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Not for the Faint of Heart (Authorship of Colossians)

As I was writing up my post yesterday on the evidence that speaks against Paul having written Colossians, it occurred to me (as I indicated at the time) that it might be instructive to show the difference between how I might present that case to a lay audience and how I might present it to fellow scholars. The following is how I cover the same material in Forgery and Counterforgery . (All of this is related to the larger thread I have going on just now on whether the Third Gospel was written by Luke the Gentile physician, traveling companion of Paul; see yesterday’s post on the connection. In my next post I’ll return to that thread and point out other problems with the “logic” that says Luke wrote the Gospel. This current post will not be to everyone’s taste. If not, just sample it – or spit it out!)


As with every instance of forgery, the case of Colossians is cumulative, involving multiple factors. None has proved more decisive over the past thirty years than the question of writing style. The case was made most effectively in 1973 by Walter Bujard, in a study both exhaustive and exhausting, widely thought to be unanswerable.

Bujard compares the writing style of Colossians to the other Pauline letters, focusing especially on those of comparable length (Galatians, Philippians, and 1 Thessalonians), and looking at an inordinately wide range of stylistic features: the use of conjunctions (of all kinds); infinitives; participles, relative clauses; repetitions of words and word groups; use of antithetical statements; parallel constructions; the use of preposition ἐν; the piling up of genitives; and on and on. In case after case, Colossians stands apart from Paul’s letters.

Here I can mention a slim selection of his findings. How often does a book of Paul’s use adversative conjunctions? Galatians 84 times; Philippians 52; 1 Thessasonians 29; but Colossians only 9. Causal conjunctions? Galatians 45 times; Philippians 20; 1 Thessalonians 31; but Colossians only 9. Consecutive conjunctions? Galatians 16 times; Philippians 10; 1Thessalonians 12; but Colossians only 6. How often does the letter use a conjunction to introduce a statement (ὅτι, ὡς, πως etc.) Galatians 20 times; Philippians 19; 1 Thessalonians 11; but Colossians only 3.


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Who Wrote Luke and Acts?
Problems with Luke as the Author of Luke



  1. Avatar
    Wilusa  September 3, 2013

    Was the author not writing an actual “letter” to anyone, but intending the work to be passed off as a never-sent Pauline letter discovered after Paul’s death? I assume his longer-term view of the Church dates him after Paul.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  September 3, 2013

      Yes, probably it was put in circulation as *if* it was written to a specific church….

  2. Avatar
    toddfrederick  September 3, 2013

    You wrote at the end of your post….”it is clear that with Colossians we are not dealing with a letter of Paul, but a letter of someone wanting his readers to think he is Paul.”

    Even to the person not having a command of Greek and the other tools of analytical scholarship (such as myself), a serious and critical reading of ancient documents, in good translations, and comparing one document to another, these differences can be seen clearly and questions surely can be raised to authenticity.

    Your post today is a fine example of such thorough study in the original languages using the Greek as a primary tool’.

    My question is one which likely can not be answered and is more practical than scholastically profound, but is the first question I ask myself whenever I come across such obvious differences and often glaring contradictions :

    *WHY* would the writer of Colossians want to make such changes in Paul’s thinking, and *WHY* would the document be accepted into the canon of sacred writings given those contradictions (but we could ask that about almost all NT documents !! ).

    There must be good reasons for these forgeries to have been so carefully crafted and the documents must have been included in the canon with good reasons as well….or perhaps not.

    Perhaps that question is more of theology or theological history of the church’s evolution than anything else. I don’t know, but that question comes to my mind whenever I read such material.

    Who did the forgers, and who did those who selected such documents, think they were fooling? 🙂

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  September 3, 2013

      My sense is that the author of Colossians did not realize that his views were different from Paul’s (just as most televangelists today think that their views are exactly like Paul’s!) and that ancient readers did not realize there were discrepancies (just as most modern readers don’t, unless they are pointed out to them).

      • Avatar
        toddfrederick  September 3, 2013

        Yup…I was conjuring up all kinds of exotic plots in my mind regarding evil motivations, but, the simple answer is usually the correct answer. What you say makes the best sense. 🙂

  3. Avatar
    billgraham1961  September 3, 2013

    Another thing that may possibly set this epistle apart from the undisputed epistles is the author’s admonition against syncretistic gnosticism. Apparently some of the Christians in this area had combined the philosophies of the East with elements of Hellenism and Judaism to come form a system that shunned the physical and pursued the spiritual. The practitioners of this system apparently expected adherents to be circumcised and observe Jewish feasts as well in an attempt to rid themselves of the desire for material wealth and comforts. They believed all matter was evil.

    The way I understand gnosticism is that pure spirit was good and pure flesh was evil. The deity who created this world was evil. By contrast, the spiritual God was pure righteousness. In fact, the word manifestation or emanation was also key to that philosophy. Every emanation away from the spiritual God became less pure until it became physical, and therefore, evil. Knowledge (or gnosis) of these spiritual realities was the path to salvation.

    This point of view appears to be the target of Colossians 2:8-23. It may not be full-blown gnosticism, but elements of this system appear to be present mixed with the legalistic forms of Christian Judaism. Depending on when this problem began to crop up in church history, specifically at Colossae, I think it may be possible to date this epistle a little more accurately, though not precisely. I also wonder if there is anything about this problem in the patristic artifacts or about Epaphras, who apparently founded the Church of Colossae.

    James D. G. Dunn makes the point in his book, “The Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon,” that there was no Orthodox Christianity to uphold as we know it today when Colossians was written. Nevertheless, the christology in this epistle is pretty high. Dunn considers Colossians to be a bridge between the undisputed Pauline epistles and those which are post-Pauline. That being the case, I have to wonder how late the post-Pauline forgeries stretched into the First Century and possibly Second Century.

    One other point I’d like to observe about Colossians is that the author encourages slaves to serve their masters as if they were Christ. Similarly, the author encourages masters to provide their slaves with what is right and fair. If there was ever a passage of scripture that tells us the New Testament should be interpreted in its cultural context, this one is it. Slavery is no longer legal; therefore, slaves are no longer under obligation to serve human traffickers. Those who traffic slaves belong in prison. At least in this one respect, the New Testament is obsolete, and I suspect it is in others as well.

  4. Avatar
    dralpc  September 3, 2013

    Dr. Ehrman, I did enjoy reading the “Not for the faint of heart” description of why Colossians is not Pauline. I hope I am stating this correctly. I have read (purchased) most of your books for popular consumption and am very glad I read them. After reading your general descriptions of how to tell a forgery or how to tell, say for example, that Colossians was probably not written by Paul, I often wanted a more definitive description. I think I also read that computer programs are used to analyse text and make statements about who did or did not wright a passage in the NT. I am interested in that as well.

    I recommended your writing to my friends here in Seoul and a discussion arose about the book Zealot by Reza Aslan. I am wondering if you will comment on his scholarship. I told my friends in Seoul I would ask you as I am a member of your blog society and they are not cheap S.O.B. that they are! I have not read Zealot, although it is in my cue and will read it soon. Be well my brother from another mother and keep doing good work especially feeding the poor. I will feel less guilty when I get home and say prayers before meals with my grandchildren.


  5. Avatar
    ktn3654  September 3, 2013

    Do you happen to know if Bujard had a solid training in statistical analysis? My impression is that most NT scholars, however competent they may be in their own field, tend not to have much of a background in mathematics and statistics. So I’m not absolutely confident that Bujard’s results have received a thorough vetting.

    It’s well known that when you have a large data-set, spurious patterns are pretty easy to find. Did Bujard test his methodology at all on ancient Greek works beyond the NT? I’m a little puzzled that most of the comparisons don’t even go beyond three of the undisputed Pauline epistles. When you are only comparing a total of four epistles, there is a substantial probability that several tests will show one of them as different from the others, purely by chance. Even if some of the other undisputed epistles have a quite different length, they should still be equally good as examples of Paul’s style.

    You will also notice that Bujard’s analysis shows substantial differences between the undisputed epistles. For example, consider the frequency of the infinitive. He shows it as 1.4% in Galatians, 3.3% in 1 Thessalonians, and 0.7% in Colossians. The difference between Galatians and 1 Thessalonians is greater than the difference between either of those two and Colossians. Should we then conclude that the same author did not write both Galatians and 1 Thessalonians? Or do any of these comparisons even reach statistical significance?

    When it comes to statistical analysis, quantity is not always the same as quality. A large number of results that are cherry-picked or that lack statistical significance do not add up to a compelling case. So I wouldn’t necessarily attach a whole lot of weight to the mere fact that Bujard applied so many tests.

    I am not necessarily disagreeing with his conclusion–for all I know, he successfully addressed all these concerns. But if his results are indeed to be pronounced “unanswerable,” it should only be after some well-trained statisticians take a close look at his work.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  September 3, 2013

      No, he like almost all of us Neutestamentlers, was not thoroughly grounded in modern statistics. He was also writing over 30 years ago, so that too should be taken into account. He did look at more than just the four epistles though; I was just giving a taste of the study. But a real hard core statistician would not find be satisfied with the statistical model. Others, of course, have done more since then.

      • Avatar
        Scott F  September 4, 2013

        In my own thesis defense, my adviser referred me to work with a professor with statistical expertise to make sure that my calculations were not pure bunk. I would think that this option would be open to Neutestamentlers as well.

  6. Avatar
    alas  September 3, 2013

    Thank you, this was interesting. I have read “Forged”, but appreciate this detailed argument regarding the authorship of this letter. Best regards from Norway.

  7. Avatar
    staib  September 3, 2013

    To be honest, I’m surprised the quantitative analyses aren’t more sophisticated. Aren’t people using more advanced algorithms (e.g. machine learning) these days?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  September 3, 2013

      Those trained in statistics are, I’m sure. But the problem is that to be persuasive, an argument has to make sense; and the vast majority of NT scholars cannot make sense of advanced algorithms!

  8. Avatar
    Rosekeister  September 3, 2013

    I have often read arguments that certain letters are not in Paul’s style usually citing words that are not used in the undisputed letters. It is interesting to see a more complete description of how this is decided and I think your readers would probably be interested in seeing the more scholarly argument or presentation from time to time when it is appropriate.

    It’s frustrating when English translations can’t be located. I believe you said most NT scholars learn German and French as wall as the ancient languages. Does some NT scholarship fall through the cracks because it is written in some othe language (Lithuanian?) or does German serve as the common language in Europe for NT research?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  September 3, 2013

      Most non-German, non-French, non-Italian, non-English scholars write in one of these dominant languages.

  9. Avatar
    robnapier  September 3, 2013

    When you said this was a more scholar-focused treatment, I was concerned that it would be unintelligible without a strong background in Biblical Greek or include a lot of technical theological or literary terms. But as someone with no background in Greek, I found it completely readable and informative. It’s generally trivial to infer what the Greek is saying from context, and I only found myself looking up one word (aorist, though its meaning was also obvious from context). I don’t see any reason you should avoid posts at this level. I’d like to have much more at this level in fact. But I’m certain there are all kinds if tastes among your readers.

  10. Avatar
    Scott F  September 3, 2013

    I for one enjoyed this. I am a bit surprised how much I have been getting out of these more technical clippings.

  11. Avatar
    Scott F  September 3, 2013

    I love what Bujard has done. It reminds me of the techniques I used in graduate school to to develop software that would group texts together based of specificity of vocabulary.

  12. Avatar
    Scott F  September 3, 2013

    Is there a counter argument to be made when defenders of Pauline authorship claim that Paul merely “changed his mind” whenever a contradiction is pointed out? Paul’s last know letter, Romans, should show evidence of Paul’s alleged theological development. If we see the same themes in Romans as we do in the other undisputed letters, than their argument loses most of its merit.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  September 3, 2013

      The idea is that an entire *set* of considerations have to be taken into account: writing style, vocabulary, meanings of words, theological views, presupposed historical context, and so on. No one of these would work, for precisely the reason you cite!

  13. Robertus
    Robertus  September 3, 2013

    To what extent do you think the deutero-Pauline forgeries reflect something like a recognized school or following of Paul that adapted the ideas of their founder to later circumstances? Perhaps something akin to what may have occurred with the writings of the earlier Jewish prophets being produced and preserved and augmented by later followers, eg, Isaiah, deutero-Isaiah, and perhaps even trito-Isaiah.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  September 3, 2013

      My sense is that *all* of the writers who forged works in the name of Paul thought they were representing what he would have said in their own, new, circumstances (even when different authors took the opposite stand on the same issues!). I don’t think there was *a* Pauline school though (or any schools for that matter; there were just churches!)

  14. gmatthews
    gmatthews  September 3, 2013

    From above you say: “Unlike Paul, this author understands redemption as the “forgiveness of sins” (1:14; as does Eph. 1:7).”

    As someone who was brought up Methodist and attended a private Christian school for many years it’s sometimes hard to separate what is taught in forged Pauline books from the rest of the NT. I was curious what the non-suspect books of Paul said about redemption without the taint of Colossians or Ephesians. When googling Paul’s thoughts on redemption virtually every blog I found clouds Paul’s statements by including bits of Ephesians and Colossians. What did Paul unequivocally say about redemption?

  15. cheito
    cheito  September 3, 2013

    1:13 the author insists that God (already) “has delivered us from the authority of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved son.” Already?

    I believe the statement above is true. This is the way I interpret it:

    To understand Colossians 1:13 clearly, one must understand first what the author has related in the verses preceding it. Colossians 1:10-12.

    Colossians 1:10-so that you will walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, to please Him in all respects, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; 11-strengthened with all power, according to His glorious might, for the attaining of all steadfastness and patience; joyously 12-giving thanks to the Father, WHO HAS QUALIFIED US TO SHARE in the inheritance of the saints in Light.

    I think what the author is saying in 1:13 is: That the result of God rescuing us from the domain of darkness and transferring us to the kingdom of His beloved Son, in whom we have REDEMPTION and the FORGIVENESS of sins, is that we are now able to please God in all respects and walk in manner worthy of Him.

    So Colossians 1:10-12 is possible BECAUSE God rescued us from the domain of darkness. It’s clear to me that this is the message that the the author is imparting to the Colossians.

    Further In Romans 6:8-12,14 Paul says the same thing differently. We have been freed from sin
    ( DOMAIN OF DARKNESS ) and the result is we are no longer SLAVES OF SIN ( REDEMPTION ). We are now qualified or empowered by God to live for righteousness.

    8-Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that WE SHALL ALSO LIVE WITH HIM,
    9-knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, is never to die again; death no longer is master over Him. 10-For the death that He died, He died to sin once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God. 11-Even so consider yourselves to be DEAD TO SIN, but ALIVE TO GOD in Christ Jesus.

    12-Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its lusts, 14-For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law but under grace.

    To sum-up these two authors are proclaiming the same message. And I believe these two authors to be the same person. In my opinion Paul wrote Colossians…

    NOTE: I will give my opinion on your other points in a separate comment.

  16. Avatar
    dikelmm  September 3, 2013

    Kind of like listening to a neurosurgeon describe a 10 hour surgery. I’m fine with “we went in and removed the tumor.”.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  September 3, 2013

      I hear you!

    • Avatar
      veryrarelystable  September 4, 2013

      I think we’re all different here. I really enjoyed the more technical article and I know others have. I think it would be best to offer something technical from time to time – not every article can please every reader to the same extent all the time.

  17. Avatar
    oatz01  September 3, 2013

    When I log in now I’m able to access the site’s SEO (search engine optimization) information. You might want to talk to your website manager about that. He or she will probably know what I mean and what to do.

  18. cheito
    cheito  September 3, 2013

    More striking still is 2:12-13, and 3:1, which insist that believers have already experienced a kind of spiritual resurrection after having died with Christ: “you were also raised (aorist) in him through faith” … God “made you alive with him” … “if then you have been raised up with Christ” – statements in clear tension with Paul’s emphatic statements elsewhere, such as Romans 6:1-6, where it is quite clear that, whereas those who have been baptized “have died” with Christ, they decidedly have not been “raised up” with him yet. This is an important point in Paul’s theology, not a subsidiary matter. The resurrection is something future, something that is yet to happen.

    After carefully reviewing the scriptures you quote above: Colossians 2:12-13, and 3:1 and Romans 6:1-6
    I clearly see that the death we are raised from here is: The death caused by our sin, for he says WE WERE DEAD in our TRANSGRESSIONS. The author here is not speaking about LITERAL DEATH but death to righteousness. And as for raising us up, in verse 13 the authors states that God made us alive together with Christ by forgiving us our transgressions and cancelling the debts against us. Again here the author is not speaking about THE RESURRECTION OF THE BODY but of a renewal and an opportunity to be regenerated in Christ now in the mortal body.
    As for Colossians 3:1 To interpret this verse in context one must also read 3:2-5.
    In 3:3 the author says we have died with Christ and our lives are hidden in Him. Have we literally died with Christ? And what about in 3:1 where the author states that we have been raised up with Christ. Is this verse to be taken literally? How have we died and how have we been raised according to these verses in Colossians 2:12-14 and 3:1? Colossians 3:1,5 puts everything in perspective. The author is admonishing us to consider ourselves DEAD to sin but alive with Christ which is the same thing Paul says in Romans 6:8-11
    Romans 6:8-11-Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that WE SHALL ALSO LIVE with Him, 9-KNOWING that Christ, having been raised from the dead, is never to die again; death no longer is master over Him. 10-For THE DEATH THAT HE DIED, He died to sin once for all; but THE LIFE THAT HE LIVES, He lives to God. 11-Even so CONSIDER YOURSELVES TO BE DEAD to sin, but ALIVE TO GOD in Christ Jesus.
    In conclusion the author of Colossians 2:12-14 and 3:1 is proclaiming the same exact message as the author of Romans 6:1-6. God has forgiven us in Christ and has caused us to become alive to righteousness and we have an opportunity to be transformed into the image of His Son if we continue to seek the things above where He is seated at the right hand of the power of God. Christ died to sin and now lives for God and we now must do the same by faith.
    As for the resurrection of the body and the glory that is attached to that event in the latter part of Colossians 3:3 the author writes that our lives are hidden in Christ and in 3:4 he states that when Christ who is our life is revealed we shall be revealed with Him in glory. this verse does allude to the resurrection of the body but it will happen when Christ is revealed and he makes that very clear.

    NOTE: I believe the author of Colossians is Paul.

    Colossians 2:12-14-having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead. 13-When you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, HE MADE YOU ALIVE TOGETHER WITH HIM, having forgiven us all our transgressions, 14-having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross.

    Colossians 3:1-5-Therefore if you have been raised up with Christ, keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2-Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth. 3-For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God. 4-When Christ, who is our life, is revealed, then you also will be revealed with Him in glory. 5-Therefore consider the members of your earthly body as dead to immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed, which amounts to idolatry.

    Romans 6:4-Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, SO WE TOO MAY WALK IN NEWNESS OF LIFE. 5-For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall also be in the likeness of His resurrection, 6-knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin; 7-for he who has died is freed from sin.

  19. Avatar
    fred  September 3, 2013

    Bart – Your summary of Bujard’s analysis gives the impression the matter is settled. Is this conclusion accepted by a near-majority of critical scholars? If there are dissenters, what objections do they raise?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  September 4, 2013

      One objection is that Colossians does indeed sound a lot like Paul, and that authors change their style on occasion. But most critical scholars continue to think it is not Pauline.

  20. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  September 4, 2013

    I have a much better understanding now of how scholars objectively measure literary style. Thanks.

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