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Lenten Reading Challenge: Colossians 1-4 (all)

First, a correction – yesterday’s post misquoted a line from page 195 of Borg’s “Evolution of the Word” to say James was not in the Revised Common Lectionary. A reader questioned that and did some checking, and as I should have caught myself, James is in Year B – in fact 5 Sunday’s in a row! Knew that sounded odd when I read it, my error was that Borg was referring to a series of specific passages he had just quoted whereas I mistook it that he was saying James as a whole and failed to do due diligence on it.

• When and Where

Colossians’ authorship is highly disputed. The letter itself says it is written by Paul, and it has the classic form of his letters, yet most scholars now consider it “almost certainly the earliest of the letters attributed to Paul but not actually written by him.” This is largely because, in Greek, the sentences found here are much longer and more complexly structured than Paul’s letters to the Romans, Corinthians and Thessalonians (note that English translations largely obscure this).

Beyond that, there are also significant and curious content differences from Paul’s letters. For example, compare this letter’s attitude and advice on slavery to Philemon – or compare Paul’s famous claim that “all are one in Christ Jesus” (see Galatians 3:28) to the stratified household codes found here. Something changed!

Borg places it sometime in the 80’s largely due to literary connections to Ephesians, which seems to draw on Colossians and which was written no later than 90AD (more on that next week.) If so, this means Colossians had to be in circulation earlier.

• Key Insights

The Wesley study Bible says: “The Colossian church was doing battle with heresy. The threat was from those who questioned the adequacy of Christ while promoting ascetic practices and angel worship. They had the mistaken notion that all matter was evil and therefore the Incarnate Christ was inferior to angels.” In contrast, Colossians celebrates Jesus as present in the beginning of all creation and fully God, supreme and sufficient.

This text is deeply incarnational in ways similar to the magnificent opening verses of John’s Gospel.

Language of “dwelling” is especially prominent.

It celebrates virtues; lives lived differently because of one’s faith and experience of Christ.

• Big Picture

In my own preaching, I’ll still often refer to Paul as this letter’s author, particularly when working with the great hymns found in Philippians 2 and Colossians 1 to celebrate and convey who Jesus is (I find the two together especially powerful and authorship not worth going into) but I do see the logic of arguments that it must be later.

The jury is still out and that we may never have a definitive answer. My guess is that somewhat like 2nd Corinthians, this letter is a preservation of Paul’s words from one or more sources, but here substantially reworked by another hand and thus this letter represents the beginning of later followers beginning to subvert Paul’s radicalism and conform the church to social norms of their day.

In particular, we begin to see a change in the status of women in the text. Paul has earlier greeted women by name and celebrated their participation in ministry (see Romans 16 for example); here they are clearly to be lesser partners. The difference on slavery might be explained away – Philemon argues Christians cannot own Christian slaves, while this might be counsel to Christians held by non-Christian masters, but the shift seems contrary to Paul’s approach.

Ultimately whether Paul did or did not write the letter is not as important as focusing on the fact that the larger community received this text and found it inspired and instructional. The point of this chronological ordering and reading is not so much to merely “fix” the order, but to encounter these writings more deeply.

Together with other texts, the differences we see here help us to understand how our tradition has changed over time; sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. This invites us to wrestle anew with how to faithfully respond to our encounter with the divine in our own place and time.

Blessings on your reading!

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