The Letter to the Colossians and to Philemon

  • Douglas J. Moo
  • Oct 11, 2011
  • Series: Volume 14 - 2011
Bookcover-MooColossians - DJ reviewed book

Douglas J. Moo. The Letter to the Colossians and to Philemon. The Pillar New Testament Commentary.  Grand Rapids/Cambridge, UK: Eerdmans, 2008. Pp. 471. ISBN: 978-0-8028-3727-1

Doug Moo is already known for his stellar mid-range commentaries on Romans (New International Commentary on the New Testament) and on James (Pillar New Testament Commentary). Now he has written a commentary on Colossians and Philemon for the same series as his James commentary which will rival his other two works as one of the best mid-range commentaries available on Colossians and Philemon. This commentary is what we have come to expect from Moo: solid and careful exegesis based on the original text, informed and judicious assessment of the exegetical options, exemplary caution where warranted, interaction with the most relevant and recent secondary literature, and sensitivity to the theological message of the text. A boon for the serious preacher is how Moo interacts with and evaluates modern English translations throughout this work.

Moo begins his treatment of Colossians by examining typical background issues. While the authorship of Colossians has often been contested, Moo convincingly defends Pauline authorship. Often the theology of Colossians is seen to be too different from and or too developed beyond the undisputed Pauline letters (e.g. Romans, Galatians, 1 Corinthians, etc.) to be from Paul. But Moo effectively demonstrates that there is nothing in Colossians that has developed theologically beyond what Paul himself could reasonably have been expected to have done. Regarding provenance, Moo cautiously adopts a Roman imprisonment for both Colossians and Philemon. He also defends the view (now considered virtually certain by commentators) that Colossians is addressing some type of false teaching, and cautiously reconstructs a situation along the lines proposed by Clinton Arnold. The false teachers came from within the Christian community, were partly Jewish in orientation, but were also preoccupied with Hellenistic notions of anxiety about the world and the presence of spiritual beings that controlled life. This led the teachers to deny the sufficiency of Christ. Moo rounds off his introduction by summarizing the dominant theological themes from Colossians as a polemical response to this concern, though he is cautious here and in the rest of the commentary to avoid the extremes of “mirror reading.”

I can only attempt to sample Moo’s treatment of some of the more important texts in Colossians. Moo shows that early on 1:1-2:5 is already an attempt to refute the false teaching by establishing the power and sufficiency of the Gospel. Paul’s reference to our salvation “stored up…in heaven” (1:5), like 3:1-4, combines both the temporal and spatial notions from Jewish apocalyptic. Moo refrains from speculation on the origin of the well-known “Christ Hymn” in 1:15-20 (was it written by Paul, or an early hymn that Paul adopted?) and adopts a simple two-fold structure: vv. 15-16; 18b-20; with 17-18a as a transition. He finds the background for its presentation of Christ (beginning, image, firstborn) in the OT and Jewish concept of Wisdom and Word. But Moo also thinks Paul has been influenced by the creation story (Gen 1:26-28) and perhaps OT and Jewish messianic expectations. In addition, he thinks that some of the vocabulary (“fullness”) has been picked up from the false teachers and turned against them. Moo correctly asserts that the focus of the hymn is on Christ as the revelation of God. In doing so, the hymn contains a high Christology, emphasizing Christ’s preexistence and deity.

The problematic 1:24 does not deny the sufficiency of Christ’s atoning death. Though this verse has often been understood against the background of the apocalyptic notion of the “messianic woes” and a set amount of end-time tribulations that God’s people must endure, Moo thinks a more appropriate background is Paul’s role as “servant” and the suffering that entails (Isaiah’s “suffering servant”). The primary focus of the mystery in 1:27 is not so much Gentile inclusion but the “indwelling Christ.” Moo understands 2:3 as the “christological high point of the letter”: Christ is the one in whom all that one needs for understanding spiritual reality and living a life pleasing to God can be found. “The elements of the world” from 2:8 are taken as referring to the material elements of the universe along with the deities or spirits associated with those elements. The “circumcision of Christ” in 2:11 is not a metaphorical reference to the death of Christ, but a metaphor for overcoming the power of sin when a person comes to Christ.  The reference to baptism which accompanies this circumcision refers to water baptism, not as a means of salvation, but as a metonymy for the entire conversion experience. The text from which we get most of the information regarding the ostensible false teaching behind Colossians (2:16-23) suggests for Moo a syncretism of both Jewish elements (the Sabbaths) and clearly Greco-Roman ones (ascetic practices). Moo denies an exclusively Jewish teaching, especially since there is no explicit reference to the “law” (e.g. Galatians). The “shadow” and “body of Christ” language in v. 17 is taken as a referring to the salvation-historical shift in eras, so that Christ is now the reality that Christians look to, though Moo does not preclude a possible reference to the church. In 2:18 the problematic phrase “worship of angels” is understood as the act of worshiping angels, and Moo follows the TNIV in interpreting this verse as a reference to the false teachers going into great detail about things they have seen in visions.

Seeking “the things above” in 3:1-4 means that Christians choose to daily commit themselves to the living out of the heavenly values of God’s kingdom. The “old self”/“new self” contrast in 3:9-10 is to be understood not in individual, anthropological terms, but as a corporate entity, that is, the old realm of existence under Adam, as opposed to the new realm of existence in Christ, a transfer that takes place at baptism (understood as standing for the entire faith-conversion experience). After discussing various options to the “household code” in 3:18-4:1, Moo opts for a view that does not endorse slavery, but which for the husband and wife relationship strives for a middle ground between libertarian approaches and hierarchical approaches.  While the directive to submission suggests that the husband is the prominent member of the marriage relationship and is to take the lead, the fact that the husband is told to love the wife, and that all are one in Christ (Gal 3:28) may dictate that this “submission” takes different forms today in our culture. The instructions to husbands and wives set “a trajectory that leads to a more equal sharing of all dimensions of the marriage relationship” (p. 301).

Regarding the interpretation of Philemon, Moo summarizes the main approaches to the Sitz im Leben behind Philemon, and cautiously opts for the traditional view of seeing Onesimus as a fugitive slave (rather than seeking out Paul to arbitrate in a dispute with Philemon, a provision under Roman law). But Moo refuses to assume any one approach throughout his commentary. It is here that Moo treats the issue of slavery in more detail. The primary issue in Philemon is whether Paul is calling for Onesimus’ manumission, and also why Paul does not condemn slavery as a moral evil. Pragmatically, one might suggest that setting a slave free in the first century would create a situation where it was difficult for a slave to make a living (their situation would not improve over the sometimes good conditions enjoyed by slaves). And Moo points to other reasons why Paul might not call for an end to the institution of slavery. But Moo draws attention to the inconsistency between calling another person a “brother” or “sister” in Christ (using the familial imagery of Philemon) and Christians owning someone as a slave, an inconsistency that Paul himself might be pointing out (v. 15). He then tentatively suggests that Paul, and other Christian writers, may not have always recognized all the implications of the theological principles that they enunciated. So today we rightly draw the conclusion – Christians must not own slaves! In the end, for Moo, Philemon is not primarily about slavery, but about “fellowship” (1:6). Thus, “Believing in Christ joins us to other believers in an intimate family unit” (p. 378). This new relationship takes precedent over all other relationships and dictates how they are to be lived out. Today, Philemon reminds us of the importance of communitarian relationships and the sacrifice of our own individual interests in an individualistic culture where we are prone to forget it.

By way of a couple of criticisms, Moo has too quickly, I think, dismissed a solely Jewish background for the false teaching of Colossians. In fact, all of the features usually attributed to the false teachers from Colossians can be accounted for from apocalyptic movements within Judaism or from a sect such as the Essenes or Qumran community. Furthermore, it is still not clear that the false teachers were a group within the church, or that therefore, contrary to Moo, they were devaluing Christ in their own teaching. Paul’s Christological emphasis need not be seen as anything more than Paul’s own solution to the false teaching, whether the teaching had a Christological component or not. Further, it is too speculative to link Paul’s vocabulary in places to vocabulary used by the false teachers, such as his “fullness” language (pp. 132, 162, 186, 195). In addition, several grammatical comments, especially as they relate to verb tenses, are out of touch with recent grammatical study (pp. 179, 181, 234, 335). And finally, some readers might take issue with his treatment of the slavery issue.

But these weaknesses are in a sense also the strength of the commentary. Moo is not afraid to engage in these problematic issues, providing well-argued answers, and demonstrating how they affect the way we think exegetically and theologically about the text. Moo has provided a judicious, solid, and eminently readable commentary on these two short but crucial NT books. It should be the standard intermediate level commentary on Colossians and Philemon for years to come. No pastor, teacher, or serious student should study, preach, or teach from these two books without Moo’s commentary close by.


David Mathewson, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of New Testament
Denver Seminary
October, 2011