In February I was writing a post on the New Testament and History with an outlook on some implications to John 10:22 (see here).
In this post I want to investigate some of the papyri of magical and mystery religions of the Hellenistic time as well as other Greek and Gnostic literature. This interest got sparked by my reading of Col 2:8ff. The aim of this post is not to solely base the Colossian philosophy/heresy on Hellenistic mystery religions but to show some affinity of that literature and what Paul encounters in Colossians. My point here is to show that even though the Colossian correspondence seems to point to a Jewish origin, this does not have to exclude pagan influence. Or said differently, it might even be that it is the Greco-Roman mystery religions which might have borrowed Jewish ideas and incorporated them into their system. Bruce and others maintain that “Colossian heresy was basically Jewish”. But we also need to see that “[n]o single view [i.e., that the Colossian philosophy has either Jewish or Gnostic or Greco-Roman mystery religious background] has arguments that can lead to its being endorsed exclusively. It is best to recognize that both Jewish and Gentile elements were present in the Colossian heresy, many of which were generally shared by the populace in the highly charged world of the first century, especially in the syncretistic and Hellenistic mood of Achaia and western Asia Minor.”It is the aim of this post to show some of the syncretistic tendencies of the time and place.
As I was reading Paris Magical Papyrus (lines 3,007-3,085), Charms and formulas [about AD 300], my interest got further sparked to see the origin of this philosophy. The following lines are but an example of the use of Jewish imagery, vocabulary and ideas among a pagan magical document:
The adjuration is this: ‘I adjure thee by the god of the Hebrews
Jesu, Jaba, Jae, Abraoth, Aia, Thoth, Ele,
Elo, Aeo, Eu, Jiibaech, Abarmas, Jaba-
rau, Abelbel, Lona, Abra, Maroia, arm,
thou that appearest in fire, thou that art in the midst of earth and snow
and vapour, Tannetis: let thy angel descend,
the implacable one, and let him draw into captivity the
daemon as he flieth around this creature
which God formed in his holy paradise (12-21)
It is interesting to observe that in this magical papyrus the “god of the Hebrews” is called upon. Not only that but we also see the first name with which the god of the Hebrews is called “Jesu” which might very well point to Jesus of Nazareth (whom neither Jews nor Christians would call “god of the Hebrews”).Further within this papyrus we encounter several Jewish elements. We read for example parts of the story of the exodus in lines 27-31:
I adjure thee by him who appeared unto
Osrael in the pillar of light and in the cloud by
day, and who delivered his word from the taskwork
of Pharaoh and brought upon Pharaoh the
ten plagues because he heard not.
Other Jewish elements include, “For I adjure thee by the seal which Solomon laid upon the tongue of Jeremiah and he spake” (33-35), the reference to God as creator (41f.), and the references to the crossing of the Red Sea and the Jordan(46-49; in reversed order). This document is thus only illustrative of how pagan magical material made usage of Jewish (and Christian?) elements (though some Jews themselves were heavily involved in magic).
Other “parallels” to the Colossian correspondence can be found in the Nag Hammadi library. In the document called Eugnostos we find for example the following lines: “I have just spoken about the blessed, imperishable, true God. Now, if anyone wants to believe the words set down (here), let him go from what is hidden to the end of what is visible, and this Thought will instruct him how faith in those things that are not visible was found in what is visible. This is a knowledge principle” (74:10-20). Here knowledge and that which is visible is stressed (typical teaching in Gnosticism); but Paul stresses e.g. in Col 2:2-4 that true knowledge and wisdom can only be found in Christ, and in him alone. If this is an “attack” against incipient Gnosticism is not the task of this post (and might be too much of mirror reading), but that true knowledge for Paul is solely found in Christ is obvious.
Let us look at one more example of ideological similarity between the rebutted philosophy in the Lycus Valleyand Paul’s apostolic penning. In Col 2:18 we find the following expression: ἃ ἑόρακεν ἐμβατεύων. This is an interesting and quite debated clause (see BDAG for some renderings). It is also remarkable in connection to the passage in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter there we find the following: “Happy is he among men upon earth who has seen these mysteries; but he who is uninitiate and who has no part in them, never has lot of like good things once he is dead, down in the darkness and gloom. But when the bright goddess had taught them all, they went to Olympus to the gathering of the other gods” (Hymni Homerici, h.Cer. 480–484).The language of initiation is found in both passages and it might very well be that Paul was encountering something similar to the Greco-Roman mystery religion in his daily struggle for the church.
Having stated all this I do want to conclude with the repetition of the initial statement. The aim of this post was not to show and conclusively demonstrate pagan mystery religion background as sole basis for the Colossian problem. But what I hope has been accomplished was to see some of the syncretistic tendencies of the time as seen by the different literature.
F. F. Bruce, “Colossian Problems, Pt 3: The Colossian Heresy,” Bibliotheca sacra 141, no. 563 (1984): 200. See among other commentators who take the Colossian philosophy to be of Jewish roots Ben Witherington, The Letters to Philemon, the Colossians, and the Ephesians: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on the Captivity Epistles (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007).
 H. W. House, “Doctrinal Issues in Colossians : Part 1 (of 4 parts): Heresies in the Colossian Church,” Bibliotheca Sacra 149, no. 593 (1992): 59.
Colossae being located at major trade routes so that influences from many cultural backgrounds would naturally find its way into the city; plus the “substantial Jewish minority” would also add to the flavor. For the latter see e.g. James D. G. Dunn, The Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon: A Commentary on the Greek Text. New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI; Carlisle: Eerdmans/Paternoster Press, 1996), 21.
Published by C. Wessely, ‘Griechische Zauberpapyri von Paris und London’, in Denkschrift der kaiserlichen Akademie der Wissenschafen zu Wien, Phil.-Hist. Klasse, xxxvi. (1888).
C. K. Barrett, The New Testament Background: Writings from Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire That Illuminate Christian Origins (Rev. ed.; San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1989), 36; leaning on Deissmann.
Again I want to reiterate that a dependence of Colossians on the following document is not argued for, but the ideological affinity is of interest. When, where, and how far “incipient Gnosticism” was around is not conclusively established. Though the document might have been written later than the NT times, the ideas might well have been around for a longer time. Further I think Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity (third ed.; Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 2003) rightly observes that “methodological difficulties are the scarcity of our information…and the lateness of much that is preserved” (297) and thus we cannot categorically come to an understanding everyone will agree with.
For arguments on dependence of the Colossian philosophy on Gnostic ideology see Ambrose M. Moyo, “The Colossian Heresy in the Light of Some Gnostic Documents from Nag Hammadi,” Journal of Theology for Southern Africa, no. 48 (1984): 30–44.
Johannes P. Louw and Eugene Albert Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains (electronic ed. of the 2nd edition; New York: United Bible Societies, 1996) point out that “[t]he meaning of ἐμβατεύω, which occurs only once in the NT, namely, in Col 2:18, is obscure. It may mean more or less literally ‘to set foot upon’ or ‘to enter’ or possibly ‘to come into possession of.’ It may also mean ‘to enter into’ in the sense of to go into detail in treating a subject, but it seems more likely that ἐμβατεύω in Col 2:18 is a technical term derived from the mystery religions, and it could be interpreted in the phrase ἃ ἑόρακεν ἐμβατεύων as meaning ‘who enters the sanctuary which he saw in ecstasy’ or ‘taking his stand on what he has seen in the mysteries.’ In view of the context, which speaks of someone being puffed up without cause, one might also render this Greek phrase as ‘by what he saw when he was initiated” (532-33).
ὄλβιος, ὃς τάδʼ ὄπωπεν ἐπιχθονίων ἀνθρώπων· ὃς δʼ ἀτελὴς ἱερῶν ὅς τʼ ἄμμορος, οὔποθʼ ὁμοίων αἶσαν ἔχει φθίμενός περ ὑπὸ ζόφῳ ἠερόεντι. αὐτὰρ ἐπειδὴ πάνθʼ ὑπεθήκατο δῖα θεάων, βάν ῥʼ ἴμεν Οὔλυμπόνδε θεῶν μεθʼ ὁμήγυριν ἄλλων.