The Colossian Crisis (Colossians 1)

A Special Study by Gareth L. Reese

Excerpted from Paul's Prison Epistles:  A Critical & Exegetical Commentary
(Moberly, MO: Scripture Exposition Books LLC, 2017)
Download a printable PDF of this Special Study



        The epistle to the Colossians itself suggests Paul’s reason for composing it.  Disquieting information about a new danger to the young churches was brought to Rome by Epaphras (1:7,8, 4:12,13).  As Paul writes to confront this danger, he describes it as being a “philosophy” (2:8).  He was using the word “philosophy” as it was used in the 1st century, as referring to an elaborate system of “contemporary religious beliefs.”1

        Just what this elaborate system was is the other major issue of dispute in Colossian studies.  Even a name for the danger has proven elusive.  Lightfoot called it “the Colossian heresy.”2  Some have attempted to identify it as Essenism,3 or Jewish Merkebah mysticism.4  But none of these account for all the terms used in Colossians 2.  Not a few contemporary writers speak of “incipient Gnosticism” or “religious syncretism”5 since ideas drawn from several religious belief systems had been melded into an elaborate religious system by folk living in the Lycus valley.

        Epaphras’ and Paul’s concerns indicate that some church members were beginning to be impressed by the false teachings.  When ideas drawn from Christianity began to be assimilated into the philosophy, the more dangerous it became to the faith and stability of the Christians (2:5).


1. Allusions to the teachings and practices of the system

        The nature of the troublesome problem at Colossae can only be inferred from the contents of the epistle.  It would appear from Paul’s emphasis on Christology in this letter (1:15-23, 2:9-15) that the philosophy circulating at Colossae called into question the preeminence of Christ.  In addition, Paul makes specific statements (2:8-23) that seem to be confronting particular deceptive teachings.  Scholars have examined these counter-arguments in an attempt to identify the philosophy’s characteristics.  However, some of the terms Paul uses in these verses are subject to different interpretations,6 and this in turn has rendered uncertain our attempts to establish the identity of the thing being opposed.

        Some things that have be gleaned from an overview of key verses include:

  • 2:1 – The mention of Laodicea indicates that the Colossian heresy was a danger there, also.
  •  2:2 – Paul wants men everywhere to know the “mystery” of God.  Is there something about the heresy that he is setting in the right light with this explanation?  Are its doctrines regarded as secret “mysteries” available only to a few elite “mature ones” (1:27,28)?
  • 2:3 – The emphasis in the letter on “wisdom” (1:9,28; 2:3,23; 3:16; 4:5) and “knowledge” (1:6,9-10; 2:2-3; 3:10) and “insight” (1:9; 2:2) suggests the deceptive teachers claimed access to ancient “wisdom” and “knowledge.”
  • 2:4 – Suggests the Christians were being pressured to conform to the religious beliefs and practices of their Jewish and pagan neighbors.  2:8 warns the readers lest they be taken captive (carried off as spoil).  The plunder turns out to be the Christians if they become victims of the deceptive teachers. 
  • 2:8 – "Philosophy and empty deception,” “according to the tradition of men," “according to the elementary principles of the world,” and “not according to Christ” are all descriptions of the religious system Paul is combating.  The three “according to” phrases are intended to describe the source of the false teaching.  First, it is designated as being “according to the traditions of men,” which means it was a human invention that ran counter to Biblical truths, and especially to the essential truths of their Christian faith.   “Empty deception” warns that it sounds very plausible, but it is a clever trick to mislead folk.  Second, when Paul says the teachings are “according to the elementary principles (Greek, stoicheia) of the world,” he seems to be saying that demons were the source of the deceptive religious system against which this letter warns.7  The term stoicheia, translated “elementary principles,” has a broad range of meanings.  It can refer to “elementary instruction” (like abc’s), or to the “physical elements” (earth, air, fire, and water, the elementary building blocks of the universe in ancient understanding), or “spirit beings” believed to rule over the elements (“elemental spirits,” RSV).8  In this commentator’s judgment, the last is the correct understanding of Colossians.  “Not according to Christ” indicates the philosophy is not at all what Jesus taught, and furthermore, it would not be possible to mix belief and unbelief.  Verse 8 is the first of three warnings in Colossians 2 about the dangers of this philosophy.
  • 2:9-15 – What is the point of stopping in the midst of the discussion to tell us that all the "fullness" dwells in Christ?   And that He is the "head of all principality and power" (verse 10)?  It is implied in these verses that Christ’s exalted status over all creation, including the hostile powers, was being undermined by the deceptive teachings and teachers at Colossae.  They must have had a peculiar explanation of “fullness” (Greek, plērōma).  That seems to be the reason for calling attention to the fact that all the "fullness of Deity" dwells in Christ, and that He is the "head over all rule and authority" (verse 10).  It seems that the deceptive teachers were undermining Christ’s exalted position over rulers and authorities, “rulers and authorities” (verse 15) being different ranks of angels in the false philosophy.9  Paul has picked up terms used by the false teachers and shows that Christians (those who have been buried with Him in baptism, verse 12) have nothing to fear from the elemental spirits, because they were overcome at the cross.  In fact, even the Old Testament – the writings used by some of the deceptive teachers to document their beliefs – had been nailed to the cross.  That a new covenant has been given in its place seems intended to be a rebuttal to some ideas included in the deceptive philosophy.
  • 2:16,17 – Paul’s second warning begins with “therefore,” which shows that this warning grows out of what Paul has just said about Christ’s complete preeminence, and the fact that He removed the Law and triumphed over the rulers and authorities.  When Paul says “Let no one judge you,” we conclude he is making a general reference to any of the devotees of the philosophy, rather than to an individual leader among them, and it looks like those devotees were condemning the Christians for not observing obsolete Mosaic rules (or their own additions to the Mosaic regulations) concerning eating and drinking10 and observing special days on the religious calendar followed by the devotees.11  There is a good possibility the things highlighted in this verse were treated as a means of reaching “fullness” (verse 10).  That would explain why Paul indicates they have already been made “full” (“complete,” verse 10), and why he insists that the Mosaic materials pointed to Christ (verse 17).12 
  • 2:18-22 – Paul’s third warning identifies some of the major beliefs and practices found in the elaborate religious system which he is condemning.  “Let no one keep defrauding you of your prize” comes from a rare Greek word which denotes to act as a referee or judge in an athletic contest.  With this athletic metaphor, where the umpire or referee gives an unfair judgment which robbed the victor of his prize, Paul cautions his readers about the dangers of mystical experiences which are self-induced by means of sensory deprivation.

This warning contains several of the most puzzling expressions found in the whole letter to the Colossians.  The first of these, found in verses 18 and 23, is translated “delighting in self-abasement” in the NASB,13 or “delights in false humility” in the TEV and NIV.14

The second of these is translated as “the worship of angels.”  It is not exactly clear how this should be understood.  Are the angels to be understood as the worshipers (Greek:  a subjective genitive) or as the objects of worship (Greek:  an objective genitive)?  Both interpretations have been explored, with ancient sources being searched for examples.  Since “worship” is threskeia, which denotes the external practice of religion, perhaps there were actual ceremonies in which angels as a class (the Greek reads “worship of the angels”) were worshiped.15  There is a close connection between the “false humility” and the “worship of angels.”16  Later Gnostics taught that God was too high and men were too insignificant to approach God directly, so they sought to contact deity through the mediation of angels (aeons).  As a precursor to this later view, the Colossian devotees of the deceptive philosophy could be pictured as insisting that their worship of the angels rather than the supreme God was an expression of humility on their part.  In order that the angels might be obliged to pay attention to men, the men worshiped them.

“Taking his stand on visions he has seen” is the third of the puzzling expressions in this paragraph.  The person who would defraud the Colossian Christians is further described with another participle (embateuōn) which modifies “let no one ....”  According to Thayer’s Lexicon, the participle can mean “to go on in detail about what he has seen.”17  There is evidence that the word was used of the initiatory rites of the mystery cults, which rites were designed to lead the initiate to have visions and mystical experiences.18  If that is how the term is used here, Paul is scornfully quoting the very language used by the would-be referees to describe their self-induced visions.  They spoke of “entering in (being initiated) into the things which they saw.”

“Inflated without cause by his fleshly mind” is a fourth descriptive phrase characterizing the ones who were not to be allowed to act as umpires against the Christians.  As a result of experiencing visions, the umpire’s fleshly mind is said to be “puffed up.”  They thought themselves superior to those who had not had such visions.  Verse 19 then states the self-appointed umpire makes his mistakes because he has no vital contact with Christ, who is the head of the church (Ephesians 1:22,23).

In Colossians 2:20 Paul uses the term stoicheia again, reminding the Colossians that the “elemental spirits” no longer are a threat to those who have died with Christ (which is what their baptism was all about, verse 12).  Therefore, the ascetic regulations alluded to in verse 21 (“Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch”!), which are in accordance with the commandments and teachings of men (verse 22), were no longer needed to ward off the stoicheia and their pernicious influences (as animistic religionists once believed).

  • 2:23 – Paul closes his warning about the “philosophy” with several pointed statements.  First, there is a statement which explains why needless rules and regulations are accepted by so many people:  they seem reasonable, they appear to be wise.  But they are not God’s wisdom.  Paul castigates it as a self-imposed or self-made religion; God never commanded it.  He again speaks about the false humility (the same word as used in verse 18) and then about the “severe treatment of the body” (which we have called sensory deprivation).  Paul’s final appraisal is that asceticism is a dismal failure.  Such rules are ineffective when it comes to attempting to control the body so as to avoid fleshly indulgence.


 2. Brief introduction to 2nd and 3rd century Gnosticism

        For many years what we knew about 2nd and 3rd century Gnosticism was what we could deduce from the Christian writers such as Justin Martyr,19 Irenaeus,20 Tertullian,21 and Hippolytus,22 who all wrote refutations of it.  Now, our knowledge of Gnosticism has been greatly increased because of the discovery of 13 papyrus manuscripts in Egypt in 1945.  Known as the Nag Hammadi Library, these manu-scripts were part of a Gnostic library.  Translation work on the find was slow.  Two of these manuscripts, the Jung Codex and the Gospel of Thomas, show that the early Christian writers' description of Gnosticism was exactly right.  Another recently found Gnostic work is the Gospel of Judas, found at El Minya, Egypt, in the 1970s.

        There was more than one system or school of Gnostics, but the following elements are found in most of the systems.

  • Gnosticism was syncretistic.  Ideas were gathered from Jewish sources, from Greek philosophy, and from Eastern religions.  After Christianity was introduced into the world, ideas from it were assimilated, too.  As a result, Tertullian regarded Gnosticism as the product of the combination of Greek philosophy and Christianity.23
  • Gnostics claimed to have superior wisdom which was hidden from others who had never been initiated into the system.  The word "Gnosticism" comes from a Greek root which means "to know.”  Such secret knowledge the select few Gnostics had access to was made the condition of salvation,24 and was considered to be superior to faith.  The general emphasis among the Gnostics was ‘Join our group and we will teach you the things you really need to know in order to have salvation.’  Gnostics taught that one could not learn what men needed “to know” either in the church or in the gospel of Christ.  ‘There is something more men need to know, and if you will just join us, we’ll teach you so that you will have the “knowledge” that Christianity fails to give you.’  The Gnostic movement was a secret organization.  Men, vainly puffed up, thought it was something to be invited to become a Gnostic.
  • Most Gnostic systems were dualistic.  In theology, “dualism” (from the Latin “duo” meaning “two”) refers to the ancient doctrine that there are two independent divine beings or eternal principles, one good and the other evil.25  In Greek philosophy, “dualism” was the idea which treated spirit as good and all matter as evil.  Dualism resulted in a number of speculations concerning the relationship of God to the created universe, how creation occurred, and how com-munication (if any) could be carried on in either direction between God and men. 
  • To Gnostics, the Supreme Being (God) is an impersonal being or force.  The triune, personal God whom we meet in the Bible is not to be confused with the impersonal being that was thought to be the Supreme Being in Gnostic theology.  In fact, the God of the Bible was pictured by Gnostics as being the bad God, while the impersonal wholly-other Supreme Being of Gnosticism was the good God.  Gnostics used the term “fullness” (plērōma) when speaking of the wholly other Supreme Being.  In some Gnostic systems, the word “fullness” in a Greek philosophical sense refers to the totality of virtues, attributes and energies of the Supreme Being, in contrast to “emptyness” (kenōma)26 or incompleteness (hysterēma)27 or deficiency (hēttēma).  In other Gnostic systems (e.g., Valentinianism), “fullness” (plērōma) was used for the totality of all the thirty emanations from God.28  The Supreme Being was outside the plērōma.  Thus, for Cerinthus, plērōma expressed the fullness of the Divine Life out of which the Divine Christ descended upon the man Jesus at his baptism, and into which He returned.29

  • How can creation be explained?  How could a good God create an evil world?  Gnostics held that the Supreme Being did not create the world directly.  Instead, some lesser beings (angels, spirits, aeons) emanated from the “fullness” (plērōma) of the Supreme Being, and from those lesser beings (in different and descending degrees of imperfection) emanated some lesser beings, until finally one of them called the Demiurge (or great workman), an evil aeon, created the world.  Gnostic lore was full of “endless genealogies” (1 Timothy 1:3,4) in an attempt to account for all these emanations.  In Gnostic teaching the Demiurge and the God of the Bible are the same beings.  Thus, all of nature, being matter, is evil and a mistake made by the Demiurge who was ignorant of the Supreme Being.30  This is how Gnostics attempted to maintain the essential separation of matter and spirit, matter being intrinsically evil and the source from which all evil has arisen.
  • Gnosticism embraced an elaborate system of elemental spirits.  Many of these ideas were assimilated from Greek mythology.  On the subject of cosmogony, Diogenes Laertius spoke of the Pythagorean teaching (c. 500 BC and onwards) that the upper air contains the sun, moon, and stars, which are inhabited by spirits who control human destiny.  The atmosphere is filled with spirit-powers who are to be venerated, and the soul must be kept purified (through ascetic practices, including ritual washings, abstaining from meat, and avoiding pollution) if it is to pass through the spheres to the divine regions after death.31  In the Gnostic Book of Enoch 82:10 ff., the stars have their angels; each of the four seasons has its angel; each of the 12 months of the year has its angel; and each of the 360 days of the year (the full extent of the year at that time) had its angel.
  • Gnostics encouraged mystical experiences or visions.  The Hellenistic world as well as the Roman empire was filled with mystery cults.  They were called mystery religions because they were secretive, often shrouded in a body of rituals not to be revealed to the uninitiated.  The Eleusinian mysteries celebrated yearly at Eleusis near Athens in Greece antedated the coming of Christ by 1500 years.  It eventually spread to the borders of the Roman empire.  The cult of the Syrian goddess Cybele (or the Great Mother) was perhaps the most popular of all these religions.  However, other cults also appealed to a great number of Romans, such as the cult of the mother-goddess Isis and her son Osiris from Egypt, the cult of Dionysius from Greece, and the cult of Mithra from Persia (which was known before 500 BC).  Some were introduced to the Mediterranean world by the soldiers of Alexander the Great as they returned from the wars.  Some were popular with soldiers of Rome.  Traders, merchants, slaves, and deportees from foreign countries helped spread the mystery religions.  So, it is not surprising to find a syncretistic Gnosticism embracing such mystical elements which were already popular with the masses.  Many of these ancient religions had ways of inducing visions and mystical experiences.  Some were the result of inducement by hallucinogenic drugs, some by ascetic practices, or other sensory deprivation.  The mystical visions (altered states of consciousness) were explained as being an experience of the divine.  When ideas from Judaism were included in the Gnostic syncretism, appeal could be made to genuine visions given by God to the prophets and others, along with a false claim that the visions that were self-induced were no different than those that one can read about in the Old Testament.  Did not Ezekiel have a vision of God, and did not the visions given to the prophets result in revelations being given?  That would tend to make more believable the false claim that Jesus gave Thomas secret revelations not given to the other apostles (such is claimed in the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas), or that Jesus gave revelations concerning visions to Mary Magdalene (such as claimed in the Gnostic Gospel of Mary). 
  • When it came ethics and matters of daily living, Greek dualism resulted in one or the other of two extremes among the Gnostics.  Some Gnostics practiced a rigid asceticism.  Since, according to their dualistic philosophy, matter was evil, they tried to entirely avoid contact with matter, or reduce the contact to a minimum.  In practice, Essenism taught that one should live on a spare diet of vegetables only, abstain from marriage, and even avoid anointing the body with olive oil, so necessary in hot climates.  The material part of man was to be subdued and mortified that the spirit might be set free and rise to its proper level.  Other Gnostics, going to the opposite extreme, taught that libertinism was the way to live.  Unrestrained indulgence of any fleshly desires was permitted since (as they wrongly believed) what the body did made no difference to, nor could it hurt, the spirit. 
  • Dualism also caused Gnostic doctrine about Jesus to branch off in different directions.  Gnostics taught that the emanation known as Christ was not equal with the Supreme Being, but was a being of much lesser status, being aeons and aeons beneath God the father.  In Gnostic thinking, the earthly Jesus and the aeon Christ are not to be identified.  Docetic Gnostics said that when the aeon Christ was on earth, he just seemed to have a human body.  The visible Christ did not actually have a fleshly body, they said.  The people only thought they saw Christ.  He did not actually exist in human form.32  Adoptionist Gnostics said the divine Christ came upon the human Jesus at his baptism and left before the human Jesus was crucified.  One of Jesus’ sayings from the cross (in slightly reworded form, “my power, my power, why have you forsaken me?”) is said to be evidence that the divine Christ had abandoned Jesus.33

  • Gnosticism taught reincarnation.  Gnostics divided humanity into three groups:  (a) The carnal (hylics), who are hopelessly lost because they were all material with no spirit.  (b) The soulish (psychics), who were part soul (matter) and part spirit, and who usually were identified as those who were in the church.  They could be saved if they followed the Gnostic path.  The best of the psychics had to be reincarnated 33 times, and each time they needed to embrace Gnosticism before they could gain enough knowledge (gnosis) to be admitted to the 7th heaven, thus ending the cycle of reincarnation.  (c) The spiritual (pneumatics), usually the Gnostic teachers themselves, received something from the plērōma when they were born, and so would be saved automatically, irrespective of how they lived while on earth.  This division of humanity into three groups was a clever way to explain how Gnostic teaching could actually come from Jesus when the message conflicted with that taught by Jesus’ apostolic companions.  If the Church consisted of people (psychics) who needed a different message than typical Gnostic beliefs, then you could say that Jesus kept the apostles around for that purpose.  In the meantime, he passed his true knowledge on in secret to Mary Magdalene, Lazarus, or some other person.
  • Gnostics believed in seven heavens (though some had 365, one for every day in the year).  Each level of heaven had an aeon who was ruler over that level of the heavens – that is, one aeon was in charge of, or was a sort of guard at, the entrance into each of the heavens. 

 At death, according to Gnosticism, the deceased started up toward the 7th heaven, the ultimate goal, toward the presence of the Supreme Being.  If you lived a good life on earth, you might slip past three or perhaps four of the heavens, and their aeon guards.  But then, you would be caught; and if you did not have a Soter (a savior who knew the password), you would be dragged back down to earth to live another life, and to start the process all over.  The special knowledge (gnosis) in which they took pride let you know the Savior and the passwords to get you by the aeon guards and into the 7th heaven.  The special passwords and special knowledge were a “mystery” to those not initiated into the Gnostic sect.


 3. Compatibility with Incipient Gnosticism

        The affinities between the philosophy at Colossae (point #1 above) and what grew to became 2nd & 3rd century Gnosticism (point #2 above) strongly suggest that what we are witnessing in the religious philosophy at Colossae was the beginning of one of numerous forms of Gnosticism that later flourished and plagued the church.34

        Some have questioned whether Gnostic ideas were prevalent as early as the mid-1st century AD.35  There is evidence in the New Testament of at least a rudimentary or embryonic Gnosticism before the end of the 1st century.36  In his address to the elders from Ephesus (Acts 20:29,30), Paul predicted the soon arrival of a new threat to Christianity that would capture some of the very men to whom he was giving this warning.  That new threat we identify as incipient Gnosticism.  In Paul’s letters written in the mid AD 60s we have allusions to ideas which would become constituent elements of Gnosticism.  2 Timothy 2:18 calls attention to the error of those who argued that the resurrection was already past.  We also have references to those who espoused an ascetic attitude toward marriage, an attitude based upon what seems to be a negative outlook upon the physical creation (1 Timothy 4:3-4).  These folk about whom Paul is writing seem to boast in a falsely named "gnosis" (1 Timothy 6:20).  2 Peter warns about the coming of scoffers, and by the time Jude was written (c. AD 75) Jude could say that what Peter had predicted had happened (Jude 17-19).  We treat both 2 Peter and Jude as being anti-Gnostic in emphasis, for those folk were present and were a danger to the church.  In John’s writings, which were written before the end of the 1st century, there are warnings about Gnostic ideas.  In the Gospel of John (John 1:14, 19:34, 20:27), in 1 John (1:1-3, 4:1-3), and in 2 John (1:7), there are rebuttals to those who held a Docetic view of Jesus.  In 1 John 2:22 there is a clear reference to those who held that Jesus and the Christ were two different beings, an idea that became part of the belief system of many Gnostics.  We also have the evidence of Ignatius of Antioch, who, in his letter to the Smyrnaens, combated Docetic views of Christ at the beginning of the 2nd century.  So it would not be anachronistic to suggest that the Colossian philosophy stands in the stream of ideas that eventually came together to form the Gnosticism combated by the early church fathers.

        Although the precise origins of each of the major Gnostic ideas are a matter of scholarly debate, it is now generally stated that the religious syncretism at Colossae, like many of the later forms of Gnosticism, was a combination of ideas from several sources, including Judaism, Greek philosophy, and Eastern religious mysticism.  When one thinks about the first of these sources, it must be remembered that Judaism was not monolithic.  In 1st century Judaism there were several distinct major sects – Pharisees, Herodians, Sadducees, Essenes, and Zealots.  Post-exilic Judaism was so vulnerable to syncretism that it has been said one should not speak of Judaism but of Judaisms.  The Judaism at Colossae seems to have been a native Phrygian variety since the orthodoxy of the Phrygian Jews was suspect in the eyes of their Palestinian and Mesopotamian brethren.  The Judaism in the Lycus valley was not the Pharisaic form of Judaism against which the churches of Galatia had to be put on their guard at an earlier date (Acts 15 and Galatians 2), but was a variety of Judaism that had some features similar to the views held by the Essenes at Qumran.37

        That the deceptive religious system at Colossae had some beliefs and rites traceable to Judaism should not be thought surprising, for we have already noted how a large Jewish population came to be settled in the region of the Lycus valley.  The emphasis on circumcision and the demand that sacred times be observed – festivals, new moon, and Sabbath (2:11-16) – reflect the religious background of many of the folk who lived in and around Colossae.  So it begins to look like the Gnostic ideas already in the Lycus valley culture before the end of the 1st century had begun to take root and flourish in the Jewish community living there.  It is no wonder that a growing number of scholars are looking more and more to Judaism as the incubator of many Gnostic doctrines.

        For those ideas found in Gnosticism which cannot be traced to 1st century Judaism, most can be traced to the fusion of religious beliefs and cultures that arose first as a result of Persian conquests which helped spread eastern mysticism into the Mediterranean world and then later the conquests of Alexander the Great which led to the spread of Hellenism.  These ideas all antedated Christianity.

        Zoroastianism, the religion of ancient Persia, was brought to the Mediterranean world by the soldiers of Alexander the Great, 300 BC, and by Jewish folk who were resettled from Babylon to areas in the Mediterranean world.  That religion was spread by word of mouth, by tradition.  Colossians 2:8 calls attention to the fact that the philosophy at Colossae was “according to the traditions of men.”38  Zoroastrian scriptures were called the Avesta (“tradition”).  The Avesta circulated orally for centuries.  Commentaries on the Avesta were composed in the 9th century AD and are known as the Zend.  The debate continues concerning how much Jewish folk were influenced by these Eastern ideas.  For example, dualism was found both in Zoroastrianism (Ahura Mazda was the good god, and Angra Mainyu was the evil god) and Greek philosophy.  The Essenes had a dualism in their writings.  In the War Scroll from Qumran, the spiritual forces were classified into the good and the bad, the angels of light and the angels of darkness, each headed by a supreme angel, named Michael and Beliel respectively.  We do not know the source of these ideas at Qumran, whether they arose from Zoroastrianism or Hellenism.

        In Gnosticism, an aeon named Sophia (wisdom), some 28 generations or emanations down from the Supreme Being, was the one whose actions led to the creation of matter.  While some have proposed that the demiurge idea (a debased deity who created the universe) is suggested by Plato’s Timaeus, others have debated whether this particular cosmological myth originated in Zoroastrianism39 or in sectarian Judaism.40

        If the study shifts to angels and spirits, Judaism, Hellenism, and Zoroastrianism all have angels and demons.  The Book of Jubilees claims that, on the first day of creation, God created various orders of angels:  of the Presence, of the winds, of the clouds, of cold, of heat, of hail, of thunder.  The Book of Enoch (eleven copies of which were found among the Dead Sea Scrolls) has an elaborate angelology very similar to Gnosticism’s angelology.  There were Jewish communities whose reverence for angels bordered on worship.  Kraabel has shown that Anatolian Judaism, as evidenced by the Sabathikos Inscription, participated in Lydian-Phrygian piety which was characterized by “angel worship.”41  Philo identified the “angels” of Judaism with the “demons” of Greek mythology.42  Plutarch also spoke of demons, spiritual beings whose abode is in the air, that is, in the realm between the gods and men.43  It is from Zoroastrianism that many of the modern characterizations of demons are derived.  The Jews did pick up astrology from Babylon as evidenced by the zodiacs that decorate floors in some of the most ancient synagogues.  Such astrology has spirit beings who inhabit the planets and who control events on earth.

        Greek philosophy likely provided Gnosticism with its anthropology, in which man’s soul/spirit was said to be a divine spark temporarily imprisoned in the tomb called the physical body, a view prefigured by Plato (Phaedo) and the songs and poetry of Orpheus.

        When the topic turns to mysticism, visions, and entering a higher spiritual experience, that idea too might have had either Persian (Mithraism) or Hellenistic (Eleusinian mysteries) origins.44  Both these religions were called mystery religions because they were secretive, often shrouded in a body of rituals not to be revealed to the uninitiated.  To achieve immortality and union with the god required a period of preparation in which the initiate followed the religion’s precepts in an effort to become pure.  Once this period was over, the initiate performed a ritual, usually one of great emotional intensity, with the result that he or she would experience a vision and be said to be in union with the god.  The Dead Sea Scrolls bear evidence that the mystical tradition of union with the divine was a part of the religious life at Qumran.  The text called Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice gives clear evidence of Jewish mysticism.  Fragments of First Enoch, which is considered the oldest text of Jewish mysticism, were also found with the Scrolls.

        The idea of reincarnation may have come either from Hellenism or from the Eastern religions, where Hindus, Buddhists and Jains made this doctrine the foundation of their philosophy.  Among the ancient Greeks, the Greek Pre-Socratics (philosophers from Miletus and Ephesus) discussed reincarnation.  Pythagoras, Socrates, and Plato may be numbered among those who made reincarnation an integral part of their teachings.  In the Republic Plato makes Socrates tell how Er, the son of Armenius, miraculously returned to life on the twelfth day after death and recounted the secrets of the other world.  After death, he said, he went with others to the place of Judgment and saw the souls returning from heaven, and proceeded with them to a place where they chose new lives, human and animal.  He saw the soul of Orpheus changing into a swan, Thamyras becoming a nightingale, musical birds choosing to be men, the soul of Atalanta choosing the honors of an athlete.  Men were seen passing into animals and wild and tame animals changing into each other.  At the end of his life, Socrates said, "I am confident that there truly is such a thing as living again, and that the living spring from the dead."  Pythagoras claimed he could remember his past lives, and Plato presented detailed accounts of reincarnation in his major works.  Though it is not a Biblical doctrine, the idea of reincarnation came to be embraced by some Jewish sects.  The 1st century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus wrote that the Pharisees, the Jewish sect that founded rabbinic Judaism, believed in reincarnation.  He writes that the Pharisees believed the souls of evil men are punished after death.  The souls of good men are "removed into other bodies"45 and they will "have power to revive and live again."46  Josephus records that the Essenes of the Dead Sea Scrolls lived "the same kind of life" as the followers of Pythagoras, the Greek philosopher who taught reincarnation.47  The Carpocra-tians and the Ophites believed in the transmigration of imperfect souls.  In the Hermetica, a Graeco-Egyptian series of writings on cosmology and spirituality attributed to Hermes Trismegistus, the doctrine of reincarnation is also central.48

        Whether the emphasis on asceticism (Colossians 2:16-23) at Colossae came from Jews or from the pagans is not certainly known.  Pagans had dietary rules (some were vegetarians, Romans 14:2,3); Jews did, too.  The Jewish sect known as the Essenes had strict prohibitions with respect to meat and wine – even oil.  Such items were not to be touched, let alone tasted.49  Perhaps the Jews in the Lycus valley had similar restrictions, or perhaps their ascetic views were simply part of the pervading culture of the age.  Anatolian Jews were concerned with “proper food.”  Decrees preserved in Josephus indicate the government made it its responsibility to guarantee proper food to the Jews in Asia Minor.50  Self-imposed asceticism provided a feeling of superior spirituality.  It gave the impression that the successful ascetic had managed to rise above fleshly desires and was now in a separate category.


         This brief study of the beginnings of Gnostic ideas has shown that both Gentiles and Jews were capable of assimilating into their religion ideas that were floating around in the culture of the time.  There is every reason to believe that the Colossian philosophy was Judaistic Gnosticism in its infant form.  The Gnosticism of Colossae was vague and undeveloped, in its infant stages, not like that found in the 2nd century.  But today’s readers need to understand that many of the same dangerous ideas are prevalent in the 21st century.  They are as threatening to the Christian’s spiritual health today as they were in the 1st century.  The antidotes given in Colossians are still the spiritual medicine that will keep today’s Christian healthy.


 4. The Christology of Colossians

        Colossians sets forth the dignity of Christ as head of the church.  His headship is set forth first positively (1:18-20), then polemically, in a warning against error (2:8,16,18).  Robertson has said that Colossians is Paul’s “full length portrait of Christ.”51


  1. He is God’s Son,  1:14
  2. He is the object of the Christian’s faith,  1:4
  3. He is the redeemer,  1:14
  4. He is the image of the invisible God,  1:15
  5. The firstborn (Lord) of all creation,  1:15
  6. In Him all things were created,  1:16
  7. He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together,  1:17
  8. In Him, through Him, and for Him, all things have been created,  1:16
  9. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead,  1:18
  10. He is head of the church,  1:18
  11. All the fullness of grace dwells in Him,  1:19
  12. He has made peace through the blood of His cross,  1:20
  13. He is the reconciler of the universe,  1:20
  14. He has reconciled us to God through His fleshly body,  1:22
  15. In Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form,  2:9
  16. He is the head over all rule and authority,  2:10
  17. All the treasures of God’s wisdom and knowledge lie hidden in Him,  2:3
  18. He is the standard by which all religious teaching is to be measured,  2:8
  19. He is the reality of the truth foreshadowed by the regulations and rituals of the old covenant,  2:17
  20. Following His resurrection He is enthroned at the right hand of God,  3:1
  21. One day He will be gloriously manifested,  3:3,4

        Paul makes an unambiguous reply to the mistaken emphases found in the Colossian heresy:

Paul’s answer to this ‘tradition of men’ is to set against it the one trustworthy tradition, the true doctrine of Christ.  Christ, he says, is the very image of God, the One who embodies the plenitude of the divine essence, in which these elemental spirits have no share at all.  And those who are members of Christ realize their fullness in Him; they need not seek, and they cannot find perfection anywhere else.  It is in Christ that all wisdom and knowledge are concentrated and made available to His people – not just to an elite, but to all.  Christ is the one Mediator between God and man, not in the sense of one who occupies the lines of communication between them and can transmit messages passing from one side to the other, but in the sense that He combines Godhead and manhood in His single person and so brings God and man together.  Christ is the one through whom and for whom all things are created, including the principalities and powers to which the Colossians were being tempted to pay tribute.  But why would those who are united with the Creator of those principalities and powers think it necessary to appease them?  Above all, Christ by His death is revealed as the conqueror of these principalities and powers.  On the cross He fought and won the decisive battle against them.  Not only did He repel their attack upon Himself and turn the cross into His triumphal chariot before which they were driven as His vanquished foes, but by that victory He liberated His people also from their power.  Why then should those who through faith-union with Christ had shared His death and resurrection go on serving those beings whom He had so completely conquered?  Far from being a form of advanced wisdom, this false system that they were being urged to accept, with its taboos, bore all the marks of immaturity.52




1 The Jewish philosopher Philo (10 B.C.-A.D. 50) wrote of “the philosophy of Moses” (De Mutatione Nominum 39).  He also referred to Judaism as the “philosophy of our ancestors” and as “Judaic philosophy” (Legatio ad Gaium 23 and 33).  Similarly, Josephus wrote of the three Jewish sects as “three philosophies,” i.e., three schools of philosophy (Antiquities XVIII.1.2).
2 Lightfoot, op. cit., p.73.  Care must be taken here:  (1) A heresy is a false teaching that challenges or contradicts the established faith.  To call the false teaching at Colossae a “heresy” rightly carries with it the implication that the teachings of the apostles already presented a unified body of doctrine, “the faith once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3).  Post-modernism has led some 21st century scholars to affirm that there were competing Christianities in the 1st century world, with the 2nd century finally beginning to see a unanimity of accepted Christian doctrine.  Of course, if this were true (which we deny), to talk of “heresy” when there was no settled “faith” would be anachronistic.  (2) To call it the “Colossian heresy” may leave the erroneous idea the heresy was a matter of interest 2000 years ago, but of no interest today.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Ideas similar to the ones taught by the errorists at Colossae are being propagated by many teachers in the 21st century – many of whom claim no relationship to Christianity, but some of whom do.  These ideas are as wrong in the 21st century as they were in the 1st century.
3 Lightfoot, “The Colossian Heresy,” op. cit., pp.73-113, considered the Colossian heresy to be a form of Gnostic Judaism.
4 F.F. Bruce, “The Colossian Heresy” in BibSac 141 (July-Sept. 1984), p.201-204.
5 Freed, op. cit., p.303.  See also Clinton Arnold, The Colossian Syncretism - The Interface Between Christianity and Folk Belief at Colossae (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996).
6 Five terms in particular have been the subject of intense study:  stoicheia, “elementary principles” (2:8,20);  threskeia tōn angelōn, “worship of angels” (2:18);  tapeinophrosunē, “humility” (2:18,23);  embateuo, “intruding” (2:18);  and ethelothrēskeia, “self-made religion” (2:23).
7 Compare “doctrines of demons” at 1 Timothy 4:1.
8 Arnold, op. cit., has an entire chapter (chapter 6, p.158ff) on the subject of the stoicheia.  His conclusion is that the reference here in Colossians is to elemental spirits.  This refers to what we call animism, the belief in local spirits or deities thought to have authority over an area.
9 “The heresy implied there were spirit-powers who controlled the natural world and were to be revered as mediators between God and His creation.  Both the person and work of Christ were underrated by this system of angelic mediators, and His sole office as Lord of creation and all-sufficient Redeemer of the Church was seriously imperiled.”  (Ralph P. Martin, “Colossians, The Epistle to,” in Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, ed. by Merrill C. Tenney (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978), Vol.1, p.915.)
10 The word translated “food” is not brōma (“food”) but brōsis, “the act of eating,” and the word translated “drink” is not poma (“drink”) but posis, “the act of drinking.”  The Essenes had rigorous restrictions regarding both eating and drinking.  The fact that these restrictions extended beyond traditional Jewish food laws may serve to indicate that the underlying concern, with them as well as with the deceptive teachers at Colossae, was a dualism that treated the physical world as evil.
11 “Sabbath days” seems to point to a Jewish calendar, as also would the demand of the would-be judges that the new moon and the annual festivals of Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles be observed.  All these were commanded in the Law of Moses, but we who follow Jesus are not obligated to keep these holidays.  The Essenes at Qumran attached great importance to calendrical questions as 4QMMT has indicated, but the Essenes apparently differed from the Pharisees in their calculation of sacred seasons (perhaps following the calendar enjoined in the Book of Jubilees).  We may suppose something similar was being called for in Colossae.
12 “The Law was our tutor to lead us to Christ” and “now that faith has come we are no longer under the tutor” (Galatians 3:24,25).
13 There is a marginal note in the NASB showing that the Greek word translated “self-abasement” is actually the word elsewhere translated “humility.”
14 The NEB takes the whole phrase to mean “people who go in for self-mortification.”
15 Angel worship did develop in Gnosticism of the 2nd century (the schools of Cerinthus and Valentinus).
16 In Greek the word for “false humility” and the expression for “worship of angels” are governed by the same preposition.
17 Joseph H. Thayer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (New York: American Book Co., 1889), p.206.
18 Arnold (op. cit., p.104ff) devotes an entire chapter to analyzing how this word was used in local mystery cults near Colossae.
19 On the Resurrection, and Syntagma.
20 Against Heresies.
21 Against Marcion.
22 Against Valentinus.
23 On Prescription Against Heretics 7.
24 Care must be exercised here since “salvation” to a Gnostic does not mean what “salvation” does to a Christian who has been nurtured on Biblical truths.  For the Gnostic, it is salvation from ignorance, not salvation from sins.  As an adherent of a Gnostic school, you would learn its teachings about the spiritual world and learn to reject the physical world of the Demiurge.  You would especially learn to reject the God of the Bible.
25 Zoroastrianism, the ancient religion of Babylon, was dualistic.  The two gods were Ahura Mazda (the god of light) and Angra Mainyu (the god of darkness).
26 Irenaeus, Adv. Haer. I. iv. 1
27 Irenaeus, Adv. Haer. I. xvi. 3; Hippolytus vi. 31.
28 The Gospel of Truth, I:41. “All emanations from the Father are plērōmas.”  James M. Robinson, ed., The Nag Hamadi Library in English (San Francisco:  HarperSanFrancisco, 1988), p.50.
29 Irenaeus, Adv. Haer. I. xxvi. 1, III. xi. 1, xvi. 1.
30 The Gnostic doctrine completely ignores the fact that what God created was very good (Genesis 1:31), and then because of sin was subjected to futility/vanity (Romans 8:20).  God didn’t create it the way it is now.
31 Diogenes Laertius, Lives 8:24-33.
32 It was also taught that Christ did not actually die on the cross.  One explanation of the cross was that Simon the Cyrene, who picked up cross, was the one crucified, when the soldiers became confused because of the mob circling about.  While Simon was killed, Christ stood by and watched!  It was against this Docetic doctrine that 2 John 1:7 famously objects when it states, “Many deceivers, who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh, have gone out into the world.  Any such person is the deceiver and the antichrist” (NIV).
33 Gnostics taught that Calvary and the blood of Jesus have no salvific effects; instead, a man must save himself by immersing himself in the Gnostic religion.  Gnostics taught that “Jesus” and the “Christ” are two different things.  Some Gnostics said that by learning from past ascended masters, Jesus became the Christ.  They taught that we, too, can all become “Christs” who in turn are “divine” enough to be leaders and helpers for other souls passing through this world on their way to becoming Christs.  This becoming a “Christ” is what the Gnostics called “salvation.”
34 Gnosticism never was a single monolithic system.  Edwin Yamauchi (“The Gnostics and History,” JETS 14/1 [Winter 1971], p.29) lists the names of eight famous Gnostic leaders known to us from early Christian literature and none of their systems were exactly alike.
35 The earliest origins of Gnosticism are obscure and still disputed.  For this reason, some scholars prefer to speak of "gnosis" when referring to 1st century ideas that later developed into Gnosticism and to reserve the term "Gnosticism" for the synthesis of these ideas into a coherent movement in the 2nd century.
36 Rudolf Bultmann argued for what he called a pre-Christian Gnosticism that, he averred, greatly influenced the writings we call the books of the New Testament.  When it is shown there were streams of Gnostic ideas in the 1st century, we are not giving aid and comfort to Bultmann’s conclusions about the pervasive influence of such pre-Christian Gnostic ideas on Christian doctrine.  On the contrary, the apostles and prophets who wrote the New Testament spoke for Jesus Christ, not for the Gnostics.  The original apostolic Christianity is based on the teachings of Jesus Christ.  It is very likely that even the idea of a dying-rising savior God was borrowed by later Gnostics from Christianity, rather than the other way around.  (See Edwin Yamauchi, Pre-Christian Gnosticism: A Survey of the Proposed Evidence [Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 1973].)
37 There are also practices found in Qumran literature that have no parallel in the deceptive philosophy about which Colossians warns.  The elaborate washings (including Miqva’ot) and the reverence of the Sun at Qumran are unparalleled in Colossians.  Perhaps the emphasis on asceticism at Colossae has the same roots as did the quasi-monastic mode of living at Qumran.   The point is that the distinctive Essene beliefs and practices at Qumran as well as the Phrygian kind of Judaism are examples of the religious syncretism that was invading the Jewish world in the 1st century.
38 Edwin M. Yamauchi, “Did Persian Zoroastrianism Influence Judaism,” Artifax, Winter 2013, p.13-17.
39 R.M. Grant, Gnosticism and Early Christianity (New York: Harper and Row, rev. ed. 1966).   Edwin M Yamauchi, “The Descent of Ishtar, the Fall of Sophia, and the Jewish Roots of Gnosticism,” Tyndale Bulletin, 29 (1978), p.143-175.
40 Judaism knew of the descent of pre-existent wisdom (Sirach 24; 1 Enoch 42:1-2).  The hypothesis of a Jewish origin for the Fall of Sophia has been most persuasively advanced by G.W. MacRae, "The Jewish Background of the Gnostic Sophia Myth," NovT 12 (April 1970), p.86-101.   He thought the fall of Eve (Genesis 3) and the fall of the celestial beings (Genesis 6) might form the background of the Gnostic cosmological myth.  Birger Pearson, Gnosticism, Judaism and Egyptian Christianity (Minneapolis:  Fortress Press, 1990) also argues for a Jewish source for the cosmological myth in 2nd century Gnosticism.
41 A. Thomas Kraabel, Judaism in Western Asia Minor under the Roman Empire (Harvard ThD Thesis, 1968), p. 145.  Steven Fine, ed., Sacred Realm: The Emergence of the Synagogue in the Ancient World (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), p. 65.
42 Philo, Gig. 263 6-7 (Loeb).
43 Plutarch, De defectu oraculorum 416C.
44 We have not attempted to show that mysticism in Gnosticism had a Jewish origin, namely, in Merkebah mysticism which did flourish in Jewish circles.  The reason is that our information about Merkebah mysticism comes from the Talmud and may date not earlier than the end of the 1st century AD.  At best, this would be evidence that mysticism was practiced in some Jewish circles.  See Gershom Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (Tel Aviv:  Schocken Publishing House, 1941).
45 Jos. Wars, II.8.14
46 Jos. Ant. XVIII.1.3
47 Jos. Wars, II.8.11
48 The dating of the Hermetic literature is uncertain and may come from after the middle AD 60's.
49 Jos. Wars II.8.3,11
50 Jos. Ant. XIV.10.24
51 A.T. Robertson, Paul and the Intellectuals [Nashville: Broadman, 1959], p.12.
52 F.F. Bruce, “Colossians,” New International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 1979,) Vol.1, p.734.


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