November 5: Colossians 1:16b

Colossians 1:16B

ei&te qro/noi ei&te kurio/thte$
ei&te arxai\ ei&te e)cousi/ai
ta\ pa/nta di’ au)tou= kai\ ei)$ au)to\n e&ktistai
“…even if (ruling) seats and lordships,
even if chief (ruler)s and authorities,
all the(se thing)s have been founded through him and unto him.”

The first half of the complex clause of verse 16 was discussed in the prior note; if we are to consider the two halves together, including v. 16b (above), the lines would run as follows:

“(for it is) that in him were founded all the (thing)s,
in the heavens and upon the earth,
the (thing)s seeable and (thing)s unseeable
even if (ruling) seats and lordships,
even if chief (ruler)s and authorities,
all the(se thing)s have been founded through him and unto him”

The four central lines expound the expression “all things” as the object (ta/ pa/nta) of God’s creation. The first two lines demarcate the comprehensive cosmos in two different ways:

    • Cosmological— “heaven and earth”, the two parts (halves) of the universe (according to the ancient geocentric cosmology), dualistically juxtaposed as ‘above’ vs. ‘below’
    • Ontological—designating different kinds of being(s), divine/heavenly vs. human/physical, spirit vs. material; the former being ‘invisible’ (i.e. unable to be seen by human beings on earth), the latter being part of the visible world.

In the second two lines (here in 16b), the focus narrows from “all things” (and all beings) to the the beings that rule and govern the cosmos—even they were created by God “in” Christ. The conditional conjunction ei&te (“if also, even if”) expresses this particular point of emphasis. The conjunction is used four times, twice in each line, but it is awkward to translate this consistently, especially in the context of poetry; thus, for clarity I have rendered each pair ei&teei&te as “even if…and”.

The specific interpretation of the four terms, and their relation to each other, continues to be debated by commentators. I feel it is simplest to keep close to the basic meaning of each word; doing so allows for a rather straightforward explanation:

    • Line 1: the place, location, and domain of rule
    • Line 2: the particular beings/entities that rule

In the first line, the words are qro/noi and kurio/thte$; the first means “seats (of rule)”, i.e. thrones, and the second, derived from ku/rio$ (“lord, master”), is a plural of a noun that essentially means “place/position as lord”, i.e., the position where (and by which) rulers exercise governmental power and control. The noun qro/no$ is relatively common in the New Testament (62 times), while kurio/th$ occurs just 4 times (the other three instances being Eph 1:21; 2 Pet 2:10; Jude 8), and is never used in the LXX.

The terms in the second line are a)rxai/, meaning those things (or persons) that are “at the beginning, at the top, first”, i.e., the chief persons or rulers, and e)cousi/ai, plural of a common noun (e)cousi/a) that is notoriously difficult to translate. Basically, e)cousi/a refers to something that comes “out of” (e)c) a person, which a person has the ability to do; this may indicate an ability granted by a superior, or the power that the superior possesses (and gives to another). It is typically translated in English as “power” or “authority”. In this context the plural e)cousi/ai (i.e., “powers, authorities”) could either refer to human rulers (on earth) or those in the divine/heavenly realm. The latter usage reflects the ancient (polytheistic) worldview that the universe is controlled and governed by “powers”, usually understood (and/or personified) as personal beings. Paul uses the word (or the synonymous duna/mei$, “powers”) in this religious-theological sense only rarely, and even then generally, as a traditional expression (Rom 8:38, and cf. Eph 2:2; 3:10; 6:12; cp. 1 Pet 3:22). Even among monotheistic Jews and Christians, the belief was commonly held that divine/heavenly beings (Angels) exercised control over different parts of the natural world. The noun takes on special Christological importance here in Colossians (v. 13; 2:10, 15), and so it is worth taking note of its occurrence in v. 16.

I understand the nouns a)rxai/ and e)cousi/ai as a reference to the specific beings that exercise rule, both in the heavens (Angels, etc) and on earth (human beings); they sit in the seats of rule (qro/noi) and govern from a place/position of lordship (kurio/th$). Ultimately, all such rule and lordship belongs to Jesus the Son of God (and to God the Father).

The final line of verse 16 essentially repeats the statement of the first line, the two line being clearly parallel:

“(for it is) that in him were founded all the (thing)s…
all the(se thing)s have been founded through him and unto him”

The three prepositional expression that govern these lines—e)n au)tw=| (“in him”), di’ au)tou= (“through him”), and ei)$ au)to/n (“unto him”)—were discussed in the previous note. I mentioned the interpretation of the expression with e)n (“in”) as indicating the pattern or model for the creation of the cosmos by God, and noted the parallel in the Johannine Prologue (1:3-4). This interpretation is more likely when one considers the juxtaposition of “in him” and “through him” (di’ au)tou=), which also is to be found in Jn 1:3-4. The use of the preposition dia/ (“through”) is rather easier to explain: Jesus, the pre-existent Son of God, is the means, the instrumentality, by which God the Father creates the world. This Christological belief is attested in three separate lines of tradition in the New Testament—not only here in the Christ hymn and the Johannine Prologue, but also in the (Christological) introduction of Hebrews (1:2).

It is likely that this Christological belief was influenced significantly by the Hellenistic Jewish Logos-theology, best known from the writings of Philo of Alexandria (e.g., On the Special Laws I.81; On the Creation 25; On Dreams 2.45), and shared by the author of the Johannine Prologue (Jn 1:1ff). This theology, in turn, was largely inspired by Old Testament and Jewish Wisdom-tradition, in which Wisdom (Grk sofi/a) was considered to be the image (ei)kw/n) of God (Wisd 7:26), by which the world (and human beings) were created (2:23). This line of tradition goes back, primarily, to the famous passage in Proverbs 8:22-31, in which Wisdom (Heb hm*k=j*), personified as a pre-existent divine being, it is said, acted to bring about God’s work of Creation. The parallels between the Colossians hymn and the Johannine Prologue (cf. above) suggest that a similar Logos/Wisdom theology underlies the Christological portrait of the hymn, in terms of Jesus’ role in creation.

The final prepositional expression, ei)$ au)to/n (“[un]to him”), likely refers to the finished product of creation, insofar as it reflects the pattern. Philo describes the Logos as a stamp, the image of which is imprinted upon the material of the created world. The image is thus both “in” the Logos itself (as the image of God), and its image is stamped “into” the world. Implied also is the goal and purpose of the creation by God, which is for it to be a visible, tangible manifestation of God’s image (as conveyed through the image of the Logos). While the specific term lo/go$ is not used in the Colossians hymn (in contrast to the Johannine Prologue), I would maintain that the basic outline of the Logos-theology is generally present, transferred, of course, to the person of Jesus as the (pre-existent) Son of God. A principal reason why Jesus is to be recognized as Ruler and Lord over the universe is that it bears his image, since it was made “in him”, “through him”, and “unto/into him”.

The same verb (kti/zw) is also repeated from the first line of v. 16, though in a perfect passive (e&ktistai) rather than aorist passive (e)kti/sqh) form. There is an interesting parallel, again, to be found in the Johannine Prologue (v. 3f):

    • “all things came to be [e)ge/neto, aorist] through him”
    • “that which has come to be [ge/gonen, perfect]” + “in him”

While the aorist typically indicates something which occurred at a point of time in the past, the perfect often refers to a past action or condition that continues into the present. The use of the two forms here could conceivably be intended to bring out such a distinction:

    • e)kti/sqh (aorist)—the original creation, the establishment of the created order at the beginning
    • e&ktistai (perfect)—the created order as it has continued to the present time (from the standpoint of the author of the hymn)

This distinction would set the stage admirably for the second stanza of the hymn, which emphasizes God’s new creation brought about through Jesus His Son. The first creation lasts until the time that the new creation begins; and, indeed, with the death and resurrection (exaltation) of Jesus, this new creation has already begun, even if it is currently realized only for believers who are in union with Christ.


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