-

formity," a term used for labeling some radical Jewish tendencies

that were scattered afar.20

            Calvin held that a nontraditional Judaism had influenced the

Colossian congregation.21 He wrote that the false teachers were Jews

influenced by Platonic thought, as seen in Dionysius.22

            A form of mystic thought that may have been influential in

Colosse is "Merkabah mysticism," named for the vision Ezekiel had

of God on the throne above the heavenly chariot (Ezek. 1:15-26).23

For a glimpse of this vision a radical obedience to the letter of the

Law was crucial, coupled with a period of asceticism varying from 12

to 40 days. If all went well, ascent into heaven could be attempted if

one also had the blessing and aid of the angels to counter the opposi-

tion of evil forces in the angelic realm.

            Merkabah mysticism, called Jewish Gnosticism by Scholern, a

recognized authority on this subject, was present in its early form in 1

Enoch 14:8-23, dated in the early first century B.C.24 Enoch's

heavenly journey echoes Ezekiel's account and Daniel's description

in Daniel 7.

 

19 Bruce, "The Colossian Heresy," 195-208.

20 F. F. Bruce, Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977),

416.

21 John Calvin, The Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Galatians, Ephesians,

Philippians, and Colossians (1548), English translation (Edinburgh, 1965), 297-98,

quoted in F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Colossians, The New Internationnal Comrnen-

tary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984), 19.

22 Bruce, The Epistle to the Colossians, 19.

23 Ibid., 23.

24 G. G. Scholem, Jewish Gnosticism, Merkabah Mysticism, and Talmudic Tradition

(New York, 1960), 1, as quoted in Bruce, The Epistle to the Colossians, 21.



             Heresies in the Colossian Church                           49

 

            Whether the phenomenon at Colosse was the kind of Jewish

mysticism argued by Bruce is difficult to ascertain. Certain elements

of this nontraditional Judaism may be explained by Paul's references

in 2:18 to "self-imposed humility" (qe<lwn e]n tapeinofrosu<n^), "an-

gelic worship" (or "worship of angels," qrhskei<% tw?n a]gge<lwn),

"things he has seen" (a{ e[o<raken), and "entrance" (e]mbateu<wn) into

the heavens. These excessive or heightened spiritual experiences

displayed by the errorists at Colosse may have been similar to the

practices and claims known among the Jewish mystics, of which

Bruce writes.25 They may also be explained, however, as similar to

phenomena in the pagan world or as allusions to developing Gnosti-

cism. Argall argues that the mysteries of the pagan community offer

better support for these practices.26

 

GREEK PAGAN CULTS

            Many scholars, especially of the last century, saw correlations

between the Colossian heresy and the pagan world.27  Often these

scholars believe that even the apostle was affected by this pagan

thought in the development of his theology.28 Others believe Paul

was merely responding to influences of pagan culture that sought to

infiltrate this church. Some say this pagan thought was Neopy-

thagoreanism, others say it involved the mystery religions, and

others argue that it was pre-Christian Gnosticism.

            In 1970 Edward Schweizer noted correlations between the Colos-

sian problem and a first-century B.C. document that had Neopy-

thagorean strains, as opposed to Platonic thought.29 All aspects of

the two matched up except those pertaining to the Sabbath. This ex-

ception at Colosse led him to conclude that Neopythagorean and

Jewish thought had merged and that Sabbath observance helped pu-

rify the soul from earthly things, thus aiding it in its ascent to

Christ's dwelling place.30

            Other significant theories that gained popularity were the Ira-

nian Redemption myth, suggested by Reitzenstein in 1921,31 and the

initiation into the Isis mysteries, studied by Martin Dibelius in

 

25 Bruce, The Epistle to the Colossians, 21.

26 Randall Argall, "The Source of a Religious Error in Colosse," 6-20.

27 Bruce, The Epistle to the Colossians, 19.

28 Edwin Yamauchi, Pre-Christian Gnosticism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1973), 21-

27, 36-51.

29 Ibid., 19-20.

30 Ibid.

31 Ibid., 20.



50                    Bibliotheca Sacra / January—March 1992

 

1917.32 While both contain interesting analogies and similarities to

the Colossian error, most connections have been deemed coincidental.

            Though most scholars agree that the Jewish element is funda-

mental to the heresy at hand, some have attempted to emphasize

the impact of Hellenism on the church at the time. Lohse, for exam-

ple, rejects the Jewish dimension to the heresy as he speaks of the

different regulations in the epistle that seemingly reflect Judaism.

 

            The "regulations," however, were not thought of as a sign of allegiance

            to the God of Israel, who had chosen his people from among all other

            nations as the community of his covenant. Rather they are thought of

            as expressing man's submission to the "angels," "powers," and

            "principalities," under whose control man has come through origin and

            fate. Consequently the adherents of the "philosophy" cannot be con-

            sidered Essenes, members of the Qumran community or proponents of

            heretical Jewish propaganda.33

 

Whereas the practice of circumcision would convince most that

Jewish practices were in view, Lohse responds by saying, "This

seemed to point to a decisive act of initiation (2:11) through which a

person was accepted into the community of those who in right wis-

dom and knowledge served the 'elements of the universe."'34 Circum-

cision, in other words, was part of the initiation into the mysteries.

            Argall argues that the mystery spoken of in Colossians 2:18 sug-

gests the Greek cults of the time rather than incipient Gnosticism.35

Along with Dibelius, Argall says that the term e]mbateu<wn in that

verse is more closely related to the inscriptions at Apollo's temple at

Claros (second century A.D.) than the apocalyptic view of a heavenly

ascent.36 He bases this on a reexamination of several apocalyptic

passages: I QH 6:13; 4 Ezra 6:6; Sibylline Oracles 3:24; 4:41-42, 181,

183; the Syrian Apocalypse of Baruch 21:7-10; and the Apocalypse of

Abraham 19. He also refers to evidences of the initiatory rites of the

pagan mystery religions.37 In the Homeric Hymn to Demeter (sixth

century B.C.), the members being initiated were to keep secret the

"holy things" shown to them.38 These rites took place at Eleusis in

Greece and were also practiced later in Roman times. Argall writes

that since ancient writings tended to be vague, this vagueness carried

 

32 Ibid.

33 Lohse, Colossians and Philemon, 129-30.

34 Ibid., 130.

35 Argall, 'The Source of a Religious Error in Colosse," 6-20.

36 Ibid., 14-15.

37 Ibid.

38 Ibid., 15.



             Heresies in the Colossian Church                           51

 

over in the mystery being explored and refuted at Colosse. He sug-

gests that sacred Greek mystery religion is behind a{ e[o<raken.39

Paul's information on this matter was either secondhand and vague,

or he did not feel it was necessary to discuss it in detail. Argall also

points out similarities between the Apuleius' initiation rites of Isis,

in Metamorphoses, which refer to death and resurrection, and the

discussion in Colossians 2:8-3:4, on Jesus' work on the cross.40 He says

the Greeks applied portions of the Isis and Osiris myth to Demeter.41

In Plutarch's account in Isis and Osiris 15-16, Argall notices an unmis-

takable link to Demeter. If this mysteriousness was thought by the

Greeks to be spiritual, then perhaps the "mysteries" in Colossians

were a polemic against that philosophy.

 

GNOSTICISM

            Many hold that the Colossian heresy was Gnosticism. Until the

rise of higher criticism in the early 1900s, the origins of Gnosticism

were thought to be decidedly Christian. The roots of the Gnostic

heresy were believed to be in Christianity. While scholars may

never agree on a definition of Gnosticism, and while theological ban-

tering on essential components in Gnosticism will continue, an

inescapable element of incipient Gnostic thought during biblical

times must be recognized. It is important to note, however, that bib-

lical writers were not fighting a known foe called Gnosticism.

            As German scholars and higher critical thinking came on the

scene in the early 20th century, they spoke of a pre-Christian Gnosti-

cism. Baur and the Tubingen School disputed the traditional date

and authenticity of the Colossian letter, citing un-Pauline thought,

the Cerinthian dispute (Cerinthianism being a second-century phe-

nomenon), its dependence on Ephesians, and the early-going assump-

tion of Gnosticism as the problem being addressed.42

            Though not originally his view, Bultmann is given credit for not-

ing the so-called Gnostic Redeemer myth. In an article written in

1925 with help from the History of Religions School, he stated the

following as vital parts of the Gnostic Redeemer myth.43

            1. "Primal Man" of Light falls and is shredded by demons, so

his remains, the sparks of light, are the pneumatics of mankind.

 

39 Ibid., 17.

40 Ibid., 18.

41 Ibid.

42 Donald Guthrie, New Testament Introduction (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity,

1965), 551.

43 Yamauchi, Pre-Christian Gnosticism, 29-30.



52                    Bibliotheca Sacra / January—March 1992

 

            2. Demonic influences, through sleep and forgetfulness, try to

keep these sparks from recalling their former state.

            3. The redeemer, another Light being, is sent from the tran-

scendent deity in the lowly, deceptive form of man in order not to

arouse the demon awareness.

            4. This redeemer revives the interest of the sparks, or pneu-

matics, in their origin and gives them the necessary knowledge

(gnosis) for their "re-ascent" to heaven.

            5. The redeemer ascends, defeating the demons and providing

a path for the spirits to follow.

            6. Cosmic redemption happens as the souls of men gather and

collect upward, thereby in effect, redeeming the redeemer. In the

end, Primal Man is reconstituted and restored.

            Bultmann interpreted the Gospel of John along these lines, as-

suming the author was a former Gnostic.44 Obviously this led to some

less than orthodox conclusions concerning Christ.

            As a religious system, Gnosticism came of age in the second cen-

tury.45 Since the authenticity of the Book of Colossians is not the

primary issue at hand and the vast majority of scholars have ac-

cepted it as canonical, the issue here is to distinguish between ma-

ture Gnosticism of the second century A.D. and its incipient form,

which existed in Judaistic sects for many years in the Lycus Valley.

            To ascertain the existence of a decidedly pre-Christian Gnosti-

cism is difficult. The Nag Hammadi texts reflect an awareness of

Gnostic ideas by the church fathers, but history remains fairly silent

on things like a Gnostic "church," rules of faith, canon, and any au-

thoritative teaching for Gnostic initiates. No extant manuscripts

support pre-Christian Gnosticism. So one can say that Gnosticism ex-

isted no earlier than Christianity46 and that it most likely grew

from interaction with various sources along with Christianity.

 

CHRISTIAN GNOSTICISM

            Many scholars who have rejected the idea of a pre-Christian

Gnosticism, believe nonetheless that some form of Gnostic thought

developed from Christian beliefs that later became the Gnosticism

of the second and third centuries A.D. Usually this early Gnostic

thought is referred to as incipient or proto-Gnosticism.

            One of the earliest accounts of Gnostic thought refers to

Dositheus.47 Some claim he taught Simon Magus, the arch-Gnostic.

 

44 Ibid., 29-34.

45 Guthrie, New Testament Introduction, 551.

46 Roy Yates, "Colossians and Gnosis," Journal for the Study of the New Testament

27 (1986): 49-68.

47 Yamauchi, Pre-Christian Gnosticism, 57.



             Heresies in the Colossian Church                           53

 

Whether Dositheus can be considered a true Gnostic is questionable.

Danielou hypothesizes that Dositheus was the "missing link" be-

tween the pre-Gnostic Dead Sea Scrolls and the more mature Simo-

nian Gnosticism.

            Justin Martyr, refers in his Apology to Simon Magus,48 who is

mentioned in Acts 8:9. In that document, written in Rome in A.D. 154,

Simon is described as a magician from Samaria, who became famous

because of supposed miracles he performed on the Island of Tiber. He

is also mentioned in the Acts of Peter, an apocryphal work. In the

eyes of the Samaritans, Simon, according to Justin, was "above every

principality and authority and power" (cf. Eph. 1:21). Simon is re-

garded by most early church fathers as the "Father of heresy" and

was the first to be labeled a "Gnostic."

            The problem with giving credit to Simon for Gnosticism lies in

the account in Acts, which refers to him as a magician.49 While some

would argue that Luke was watering down Simon's position as a full

Gnostic, no such evidence exists. In fact Cervaux, who has done ex-

tensive studies on Simonianism, concludes that the Gnostic themes

developed in the second century evolved from Simon's followers and

were credited to him by the church fathers.50

 

SYNCRETISTIC RELIGION

            Another position on the error at Colosse is that it was a combi-

nation of parts of many of the foregoing views. As Carson suggests,

the resultant religious amalgam in the Colossian church is an at-

tempt by these errorists, whether Jews or Gentiles, to advance be-

yond apostolic Christianity.51 Christ was not openly rejected by

these heretics; He was merely relegated to a lesser place, as another

of the angels or one of the intermediaries between God and man. The

terms plh<rwma, te<leioj, and gnw?sij in Colossians, rather than indi-

cating the developed thinking of Gnostic sects, instead were consis-

tent with a first-century writing.52 Many of the various influences

coming together at Colosse developed into later second-century Gnos-

ticism. This amalgam may be graphed as follows.53

 

48 Ibid., 58-59.

49 Ibid., 58-63.

50 Ibid., 62.

51 Carson, Colossians and Philemon, 17.

52 Ibid., 12.

53 Adapted from ibid., 12-18.



54                    Bibliotheca Sacra / January—March 1992

 

CHRISTIANITY

  Salvation through - - - - - - - - - - - -|

  Christ alone                                        |

                                                               |

JUDAISM                              The Colossian heresy was an

  Salvation through - - - - - -amalgam of doctrines that

  keeping the 0T Law did not reject Christ openly, - - -- - - - - - - -|

                                                but displaced His                                              |

MYSTERY CULTS   preeminence and distorted                              |

  Salvation through - - - - - -salvation.                                              Second-Century

  special knowledge                              |                                            Gnosticism

                                                               |                                                           |

GREEK PHILOSOPHY - - - - - - - -|                                                              |

  Angel worship                                                                                                 |

  Asceticism                           Libertinism was not - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -|

  Libertinism                          addressed in Colossians, but

                                                was found in later

                                                Gnosticism.

 

                        The Nature of the Colossian Heresy

 

            While the origin of the. problems at Colosse is somewhat diffi-

cult to track historically, the nature of the problem is easier to ascer-

tain. Certain characteristics of this false religion are reflected in

the terms and phrases used by the Apostle Paul in Colossians.

 

PHILOSOPHY OF THE HERESY

            Lohse notes that this heresy was tauted as a philosophy built

on tradition.

            The "philosophy," which claimed to be based on venerable tradition

            (2:8), was supposed to impart true knowledge and insight. Such knowl-

            edge is concerned with the "elements of the universe" (2:8, 20) which

            are conceived as angelic powers (2:18) and cosmic principalities (2:10,

            15). One has to establish the right relationship to them through obedi-

            ent worship; only thus is it possible to gain entry to the "pleroma" (2:9)

            and participate in the divine fulness (2:10).54

 

            The false teaching Paul combated had roots in "human tradi-

tion" (2:8) and was set against that which was in Christ. Evidently

these false teachers had tried to use "tradition" to build a philoso-

phy that had a well-established base. The marks of this erroneous

 

54 Lohse, Colossians and Philemon, 127-28.



                        Heresies in the Colossian Church                           55

 

teaching bore both theological and practical aspects. Lohse sets

forth the underlying impetus of this doctrine:

            Man can be suffused with the divine "fulness" only after he proves

            himself subservient to the angels and powers in the "worship of angels."

            He voluntarily declares himself prepared (self-chosen worship, 2:23) as

            he pays homage to the angels in cultic worship (2:18) and as he

            promises to obey what they enjoin upon him. Through his asceticism

            he withdraws from the world (putting off the body of flesh, 2:11; severe

            treatment of the body, 2:23), observes the special sacred days and sea-

            sons (2:16), and adheres to the regulations which prohibit him from ei-

            ther tasting or touching certain foods and beverages (2:16, 21).55

 

These practical dimensions of the error related to the way it viewed

the Person of Christ and His redemptive work. The false philoso-

phy (Col. 2:18) claimed to have knowledge not yet discovered by the

average Christian. In so doing it denied the all-sufficiency and pre-

eminence of Christ. Paul therefore urged the Christians not to be lied

astray by following after "the elements of this world" (ta< stoixei?a

tou ko<mou), which are opposed to Christ (v. 8). Whether these re-

fer to "regulations" of asceticism, angelic powers, or elemental spir-

its, the impact is the same. Paul wrote that these are not needed by

the Christian because Christ is the "fullness" of deity (v. 9) and be-

lievers have all fullness by being in Him (v. 10).

 

ASCETICISM

            Along with tradition being the fundamental tenet of the heresy

addressed by Paul, a strong asceticism is evident. It surpassed the

normal legalism of the Jewish Pharisees and most Hellenistic cults

of that day. This asceticism led to two extremes. One was the de-

privation of the human body. This included ignoring the needs and

wants of the flesh in an effort to transcend the physical realm and

ascend into the spiritual, which would supposedly help an individ-

ual attain a closer communion with God, the true Light.56 The other

ascetic extreme was abuse in the form of licentiousness. This school

of thought held the physical body in such contempt that it was seen

as something to abuse, sexually or otherwise. In Colosse the heresy

included an abstinent type of behavior, as seen in their words, "Do

not handle, do not taste, do not touch" (Col. 2:21).

            The problem at Colosse was a conflict between Christ and the

"elements" of the world. Colosse was a great melting pot, and as

such there was probably pressure for the people there to be accom-

 

55 Ibid., 128.

56 T. K. Abbott, The Epistles to the Ephesians and to the Colossians, The Interna-

tional Critical Commentary (1897; reprint, Edinburgh: Clark, 1977), 274.



56                    Bibliotheca Sacra / January—March 1992

 

modating religiously as well as socially. Paul, however, reaffirmed

Christ's preeminence and used harsh language in dealing with the

heretics' "empty" philosophies.

            As observed earlier, it is commonly held that strong Judaistic

elements existed at Colosse .57 Lightfoot's view on Essenism supports

this, and historical evidences show a strong Jewish presence in the

Lycus Valley and Phrygia. However, the fact that Jews lived there

is not in itself an adequate reason for laying the Colossian heresy

squarely on Jewish shoulders. Evidence of Hellenistic cultic practice

in the area affirms at best a syncretistic hypothesis for the problems

addressed by Paul at Colosse. An examination of Judaistic elements

in Colosse is in order, however.

            Paul's references to observing feast days, new moons, circumci-

sion, dietary laws, and the Sabbath clearly point to Judaism. The

Jewish flavor in the epistle is impossible to overlook, though sorne

have pointed to obscure similarities between these observances and

some cultish practices at the time and have tried to bypass Judaism

altogether. However, the Judaism addressed in Colossians seems to

be of an extreme nature that may have been foreign to most other

forms of Judaism. Some have called it Jewish Gnosticism, but that is

presumptuous, since it is difficult to prove that Gnosticism existed in

the first century. It is true that radical Jewish sects such as the

Essenes existed and entertained incipient Gnostic qualities and were

involved in ascetic practices. Both the Essenes and the Colossian

heretics taught that knowledge (gnw?sij) belongs only to the spiritu-

ally elite, and that knowledge is a complicated process involving

asceticism, self-denial, and dualistic philosophy.

 

COSMOLOGY

            According to Martin the term stoixei?a, translated "elements,"

was being addressed by Paul as antithetical to Christ (Col. 2:8).58

Martin then discusses Greek thought on the elements (air, water,

fire, and earth), which were deified by philosophers of the time.

He quotes Pythagoreans such as Diogenes Laertius (of the third cen-

tury A.D.) who made a distinction between the "upper" air and the

"lower" air, saying that the upper air with the sun, moon, and stars

was treated as a god. Martin views Paul's words as a polemic

against this type of Greek astrological worship, which was being

practiced along with acceptance of the true cosmic headship of

 

57 F. F. Bruce, "Jews and Christians in the Lycus Valley," Bibliotheca Sacra 141

(January—March 1984): 3-15.

58 Ralph P. Martin, Colossians and Philemon, New Century Bible Commentary

(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 19:73), 10.



                        Heresies in the Colossian Church                           57

 

Christ.59 Paul sought to eliminate any rule of the stoixei?a and to af-

firm the believer's freedom in Christ.

            Bruce advocates that Merkabah mysticism and the idea of

heavenly ascent relates well to Colossians 2:18.60 In discussing the

stoixei?a, Bruce refers to the heavenly ascent, which involved seven

planetary bodies guarded by their respective gatekeepers, seen as

polytheistic deities. He also sees a close connection between stoi-

xei?a of Colossians and Paul's words in Galatians about the obser-

vance of days, months, seasons, and years (Gal. 4:9-10).61 Whereas

Paul in no way believed in gods of the lights and stars, he realized

the enslaving power that astrology had in pagan society, and that

Christ frees people from this kind of bondage, a strong theme in

Colossians. So this connection with Galatia has merit.

 

CHRISTOLOGY

            While the errorists in Colosse mixed religions—Judaistic legal-

ism and Hellenistic cult practices—they evidently did not deny

Christ outright. Subtlety is evident in their syncretism. Vaughn

points out that the heresy in Colosse was all the more dangerous be-

cause while not denying Christ, it dethroned Him.62 No matter

what is held concerning the heresy's origin, Paul's response in the

letter addressed a diminished view of Jesus Christ. From the dualis-

tic viewpoint on the evil of matter (the physical), it follows that

giving preeminence to the physical Person of Jesus Christ would pose

serious problems to the philosophical system of the heresy.

            This devaluing of Christ is implied in the much-debated phrase

on "angel worship" in Colossians 2:18: "Let no one disqualify you, in-

sisting on self-abasement and worship of angels [qrhskei<% tw?n

a]gge<lwn], taking his stand on visions, puffed up without reason by

his sensuous mind" (RSV). Two interpretations are given on what an-

gel worship implies. One view is that this is the veneration of an-

gels as mediatorial beings between man and God, who aid men's spir-

itual "ascent." In Greek thought the deification of astrological ob-

servances also could be what Paul was referring to, since the Greeks

paid homage to the astrological forces that supposedly controlled

their fate.

            A second view on "worship of angels" is that it means man's at-

 

59 Ibid., 17.

60 Bruce, "The Colossian Heresy," 201-4.

61 Ibid., 196.

62 Curtis Vaughn, "Colossians," in The Expositor's Bible Commentary, ed. Frank E.

Gaebelein (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978), 11:168.



58                    Bibliotheca Sacra / January—March 1992

 

tempt to worship God as the angels do, namely, in His presence and

glory. In the Merkabah school, to complete one's ascent and to even

take part in the worship of God with the angels was seen as a deep

honor. This latter view takes tw?n a]gge<lwn ("of angels") as a subjec-

tive genitive. Francis holds to this interpretation.63 However, the

errors Paul cited in Colossians 2:23 seem to refer not to some form of

worship, but rather to a strict asceticism that is a form of human

wisdom.64 The first view, the exalting of the angels, seems to be

what Paul was addressing. This erroneous angelology diminishes

the role of Christ, reducing Him to less than divine and making Him

simply another go-between in man's quest for the "true light." In

truth, however, Christ is not merely one of many mediators with

God; He is the only One (1 Tim. 2:5; Heb. 9:15). He is the only "Link"

that connects man and God, for He alone is both at once.

 

SOTERIOLOGY

            As the Colossian heretics turned their attention from Christ, the

Head, they vainly attempted to attain righteousness through ascet-

icism, dualism, and self-abuse. The freedom presented by Christ was

being exchanged for slavery to the elements of this world. It is truly

ironic that if the Colossian errorists had the Merkabah "ascent" in

mind along with physical self-abuse, this belief was exactly what

was enslaving them to this "temporal" plane. They were forsaking

true freedom from the only One who could give an individual a

heavenly "audience."

 

EXCLUSIVITY

            Another unfortunate error of this system was the way its teach-

ers sought to limit access to its benefits to certain Christians. Only

the enlightened, similar to later Gnosticism, could participate in the

higher experiences of the cult. Guthrie says that "Paul seems to be

at pains to express the all-inclusiveness of Christianity (cf. Col. i.

20, 28, iii. 11). It is significant that in i. 28 Paul stated his aim to be

to present every man as perfect."65

            As an interesting sidelight, the traits of false teachers here

seem to differ little from those expounded by the Apostle John sev-

eral decades later. In both Colossians and 1 John the identification

of the errorists centers on the questions, "What do you think of

Christ?" and "How do you treat your fellow Christian?"

 

63 Fred O. Francis, "Humility and Angelic Worship in Col 2:18," in Conflict at

Colossae, 176-80.

64 Martin, Colossians and Philemon, 14.

65 Guthrie, New Testament Introduction, 548 (italics his).



                        Heresies in the Colossian Church               59

 

                        Paul's Response to the Colossians

            In his response to the church at Colosse, Paul made it clear that

the gospel they had heard was indeed in Christ (1:4). Epaphras,

who had evangelized the Colossians, was sent by Paul as a faithful

minister of Christ (v. 7). There is no doubt that the Colossian be-

lievers' beginnings were orthodox, for Paul was pleased with their

spiritual progress (v. 8).

            To dilute in any way the Person of Christ is to open the door for

any number of heresies, as psuedo-Christian sects have shown

throughout history. He has been called a great teacher, a prophet,

the "son" of God (in the sense of being His progeny), a god, and other

titles, but Christianity alone describes Him as a Person with full de-

ity, a member of the monotheistic Godhead. Syncretism cannot com-

promise on the foundations, and the Person of Christ is vital to what

can rightfully be called "Christian."

 

                                        Conclusion

            Many have set forth arguments regarding the identification of

the errorists at Colosse. Some believe the heretics were primarily

Jewish, while others say they were Gentiles. Those arguing for a

Jewish contingent usually view them as members of the Essenes or a

group like the Merkabah mystics rather than the type of Judaistic

legalism found at Galatia. Those who believe the opponents were

Gentiles, or at least Hellenistic, think Neopythogorean or mystery

religion roots were present. Along with this group of scholars are

those who believe the Colossian church was influenced by Gnostic

elements. Those who reject pre-Christian Gnosticism, however, do

think there were embryonic or incipient forms of thought (perhaps

proto-Gnostic), which eventually solidified in the Gnosticism of the

second century A.D.

            No single view has arguments that can lead to its being endorsed

exclusively. It is best to recognize that both Jewish and Gentile ele-

ments were present in the Colossian heresy, many of which were gen-

erally shared by the populace in the highly charged world of the

first century, especially in the syncretistic and Hellenistic mood of

Achaia and western Asia Minor. Many of the elements developed

into the Gnosticism of the second century but with far more elaborate

philosophical-religious views than are found in Colossians. The

most one can say of the error in Colossians is that it was a syncretism

of Jewish, Gentile, and Christian features that diminished the all-

sufficiency of Christ's salvation and His personal preeminence.

 

This material is cited with gracious permission from:    y

Dallas Theological Seminary

            3909 Swiss Ave.          Dallas, TX   75204           www.dts.edu

Please report any errors to Ted Hildebrandt at:  thildebrandt@gordon.edu