Sceva, Solomon, And Shamanism: The Jewish Roots Of The Problem At Colossae -- By: Clinton E. Arnold

Journal: Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society
Volume: JETS 55:1 (Mar 2012)
Article: Sceva, Solomon, And Shamanism: The Jewish Roots Of The Problem At Colossae
Author: Clinton E. Arnold


Sceva, Solomon, And Shamanism:
The Jewish Roots Of The Problem At Colossae

Clinton E. Arnold

Clinton Arnold, professor of New Testament language and literature, Biola University, Talbot School of Theology, 13800 Biola Avenue, La Mirada, CA 90639, delivered this presidential address at the 63d annual meeting of the ETS on November 17, 2011, in San Francisco, CA.

The time is favorable for a reinvestigation of the background of the problem at Colossae. A cascade of important historical studies and a few new primary source documents have appeared over the last two decades that have relevance to this question. All of this contributes in substantive ways to our understanding of the background of Colossians, but these documents and studies also represent significant new strides for appreciating the contours of Second Temple Judaism, especially Jewish mysticism and Jewish magic.

This essay also affords me with an opportunity to defend some of the things I said in my 1995 monograph, The Colossian Syncretism, with which not everyone has agreed.1 Some have suggested that I overstressed the Greek and Roman background of the problem and have not paid sufficient attention to the essential Jewishness of the rival teaching.2 In this paper, I want to affirm that I do, in fact, see a substantial Jewish contribution to the problem at Colossae without surrendering the fact that I still think the teaching of the faction there was indeed syncretistic. What I hope to reveal in this paper is a dimension of Judaism that has largely been unexplored and unrecognized by biblical scholars, especially in terms of its contribution to this question.

The issue of the precise nature of the competing teaching at Colossae is an intriguing puzzle. What specifically was happening at Colossae continues to be an unresolved matter of debate. For many years, Gnosticism was viewed as the root of the problem, but more recent scholarship has rightly called into question whether Gnosticism even yet existed as a coherent religious system by the middle of the first century.3

It does not help to speak of the problem as “incipient Gnosticism” or “proto-Gnosticism,” since many Graeco-Roman religious traditions could be given this designation since Gnosticism itself was a grand syncretism.

In the last generation, a number of scholars have suggested that the rival teaching at Colossae stems from local Judaism—either Jewish Christians within the church or influence from a local synagogue. I, too, th...

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