More on the authorship of Colossians – a response to my friendly critic, Richard Fellows

More on the authorship of Colossians – a response to my friendly critic, Richard Fellows February 15, 2012

In a previous post I discussed the thorny issue of authorship of Colossians. While there are no easy answers, I err on the side of caution and follow the principle – in dubio pro reo (which I learned from Markus Barth) – “When in doubt, side with the accused.” Very wise counsel.
One commenter, Richard Fellows (see comment left here), is quite certain Paul did not write Colossians and has urged me to respond to his series of reasons. So here I go.
1. Concern #1: Wouldn’t Colossae be a reasonable choice for a forger since the city was destroyed by an earthquake and no church survived?

This argument is circumstantial (it does not prove anything, it is only convenient), and it can cut both ways. Dunn writes, “Why would a pseudepigrapher, consciously free to create his own history and aware that Colossae was not strictly speaking one of Paul’s churches, of all places, Colossae?” (1996: 37). 

2. Concern #2: Colossians follows the abbreviated names of Philemon. However, Paul was using “pally” names to warm up to Philemon in his personal letter, while he tends to use longer names in other genuine letters. The forger made a mistake by copying the pet names from Philemon, such as Epaphras (versus Epaphroditus).

First of all, it is not all that clear why certain name forms were used and when. Also, even if Epaphras is short for Epaphroditus, Reumann notes that they could be different people. Thirdly, even if it is the same person, because Epaphras was known to the Colossians, it would make sense to retain the more personal form (if that is really what it is).

3. Concern #3: The forger mistakes “Jesus” for a companion of Paul (Col 4:11)

Really? This highly skilled forger who has spent significant time analyzing Paul’s thought just doesn’t quite get who Paul thinks Jesus is? That is like a modern art forger who has spent significant time replicating works of Rembrandt not know how to draw people! I have NEVER come across a commentary that genuinely entertains the possibility that a forger could make this kind of mistake.

4. Concern #4: The forger swaps people and calls Aristarchus a “fellow-prisoner” in Col (4:10), but does so of only Epaphras in Philemon (23).

How is this a mistake? It would be one thing to mistake an older brother for a younger brother and vice versa (something empirical), but these are either terms of endearment (and, thus, there are lots of reasons why Paul would change such language), or they literally took turns spending time with Paul in prison (and we do have evidence of this kind of thing happening on occasion).

5. Concern #5: Why bother trying to defend the authenticity of Colossians? It is pro-slavery and misogynistic.

Why support ANY of Paul’s letters? Or the Bible for that matter (have you read the Old Testament?). Going back to Paul, why support Romans which is apparently pro-government? Or 1 Corinthians where Paul tells everyone to stay in their present state (even slaves)? Morna Hooker mentioned somewhere that, when reading Paul, it is wise to give him the benefit of the doubt. Read with him, not against him.
Think about Bonhoeffer. When he decided to join the conspiracy he was “Hail Hitler”-ing like nobodies business! How can anyone trust him? Context. 
I defer to Richard Hays’ really good work on interpreting the household codes as subversive, not supportive of the status quo. Also, read David Horrell’s work on 1 Peter and the household code where he draws from post-colonial and political theories of how subjugated or dominated peoples affirm their identity through hidden or coded forms of protest. It is worth thinking through an “emic” perspective and giving the ancient text opportunities to be “sensible” within its own context.

Richard, while it is clear I disagree with you on EVERY front, I do want to give respect to you that (1) you read for the details, (2) you do not lack creativity, and (3) you continue to study texts you disagree with. We seem to be on the opposite sides of the issue ideologically. I adhere, basically, to a hermeneutic of (cautious, circumspect) trust and you do not. While I am eager to see how you might respond to my responses, I am hesitant to anticipate that we will see eye-to-eye. But what else is the internet for, if not to hear each other out from miles and miles away.

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