Introducing the New Testament, 2nd Edition

A Historical, Literary, and Theological Survey

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19. Colossians


This chapter should enable the student to

  • summarize what modern scholarship has to say regarding the historical background for Colossians, including information regarding the area to which the letter is ostensibly addressed and the possible relationship the letter bears to other Pauline letters.
  • discuss the question of whether Colossians is an authentic or pseudepigraphical letter and indicate how a decision in this regard would affect conclusions regarding its date of composition and presumed audience.
  • describe how Colossians contributes to the theological concept of “cosmic Christology” and “realized eschatology.”
  • explain the notion of maturity and spiritual growth evident in Colossians, indicating how this notion contradicts the philosophy against which the letter contends.

Pedagogical Suggestions

1. The Cosmic Christ

For homework, have students find an image of “the cosmic Christ” (google images, pop culture, Orthodox Cathedral, museum online, etc.). In class, students should look for the passage in Colossians that fits with the image they have brought to class. Next, have students meet in small groups (3–4 or 4–5 depending on time) to show the others their image of the cosmic Christ and to discuss how the elements in that picture fit the Colossians perspective or not. What elements are present in the image and in the text? What visual aspects convey the concepts described in the text?


Often, interpreting visual imagery comes more easily to college students than interpreting written material. In this exercise they do both—seeing how the visual images of the cosmic Christ are similar and different to the written description in Colossians. Students thus move between the more familiar medium and the less familiar medium, developing and applying their visual analytical skills to the written text.

2. Musical Introduction

Read the hymn in Colossians 1:15–20 aloud to the class. Ask students (in small groups) to “write” the music to accompany this ancient hymn. The students don’t have to be musicians. They can use whatever sounds and improvised instruments they can find in the classroom (phones, drums, clapping, humming, squeaks, ipods, books slamming, whispers, etc.). It may be easier for them to find space outside the classroom to accommodate the multiple groups. The goal is to get students to move (literally) and to think creatively (like a musical “A-Team” from the 1980s television show). If students are too overwhelmed by this initial assignment, ask them to imagine a composition that they would create, to create a piece of music through mental “sampling” of various pieces of music they are familiar with, or to identify a single piece of music that could accompany this text. Before they begin to work on a musical piece, help students think about the tone of the hymn, a climax or crescendo in the structure, and the imagery.

Alternatively, play some music for the class (selections from Out of Africa, Carmina Burana, Evita, Thriller, Mighty Mighty Bostones, Jay-Z, Kind of Blue, The Sugar Cubes, Flamenco Guitar, World Music), anything to stretch their thinking. What pieces would fit the “lyrics” of the hymn? Why or why not?

This exercise can be adapted to almost any text in the New Testament for similar purposes of articulating interpretation: the hymns in revelation, the passion narratives in the Gospels, Jesus’ entrance into ministry, even portraying Acts of the Apostles as a musical.


As with the visual imagery above, many (college) students can think about and analyze music in their sleep. It is an informal activity they have grown up with and have strong opinions about. They may or may not be able to articulate why something fits or what they like about it, but they will have opinions, and they will want to express them. Invite students to articulate what about the music matches, enhances, clashes with, the language and tone of the hymn. In this way, students begin thinking aloud with one another in the classroom about interpretation, and they begin trying out (in a nonthreatening way) the tools, concepts, and language of interpretation.

3. Reconstruction of Events

In small groups (of about 4) spend 15–20 minutes examining Colossians 4:7–18 with Philemon 1–3, 22–25 and with Ephesians 6:21–24. If we assume Pauline authorship of these three letters, how might students reconstruct the historical background to these letters so as to explain the mention of the same key figures? Use a map. Can students create a “backstory” that would give coherence to these letters? What might we learn about Paul’s ministry from this set of correspondence? Are the multiple mentions of key people incompatible? Why or why not?


An analytical activity, this exercise asks students to think like historians and to approach the writings as pieces of evidence that can help build a coherent narrative of the past. It will be important to help them see what is not there in the evidence, as well as what is. There will be holes to their historical narrative.

Discussion Prompts

  1. Examine text box 19.5, “Development of Pauline Ideas in Colossians.” Does it seem feasible that Paul’s thinking would move in this way over time or that he could write this way in Colossians and in Corinthians during the same time period? Think of your favorite television or film director or your favorite band. How do these artists develop in their thinking, writing, and performances over time? Are there any weaknesses to the argument for, or against, “developing thought” hypotheses in Paul? Why?
  2. Consider the realized eschatology presented in Colossians. What is the tension between calling the church to continue maturing on the one hand, and declaring to the churches that they already “have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self” (3:9–10) on the other?
  3. How does Colossians support ecological awareness or ecological responsibility and sustainability? What is the rationale in Colossians for viewing “the protection and preservation of the natural world as a primary calling” (text p. 374)?