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Unravelling Colossians 3.11b

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 February 2009

Douglas A. Campbell
Dept of Religious Studies, University of Otago, PO Box 56, Dunedin, New Zealand


Scholars have always found the series in Col 3.11b difficult to interpret gracefully. There it is stated that in Christ the distinction with βάρβαρος, Σκύθης ‘barbarian, Scythian’, has been abolished, along with that between the more comprehensible oppositions of ‘Greek and Jew, circumcision and uncircumcision … slave, free’. The increased sensitivity of contemporary NT scholars to the social dimension of texts, as well as to their rhetorical and stylistic deployment, however, may at last offer the possibility of unravelling this intriguing set of antitheses, particularly at its critical point, that is, the interpretation of Σκύθης.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1996

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1 If Paul was the author of Colossians, these parallel instances are clearly extremely significant. If he was not then they are, although diminished, not unimportant: presumably both Paul and the author of Colossians were standing consciously within the same baptismal tradition. On the occurrence of the tradition in Gal 3.28 see Betz, H. D., Galatians: A Commentary on Paul's Letter to the Churches in Galatia (Hermeneia; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1979) 181–5;Google ScholarLongenecker, R. N., New Testament Social Ethics for Today (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984)Google Scholarpassim; idem, Galatians (WBC; Dallas, TE: Word, 1990) 150–9;Google ScholarPetersen, Norman R., Rediscovering Paul: Philemon and the Sociology of Paul's Narrative World (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985) 156–7;Google Scholar on the Corinthian incidence see Scroggs, Robin, ‘Paul and the Eschatological Woman’, JAAR 40 (1972) 283303;Google Scholar and Gundry-Volf, Judith, ‘Male and Female in Creation and the New Creation: Interpretations of Galatians 3:28c in 1 Corinthians 7’, To Tell the Mystery: Essays on NT Eschatology in Honor of Robert H. Gundry (JSNTS 100; Sheffield: JSOT, 1994) 95121;Google Scholar see also Cartledge, Paul, The Greeks: A Portrait of Self and Others (Oxford: Oxford University, 1993)Google Scholarpassim.

2 See also perhaps Gal 6.15; cf. Eph 6.8.

3 See Bouttier, Michael, ‘Complexio Oppositorum: sur les Formules de I Cor. xii. 13; Gal iii. 26–8; Col iii. 10,11’, NTS 23 (1976) 120, esp. 8–9.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

4 See Lohse, Eduard, Colossians and Philemon (tr. Poehlmann, W. R. and Karris, R. J.; Hermeneia; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1971) 136–53,Google Scholar esp. his comment ‘[t]he series undoubtedly has been adopted from the [baptismal] tradition’ (143, n. 70); and the extensive bibliography in O'Brien, Peter T., Colossians, Philemon (WBC; Waco, TE: Word, 1982) 173;Google Scholar Bouttier, ‘Complexio Oppositorum’, esp. p. 3, n. 1; see also Schnackenburg, Rudolf, ‘The “New Man” According to Paul’, in Present and Future: Modern Aspects of New Testament Theology (Notre Dame, In: University of Notre Dame, 1966) 81100.Google Scholar

5 Lohse characterizes them ‘as an especially strange kind of barbarian’, Colossians and Philemon, 144; an interpretation also given by Abbott, T. K., A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistles to the Ephesians and to the Colossians (ICC; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1985 [1897]) 286;Google ScholarLightfoot, J. B., ‘[t]he lowest type of barbarian … The savageness of the Scythians was proverbial’, Saint Paul's Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon (London: Macmillan, 1927 [1875]) 216;Google Scholar B. F. Westcott, ‘[t]he “Scythians” were regarded as the lowest of all “barbarians” … Here all terms are poured out at the end pell-mell, in one great stream, “barbarian, Scythian, bond, free”. We break away from all order and classification, and hurry on to the great pronouncement that closes the whole matter …’, A Letter to Asia (London: Macmillan, 1914) 151;Google Scholar E. Lohmeyer: [the Σκύθης] ‘ist der roheste und erschreckendste Vertreter solchen Barbarentums’, Die Briefe an die Philipper, und die Kolosser und an Philemon (KKNT; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1954) 143;Google Scholar F. F. Bruce, ‘the Scythian has for long been looked upon as particularly outlandish. Since the Scythian invasion of the “Fertile Crescent" towards the end of the seventh century B.C., these people's name had become a byword for uncultured barbarians’, Commentary on the Epistles to the Ephesians and Colossians (NICNT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1957) 276;Google ScholarMasson, C., L'Épître de Saint Paul aux Colossiens (CNT; Paris & Neuchatel; Delachaux & Niestlé, 1950) 144;Google Scholar and Gnilka, J., ‘Der Skythe ist für die Antike der Inbegriff der Unkultur’, Der Kolosserbrief (HTKNT; Freiburg, Basel & Vienna: Herder, 1980) 190.Google Scholar E. Schweizer at least comments that the statement is ‘remarkable’, and struggles briefly with its difficulties, The Letter to the Colossians (tr. Chester, A.; Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg, 1982 [EKK 1976]) 199.Google Scholar Bouttier concurs with the commentators: ‘non comme une opposition, mais comme une gradation. Le Scythe apparaît en effet ainsi que les commentaires le soulignent comme le super-barbare’ (‘Complexio Oppositorum’, 9).

Significantly, C. F. D. Moule is more nuanced: while Σκύθης does denote ‘the lowest type of barbarian’ (a direct dependence on Lightfoot), it also denotes slavery, specifically ‘from tribes around the Black Sea’ (an observation he derives from R. J. G. Mayor's entry on slavery in A Companion to Greek Studies [ed. L. Whibley; 3rd ed., Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1916] 510)Google Scholar, and this means the entire list of terms overlaps logically; ‘Σκύθης, belongs both to the classes βάρβαρος and δο⋯λος’, The Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Colossians and to Philemon (Cambridge: University, 1957) 121,Google Scholar emphasis added. O'Brien echoes this dual emphasis, stating ‘[t]he “Scythian” represents the lowest kind of barbarian who was probably also a slave; the term was applied to tribes around the Black Sea from which was drawn a wretched slave class … But the gospel breaks down these cultural barriers, overcoming the offense which a Scythian might give to another's natural sensibilities’ (Colossians, Philemon, 193 – note, O'Brien attributes the connotation of slavery wrongly to Lightfoot: it cannot be found in his commentary [see above], but derives more probably from Moule).

6 See Lightfoot, , Colossians and Philemon, 214–15;Google ScholarAbbott, , Ephesians and to the Colossians, 286;Google ScholarWestcott, , A Letter to Asia, 151;Google ScholarBruce, , Ephesians and Colossians, 275–6Google Scholar (his reading does not depend on Rom 1.14); Lohmeyer, , An die Kolosser, 143,Google Scholar n. 4; and O'Brien, , Colossians, Philemon, 193.Google Scholar Among those advocating pseudonymity who appeal to, or at least mention, Romans, see Masson, , Aux Colossiens, 144;Google ScholarLohse, , Colossians and Philemon, 144,Google Scholar n. 77; and Gnilka, , Der Kolosserbrief, 190,Google Scholar esp. n. 62.

7 Cf. Strabo 4.5.4; 7.3.6–7; (the origin of much of this stereotyping is attributed here by Strabo to Homer, whom he criticizes as ‘ignorant’ – although much of the blame also lies with Herodotus [see nn. 8,11 & 12]); 11.11.3–4; see also the summary given by Michel, O., ‘Σκύθης’, TWNT 7.449/TDNT 7.448.Google Scholar

8 As well as, one might add, to any more recent, post-modern penchant for binary oppositions – even if it is also an uncritical acceptance of the dominant literary stereotype of Scythia created by the ancient Greek literary tradition! Much of this negativity is traceable to the famous digression on the Scythians in Herodotus (4.1–144); on this specific discussion see Hartog, F., The Mirror of Herodotus: The Representation of the Other in the Writing of History (Berkeley, CA: rev. and aug. edn 1992 [Paris, 1980]).Google Scholar Hartog's post-modern reading does see ‘the Scythian’ as an important anti-type created by the Greek; however, even this negative image should not be construed narrowly: they were not merely uncivilized, but were also non-agricultural, non-urban, and nomadic. Cartledge deals with ancient Greek stereotyping of barbarity in general, with a particularly pertinent discussion of the slave-free distinction (The Greeks, esp. 118–51).

9 Would it not be equally obvious to have a contrast between barbarity and Judaism?

10 A dating reliant on Acts places Romans on the eve of Paul's final departure from Corinth (Acts 20.3); a date some four years after the trial before Gallio in 52 CE, hence 56, or perhaps 57. Colossians is usually held to be written from Caesarea, hence 57/58–59/60 CE, or (more likely) Rome, hence 60/61–62/63 CE (i.e., at least three years later). An earlier Ephesian imprisonment, according to Acts (18.19–21; 19.1–41; 20.17–35, esp. 19, 26, 31), would place the writing of Colossians in the three-year period before Paul's final trip to Jerusalem, presumably in the earlier section when the riot seems to have taken place (cf. O'Brien, , Colossians, Philemon, liv).Google Scholar Hence, only the rather unpopular Caesarean provenance for Colossians would place these two letters in relative temporal proximity.

11 This is noted by some scholars, such as Lightfoot (Colossians and Philemon, 216) and Michel, (‘Σκύθης’, TWNT 7.449/TDNT 7.448)Google Scholar, but never deemed applicable to Col 3.11b.

12 They were, he also said, a people who held their property in common, ate a frugal diet (the milk and cheese of nomads), and generally adhered to a stern, simple life-style (7.3.7–9); an opinion shared (Strabo tells us) by Ephorus. In addition, they were traditionally associated (of course) with archery – and also with metallurgy (Hall, Edith, Inventing the Barbarian: Greek Self-Definition through Tragedy [Oxford: Clarendon, 1989], 42,122, 38–9)Google Scholar. Moreover, at one point the Scythians were a sort of crude police force at Athens; hardly a context allowing a connotation of wild savagery (rather, one of stupidity!), leading to their parody in Aristophanes' Thesmophoriazousai; see also Cartledge, , The Greeks, 55.Google Scholar

13 Colossians and Philemon, 216.

14 Cf. LCL ed., tr. Adams, C. D. (London: Heinemann, 1948) 442–3.Google Scholar

15 TEXNHΣ PHTOPIKHΣ 11.3–6 (in Dionysii Halicarnassi quae exstant [ed. H. Usener and L. Radermacher; Stuttgart: Teubner, 1965] 6.377–80).Google Scholar

16 Gnomon Novi Testamenti (ed. P. Steudel; Tübingen: Ludov. Frid. Fues., 3rd ed. 1850), 2.317.Google Scholar Significantly, Bengel reads the couplet ‘barbarian, Scythian’ in Col 3.11b primarily in opposing terms, stating that ‘Scythian’ opposes ‘barbarian’ in the manner that the latter opposed civilized Greeks – they were barbarians to the barbarians. Hence the series is not, in his opinion, a climax or crescendo, but continues the antithetical force of the first two, and the fourth, couplets. Bengel also suggested that an ingenious four-fold contrast is intended here between peoples from the four points of the compass, the Scythians being Northern, the barbarians Southern Numidians, the Greeks Western, and Jews Eastern. Michel notes further evidence for this possible contrast, suggested originally by Theodor Hermann, the Scythians being, broadly speaking, white, and the Southern Numidians black: see Hermann, , ‘Barbar und Skythe: Ein Erklärungsversuch zu Kol 3,11’, Theologische Blätter 9 (1930), 106–7.Google Scholar Of course, Bengel's four-fold contrast (not to mention Hermann's) is a little far-fetched, and has not generally been followed – Lohse's measured rejection may be taken as definitive (Colossians and Philemon, 144 n. 76). In particular, the assumption that the four-fold enumeration depends on, namely, that βάρβαρος means ‘Southern’ and perhaps ‘black’, is fragile.

17 ‘Σκύθης’, TWNT 7.448–51/TDNT 7.447–50;Google Scholar Michel continues,‘… was wahrscheinlicher ist, als daβ der Apostel sich in der Zusammenstellung dieser Bezeichnungen lediglich von der antiken Schulsprache und der rhetorischen Tradition leiten läβt’ (451) – these observations were almost certainly prompted by Michel's reading of Bengel.

18 (In relation to both βάρβαρος and Σκύθης) ‘[i]t may be Paul's intention to give a comprehensive description of the composition of the Colossian church’, Paul's Letters from Prison (WPC; Philadelphia: Westminster, 1977 [1970]) 206.Google Scholar

19 E.g. Lohmeyer, , An die Kolosser, 143;Google Scholar and Moule, , Colossians, 121Google Scholar – most commentators seem preoccupied by the so-called heresy in the community, thereby perhaps overlooking less exotic internal tensions.

20 See, e.g., Lohse, who merely states, ‘[t]he mention of the name “Scythian” is surely not “motivated by some special situation in Colossae” (thus Michel …). Rather it belongs to the series adopted from the tradition’ (Colossians and Philemon, 144, n. 78 – a curious judgment, since we find this particular statement nowhere else in that tradition); his reasoning – or dismissal – is depended on directly by O'Brien, : ‘… against this [i.e. Michel's suggestion] see Lohse’, (Colossians, Philemon, 193).Google Scholar

21 Neither is the traditional scenario incompatible with this social reading: it would merely give it more specificity (see n. 39).

22 Emphasized only by Bouttier, ‘Complexio Oppositorum’, 9 – note, M. C. Kiley's overlooking of the presence of this figure leads to the almost amusing observation that the pseudonymous author is emphasizing their own identity (but are they a Greek, a barbarian or – a possibility Kiley does not mention – a Scythian?), while the ‘reversal’ of the traditional order in the series is taken as further evidence of pseudonymity (Colossians as Pseudepigraphy [Sheffield: JSOT, 1986] 60, 67, 94, 97). Kiley's difficulties demonstrate that, unless this figure is recognized, further progress in the statement's interpretation is next to impossible.

23 See only 1 Cor 9.20–2.

24 It is also unique that ‘Greek’ rather than ‘Jew’ begins the series: cf. Bouttier: ‘sans doute parce que la présence des Juifs lui faisant désormais problème, c'est “Grec” que devient le terme “fort”’ (‘Complexio Oppositorum’, 11).

25 Cf. Jeremias, J., ‘Chiasmus in den Paulusbriefen’, ZNW 49 (1958) 145–56;CrossRefGoogle Scholar and Lund, N. W., Chiasmus in the New Testament: A Study in Formgeschichte (Durham, NC: University of North Carolina, 1942).Google Scholar

26 The author's systematic use of asyndeton in the second set of four terms also encourages us both to distinguish it from the first set, which uses καί, and to read it as a self-sufficient semantic unit that, like the first, addresses one basic opposition. Such a variation could also be conceived as good rhetorical form – a minute variation to avoid banal reproduction within repeated figures (my thanks to Jon Hall for these rhetorical observations on the Greek). Of course, as we have said, the second antithesis is also then substantively the one we would expect from the other occurrences of the tradition, namely, that between slave and free.

27 The two chiastic antitheses then correlate with each other in terms of Greek with free barbarian, and Jew with Scythian slave (the ‘outside’ and ‘inside’ terms, respectively). Whether this is significant – perhaps betraying the author's sympathies in the situation – or unmotivated, is hard to say: probably it does no more than recapitulate the traditional parallel pattern of ‘Jew-Greek, slave-free’.

28 Notably by Moule, O'Brien (see n. 5), and Michel (TWNT 7.449/TDNT 7.448); see also Wiseman, D. J., ‘Scythians’, New Bible Dictionary (ed. Douglas, J. D. et al. ; Leicester: Inter-Varsity, 1982) 1080:Google Scholar ‘The latter [slaves] were called by the Pontic Greeks “Scythians” … Paul may use “Scythian” in the latter sense (Col. 3:11).’ Moule's comments are the most extensive – some two and a half sentences (!).

29 Moule et al. err a little here by suggesting (probably unintentionally) that such slaves came from ‘around’ the Black Sea. This is too loose; they came from the Russian steppes to the north, hence the appropriateness of the designation's transfer.

30 M. I. Finley does not note the important comment by Strabo; however, he also cites considerably later evidence: Synesius De regno 15; Ammianus Marcellinus 31.4–6; 16.7; Julian's eulogy to his Scythian tutor in Misopogon 352B; Claudian In Eutropium 1.1–17, 47–51; and Procop. 8.3.12–21 (see his ‘The Black Sea and Danubian regions and the Slave Trade in Antiquity’, Klio 40 [1962] 51–9,Google Scholar citing here from 56–7).

31 See above.

32 Natural History 4.80–1 (LCL ed.): Ab eo in plenum quidem omnes Scytharum sunt gentes … Scythae degeneres et a servis orti aut, Trogodytae … Scytharum nomen usquequaque transiit in Sarmatas atque Germanos; nee aliis prisca ilia duravit appellatio quam qui extremi gentium harum ignoti prope ceteris mortalibus degunt.

33 ‘The Black Sea and Danubian Regions’, 56. T. T. Rice concurs: ‘The ancient Greeks applied the names Scyth, Saka or Caha indiscriminately to all the nomads of the Eurasian steppe, without distinguishing between those inhabiting lands within reach of China and those living close to the Carpathians. As late as the second century A.D. Ptolemy called Sineria in central Asia, Scythia.’ Rice goes on to note, however, that a common culture (especially art – one of the few tangible remains of Scythia) and language linked these nomadic peoples: ‘[hence] there seems some reason to think that at any rate the majority were linked by some sort of racial tie’ (The Scythians [London: Thames & Hudson, 1957] 42).Google Scholar He notes that there were also agricultural and pastoral people, that is, a peasant class, present in Scythian society, where climate and geography permitted. These were taxed (and no doubt also enslaved!) by the higher-status Scythians.

In view of this semantic imprecision (probably deriving from the region's distance and historical fluidity), one can understand how the signifier could at times extend even to ‘Sarmatian’. This would also explain why the name could later be transferred by Synesius et al. – again, a little sloppily – to the Goths (who wiped out the remaining Scythians; a process begun by the technologically superior Sarmatians). On the other hand, Strabo, Seneca, Tacitus (see n. 37), Pliny, and Philo (Leg. 10; Vit. Mos. 2.19), among others, attempt to maintain the broader distinctions here, namely, between Scythian and Sarmatian, although it is also worth noting that Pliny calls ‘the Basturnae’ Germans, while Dio Cassius thinks that certain ‘Bastarnians’ are Scythians! (Natural History 4.80–1; Roman History 38.10.3).

34 See Westermann, William L., The Slave Systems of Greek and Roman Antiquity (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1955)Google Scholar esp. 84.

35 Finley warns that this should not be exaggerated: like ‘Scythians’, ‘pirates’ played a standard literary role, in their case of anarchism and threat (much as they do today), which could lead to untoward historical emphasis (‘The Black Sea and Danubian Regions’, 57–8).

36 See Ormerod, Henry A., Piracy in the Ancient World (Chicago: Argonaut, 1967), esp. 248–60Google Scholar – note, according to Strabo, the Scythians themselves took up piracy and the peddling habits of the Greeks (7.3.7).

37 Ephesus also seems to have long been a centre for slavery, as the most important Asian port on the nautical route south from the Black Sea, and also an obvious exit-point West for the overland route, whether from its own interior and Syria (traditional sources of slaves), or perhaps from the southern shores of the Black Sea: see esp. Varro: ‘for instance, when three men buy one slave at Ephesus, often one of them will derive the name from that of the trader, e.g. Artemidorus, and call him Artemas, while another will call him Ion after Ionia, the district where he bought him, a third Ephesios because he was bought at Ephesus …’ (The Latin Language 8.9). Ephesus is also mentioned as a slave-market by Herodotus (8.104–5); see also Achilles Tatius, Leukippe and Kleitophon 5.17; 7.13 (and one of the excerpts in Athenaeus's The Banqueting Sophists – from Malakos's Seasons of the Siphnians – states that Ephesus was actually founded by a thousand slaves who had revolted against their Samian masters [6.267a-b]); these passages are collected in Thomas, Wiedemann, ed., Greek and Roman Slavery (London & New York: Routledge, 1988 [1981]).Google Scholar

38 See esp. Tac. Ann. 12.17, where 10,000 Sarmatian slaves were offered at one point to save a city during an Eastern campaign; but also Seneca Ep. 80.9 (Scythians and Sarmatians); Martial 7.80 (slaves from the Danube region); and Juvenal 9.142 (two Moesians).

39 If the baptismal series (and the letter as a whole) are linked with Paul and the letter to Philemon, then a barbarian, specifically Phrygian, identity on Philemon's part is not unlikely. Colossae, although it was Hellenized, was in Phrygia (W. M. Ramsay describes Carian, Lydian, and Phrygian populations in the Lycus valley as a whole, while Laodicea seems to have received extensive Syrian settlement, but suggests that ‘[t]his people [in the glen of the upper Lycos, i.e. Colossai] seems at all times to have been esteemed Phrygian (The Cities and Bishoprics of Phrygia [2 vols.; Oxford: Clarendon, 1895] 1.6).Google Scholar Moreover, Lightfoot suggests that Ὰπφία was an especially Phrygian name (it is attested at Colossae in a funerary inscription: see CIG III p. 1168, no. 4380k, 3 [cf. BAGD 113]; Lightfoot, , Colossians and Philemon, 304–6;Google Scholar see also MM, 73). There is some close relationship between Philemon and Apphia (see Phlm 2), although we do not know exactly what it was: most probably she was his wife (so Theodoret, among others). It follows from this that Philemon was more probably a Phrygian than any other possible ethnicity, and hence a ‘barbarian free’ person (i.e. owner). Unfortunately, the other names in the letter Philemon are less decisive: Φιλήμων itself is Hellenistic – although it is worth noting that one of the two leading characters in a local Phrygian variant of the ancient flood story, recorded in Ovid's Metamorphoses (8.618–724), is (re)named ‘Philemon’. J. Fontenrose suggests that the name of the other character, ‘Baucis’, is Phrygian, hence ‘Philemon’ probably translates a native name (‘Philemon, Lot, and Lycaon’, University of California Publications in Classical Philology 13 [19441945] 93119;Google Scholar discussed also in Trebilco, Paul, Jewish Communities in Asia Minor [SNTSM 69; Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1991] 89, 223).CrossRefGoogle Scholar At least, then, ‘Philemon’ seems an attested Phrygian Hellenisation. It would also follow in this scenario that Onesimus lies behind the ‘Scythian slave’. As we have seen, such an identification would also fit the historical parameters of Colossae in the mid first century CE well. Onesimus's purchase in Ephesus would have been most likely (see n. 37). Col 3.22–4.1 may also then be more pointedly relevant than is often realised (and Col 4.17?; cf. Phlm 2).