Colossians: Context & Culture

11 April 2019

I want to begin by considering the importance of context and culture before moving on to the context and culture of the Letter to the Colossians.

But firstly a story. It’s a familiar story but, like all good stories, it bears repeating.

It was a cold winter’s night. The monks were gathering in the abbey church for evening prayer. A cat crept in. It made its way to where the Abbot was sitting and curled up by the leg of his chair. The next night it did the same. And even when the weather picked up, and the sun remained high in the sky, the cat still marched into the abbey church and took its place next to the Abbot’s chair. After a year or so the cat was found dead by the monastery gate. The monks were saddened by the loss of their little feline brother. So they decided to find another cat who could be trained to sit next to the Abbot’s chair during evening prayer. Of course, it had to be the same colour as his predecessor, otherwise it simply would not do. After quite a search in the neighbouring villages the monks found just what they were looking for and later that day the cat was ceremoniously presented to the Abbot at the beginning of evening prayer. But as soon as the new cat was put on the floor it ran out of the abbey church. The following morning it was found and caught. In the evening the cat was again brought into the abbey church for prayer. However the monks were not going to have a repeat of the previous night’s mishap so the cat was tied to the leg of the Abbot’s chair. This is how each evening prayer began: the cat ceremoniously brought into the abbey church and tied to the Abbot’s chair. After the Abbot died the tradition continued. By the time several abbots and several cats had died and been replaced by new abbots and new cats a whole liturgy had grown up around the presenting and tying up of the cat to the Abbot’s chair. Indeed centuries later learned treatises were written by scholars of that particular religious order on the theological and liturgical significance of tying up a cat during a time of worship. Heated debates ensued on whether the cat should be black, white, tabby or ginger and indeed, as a consequence, some breakaway orders were formed.

This is my extended version of Anthony de Mello’s story The Guru’s Cat found in his book The Song of the Bird.

The title of this paper is Context & Culture.

We are going to take a brief look at the importance of context and culture before we reflect on the context and culture in the church to which the Letter to the Colossians was sent.

Context is important. Hugely important. And I trust that no one would disagree. Yet so much misunderstanding has arisen as a consequence of those failing to take into account the context of a written document. Much hurt, even, has been inflicted on others by those who, for whatever reason, have chosen to either ignore or remain ignorant of the circumstances in which the writer composed their sentences. This is so for any form of communication of course, not least on social media.

I recently upset someone on Facebook by posting the picture of a cat asleep on the stairs at Launde Abbey. My caption went something like this:

Last night whilst on retreat at Launde Abbey I put the cat out. This morning I found her in exactly the same place from which she had been ejected. When I recounted the story to other colleagues at breakfast I discovered that several others had done the same.

This seemed quite innocent to me, but it caused great consternation for a Facebook friend who saw the post two days later. By then the weather had taken a turn for the worse and the temperature had dropped considerably.

‘How could I be so cruel?’ she asked. ‘You wouldn’t put your dog out in the snow!’ My Facebook friend even said she was ‘very disappointed’ in me, which was cutting and very hard for me to take.

I had to point out that:

  1. the weather had been mild the night we put the cat out
  2. the cat was in the accommodation block where signs had been put up stating that visitors should not leave ground floor windows open lest the cat gets in
  3. there were plenty of other places where the cat could take refuge at night.

My Facebook friend apologised and we are now liking each other’s posts again. Memo to self: as a dog lover never put pictures of cats on my Facebook. But who knows, after telling this story and the story of the Abbey cat being tied to the abbot’s chair I may not get out of here alive.

Appreciating the context is vital if we are to understand, as well as we can, what is being written or said. The same of course is true of scripture, be it prophetic, liturgical, instruction, letter or purportedly historical account. If we are to properly understand the message we need to consider the context in which the messenger was writing. It’s ironic that on occasion preachers have pointed the finger at those who raised stones against the woman caught in adultery, yet overlooked the fact that the followers of Jesus have ever since been casting the stones. It is equally ironic that we have shaken our heads about the night of the resurrection when the disciples were behind locked doors for fear of the Jews, when the truth is that the disciples were themselves Jews, and that for centuries it’s the Jews who have been behind locked doors for fear of the Christians. Or indeed, that we have nodded at Jesus speaking of those who say their prayers in such a way as to attract attention to themselves, or prefer to be on show at worship, or in the market place wear their finest. Yes: I am guilty as charged I’m afraid. Both to all these examples and many more and indeed for not taking the context seriously enough to do a decent job of presenting the grace and truth of God that calls us into love and respect for all people.

How many times now have we in theological or ethical discussion been frustrated by those who simply respond, or should I say simplistically respond, ‘scripture says’ without any consideration for context or indeed contradiction elsewhere in scripture. Those who draw on scripture alone to back up their own argument, or even prejudice, are simply not taking the Bible seriously. People have been excommunicated and executed by those who have not been able to appreciate the context of scripture. Today’s equivalent of being sent to the stake may only be ridicule and a cold shoulder; nowhere near as devastating of course but forming an exclusive church based on a false premise is still pretty destructive nonetheless. Whereas those who consider the context of scripture are taking it seriously; they are closer to the true essence of the Divine will and indeed more likely to therefore build the inclusive community that I believe was envisaged by Jesus.

So context is important. Now what of culture?

Well, there can be no denying the part played by culture on how a group expresses itself. As a youngster standing on the terraces of Highfield Road, the home of Coventry City Football Club, the chants were very different to the ones you might hear today. They were in tune, if that’s an accurate term to use for thousands of fans worse for wear after a few hours in the pub, the chants were in tune with, or reflected, that’s better, reflected the music of their time. ‘Come on without, come on within, you’ll not see nothing like the Sky Blues win.’ (To the tune ‘Mighty Quinn’ by Manfred Man). No, they don’t chant today like they did in the 60’s! The use of rattles that had been chosen by air raid wardens twenty years previously was such fun. Dangerous when catching the ear of a fan next to you – but such fun, and very, very loud!

And what about tying scarves to your wrist in the mid-seventies? What on earth was that about? I wasn’t even a Bay City Rollers fan – I left that to the girls in class, three of whom were carried out of a concert in Stoke-on-Trent when they fell into hysteria at the sight of lead singer Les McKeown.

Clearly the cultural environment plays a significant part in how a group expresses itself. The language it adopts, the vocabulary, the accent, the sentiments, the behavioural patterns, its ethics and fundamental beliefs are all influenced by what is going on externally around the group.

If it were possible to find identical twins with identical characters or personality preference types and raise them in two different households, one where each day only the Daily Mail is delivered and the other where only the Guardian is delivered, without any reference to other news outlets you would probably end up with two very different voting intentions. Such is the power of the media. And boy are we seeing its effect on the world today.

Capitalists and Communists, Leavers and Remainers, the far left and the far right, come about because of a complex range of contributory factors, not least the culture in which each is set. They also formulate belief structures, adopt strategies and convey their own perceived truths in such ways that set them apart, which then gives them identity and purpose.

It is difficult to believe that Christianity is a single religion when we look across our world and see such an array of expressions. The Church is far from one in its identity:

  • The base community in a Brazilian favela studying Luke 4.
  • The Russian Orthodox baptismal celebration with the child literally dunked, heavily, into a pool of water three times.
  • The St Thomas Christian Eucharist on the western coast of India which owes more than many gave credit for to the Jewish Passover celebrated by Jesus and his disciples.
  • The Nigerian church mourning its lost children to Boku Haram.
  • The televangelist urging donations for the forthcoming mission.
  • The midlands chapel where there seems to be more of the past than can possibly be hoped for in the future.

Each one, one would hope, speaks of and to its neighbourhood. But as representations of a single religion, the Church of Jesus Christ, one might conclude that they were not related. It would certainly take a lot to convince an alien visitor from a far off planet that they ‘speak the same and cordially agree’!

So let us turn to the context and to the culture of the church that was to receive the Letter to the Colossians.

Hopefully we will now see that it is neither wise nor appropriate to lift a sentence from the page and preach on it without a decent attempt at studying what was going on at the time: to consider what was happening not just in the community itself but across the wider region too. What were the socio-political dynamics? How was the community made up? What trades were prevalent? Were there any environmental factors at play? What were the belief systems to which the recipients were exposed?

A whole range of considerations must be taken into account if we are to get to grips with the context and culture of any historical document, and the Christian scriptures should not be drawn upon without such scrutiny.

A typical understanding of the New Testament world is one of religious conflict: Christians versus Jews, Christians versus Pagans, Gentile Christians versus Jewish Christians. It is somewhat more complicated than this. And the letter to the Colossians is an example of this complexity. In this second half of my presentation we are going to explore the geography, the socio-political world and the beliefs of the Colossian community.

Let us begin by taking a look at the place to which the letter was first intended. For much of this particular section I rely on the commentary by Marcus Barth and Helmut Blanke. They tell us that Colossae was a city, or more likely a town, ‘125 miles east of the Aegean Sea and 90 miles north of the Mediterranean coast in the central highlands of Asia Minor, around 800 feet above sea level. It was exposed to grim winters, lovely springs, and hot summers. Its central section, including a theatre of modest size and an acropolis of less than majestic dimensions, lay south of the river Lycus. The tributary of the Maeander rushes into and through a gorge near ancient Colossae. The Lycus Valley is dominated on its north-eastern side by the mountain Salbacus, and in the south-west by the snow-capped Cadmos. Precipices, partly covered with gleaming white travertine, form walls on both sides of the valley.’[1] The writers go on to tell us that the crops were primarily figs and olives and that sheep farming was a significant feature in the community, many of the sheep being raven-black in colour. ‘Colossian’ was the trade name of a then world famous purple-red dyed wool. The city was on a trade route linking the Eurphrates through Syria to the cities on the Aegean. But by the time the letter came to be written Colossae had known better times. In earlier centuries it had flourished but now some of its neighbours were more economically active. Ten miles from Colossae in a north-westerly direction and six miles apart from one another were two major centres. Laodicea was the banking, administrative and industrial metropolis and Hierapolis was a health resort. Both cities boasted magnificent theatres and gymnasia. Further afield other far more influential cities existed. So while it would be untrue to claim that Colossae was a backwater at the time of the letter, it had certainly known better days and it was in the shadow of more influential and wealthier communities.

In 61 or 62 CE an earthquake destroyed both Laodicea and Hierapolis. It is almost certain that Colossae may have suffered the same fate. It is documented that each of the two major cities were quickly rebuilt but there is little evidence to suggest that Colossae managed to fully recover. Coins from Colossae dating to 150 CE have been discovered but other than these little is known of the place or of its fortunes.

Had the letter to the Colossians not survived it may well be that the city or more accurately town, would have passed into oblivion. Even in early Church terms it had little significance, while Bishops continued to hold high profile seats in each of Laodicea and Hierapolis little or no recognition was bestowed upon the Christian community in Colossae. Indeed the newly-found group of believers may well have ceased to exist shortly after either the earthquake or the letter, whichever came last. It is certainly so that the writer of the Revelations, nor indeed the Ignatian letters, felt any need to mention a letter to Colossae amongst those they list. So of all the letters in the New Testament the Letter to the Colossians was sent to perhaps the least significant community of them all.

But what was the community of Colossae like? Colossae was the destination of migration over a number of centuries. The movement of peoples as a consequence of wars and vulnerable harvests across that part of the world meant that it was inevitable for there to be a mix of ethnicities and religious beliefs. Once the Persians had lost control of Asia Minor in 312 BCE Jews had been encouraged to settle there. Before that time only small numbers had travelled to the region. Because they had a good deal of religious freedom Jews continued to move there and like their non-Jewish neighbours enjoyed economic prosperity, becoming independent farmers and even great landowners. Records show that there were merchants, artisans, physicians, scribes and civil servants. Some were bound in slavery. By 60 BCE there were 10,000 – 11,000 tax-paying Jews in the region of Laodicea alone. It has been estimated that around 500 of them would have been resident in Colossae.

At the time of Christ there appears to have been at least four distinct Jewish groups. The first was Hellenistic Judaism, which was one of assimilation and acculturation and deeply influenced by the philosophies of ancient Greece. Some commentators believe that the Hellenistic Jews had turned their backs on Judaism completely whilst others suggest that their philosophy was more syncretistic and tended to still keep a foot in the Torah camp. The second group being Torah-abiding Judaism, continued to look to the Temple in Jerusalem for their inspiration. Sectarian Judaism, a third distinct group, represented by the Qumran community, was an apocalyptic sect that practised initiation ceremonies and believed itself to be the true remnant of ancient Judaism. The fourth group was Gnostic Judaism which held a dualistic world view of good and evil, light and dark.

In my opinion it was likely that more than these four groups were in existence. As with today’s range of expression within all the major religions, there would have been sufficient diversity in each to not pigeon hole every individual in clearly defined camps. There would have been many points of contact between each of them and the possibility of cross-fertilisation was very real. One area that may be of interest to us is the fact that for some Jews or pagans the Lord Sabaoth (the Lord of Hosts who instituted the Sabbath) and the god Sabazius were no longer distinguishable from one another. Circumcision and dietary laws continued to be practised alongside other forms of mutilation, while festivals were aligned to the lunar calendar alongside the Temple in Jerusalem. Indeed the joy of Jews at the Messianic table bears a close resemblance to the pleasures at the table of Sabazius, to which Hermes, ‘a good angel,’ led the souls of the faithfully departed. My own understanding is that the cross-fertilisation of ideas, philosophies and theologies was nothing new. Each community that becomes exposed to the beliefs and practices of those they encounter can be receptive to change, especially when they seem to work or to make sense. Add to the mix newer philosophies and ancient paganism and you have some idea of the religious melting pot that was the world in which the Colossians existed. Being on the trade route the town would not have been immune from the debates that ensued. Into that world comes a somewhat bewildering claim: that a Jewish teacher from a minor Galilean town had offended the authorities by his attempts to fulfil the Law and reform Judaism as a consequence. Nothing new in that, plenty of rabbis had done the same, were still doing the same, and would do so to the present day. But it was the claim made by some of his followers that he had been put to death by the authorities, yet had appeared to them three days later and even on a fairly frequent basis for a while thereafter.

So how does this impact upon the community in Colossae and why was the letter so necessary?

Well, in order to answer this we must first address the possibility that Paul may not have been the writer of the letter. Carrying his name does not necessarily constitute authorship. It was common practice at the time to attribute a document to a high profile person in order to give it more gravitas. It may well have been that those who had sat at the feet of Paul had composed the letter and were content to claim it to be of his mind.

Because we know of letters that are authentically Paul we can determine that some of the vocabulary in the Letter to the Colossians is indeed Pauline (‘principalities and powers’, ‘love’ [ie agapē], ‘justification’ and ‘body of Christ’). But, and again it’s a big but, in Colossians ‘salvation’ is a present reality (3.1-4) whereas elsewhere in Paul’s letters salvation is in the future; for Paul only ‘sanctification’ and ‘justification’ are in the present (Romans 6.4-5).

Much stronger evidence to the claim that the letter was not from the hand of Paul is the hierarchical description of household relationships (3.22-4.1). Paul tended to see household relations as remarkably non-hierarchical (1Cor.7.1-4) where husbands and wives each serve the other. There are similar household codes to the one in the letter to the Colossians found in second and third generational writings, in other words much later than the time Paul was operational, this was because the Parousia was not immanently forthcoming and intermediate regulations needed to be put in place to retain some form of order.

If Paul was the author then it was certainly a change of tack for him in terms of theological and ethical understanding. The writer, whoever he was, or whoever they were, let’s not discount the possibility of a group effort, had not visited Colossae but had become aware of, and concerned about, new teachings present there. Christ had been placed on the same level as ‘elemental spirits of the universe’ (2.8), and ‘rulers and authorities’ (2.15) and ‘angels’ (2.18). There were also concerns expressed in the letter about new dietary rules in the community at Colossae and lunar observances as well as Sabbath practice (2.16,20-23). The writer may have drawn on other Pauline imagery, not least Christ as the head of the body of Christ and the claim that his death has a role in the salvation of humankind, but he also belittles those in Colossae whom he opposes by suggesting that they are providing little other than shadows whilst Christ is the real thing (2.17). This owes not a little to Gnostic thinking.

One area that I find fascinating is the way in which the writer addresses Jewish ritual. When Paul wrote to the Galatians, a letter that is authentically Paul, there was a debate in the Church as to whether Gentile believers needed to observe Jewish rituals (circumcision, dietary regulations and Sabbath observance). It was Paul’s view that Gentiles were to not become Jews in order to become believers, whilst it was still incumbent upon Jewish believers to still practice Jewish ritual (Gal.5.3). But, again another big but, the writer to the Colossians sees such practice as being antagonistic to the rule of Christ.

And finally in his letters Paul is able to draw on his extensive understanding of Judaism and Jewish scriptures whereas the letter to the Colossians has seemingly little or no knowledge of such traditions. Clearly, by the time the Letter to the Colossians had been composed, the split in that part of the world between Church and Synagogue was deeper than at the time of Paul himself.

The theology was different too. By the time the Letter to the Colossians was written, understanding of the Christ had developed from that of the authentic Pauline letters. I personally think that much of it owes as much to the later Johannine School as it does any earlier group. The Christological hymn of verses 15 to 20 is a clear example of this. It echoes the preamble in John’s account of the Gospel which, as we should all agree, was probably very late 1st century if not early second.

Arguments against this would include the fact that elsewhere in the letter there are verses almost identical to verses in genuine letters of Paul. But as I said earlier, this proves nothing. I’m sure you will have found it as humble a pleasure as I have done to hear in a church meeting someone present an idea as if it is their own, when actually it was you who fed it to them in the first place! It was common practice during the 1st century to draw on those documents that carried kudos in the scattered church gatherings and create a new and relevant letter. There is a strong possibility that the Letter to the Colossians was typically one such missive, one of many that was sent that used a cut and paste technique to get the message across. The letter to the Ephesians bears such a strong similarity to the Letter to the Colossians that I can’t help thinking that they are just two of many that were circulating around the late 1st century churches. Purporting to be from the hand of Paul to substantiate their credibility, and drawing on some of his familiar themes, they nevertheless tweaked the teaching in the light of more recent theological developments. It is clear to me that the major concern of the senders was to promote a particular ecclesiology.

So there we have it: a letter from the late 1st century CE, likely to be a cut and paste job, drawing on earlier Pauline and more recent Johannine Schools, to get the Colossae Church to believe and behave in ways that were acceptable to the authorities of the 2nd or even 3rd generation Church. It was not the only one of its type or time, Ephesians was another of the same genre and likely to have come from the same community. We may only have two of these letters, but chances are that there were many others circulating at the time, but lost at some point in the turmoil of subsequent years.

We must be careful to not think that what we have is all that was written. What we have is but a handful of letters from the vast postal industry that was the means of communication for the Early Church.

In conclusion: at the end of the Second World War Sir Winston Churchill was informed that his Chief of Staff Field Marshall Alan Brooke was writing an account of the war which would show Churchill’s conduct of the war in a bad light. On hearing this Churchill is said to have been un-phased. ‘History would judge (him) well,’ he said, ‘because (he) would write that history.’ There followed Churchill’s six-volume account of the war which outsold Lord Alanbrooke’s version of events. It is claimed, not without good reason that history is written by the winners. I believe that theology too is written by the winners. What became the accepted history of the Early Church and the orthodox theology was composed by Paul and his disciples. The truth is that other accounts and theologies of the Jesus event pervaded for centuries afterwards alongside the Pauline strand. Many would be centred in those places that are now modern day Syria, Iraq and India. The teachings and the practices were very different to those with which we are accustomed. Many of them had died out by the 6th century CE, others persisted elsewhere and indeed to this day the St Thomas Christians in India will claim a different lineage to the one we would refer, theirs being the one that came through the missionary work of Thomas, brother of Jesus, rather than that of Paul. Which one would be authentically Christian? We may well ask. Well, that is for others to decide is it not? Because by the way we lead our lives is surely the best piece of evidence we can provide to answer such a question.


[1] Barth, Markus and Blanke, Helmut, Colossians, the Anchor Yale Bible, Doubleday 1994, p8

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