In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Colossians

  • Introduction
  • Short Introductions
  • General Overviews
  • Technical Commentaries
  • Mid-Level Commentaries
  • Accessible Commentaries
  • Authorship
  • Opponents
  • Outline and Rhetoric
  • Postcolonial and Anti-Empire Readings
  • Theology
  • Christological Liturgical Piece (1:15–20)
  • Fill up the Afflictions of Christ (1:24)
  • Elements of the World (2:8)
  • The Cheirograph (2:14–15)
  • Worship of Angels (2:18)
  • Other Studies

Biblical Studies Colossians
Jerry L. Sumney
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 November 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 August 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0010


Colossians is often seen as a letter on the edge of the transition from Pauline to post-Pauline thought, being identified as either the last authentic letter or the first written in Paul’s name after his death. The debate about authorship continues, with over half the field finding it to be pseudonymous. Colossians’ Christology is among the most exalted in the New Testament. The preformed liturgical piece of 1:15–20 has received more attention from interpreters than any other text or topic in Colossians. This liturgy identifies Christ as God’s agent in creation and as the one who subdues all hostile powers and reconciles all things to God. This understanding of Christ is the central affirmation that supports the argument of Colossians against a teaching that contends that those who do not have visionary experiences are not forgiven of their sins. Colossians uses its Christology to assure its readers of their salvation. The identity of the opponents is also a topic of continuing debate. Questions include whether the opposed teaching comes from inside the church or from outside, whether it is related to Judaism or a different religion or philosophy, and whether it encourages the worship of angelic beings. The answers given to such questions shape the way interpreters perceive the letter’s argument and theology. Colossians presents Paul as the one who cares for the readers enough to suffer for them and as the faithful proclaimer of the true gospel to which the readers must adhere to receive and retain their salvation. This description of Paul intends to convince the readers to listen to Paul’s voice in this letter rather than the other teachers. The ethical instructions in this letter serve an important role in its theological argument. Thus they demonstrate that such instructions are not simply added with little thought about the occasion or argument of the letter. Since Colossians contains the first appearance of the household code form, this literary form and its implications for the development of ethics in the early church remains a topic of discussion in relation to this letter.

Short Introductions

Critical introductions discuss issues of authorship, date, literary integrity, occasion and purpose, text critical matters, and themes. The balance among these topics will depend on which are controversial for a particular text. In the case of Colossians, questions of authorship and of its occasion, specifically the identity of its opponents, receive significant attention. Furnish 1992 provides an accessible argument against the letter’s authenticity. His view represents a slight majority among critical New Testament scholars. Stuckenbruck 2003 offers a more detailed review of positions on various issues, arriving at mainstream conclusions. Sumney 2021 reviews the introductory issues, giving attention to theological themes and the nature of Colossians’ household code. Brown 1997 represents a comprehensive introduction to all of these issues that will serve as a good starting point for further research. Taschl-Erber 2021 reviews various introductory issues to firmly establish the date of Colossians between Romans and the writing of Ephesians. Dunn 2000 represents a position that has gained some adherents in recent years; Dunn argues that Colossians may have been written by an associate of Paul while Paul was alive. Paul then approved its content before it was sent. This position recognizes the significant differences between Colossians and the undisputed letters as it tries to maintain a historical connection with Paul.

  • Brown, Raymond. An Introduction to the New Testament. Anchor Yale Bible Reference Library. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1997.

    A more detailed introduction suitable for seminary and graduate students. Includes discussion of the issues with arguments for varying positions, an outlined overview of the letter’s content, and a bibliography.

  • Dunn, James D. G. “Colossians, Letter to.” In New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Vol. 1. Edited by Katharine Doob Sakenfeld, 702–706. Nashville: Abingdon, 2000.

    Focuses on critical issues, particularly authorship and the identity of the opponents. Identifies the opponents as members of the Jewish synagogue. Finds the letter to be at least signed by Paul.

  • Furnish, Victor P. “Colossians, Epistle to the.” In The Anchor Bible Dictionary, Vol. 1. Edited by David N. Freedman, 1090–1096. New York: Doubleday, 1992.

    An accessible introduction that gives attention to theological themes and content of the letter, as well as critical issues. Furnish finds the letter to be pseudonymous because its theology differs from the undisputed Paulines.

  • Stuckenbruck, Loren T. “Colossians and Philemon.” In The Cambridge Companion to Paul. Edited by James D. G. Dunn, 116–132. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

    DOI: 10.1017/CCOL0521781558

    Appropriate for upper-level undergraduates. Offers arguments for various positions on critical issues with particular attention to authorship, identity of the opponents, the “hymn,” and the household code. Notably finds this probably pseudonymous letter to include built-in relativization of the commands to submission in the household code.

  • Sumney, Jerry L. “The Prison Epistles (Philippians, Philemon, Colossians, Ephesians).” In Cambridge Companion to the New Testament. Edited by Patrick Gray, 241–260. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2021.

    Appropriate for upper-level undergraduates and graduate students, this introduction reviews the usual critical issues and gives attention to the letter’s argumentation. It also interprets the household code as a “hidden transcript” that appears to accept traditional social ethics but, in reality, undermines them.

  • Taschl-Erber, Andrea. “Zwischen Römer- und Epheserbrief: Zur Kontextualisierung des Kolosserbriefs.” In Die Datierung neutestamentlicher Pseudepigraphen: Hersuforderungen und neuer Lösungsansätze. Edited by Wolfgang Grünstäudl and Karl Matthias Schmidt, 133–167. Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2021.

    Assuming a readership conversant with the critical issues, Taschl-Erber dates Colossians as no later than the 70s based on its relationship to Paul’s death, the ambiguous identity of its recipients, and intertextual connections with the undisputed letters, particularly its treatment of Jewish identity markers and the ecclesial metaphor of the body of Christ.

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