Between you and the heavens stand the alien forces, gradually descending towards you, advancing from side to side, typewriter-fashion, slowly and methodically crowding in on you, seeking your demise. To make matters worse, each a little Zeus hurling explosives down at you. You can hide for a moment but they’ll blast away the barriers. You must shoot back, taking them out before you’re taken out. However, even if you are skilled or lucky enough to succeed, their forces will replenish, returning in even quicker, more hostile iterations. Until you die. Enjoy the game.
The Colossians, along with Greeks and Romans generally, lived in world not all that alien from Space Invaders, though they lacked any artillery to return fire. Their world was, to put it mildly, hierarchical; layers of powers and authorities extended from the local political establishment (which also comprised the economic and religious establishments) up to the Roman emperor (the nexus between the realms of humankind and of the gods), and then well into the heavenly heights, with every planetary orbit (incl. the moon and the sun and the five known planets) and the stars, all meteing out different influences upon the earth and its puny inhabitants. The heavenly layers were populated by more than just the classic Olympian gods and goddesses and their varied progeny; there were there a host of beings variously described - Biblical types might have called them angels while Greeks would call them daimones (from which our English word, demon, is derived); others would call them souls, some never embodied, others successfully returned by heroic effort. But these beings were not necessarily evil, or good; these celestial ones, responsible for running the cosmos, had their good days and their days. In short, the universe was populated with capricious forces from the ground up, forces as predictable and as stable as humans - but with superhuman power and influence.
Some people (like the Epicureans) were indifferent to the gods and thought the gods indifferent to them. But most sought harmony with the heavenly realms. There were of course sacrifices and rituals offered at the town temples; but these were corporate affairs and individuals were lost in the mix, unless one were a priest (who, again, was also from the wealthy and politically established). Individuals turend elsewhere. Intellecutals thought such harmony came by the practice of philosophy. Religiously disposed might have joined a mystery religion, like the cult of Isis or of Mithras, with cladestine rituals that provided emotional connections. Average folks, without the time or resources for the luxury of philosophy and not part of some special guild alinged with a mystery cult, turned to more folksy remedies, including the practice of astrological and magical arts.
Underlying all of these efforts were two basic realities: the universe was a force (or forces) to be reckoned with and the one must find someway to navigate those forces to flourish as much as possible, until you die. Enjoy the game. It is no wonder religion and its darker concommitants like astrology and magic boiled down to control, if you could, and appeasement, if you couldn't.
The desire for control and the urgency to appease had started to creep into the Colossians religious life, or so it appears from Paul's letter. Already we see him saying "don't be taken captive by empty and deceptive philosophy, based upon human traditions, upon the cosmic elements" (2:8). Those 'cosmic elements' are notoriously difficult to figure out; the phrase renders litterally the Greek τὰ στοιχεῖα τοῦ κόσμου (ta stoicheia tou kosmou) but, while kosmos means either 'world' or 'universe,' stoicheia may refer to the basic elements (earth, ari, fire, water; cf. 1 Peter 3:10), or just the basics (ABCs; cf. Hebrews 5:12), or perhaps the term is a circumlocution for objects of pagan worship (see Gal 4:3, 9). Paul mentions them again in Colossians 2:20 - "you died with Christ to the elemental spirits of the universe (ἀπὸ τῶν στοιχείων τοῦ κόσμου)" (RSV).
Fortunately, Colossians provides a more accessible name for them:
Col 1:16 - for in him all things were created...whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities
Col 2:10 - he is the head of every rule and authority
Col 2:15 - he disarmed the rulers and authorities
Many argue, myself included, that these 'rulers and authorities' (ἀρχαὶ καὶ έξουσίαι; archai kai exousiai) are synonomous with the Stoicheia tou Kosmou. Paul is making the case that that all powers (from earthly imperial to invisible celestial ones) stand below Christ, who created them (1:16), who is their head (2:10), who subdues them (2:15), and who ultimately reconciles them (1:20); Christ is their Lord.
But that's getting ahead of ourselves. What I want to focus on here (and in the next couple of posts) is that the Colossians lived in the shadow of these forces and felt obligated to in someway 'deal' with them. At least some of the Colossians felt these forces stood as gatekeepers between the Christians and God and, in order to gain some semblance of heavenly peace and blessing, the Colossians had to appears these forces. We'll look at how they said to do so tomorrow (rituals, 2:16), Thursday (worship of angels, 2:18), and Friday (self-denial, 2:21-23).
For now, let me close with a question. How are you like the Colossians? What forces stand above you, requiring your appeasement or seeking your destruction? I'd be surprised if you can't name some earthly or spiritual force that plays this role in your life; the history of humanity is just about the history of dealing with such things. For my part, I've felt this way about anything from credit debt to my (previously mentioned) battle with anxiety. But in more sobering moments, I also see such forces at work in entrenched economic realities that hold peoples and nations in poverty; I see them in a family history with addiction; I see them even in the church, where too often our religion resting on God's grace is turned into a system dependant on the human industry of hoop-making and hoop-jumping, all for fear of failing to gain heaven or, worse, of failing to please God.
My problem is not that I can't connect with the world of the Colossians; its that I connect too well with it. What about you?
A couple of house-keeping notes. First, the writing in this blog is my original work and rests on my own scholarship. I am obviously indebted to many fellow believers, many scholars and many resources and I'm happy to identify them to the best I can. If I rely upon or quote the work of a scholar or resource, I will say so to the best of my ability (even if it means making my blog even less easy to read). I will reshape the material in this blog for a forthcoming book on Colossians. If you can think of ways to improve it, find faults or deficiencies, or there are questions that you have about it, please (!!!) share in the comments. As to the use of this material in the world beyond, well, I wouldn't put it here if I didn't want to share it. Please give me attribution if you do relate it elsewhere, if for other reason than that you don't get blamed for it.
Second, I recommend Jerry Sumney's fine commentary on Colossians for those looking for an accessible yet scholarly treatment of our subject.
Third, I promise that tomorrow's post "Buyign the Stairway to Heaven, part 1," will be shorter. How could it not be?