The Poetic Form of Col 1:15-20 -- By: Steven M. Baugh

Journal: Westminster Theological Journal
Volume: WTJ 47:2 (Fall 1985)
Article: The Poetic Form of Col 1:15-20
Author: Steven M. Baugh

The Poetic Form of Col 1:15-20

Steven M. Baugh

There are poetic features in Col 1:15–20 which have led scholars to identify it as a NT “hymn.”1 However, the precise, poetic structure of the passage has continued to be an unsettled problem. It seems that the text as we have it is not structured in a nice, orderly pattern like modern hymns. This has led many to hypothesize that Paul (or some other if Pauline authorship of Colossians is rejected) is loosely quoting an earlier composition along with his own comments,2 so that the original, hymnic form has been destroyed. They then strip away some of the elements in the passage in order to reconstruct the supposed original hymn.3

The problem is that the reconstructions have not been very convincing. Some scholars as a result are very cautious on

the whole issue of poetic structure. John Gibbs, for instance, says:

The fact is that scholarship has developed no consensus about the number and content of strophes in Col 1:15–20, or about possible Pauline additions, so that one may safely speak only of certain parallels…. no single reconstruction is fully persuasive.4

I find, however, that the structure of Col 1:15–20 can indeed be identified without reconstructing the text. In its details it is quite intricate; nevertheless, the overall pattern is a simple chiasm much like poetry and prose from the OT and from other Semitic works.5 The reconstructors of the text have been seeking symmetrical strophes, but, it seems, without first asking the question of whether symmetrical strophes were really necessary! For Semitic chiasms, at least, they were not. This assumes that we can rank the Colossians poem as a type of Semitic versus some other kind of poetry. Thus the question of the background of the poem will occupy us somewhat, and we will look at various examples in order to identify the poetic conventions which guided the composition of this poem.6

But before we launch into our investigation, we must report more fully on the opinions of others regarding the poem’s structure. We can distill the main presentations into two views, the three-stanza and the two-stanza, without doing too much violence to the distinctive features of each...

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