FROM SABBATH TO SUNDAY
The Colossian Heresy
To establish the religious-historical background of the
Colossian heresy is not an easy task, inasmuch as the cryptic
allusions to such concepts as "tradition" ..(2:8), "fulnessness"
...(1: 2:9,10), "philosophy" ...(2:8), "eating and drinking" ...
(2:16), "principalities and powers" ...(2:15), and "elements of
the world" ...(2:8,20), find correspondence both in "gnostic
Judaism" and in "Hellenistic syncretism." Both of these are in
fact equally used by commentators to define the derivation of the
gnosis of Colossae. For the purpose of our study, however, we
need not enter into the debate regarding the ideological
provenance of the Colossian "philosophy" (2:8). It will suffice
to reconstruct the main outline of its teachings on the basis of
the short quotations and catchwords cited by Paul in chapter 2 in
the context of his admonition to the believers.
The false teaching which Paul refutes in Colossians is
characterized by a theological and a practical error.
Theologically, the Colossian "philosophy" (2:8) was competing
with Christ for man's allegiance. Its source of authority,
according to Paul, was man-made "tradition" - (Greek) (2:8) and
its object was to impart true "wisdom" - (Greek) (2:3,23),
"knowledge" - (Greek) (2:2,3; 3:10), and "understanding" -
(Greek) (1:9; 2:2). To attain such knowledge Christians were
urged to do homage to cosmic principalities (2:10,15) and to "the
elements of the universe" - (2:8,18,20).
What precisely Paul meant by the latter phrase is still much
debated. Some interpret "the elements" - "stoicheia" as the
"elementary teachings about God belonging to this world" which
were present in rudimentary form both in Judaism and paganism.
14 Others view them as "the basic elements of this world"
particularly the earth, water, air and fire, from which it was
thought all things derived. 15 Most modern exegetes, however,
have adopted a personified interpretation of the "stoicheia"
(especially on the basis of the parallel passage in Galatians
4:3,9; cf. 3:19), identifying them with angelic
14 See J.B.Lightfoot (fn. 13), p.178; E. de W. Burton, "Critical
and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistles to the Ephesians and to
the Colossians" ICC 35, 1897, p.247; C.F.D. Moule, "The Epistles
of Paul the Apostle to the Colossians and to Philemon," 1958, p.
92; W.M.L.DeWette, "Kurze Erklarung der Brief an die Kolosser, an
Philemon, an die Epheser and Philipper" 1847, p.44; H.A.W. Meyer,
"Critical and Exegetical Handbook to the Epistle to the
Galatians," 1884, pp.219-220. This view reflects the exegetical
tradition of Tertullian, Jerome, Luther and Calvin. For
references and discussion see Herold Weiss, "The Law in the
Epistle to the Colossians," "The Catholic Biblical Quarterly" 34
(1972): 294-295. In his doctoral dissertation on "The Law and the
Elements of the World" (published 1964), A.J.Banstra argues that
"stoicheia tou kosmou" denotes the powers of law and flesh which
dominate man in this world; cf. J.Blinzer, in "Studiorum
Paulinorum Congressus Internationalis," 1961-63, 11, pp.429-443.
15 Gerhard Delling, "Greek" TDNT VII, p.684, explains that this
was the common understanding of the phrase by ordinary people.
Therefore he defines it as "that whereon the existence of this
world rests, that which constitutes man's being." According to
this view Paul would have alluded to the weak and impotent
elements which enslaved mankind in pre-Christian religion.
mediators of the law (Acts 7:53; Gal.3:19; Heb.2:2) and with
pagan astral gods who were credited with control of the destiny
of mankind. 16 To gain protection from these cosmic powers and
principalities, the Colossian "philosophers" were urging
Christians to offer cultic adoration to angelic powers
(2:15,18,19,23) and to follow ritualistic and ascetic practices
(2:11,14,16,17,21,22). By that process one was assured of access
to and participation in the divine "fulness" - "Greek" (2:9,10,
cf. 1:19). The theological error then basically consists in
interposing inferior angelic mediators, in place of the Head
The practical outcome of these theological speculations was
the insistence on strict ascetism and ritualism. These consisted
in "putting off the body of flesh" (2:11) (apparently meaning
with-drawal); 17 rigorous treatment of the body (2:23);
prohibition to either taste or touch certain kinds of foods and
beverages (2:16,21), and careful observance of sacred days and
seasons - festival, new moon, Sabbath (2:16) Christians
presumably were were led to believe that by submitting to these
ascetic practices, they were not surrendering their faith in
Christ, but rather they were receiving added protection and were
assured of full, divine fulness. This may be inferred both from
Paul's distinction between living "according to the elements of
the universe" and "according to Christ" (2:8) and from the
Apostle's insistence on the supremacy of the incarnate Christ.
"In him the whole fulness of deity dwells bodily" (2:9),
therefore Christian attain "the fulness" - "Greek" of life not
through the elements of the universe, but through Christ, "who is
the head of all rule and authority" (2:10; cf. 1:15-20; 3:3).
On the basis of this bare outline, we can already establish
that the Sabbath is mentioned in the passage not in the context
16 Among the expositors on Colossians and Galatians who advocate
a personified interpretation of the "stoicheia" are: Norbert
Hugede, A.B.Caird, F.F.Bruce, E.F.Scott, E.Lohse, H.Schlier, M.
Dibelius, Beare, Conzelmann, C. Toussaint. See especially R.K.
Bultmann, "Theology of the New Testament," 1951, 1, p.173; H.
Schlier, "Principalities and Powers in the New Testament," 1961;
D.E.H. Whitely, "The Theology of St.Paul," 1964, p.25.
17 The phrase suggests the practice of the mystery cults when in
the initiation rite the devotee removed his clothes and took a
purificatory bath. For texts and discussion see E.Lohse (fn. 13),
p.102. Apparently Paul's reply to those "philosophers" who
insisted on circumcision as the true initiation, is that the true
circumcision is not physical but metaphorical, namely the
surrender of the old life (cf. Rom. 2:28-29; Phil.3:3, Eph.
direct discussion on the obligation of the law, but rather in the
context of syncretistic beliefs and practices (which incorporated
elements from the Old Testament, undoubtedly to provide a
justification for their ascetic principles), 18 advocated by the
Colossian "philosophers." We are not informed what type of
Sabbath observance these teachers promoted, nevertheless on the
basis of their emphasis on scrupulous adherance to "regulations,"
it is apparent that the day was to be observed in a most rigorous
and superstitious manner. It is possible, in fact, as we shall
discuss later, that astrological beliefs attached to the day of
Saturn made the observance of the day all the more superstitious.
If then, as is generally recognized, Paul in Colossians is
refuting not the usual brand of Jewish or Jewish-Christian
legalism, but rather a syncretistic "philosophy" which
incorporated among others Jewish elements, 19 is it legitimate
to use this passage to define Paul's basic attitude toward the
Sabbath? Does Paul's condemnation of a perverted use of a
religious observance constitute a valid ground to conclude that
the Apostle releases all Christians from its obligation?
More important still does Colossians 2 16-17 actually imply that
Paul thought and taught that Christians were no longer under
obligation to observe any holy day? Before considering these
questions, we need to establish what role the law plays in Paul's
refutation of the Colossian heresy. Is the Apostle for instance
referring to the moral and/or ceremonial law when he speaks of
18 A.B.Caird, "Paul's Letters from Prison," 1976, p.198, points
out that the ascetic program advocated by the Colossian false
teachers was "foreign to the Jewish mentality.... Paul treats it
as an offshoot of Judaism, but it was probably put together by
Gentile Christians who looked to the Old Testament to provide the
justification for their ascetic principles."
19 In addition to the interpreters mentioned above (fn. 13),
several other authors recognize the syncretistic nature of the
Colossian heresy. See E.F.Scott, "The Epistles of Paul to the
Colossians, to Philemon and to the Ephesians," 1948, p.51: "Some
of the practices he mentions are obviously Jewish; others would
seem, just as clearly, to be of Pagan origin"; A.B.Caird (fn.
18), pp.160-163; H.A.A. Kennedy, "Two Exegetical Notes on St.
Paul," "The Expository Times" 28 (1916-1917): 303; Charles R.
Erdman," The Epistles of Paul to the Colossians and to Philemon,"
1929, p.73: "The Colossian heresy was essentially Jewish.
However, there is no question that it had elements of an Oriental
mysticism"; William Hendriksen (fn. 10), pp.123-124; Herold Weiss
(fn. 14), p.304: "These practices were the expression of a
religious syncretism." Ralph P. Martin, "Colossians, and
Philemon," New Century Bible, 1974, pp.90-91; Charles Masson,
"L'Epitre de St. Paul aux Colossians," 1950, pp.130-134.
document - "Greek" which God "set aside, nailing it to the cross"
(2:14)? This clarification will help us establish whether in
Paul's mind the Sabbath is part of what was nailed on the cross.
What Was Nailed To The Cross?
To understand the legal language of Colossians 2:14 it is
necessary, first of all, to grasp the arguments advanced by Paul
in the preceding verses to combat the Colossian "philosophy." We
noticed that false teachers were "beguiling" (2:4) Christians to
believe that the observance of "regulations" - "Greek" was needed
in order to court the protection of those cosmic beings who
allegedly could help them to participate in the completeness and
perfection of the divinity. To oppose this teaching, Paul
emphasizes two vital truths. First he reminds the Colossians that
in Christ, and in Him alone, "the whole fulness of the deity
dwells bodily" (2:9) and therefore all other forms of authority
that exist are subordinate to Him, "who is the head of all rule
and authority" (2:10). Secondly the Apostle reaffirms that it is
only in and through Christ that the believer can "come to the
fulness of life" (2:10), because Christ not only possess the
"fulness of deity" (2:9) but also provides the fulness of
"redemption" and "forgiveness of sins" (1:14; 2:10-15; 3:1-5).
In order to explain how Christ extends "perfection" (1:28; 4:12)
and "fulness" (1:19; 2:9) to the believer, Paul, as Herold Weiss
has persuasively shown, "does not make recourse to the law but to
baptism." 20) This represents a significant variation, since the
explanation of the significance of the law is always an integral
part of Paul's presentation of the Gospel. The fact then that in
the whole of Colossians 2 the "term 'law' (Greek) is absent ...
from the controversy," 21 corroborates what we said earlier,
namely that the Colossian heresy was not based upon the usual
Jewish legalism but rather on an unusual (syncretistic) type of
ascetic and cultic regulations (Greek), which undermined the
all-sufficiency of Christ's redemption.
To combat these false teachings Paul chose to extol the
centrality of the crucified, resurrected and exalted Christ,
explaining how Christian perfection is the work of God who
extends to the Christian
20 Herold Weiss (fn. 14), p.305.
21 E.Lohse (fn. 13), p.116; Weiss (fn. 14), p.307 similarly
emphasizes: "I wish to ... repeat what was said at the beginning:
in the whole of the epistle the word law is not used at all. Not
only that, but the whole significance of the law, which appears
unavoidable for Paul when he presents his gospel, is completely
the benefits of Christ's death and resurrection through baptism
(2:11-13) The benefits of baptism are concretely presented as the
forgiveness of "all our trespasses" (2:13; 1:14; 3:13) which
results in being "made alive" in Christ (2:13). The reaffirmation
of the fulness of God's forgiveness, accomplished by Christ on
the cross and extended through baptism to the Christian,
constitutes indeed Paul's basic answer to those trying to attain
to perfection by submitting to "regulations." To emphasize the
certainty and fulness of divine forgiveness (already stated in
2:13), the Apostle utilizes in 2:14 a legal metaphor, namely that
of God as a judge who "wiped out.... removed [and] nailed to the
cross ... the written document - "Greek."
What did Paul mean by the "cheirographon" (a term used in
antiquity in the sense of a "written agreement" or a "certificate
of debt")? 22 Was he referring to the Mosaic Law with its
ordinances (Greek ), thus declaring that God nailed it to the
cross? If one adopts this interpretation, there exists a
legitimate possibility that the Sabbath could be included among
the ordinances nailed to the cross. There are indeed certain
authors who hold this view. 23 But besides the grammatical
difficulties, 24 "it hardly seems Pauline," writes J.Huby, "to
represent God as crucifying the 'holy' (Rom. 7:6) thing that was
the Mosaic Law." 25 Moreover this view would not add to but
detract from Paul's argument designed to prove the fulness of
God's forgiveness. Would the wiping out of the moral and/or
ceremonial law provide to Christians the assurance of divine
forgiveness? Hardly so. It would only leave mankind without moral
principles. Guilt is not removed by destroying law codes.
Most commentators interpret the "cheirographon" either as the
"certificate of indebtedness" resulting from our transgressions
22 Cf. Moulton-Milligan, "The Vocabulary of the Greek Testament,"
23 F.Prat, "The Theology of St.Paul," 1927, II, pp.228-229,
categorically defends this view. C.Masson (fn. 19), p.127, lists
as advocators of this position Oltremare, Abbott, Haupt and
24 To justify this interpretation the phrase "Greek" is
translated "the document consisting in ordinances." But, Charles
Masson (fn. 19), p.128, fn. 1, explains that "the grammatical
justification for this construction is highly debatable.... It
should have by rule the preposition iv (cf. v.11) to say that the
document "consisted in ordinances."
25 J.Huby, "Saint Paul: les Epitres de la captive," 1947, p.73.
Charles Masson (fn. 19), p.128, mentions that for Schlatter, Huby
and Percy "the idea of the law nailed on the cross with Christ
would have been unthinkable for Paul."
"book containing the record of sin" used for the condemnation of
mankind. 26 Both renderings, which are substantially similar,
can be supported from rabbinic and apocalyptic literature. "In
Judaism," as stated by E.Lohse, "the relationship between man and
God was often described as that between a debtor and his
creditor." 27 For example a Rabbi said: "When a man sins, God
writes down the debt of death. If the man repents, the debt is
cancelled (Le. declared invalid). If he does not repent, what is
recorded remains genuine (valid)." 28 In the Apocalypse of
Elijah is found the description of an angel holding a book,
explicitly called a "cheirographon," in which the sins of the
seer are recorded. 29 On the basis
26 Charles Masson (fn. 19), p.128, holds that "one must admit
with Schlatter, Dibelius, Lohmeyer, Percy that the 'chirograph'
is a certificate acknowledging the debt resulting from our
transgressions. The image derives from a rabbinic concept: God -
or his angels - record in the books the report of the good and
evil actions of men. To this very day, in the prayer 'Abinu
Malkenu,' prayer for the ten penitential days that begins the New
Year, the Jews say: 'On account of thy great mercy erase all the
documents that accuse us' (Dibelius, Lohmeyer, p.116, n. 1, Str.
Billerbeck)." Historically this view was held by Origen, "In
Genesim homilia" 13, PG 12. 235; Augustine (quotes Chrysostom)
"Contra Julianum" 1, 6, 26, PL 44, 658; "Super Epistola ad
Colossenses" 2, lectio 111. G.R.Beasley-Murray, "The Second
Chapter of Colossians," "Review and Expositor" 70 (1973): 471:
"The 'bond' is an I.O.U., a signed statement of indebtedness; if
it applies to the Jew through his acceptance of the Law, it also
applies to the Gentile who recognizes his obligation to what he
knows of the will of God. It means, in the picturesque paraphrase
of Moule, 'I owe obedience to God's will, signed Mankind.'"
The study of the usage of "cheirographon" in Jewish and
Jewish-Christian sources has helped to clarify that the term was
used to describe the "celestial book" where sins are recorded.
The first inkling of this interpretation came over fifty years
ago when P.Batiffol published "Les Odes de Salomo" 1911, pp.
81-85. J.Danielou found confirmation for Batiffol's suggestion in
the "Gospel of Truth." A.J.Banstra (fn. 14), pp.159, reaffirms
that the "cheirographon" must be a book in which sins are
27 E.Lohse (fn. 13), p.108.
28 "Tanhuma Midrash" 140b; cf. SB III, p.628.
29 For text and discussion see A.J. Banstra (fn.14), pp.
159-160. Banstra argues, however, that the book recording the
sins of men is mankind's flesh which Christ took upon himself on
the cross. Support for this view is derived from the "Gospel of
Truth" where it says: "For this reason Jesus appeared, he took
this book for himself. He was nailed to a cross of wood; he
affixed the decree (Greek) of the Father upon the cross" (Edgar
Hennecke, "New Testament Apocrypha," 1963, I, p.237). The
identification of the "cheirographon" with mankind's body of
flesh which Christ took on himself to the cross was first
proposed by O.A.Blanchette, "Does the Chierographon of Col. 2:14
Represent Christ Himself?" "Catholic Biblical Quarterly" 23
of these and similar examples, it is quite obvious that the
"cheirographon" is either a "certificate of sin - indebtedness"
or the "recordbook of sins" but not the law of Moses, since the
latter, as is wisely pointed out by Weiss, "is not a book of
What Paul then is saying by this daring metaphor is that God
has "wiped out," "removed," and "nailed to the cross" through the
body of Christ (which in a sense represents mankind's guilt), the
"cheirographon," the instrument for the remembrance of sin. The
legal basis of this instrument was the "binding statutes" -
"Greek" (2:14), but what God destroyed on the cross was not the
legal ground (law) for our entanglement into sin, but the written
record of our sins. 31 By destroying the record of sins, God
removed the possibility of a charge ever being made again against
those who have been forgiven. 32
30 Herold Weiss (fn. 14), p.302: "It would seem to me that indeed
'cheirographon' is to be interpreted in terms of the context
provided by the Apocalypse of Elijah. In it a book containing a
record of sin is used for the condemnation of mankind. This would
mean that it is not correct to identify the 'cheirographon' with
the law of Moses, which is not a book of records."
31 Some interpret the phrase "Greek " as "the law with its legal
demands." In support of this view the similar text of Ephesians
2:15 is cited where it says: "by abolishing in his flesh the
law of commandments and ordinances - "Greek." However, the
similarity between the two is only apparent. In the first place
the phrase "the law of commandments" which occurs in Ephesians is
not found in Colossians. Secondly, the dative in Ephesians
"Greek" is governed by "ev," thus expressing that the law was set
out "in regulations." Such a preposition does not occur in
Colossians. Lastly, the context is substantially different. While
in Ephesians the question is how Christ removed what separated
Jews from Gentiles, in Colossians it is how Christ provided full
forgiveness. The former He accomplished by destroying "the
dividing wall of hostility" (2:14 - a possible reference to the
wall that divided the court of the Gentiles from the sanctuary
proper, cf. Josephus, Jewish Wars 5, 5, 2; 6, 2, 4) "by
abolishing the law of commandments [set out] in regulations"
(2:15). The latter, by utterly destroying "the written record of
our sins which because of the regulations was against us." E.
Lohse (fn. 13), p.109, rightly points out that "the words
'because of the regulations' stand first in a position of
emphasis in order to call special attention to the legal basis
for the certificate's witness against us" (emphasis supplied). In
Hellenistic Judaism the commandments of God are often called
"regulations" - "Greek": 3 Macc. 1:3, "the ancestral
commandments - "Greek"; cf. 4 Macc. 10:2; Josephus, "Antiquities"
15, 136; "Contra Apionem" 1, 42.
32 Isaiah 43:25 provides a similar promise: "I am He who blots
out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember
To be continued
I have in a study of mine, given full details of the passage in
Ephesians 2:15 context, showing it has nothing to do with the law
of the Lord or the Ten commandments, or anything per se
instituted by God, that is abolished. To think that Paul could
"abolish" the Ten Commandment law is really un-thinkable, as he
upholds it as holy, just, and good, in his book of Romans, and
the apostle John is very dogmatic that true LOVE is the keeping
of the commandments of God. The sections of Eph.2 and Col.2
contains as Peter said of Paul's writings, some things which are
hard to understand, which they that are unlearned and unstable,
TWIST AND WREST, to their own destruction (2 Peter 3:15,16). A
key to correct Bible reading is to let the plain clear verses
teach you the foundation, and then in their light you can come to
understand the harder things of the Scriptures - Keith Hunt.