Recent Research on Col 1:15-20 (1980-1990) -- By: Larry R. Helyer

Journal: Grace Theological Journal
Volume: GTJ 012:1 (Spring 1991)
Article: Recent Research on Col 1:15-20 (1980-1990)
Author: Larry R. Helyer

Recent Research on Col 1:15-20 (1980-1990)

Larry R. Helyer

Research on Col 1:15–20 during the decade of the 80s suggests that the consensus of the 60s and 70s regarding the genre, composition and religious background of the passage is collapsing. In particular, the view that the passage is a pre-Pauline hymn redacted by Paul or a Paulinist no longer prevails. In its place, recent scholarship posits a Pauline composition which could best be described as a poem. There is also a decided shift away from a gnosticising Hellenistic Judaism as the conceptual reservoir of the passage. Among evangelical scholars, a new consensus regarding the passage appears to be emerging.

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Scholarly study of Col 1:15–20 continues to be a lightning rod in New Testament research. The cosmic christology and the complex questions concerning genre, structure, religious background and function all contribute to the fascination of the passage.

The purview of this article is a survey of selected studies on Col 1:15–20 published during the decade of the 80s. The purpose is to discern what trends may be evident, to determine whether a consensus is emerging with respect to some of the exegetical conundrums and to identify any false trails from previous research.

Two Challenges to the Consensus

We begin with two studies published in 1979 because they raised serious questions about the direction of scholarship vis-à-vis Col 1:15–20 and challenged the consensus of the 60s and 70s. These studies were, in retrospect, bellwethers for research in the 80s.

In an article entitled “The Source of the Christology in Colossians,” J. C. O’Neill denied a long-standing assumption in Colossian studies.1 He cast doubt upon the theory that the author of Colossians

was citing a pre-existent hymn.2 This denied a well-nigh “assured result of critical study.”3

We note first his arguments against the hymnic character of the passage. He observed that the technical terms in the passage are not uniformly employed—they have different meanings in the same composition. This seems highly unlikely for a hymn.4 Secondly, the passage fails to exhibit regular parallelism—there are too many inconsistencies.

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