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Creation in the Letter to the Colossians

The letter to the Colossians offers arguments to prevent its readers from being led astray by those who are teaching them “philosophy and empty deceit” (2:8). At the core of these teachings, it would appear, “the elements of the world” play a central role. This lets us know that what is at stake is how to see ourselves within creation. The “elements of the world” are the philosophically abstracted elements which constitute the basis of all created things. The Greeks had identified four, or maybe five, elements: earth, water, air, fire, and maybe ether. Knowledge of the way in which the powers of the air, “the principalities and powers” (2:10, 15), controlled the elements was necessary to ascend through the spheres and participate in the liturgy with angels, entering into and seeing the invisible (2:18).

Even if it has been quite difficult to define with precision the teachings of those who were confusing the Colossians, most scholars would agree with my very general description. Also involved were ascetic practices that facilitated traveling in the heavenly spheres, seeing divine vistas and participating in angelic liturgies. In other words, these teachers were satisfying the desire to reach the perfection required of those who ascend to the heavenly regions. According to them, obeying the rules “do not handle, do not taste, do not even touch” certain things, and voluntarily treating severely one’s body (2: 22-23) made it possible to reach the desired perfection.

In this letter these rules and practices are described as “human precepts and doctrines” (2:22) “according to the elements of the world and not according to Christ” (2:8). We may surmise that this was a religious syncretism that Christianized Gnostic traditions of the Hellenistic world. Since, apparently, these teachers did not base their doctrines on Torah, in the whole of Colossians there is no reference to Torah. In this way Colossians is very different from Galatians, where Paul combats doctrines based on the “elements of the world” with arguments based on the purpose and the function of Torah.

In Colossians the basic text is a Christian hymn already well known by the first readers of the letter. This hymn, in its original form may have been something like this:

He is the image of the invisible God,
The first born of every creature.
By Him were all things created.
He is the Head of the Body.

He is the Beginning,
The first born of the dead.
By Him were all things reconciled.
In Him the Pleroma is pleased to dwell. (1:15-20)

While citing the hymn Paul adds annotations that expand or explain what is said. All the things created include celestial and terrestrial, visible and invisible things. The thrones, dominions, principalities and powers of the air were created by Him and for Him. He is before them all and the one who sustains their existence. The last line of the first stanza is explained as a reference to the church, not the universe as the hymn’s context implies.

In the second stanza the hymn uses “the beginning” as an already well known theological term. Then it is explained that as a consequence of His being the first born of the dead by His eschatological resurrection Christ is already preeminent above all things. Finally, it is asserted that the reconciliation of all things created, including the powers of the air, was accomplished by His death on the cross. The reconciliation has its most effective consequence in the peace that obtains between jews and gentiles, so that the obviously gentile Colossians who used to be “strangers and enemies” are now also at peace within the body of the church.

The hymn that served as basic text exalts Christ as creator and reconciler of the universe. Its theme is cosmic. It begins declaring Christ to be the Image of the invisible God that gave personality to Adam and the One who created all things. A similar declaration is made in the Gospel of John, only that instead of referring to the Image it refers to the Logos (thought, word, discourse, reason) as the agent used by God to create the world, in this way elaborating on the idea expressed by Psalm 33: 6, “By the Word of the Lord were the heavens made.”

The hymn ends characterizing Christ as the Fullness. The original word, Pleroma, expresses what the philosophers conceived as the Totality of all that exists (including God). Here it is said that the Pleroma is pleased to dwell in the Risen Christ. I cannot think of a better of way of saying that Christ is a cosmic being. Paul, however, thinks it necessary to make sure that everyone understands what he is saying. Fearful that the Colossians would adopt the teachings of those who explain creation in terms of the elements of the world (thinking that by doing so they will gain access to perfection and the ability to travel in the heavenly spheres) Paul elaborates “because in Him the Pleroma of divinity dwells bodily, and in Him you have been perfected, Who is the Head of all principalities and powers” (2: 9-10).

This is an extraordinary declaration. Without a doubt it is grounded on a Hebraic understanding of the unity of the person. At the same time, however, it understands that the universe is like an individual with a body and a soul. This way of seeing the universe, the Pleroma, was already well known in the first century and is very well documented in the writings of Philo of Alexandria. Both of these notions allow for the understanding of the Pleroma as a unit that includes the God of the universe. The physical reality of the universe is the body of the Divinity. Also made clear is that the principalities and powers of the air, which are integral elements of the body, are under the control of the Head of the universal body, the Risen Christ. This could be taken as an ancient expression of modern panentheism.

In other words, while in the original universe there were strangers and enemies, by the death and the resurrection of Christ all enmity has been reconciled and now peace reigns within the universal body. Christ is the Head that controls the Pleroma. This is quite different from what Paul says in 1 Cor. 15, or what is said by John the Theologian in Revelation. The most surprising thing in Colossians, however, is how circumcision is used as the central metaphor in an argument for Christ’s superiority as a ruler over the principalities and powers of the air and their “elements”, as well as an agent of perfection.

Circumcision here is not primarily an initiation rite, but what makes for a perfection of the body. The uncircumcised body is not perfect. Here the death and the resurrection of Christ was the circumcision of the body of the Pleroma. As a consequence, the Pleroma, the cosmic Christ, is perfectly satisfied. In other words, the body in which the Pleroma is pleased to dwell was circumcised without hands in the cross. The disposal of the carnal body of Christ at the cross is the disposal of the foreskin of the Pleroma. At baptism Christians participate in the circumcision of Christ made without hands (2:11-15), and in this way are made perfect. Baptized Christians dispose of their old anthropos and put on a new being which renews their “knowledge according to the Image of their creator” (3: 9-10). Their creator, we were told, is The Image of the Invisible God. The circumcision of Christ disposes of their old being and gives them a new way of seeing (have knowledge of) all things in the Pleroma.

Seeing creation as a body that is perfected by circumcision, and seeing baptism as the circumcision that perfects Christians by the disposal of their old being, is unique and worthy of due recognition. After all, to do theology is to find the metaphors and the analogies that give shape to faith. The theology of Colossians is absolutely original and daring, grounded in basic Jewish concepts that have been significantly Christianized.

Something similar to what is done with circumcision is also done with the Sabbath. We note that the Sabbath is mentioned as part of a calendric string used frequently by the prophets in their efforts to exhort the people to observe the feasts. “A festival, or a new moon, or a Sabbath” go together often in the prophetic literature. The intention is to recall the need to live in tune with the religious calendar.

Apparently, the Colossians observed rules having to do with foods, drinks, matters of feast days, new moons and Sabbaths. Those teaching according to the elements of the world had their own rules, which Paul ridicules as “do not handle, do not taste, do not even touch” things that “perish as they are used” (2: 22). Paul’s advice is that Christians should not let anyone condemn them for their observances on questions of food and Sabbaths (2: 16).

What is important here is the justification for this advice. Feast days, new moons and Sabbaths are “a shadow of what is to come” (2: 17). The context tells us that the reference is not something that had already come when this text was written. The Colossians have already been told that the death and the resurrection of Christ is the eschatological event that has perfected the Pleroma and provides the means for the perfection of Christians. Still, the letter also says that something very significant is ahead. The mystery that has been hidden and has now been revealed to the saints is “Christ in you the hope of glory” (1:27). The hope of what is to come is that “when Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory” (3: 4).

This letter argues that observances in questions of foods or Sabbaths on the part of Christians are not due to their origin in the past or the authority of the law that required them. They are due to their being “a shadow of what is to come.” As in Romans the significance of Adam is to have been a type, or a figure, of the celestial Adam to come, in Colossians the significance of the Sabbath is to be a shadow of what is to come, a shadow of the glorification of the believers when Christ appears in glory. Here there is no derogatory intent, or a denial of reality in the reference to a shadow. The reference is not based on Plato’ famous parable, where reality is outside and those inside the cave live deceived thinking they are witnesses to reality when they are only seeing shadows. Here the shadow is the anticipation of the reality that projects it, and is about to appear when it turns the corner. Sabbaths, new moons, feast days, rules about foods and drinks are defended as anticipations of the Parousia. If one were to extend the metaphor, one could say that once it turns the corner and the body projecting its shadow is in full view, the shadow does not cease to be real, or to enhance the reality. (For further elaboration on this point, see the chapter on Colossians in A Day of Gladness, The Sabbath Among Jews and Christians in Antiquity, University of South Carolina Press, 2003.)

In Colossians the three distinguishing markers of the frontier between jews and gentiles, food laws, Sabbaths, and circumcision are used positively and very creatively to explain the new situation in which human beings find themselves within creation on account of the death, resurrection and soon glorious appearing of He Who is the Image of the Invisible God, the First Born of Every Creature, the Head of the Body, the Beginning, the First Born of the Dead, the Body in which the Pleroma of Divinity is pleased to dwell. Here creation functions as the bodily manifestation of the Pleroma that Christ created, perfected and reconciled, bringing peace to the universe by the cross. In this way the distinguishing markers of Judaism have been radically Christianized.

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