Paul’s Roman Imagery in Colossians.
The Apostle Paul wrote the Epistle to the Colossian church during his incarceration in Rome around 60 AD. Colossae was a major commercial city located in the Phrygia region of Asia Minor, and traversed by the efficient Roman military road system connecting the Mediterranean seaboard to the Euphrates River. A Roman himself (Acts 22:25), Paul employed Roman archetypes and inferences in contextualizing his message within the Colossian environment of paganism and secular Roman and Greek philosophies.
Paul’s use of the term ‘the gospel’ in the context of it being spread throughout the world and bearing increasing fruit (Col 1:5-6) was one of these Roman archetypes. In Roman secular parlance, ‘the good news’ referred to reports from the elevation of Caesar to his royal proclamations being declared throughout the Roman world, especially denoting his victory parades (Josephus B.J. ii.420; iv.618; iv. 656). The Pax Romana that brought relative peace to the empire and Caesar’s largess in governance, were used by Paul to illustrate the assuring future of the Christian gospel. For instance, he drew parallels in its potential influence and fruitfulness, its wisdom and understanding, its power over thrones, dominions, rulers, authorities, and a hope and glory that would outstrip Caesar’s triumphs (Col 1:5-6, 9, 16, 27). The Christian gospel’s paramount differentiation was the presentation of every man complete in Christ, which was beyond Caesar’s capability (Col 1:28).
A further imagery was his use of the Roman victory parades (Col 2:15) to depict Christ’s triumphal procession over rulers and authorities by His death and resurrection. The image behind this verb ‘triumphed’ allude to the Roman custom of awarding victorious generals a tumultuous procession from their successful campaign just concluded. It constituted the highest honour Rome bestowed on its citizens, who, as part of the ceremony, took off his old clothes and put on ceremonial dress, seen as an embodiment of good fortune. Behind the general as he rode in splendor through the streets of Rome, would follow the spoils of his victory, including prisoners of royal standing in chains (Plutarch’s Aemilius Paulus, 32–34, on pp. 322, 323). Furthermore, as a result of the victory of Christ over death and sin, we celebrate that all our treasures of wisdom and knowledge are found in Him (Col 2:2-3).
Finally, Paul pointed out the inclusivity of the gospel that encompassed all who had been renewed in Christ without distinction, whether Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian or Scythian, slave or freeman (Col 3:10-11). The ‘barbarian’ mentioned included anyone outside the wider Graeco-Roman civilization of the Mediterranean world, and among them, the ‘Scythian.’ The latter mention intensifies the concept expressed by uncultured ‘barbarian’ as the Scythians are the worst of the lot. In sharp contrast to the extant and entrenched worldviews held in those days, the distinctions that identify each one as an individual, Paul unequivocally noted it no longer existed in the Christian community, as Christ is all and in all. He anticipated the shock his counter-cultural position would raise, as he further itemized a to-do list to encourage the Colossians to be Christ-like in loving one another (Col 3:12-17).
The comparisons were intentional, and despite the similarities in imagery, it stops there. To be in Christ is to totally depend on Him, without any additional crutch to lean on, contrary to the dependence of the Colossians on angels and their precious identity within their respective classification, and as citizens of the Roman state under Caesar. We are indeed citizens of heaven, distinctly and principally aligned only with the Lord Jesus Christ (Acts 17:28).