Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Heresy in Colossae?

Morna Hooker's seminal essay Were there False teachers in Colossae? [M. D. Hooker, 'Were there false teachers in Colossae?', in B. Lindars and S. S. Smalley (eds.), Christ and Spirit in the New Testament (Cambridge, 1973), pp. 315- 331.] is quite possibly one of the best articles on Colossians I've ever read. Ok, I haven't read tons, but I've read quite a bit. Hooker begins by questioning the prevailing paradigm:
It seems to be accepted by all commentators and writers on Colossians that the basic reason for the letter’s composition was the existence of some kind of aberration in the Colossian community. Sometimes this is referred to as a ‘heresy’; more cautiously it is described as ‘false teaching’ or ‘error’. Its proponents are variously thought to be members of the Christian community spreading corruption from within, or outsiders attacking the church’s beliefs; the teaching has been interpreted as Jewish, as Gnostic, or as a mixture of the two. But that the Church was under some kind of serious attack, and that the letter was written to meet this attack, does not seem to be questioned. [315]
In attempting to reconstruct the situation behind Paul’s writings, the danger of circularity is inevitable; it is all too easy to use what hints there are in a letter to build a false picture of events, and then read this back into what is said. Our own attempt to answer the problem of Colossians can, of course, like any other, only use the evidence of the letter itself, and is open to the same danger of circularity. [319]
What we are questioning is the theory that they are under attack by a specific group of teachers who are advocating a particular doctrine which can be properly termed ‘the Colossian error’. [326]
Hooker offers substantial arguments that question the notion of a specific Colossian heresy. Before I carry on and offer my comments, what do you think? Is Hooker right to question the scholarly paradigm of Colossians being a direct respons to false teaching in the Church? Or are there others ways to understand and appreciate this letters contribution to the NT Corpus?
Comments, questions and criticisms are welcomed!
For those interested, I. H. Marshall also has a wonderful essay: Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earlier Christianity as well as Edwin M. Yamauchi essay: Pre-Christian Gnosticism, the New Testament and Nag Hammadi in recent debate. Marhsall's essay briefly touches on Colossians, while Yamauchi deals with the notion of Gnosticism in particular, without reference to Colossians.

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