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Slaves in Christ: Paul’s Epistle to the Colossians Dallas Heilman Hosey THEO 311 Dr. Edward T. Gareau Tuesday, April 20, 2010 In the early days of Christianity there were few leaders who were able to avoid fatal persecution while spreading the good news across the Roman Empire. The dangers associated with proclaiming the mystery of Jesus were great and a great many were martyred for their witness to the faith, their blood truly becoming, in the words of Tertullian, “the seed of the Church.” Those prolific leaders who were able to avoid execution, if only temporarily, provided hope and pastoral care to their fellow Christians during the movement’s early tribulations. One voice rang out above all others in that infantile Church and provided Christ’s followers with guidance and wisdom through his ministry and writings. St. Paul the Apostle is among the earliest Christian writers and his works comprise the bulk of the New Testament Cannon. Thirteen letters classified as Pauline Epistles and through these letters Paul testifies to the mystery of Christ and provides pastoral guidance to his fellow Christians. Several questions surrounding these writings arise, however, based on the style, content and authenticity of some of the letters. Placing those questions aside, for the time being, it is clear that one element is present, or implied, in nearly all of the Pauline Epistles; they provided a way for him to be present in communities, when he could not be there physically.1 The Epistle to the Colossians provides an ideal example of this fact as it was composed while Paul was imprisoned and he says, “I may be absent in body, but I am with you in spirit.”2 His message is clear and is suggested to be the essential element of Christian society, that in serving and loving one another as Christ loved and served all of humanity, 1 Johnson, Luke Timothy. The Writings of the New Testament: an Interpretation. (pg. 266). 2 Colossians 2:5 humanity is actually serving and loving Christ, whose presences in the world is found within those who have taken up their cross to follow Him. In order to adequately understand the Letter to the Colossians, the reader must first become familiar with St. Paul and his ministry. St. Paul’s life followed a particularly unique course compared to other Christians. Little is known about his younger life but it is certain that he was Jewish and zealous in his faith. He was specifically committed to Pharisaic beliefs and was extremely well versed in Torah. What makes his story especially interesting is that, prior to his conversion, he admittedly persecuted Jesus’ followers and tried to eradicate the messianic sect. Though he never came into contact with the living Jesus, his faith and works were radically transformed after he encountered the Risen Lord. This “religious experience can re-create a symbolic world”3 and did just that for the Apostle. This “re-creation” is something that is never far from his message to the Colossians, as he sees the experience of Christ as a truly and completely life changing event. His life therefore was transformed and he felt called, and obligated, to be an Apostle for Christ’s Church, a mission he took to with as much zeal as he had for the following of Torah in his “old life”. In his “new life” he would travel great distances spreading the good news, while truly following in Christ’s footsteps. He was persecuted and was eventually executed for his witness to the faith, but not before providing the early Church with much needed guidance and love through his ministry and letters. The Pauline Tradition comprises 13 of the 27 works found in the New Testament. Some of the works credited to Paul are often said to be inauthentic, and 3 Johnson. (pg. 263). are thought to have a different, albeit unknown, author. Some consideration should be given to these claims, though not to the detriment of what the letters actually say. Furthermore, evidence to support these claims is rather limited while evidence to the contrary is easily found within the context of the letters. Seven of the Pauline Epistles have undisputed authenticity and nearly all Biblical scholars are certain that 1 Thessalonians, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Romans, Philippians, Galatians and Philemon are the work of St. Paul. The remaining six epistles have disputed authenticity and are collectively referred to as the “Deutero-Pauline Epistles.”4 Of those letters, a majority of Biblical scholars agree that Ephesians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy and Titus are inauthentic. The authenticity of the two remaining letters, 2 Thessalonians and Colossians, is not so clear as about half believe they are authentic and the other half that they are not. Luke Timothy Johnson is one of the few scholars who support a belief that the entire Pauline Tradition should be attributed to St. Paul or those under his direction.5 It was not uncommon for great minds in the ancient world to attract a following, which would join in the work of their leader. Such was the case with Paul, who acknowledges the contributions of dozens of fellow Christians in his letters which points to the likely existence of a “Pauline School.” Also, many of the Pauline Epistles were not written solely in his name, but also bore the name of one or two of his associates as “cosponsors.”6 Furthermore, the life experiences of the Apostle could have contributed to variations in his theological emphases. Finally, there is 4 The Deutero-Pauline Letters. http://catholic-resources.org/Bible/Paul-Disputed.htm 5 Johnson. (pg. 272-73). 6 Ibid. (pg. 270). considerable evidence to show that Paul dictated the letters to a secretary, who would actually write them and may have been given “considerable latitude” in the letter’s composition. These facts cause Luke Timothy Johnson to tend towards viewing all of the Pauline Epistles as authentic, in the sense “ . . . Paul ‘authored’ but did not necessarily write” the letters. In short, all of the letters should be regarded as the product of the “Pauline School,” which was comprised of Paul and his closest fellow missionaries. These arguments are especially useful when approaching the Letter to the Colossians, whose authenticity is widely disputed. Even the time of its composition is largely debated as clues to its setting are vague and the reader only knows that Paul is imprisoned, but does not know where or for how long. The simple fact that he was imprisoned does not help much in determining the setting either, as he was imprisoned multiple times and in more than one place, possibly spending as much as six years in prison over the course of his mission.7 It does seem likely, however, that this letter was written near the end of Paul’s life, as the theological emphases in the letter are slightly different than those of the earlier letters. Another factor contributing to the letters authenticity is its relationship to the Epistle to Philemon, which was also written during one of Paul’s incarcerations. Philemon was a Colossian and his slave, Onesimus, and several others, appears in both Colossians and Philemon. The similarities in the two letters are astounding. The cast and circumstances alone seem to suggest that they have the same author, not to mention 7Did the Apostle Paul ever spend time in Jail? http://www.biblestudy.org/question/when-and-how-many-years-was-apostle- paul-imprisoned.html that they are both “cosponsored” by Timothy. Luke Timothy Johnson proposes that the two letters were actually composed together and delivered by Onesimus to their respective addressees. Even adding the possibility that Ephesians, which shares many theological similarities with Colossians, was included with the other two, though likely as an encyclical rather than a letter addressed to one specific community, as was the case in Colossians.8 It is reasonable to conclude that Colossians could be considered an authentic Pauline Epistle. So, assuming the letter’s authenticity, we will examine the text with minds and hearts open to Paul’s apostolic guidance, which benefitted so many in the early Church. The Letter to the Colossians, as previously noted, was written from an unknown prison to the Christian community at Colossae, which Paul probably never visited personally. Paul and Epaphras, who founded the Colossian church and is also imprisoned, have been made aware of some of the problems that have arisen in the community. Paul still appears to be pleased with the community, which suggests that they have not yet given in to the troublemakers attempting to lead them astray. Still, the community was experiencing a crisis, their founder was in prison and among them was a growing interest in mystery cults that would threaten the faith of the newly converted. Paul’s primary concern in this letter is to ensure the continued growth of the faith of the community in the face of attractive “worldly” religions. Paul opens the letter, in typical Pauline fashion, by identifying himself and the letter’s “cosponsor,” Timothy, as fellow Christians. After giving thanks to God 8 Johnson. (pg. 384-387). for the faith of the Colossians, he goes straight into his theological teaching. He explains Christ in a cosmic sense, as he relates to the whole created order. He reminds his audience, “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.”9 He works out an astounding bit of theology, explaining that through Christ all things were created and through his sacrifice on the cross all things were created anew in his life. He emphasizes the eminence of Christ as the head of all things and all powers “in whom [is] hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.”10 He insists upon the wisdom and knowledge of Christ over the wisdom and knowledge of the world, which can be used to “captivate you with an empty, seductive philosophy.”11 He elsewhere refers to such things as being devoid of the Light. The Light has emancipated humanity from “power of darkness,”12 to which humanity must never return and is to avoid at all costs. It is clear that Paul is troubled by the possibility that the newly converted, infants in their faith, will be easily deceived by those claiming to hold the secrets to the mystery of knowledge. He prays that they remain strong in their newfound faith, and that they will not succumb to the seduction of evil. Paul also stresses the importance of a Christian’s “new life” in Jesus, and that they are to leave the ways of their “old life” behind saying, “Put to death, then, the parts of you that are earthly: immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and the greed that is idolatry.”13 He explains that in baptism they have died and been raised 9 Colossians 1:15 10 Col 2:3 11 Col 2:8 12 Col 1:13 13 Col 3:5 with Christ14 to this “new life” which empowers them to live as members of his body, the Church15 on earth and that they have “put on the new self, which is being renewed, for knowledge, in the image of its creator.”16 Furthermore, he explains that nothing about them from before their baptism and acceptance of Jesus Christ bares any importance. Now they are Christ’s and must live as a part of his body. This means that their prior “religious” practices of dietary restriction and circumcision are no longer essential to their new religious identity, and should “let no one, then, pass judgment”17 on them regarding these practices. A similar teaching can be found in The Gospel According to Mark when Jesus explains, “Nothing that enters one from the outside can defile that person; but the things that come from within are what defile.”18 Paul’s concern, therefore, is not that the community at Colossae will stray from Christ by their flesh, but that they will be seduced to believing in false teachings with a “fleshy mind.” Paul, while insisting that Christians should “seek what is above,” acknowledges that they must still live in the world and within its social structures, waiting in anticipation for the “hope laid up for them in heaven.”19 So, he outlines the proper order of a Christian family in that society. He specifies the responsibilities and obligations members of the family should live by and the type of love they should have for one another. This, Paul states, is also to apply to the relationship between a slave and his master; the master must treat his slave justly 14 Col 2:12 15 Col 1:18 16 Col 3:10 17 Col 2:16 18 Mark 7:15 19 Colossians 1:5 and the slave should serve his master as he would serve the Lord knowing that any injustice he may face will not go unnoticed by God. Concerning the family, he starts by saying, “Wives be subordinate to your husbands, as is proper in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives, and avoid any bitterness toward them.”20 The word for love Paul uses, Agape, refers to a deeper, “self-sacrificing love that empties itself into service for others.”21 This is the same love that Christ showed for the world, that he now calls us to have for our loved ones, that we might love and serve one another, as in doing so we are really loving and serving Christ. If any one passage can be said to be of paramount importance to the whole letter it is in Chapter 3 beginning at verse 12: “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another, if one has a grievance against another; as the Lord has forgiven you, so must you also doe. And over all these but on love, that is the bond of perfection. And let the peace of Christ control your hearts, the peace into which you were called in one body . . . And whatever you do, in word or in deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”22 It is here that the whole of Paul’s ministry to Colossae can be learned. The love individuals should have for one another is not simply an emotion, but a love that 20 Col 3:18-19 21 Johnson. (pg. 401) 22 Colossians 3:12-15,17 “leads to service for others.”23 Paul refers to being a “slave of Christ”24 four times in this short letter and calls to mind a call to serve Christ as he exists in the world, the Church. So to be a “slave of Christ” is really to love and serve one another, struggling and making sacrifices for one another just as He made the ultimate sacrifice for all of creation. Another part of that great love, Agape, we are to have for one another is forgiveness, since Christ forgives us, so too we must forgive others; always seeing Christ in others, as we all were made in God’s image and are now brought together as members of Christ’s body. Finally, Paul says that everything one does should be “in the name of the Lord” so that Christian virtue may spread and conquer the wickedness of vice and that the Light may continue to conquer the darkness. 23Johnson. (pg. 400) 24“our beloved fellow slave”(1:7); “be slaves of the Lord Christ”(3:24); “slave in the Lord”(4:7); “a slave of Christ Jesus”(4:12). Bibliography The Catholic Study Bible. Personal Study ed. New York: Oxford UP, 1995. Print. "Did the Apostle Paul Ever Spend Time in Jail?" The Bible Study Web Site at BibleStudy.org. 14 Apr. 2010. <http://www.biblestudy.org/question/when-and- how-many-years-was-apostle-paul-imprisoned.html>. Havener, Ivan. First Thessalonians, Philippians, Philemon, Second Thessalonians, Colossians, Ephesians. Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical, 1983. Johnson, Luke Timothy. The Writings of the New Testament: an Interpretation. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2002. Just, Felix, S.J. "Deutero-Pauline Letters." Catholic Resources. 14 Apr. 2010. <http://catholic-resources.org/Bible/Paul-Disputed.htm>. MacDonald, Margaret Y. Colossians and Ephesians. “Sacra Pagina.” Ed. Daniel J. Harrington,S.J. Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical, 2000. "St. Paul." Catholic Online. Saints & Angels. 14 Apr. 2010. <http://www.catholic.org/saints/saint.php?saint_id=91>. "Teaching and Admonishing One Another in All Wisdom." Desiring God: from the Ministry of John Piper. 18 Apr. 2010. <http://www.desiringgod.org/ResourceLibrary/sermons/byscripture/2/3064_Teac hing_and_Admonishing_One_Another_in_All_Wisdom/>.
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