The book of Colossians was written by Paul to the Greek city of Colossae. Like all Paul’s writings, he interweaves popular memes and cultural icons into his message. Paul then takes these allusions and turns them on their head, pointing them to Christianity. In the case of Colossians, Paul uses Platonism and the Mystery Cults. Platonism was the biggest threat to the church of Colossians and Paul sought to diffuse it. The main idea of both Platonism and the Mystery cults was a secret knowledge, attained only by a select few who are able to progress through various stages of enlightenment. The secret knowledge is called the Mystery and the path to enlightenment is called the Ascension.
7. Therefore we must ascend again towards the Good, the desired of every Soul. Anyone that has seen This, knows what I intend when I say that it is beautiful. Even the desire of it is to be desired as a Good. To attain it is for those that will take the upward path, who will set all their forces towards it, who will divest themselves of all that we have put on in our descent:- so, to those that approach the Holy Celebrations of the Mysteries, there are appointed purifications and the laying aside of the garments worn before, and the entry in nakedness- until, passing, on the upward way, all that is other than the God, each in the solitude of himself shall behold that solitary-dwelling Existence, the Apart, the Unmingled, the Pure, that from Which all things depend, for Which all look and live and act and know, the Source of Life and of Intellection and of Being.
The Platonist idea was that the material world was evil. The material world served as a prison for human souls. Most people would live and die being unaware of this prison. But an elect few would be able to escape the bonds of this world through purification and meditation. This is actually the message of Plato’s famous Allegory of the cave.
Modern grammar schools use the Allegory of the Cave as some sort of lesson about persecution of the minority, but that was not Plato’s aim. Plato was describing the Platonic Ascent. Plato was describing how humans must break free of the chains of the material world and become enlightened.
And now I will describe in a figure the enlightenment or unenlightenment of our nature:—Imagine human beings living in an underground den which is open towards the light; they have been there from childhood, having their necks and legs chained, and can only see into the den. At a distance there is a fire, and between the fire and the prisoners a raised way, and a low wall is built along the way, like the screen over which marionette players show their puppets. Behind the wall appear moving figures, who hold in their hands various works of art, and among them images of men and animals, wood and stone, and some of the passers-by are talking and others silent. …and they see only the shadows of the images which the fire throws on the wall of the den; to these they give names, and if we add an echo which returns from the wall, the voices of the passengers will seem to proceed from the shadows. Suppose now that you suddenly turn them round and make them look with pain and grief to themselves at the real images; will they believe them to be real? Will not their eyes be dazzled, and will they not try to get away from the light to something which they are able to behold without blinking? And suppose further, that they are dragged up a steep and rugged ascent into the presence of the sun himself, will not their sight be darkened with the excess of light? …Now the cave or den is the world of sight, the fire is the sun, the way upwards is the way to knowledge, and in the world of knowledge the idea of good is last seen and with difficulty, but when seen is inferred to be the author of good and right—parent of the lord of light in this world, and of truth and understanding in the other. He who attains to the beatific vision is always going upwards; he is unwilling to descend into political assemblies and courts of law; for his eyes are apt to blink at the images or shadows of images which they behold in them—he cannot enter into the ideas of those who have never in their lives understood the relation of the shadow to the substance.
The story is that there are individuals watching shadows on a wall. Those individuals believe what they are watching is reality. But one individual, the philosopher, escapes. That philosopher sees that the shadows are a hazy image of reality. The philosopher experiences god, in some form. But when that philosopher returns to the realm of the shadows, that philosopher cannot begin to describe the experience. This was the Ascent that all proper Platonists sought to achieve. The Allegory of the Cave is a description of the Ascent. The material world was to be rejected, and the ethereal life was the goal.
Plotinus would expand these ideas in his lectures and become the father of Neo-Platonism. Plotinus lived as he preached. He disdained the flesh and earthly desires. He was a vegetarian. He was very hesitant to letting himself be drawn and sculpted; he hated his earthly image and could not understand why he should make an image of an already flawed image. Plotinus refused medicine of any kinds and let his body be eaten by disease. He died a sickly withered man in his bed, Porphyry records, by a snake bite. Plotinus was the quintessential Platonist life.
Although Plotinus lived after the time of Paul, the ideas were alive and well in 1st century Greek culture. This is apparent in the writings of Philo of Alexandria (30BC-45AD). Philo, a Jew from Egypt, reinterpreted the Old Testament along Platonistic lines. Because the Bible contained information that sharply contrasted to Platonism, the stories were morphed into symbolic texts with Platonic truths.
Platonism and Mystery Cultism were very potent threats to Paul’s Greek converts. As shown through Philo, Platonism was also making inroads into Judaism (at least the Hellenized Alexandria Judaism). Paul (having been schooled in the Hellenized city of Tarsus) takes these popularly known concepts, recasts Christianity in the light of these concepts. Then Paul, in his own unique style, flips these concepts on their head and states that Christianity is completely different. This is the cultural context of Colossians. This is made apparent through the text.
Col 2:1 For I want you to know how great a struggle I have for you and for those at Laodicea and for all who have not seen me face to face,
Col 2:2 that their hearts may be encouraged, being knit together in love, to reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ,
Col 2:3 in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.
Paul alludes to the Mystery religions. But Paul’s Mystery is not like the popular Mystery cults; Paul’s Mystery is not secret. Paul openly declares his Mystery: Christ. In the pagan Mystery Cults, it was sacrilegious to reveal the mystery. Uninitiated individuals were sometimes executed for violating the mystery rules. But Paul states that his Mystery is open. In Jesus is all the secret wisdom and knowledge. Paul then contrasts Jesus to the philosophers:
Col 2:4 I say this in order that no one may delude you with plausible arguments.
Col 2:5 For though I am absent in body, yet I am with you in spirit, rejoicing to see your good order and the firmness of your faith in Christ.
Paul’s concern was that the popular Mystery cults might make converts of his own proselytes. They may come to his people with “plausible arguments”. This is another reason that Paul stylizes Christianity in the form of a Mystery cult. He was contending and mocking a major threat to the Colossian church.
Col 2:8 See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.
Col 2:9 For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily,
Col 2:10 and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority.
Paul warns them again. This time Paul is explicit: “philosophy” itself is the threat. The audience of Paul would know precisely Paul’s object. Paul contrasts the philosophy and Christ. Specifically, Paul states that “in him [Christ] the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily.” This would be an amazing affront to Platonism and the Mystery cults. The main purpose of Platonism was to escape the body. The body was seen as evil. The material world was something to be transcended. Paul’s meaning is not that there is some sort of third party divine element in Jesus, but that Jesus (body and all) were divine.
While some modern Christians claim that Jesus had both human and divine natures that are separate, this idea would not be what Paul is trying to communicate. That is no different than what the Platonists already taught. That teaching would not be a very effective point by Paul. Instead, Paul was countering the Platonists. Paul was countering “philosophy”. The material world is the divine, at least in the person of Jesus. The Godhead is said to “dwell bodily”. This body was from whom Paul’s converts were “filled”. Paul’s converts are not looking for some sort of spiritual Ascent. In Jesus they have everything they need from the spiritual realm.
Paul was driving a major blow against Plato with the line: “For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily”. Plato separated the body and spirit as distinct. He explains the working of this separation in Phaedo:
I will endeavour to explain to you in what way the mortal differs from the immortal creature. The soul in her totality has the care of inanimate being everywhere, and traverses the whole heaven in divers forms appearing–when perfect and fully winged she soars upward, and orders the whole world; whereas the imperfect soul, losing her wings and drooping in her flight at last settles on the solid ground-there, finding a home, she receives an earthly frame which appears to be self-moved, but is really moved by her power; and this composition of soul and body is called a living and mortal creature. For immortal no such union can be reasonably believed to be; although fancy, not having seen nor surely known the nature of God, may imagine an immortal creature having both a body and also a soul which are united throughout all time…
That last sentence is very important, for that is what Paul assaults directly (v9). Plato continues:
Such is the life of the gods; but of other souls, that which follows God best and is likest to him lifts the head of the charioteer into the outer world, and is carried round in the revolution, troubled indeed by the steeds, and with difficulty beholding true being; while another only rises and falls, and sees, and again fails to see by reason of the unruliness of the steeds. The rest of the souls are also longing after the upper world and they all follow, but not being strong enough they are carried round below the surface, plunging, treading on one another, each striving to be first; and there is confusion and perspiration and the extremity of effort; and many of them are lamed or have their wings broken through the ill-driving of the charioteers; and all of them after a fruitless toil, not having attained to the mysteries of true being, go away, and feed upon opinion.
For Christianity to claim that the fullness of God dwells in Jesus is a claim that the physical is not evil. The physical is the goal of a good Christian. The material world was not the fallen evil that the Platonists assumed. The Jewish idea was that God would remake the Earth into His own Earthly Kingdom.
Col 2:11 In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ,
Col 2:12 having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.
Col 2:13 And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses,
Col 2:14 by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.
Col 2:15 He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.
Paul lays out a basic gospel narrative. Christ died, was buried, and rose. It is this action that allows forgiveness of sins. Paul also links this to “putting off the flesh”, a concept with Platonistic undertones. But Paul uses this in a different way. Paul is saying that his converts do not need Ascension or purification. Paul’s converts are living purified already though Christ. This is a radical message to a Greek city and even to Jewish leadership.
Paul next attacks those attacking his converts:
Col 2:16 Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath.
Col 2:17 These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.
Paul’s converts were being questioned on what they ate and drank. Paul’s converts were being questioned on what Holidays they observed, or by observing the Sabbath. These are Jewish themes. Jewish leaders were one of the main oppositions to Paul, as seen throughout his letters. Colossians seems to have not escaped this curse. Paul was fighting intellectual assault from Jews and Greeks alike.
In verse 17, Paul uses the “shadow” imagery. Holidays and Sabbaths do not represent reality, but they point man to Christ. Paul, in his characteristic way, is expropriating Platonic allegory to apply to his own theology. He uses Platonistic arguments to attack legalism, but not in the sense of the original Platonistic argument. Paul melds it to become appropriate to his own point.
Paul also attacked the Platonists attacking his converts:
Col 2:18 Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind,
Col 2:19 and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God.
In the NKJ, the first phrase is translated “Let no one cheat you of your reward”. Apparently, Paul considered the ideas contained in this verse as a possible way to lose salvation, or other Christian benefits. In any case, the ideas Paul is about to cover are highly detrimental to Christianity.
Paul, in verse 18, attacks the very real calls by competing religions to asceticism. Paul disliked asceticism. A good picture of asceticism would be the life of Plotinus, who neglected his body and died withered. Asceticism involved discarding the material, neglecting the body, all in an attempt to transcend reality. Asceticism was a cornerstone of Platonism.
Paul links this asceticism with worship of angels (which is reminiscent of the Mystery Cults, who each worshiped a separate Greek god). This reference to angels could also be a reference to Gnosticism, which is the blending of Platonism and Christianity. In many forms of Gnosticism, there was one fixed immutable god by which a series of lesser gods spawned. Gnosticism was Platonism mixed with Christianity of Judaism.
Paul ends this verse by talking about those who see visions in their head, which Paul says that they did not actually see (“without reason”). Paul attacks those who claim to have seen visions in their own head. Paul discounts introspection, the Ascent. There is a hint of mocking in Paul’s last line: “by his sensuous [fleshly] mind.” Whereas the Platonists claim to escape the flesh, Paul mocks this idea by attributing their fantasies to the overactive imagination in their flesh.
Paul’s next verse is a direct claim that God is in charge of the physical body. God made human heads for thinking, and God made the rest of the body grow as well. Paul is saying that people should not neglect the body. People need to stay grounded in reality. To the horror of the Platonists, God is deeply invested in the physical world.
Adam Clarke attributes these verses to countering the Essenes, a Jewish Ascetic cult. But the Essenes were situated in Israel and Syria, not modern day Turkey. The Essenes were a small sect and held no great threat. It is hard to imagine that the Essenes were a credible presence in the small Hellenized city of Colossae. In any case, it would be hard to argue that the Essenes were not highly Platonized.
Col 2:20 If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations—
Col 2:21 “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch”
Col 2:22 (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings?
Col 2:23 These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.
Paul begins this segment with an incredible statement. His converts are currently living spiritually. As such, they can ignore human commands to refrain from eating drinking and whatever else. Contrasted to this, the Platonists made the opposite point. And specifically Plato identifies eating and drinking as things not to do:
But what if there had been a circumcision of such natures in the days of their youth; and they had been severed from those sensual pleasures, such as eating and drinking, which, like leaden weights, were attached to them at their birth, and which drag them down and turn the vision of their souls upon the things that are below–if, I say, they had been released from these impediments and turned in the opposite direction, the very same faculty in them would have seen the truth as keenly as they see what their eyes are turned to now.
To Plato, eating and drinking were fleshly pursuits. Those activities would drag down and imprison the soul. Eating and drinking corrupted the body. Paul, in his mocking manner, turns this idea on its head. To Paul, his converts had nothing to worry about. Nothing in this life could imprison their souls. They were spiritual and redeemed, while in their flesh.
Paul then echoes his previous injunction against these Platonic teachings. Paul disclaims made up religions, asceticism, and bodily neglect. Such things, Paul says, are useless to true religion. If this is not an attack on Platonism, it is hard to imagine what else Paul would have to say.
Paul was not a Platonists. Paul envisioned, like many Jews of his day, a melding of physical and divine in the material world. Paul views material bodies, not in opposition to God, but complementing God. Paul mocked the Platonists and discounted their lifestyles and theology. Paul claims Jesus is divine in the body. Paul claims that his converts are spiritual beings. Paul mocks attempts to separate the material from the spiritual.