More on the authorship of Colossians – a response to my friendly critic, Richard Fellows

In a previous post I discussed the thorny issue of authorship of Colossians. While there are no easy answers, I err on the side of caution and follow the principle – in dubio pro reo (which I learned from Markus Barth) – “When in doubt, side with the accused.” Very wise counsel.

One commenter, Richard Fellows (see comment left here), is quite certain Paul did not write Colossians and has urged me to respond to his series of reasons. So here I go.

1. Concern #1: Wouldn’t Colossae be a reasonable choice for a forger since the city was destroyed by an earthquake and no church survived?

This argument is circumstantial (it does not prove anything, it is only convenient), and it can cut both ways. Dunn writes, “Why would a pseudepigrapher, consciously free to create his own history and aware that Colossae was not strictly speaking one of Paul’s churches, of all places, Colossae?” (1996: 37). 

2. Concern #2: Colossians follows the abbreviated names of Philemon. However, Paul was using “pally” names to warm up to Philemon in his personal letter, while he tends to use longer names in other genuine letters. The forger made a mistake by copying the pet names from Philemon, such as Epaphras (versus Epaphroditus).

First of all, it is not all that clear why certain name forms were used and when. Also, even if Epaphras is short for Epaphroditus, Reumann notes that they could be different people. Thirdly, even if it is the same person, because Epaphras was known to the Colossians, it would make sense to retain the more personal form (if that is really what it is).

3. Concern #3: The forger mistakes “Jesus” for a companion of Paul (Col 4:11)

Really? This highly skilled forger who has spent significant time analyzing Paul’s thought just doesn’t quite get who Paul thinks Jesus is? That is like a modern art forger who has spent significant time replicating works of Rembrandt not know how to draw people! I have NEVER come across a commentary that genuinely entertains the possibility that a forger could make this kind of mistake.

4. Concern #4: The forger swaps people and calls Aristarchus a “fellow-prisoner” in Col (4:10), but does so of only Epaphras in Philemon (23).

How is this a mistake? It would be one thing to mistake an older brother for a younger brother and vice versa (something empirical), but these are either terms of endearment (and, thus, there are lots of reasons why Paul would change such language), or they literally took turns spending time with Paul in prison (and we do have evidence of this kind of thing happening on occasion).

5. Concern #5: Why bother trying to defend the authenticity of Colossians? It is pro-slavery and misogynistic.

Why support ANY of Paul’s letters? Or the Bible for that matter (have you read the Old Testament?). Going back to Paul, why support Romans which is apparently pro-government? Or 1 Corinthians where Paul tells everyone to stay in their present state (even slaves)? Morna Hooker mentioned somewhere that, when reading Paul, it is wise to give him the benefit of the doubt. Read with him, not against him.

Think about Bonhoeffer. When he decided to join the conspiracy he was “Hail Hitler”-ing like nobodies business! How can anyone trust him? Context. 

I defer to Richard Hays’ really good work on interpreting the household codes as subversive, not supportive of the status quo. Also, read David Horrell’s work on 1 Peter and the household code where he draws from post-colonial and political theories of how subjugated or dominated peoples affirm their identity through hidden or coded forms of protest. It is worth thinking through an “emic” perspective and giving the ancient text opportunities to be “sensible” within its own context.

Richard, while it is clear I disagree with you on EVERY front, I do want to give respect to you that (1) you read for the details, (2) you do not lack creativity, and (3) you continue to study texts you disagree with. We seem to be on the opposite sides of the issue ideologically. I adhere, basically, to a hermeneutic of (cautious, circumspect) trust and you do not. While I am eager to see how you might respond to my responses, I am hesitant to anticipate that we will see eye-to-eye. But what else is the internet for, if not to hear each other out from miles and miles away.


4 thoughts on “More on the authorship of Colossians – a response to my friendly critic, Richard Fellows

  1. Thanks for your response, Nijay. I presented the evidence in more detail on my blog in January 2010. I will try to address your points here.

    1. I don’t think that you or Dunn have answered my point, which was that a forger MAY have chosen “Colossae” as the putative destination because the town had no continuity of believers who could have refuted the authenticity of the letter.

    2. In Philemon Paul sends greetings from Epaphras, Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke. All 5 names, except Aristarchus, are informal name-forms. The names “Epaphras” and especially “Luke” and “Demas” are very rare in inscriptions, whereas their formal counterparts, Epaphroditus, Lucius, and Demetrius are common. Clearly, Paul has chosen to use informal name-forms when writing to Philemon. For our present purposes it matters little whether the Epaphroditus who probably lies behind “Epaphras” was the same Epaphroditus who is mentioned in Philippians. Nor does it matter much whether Luke was the Lucius of Romans 16. The real question is whether it is likely that Paul, if he wrote to Colossae, would choose to use informal name-forms. I think it is unlikely. He did not even use the diminutive, Priscilla, when sending greetings to Corinth, and nor did he abbreviate Sosipater (Sopater) in Rom 16.

    Concerning Mark, there is tension between Colossians, which suggests that he is John-Mark, and Acts, which says that Paul and John-Mark had fallen out. You would have to hypothesize a reconciliation for which there is no hint in Acts. It would be natural for the forger to equate “Mark” with the famous John-Mark.

    3. As John Chrysostom points out, students of Paul’s letters gloss over the lists of names at the ends. The forger may have been deeply interested in Paul’s thought, but that would not be evidence that he had any interest in Paul’s companions. Do we have any evidence that the authors of pseudonymous letters could read well? I imagine the forger of Colossians sitting with a scroll of Philemon on his lap while dictating to a scribe. Is it not possible that he would misread the name “Jesus” in Philemon 23 and assume that he was one of the greeters. He would just need to overlook the absence of the final sigma in the name. The alternative is to believe that “Jesus called Justus” is very exceptional. He would be the only greeter in Colossians who is not mentioned in Philemon and he would be the only fellow worker of Paul whom Paul gives a Semitic name. Some have attempted to get around this last problem by supposing that Jesus called Justus was a missionary from Palestine, but why then is there no mention of him elsewhere?

    4. Since Paul is writing from prison it is likely that he is referring to a literal fellow-prisoner, isn’t it? It is often said that people could take turns spending time with a prisoner, but there is little evidence for this. Isn’t the only evidence from the (forged) Acts of Paul, where Thecla pays a bribe to get access to Paul in prison? This would suggest that the practice was NOT allowed.

    5. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and recommending other works. I shall look them up when I can.

    6. You did not address my point about Luke/Lucius (Rom 16:21) being a Jew and Colossians suggesting that he was a Gentile. The author of Acts and the other travelers must surely have gathered in Corinth, ready to board a boat with the collection, and Romans was written from Corinth at that time. The author of Acts, being well travelled will surely have known many of those who had moved to Rome so Paul would surely have sent greetings from him. Only Timothy may have known more of the Roman congregation, so the author of Acts must surely be Lucius, who is mentioned second after Timothy. It would be too much of a coincidence to find another Luke at the right place at the right time and in the right position in the list of greeters.

    No single argument is definitive on its own, of course, but isn’t the cumulative case for pseudonymity very strong?

  2. Nijay, I am still curious what you recognize to be the significance this discussion has to the meaning of the letter to the Colossians–if Paul is vindicated as author, or otherwise.

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