(P46 was uncovered in Egypt. It is written in a Coptic manuscript hand. I have transcribed it here in Coptic unicode. To properly display the page, you must have NEW ATHENA UNICODE FONT (unicode v.4.05) installed. It can be downloaded HERE!)
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AND-ESPECIALLY | THE ONES OF CAESAR'S HOUSEHOLD | THE GR[ACE ]
PAUL | AN-APOSTLE | OF CHRIST JESUS
| THROUGH THE-W[ILL ]
|Chester Beatty Papyrus P46, generally dated by writing style between ad.150 & ad.250, with an earliest assessment of c.ad.80. This part of P46, the folio f90r, is at the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin. contains the last few verses of Paul's epistles to the Philippians, and the start of Paul's epistle to the Colossians, vss.1-2.
P46 was a book.
For the order of contents, go HERE.
(Note the use of Nomina sacra (overlined) in this early copy of the NT.)
Outside this letter, there is no explicit reference to the city of Colossae in the New Testament; and from the letter itself it is clear that Paul had never been there. The church had been founded by an assistant of Paul's named Epaphras, who appears to have been a native of the city; and, to the question when this took place, the most likely answer is provided by the account in Acts of Paul's stay at Ephesus. His work there 'went on for two years, with the result that the whole population of the province of Asia, both Jews and pagans, heard the word of the Lord' (19.10). Colossae, with Laodicea and Hierapolis, made up a group of three small cities some 100 miles inland from Ephesus, in the valley of the river Lycus. We know that Christian communities had taken root in all three of them (4.13), and the obvious time for this to have taken place is during Paul's activity at Ephesus.
From the last sentence of the letter it appears that Paul was writing from prison, and it has been traditionally assumed that the imprisonment referred to is that which Paul underwent while awaiting trial in Rome. As with Philippians, this cannot be regarded as certain; but in any case the question hardly affects the interpretation of the letter. Wherever Paul was, he had received a visit both from the original founder of the church (Epaphras), and from Onesimus, a runaway slave from Colossae, about whom Paul also wrote a letter to the slave's former master, Philemon. He was clearly in constant touch with this church, and had many personal acquaintances among its members (4.10-17). ft was as the result of fresh news brought by Epaphras that he felt the need to write this letter.
The trouble which had overtaken the Colossian church was not so much practical (as in Corinth) as doctrinal. The Christians in Colossae had been exposed to 'hollow and delusive speculations' (2.8) and the immediate purpose of the letter is to warn them of the dangers of such ideas and to strengthen their understanding of the true faith. It is probably in answer to these 'speculations' that Paul develops a conception of the nature and work of Christ which is on a grander scale, and has wider metaphysical implications, than any other passage in the New Testament. The only other writing which comes near to it is the letter to the Ephesians: but this has in other respects such remarkable similarities to Colossians that it seems necessary to assume that the one is in some way dependent on the other (on the relationship between the two letters, see above p. 618).
After the opening greeting,
The immediate subject for thanksgiving is the reputation of the church at Colossae: its members had shown clear evidence of possessing that same triad of Christian virtues—faith, hope and love(4, 5)—which appears in the great thirteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians. But the Colossian church was not alone. Its progress must be seen in the context of the world-wide spread of the gospel. And the preacher who first brought this gospel to Colossae on Paul's behalf (7)had now been able to report back to Paul the news of some tangible act of love (such as, perhaps, a contribution to the needs of the church at Jerusalem, which Paul had urged in all his churches) which fully entitled the Colossian church to an honourable place among the new churches of Christendom.
The prayer itself is very similar to that in Philippians (1.9-11). The religion of those speculative thinkers who had been troubling the church in Colossae was, apart from anything else, too theoretical; and Paul here insists that spiritual understanding (9), which was admittedly indispensable, must nevertheless go together with active goodness of every kind (10). Equally practical, doubtless, was the prayer for ample power (11), which means not so much fortitude of character as endowment with those exceptional powers which are the gift of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 12.10).
And then they were to give thanks (12); and the normal form which thanksgiving takes in worship and devotion is that of a recital of the gracious acts and attributes of God. Thus, the remarkable passage which follows is essentially a summary of the benefits given by God to men in the person and work of Christ. The sequence of short clauses, which are all grammatically bound together in a single movement of thanksgiving and praise, and show traces of deliberate symmetry and rhythmical pattern, dwells upon the paramountcy of Christ in the church and in the universe. But in the course of it the thought extends far wider than the usual range of New Testament conceptions of Christ, and opens up a cosmic perspective; and the language draws on the vocabulary both of Jewish and of Greek speculation to an extent otherwise unexampled in Paul. There are many possible reasons for this somewhat exceptional language: it may have been already adopted into the devotion of the church; it may be a conscious reaction against the speculations of the heretics; it may be an adaptation of originally non-Christian concepts to the needs of Christian theology; or it may be a combination of several of these. Equally, it may simply be the result of Paul searching for means to express something with more far-reaching metaphysical implications than he normally ventures upon. But whatever the explanation, the passage represents a significant advance in the direction of that kind of doctrine of Christ which was later worked out by the Christian Fathers.
To give thanks to the Father who has made you fit to share the heritage of God's people (12). This is the first of God's gracious acts for which thanks are to be offered, and it seems to spring from a wholly Jewish approach. If the Colossians were (as seems likely) mainly Gentiles, then one way of expressing the magnitude of God's graciousness would be to say that he had made available to them the heritage promised (and promised only) to his own people, the Jews. But if this is Paul's point of departure, he immediately changes direction by adding the words, in the realm of light. The exclusive Jewish conception of a world divided between the Jews (who have an assured prospect of future life) and the rest of mankind (who have no such prospect) is replaced by an impartial picture of the whole of mankind existing up to the present time in the domain of darkness (13), but now offered rescue through Christ. This is ordinary philosophical imagery. But the 'realm of light' is the kingdom of God's dear Son—which is the imagery of the Gospel; and the result of this rescue is expressed in terms more characteristic of traditional Jewish theology than of Paul's own thinking: release (14) (the same word as 'act of liberation' in Romans 3.24) and forgiveness of sins.
So far, the language used of Christ has kept well within the concept of a divine Redeemer who enters the world in order to "rescue" those who believe in him. But now the interest broadens. Christ is to be understood not only in the context of redemption but in that of creation; he is Lord, not only of his own followers, but of the whole universe.
He is the image of the invisible God (15). This is an unmistakable allusion is to Genesis: the first man was created "in God's image", and Christ is the perfect example of what all men were created to be. But the sentence implies more than this; for the moment one says invisible God, one is talking philosophy of religion, and the question arises, if God is invisible, how can he be known? Paul's answer is given elsewhere: he can be known in his creation. 'His invisible attributes ... have been visible ... to the eye of reason, in the things he has made' (Romans 1.20). And if such a philosophy of religion is now to be brought into harmony with faith in Christ, it will follow that Christ himself, if he is indeed God's image, must stand behind the created universe, either (like the figure of Wisdom in Jewish literature) because he is conceived of as having assisted at the moment of creation, or (like the divine rational principle believed by Stoic philosophers to underlie the visible world) because he is the key to understanding the universe—and either or both of these lines of thought are suggested here by the phrases 16 beginning in him ... through him ... for him ... (16) All of which is of is more than theoretical importance. It gives Christ the primacy (15)over all created things, and in particular over those beings which in popular belief occupied a sphere much superior to men (though inferior to God) and from 16 which indeed men must expect protection by any true saviour—thrones, sovereignties, authorities, and powers (16). (On these beings, see above on Ephesians 6.12.)
It is a little surprising, amid these tremendous conceptions, to find the 18 interest suddenly focused upon that comparatively small entity, the church (18); yet it is true that one aspect of Christ's supremacy over all things is his supremacy over his church. In 1 Corinthians 12 Paul describes the church as Christ's body, in order to express the unity of its individual members who perform different functions within the single Christ-filled organism. But here the same metaphor is used in a different way: Christ does not so much fill the church as preside over it, as the head presides over the body. The means by which he achieved this supremacy was the resurrection: having been the first to return from the dead (18), he is now the head of that community to which the same resurrection is promised and already in some measure imparted. But death, in Paul's thought, is sometimes personified as a cosmic power (1 Corinthians 15.26); and Christ's victory over death, by the resurrection, is again of cosmic significance. For the universe, despite its origin in the act of a single creator, is now a place of strife and alienation, not only on a human level, but also on the level of those superior powers already mentioned which are in rebellion against God; and the paradoxical conception is advanced that he in whom the complete being of God, by God's own choice, came to dwell (19), and who underlies and presides over the whole created universe, is also, through his sacrificial death, an instrument of reconciliation between God and the warring elements in creation.
Formerly you were yourselves estranged from God (21). The Colossians themselves (or is the language intended to embrace all who have been converted ?) were objects of the same great act of reconciliation. They (like all non-Jews in Jewish eyes, like all mankind in Paul's eyes) were formerly God's enemies; and the reconciliation, even if it has a cosmic dimension, has the immediate consequence for them that at the imminent Last Day, instead of being inevitably condemned for their evil deeds, they will now, by virtue of
Christ's self-sacrifice, be "presented" before God with the same innocence and perfection as marked the divine victim himself. Only you must continue (23)—and, as usual after any reference to the imminent end, the necessary inference is drawn (see above on Romans 13.12): continue ... firm.
The thanksgiving, with its recital of the gracious acts of God, has touched upon immense concepts. A transition is now made to the more personal prayers and aspirations of Paul and his churches. The Gospel is already (in a sense) world-wide. One part of its fruit is the Colossian church, one agent of its growth is Paul. All this is a sign that God's purpose is advancing: the end is not far off. But, before the end can come, certain things must happen. In particular (so the Jews commonly believed, and so Jesus appears to have taught) there are afflictions which have to be endured (24)—not indefinitely, but until the ordained quota of afflictions has been exhausted. This is the meaning of Paul's own sufferings: they are part of that quota of sufferings which the church must bear before the end can come, and which it is privileged to bear in fellowship with Christ (Philippians 3.10). Since (Paul believed) this quota is fixed, it follows that the more he suffers himself the less others will have to suffer. In this sense, he suffers for the sake of ... the church. So: it is now my happiness to suffer for you ... to complete, in my poor human flesh, the full tale of Christ's afflictions still to be endured.
This is an incidental consequence of Paul's mission. His real task, assigned to him by God (for the divine origin of his commission is one of the things Paul is most certain of) can be expressed thus: to announce the secret (26). The Greek word is mysterion, literally "mystery"; but it is used in a distinctive sense. To a Greek thinker, the things of God were indeed a "secret", and could be plumbed only by a sustained course of speculative enquiry, perhaps accompanied by certain rites of religious initiation. The secret was thus destined always to remain secret, accessible only to those who had received the necessary instruction and initiation (and Paul is perhaps playing on this idea when he uses the almost technical word mature in verse 28—see above on Philippians 3.8-16). But the God of the Old Testament was never "secret" in this sense. He revealed himself in a multitude of ways, and if men failed to understand, it was not because of their lack of sophisticated religious knowledge, but because of their blindness, or their hardness of heart. When, therefore, towards the end of the Old Testament period, the word mysterion was taken into the Jewish religious vocabulary, it acquired a new meaning. There were indeed things about God which were "secret", but these were not attributes of his nature known only to the initiated: they were stages in his purpose for the world which had not yet been revealed. An inspired visionary might occasionally be given a glimpse of this purpose; but in principle it remained .secret until such time as it would he God's pleasure to disclose it. It was something hidden for long ages and through many
generations (26); but (unlike the Greek idea of a mysterion) it was not intended always to remain hidden from all except a few initiates: it was now—and this is the Gospel—disclosed to God's people, to whom it was his will to make it known (27). And the particular aspect of this secret which is stressed here is that God's purpose (against all expectations from the Jewish side) was working itself out among all nations, and that even of a non-Jewish community such as the church at Colossae it could be said: Christ in you, the hope of a glory to come.
Thus Paul's prayer for the Colossians comes to this: that they may grasp God's secret. That secret is Christ himself (2), and if they know Christ, they need have no anxiety to explore other avenues of knowledge besides; for in him lie hidden all God's treasures of wisdom and knowledge (3). This needed to be said; for clearly the Colossian church was in danger of being talked into error by specious arguments (4). What these arguments were will have to be inferred from the paragraphs which follow, when counter-arguments are advanced. Meanwhile Paul assures the church at Colossae—and the nearby church at Laodicea—of his lively concern for their welfare. If the local agitators had been suggesting that Paul's teaching could be disregarded since it came from a man who had no real connection with the churches concerned, Paul was ready to reply that, on the contrary, he knew all about them: I am with you in spirit. (5)
Two indications of the heretics' teaching can be gleaned from the following section.
First: it was based on traditions of man-made teaching (8). The Christian faith itself was based on a "tradition", which consisted principally of the essential truths about Jesus (Jesus was delivered to you as Christ and Lord (6)), but also included a new interpretation of Scripture in the light of Christ. The heretics, however, even if they accepted this tradition, seem not to have understood its importance. Whatever the precise meaning of the phrase, the elemental spirits of the universe (see above on Galatians 4.3), it clearly belonged to the vocabulary of a speculative type of religion far removed from Christianity; and it is a reasonable guess that Paul's opponents, even if they did interpret Scripture in the light of Christ, nevertheless used their interpretation as material for constructing a system in which Christ held only a secondary place. In reply, Paul recapitulates the great affirmations of chapter 1. It is in Christ that the complete being of the Godhead dwells embodied (9). Precisely what is meant by embodied here is a theological puzzle, but the intention of the phrase is clear: there is nothing in heaven or earth with a power or an importance equal to Christ's. Any true tradition must therefore be centred ... on Christ (8).
Secondly: we seem once again (as in Philippians 3.3) to overhear the slogans of Jewish anti-Christian propaganda. "You have not even been
circumcised," this propaganda seems to have run, "therefore you cannot have a share in the world to come"; to which the Christian reply was, "We have indeed been circumcised, but not in a physical sense" (11). The Christian equivalent—Christ's way of circumcision—was baptism, and Paul could apparently take for granted the analysis of baptism which he develops in detail in Romans 6: it involved being divested of the lower nature, being buried with Christ, and so raised to life with him (12). The Colossian Christians, being Gentiles, had formerly been even further from salvation than the Jews; they were "dead", not merely because of their sins (13), but because they were uncircumcised (Paul seems prepared to concede this to his Jewish opponents).
What had these two tendencies, one towards religious and philosophical speculation, the other towards Jewish propaganda, to do with each other? On the face of it, very little. But almost at once the same combination occurs again. Allow no one therefore to take you to task ... (16) The Colossian Christians were being molested by those who insisted on the observance of Jewish food-lawsand festivals, which were no more than a shadowy anticipation of Christian institutions; these molesting persons seem then to have been Jews. Yet in the very next sentence we hear of people who go in for self-mortification and angel-worship, and try to enter into some vision of their own (18). These latter people could hardly have been Jews in the orthodox sense. The Jews did not normally think of their regulations as self-mortification, and although of course they believed in angels, strict Jewish circles looked with disfavour on anything approaching angel-worship. Again, in verse 20, Paul refers a second time to the elemental spirits of the universe, and then goes on immediately to talk about orthodox rules of ritual purity. Since, three times over, the language of Jewish ordinances and the language of speculative religion are brought so closely together, it seems necessary to conclude that Paul's opponents were people who were interested in both. How could this have been so? It is time to draw together the scattered clues which the letter affords as to the identity and beliefs of these heretics.
It is evident, in the first place, that they were intellectuals: Paul has to warn the Colossians against their 'specious arguments' and 'delusive speculations'. The objects of their thinking were such things as' the elemental spirits of the world'; and the importance they attached to supernatural beings of one kind or another can be seen from the fact that, to answer them, Paul had to insist again and again on the supremacy of Christ in the universe, his victory over the 'cosmic powers', and his central position in the whole pattern of creation. Clearly, his opponents were much preoccupied with those powers and influences which (it was widely believed) inhabit the regions between heaven and earth and exercise a demonic influence over the lives and destinies of men; and among these beings they assigned to Christ a subordinate place.
We know what this kind of speculation led to from the systems of the so-called "gnostic" thinkers, who arranged all these beings, along with a series of philosophical abstractions, in a kind of ascending hierarchy, and accounted for the origin of this hierarchy by means of an elaborate mythology. Christ and the Creator usually held a place, but by no means the highest place, in the hierarchy. Salvation was held to consist in an ascending scale of knowledge (gnosis) by which the soul could be released from subjection to the forces operative at the lower end of the hierarchy and rise to the freedom of the superior beings.
Our evidence for the existence of speculative systems of this kind is all at least a century later than the writing of this letter. How much of this type of thinking had already developed in Paul's time we do not know; but that the speculations of his opponents ran on somewhat similar lines is in itself quite likely. And if it is asked where such thinkers found the materials for their speculative constructions, the answer is (of course): all over the place—in science, in astrology, in philosophy, in religion. In particular, they were interested in the Jewish scriptures, which furnished them with many figures and events which could be incorporated in their mythology. How did they get to know these scriptures ? One way was to hear them read in the synagogue. And they could only hear them read in the synagogue if they were either Jews themselves, or else Gentiles whom the Jews permitted to attend the synagogue in return for observing certain Jewish regulations such as those relating to sabbaths and festivals. This, apart from any interest they may have had themselves in ascetic practices and self-mortification (18), would explain their concern for the observance of festival, new moon, or sabbath (16).
If this is correct, it is possible to gain a clearer picture of the troublemakers at Colossae, and to understand why Paul had to warn the Colossians not only against such speculations but also against the observance of Jewish ordinances. His opponents, taking advantage of his failure to visit Colossae and of his alleged lack of interest in the churches of that area, had been trying to use the Gospel of Jesus Christ as just one element in a larger speculative system of their own, and had been encouraging the Christians there to make such gestures of conformity with the demands of the Jewish law as would entitle them to attend the synagogue regularly, and so to acquire a deeper knowledge of the Old Testament and of traditional Jewish interpretations of it. The mistake here (Paul replies) is twofold. First: such people, bursting with the futile conceit of worldly minds, lose hold upon the Head (18). Paul's conception of the church as Christ's body is rich in applications. In 1 Corinthians 12 it explains how a variety of people with a variety of gifts can create a harmonious and unified society; in 1.18 above it explains the relationship of the Christian community to him who is also supreme over all created things; and here it suggests that belonging to the church, as to a living and growing organism, is an actual source of power and knowledge, making superfluous all the speculative efforts of the heretics.
The second mistake is that of attaching any importance to ritual ordinances about handling, tasting and touching. The appeal here may be to a saying of Jesus: 'Do you not see that nothing that goes from outside into a man can defile him, because it does not enter into his heart but into his stomach, and so passes out into the drain?'; on which Mark comments, 'Thus he declared all foods clean' (Mark 7.18-19). The words Paul uses are different; but the phrase, things that must perish as soon as they are used (22), makes the same point, and the verse of Isaiah (29.13, following the Greek version of the Septuagint), to which he alludes with the words merely human injunctions and teaching, is also quoted in the same context in Mark (7.8). At any rate, Paul seems (though the Greek is obscure at this point) to be rejecting these ordinances for much the same reason as Jesus does. He admits that such practices have a certain spurious air of usefulness. But in reality they are of no use at all in combating sensuality (23).
With that, Paul moves away from the complex topics into which the heretics have drawn him, and allows the rest of the letter to take the form of a straightforward sermon on moral behaviour. The link with what goes before is baptism. In baptism, Christians died and were raised to life with Christ (3, 1); they have discarded (9) (the same almost technical Greek word as 'being divested' in 2.11) the old nature ... and have put on the new nature, and this moment in their lives (as Paul is careful to insist when he gives the matter full treatment in Romans 6) lays moral duties upon them to which, in view of ordinary human weakness, Christian preachers have to return again and again.
Aspire to the realm above (1). This is the age-old religious picture of a higher and lower "world", and of man free to choose between them. But here it is crossed with a distinctively Jewish or Christian conception. The Jews (and the Christians after them) tended to think not in spatial terms (higher and lower) but in temporal terms (the present age, the age to come). For Christians, the "age to come" has already dawned (which could also be expressed by saying, they already have access to the realm above); but it is not yet fully present and visible. Therefore the new life they already possess by their baptism is still hidden (2). Its full manifestation must await the time when Christ, who is our life, is manifested (4).
Nevertheless, "higher" and "lower" are convenient moral terms; and some kinds of behaviour so obviously belong to the earth (5) that there is no need to explain why, because of them, God's dreadful judgement is impending (6). The lists of virtues and vices which appear in Paul's letters are usually fairly conventional, and the fact that here they occur in regular groups of five is perhaps a further sign that he is making use of a stereotyped form of moral exhortation. Yet, in what he says on the positive side, there is a distinctive Christian ring, and a frequent appeal to the example and challenge of Christ. In Christ, the image of the Creator (10) has taken on a new and vivid meaning; baptism not only brings moral regeneration, but also (as the great argument in Galatians 3 labours to prove) breaks down the old divisions between men, whether of race (Greek and Jew, circumcised and un-circumcised (11)), education (barbarian means without Greek culture, Scythian is typical of the totally illiterate), or social rank (slave and freeman); and love has an obvious and acknowledged supremacy in the Christian life.
Just as there were commonly accepted lists of virtues and vices in the ancient world, so (it seems) there was a widely recognized code of behaviour to be observed between different classes of people in the home—wives and husbands, fathers and children, masters and slaves. Christian writers made use of this, sometimes simply endorsing it (that is your Christian duty ... the Christian way (18)), sometimes working some specifically Christian teaching into it. In Ephesians, the section on husbands and wives is elaborated to reveal a new conception of the relationship (5.22-33); here, as in 1 Peter 3, it is the relationship of masters and slaves which is placed in a distinctively Christian light. Christ is the Master whose slaves you must be (24)—and the implications of this for slaves are developed more fully in 1 Corinthians 7.21-4. Here,
the more conventional point is made that, since both masters and slaves have a Master in heaven, neither can use their position as a pretext for dishonest behaviour.
The way to the oxymoron, make the secret plain (4), has been prepared by what was said about this peculiar "secret" above. Paul, now in prison, needs the prayers of his fellow-Christians, not just for survival, but for using every opportunity of turning his predicament to good (how this can happen is described in Philippians 1.12-18). Four disconnected sentences of exhortation follow, which again (as at the end of Galatians, 6.7-10) have a somewhat conventional sound.
Of the people with whom Paul was in touch while in prison, two, Tychicus (7) and Aristarchus, had been his companions on his last journey from Greece to Palestine (Acts 20.4). Another, Onesimus (9), was a runaway slave, and is the subject of the Letter to Philemon. Mark (10) appears to have been reconciled with Paul after the dispute recorded in Acts 15.37-9. Jesus Justus (10) is otherwise unknown: like Paul (Saul), he had both a Jewish name (Jesus) and a Roman name (Justus). Epaphras has already been mentioned (1.7). He seems to have been the first to bring the Gospel to Colossae, and to have had somewhat the same kind of relationship with the church there (and with the neighbouring churches of Laodicea and Hierapolis) as Paul had with his own churches. Luke, the doctor (14), is the Luke to whom the third gospel and Acts are traditionally ascribed. Demas is otherwise unknown. Nympha (15), which in Greek is a feminine name, is indistinguishable in some of its cases from the masculine name Nymphas, and there is consequently some uncertainty in the manuscripts about this person's sex. She (or he) was evidently a well-to-do person with a house large enough to accommodate the meetings of the congregation. The following sentence indicates that some of Paul's letters were intended to be used to some extent as circular letters. Archippus (17) was a common name, and we know nothing about this person, nor the duty entrusted to him.
On greetings in Paul's own hand (18), see above on Galatians 6.11.