Most interpreters of Colossians recognize that there is some kind of problematic teaching that Paul addresses in the letter (though Morna Hooker has made the strongest argument yet that it is possible this was more general than specific, and not a local threat). The most direct and clearest information is found in chapter 2 (esp 2:4; 8-9). We are given some details in 2:16-23 – the “philosophy” teaches about strict regulations regarding food and festivals, and also particular restrictions in worship as well as the hope of mystical visions. All of this seems to have some connection to the Stoicheia (2:8, 20) that oppress and frighten the people.
Does Paul’s statement about perseverance (1:11) mean that the Colossians had already succumbed to this teaching? Given Paul’s tone, it does not appear to be an active problem, but perhaps this was the beginning of the road that Paul knew all to well – one that leads to a riven faith (see 1:23).
These six elements seem to be discernible from Colossians.
1. A teaching/philosophy has come to the Colossian churches.
2. The teaching is supported by philosophical arguments.
3. It focuses on heavenly wisdom and protection from evil spirits (my interpretation of the Stoicheia)
4. It teaches ascetic practices that treat the body negatively.
5. The philosophy devalues the importance of Christ (perhaps only by implication) in the pursuit of perfection and security.
6. The philosophy has had enough of a presence or influence to cause Paul concern.
So much is relatively uncontroversial among interpreters. Where the disagreement persists is on the setting or background of the philosophy. There are clearly Jewish elements involved – esp with the mention of Sabbath. But is the philosophy demonstrative of syncretism (Arnold) or something that stands wholly within a form of Judaism (like Merkebah mysticism; see Ian Smith)? The verdict is still out and I go back and forth.
I think John Barclay is right to urge that we just cannot know from the evidence we have and we should not press for more certainty beyond what the given information permits. Instead of calling it “Jewish” or “syncretistic,” I simply refer to it as the “transcendent-ascetic philosophy.” It is “transcendent” insofar as it obsesses over heavenly visions and wisdom and salvation. It is “ascetic” because it treats the earthly, physical body as an obstacle to true worship. Paul has much concern over this kind of perspective because in Christ we see the world of heaven meet the mortal realm and God wants to reclaim this fallen world, not evacuate believers from it. Indeed, by focusing on the cross (1:15-20), Paul shows how the body can be the most important organ of worship because believers can imitate the love of Christ by using their own physical bodies to defend and support others – just like those that shared Paul’s imprisonment.
We wish we knew more about the philosophy, but any further speculation becomes dangerous. We know enough to make sense of what Paul says in the letter by and large.
For more information, check out John Barclay’s Colossians and Philemon (T & T Clark, 2004).