November 9: Colossians 1:17

Transition: Col 1:17-18a

The two couplets of vv. 17-18a sit between the two stanzas of the hymn, and should be treated as a distinct unit. This unit also represents, arguably, the most distinctively Pauline portion of the Christ-hymn. If, as many commentators believe, Paul adapted an existing hymn, it seems likely that these couplets were included as his own addition to the composition. The lines are certainly transitional, with the first couplet (v. 17) continuing the thematic focus of the first stanza (the first creation), and the second (v. 18a) anticipating that of the second stanza (the new creation).

Colossians 1:17

kai\ au)to/$ e)stin pro\ pa/ntwn
kai\ ta\ pa/nta e)n au)tw=| sune/sthken
“and he is before all (thing)s,
and all (thing)s have stood together in him”

The initial conjunction kai/ of the first line marks the transitional character of these couplets, as noted above. The pronoun au)to/$ (“he”) is emphatic, and relates to the relative pronoun (o%$) that begins each stanza of the hymn. Indeed the phrase au)to/$ e)stin (“he is”) is precisely parallel to the opening of each stanza (o%$ e)stin, “who is”). It thus continues the Christological focus of the hymn, as a declaration of who Jesus (the Son) is.

The adjective pa=$ (“all”), as a substantive (collective) plural (i.e., “all [the] things”), was used earlier in v. 16 (cf. also the adjective in v. 15b). It also happens to represent an important part of the Pauline vocabulary, as he frequently uses the substantive adjective in a comprehensive, collective sense, though less commonly in a cosmological context, as here (see esp. 1 Cor 15:24-28). The reference here is to all things (everything) in the universe, with particular emphasis on all intelligent living beings (human beings, etc). The adjective is used in both lines of the couplet, giving double emphasis to the idea of Jesus’ place in relation to all of creation.

This relationship is indicated by two prepositional phrases: “he is before [pro/]” in the first line, and “(is) in him [e)n au)tw=|]” in the second. There is a semantic ambiguity with the first preposition, pro/, “before”, which can be understood in either a temporal or positional-relational sense. A temporal meaning is certainly possible, especially given the repeated use of pro/ in the LXX of Prov 8:22ff, which shares the theme of the pre-existence of divine Wisdom and its role in creation. However, it is worth noting that the preposition does not occur in any of the prominent pre-existence passages of the New Testament (such as the Johannine Prologue; cp. the comparable use of pri/n in Jn 8:58). In 1 Cor 2:7, Paul uses the preposition in a temporal sense, and in a context similar to that of the hymn (cf. also Eph 1:4).

The parallelism with the second couplet strongly suggests that a positional-relational meaning of pro/ is in view, given the parallel with the idea of Jesus as the “head” (kefalh/). That is to say, Jesus holds the chief place, the ruling and governing position, over all creation, and is thus “before” all things in that sense. In point of fact, the hymn emphasizes both the temporal and positional-relational aspects—that is, the pre-existence of Jesus the Son (with his role in creation) and his ruling position over the cosmos.

The verb in the second line is suni/sthmi, “stand together, (trans.) set together”. It is a distinctly Pauline term, as 14 of the 16 occurrences in the New Testament are in Paul’s letters (2 Corinthians, Romans, Galatians, and here in Colossians). Paul tends to use the verb in a general, transitive sense— “set/place together”, i.e., “establish, confirm” (Rom 3:5; 5:8; Gal 2:18); the specialized sense in 2 Corinthians, involving the question of ministers bearing letters of confirmation or recommendation (3:1; 4:2, et al), follows the technical use of the verb in Rom 16:1. Here in the hymn is the only Pauline use of the verb in a cosmological-philosophical sense, akin to the way Philo of Alexandria, for example, uses it (Who Is the Heir of the Divine Things §58), in reference to the Logos (lo/go$) as the governing power of God by which all things in the universe are “held together” (sune/sthke). The Logos is similarly described as a “bond”, the binding force, that holds the cosmos together (Who Is the Heir §23, cf. On Flight and Finding §112, Barth/Blanke, pp. 204-5).

As previously noted, this Logos-theology was influenced by Hellenistic Jewish Wisdom-tradition, associating Wisdom with the creation and existence/sustenance of the world, that stretches back to the famous passage in Prov 8:22-31. In Wisdom 1:7, the Wisdom of God is said to be that which holds all things together (sune/xon ta\ pa/nta); while in Sirach 43:26, it is stated that all things lay (bound) together (su/geitai ta\ pa/nta) in the Word (Lo/go$) of God. The Sirach passage is actually quite close to Col 1:17 with the phrase e)n lo/gw| (“in the Logos”), comparable to e)n au)tw=| (“in him”, i.e. in Christ). The wording in 2 Peter 3:5 is even closer, when it speaks of the heavens and earth “having stood together [sunestw=sa] in the Word of God [e)n tw=| tou= qeou= lo/gw|]”. There can be no doubt that similar concepts and phraseology underlie the wording of v. 17 in the hymn as well.

While the expression “in him” (e)n au)tw=|) may refer primarily to the creation and existence of the cosmos, it carries a deeper meaning as used by Paul, given the importance of the expression “in Christ” (e)n Xristw=|, with variations) in his letters, where it occurs dozens of times. The principal concept is of believers being united—with God and with one another—in the person of Jesus Christ. This occurs both symbolically (through the baptism ritual, etc) and essentially, through the presence of the Spirit. Paul may well have expected his readers to make the association, and the transition, readily from the cosmos being bound together in Christ to the idea of believers being bound together in him. In any case, this is precisely the transition that occurs in the hymn, beginning with the second intervening couplet (v. 18a). We will examine this second couplet in our next daily note.

References above marked “Barth/Blanke” are to Markus Barth and Helmut Blanke, Colossians, transl. by Astrid B. Beck, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 34B (1994).


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