On Colossians – the problem of authorship

Any introduction to Colossians will have to reckon with the scholarly question over its authorship – I say “scholarly” because, prior to the 19th century, Colossians was just assumed to have been written by Paul. But scholars like F.C. Baur (and some before him) found reason to doubt the authorial attribution was accurate. For Baur, Colossians did not seem like it was dealing with problems from Paul’s time – the problematic heresy the author was addressing was trademark Gnosticism (so Baur concluded).

Since that time, scholars have questioned all kinds of things in Colossians. Here are the big five:

(1) Historical plausibility – there seem to be situations and ideas that fit better into a different time (see, e.g., Baur, M. MacDonald)

(2) Vocabulary – Colossians has some unique vocabulary (this is not as serious of a concern as it used to be for scholars, because they are more willing nowadays to attribute this to the context; see Lincoln)

(3) Style – Not so much the WORDS, but the WAY the author writes and thinks is different from, e.g., Galatians or 1 Corinthians (see Dunn, Schweizer)

(4) Theology – key theological ideas are either MISSING or UNIQUELY DEVELOPED beyond what would be expected of the real Paul (so most commentators that doubt Pauline authorship)

(5) Acceptability of Pseudepigraphy – in more recent years, it has become more common to see pseudepigraphy as an acceptable (and even assumed) practice in the Greco-Roman world. Thus, the canonical and ethical obstacles seem less critical for some scholars (see Lincoln, MacDonald)

So, what can we say? Given that Colossians does not suffer from the same kind of “consensus doubt” as, for example, Titus, it is clear that this is a tough call. Scholars are evenly divided on this letter – nothing in Colossians is over-the-top anachronistic or theologically suspect.

I just finished editing and finalizing an article on the hermeneutics of authorship-analysis vis-a-vis Colossians for publication and it becomes obvious that much of the discussion ends up being subjective – there is no discipline criteria for weighing the value of certain features or issues. That makes the issue so challenging to get a handle on. Nevertheless, here I will raise some key responses to some of the issues raised above.

(1) Historical plausibility – this issue cuts both ways. I think it was Moule who suggested that it would be kind of dumb of a false-writer to be clumsy enough to include anachronistic events or issues. If it is clear that the pseudepigraphers were trying to look like Paul, why didn’t they try harder? Also, how did they fool so many people for so long? Also, Fee points out that pseudonymous theories must reckon who offering some kind of plausible alternative – something most people don’t venture to do (other than Baur, and how did that work out for him?). Dunn asks – why write to Colossae, a city not founded by Paul?

(2) Vocabulary – again, not an issue for most folks now – Harold Hoehner succeeded in making his point by facetiously making a case against the authentic Pauline authorship of Galatians, based on the criteria that scholars use to question Ephesians.

(3) Style – this is a real problem. Dunn remarks that Colossians has “fingerprint” differences – and I agree. We must be willing to conclude that Paul did not actually write or dictate this letter. But that does not mean it did not come from Paul’s authority or mind. Randolph Richards has helped us to understand the complexity of “authorship” in the GR world. It was often collaborative and sometimes the role of the amanuensis changed even throughout the course of the letter! Lincoln is suspicious of giving the secretary too much credit for Colossians – according to Lincoln, we just don’t know what secretaries did. OK, true. But it is a possibility we must consider. Also, Witherington offers a very plausible suggestion that Colossians was purposely written in a different style (Asiatic) by Paul – I am interested in seeing how new commentators react to Witherington’s proposal because I think it has good merit.

(4) Theology – This is one of the most pressing matters – is this really the mind of Paul? Barth/Blanke argue that Paul’s thought may have developed, but it could obviously still be Paul. Lincoln and others just think this is unlikely. What do we do?

(5) Pseudepigraphy – yes, we can see examples of pseudonymous writing in the ancient world, even in Jewish literature. But letters? Especially ones attributed to authors in the RECENT past? Also, how do we handle the seemingly superfluous details at the end of Colossians that have little theological value and seem like they would be only there to trick readers? Books like 1 Enoch do not suffer from this very personal problem. We need more research on this issue of currency and acceptability before we can turn to this as a default option.

Bottom Line

Clearly I could go on and on and on about this (my article is around 10,000 words!). To some degree, it comes down to the interpreter’s inclinations and intuition. That doesn’t sound very academic, but it seems true to reality. It is extremely difficult to find common method and common ground (even computer analysis of stylistic features has not convinced scholars one way or another!). When it comes to Colossians, I think the stance of Barth/Blanke is exactly right: In dubio pro reo: When in doubt, side with the accused – or, innocent until proven guilty. Given the strong patristic assumption that it is by Paul and no “obvious” piece of evidence to the contrary, this is the safest choice.

In that case, we cannot ever categorize Colossians as “deutero-Pauline.” We cannot prove it is secondary, we can only say it is doubted (by some scholars), so I much prefer the label “disputed” because that is precisely what it is.

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5 thoughts on “On Colossians – the problem of authorship

  1. Thanks for that, Nijay.

    You ask why the author might have chosen Colossae as the supposed destination of the letter. Since the town was destroyed by an earthquake it is quite possible that there was no continuous congregation in Colossae that survived from Paul’s time to the time of the writing of the “letter”. There would then have been no community of believers who would have been able to refute the authenticity of the “letter”. If the author had addressed the “letter” to the Corinthians, for example, the believers in Corinth would have said, “this newly discovered letter cannot be genuine because our oldest members have not heard of it”.

    Concerning the acceptability of pseudepigraphy, I have long been uneasy about the idea that it was acceptable. Bart Ehrman’s “forged” rightly argues that the practice should be called forgery.

    I have argued on my blog that the author of Colossians made errors in interpreting the names of Paul’s associates that he found in Philemon. In Philemon Paul uses informal, abbreviated name-forms (Epaphras, LOUKAS, Mark, Demas), presumably because he is trying to be pally with Philemon to pressure him to free his slave. Elsewhere Paul uses the longer name-forms Epaphroditus and LOUKOS. The author of Colossians has inappropriately retained these informal name-forms. The author also seems to have misread “Jesus” as the name of a companion of Paul. Furthermore he implies that Luke was a gentile, but we can know from Rom 16:21 that Luke/Lucius, the author of Acts, was a Jew. And he makes Aristarchus, instead of Epaphras, Paul’s fellow-prisoner. There is just too much tension between Philemon and Col 4.

    I do not understand why conservative Christians want to defend the PE and Colossians. The decision to give the benefit of the doubt to Colossians should not be taken lightly. One risks being an accomplice to a forger who passed off his heresy as authentic scripture and supported misogyny and slavery (Col 3:18-24).

  2. I agree with my cyber-friend Richard Fellows.

    In Philemon, Epaphras is a fellow-prisoner and Aristarchus a fellow-worker and, in Colossians, Aristarchus is the fellow-prisoner and Epaphras a fellow-worker.

    Was Epaphras released and then Aristarchus was imprisoned?

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