The city of Colossae
Colossians and Philemon
1. The believers with Paul
2. The believers at Colossae
Colossians, Philemon and Ephesians
The establishing of the church at Colossae
When and where was Colossians written?
The occasion for the letter’s writing along with the context of what was transpiring around Paul when it was being composed seems, to me, to be impossible to decide upon - indeed, I believe that, although the commentator would do well to try and understand the context of what’s being written, the scarcity of information on the subject precludes anything genuinely useful from being recorded.
But these are matters which the scholarly world take great delight in researching into and reporting on. Personally, I decided at the outset to attempt to give the reader what background to the letter that I thought was both certain and probable and leave my commission there without further development.
Even when one comes to the internal evidence, it’s impossible to be certain about a great many things - for instance, is Paul’s discussion about philosophy (Col 2:8ff) meant to be a reflection of the trials through which the church was then going? Or is it something that he’d heard was a major bone of contention from Epaphras (Col 1:7-8)? Or, even, was it a general part of Paul’s teaching that he was led into by the way he was dictating his letter? The choices certainly seem to be both endless and impossible to determine with absoluteness.
We could just as well state that Paul (and there are many who dispute even Paul’s authorship) wrote Colossians so as not to pass by the opportunity to minister into the church’s life when he knew that Tychicus was to be sent with his letter to Philemon as we could say that there was a recognised danger in the fellowship and that the note to Philemon was included to sort out a ‘minor’ personal conflict.
Most commentators would see Philemon as an attachment - that is, an opportunity to write a note which arose out of the delivery of an important letter that needed to be written to the church at Colossae, rather than as a subject of primary importance which prompted him to write a letter of secondary importance to the local church.
However, with Epaphras (Col 1:7, 4:12) and Onesimus (Col 4:9) present with Paul from Colossae, they may have begged him to turn his attention to their home city to minister to it by letter.
But statements as to Paul’s intention are impossible to determine here, even though this hasn’t forbidden attempts by many.
In this introduction - as previously stated - I intend giving the reader some background to the city to which the letter was being sent in the context of the advance of the Gospel of the Kingdom in the first century, but also to attempt to record some observations which are fairly certain or, at worst, possible and interesting.
The city of Colossae
I’ll deal with the infiltration of Jews into this area in a future article when I deal with the establishing of the church in this city and then go on to attempt to give some information as to the numbers of Jews present in the surrounding region at the time of the writing of the letter. Here, I’ll attempt to give some general historical information concerning the importance of the city down through ancient times until the middle of the first century AD.
Colossae was a major city in ancient times, situated on the southern bank of the Lycus river in the region of Phrygia (the necropolis has been positively identified as lying on the northern bank of the Lycus) and lay in a fertile valley which produced an abundant supply of crops for the inhabitants. Colbrien identifies the wool industry as being the major source of income but this appears to be mentioned only at the beginning of the first century and whether it was the industry which gave it its wealth is uncertain.
Although the site was positively identified in 1835 by W J Hamilton, it’s never been excavated in the lifetime of the commentaries I possess (whether excavations have begun here in the last ten years or so, I don’t know) but the site has been heavily robbed of its stone to build local structures down through the ages after its abandonment somewhere during the eighth century AD. Even so, coins have been found here along with evidence of a theatre.
The city is first recorded in the pages of history during the fifth century BC in Herodotus (History 7.30) where the author notes that king Xerxes
‘...passing Anaua, a Phrygian city, and a lake from which salt is gathered, he came to Colossae, a Phrygian city of great size, situated at a spot where the river Lycus plunges into a chasm and disappears. This river, after running under ground a distance of about five furlongs, reappears once more, and empties itself, like the stream above mentioned, into the Maeander’
The only information here is that Colossae was ‘a great city’ but something of its importance and wealth can be seen in the next historical reference in Xenophon (Anabasis 1.2.6) which Colbrien dates to the fourth century BC and which refers to Cyrus the younger who marched from Sardis in the west. Crossing the Maeander (some commentators spell the river’s name as ‘Meander’ showing the winding nature of the river by their transliteration - the source of our own word ‘meander’) via a bridge which appears to have been simply seven boats joined together
‘...he marched through Phrygia one stage, a distance of eight parasangs, to Colossae, an inhabited city, prosperous and large. There he remained seven days; and Menon the Thessalian arrived, with a thousand hoplites and five hundred peltasts, consisting of Dolopians, Aenianians and Olynthians’
Quite obviously, for a city to be able to sustain an army for a period of seven days, it must have had sufficient resources, and the definition of the city as being ‘prosperous and large’ is clearly defined by Xenophon’s detail about the length of stay.
With the founding of Laodicea (see my notes on this city in my ‘Seven Churches’ studies where I’ve also dealt with Colossae and its relationship to the more major city of the first century) somewhere between 261-253BC (though it was formerly a village which went, perhaps, by a different name), the city of Colossae began to decline so that Strabo (66BC-24AD), writing at the beginning of the first century AD, could say of the region (Geography 12.8.13) that
‘...Apameia Cibotus and Laodicea [are] the largest cities in Phrygia. Around them lie the towns [and places]...Colossae...’
Colbrien interprets the Greek word from which ‘towns’ comes as meaning ‘small towns’ and, even though it would be wrong to think of Colossae as merely a backwater, that it’s compared with Laodicea some ten miles further down the Lycus Valley shows that it was ranked second. Colbruce is adamant that Strabo’s text at this point may mean less than it’s generally accepted to infer and all we can be certain about is that Laodicea was certainly more prosperous and larger than Colossae without, at the same time, insisting that Colossae was unimportant and poor.
Zondervans notes that the importance of Laodicea came about in part because
‘Colossae originally lay on the main road from Ephesus to the Euphrates and the east [and hence its significance as a staging post noted above in the time of both Xerxes and Cyrus], at the junction of the highways to Sardis and Pergamum...Colossae lost its significance under the [Roman] Empire because the road to Pergamum was moved west and Laodicea, an active and commercially aggressive society, absorbed the trade and importance of its neighbour’
Strabo (Geography 12.8.16) also notes that
‘Laodicea, formerly a small town, has increased in our time...the fertility...of the soil and the prosperity of some of its citizens have aggrandised it’
seemingly attributing much of their wealth to the
‘...excellent sheep, remarkable not only for the softness of their wool in which they surpass the Milesian flocks but for their dark or raven colour. The Laodiceans derive a large revenue from them, as the Colosseni [Colossians?] do from their flocks, of a colour of the same name’
Colbrien quotes Lightfoot as saying that
‘...Colossae was the least important church to which any epistle of St Paul is addressed’
and, though this seems to be demonstrably true with reference to the writings of the ancient historians, it’s only a comparative statement and one that might mislead the reader into thinking that Colossae was no more than a backwater. With Strabo’s testimony that the wool of the area brought much wealth and that the ‘Colosseni’ were partakers of the same, the city and region of Colossae must have been fairly prosperous but, when compared with Laodicea, it was less wealthy (in the same way that we might say the Queen of England is poorer than Bill Gates).
Laodicea suffered repeated earthquakes and more than one ancient writer notes specific occurrences. Suetonius (Tiberius 5) notes a petition which was brought before the emperor Augustus (who began ruling as first Emperor from c.30BC) by his stepson Tiberius for the relief of the inhabitants not only of this city but also of Thyatira and Chios.
A later earthquake destroyed the city c.66AD - after the date of composition of the letter to Colossae - but it was rebuilt by Marcus Aurelius with finance from the wealth of the Laodicean inhabitants during the reign of Emperor Nero. Tacitus (Annals 14:27) simply notes that
‘One of the famous cities of Asia, Laodicea, was that same year overthrown by an earthquake, and, without any relief from us, recovered itself by its own resources’
Certainly, the wealth of the city is revealed by this statement but whether Colossae was similarly affected by the natural disaster has gone unrecorded. This time is certainly after the writing of the letter, however, and needn’t overly concern us here.
The three cities of Laodicea, Colossae and Hierapolis are generally accepted as having become a conurbation during the first century (as NIDBA), the sites forming a triangle of land through which flowed the river Lycus. The former lay some ten miles to the west of Colossae with Hierapolis twelve miles to the northwest of the same but the ancient trade routes I’ve seen only note the possibility of travelling to Hierapolis via Laodicea and it may have been that, although there was an accepted footpath connecting them, the only trade route forced the traveller to pass through the wealthier city of Laodicea. This is pure speculation on my part, however, for lack of any definitive statement to that effect.
Paul mentions the three cities together in Col 4:13 (if one accepts Colossae as included without being specifically mentioned) and the suggestion is that all three stood or fell as one. Epaphras was certainly regarded as God’s worker to all three cities.
Colossians and Philemon
Philemon is one of only four personal letters written or dictated by Paul in the NT, the others being the two letters to Timothy and the one to Titus which immediately precede its inclusion and this may account for its positioning. It’s also separated by five books from Colossians which occurs first and the casual reader all too easily assigns the writing of Philemon to an undisclosed time and place which has been lost to history.
However, the similarities between these two letters is such that the believer is compelled to accept that they were composed at virtually the same time - perhaps even on the same day - and that they were in the same ‘bag’ that brought the messages to those believers situated in the Phrygian city of Colossae.
The more general letter was composed specifically to meet the need of the fellowship of believers within the city while Philemon was composed to speak into the situation of a returning slave who’d fled from his master’s control a while - perhaps years - before, but who’d come to an acknowledgement of Jesus as being his saviour as Philemon, the slave’s master, had done.
Comparisons between the two letters are fairly conclusive and, though some other comparisons may be inferred or hypothetical, there’s no doubt that the unity of the two writings has been established.
1. The believers with Paul
Epaphras is mentioned in Colossians as being an instrument of God to the city of Colossae who either brought the message of the Gospel there or who made it possible for the believers to grow in maturity (Col 1:7-8, 4:12-13) where Paul speaks of him continuing to pray on their behalf (Col 4:12). He was probably the reason why Paul is aware that a congregation of believers exists in that city to which he’s never once recorded as having gone in the Book of Acts and to whom he declares in the letter that he has yet to visit (Col 2:1 is definitive, 1:4 infers it).
One might have supposed that such a minister to the city would have been sent by Paul to carry the news letters to the city but it’s only in Philemon 23 that we note the presence of the same man where the apostle writes (my italics) that
‘Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you’
which gives the reader the impossibility of such an assumption. It’s only in these two letters also that Epaphras is mentioned and the lack of him in other letters ties in the composition of both to a very narrow time period when both Epaphras and Paul were prisoners together (Col 4:3,10,18, Philemon 1,9-10,13) - even though we have no suggestion in the Book of Acts as to when that might have been.
Col 4:10 also mentions ‘Mark the cousin of Barnabas’ who seems to have been given a free hand as to his calling in Jesus for Paul goes on to note that
‘...if he comes to you, receive him’
denoting the choice as residing in Mark rather than as a command of Paul and is mentioned also in Philemon 24 as being present. The name ‘Mark’ is too common a one in the NT to indicate that one and the same person is being indicated except by the context of the other personnel being mentioned, but that Paul observes that he’s the cousin of Barnabas might give some background to the reason why he was chosen and accompanied Paul and Barnabas on their return from Jerusalem (Acts 12:25 - mentioned first in 12:12) and why Barnabas continued to want to take him with him on a subsequent missionary journey even when his faith seems to have given out for a time (Acts 15:37-39).
Whether this Mark is the same as the one mentioned in II Tim 4:11 is impossible to say and more than unlikely in I Peter 5:13.
Aristarchus is another who’s mentioned in both letters and is one of those who was imprisoned along with the apostle (Col 4:10) though his name appears simply in a list in Philemon 24. There’s a certain warmth about Paul’s record that he sends the church his greetings in Colossians, as if he’d been listening to Paul’s dictation and, as he drew to a close, butted in to Paul’s conclusion and said
‘Say “Hi!” from me, will you?’
The believer is first noted in Acts 19:29 as being one of Paul’s travelling companions when the uproar began in Ephesus. He hailed from Thessalonica (Acts 20:4) and appears to have accompanied Paul all the way to Jerusalem on his last journey there for he appears in Acts 27:2 on the very first ship that begins the journey to Rome from Caesarea. Although he’s not mentioned again, it would seem logical that he continued with him throughout.
Demas is also mentioned in both places but only briefly at the same time as Luke whom Paul calls ‘the beloved physician’ (Col 4:14, Philemon 24). The former of these appears again only once in II Tim 4:10 where Paul observes that
‘...Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica...’
a point of importance, no doubt, to Timothy who’s mentioned as the co-writer of both letters at the very beginning (Col 1:1, Philemon 1). Luke, the latter of the two, also appears in the same letter in II Tim 4:11 where Paul notes that
‘Luke alone is with me...’
It would appear, therefore, that the group of people which had been so close at the time of writing of both Colossians and Philemon had been subsequently broken up through both calling and backsliding so that the mention of their whereabouts remained important.
The mention of Luke, however, may not be as significant as, say, Demas for the change from the third to the first person plural in Acts 16:10 where the author, Luke, writes (my italics)
‘...immediately we sought to go on into Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them’
show the reader that he appears to have been a part of the apostolic band for a significant amount of time. This group was similarly comprised of Tychicus who’s mentioned alongside Aristarchus (see above) and Timothy in Acts 20:4 and appears to have been the one entrusted with the delivery of the letters to both the congregation and the individual (Col 4:7-8). His mention as being sent to Ephesus in the same letter to Timothy as the others appear (II Tim 4:12) clearly shows that Paul knew he would be interested to know what had become of his former work colleague.
Tychicus appears again only in Titus 3:12 alongside another believer who’s mentioned only here.
Onesimus is by the far the most indicative that these two letters were written at the same time. In Col 4:9, Paul writes that
‘...Onesimus, the faithful and beloved brother, who is one of yourselves...’
will be sent along with Tychicus as the bearer of the letter to the church (Col 4:7-8) to also be a witness of the things which had been taking place where Paul was imprisoned (Col 4:9). But Paul’s main reason appears to be in the substance of the second letter in which he tells Philemon, Onesimus’ master, that he’d become his spiritual/natural father while imprisoned (Philemon 10).
He refers frequently to Onesimus being sent back (Philemon 12,15,17) but also as being currently present with him (Philemon 13,16) and the clear indication is that Tychicus’ trip was both to the congregation and to an individual.
The only other follower mentioned as being with Paul is in Col 4:11 and is named as
‘...Jesus who is called Justus..’
his reason seeming to give a full list of the believers with him who were fellow Jews. It’s unlikely that he’s the same as the one mentioned in Acts 1:23 or 18:7 as he appears to have been given a Greek name that was changed because of its association with the Saviour. He’s not mentioned in Paul’s letter to Philemon but this wouldn’t have been expected.
2. The believers at Colossae
There’s little duplication of names between Colossians and Philemon with one notable exception. Archippus is singled out by Paul in Col 4:17 to receive a specific word of encouragement that he fulfils
‘...the ministry which you have received in the Lord’
and is probably the same individual mentioned in Philemon 2 where Apphia is also named. The mention of
‘...the church in your house’
may be meant to indicate that the three individuals dwelt together but this is far from certain. The only other individual mentioned as being resident in Colossae is Nympha (Col 4:15) but she goes without a mention in Paul’s personal letter to Philemon.
As we’ll see below, Paul is clear in his statement that he’s never visited the church in this city and this gives us a good indication as to why so few people are mentioned by name. No doubt he did meet many of them in the course of his journeys - his personal message to both Archippus and Philemon seems to presuppose this (especially Philemon 19 which appears to demand some prior personal contact) - but most of his knowledge about the church had come from the details supplied to him by Epaphras (Col 1:7-8, 4:12).
The mention of Archippus, however, is a good indication - along with the other evidence above - that the two letters were delivered to the same place and at the same time.
Colossians, Philemon and Ephesians
It’s been conjectured that Tychicus’ mention in Eph 6:21-22 where Paul writes
‘...that you also may know how I am and what I am doing, Tychicus the beloved brother and faithful minister in the Lord will tell you everything. I have sent him to you for this very purpose, that you may know how we are, and that he may encourage your hearts’
is an indication that all three letters were written at the same time, Tychicus being the carrier of Paul’s greetings to both churches and Philemon (Col 4:7-8). This, no doubt, was part of the reason behind Eerdmans’ commissioning F F Bruce to lump Ephesians and Colossians together as part of their New International Commentary series on the NT and to which was added, with permission, the letter to Philemon (as outlined in Colbruce’s ‘Author’s Preface’).
However, the passage in Ephesians could just as easily be seen to parallel II Tim 4:12 where Paul writes simply
‘Tychicus I have sent to Ephesus’
There’s no indication in Ephesians that Timothy is present with the apostle (he’s mentioned nowhere) but is more likely to have been overseeing a church elsewhere (hence Paul’s instructions in his letter labelled II Timothy which notes Tychicus’ departure to Ephesus - departed with the letter?).
Additionally, the salutation in Col 1:1 and Philemon 1 (which includes Timothy’s name) is another good indication when compared with Eph 1:1 (which lacks it) that Ephesians was written at a different time - and perhaps even in another place - than the other two.
Col 4:7, therefore, cannot be taken as paralleling Eph 6:21-22. However, Tychicus appears to have been one of the main methods of delivery that Paul chose to get his messages to both congregations and individuals, being mentioned with this purpose once again in Titus 3:12.
The establishing of the church at Colossae
How or why the church at Colossae had ever been established is impossible to be sure about even though we do have a testimony of christian work in the area in the letter to the church itself. This reference - which we’ll look at in a short while - speaks only of work which took place through Paul’s fellow prisoner Epaphras but there’s no definitive statement that he was the first to bring the Gospel to the city (though we must be careful to give him his rightful place - see below).
Colossae was situated in the ancient region of Phrygia and that there was a Jewish settlement in and around here is fairly certain from the testimony of Josephus in Antiquities 12.5.4 where we can see that several Jewish families were forcibly removed from Mesopotamia and Babylon to the regions of Lydia and Phrygia in the third century BC. I write ‘forcibly’ because I doubt whether the king’s will in the matter would have been able to have been resisted.
Josephus’ testimony at this point may be somewhat compromised and it’s not certain how the direct quotation of king Antiochus in this matter was possible. Nevertheless, it served the writer well to show that the Jews were regarded as being faithful to the king, that they were being moved into the regions of Lydia and Phrygia in an attempt to sow good seed amongst the rebellious inhabitants and that they were to be allowed to continue practising their laws and customs as they saw fit.
The number is recorded as being ‘two thousand families’ and their establishing as ‘guardians of our possessions’ in the ‘castles and places that lie most convenient’ seem to indicate that some sort of ruling aristocracy is here being imposed upon the land which would order the country to observe the commands and legislation of the Greek king.
Zeuxis, the recipient of his letter, is also recorded as being commanded that he was to
‘...give everyone of their families a place for building their houses, and a portion of the land for their husbandry, and for the plantation of their vines; and thou shalt discharge them from paying taxes of the fruits of the earth for ten years; and let them have a proper quantity of wheat for the maintenance of their servants, until they receive bread corn out of the earth; also let a sufficient share be given to such as minister to them in the necessaries of life, that by enjoying the effects of our humanity, they may show themselves the more willing and ready about our affairs’
It’s seems plain, therefore, that king Antiochus became a beneficiary to the Jews who were resettled in the land but that, for the wealth which was being bestowed upon them, they were expected to remain faithful to his rule and to return the region to an obedience which had been lacking in its recent rebellion.
Colbruce also mentions the possible presence of Jews in the area at the time of Obadiah the prophet (from Obadiah 20 - the etymology is somewhat lost on me, however) and even in the last few years of the fourth century, but the main settlement in the area should be seen as being at the instigation of king Antiochus III towards the end of the third century BC (which Colbruce dates to 213BC).
The question as to the population of this region raises its head once more in the middle of the first century BC in the collection of the half-shekel tax as cited in Colbruce from Cicero’s ‘Pro Flacco’, a work which, unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find in English (I was dreadful at Latin in school and, even with a better teacher, I would never have been able to progress much passed the declension of the first verb ‘to love’).
Cicero (c.59BC) is recorded as noting that, at Laodicea and, therefore, for us a good indication of those male Jews present in the region which included both Hierapolis and Colossae (Laodicea being the more important city at this time and the collection point for the tax), a sum of just over twenty pounds of gold had been committed to the Temple in Jerusalem.
This figure equates to around 9,000 contributors and indicates that the Jewish population in this region of Phrygia appears to have been strong and faithful to Judaism. Colbruce also cites several other ancient records which relate into the collection of the half-shekel tax but what concerns us most here is an action in 14BC of Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa to safeguard the collection of the tax in Asia Minor (of which Phrygia was a part), a record of 45BC written to a Roman official from the Laodicean officials that they would guarantee that they wouldn’t hinder the Jews from practising all aspects of their religion and, in 2-3AD, a decree from Augustus Caesar of the Jews’ rights and which was posted in Ancyra, the capital of Galatia to the east.
All these three events are recorded by Josephus in Antiquities (references according to Colbruce are 16.27-65, 14.241-243 and 16.162.165 respectively) and, even allowing for some exaggeration, it’s evident that it was well established that Jews made up a significant number of the population of Phrygia in which Colossae was situated.
It seems certain, then, that a large Jewish population was still resident throughout the region and to which the message of the Gospel would initially have come. But, as to the continued status of the Jews in first century Phrygia, little is directly known save that above and FCS (vol 5) comments that
‘...the existence of any Jewish charter is somewhat doubtful’
ignoring the testimony of Josephus or, at the very least, not accepting the continued relevancy of the decrees of Augustus Caesar some fifty years prior to the time in which the letter to Colossae was written.
We also know from Acts 2:10 that some of the region’s inhabitants were among the crowd of Jews present in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost when the first outpouring of the Holy Spirit took place (Acts 2:1ff). We might conjecture that the presence of believers in the city in Paul’s day was due to the fact of that initial act of God years prior to Paul’s writing and to Epaphras’ subsequent ministry, but we have no way of knowing whether the Jews present in Jerusalem heralded from such a city.
Besides, Paul writes to the believers in Colossae in Col 2:13 by describing their position before their conversion to Jesus as being (my italics)
‘...dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh...’
which appears to be a clear cut description of them as Gentiles, not Jews. However, how they might have understood Paul’s next words of Col 2:14 that God had
‘...cancelled the bond which stood against us with its legal demands...’
is difficult to understand if no Jewish context is attributable to the fellowship. Paul’s additional mention of the three fellow workers who were Jews (Col 4:10-11 - Aristarchus, Mark and Justus) seems also to be out of place if addressed solely to a group of Gentile converts. It would seem best, therefore, to understand the believers there present as containing a mix of both Jew and Gentile but who were probably predominantly comprised of the latter - Epaphras, the proclaimer of the message of the Gospel in the area, was certainly a Gentile as his name occurs after Paul’s statement about the Jews present with him (Col 4:12-13).
The next we hear of Phrygia after Acts 2:10 is in Acts 16:6. Paul, having visited the cities of Derbe and Lystra (Acts 16:1) where he took Timothy to accompany him in his journeys (Acts 16:2-3) is recorded as continuing on his way through the cities located in that region, delivering to them
‘...for observance the decisions which had been reached by the apostles and elders who were at Jerusalem’
Then, Luke records (Acts 16:6) that
‘...they went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia’
before they arrived in Troas (Acts 16:8) and having been forbidden to speak the word of the Gospel to anyone in Asia (Acts 16:6). This seems to indicate that their activity was limited more to the northwestern and northeastern areas, rather than to those due west of Lystra where Colossae lay.
Troas, the port to which they eventually came, is close to Mysia where they learned that they were forbidden to speak the word in Bithynia (Acts 16:7) and which is situated even further north. Their route appears, therefore, to have been predominantly ‘northwards’ and it’s unlikely that the apostolic band drew close to Colossae.
Phrygia then reappears in Acts 18:22-23 where Paul, having returned to Caesarea from his last journey, decided to go
‘...from place to place through the region of Galatia and Phrygia, strengthening all the disciples’
but this need mean no more than he returned to the places where he’d most recently preached the Gospel and had established churches (Acts 16:6), choosing to encourage those new believers by ministry which they may not have received since his recent departure.
How he eventually arrived at Ephesus, on the western coast, is uncertain (Acts 19:1) but the Scripture states that he journeyed through the ‘upper country’. Citing W M Ramsay, Actsbruce comments that Paul must have taken
‘...the higher-lying and more direct route, not the regular trade route on the lower level down the Lycus and Maeander valleys [on which Colossae lay]’
This seems the more logical if, as we supposed above, Paul’s previous journeys had taken him northwest towards Troas. He could then have broken off his strengthening of the churches to ‘drop’ southwest into Ephesus.
At Ephesus, Paul remained for a period of around two years (Acts 19:10) in which time it’s recorded that
‘...all the residents of Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks’
and which may be the reason for the fellowship in Colossae. Much hinges on the correct interpretation of Col 1:7 that could be read either as ‘our behalf’ (as the RSV) or ‘your behalf’. At the one point where we need a clear statement as to Epaphras’ relationship to the apostolic band, we have a variety of possible meaning which forbids us from stating anything definitive!
The manuscript evidence, however, seems to favour the rendering ‘our behalf’ which gives the reader the impression that Epaphras was one who’d been sent out by Paul during his stay in Ephesus to bring the message of the Gospel to the neighbouring cities and regions, no doubt being content to return to his own city with the message and finding success in his work through the establishing of the church there. As Paul notes in the first part of Col 1:7, the believers had learnt the Gospel
‘...from Epaphras our beloved fellow servant’
the indication being that he was first and the cause of the group of believers to whom Paul was addressing his letter. Epaphras’ work, however, wasn’t confined solely to his home city but, as Paul notes (Col 4:13)
‘...he has worked hard for you and for those in Laodicea and in Hierapolis’
these last two cities forming a group of three which may have merged into one large semi-independent region which still retained their individual identity as cities in their own right but which were often grouped together as one settlement. Epaphras, therefore, seems to have been God’s worker in the Lycus and Maeander valleys, sent out by Paul while preaching the Gospel for over two years in Ephesus.
Two further points must also be made, however. Paul is categorical in his statement in Col 2:1 when he writes (my italics) that
‘...I want you to know how greatly I strive for you, and for those at Laodicea, and for all who have not seen my face’
and he infers that he hasn’t yet personally experienced the fellowship a while earlier when he writes (Col 1:4 - my italics) that he has only
‘...heard of your faith in Christ Jesus...’
This is what the record of Paul’s journeys in the Book of Acts also infers as we saw above. However, this doesn’t account for the very personal message that he has for certain individuals to whom the letter of both Colossians and Philemon is being sent. For example, the entire feel of the latter letter is of a friend to another, requesting that a favour be done on his behalf but, even if we were to put this down to a wrong interpretation, Paul’s statement of Philemon 19 that he would repay the debt if anything was owed leads him on to an aside in which he observes
‘...to say nothing of your owing me even your own self’
an indication, perhaps, that Philemon was a direct convert of Paul while he’d been visiting Ephesus, perhaps on some matter of trade or even looking for his runaway slave, Onesimus, and before he’d been converted by Paul and returned with the letter.
There’s also a seemingly personal note in two other places. In Col 4:15, he specifically extends greetings to
‘...Nympha and the church in her house’
where from Philemon 2 it can be observed that there was certainly at least one other place where the believers met. In Col 4:17, Paul’s order to declare to Archippus the personal message
‘See that you fulfil the ministry which you have received in the Lord’
implies that Paul knows what it is and that he was present when it was made known, taking the opportunity of bringing it to remembrance. What these short notes do is to make the reader infer that, although Colossae hadn’t been visited by the apostle, he’d had contact with some of those who were resident there when they were present in the city of Ephesus to the west. Indeed, Paul seems to have been the instrument of conversion of at least Philemon and, although it would be going too far to accept this as a definitive statement, the Ephesian church may well have functioned as a type of ‘mother’ church to which believers from the surrounding area came on occasions to meet with Paul and to experience the work of God that was being done there.
When and where was Colossians written?
The possession of maps showing the Mediterranean area in the time of Paul’s journeys along with his missionary journeys marked would be a distinct advantage to the reader.
The two questions posed by the title of this section are really one and the same and we can adequately deal with them together for the ‘when’ of the letter stands or falls with the ‘where’ - unless, of course, one is minded not to accept Pauline authorship.
Having said that, trying to tie the locations down to a precise place is, once again, impossible. We can, however, give some boundaries within which we could conjecture a setting and, towards the end of this section, I’ll take a stab in the dark as to a specific date.
Firstly, then, the earliest that we could consider the letter to have been written would be the incident of Acts 16:1-3 which took place on Paul’s second missionary journey in Lystra where there was a disciple
‘...named Timothy, the son of a Jewish woman who was a believer; but his father was a Greek...Paul wanted Timothy to accompany him; and he took him and circumcised him because of the Jews that were in those places, for they all knew that his father was a Greek’
Clearly, if Paul and Timothy appear in the salutation at the beginning of the letter to Colossae (Col 1:1), the event must have taken place afterwards. As Timothy was already a disciple (Acts 16:1), it wouldn’t be right for us to assert that he would’ve had to have grown in stature first before Paul would have allowed his name to appear as his co-worker, for it would appear that Paul saw potential in him in his desire to take him with him. A ‘co-writing’ of the letter could have occurred shortly afterwards even though other evidence shows that this is unlikely.
Above we noted that Epaphras appears to have been a convert of or, at least, one who was well known to, Paul who’d been sent out to the Lycus and Maeander valleys to proclaim the Gospel of the Kingdom to its inhabitants - this taking place during the apostle’s two year stay in Ephesus (Acts 19:10).
I noted above that this is an inference rather than a hard and fast fact but it seems best to accept this as the most probable course of events. If the reader is willing to accept this, then the letter could not have been written until Paul had begun his ministry in Ephesus, Epaphras had been sent out to proclaim the Gospel and Paul had had some personal contact with people such as Philemon and Archippus (as argued above).
The earliest time of writing, therefore, has to be the time when Paul was in Ephesus.
As to the latest time it might have been composed we can do no more than conjecture, even though there are pointers in the NT text. Aristarchus is one of the characters mentioned by Paul (Col 4:10) who indicates a specific time period, for the character is one who’s recorded as being one of Paul’s travelling companions in the Book of Acts, being first noted in Acts 19:29 when the uproar in Ephesus began, hailing from the city of Thessalonica (Acts 20:4).
He also appears on the apostle’s final journey to Rome (Acts 27:2) though the text stops short of saying that he accompanied him all the way. It’s more logical to assume, however, that he continued with Paul until he arrived in Rome and that he may have joined the band when they first arrived in Thessalonica (Acts 17:1-9), prior to Paul’s two year stay in Ephesus.
All this does is to confirm the time period already arrived at and it’s of little additional use. However, the mention of Timothy appears to be more significant - even though inconclusive. That Paul and Timothy were together when Colossians was being written is certain from the salutation of Col 1:1 but that he’d been sent out to look after a church ‘somewhere’ seems also certain from the two letters to him (I and II Timothy).
Just where and when this was is difficult to be sure about and the NT appears to bear witness to the fact that Timothy was often used by Paul to minister to churches in areas different to the one in which he was. Therefore Paul’s message to those who took the apostle to Athens was for both Silas and Timothy to come to him as soon as possible (Acts 17:15) being left behind to continue, presumably, the work begun in Beroea (Acts 17:14). They arrived some time after Paul had already been proclaiming the Gospel in the synagogue (Acts 18:5).
Timothy’s also recorded as being sent with Erastus into Macedonia (Acts 19:22) while Paul was in Ephesus and before the uproar began over Artemis (Acts 19:23-41). He seems to have returned in time for Paul’s return from Greece and Macedonia as he appears in the list of travelling companions (Acts 20:4).
But Timothy also appears to have been sent out to minister to the church at Corinth (I Cor 4:17), was sent out to those in Thessalonica (I Thess 3:2) and was intended to be sent out to the church in Philippi (Phil 2:19). He’s also mentioned as being the co-writer of six letters (II Cor 1:1, Phil 1:1, Col 1:1, I Thess 1:1, II Thess 1:1, Philemon 1), is mentioned as being present with him in another (Rom 16:21) and as having been released in another unattributable letter (Heb 13:23).
In the context of Timothy, therefore, we must suppose that Paul was imprisoned but that Timothy was still free to go about as he pleased for he isn’t mentioned as being imprisoned in either Colossians or Philemon. It would seem unlikely, therefore, that we should look to Paul’s incarceration in Rome as being the time and place of writing for Paul is the more likely to have urged his ‘under study’ to be busy with the proclamation of the Gospel.
Besides, as I’ve noted above, Paul’s information regarding the personnel in II Timothy chapter 4 echoes the information recorded for us in both Colossians and Philemon and, if the band of travellers had changed dramatically as it occasionally seems to have done, the information to Timothy may have contained a strikingly different list of personnel.
For this reason, we might also suppose that II Timothy was written around the same time as - though slightly later than - Colossians but when the young disciple had been sent out to look after a church that he’d been directed to. If this is the case, II Timothy appears to have been written after Paul’s visit to Miletus in Acts 20:17 for II Tim 4:20 records that
‘Trophimus I left ill at Miletus’
and we know that he was one of Paul’s travelling companions (Acts 20:4). If that’s the case, we would have to place the writing of both Colossians and Philemon after the end of Paul’s missionary journeys and, perhaps, before his arrival in Rome. Some would have II Timothy be written while Paul was in Rome but I find it very difficult to believe that the statement about Trophimus could have been written by Paul after his arrest in Jerusalem, his lengthy imprisonment in Caesarea, his voyage to Rome and his arrival there - it reads to me as if Paul is giving his recipient information that’s recently occurred.
Against this, however, is the statement in II Tim 1:16-17 which runs
‘May the Lord grant mercy to the household of Onesiphorus, for he often refreshed me; he was not ashamed of my chains, but when he arrived in Rome he searched for me eagerly and found me’
an inference that Paul was now writing in his imprisonment from Rome if only one visit to the city by Paul is asserted as having occurred in his life time. The idea of ‘leaving’ Trophimus is all the more difficult because his final journey there is never mentioned as going near to Miletus.
However, II Timothy needn’t be construed as being written very close to the time of the other’s writing. It appears more likely that the mention of the personnel is because these are the individuals about which Timothy would have been most eager to hear news, having worked closely with them at some time in the past.
Although Timothy’s letter is fairly certain to have been written after his arrival in Israel for the final time (post Acts 21:7), Colossians and Philemon are the more likely to have been written from the time of his arrival in Ephesus to a time prior to his arrival in Jerusalem.
This last boundary placed around the time of writing is taken directly from Philemon 22 where Paul writes (my italics) that he’s to
‘...prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping through your prayers to be granted to you’
for this implies a proximity to Colossae or, at the very least, a journey towards the region, something which was impossible if the letter was written either in Israel or Rome while imprisoned (and Colossians demands an imprisonment of Paul). It must also be tied in with the narrow period of time in which both Epaphras and Paul were imprisoned together (Col 4:3,10,18, Philemon 1,9-10,13).
It would be nice to think that the mention of Aristarchus in Acts 20:4 is recorded there because he joined the band during Paul’s second missionary trip through Macedonia and, therefore, that the time of writing was after his return trip from Macedonia for the final time but his mention also in Acts 19:29 precludes this possibility.
However, if we take Paul’s note to Philemon concerning the guest room, we could, perhaps, reason with some certainty that Paul’s intention after being released was to travel towards Phrygia and, initially at least, to visit Colossae. In short, it would be a time between his leaving Thessalonica and Beroea for the final time (Acts 20:4) but before he’d set sail for Israel from Miletus (Acts 21:1), the context of which makes sense if he tells Philemon to have the guest room prepared for him.
Being delayed in his imprisonment somewhere in that time, it’s easy to see why Paul would have changed his plans for he was hastening to be in Jerusalem for Pentecost that year (Acts 20:16), the first part of the cited verse suggesting that it had initially been Paul’s intention to land in Ephesus and, if this discussion is correct, to journey inland to visit both the church at Colossae and his personal acquaintance Philemon.
We should note carefully that Acts 20:1-3 covers a significant amount of time even though details are wholly lacking from Luke’s record of events that took place in all the areas and cities to which Paul came. Actsbruce notes that Paul seems to have left Ephesus either during the early or mid part of 55AD and that his desire to return to Jerusalem for Pentecost (Acts 20:16) is unlikely to have been in 56AD because of the significant amount of time needed for travelling into Macedonia and Greece (Acts 20:1-2) and the statement that he stayed three months in the latter location (Acts 20:3). It’s difficult to believe that Paul arrived in a city, spoke one night to the believers who were there and moved on with the coming of dawn. Some of these visits would have lasted many days - if not weeks.
The earliest one could believe Paul was in Jerusalem for Pentecost would have been June 57AD.
This is probably too precise a time period for many but it’s no more than the result of conjecture. Nevertheless, I would tentatively assign a date of the early part of 57AD to the composition of the letter or, to be more vague, a date in the early part of the year in which Paul attended the festival of Pentecost and at which he was arrested.
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