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The Riddle of Colossians: Quaerendo Invenietis

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 February 2009

Alfred Edwin Drake
(10052 N. Hickory Lane, Columbus, Indiana 47203, USA)


Because ancient writers spoke as they wrote, their texts were understood to have oracular quality. Authors, limited by the convention of scriptio continua (the practice of writing words, frequently abbreviated, without spaces and punctuation), were careful to supply their readers with aural clues of textual structure, clarifying their emphases by various means of repetition. Readers listened for the writer's ‘voice’: for clues of aural structures – rhetorical devices (anaphora, inclusio, antithesis, etc.), for enthymemes and topoi in deductive reasoning and for examples in inductive reasoning – even as they voiced the words of the text. ‘Reading’, as Paul J. Achtemeier points out, ‘was … oral performance whenever it occurred and in whatever circumstances. Late antiquity knew nothing of the “silent, solitary reader”’ (original emphasis).

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1995

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1 See Paul J. Achtemeier's presidential address to the Society of Biblical Literature, Omne verbum sonat: The New Testament and the Oral Environment of Late Western Antiquity’, JBL 109 (1990) 15.Google Scholar

2 See Ong, Walter J., Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (London: Methuen, 1982) 78–9.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

3 Achtemeier, ‘Omne’, 17–25.

4 See Kennedy, George A., Classical Rhetoric and Its Christian and Secular Tradition from Ancient to Modern Times (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1980) 7085Google Scholar, and by the same author, New Testament Interpretation through Rhetorical Criticism (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1984) 36, 26–38.Google Scholar

5Omne’, 17. See Slusser, Michael, ‘Reading Silently in Antiquity’, JBL 111 (1992) 499.Google Scholar

6Omne’, 3, 15. See also George A. Kennedy, New Testament, 4–5, 37.

7 See Kennedy, New Testament, 13–25. See also by the same author, Classical Rhetoric, 63–85.

8 Early Christian Rhetoric: The Language of the Gospel (Cambridge: Harvard University, 1971) 3.Google Scholar Wilder writes eloquently of ‘a new dynamics in human speech’. See also, Kennedy, New Testament, 26–7.

9 Five possibilities have been considered: the letter of Laodicea is lostBeare, F. W., ‘The Epistle to the Col’, IntB (New York: Abingdon, 1955) 239.Google Scholar It is Eph – Marcion, Lightfoot, J. B., St Paul's Epistle to the Colossians and to Philemon (London: Macmillan, 1879) 422, 437Google Scholar; Moulton, H. K., Colossians, Philemon and Ephesians (Cambridge: University, 1963) 1, 67Google Scholar. It is PhlmKnox, John, Philemon among the Letters of Paul: A New View of Its Place and Importance (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago, 1935) 1824Google Scholar. It is a letter written from Laodicea by Paul, or by someone else – Anderson, Charles P., ‘Who Wrote “The Epistle From Laodicea?”’, JBL 85 (1966) 436–40Google Scholar. See Eduard Lohse's response to Anderson, , A Commentary on the Epistles to the Colossians and Philemon (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1971) 174–5Google Scholar. I propose a sixth possibility: no literal letter of Laodicea ever existed.

10Omne’, 17, n. 107. Achtemeier interprets Gal 4.20 as Paul's lack of having such an agent.

11 The Act of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic Response (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1978) 34Google Scholar.

12 The Greek Way to Civilization (New York: W. W. Morton, 1930) 1819.Google Scholar

13 Act of Reading, 108.

14 See Kennedy, New Testament, 26–30, for ancient rhetorical theories of style. A holistic perspective reveals the author used rhetorical invention ironically. E.g., inclusio (1.23,24, 25) and enthymemes (1.19; 2.9) have double meanings by means of their relationship to Colossians' chiastic structures. Two objective criteria are involved in the identification of chiasmi: (1) The same words or roots are employed in parallel lines of each chiasmus. See Dahood's, Mitchel example: ‘Chiasmus’, IDBSup (New York: Abingdon, 1976) 145Google Scholar. Contrast Welch's, John W.Chiasmus in Antiquity: Structures, Analyses, Exegesis (Gerstenberg: Hildesheim, 1981) 13Google Scholar, built on the thesis that ‘evidence of chiasmus is not entirely objective and quantifiable’. (2) In the Preface to Welch's monograph, David Noel Freedman asks: ‘Is [the presence of chiasmus] more than a trivial inversion, or does it have some arcane or aesthetic validity with palpable or subliminal meaning?’ I submit, Colossians' chiasmi have arcane and aesthetic validity as well as ‘significance and force in the overall structure’ (Freedman, 7). Irony in Colossians challenges both theological (the parousia, 3.3–4) and rhetorical conventions.

15 Iser, Act of Reading, 34: ‘… The implied reader as a concept has his roots firmly planted in the structure of the text: he is a construct and in no way to be identified with any real reader.’

16 This apposite phrase of Havelock, Eric A., ‘Oral Composition in the Oedipus Tyrannus of Sophocles’, New Literary History 16 (1984) 187CrossRefGoogle Scholar, is noted by Achtemeier in his scholarly article, ‘Omne’, 19.

17 Daniel, Jones, ed., The Poems of Dylan Thomas (New York: New Directions, 1971) 35.Google Scholar

18 Harold, Bloom, ed., ‘Geometric Structures of the Iliad’, Modern Critical Views (New York: Chelsea House, 1986) 120.Google Scholar

19 Jones, ed., Poems, ‘Selected letters’, 375.

20 See, e.g., recent discussion on authorship: Eduard Lohse, Colossians, 177–83; Schweizer, Eduard, The Letter to Colossians (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1982) 1524Google Scholar; Pokorný, PetrColossians: A Commentary (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1991) 35Google Scholar. See also Bujard's, W.Stilanalytische Untersuchungen zum Kolosserbrief (StUNT 11; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1973)Google Scholar – a comprehensive investigation comparing Colossians' style with Paul's letters.

21 ‘Geometric’, 120.

22 ‘Selected letters’, The Poems, 375.

23 See Achtemeier, ‘Omne’, 12–19.

24 Kennedy, New Testament, 28: ‘The term appears first in Pseudo-Hermogenes, On Invention (4.3, p. 182 Rabe), a work perhaps of the fourth century of the Christian era, where it is applied to a reversed arrangement of clauses in a sentence.’ Kennedy indicates chiasmus was known and used throughout the ancient Mediterranean world (28). As far as ancient Greek culture is concerned, the ability to recognize chiastic forms was an important part of a Greek child's scholastic training. From their earliest days in school, boys were obliged to recite the alphabet not only forward but also backward and chiastically, α-ω, β-ψ, γ-χ, δ-φ, … μ-ν. See Marrou, H. I., A History of Education in Antiquity (Madison: University of Wisconsin, 1956) 151.Google Scholar

25 Each Colossian chiasmus, ordered by its organic relationship to the letter's gestalt, fulfils a unique hermeneutical purpose. It sometimes happens, however, that biblical critics, looking for chiasmi, find them everywhere. See Manson, T. W. (Review, JTS 45 [1944] 81)Google Scholar and Jeremias, Joachim (‘Chiasmus in den Paulusbriefen’, ZNW 49 [1958] 145)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Both Manson and Jeremias fault Lund, Nils (Chiasmus in the New Testament [Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1942]Google Scholar) for his subjectivity in this respect.

26 See Matt 13.34–5; Mark 4.34.

27 Mark 4.11–12; Matt 13.11 and Luke 8.10.

28 To what ‘ministry’ is Archippus called? The letter seemingly gives no explicit indication what ministry is intended by the writer's mandate of 4.17.1 will demonstrate that the dative, ‘Αρχίππῳ, the verbs ‘see’ (βλπε), ‘you received’ (παρέλαβες) and ‘you fulfil’ (πλροῖς), and the word order (βλέπε τῂν διακονίαν) are significant clues to the riddle of ‘the ministry’.

29 J. S. Bach's instruction for canons 9, 10 and 11 of his Musical Offering. See David, Hans Theodore, J. S. Bach's Musical Offering: History, Interpretation and Analysis (New York: Dover, 1945) 22.Google Scholar

30 Vaganay, Leo, An Introduction to the Textual Criticism of the New Testament (London: Sands, 1937) 88–9Google Scholar. See also, Lake, Kirsopp, The Text of the New Testament (London: Rivingtons, 1948) 8.Google Scholar

31 The anarthrous reading is preferred for different reasons by Schweizer, Colossians, 157–58.

32 Aland, K., Black, M., Martini, C. M., Metzger, B. M., Wikgren, A., ed. (New York: UBS, 3rd ed. 1975) and Novum Testamentum GraeceGoogle Scholar, post Eberhard, Nestle and Erwin, Nestle, ed. Aland, K., Black, M., Martini, C. M., Metzger, B. M., Wikgren, A. (Stuttgart, 26th ed. 1979).Google Scholar

33 The Compass of Irony (London: Methuen, 1969) 56–7.Google Scholar

34 Dilthey, Wilhelm (Gesammelte Schriften [Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1958] 5.330)Google Scholar describes the hermeneutical paradox: ‘Herein lies the central complexity of all hermeneutic. The whole of a work must be understood from its individual words and their relations, and yet the full understanding of individual words already draws upon the understanding of the whole.’ The translation is Ray L. Hart's. See Unfinished Man and the Imagination (New York: Herder & Herder, 1968) 60–1.Google Scholar

35 ‘He is the beginning, the first-born from the dead, that in everything he (αὐτς) might be pre-eminent. For in him (αύτῷ) all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him (αὐτο) to reconcile to himself (εἰς αὐτν) all things.’

36 It should be noted that τ ατοιχεῖα is limited by το κσμου (2.8, 20), a qualification which reinforces the ironist's lower level, rhetorical message. The context of the phrase indicates that it clearly opposes what follows. Στοιχεῖα's (2.8) double entendre is activated by: the three citations of κατ (the third of which immediately precedes the term ‘Christ’), the lists of inflected Christ-terms that follow, and the remarkable chiastic relationship between 2.8–20 and 1.16–19. (See diagram 3.) These lexical factors hint at and anticipate the ironist's upper level situation. For a discussion on irony, see Muecke, Compass, 19–21.

37 Delling, Gerhard, ‘ατοιχεῖον’, TDNT 7 (1971) 671–87Google Scholar. See also Schweizer, Eduard, ‘Slaves of the Elements and Worshipers of Angels: Gal 4.3 and Col 2.8, 18, 20’, JBL 107 (1988) 455–68.Google Scholar

38 Compass, 19–20.

39 See Paul Ricoeur's discussion on limit-concepts: Crossan, John Dominic, ed., ‘Paul Ricoeur on Biblical Hermeneutics’, Semeia 4 (1975) 129–35.Google Scholar

40 I use ‘naiveté’ in the sense of being curious about ‘the obvious’ and the unusual: e.g., inquiring into reasons for 4.16's defective phrase and the direct speech of 4.17.

41 Moulton, James Hope and Turner, Nigel, ‘The Style of Paul’, A Grammar of New Testament Greek (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1976) 4.90.Google Scholar

42 BDF, 392, 475; see also BAGD, ‘ἴνα’, 379.

43 For examples of the factitive sense of ποιέω, see BAGD, ‘φημί’, 856.

44 Note the writer's own cryptic sanction of the choice: ‘and you read the church of Laodicea’. (See diagram 6.)

45 Moule, C. F. D, An Idiom-Book of New Testament Greek (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 2nd ed. 1959) 166.Google Scholar

46 See Kennedy, Classical, 70–1 and, by the same author, New Testament, 16. Enthymemes generally express a reason for the action of the main clause. Reading Colossians rhetorically implies that a logical syllogism stands behind both τι-clauses. This writer uses invention both to line out his rhetorical arguments and to establish the letter's remarkable visual organization.

47 Lohse, Colossians, 89.

48 I believe the writer excluded the relative clauses of 2.23 and 3.5 on the grounds that they did not adhere strictly to the ς, , ἄ στιν-principle.

49 Among the writer's special tendencies is a disregard for gender. See Moulton-Turner, Grammar, 3.317. See also, Lohse, Colossians, 89. Lohse indicates that the author uses both this solecism and that of 3.14, as ‘a formulaic phrase’ (see BDF, 132) to introduce an explanation.

50 Muecke, Compass, 19–20.

51 The term ταν (‘whenever’), occurs only twice in Colossians, here and at 4.16. In both cases, this temporal conjunction introduces indefinite subjunctive clauses that are ironical. The irony of both texts is created by considering the terms themselves as well as their respective extra-textual referents.

52 See Achtemeier, ‘Omne’, 17, n. 107. According to the concept, ‘reading as oral performance’, Tychicus, the letter carrier, served the Colossian writer by reading the letter aloud. It is my thesis, however, that Tychicus, knowing Colossians as a word game, was simply an amused observer. He watched as members of the church first sought to exchange their letter with the Laodiceans, and, frustrated in that attempt, returned to Colossae to puzzle over the unrolled scroll.

53 ‘Geometric’, 120.

54 ‘Geometric’, 123.

55 Muecke, Compass, 56–7.

56 Ong, Orality and Literacy, 78–116.

57 Ong, Orality and Literacy, 162.