In Colossians 4:16, the apostle Paul talks about a letter he wrote concerning the Laodiceans. What is the story behind this mysterious letter?
The ESV puts the verse as follows:
- “And when this letter has been read among you, have it also read in the church of the Laodiceans; and see that you also read the letter from Laodicea.”
First, note that the word “from” is highlighted. There is a good deal of controversy regarding how this should be translated, as the phrasing is ambiguous. Most translations, like the ESV, say that that letter came from Laodicea, which might imply that it was the Laodiceans who wrote the letter. For if the letter actually came from Laodicea, it might imply that Paul wrote it while in Laodicea. The difficulty here is that there is no evidence to indicate that Paul was ever in Laodicea.
It is possible to say that the letter “from Laodicea” was actually another letter written by Paul, that was being circulated around the area, which had most recently been in the hands of the Laodiceans. The strongest candidate for this letter would be Ephesians, as most scholars contend that Ephesians was not written for any particular church community location, but rather was intended to be circulated among a number of churches nearby Ephesus, which could also include Laodicea.
Either way, most scholars today contend that it was actually Paul who wrote the letter, and not the church in Laodicea. The New Living Translation (NLT) is one of the few translations that explicitly puts this out there (the NASB is similar):
- “After you have read this letter, pass it on to the church at Laodicea so they can read it, too. And you should read the letter I wrote to them.”
Interestingly, some copies of the Latin Vulgate, dating back to at least the 6th century (if not earlier), possess a copy of the “Epistle to the Laodiceans.” What makes this very remarkable is that a separate “Epistle to the Laodiceans” has never been confirmed as being in our possession today, as being written by Paul. Such skepticism can be found with Jerome, the original translator of the first version of the Vulgate, back in the 4th century, who completely rejected the “Epistle to the Laodiceans” as a forgery.
Nevertheless, this “Epistle to the Laodiceans” survived in popularity, well into the late medieval period. John Wycliffe, the early English proto-Reformer, included the “Epistle to the Laodiceans” in his English translation of the Bible. Despite there being no surviving Greek text for this document, we still have some Christians, like the Quakers in the 16th century, still claiming it was a valid letter from Paul.
If you actually read the “Epistle to the Laodiceans,” it does not really say much of anything of theological substance. But it does make you wonder why the popularity of this book survived for so long, as being something authentically from Paul, when there is really very little, if any evidence, to support this assertion.
Pastor/teacher John Piper, in this video answers the question, as to what we should do if an authentically Pauline “Epistle to the Laodiceans” were to ever show up:
Piper correctly notes that it would be extraordinarily difficult to determine if a newly discovered document was this so-called lost “Epistle to the Laodiceans.” The evidential support for such a claim would have to be quite extraordinary.
The Proverbial “Who Cares?”
Why even bother with this question? Because in recent centuries, a number of the letters of Paul have been disputed as being actually written by Paul. Of the thirteen letters attributed by Paul, in our New Testament, six of them fall into the category of being “disputed.” The seven undisputed letters written by Paul are:
- 1 Corinthians
- 2 Corinthians
- 1 Thessalonians
To varying degrees, the disputed letters include:
- 2 Thessalonians
- 1 Timothy
- 2 Timothy
In general, the first three in the list have a higher degree of confidence, as being written by Paul, as compared to the last three (1 Timothy, 2 Timothy & Titus). These disputed letters are notable as they contain important teaching material that is not repeated as clearly as in other parts of the Bible. For example, Ephesians is known for having some important material regarding predestination. 1 Timothy and Titus are the only letters of Paul that discuss the concept of “elders.”
New Testament scholar Thomas Schreiner, at Southern Baptist Seminary, takes 6-minutes to lay out the issues:
The problem with having a “disputed” letter in the canon of Scripture is that all of these thirteen letters explicitly say that they were written by Paul. Aside from a particularly unique proposal called “allonymity,” the idea of having letters in our New Testament that were not written by Paul, even though the actual text of these letters all claimed to have been written by Paul, is a particularly devastating claim made against an orthodox perspective of the Bible.
But as we see with the case of the “Epistle to the Laodiceans,” great care has been taken over the centuries to dismiss certain documents as being forgeries, and rejecting them from the canon of Scripture, even when such documents at times still linger on as being popular, in some circles (In the Tom Schreiner video above, Dr. Schreiner lays out a similar case against the second century work, The Acts of Paul and Thecla). Part of the reason why it took so long for the canon of Scripture to mature is that Christians, particularly in the early church, wanted to make sure that the texts that were claimed to be inspired actually measured up to such claims.
The truth of the matter is that while the text of the original New and Old Testament is inspired, the table of contents section is not. Nevertheless, we have good reasons to believe that our current canon of Scripture, that has survived the test of time, is still sufficient for us to maintain our confidence in what is listed in the table of contents of our Bibles.