Volume 35 - Issue 1
New Commentaries on Colossians: Survey of Approaches, Analysis of Trends, and the State of Research
New Testament scholarship in its present state is experiencing a time of abundance, especially with respect to biblical commentaries of every shape, length, level of depth, theological persuasion, intended audience, and hermeneutical angle. This is, indeed, of value to researchers and ministers who have a wide selection of options to choose from on almost any given book. However, the downside of this fecundity is that the wide selection is so bewildering that one needs a guide to navigate through the dense jungle of commentaries.1 In this article, the intent is narrow: to survey and analyze the latest commentaries on the book of Colossians with a view towards trends in recent texts and the state of the discussion of key interpretive issues.
Colossians is of particular interest for several reasons. First, it had been neglected for many years, whether being passed over by commentators altogether, minimized by being lumped together with its cousin Ephesians, or treated succinctly under the heading of “captivity epistles.”2 Second, many scholars do not consider Colossians to be an “authentic” Pauline letter, so they have often not considered it as important a source for understanding Paul’s mission, circumstances, and theology. The time of neglect, however, has apparently come to an end because six new commentaries have been published in the last four years, several by eminent Pauline scholars. By paying attention to the various approaches of these scholars, their distinctive emphases, and their commonalities, we may better understand the present context of the study of this epistle and the fruit and influence of newer approaches to biblical interpretation. Our examination of recent work on Colossians will concentrate on the six commentaries by Marianne Meye Thompson,3 R. McL. Wilson,4 Charles H. Talbert,5 Ben Witherington III,6 Douglas J. Moo,7 and Jerry Sumney.8 We begin by offering a description of each of the six commentaries that features their distinctive approaches (especially as determined by the series) and the theological commitments of the authors where detectable and relevant. From there we will move on to our analysis.
1. Recent Commentaries
1.1. Marianne Meye Thompson (2005)
Thompson’s commentary is the inaugural volume in the Two Horizons series, which is attentive to both “theological exegesis” and “theological reflection.” While these commentaries utilize traditional exegetical approaches, they also give attention to the canonical setting of the text, the history of interpretation (including pre-critical voices), and questions related to biblical theology. One dimension of this series makes it special, namely, that dialogue takes place with Christian theologians. For example, Thompson interacts with such theologians as Wolfhart Pannenberg, Colin Gunton, and Miroslav Volf. Only about one hundred pages of the book involve standard “commenting” (13–109). About another eighty pages engage with the “theology of Colossians,” including a discussion of the letter’s key themes, its place in Pauline theology, and its contribution to biblical and constructive theology. One should not expect from this commentary new directions in interpreting exegetical conundrums. It is best utilized as a mature, concise reading of Colossians with an interest in NT theology. In terms of the perspective and use of this commentary, Thompson stands broadly within the evangelical tradition and offers many theological insights to ministers and teachers.
1.2. R. McL. Wilson (2005)
This volume in the magisterial International Critical Commentary series is a completely different sort of commentary from Thompson’s. Hailed for acumen in philology, textual criticism, history of interpretation, and comparisons with contemporaneous ancient literature, contributions in this series often become standard reference resources for researchers. Wilson, an expert in early Gnosticism, is able to discuss the background issues and historical context of Colossians with much skill. Though he follows most interpreters in refuting the idea that the Colossian heresy was a form of Gnosticism, he admits that some elements of this philosophy point to its early development.
Wilson’s bibliography contains over 400 entries and is divided up into two major sections: “commentaries” and “other literature.” The first section is further segmented into three parts: patristic commentaries, those of the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, and modern works. As for the main commenting itself, the focus is, of course, on the Greek text. The Greek word, phrase, or clause in question is in bold, and a detailed semantic discussion usually follows. A distinctive feature of Wilson’s commentary is his regular dialogue with older works (such as Lightfoot and Moule), which is rare among recent commentators.
The ICC volumes tend to avoid theological discussion and do not adhere to a particular ecclesial tradition. This work is best utilized, therefore, as a reference resource for gleaning insight into the linguistic and historical background of the letter.
1.3. Charles H. Talbert (2007)
Similar to Thompson, Talbert’s is the first volume of a new series. In this case it is the “Paideia” series, which is especially suitable for course instruction because it enables “students to understand each book of the New Testament as a literary whole rooted in a particular ancient setting and related to its context within the New Testament” (Talbert, ix). Also, similar to the Two Horizons series, the Paideia series is not a verse-by-verse treatment, but moves forward in terms of larger rhetorical units. It is also a distinctive feature of this series that the authors come from a variety of confessional viewpoints.9 Talbert himself comes from a moderate-critical stance, but his theological discussions (see below on structure) tend to be more descriptive than prescriptive.
In terms of structure, each unit under consideration proceeds in three movements: a discussion of “introductory matters,” “tracing the train of thought” (comments and annotations), and “theological issues.” The commentary is loaded with helpful tools such as diagrams, sidebar additions (such as quick outlines), and pictures. The notes rarely break new ground, but offer competent surveys of scholarly opinion and often point the reader to illuminating texts from Jewish, Hellenistic, and Roman literature that help to establish Colossians within its ancient social, literary, and historical milieu. Preachers and lay leaders will find especially useful the way that Talbert makes the ancient world accessible.
1.4. Ben Witherington III (2007)
This conservative evangelical NT scholar has set out to write a commentary on every book of the NT and has written over a dozen since 1995. His books follow a “socio-rhetorical” approach, an apt label as his exegesis employs many of the tools of both social-scientific criticism and rhetorical criticism. With respect to the latter, he concentrates on classical categories and draws attention to standard rhetorical devices in the biblical text.
Written at a semi-technical level, Witherington is known for writing in elegant prose. As a dedicated instructor, he is also attentive to the needs of students and their level of comprehension of scholarship. He includes, therefore, many helpful features in this book, including an annotated bibliography of about fifty important works (it covers Ephesians and Philemon as well as Colossians). Several excursuses are scattered throughout the commentary (called “A Closer Look”) on such issues as the Christ hymn, the Colossian philosophy, and marriage and slavery “in context.” When Witherington appeals to the original text (transliterated), he does so in a way that readers without knowledge of Greek can easily comprehend. Also, his work is always marked by sensitivity to theological and moral issues.
Moo’s work falls within the relatively new Pillar New Testament Commentary series, which attempts to blend careful exegesis with attention to biblical theology and application. In terms of the format of the commentary, it is typical. After a standard treatment of introductory issues, it proceeds with a verse-by-verse discussion of the text with attention to the structure of the larger discourse, semantic issues, and various theological matters. This particular volume, however, is quite useful for two main reasons. First, Moo is known for his research on Romans, and given the thematic and theological similarities between Romans and Colossians, he offers a unique and helpful perspective on a number of issues. Second, he has researched issues related to protology, eschatology, and cosmology, from which he brings a wealth of knowledge and information into the study of a letter that is seriously concerned with creation and cosmological powers. Preachers will be especially appreciative of this series’ commitment—exemplified well by Moo—to “loosen the Bible from its pages” and make it relevant to the modern world.
1.6. Jerry Sumney (2008)
This contribution on Colossians appears in the New Testament Library commentary series. These commentaries offer a new translation of the text and are attentive to situating the NT book within the ancient world, describing its literary design, and discussing its theological nuances. Only a few volumes have appeared since the New Testament Library was launched in 2002. The format, again, is standard. It is not quite a verse-by-verse treatment, as often 2–3 verses are discussed at once.
Sumney brings to the discussion a strong background in Pauline studies, with special capability in mirror-reading and the study of Paul’s opponents. His focus is generally on the text’s rhetorical flow and author’s argumentative strategy (generally following classical rhetoric procedures). Perhaps the most distinctive feature of Sumney’s commentary is his interaction with the imperial setting of this text. His discussion of the household codes, with the aid of post-colonial criticism, is priceless and adds a dimension to the discussion rarely found even in the most recent commentaries.10 Similar to Witherington’s commentary, Sumney’s book contains a number of excursuses on such issues as Colossians’ use of metaphors for the work of Christ (particularly in 1:12–23), the use of the term “Scythians,” and the household codes.
The New Testament Library series has no particular theological commitments, and Sumney himself approaches the text from a moderate-critical stance (similar to Talbert). In the commentary proper, Sumney rarely makes directly applicable theological statements. However, in the excursuses, deeper reflections can be found on the theology of the text.
2. The State of Research on Interpretative Cruxes in Colossians
While it is useful to survey briefly the approaches of newer commentaries, one is still left wondering if anything new is actually being said on Colossians that moves the discussion forward. In view of providing this kind of information, we now treat several interpretive cruxes in Colossians, attempting to detect consensuses, ongoing debates, and how modern approaches have aided in illuminating this ancient text.
Since the middle of the nineteenth century, scholars have debated whether Colossians is authentically from Paul. In the last quarter of the twentieth century, scholarship was about evenly divided on the issue. These six new commentaries reflect the same sort of ambivalence. Thompson, Witherington, and Moo work from and support Pauline authorship. In the past, the most significant problems with claiming authenticity were unique vocabulary, eccentric style, and ostensibly unpauline theology. On the first and third matter, Thompson and Moo note that the contingency of the letter can account for the unusual vocabulary and focus on particular theological issues (and the neglect of others). Style appears to be a more pressing concern, though it is common within recent discussions to take into account co-authorship and the role of the letter’s secretary. Witherington, contributing in a special way to this issue, argues that Paul purposefully uses a more refined and poetic Asiatic style in Colossians (and Ephesians) that can account for the unusual vocabulary as well as such features as pleonasms. In terms of unpauline theology, some have argued that Colossians demonstrates a realized eschatology that cannot be found among Paul’s undisputed letters. Moo cogently reasons, though, that Romans contains several comments that point to a more realized eschatological perspective; thus, the eschatological gap between the undisputed letters and Colossians is more perceived than real.
From the other end, Wilson argues that Colossians is pseudonymous, with Sumney and Talbert slightly favoring this position as well. However, none of these scholars presume that this should devalue the theological import of the letter. Rather, it is now common to view it as an acceptable literary technique in the ancient world that can be labeled “honest forgery” (Wilson, 11). In Wilson’s argument against authenticity, the main issue seems to be historical implausibility, as he finds the kind of heresy that the author is arguing against to be too far advanced towards Gnostic beliefs to fall under the same imprisonment period as, for instance, Philippians (Wilson, 19). For Sumney, the concern seems to be the valorization of Paul, that is, the extended portrayal of Paul as a trustworthy apostle—something that can be easily accounted for if the writer is pseudonymous (Sumney, 7). Sumney concludes, “the amount of space Colossians devotes to this subject is unusual for a letter in which his authority is not under attack” (7).
We may conclude, then, that the debate over the authenticity of Colossians is ongoing as several issues and problems still need clarification and resolution. While vocabulary and style are no longer the most pressing matters, the theology of Colossians is still a concern, as well as the question of historical implausibility. The matter of determining the nature of the Colossian philosophy as well as the purpose and meaning of the household codes contribute to these concerns. We will give more attention to such issues below.
2.2. The Colossian Heresy or Philosophy
Determining the nature and background of the opponents in Colossians is a matter of considerable debate in NT scholarship. In 1973, J. J. Gunther listed over forty-four different suggestions made by scholars.11 The most well-known views from nineteenth- and twentieth-century scholarship are that the Colossian heresy was drawn from Essenic Gnosticism (Lightfoot), the mystery cults (Dibelius), or a form of Jewish-pagan syncretism.12 The first two theories have been largely debunked as anachronistic or exegetically tenuous. Within the modern discussion is the important question is whether this philosophy can be understood as fully Jewish (accepting that Judaism at that time was extremely diverse) or as combining Jewish and non-Jewish practices, viewpoints, and traditions. Again, these scholars are relatively evenly divided. Thompson, Talbert, and Witherington generally view the philosophy as coming mainly from Judaism. Wilson,13 Moo, and Sumney seem to envision more of a syncretistic (Jewish and non-Jewish) philosophy.
What we may glean from this discussion methodologically is that theories nowadays tend to shy away from simplistic answers. The multifaceted nature of the evidence leads one to view the opposition as either representing diversity within Judaism or combining Jewish and non-Jewish elements. What can be learned about Colossae itself has been hindered by the fact that it has never been excavated. If work is done on the site by archaeologists, the findings may bear on this matter in significant ways.
2.3. Paul and the Sufferings of Christ (1:24)
Our first textual crux under consideration is the matter of “Paul” making up for what is lacking with regard to the “sufferings of Christ” (1:24). Most scholars avoid supporting any notion that salvific suffering is meant here. Rather, the common interpretation of modern exegetes is that the so-called “messianic woes” are being addressed here (see Thompson, 45; Wilson, 170–71; Witherington, 144–45; Moo, 150–52). Thompson and Moo focus on the perspective here that Paul’s apostleship is unique in this regard as his proclamation is the reason that others oppose and afflict him, and this moves history (alongside other factors) towards the end-time events. Sumney alone hesitates to draw from this background, choosing instead to view this verse in terms of the Greco-Roman topos of “noble death” (Sumney, 100).
2.4. Stoicheia tou Kosmou (2:8, 20)
More controversial is the meaning of the phrase stoicheia tou kosmou, which can be understood in three ways. It could refer to the spiritual beings that dominate the earth (the archic view), the basic principles of the world (the logical view), or the component parts of the world (the elemental view). In twentieth-century scholarship, the archic view was dominant. However, among our six modern scholars, there is no consensus. Thompson (53) and Witherington (155) draw attention to the logical view as the “teachings” and “rules” of the philosophy seem to be a major issue. Talbert (211–12) leans towards the archic view, while Moo (187–92) argues that a combination of the elemental and archic is appropriate. Sumney and Wilson (195–96) appear to be undecided. Sumney focuses on the rhetorical import of the phrase, namely, to point out that “the teaching has a worldly source instead of a divine one” (131).
Though disagreement continues over the stoicheia, it is helpful to observe how the conclusions are reached. Some scholars focus on usage of the term in comparative literature (e.g., Moo, Wilson, Talbert), while others take interest in the purpose of the phrase in Colossians (Thompson, Sumney, Witherington). Both approaches, of course, are important for the elucidation of the phrase. Indeed, it must be recognized that there is a dialectic that exists between a word’s (or phrase’s) meaning in common usage and the meaning as it appears in context. At the end of the day, even though one must get a sense for how a group tends to use a particular word or phrase, the key determinant in meaning is the actual historical and literary context of the work at hand. It would seem that those commentaries that make the Pauline rhetorical context primary (without ignoring antecedent and contemporaneous usage) will end up finding a consensus sooner.
2.5. The Fullness [PlÄ?rÅ?ma] of God (1:19; 2:9)
An issue that generated much discussion in the past was how to interpret Colossians’ use of plÄ?rÅ?ma in 1:19 and 2:9. For some time, scholars assumed that the author of Colossians was using a Gnostic term, but recent scholarship has dismissed this view (see Wilson, 152–54). The focus is now on how this term fits into the agenda of Colossians, namely, to present Christ as offering the full presence and power of God (see Thompson, 30; Witherington, 135–36; Talbert, 190; Sumney, 74). Moo adds the possibility that though it is not a Gnostic term, it may have been a word Paul co-opted from the opponents who argued that the Colossians needed to fill out their spirituality (131–32).
2.6. Shadow and Body/Substance (2:17)
Colossians 2:16 refers to food regulations, feast-keeping, and Sabbaths. Then it goes on to argue, “These are only a shadow [skia] of what is to come, but the substance [sÅ?ma] belongs to Christ” (Col 2:17 nrsv). Traditionally, commentators have read 2:17 in terms of Platonic dualism (as also evident in Philo). This view is also generally taken up by Talbert (216–17), Witherington (160–61), and Moo (224). Sumney finds this view overstated, noting that sÅ?ma is not usually set in direct opposition to skia in contemporaneous literature (152). Sumney, Wilson, and Thompson explore the significance of Colossians’ employment of sÅ?ma here, which is also used for the body of Christ himself as well as the church in this letter. Thompson sees this play on words emphasizing that the Colossian believers would be hurting the communal sÅ?ma in their competitive bodily asceticism.
2.7. Worship of Angels (2:18)
A well-known conundrum in the interpretation of Colossians is whether thrÄ?skeia tÅ?n angelÅ?n (“worship of angels”; 2:18) is to be taken as an objective genitive (angels being worshiped) or a subjective genitive (angels as worshiping God). Judging by these works, scholarship is still split quite evenly, with Thompson (66–67), Witherington (161–62), and Sumney (154–55) taking the subjective view and Wilson (222–23), Talbert (218–22), and Moo (226–27) taking the objective view. The discussion has been further complicated by appeal to the magical papyri, the Dead Sea scrolls, and closer study of the OT Pseudepigrapha. One can find evidence in early Jewish writings both of humans worshiping angels or angel-like beings and of angels worshiping God. It appears that discussions of the literary and theological distinctives of Colossians will play a larger role in resolving this debate, therefore, than appeals to contemporaneous evidence. That is, more attention will need to be paid to the nature and importance of revelation and worship in Colossians and which reading fits this context more appropriately.
2.8. The Household Code (3:18–4:1)
An important aspect of understanding Colossians is properly interpreting the household code in 3:18–4:1, which to many scholars does not seem to fit well into its context. A significant issue is whether this code coheres with Pauline social ethics. Put another way, would it be understood as “overturning or accommodating to cultural norms” (Thompson, 89)? Scholars like Dibelius would have viewed it as wholly in line with values of the wider society. However, most of our six modern scholars have tried to understand it otherwise. Thompson (89–97), Talbert (236–37), and Witherington (196) see it as somewhere between conformity and resistance, a kind of sanctified version of the code. Wilson explains it as a call to “live up to the highest standards, but as Christians, in the name of the Lord Jesus” (275). Sumney takes the discussion further by utilizing the perspective of post-colonial criticism and how subjected people show resistance: “the household code in Colossians may encode meanings that run counter to the most straightforward reading of persons who are not attuned to the countervailing message” (237). An example of a subtle form of resistance comes in the phrase “as is fitting in the Lord,” after the command for wives to submit to their husbands (3:18; Sumney, 242). Sumney interprets these kinds of statements as more than just a secular ethic with Christian wrapping. Such qualifying and contextualizing phrases refocus the moral vision of the household code when read through this political-hermeneutical lens.14
Recent commentaries have offered a variety of approaches to interpreting Colossians, some traditional, others more exploratory. Some consensuses have been formed on particular cruxes, but largely the agreement lies in the elimination of tenuous theories. On the major issues of authorship and the background and opposition, considerable disagreement continues. A major factor in the advancement of the discussion is the use of parallel ancient texts. Scholars have paid more attention to the OT Pseudepigrapha, the Greek magical papyri, the Dead Sea scrolls, and the Nag Hammadi (see Wilson). Also, more attention is being given to Greco-Roman sources—not evidence from the mystery cults or the hermetic corpus, but rather the moralists, philosophers, and poets.
It is one thing to have more information about a group of new commentaries (as we have tried to offer here). However, after such a discussion concludes, it is still difficult to decide on which resources to turn to for academic and ministerial purposes. It is appropriate, then, to offer a few comments on the use of these resources. In terms of library-building, if someone does not already have a commentary on Colossians, I would probably recommend Moo’s Pillar commentary due to its clarity, exegetical depth, and theological insight. If one is looking to supplement what they already have in their library, I would suggest either Thompson or Sumney. What Thompson offers is an attempt to “think with” theologians and explore the theological horizons of Colossians. Pastors and students will be challenged by her efforts and she offers a nice example of what it means to penetrate the text beyond simply answering historical questions. Sumney provides something quite different, focusing more on social and rhetorical issues, but his approach engages the socio-ethical dimensions of Colossians in ways that have rarely been done before. In the end, though, all six commentaries are worthwhile study tools.
As we look to the future of Colossians scholarship, we can expect the level of productivity to continue with contributions slated from G. K. Beale, Christopher Seitz, David Pao, and Michael Bird. Perhaps in another five years (or sooner) another guide will be needed.
- ^ While we are offering a basic kind of guide to recent Colossians commentaries in this article, other treatments of this nature exist elsewhere. In printed form, fine commentary guides are found in John Glynn, Commentary and Reference Survey: A Comprehensive Guide to Biblical and Theological Resources (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2003); D.A. Carson, New Testament Commentary Survey (6th ed.; Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007). On the internet, two useful resources include www.bestcommentaries.com and the annotated bibliography of NT resources provided by Denver Seminary’s online Denver Journal at www.denverseminary.edu/resources/the-denver-journal/index.php/. The books listed above tend to be longer and provide a more detailed discussion, though they need to be updated regularly with new editions. The online resources are more current, but tend to be very basic.
- ^ One could divide previous scholarship on Colossians into two periods: before the 1970s and after. As for the former, the most profitable commentaries include J. B. Lightfoot, The Epistles of St Paul: Colossians and Philemon (London: Macmillan, 1875); T. K. Abbott, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistles to the Ephesians and to the Colossians (ICC; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1916); M. Dibelius, An die Kolosser, Epheser, an Philemon (rev. H. Greeven; Tübingen: Mohr, 1953); C. F. D. Moule, The Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1957); and the latter period: E. Lohse, Colossians and Philemon (Hermeneia; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1971); J. Gnilka, Der Kolosserbrief (Freiberg: Herder, 1980); P. T. O’Brien, Colossians, Philemon (WBC; Waco, TX: Word, 1982); F. F. Bruce, The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians (NICNT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984); P. Pokorný, Colossians: A Commentary (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1987); J. D. G. Dunn, The Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon (NIGTC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996).
- ^ Thompson, Colossians and Philemon (Two Horizons Commentary; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005).
- ^ Wilson, Colossians and Philemon (ICC; London: T&T Clark, 2005).
- ^ Talbert, Ephesians and Colossians (Paideia; Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007).
- ^ Witherington, The Letters to Philemon, the Colossians, and the Ephesians: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on the Captivity Epistles (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007).
- ^ Moo, The Letters to the Colossians and to Philemon (Pillar NT Commentary; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008).
- ^ Sumney, Colossians (NTL; Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008).
- ^ Thus, future volumes will come from, for example, Greek Orthodox scholar George Parsenios (Johannine epistles), Catholic scholar Frank Matera (Romans), and Baptist scholar Todd Still (Thessalonians).
- ^ Also, in terms of the Bible and Empire, see B. Walsh and S. Keesmaat, Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire (Downers Grove: IVP, 2004).
- ^ See J. J. Gunther, St. Paul’s Opponents and their Background: A Study of Apocalyptic and Jewish Sectarian Teachings (Leiden: Brill, 1973), 3–4.
- ^ On this third option, the work of Clinton Arnold has been particularly influential. See C. E. Arnold, The Colossian Syncretism: The Interface Between Christianity and Folk Belief at Colossae (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996).
- ^ Wilson’s view is idiosyncratic in that he sees here hints of the development of Gnosticism. One important issue he raises is the matter of how far the philosophy had reached. If it was only in Colossae, it was probably a more regional problem based on local aberrant beliefs. If it had reached Rome, it was probably closer to proto-Gnosticism.
- ^ This kind of discussion is beginning to take place also with respect to Ephesians and 1 Peter.