Joe’s Sermon Backgrounder #3 for RCL Proper 12

Joseph W.H. Lough

The Epistle for Proper 12 is Colossians 2:6-15(16-19), which begs the question: what do we do with pseudepigraphical Pauline texts?

Does it matter who wrote the letter or when or to whom or why?

The short answer is “Yes”; but not for the reasons that are generally hauled out on such occasions. Colossians would prove no less canonical were it not written by the Apostle Paul; nor would its counsel prove any more authoritative were it actually written by the Apostle. Nor need we be disturbed by the claims, front and back, that Paul is the author since (1) we do not know whether these claims appeared in the original letter; (2) copying or revising the essence of a Pauline letter for delivery to another community would still demand that Paul be named as the author; (3) authorship and ownership of texts in the pre-capitalist world did not follow the same standards and did not convey the same meanings we today attach to them. In short, even if the Apostle Paul were not the author of Colossians, which he was not, no one in the first or second centuries would have taken his name in this letter as a “lie” or “fabrication.”

The importance of authorship revolves instead around questions surrounding the all important: what did the author mean? And in order to figure this out it is helpful to know who he was, when he wrote, to whom he wrote, and why he wrote. If he is not the Apostle Paul writing some time before his death in 68 CE; if he is someone else writing some time after Paul’s death and specially after the all-important 70 CE, when the mass exodus of Jerusalem’s Jews, expelled by the Roman destruction of the Temple, completely changed the composition and character of synagogues throughout the eastern Mediterranean, then this would change not the authority of the letter but its meaning. In the long shadow cast by Chalcedon and Nicea, it has generally been assumed that the author of Colossians was warning his readers to avoid or purge some erroneous beliefs about Christ; thus the central, high, even cosmic place the author gives to Christology throughout his letter.

Research based on Mary Douglas‘ anthropological approach have made me dubious of this conclusion. What we see plainly on the surface of Colossians is not an intellectual dispute over Christology, but a practical dispute over liturgy, over the practice of the community of faith, not over doctrine. What the author of the letter would appear to be contesting is the adequacy or fitness of the liturgy practiced at Collosae to their confession. The author repeatedly reiterates the standard Christological formula precisely because it doesn’t match up with the practices of this group (Broekhoven, THE SOCIAL PROFILES IN THE COLOSSIAN DEBATE, Journal for the Study of the New Testament 66 1997).

Several elements come together in this reading:


English: Their are thousands of artworks creat...
English: Their are thousands of artworks created in the art world depicting St Paul. This painting was created by the famous artist called Rembrandt. It hangs on the walls of the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

1) In a post-70 CE setting, after which the James-Peter Jerusalem community will have fanned out into Asia Minor and joined Paul-Barnabas’ existing synagogues, the synthesis of these two communities will have further polarized the Christians and Jews in these communities. We know that it was only after the destruction of the Temple that the diaspora synagogue expelled its Christians, compelling the Christians (Jews and Gentiles) to adopt more permanent and independent institutional forms.

2) This push away from Judaism and toward the Roman mainstream helps to explain two important features in the letter: a) the adoption of the household codes; and b) the regularization and institutionalization of ritual and liturgical forms. The community in Colossae aspires to become and be more mainstream. (Compare this community to either the communities in Philippi or Corinth or Rome.)

3) This suggests that the author’s dispute with some group at Colossae surrounds their preference for cultivating their faith in private, ascetic, mystical, renunciatory, and perhaps even ritually physically painful and destructive practices. The author’s “realized eschatology” reflects both his conviction that Christ is not going to return to the Temple in Jerusalem to establish God’s reign and his conviction that there is nothing that Christians can do or need to do in order to bring God’s reign, whether individually or collectively. This self-obsessed group at Colossae misunderstands the meaning of their confession and their hymns. They now need to bring their liturgy, their practices, into line with their confession. They need not pursue ascetic, mystical, individual or private, self-destructive practices.

It strikes me that, whoever its author, this warning against turning inward might be particularly appropriate for communities inclined or drawn to experiencing God less through practical engagement in the lives of members of his body than through private ascetic discipline, even mortification, of the body. Which makes me wonder how this might apply to St Mark’s. It also dovetails nicely with the stories about Abraham and Sarah’s radical hospitality and the pericopes surrounding the Lord’s Prayer in Luke. What is hospitality? What is the body? How do we encounter God?

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