Colossians: Polemic or parenesis?

Robert Edward Cleveland, Fordham University


New Testament scholars have routinely characterized the Epistle to the Colossians as polemic against a heresy or false teaching. It is the thesis of this dissertation that the opponents in Colossians presented no formulated doctrinal threat. Instead, the opponents were a group of Christians who sought to impose certain Jewish practices, which they had retained, on the community to whom the letter was written. This study argues that the author of the epistle addresses these practices by first laying out his understanding of the new cosmological order Christ has established. He then reminds the community that they participate in this new reality through baptism. On the basis of this teaching he exhorts them to resist the opponents' attempt to impose their praxis on the community. The author then sets forth an alternative praxis based on the community's baptismal experience. Finally he stipulates a social order based on the new reality Christ has established. The dissertation begins by examining the history and current state of the question regarding the identity of the opponents. It critiques both the methods utilized to arrive at this identity and the assumptions made about the text by scholars who use these methods. Then the study seeks to establish a sense of the tensions that existed within the early church regarding its Judaic heritage. It does so by using principles of symbolic anthropology and the sociology of knowledge. The rhetorical structure of the epistle is treated next. The study concludes that this structure demonstrates that the author's concern is the attempt by the opponents to impose their praxis on the community and not doctrinal issues. The study then demonstrates how the various aspects of the author's argument work together to support his refutation of the opponents' practices. It then examines how the author uses the community's baptismal experience to shape an alternative praxis. Thus the epistle is parenetic in nature, exhorting the community to continue in the way of life they have begun. This exhortation is based upon cosmological principles the author sets forth.

Subject Area


Recommended Citation

Cleveland, Robert Edward, "Colossians: Polemic or parenesis?" (2000). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI9964559.