Most interpreters of Colossians recognize that there is some kind of problematic teaching that Paul addresses in the letter (though Morna Hooker has made the strongest argument yet that it is possible this was more general than specific, and not a local threat). The most direct and clearest information is found in chapter 2 (esp 2:4; 8-9). We are given some details in 2:16-23 – the “philosophy” teaches about strict regulations regarding food and festivals, and also particular restrictions in worship as well as the hope of mystical visions. All of this seems to have some connection to the Stoicheia (2:8, 20) that oppress and frighten the people.
These six elements seem to be discernible from Colossians.
1. A teaching/philosophy has come to the Colossian churches.
2. The teaching is supported by philosophical arguments.
3. It focuses on heavenly wisdom and protection from evil spirits (my interpretation of the Stoicheia)
4. It teaches ascetic practices that treat the body negatively.
5. The philosophy devalues the importance of Christ (perhaps only by implication) in the pursuit of perfection and security.
6. The philosophy has had enough of a presence or influence to cause Paul concern.
So much is relatively uncontroversial among interpreters. Where the disagreement persists is on the setting or background of the philosophy. There are clearly Jewish elements involved – esp with the mention of Sabbath. But is the philosophy demonstrative of syncretism (Arnold) or something that stands wholly within a form of Judaism (like Merkebah mysticism; see Ian Smith)? The verdict is still out and I go back and forth.
We wish we knew more about the philosophy, but any further speculation becomes dangerous. We know enough to make sense of what Paul says in the letter by and large.
For more information, check out John Barclay’s Colossians and Philemon (T & T Clark, 2004).