I began as a liberal Christian, but the article from E.P. Sanders on Colossians woke me up to how “unscholarly” Biblical criticism is. I was told that the article definitely solved the issue of Pauline scholarship of the Epistle to the Colossians. Instead, what I realized was that their interpretive methods were highly questionable.

The following is a post written years ago, before I was saved. It is purely the work of an academically trained mind who figured out the inconsistencies in a school of scholarship. Because I was not saved, I wanted to doubt the letter because in the first chapter it teaches the deity of Christ, something that is very hard to justify unless the Holy Spirit teaches you that “Christ is Lord” (1 Cor 12:3):

In depth rebuttal of E. P. Sanders, “Literary Dependence in Colossians” JBL 85, no. 1 (1966): 31, 35-44.

I found the article very interesting and in my mind, it certainly increases the probability of an additional editor altering Colossians. However, the article has methodological errors.

First, the scholar did not analyze any of the other Pauline letters using his method of Biblical criticism (other than Philippians), meaning any of his findings lack any sufficient context. We do not know what he found is even significant. He concedes that he only assumes his analysis applies to other letters without testing the hypothesis later: i.e. “This probably indicates an amount that would not occur in a letter actually written by Paul” (emphasis mine).

Second, he presumes there are textual parallels (which indicate a slavish dependence on genuine Pauline letters from the forger of Colossians) when there are three, two, and even ONE Greek word in common. Furthermore, he does this on the subjective basis of the word(s) being “significantly unusual.” Without presenting evidence of what even makes them “unusual” aside from the random inclinations in his own mind, what we have are significantly questionable “verbatim agreement[s],” because he is assessing this agreement on shaky grounds.

Third, let’s look at his percent verbatim agreement numbers using his own methodology. He has Philippians at 7.8 percent verbatim agreement versus the six other genuine epistles and Colossians at 14.8 percent versus the seven genuine epistles. 

Now if you adjust Philippians to have its verbatim agreement with the amount in 7 letters, it would have 8.3 percent verbatim agreement. However, this number is derived purely by proportion and not by “verbatim agreement” with Colossians itself, so it is purely guesswork and not very methodologically sound. Also, it presumes that Sanders’ random guesswork of what consistutes “verbatim agreement” was applied equally critically to Philippians as it was to Colossians.

Further, for sound methodlogical reasons, the way he came to these numbers should be called into question. For example, he includes the hymn found between Colossians 1:15-20. Now, a pre-Pauline hymn, which was popular enoguh to be quoted to the Colossians as something they would be familiar with, can easily be expected to be invoked by Paul and make meaningless verbatim agreements because of the popular language it would employ. He derives 22 words from these 5 verses alone, about 10 percent of all of Colossian’s verbatim agreement. Therefore, if we subtract just these “agreements” from his analysis, the percentage using his methodology is closer to 13.3 percent.

So we have 8.3 percent in Philippians to 13.3 percent in Colossians using the same rough and imprecise methodology that the scholar used. This is hardly far above twice the verbatim agreement which he claims. Colossians has 62.5 percent more verbatim agreement.

Now, does this mean it is 62.5 percent more likely to have been altered and put together? Is it within the realm of error and chance? When we take into account the fact his subjective methods, sometimes creating verbatim agreements from as little as one word, and who knows how he approached verbatim agreements in the extremely similar greetings and ending that are found in both Colossians and Philemon! He could have easily increased Colossians percentage for the sake of argument using the greetings and endings alone. This is not exactly a convincing basis for an argument of forgery of Colossians.

Fourth, the scholar discusses the fact that though Colossians has 34 words found no where in the New Testament (he several times points out the amount of original words in Colossians,) but he ignores the fact that Galatians (31) and Philippians (36) have like amounts. So, this is a rather weak example of textual criticism. It is likely enough that new words in different letters come from a change in circumstance and slight alterations in theological ideas between the letters.

Lastly, let me touch on briefly some of the verbatim agreements he actually presents (because for the sake of length, he does not present all of his evidence, though I suppose he presents his best which is pretty poor to say the least.)

  • Col 1:26
    that is, the mystery which has been hidden from the past ages and generations, but has now been manifested to His saints,

to musthrion to apokekrummenon (5772) apo twn aiwnwn kai apo twn genewn nun de efanerwqh (5681) toiv agioiv autou,


1 Cor 2:7
but we speak God’s wisdom in a mystery, the hidden wisdom which God predestined before the ages to our glory;

alla laloumen (5719) qeou sofian en musthriw|, thn apokekrummenhn, (5772) hn prowrisen (5656) o qeov pro twn aiwnwn eiv docan hmwn;

So, we have “aiwnwn” (ages) used in both, but different words for “hidden” (apokekrummenon: apokekrummenhn.) The theological idea is that of the “mystery” being hidden in the past, a Pauline idea which concerns itself with Jesus’ revelation. Why is it strange if Paul repeated this idea more than once?

Now I admit, I am not literate in ancient Greek, but outside a few words, in different order, it does not look like a parallel verbatim in language. It just looks like Paul repeating an idea he has. Because the idea is similar, it will share the same words. The same would be true if I were writing a cook book and I had one recipe for Apple Crisp and another for Apple Pie.

  • Col 3:2
    Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth.

ta anw froneite, (5720) mh ta epi thv ghv;

Phil 3:19
whose end is destruction, whose god is their appetite, and whose glory is in their shame, who set their minds on earthly things.

wn to telov apwleia, wn o qeov h koilia kai h doca en th| aisxunh| autwn, oi ta epigeia fronountev.

The only verbatim word in both passages is “froneite,” with 2 different words for Earth (ghv versus epigeia). This looks much more like Paul talking about an idea he has in different words rather than a copycat taking that idea ad verbatim.

  • In Col 3:15 and Phil 4:7, an “ad verbatim quotation” he draws, are not even close. If these are the examples that are “good” enough to present as valid evidence, I am not impressed. How bad is the “evidence” that is not presented?

The scholar concedes “the evidence for literary dependence is clear only in relatively few verses of Colossians,” and boasts, “but there it is indisputable.” Is it? Are one to two word parallels found in up to 8 different verses in some cases for Colossians verse really indisputable? Did the “real” writer of Colossians have 5 scrolls on his desk at the same time, looking in odd place for just two or one word(s) to sound Paul-like?

With the more objective forms of textual criticism failing to make the grade, our best evidence against Pauline scholarship of Colossians is the subjective measure that “the Greek looks different.” This is why anybody might become suspicious enough to tear apart Colossians for one word parallels.

However, I wonder if we could find the same in genuine letters if we were so critical. So, why does the Greek look so different? Is it because Paul did not write it? Was he using a different scribe? Did it get edited afterwards? Who knows. However, due to close theology and close enough language, plus the arguments made by Paul against Jewish Christians (and not Gnostics,) it looks like a genuine Pauline letter to me at least.