Sound biblical exegesis requires an understanding of the historical context relevant to the studied passage. Thorough analysis involves study of the history of the text itself, in terms of its author and date of origination, and of the socio-economic and religious culture and specific circumstances of the people connected to the text.
Authorship and Dating
Colossians was written by Paul. The authorship of Colossians has been the subject of debate due to its apparent shift in theological focus and introduction of terminology and phrasing not present in Paul’s other texts. Some scholars theorize that Colossians was written by one of Paul’s disciples after Paul’s death who continued to write in Paul’s name. This theory, however, is without historical evidence and stems from circumstantial assumptions. Others, like Robert Bultmann, believe that Colossians is a product of Christian Gnosticism rather than a pure rebuttal of the heresy. Yet Pauline authorship is not disproven by its differences with the other epistles so much as it is affirmed.
The Epistle of Colossians was a “splendid development” of the teachings found in the other epistles, and did not conflict with the rest of Pauline theology. Paul had previously written on similar subjects in his epistle to the Galatians, and thus his phrasing would have had time to develop. Colossians is not tainted by heresy, but it utilizes imagery and language familiar to the intended audience. The difference in style between Colossians and other Pauline texts may well be related to the difference in his audience; unlike other audiences, Paul had not met the majority of the church in Colossae and did not have the personal friendships and firsthand knowledge that he had of his other audiences.
Colossians was probably written in 61/62 A.D. during Paul’s first Roman imprisonment (of either 60/62 or 61/63) and prior to the earthquake of 61/62 A.D., at approximately the same point in which Ephesians and Philemon were also written.
Colossae and Region
The city of Colossae was established by the kingdom of Phrygia prior to the Persian invasion. As a part of the Phrygian kingdom, Colossae was probably a very successful city, but its importance diminished following the Persian and Greek invasive conquests The town remained a commercial site located in the provincial center Ephesus. Colossae was keenly located ten miles from the cities of Laodicea and Hierapolis, a pair separated by six miles. Laodicea was an extremely affluent center of industry, banking, and administrative activities, and Hierapolis was a famous health resort. Eighty miles away from Colossae stood Apamea, a massive trading city the nickname of which translates to ‘treasure chest’. Although Colossae itself was not competitive with the metropolitan cities by which it was surrounded, Colossae benefited reasonably from its placement to them by the Roman road system. Little historical detail is known about Colossae, due in part to its diminished importance to the Greco-Roman civilizations and also to it sharing in the intensely damaging earthquake that destroyed Laodicea and Hierapolis in either 61 or 62 A.D.
The church in Colossae was founded during or after Paul’s ministry in the Ephesus region in 53-56 A.D.. Epaphras was probably converted as a result of Paul’s work in Ephesus, and he began the church in Colossae shortly thereafter, as well as probably being the founder of the churches in Laodicea and Hierapolis. The Christians of Colossae may have been a very diverse group. The names listed in 4:7-17 indicate seven Greek individuals, one Roman, and three Jews, and, of these eleven, four probably were or had previously been slaves. Epaphras was referred to as being one of the Colossians and a “servant of Jesus Christ” in verse 4:12. The specific acknowledgements of Epaphras indicate that he was readily able to relate to the church of Colossae as a fellow Colossian and that he had Paul’s personal recommendation and approval. Epaphras was described as “struggling” on behalf of the Colossians in his prayers in a similar sense to that which Paul claims to have been struggling, or agōnizomenos, in 1:28-29, with Christ’s energy for the sake of the maturation of the churches. Prior to the writing of the epistle to Colossians, Epaphras left his home area and visited Paul in prison. He shared with Paul an update regarding the church, and presumably discussion was had regarding the influx of false teachings that affected the congregation.
The geographical positioning of Colossae that granted the city such excellent access to Roman roads also caused the cultural phenomena of the larger cities to have influence in Colossae. Although the biblical text does not specifically name which heretical movements threatened the church, the false philosophies described connect to two significant ideological elements in the local society: Phrygian paganism and moderate Hellenistic Judaism. Modern historians frequently attempt to compare the Colossian heresies to equivalent ideas of other times, but direct parallels paint incomplete pictures. The doctrinal troubles appear to have had similarities to second century Gnosticism that grew out of a similar environment of blended paganism, Judaism, and Christianity. By the end of the twentieth century a new scholastic consensus was forming that believed that the Colossian heresy was a form of Jewish mysticism, but alone such mysticism does not reflect the pagan cultural context.
The most convincing historical interpretation is that the church in Colossae struggled with a local blend of folk religions involving philosophies and ascetic practices of the pagan rites of Phrygian cults and Greco-Roman philosophy in addition to Jewish mysticism. Phrygian religious culture, known as the “Phrygian Mysteries”, survived the Greco-Roman conquests by syncretistic assimilation. Worship included self-mutilating activities and intense emotional experiences. Common pagan practice was to incorporate multiple deities into the worship performed in each household. The veneration of angels, ascetic rituals, and extensive practices of witchcraft appear to have been significant problems in the community. Simultaneously, an approximate minimum of five hundred tax-paying Jews lived in Colossae ca. 60 B.C., and other cities in Ephesus were known to have a heavy Judaic influence resulting from the significant Jewish population.