to walk worthily of the Lord, pleasing him in all respects

Monday, February 27, 2012

Lent, day 5: The Colossian Problem and the Benefits of Unrequited Scholarship

“I say this lest anyone deceive you with a persuasive argument…Watch out that no take you captive through philosophy and empty deception, which is based on human traditions and on the cosmic elements and not based on Christ.” Colossians 2:4, 8 (my translation)

In Greek mythology, the Hydra was a multi-headed serpentine creature that had the useful defensive trait of growing 2 new heads for every head lopped off. The image below depicts Hercules slaying the Hydra, the second of his 12 Labors.
Flickr: Mosaico Trabajos Hércules (M.A.N. Madrid) 02. Author: Luis García, 25 August 2007(2007-08-25).
In the lore of biblical scholarship, discerning what prompted the writing of the Letter to the Colossians has encountered a similar characteristic. When I was in graduate school in the late 90s’ one of my professors (and my source for the Hydra comparison) counted 45 theories about the so-called Colossian “Problem” (or, for some, “Heresy”). The number surely has increased in the last 15 years (if for no other reason that many scholars seeking tenure have traveled Hercules’ well-worn path). Hypotheses range from “there was no problem at Colossae” to full-blown “Gnosticism,” and in between causes associated with Judaism (incl. types akin to Pharisaical, Essene [Qumran?], Greek-speaking [Philo/Wisdom of Solomon] ‘Judaisms’), Greek Philosophy (e.g., first-century Platonism), mystery religions (cf. the worship of Isis, Dionysus, or Mithras), folk superstitions (think Cosmo’s Astrology column but with a bigger existential bite, or think magic - not the ‘amaze your friends’ kind but the ‘curse your competitors and enthrall your love interests’ kind), or some syncretistic blend of any or most of these.

I have my own theory, but I bring all this up not to advance that or to engage in dry academic arguments (for one, I already have tenure; and secondly, for my part, I like my scholarship dry, like my humor and, presumably, my martinis). Rather, the plethora of theories about why Colossians was written communicates a great spiritual truth about that letter and why we should wrestle with it. If scholars (of both Ivory Tower and arm-chair varieties) can argue that Colossians addresses just about any conceivable religious problem, than the letter must somehow speak to just about every conceivable religious problem, or maybe even a universal problem contained in all religious pursuits.

That at least is the tack I want us to take here. Instead of reading Colossians to isolate and determine the exact nature of the ‘philosophy’ some were using to ensnare believers at Colossae, let’s read to find out what about that ‘philosophy’ lurks behind human religiosity generally, to contemplate how it is that in our desire to draw near to God we humans usually fall prey to human traditions and human solutions that weigh us down instead of lift us up on our journey. And then, by doing this, we’ll hopefully be in better position to receive the salve that Colossians brings.

Tomorrow, we’ll discuss “the cosmic elements” (2:8, 20) and why they remind me of the late 70’s arcade game Space Invaders.

1 comment:

North Pointe Church of Christ said...


Thanks for sharing and posting on Facebook to find this. I'm enjoying reading your thoughts and application.

Curtis Williams

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