November 3: Colossians 1:15b

Colossians 1:15b

prwto/toko$ th=$ kti/sew$
“(the) first (one) brought forth of every thing founded (by God)”
or, in simpler and more conventional translation:
“(the) first-born of all creation”

This phrase, or expression, relates to the same verb (e)stin, “he is”) in v. 15a (discussed in the previous note), and likewise defines who Jesus is (o%$ e)stin). The question then is, whether it represents a separate predicate, apposite to the first, or whether 15b is subordinate to 15a. If the latter, then the expression prwto/toko$ th=$ kti/sew$ explains what it means to say that Jesus is “the likeness/image of the unseeable God”.

The expression itself is comprised of two terms which, respectively, derive from verbs with a similar meaning—ti/ktw and kti/zw. The verb ti/ktw fundamentally means “bring forth, produce”, and is often used in reference to what the ground/soil produces, or to the birth of an animal or human being. In the former context, prwto/toko$ would mean “first-produced” (i.e. ‘first-fruits’), in the latter, “first-born”. The basic denotation of kti/zw is “found, establish, build”, as of a city or a house. Thus, kti/si$ refers to something that has been founded, built, or (more loosely) made; in a religious or theological context, this means something made (created) by God.

Let us begin with the noun kti/si$, a relatively common Greek word, but one that is rather rare in the New Testament; moreover, of the 19 occurrences, 11 are by Paul in his letters, and essentially in just 5 passages (cf. below). New Testament authors inherited the term primarily from the (philosophical/theological) vocabulary of Hellenistic Judaism—for example, the 16 occurrences in the LXX are from the later, Deutero-canonical writings and Wisdom literature (Wisdom 2:6; Sirach 16:17; Tobit 8:5, 15; Judith 9:12; 16:14, etc).

The Pauline usage is notable, and can be divided into two contexts:

    • The first creation, the current created order, especially the created beings (humans, animals, etc)—Romans 1:20, 25; 8:19-22, 39
    • The idea of a new creation, through union with Christ, especially in terms the resurrection (i.e., participation in Jesus’ resurrection)—Gal 6:15; 2 Cor 5:17; while this resurrection-aspect is clearly present in Rom 8:19ff as well.

This usage corresponds with my understanding of the predicate of v. 15a, as I point out at the conclusion of the previous note.

The first term in the expression, prwto/toko$ is a verbal adjective which means, as noted above, “(the) first [prw=to$] (thing or person) brought forth [to/ko$]”. This passive adjective has a corresponding active form (nearly identical), prwtoto/ko$ (“bringing forth first”), which is more common in Greek, but which does not occur in the New Testament (or the LXX). This makes it all but certain that Paul (and other early Christians) inherited the passive prwto/toko$ from Old Testament and Jewish tradition, deriving it largely from the LXX usage (133 times), where it primarily refers (in a literal sense) to the firstborn offspring of animals and human beings. There are, however, also instances where it is used in a more figurative sense, referring to a high or privileged (“first”) position (e.g., Exod 4:22; Psalm 89[88]:28).

Elsewhere in the New Testament, in Lukan Infancy narrative (Lk 2:7), it is used in the literal, biological sense of a woman’s first child (Jesus, born by Mary); cf. also Heb 11:28. However, the other occurrences all have a more specialized meaning, in reference to the special position Jesus has, in relation to other human beings (believers). This connotation is fundamentally Christological, and is defined primarily (if not exclusively) in terms of the exaltation Christology of early believers.

This point is confirmed by the use of the idiom “firstborn [prwto/toko$] out of the dead” (and comparable terminology)—referring to Jesus’ resurrection—by multiple lines of tradition in the New Testament. The specific expression is used by Paul here in Col 1:18 (to be discussed) and by the book of Revelation (1:5); it is clearly alluded to by Paul also in Rom 8:29, and the basic idea is implied in Acts 3:15, and other references could perhaps be cited as well. The exaltation of believers follows from our union with Jesus and our participation in the power of his resurrection (which is also a promise of our own resurrection); for this reason, we share that same identity as the privileged first-born (cf. Heb 12:23), though in Rom 8:29 Paul prefers to think of believers as ‘younger’ brothers to Jesus, who alone holds the position of “firstborn”.

How, then, should we understand the use of the word here in Col 1:15? There are three main lines of interpretation:

    1. It refers to Jesus as the pre-existent Son of God, and, specifically, that he was ‘born’ prior to the creation of human beings, etc.
    2. It refers to the position of (the exalted) Jesus as “first”, indicating, primarily and fundamentally, a position of rule and authority over creation
    3. It is to be understood in the context of the early Christian idiom of Jesus as the “first born out of the dead”, referring to his resurrection and exaltation.

As noted above, the New Testament evidence strongly favors the latter view (#3), including the very use of the expression “first-born out of the dead” right here in the hymn (v. 18). At the same time, the emphasis on the exaltation of Jesus makes view #2 also quite tenable, especially given the theme of Jesus’ position of rule and authority that runs through the hymn as a whole. The only use of the word prwto/toko$ in anything like meaning #1 is in Hebrews (1:6), a book which, along with the Gospel of John, has the strongest (and clearest) pre-existence Christology in the New Testament. While Paul seems to have held at least a rudimentary pre-existence Christology, it does not feature prominently in his letters. The best evidence for it is the Philippians hymn (2:6-11, previously discussed), and so, it is fair to assume that it may be a point of emphasis in the Christ-hymn of Colossians as well (cp. also the Prologue of the Gospel of John [1:1-18], which is sometimes regarded as another early ‘Christ hymn’).

There are two other factors which need to be considered, with regard to a possible pre-existence emphasis here in the hymn: (1) whether, or to what extent, kti/si$ here denotes the first creation or the new creation, and (2) the influence of Old Testament and Jewish Wisdom tradition on the Christological portrait. If kti/si$ here fundamentally refers to the first (original) creation of the world, then it is more likely that Jesus’ role in that creation is being referenced. Even more significant, if the Christology of the hymn is drawing upon Wisdom-tradition (as in the Johannine Prologue), then it greatly increases the likelihood that the idea of the role of the pre-existent Wisdom in God’s creation of the universe is in view. This will be discussed further in the next daily note, on verse 16.

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