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So Paul Didn’t Write Colossians? (Part 2)

November 14, 2012

This is the second post addressing the Pauline authorship of Colossians. This post builds upon the arguments of the first.

Last post introduced the question of Paul’s authorship of Colossians. Many scholars today reject the idea that Paul wrote the letter based on unique language and theology.

In this post I hope to provide some reasons why we can believe Paul did in fact write this letter (as we can trust he wrote all the canonical letters attributed to him).

Issues of Language and Theology

Unfortunately these issues are often overstated by critical scholarship. Some who argue against Pauline authorship on the basis of unique language argue that the theology is actually very much like Paul, while others who argue against Pauline authorship on the basis of unique theology insist that the language is very Pauline![2] The issues are not as large as they’re made out to be.

I believe the ‘occasional’ nature of the letter more than accounts for the particular language and theology found in Colossians. The Colossian church was facing a false teaching that resulted from weak Christology, which adequately accounts for Paul’s particular theological emphases within the letter. Paul was addressing a particular teaching, and many argue was even using the teacher’s own language against them.

The Internal Claim of Pauline Authorship

The author claims to be Paul (In Col 1:1, 23, 25-26; 4:2-4, 18). Following the arguments of scholars who deny Pauline authorship, this letter would have been written after his death. Would the recipients accept and copy a letter they knew wasn’t from Paul?

The “Pauline” Corpus

This problem is magnified because many scholars only compare Colossians to a relatively small selection of ‘accepted’ Pauline letters. Basically, not all of what most would consider as ‘Paul’s letters’ are even brought into the discussion. Differences in language and theology are more pronounced when you have a smaller set of books you accept as Pauline! For example, if Ephesians were accepted as written by Paul and brought into the discussion, then authorship of Colossians wouldn’t be much of an issue at all.

The Relationship to Philemon

Ironically, Philemon is virtually unanimously accepted as Pauline for various reasons[1]. Gordon Fee argues persuasively that both should be read together,

These letters make especially good sense together if one takes seriously that both Philemon and Onesimus would have been present for the reading of both letters in Philemon’s house church…over 50 percent of the ‘house code’ of Col 3:18-4:1 is directed toward the behavior of slaves… [2]

The connection between Philemon and Colossians is strong indeed, and the space given to slaves makes entirely more sense if one connects it to the unique situation of Onesimus and Philemon.

Why Deny or Question Pauline Authorship?

Why is the authorship even questioned in the first place? I see a number of causes for this:

  1. Many scholars emphasis differences, while minimizing the similarities and coherence with other letters.
  2. If one wants to be taken seriously as a scholar, it appears safer to question traditional views while leaning towards the more ‘liberal’ conclusions of peers.

It seems to me that many in modern Biblical scholarship are more impressed with their own intelligence than that of the biblical writers. If we have enough intelligence to come up with wild speculative systems where we find Paul contradicting other Biblical writers, contradicting himself, and even disproving his own authorship, wouldn’t it be much simpler to just allow the authors the same level of intelligence to hold deeper doctrines and draw from a more diverse vocabulary than that which we attribute to them?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic. Be on the look out for more posts about Colossians!


[1] Michael F. Bird, Colossians & Philemon, p. 4; Doug Moo, The Letters to the Colossians and to Philemon, p. 361

[2] Gordon Fee, Pauline Christology, p. 289

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