Did Paul write Colossians? Asking and answering questions like this every now and then is useful on the blog to shift gears away from explaining at a more popular level what scholars have come to think –  to showing how scholars make their arguments to one *another*.  I don’t want to do this a lot, but it seems that it can be helpful at times, just so blog readers can get a bit of a sense.

Right now I’m in them middle of a thread on whether the author of Luke was really “Luke the gentile physician,” one of Paul’s traveling companions.  The only reason for thinking such a person even existed (a gentile doctor named Luke) is that he is mentioned by Paul in Colossians.

In my previous post I explained why the majority of critical scholars don’t think Paul actually wrote Colossians (so that the historical Paul does *not* mention this person). The post was written for a general audience, and a number of people raised questions about it.  So here is how I provide the evidence for fellow scholars in my book Forgery and Counterforgeryjust so you can see.

It’s not HUGELY complicated.  We’re not talking astrophysics here.   But as you’ll see, it does get ratcheted up a notch.  The second half is less technical.  This kind of thing may not be to your taste; but in any case, it is!

Did Paul Write Colossians? The Role of Forgery

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.

Did Paul Write Colossians


Paul, Colossians & Conjunctions 

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.

As a Fazit to part one, Bujard adds up conjunctions of all kind and indicates the percentage of their occurrence in relation to all words used: Galatians 239 (10.7%); Philippians 138 (8.5%); 1 Thessalonians 126 (8.5%); Philemon 28 (8.4%), but Colossians only 63 (4%).  The average in all the undisputed letters is 10.4%; in Col. it is 4%.

Bujard then uses a different metric, adding up all the different conjunctions used in the Pauline letters: Galatians: 33; Philippians: 31; 1 Thessalonians:  31; but Colossians only 21.  But he goes further, subtracting from these totals the conjunctions that occur in all the letters in question (the shorter epistles: Galatians; Philippians; 1 Thessalonians ; 2 Thessalonians; Philemon; Colossians; and Ephesians ), since these are simply common words, not words necessarily distinctive of Paul.

One is then left with the following numbers Galatians 24; Philippians 22; 1 Thessalonians 22; but Colossians only 12.  He then goes a step farther, subtracting those that occur in all but one of the letters in question (these are distinctive of Paul, not just common words).  And the results remain consistent, if not more graphic: Galatians: 20; Philippians: 18; 1 Thessalonians: 18; but Colossians only 8.

The Findings Involving Other Parts of Speech: Did Paul Write Colossians

The findings involving conjunctions match those using other parts of speech.  Bujard looks, for example, at the use of the infinitive.  In Galatians the infinitive occurs 32 times (1.4% of all words); Philippians 39 (2.4 %); 1 Thessalonians 48 (3.3%); but in Colossians only 11 (0.7%).   The articular infinitive is used in Galatians 5 times; Philippians 16; 1 Thessalonians 13; but in Colossians never.

The same (or rather the inverse) results obtain with reference to the use of relative clauses.  In Romans they make up 1.4% of all the words of the book; 1 Corinthians 0.9%; 2 Corinthians 1.0%; Galatians 1.5%; Philippians 1.5%; 1 Thessalonians 0.3%; Philemon 1.4%; but Colossians 2.6%.

Bujard goes on like this for a very long time, page after page, statistic after statistic.  What is striking is that all these features point the same way.  When one adds to these the other commonly noted (though related) features of the style of Colossians — the long complex sentences, the piling up of genitives, the sequences of similar sounding words, and so on – the conclusion can scarcely be denied.  This book is not written in Paul’s style.

Content of Colossians

Arguments based on style are strongly supported by considerations of content.  In several striking and significant ways the teaching of Colossians differs from the undisputed letters.  Most commonly noted is the eschatological view, to which we will return later in our discussion.

In 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?  An aorist tense?  Is this Paul?  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.  So too Philippians 3:11 – “if somehow I might obtain to the resurrection from the dead.”  And yet more emphatically in 1 Corinthians 15: “in Christ all shall be made alive … we shall all be changed … the dead will be raised.”

One can easily argue that this is one of the – if not the single – key to understanding Paul’s opposition to the Corinthian enthusiasts.  They believed they were leading some kind of spiritual, resurrected existence, and Paul insisted that it had not yet happened.  They may have died with Christ, but they had not yet been raised with him.  That will come only at the end.

What Does the Author of Colossians Think?

Believers have not only died with Christ but they have also been raised with him.  They are already leading a kind of glorious existence in the present.  This is the view Paul argues against in Corinth.  Maybe he changed his mind.  But given the stylistic differences – and the other matters of content to be discussed – it seems unlikely.  Colossians is written by someone who has taken a twist on a Pauline theme, moving it precisely in the direction Paul refused to go.

There are other theological differences from Paul, frequently noted, all of them pointing in the same direction.  A later author has taken up Pauline themes and shifted them in decidedly non-Pauline ways.  Unlike Paul, this author understands redemption as the “forgiveness of sins” (1:14; as does Eph. 1:7).  The phrase occurs nowhere else in the Pauline corpus; indeed, the term ἀφίημι itself, in the sense of “forgive sins,” is absent from Paul, except in the quotation of Ps. 32:1 in Rom. 4:7 (“Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven”).  So too, analogously, with a different term, 2:13 speaks of trespasses being forgiven: χαρισάμενος ἡμῖν πάντα τὰ παραπτώματα.  Χαρίζομαι is never used this way in the undisputed Paulines.   So too 3:13 speaks of “forgiving one another just as the Lord has forgiven you,” using  χαρίζομαι  again.

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