March 17, 2009
The Pauline Strip, Metaphorically Speaking
I told myself I wasn’t going to do this. But after spending much time lately memorizing the Greek text of Colossians, I’ve got an itch to make an exegetical point. I spent a good deal of time and some ink on this in my dissertation (“The Christus Victor Motif in Paul’s Theology”) some twenty-seven (yikes!) years ago. And since then commentator after contemporary commentator has disappointed me here. The nub of the issue is the interpretation of apekdyomai in Colossians 2:15, where it appears in the form apekdysamenos (aorist middle participle, masculine singular nominative) in reference to an action performed (I will argue) by Christ on the cross.
Time after time you will find interpreters saying this speaks of God’s “disarming” the powers. In other words, they are reading it as a verb that is middle in form but active in meaning (which is legitimate—this happens in Greek). Now admittedly, part of their problem is that they perceive (from preceding verses) the subject to be God rather than Christ. There is an admirable consistency, if inflexibility, in this judgment.
But then the commentator’s tune changes when this rare word shows up only seventeen verses later in Colossians 3:9—same form, only plural rather than singular. The subject there is believers. No question about that. And now, they maintain, the middle form is indeed middle in meaning, believers have “stripped/put off the old man with his practices.” Well, their translation/interpretation here is correct. Anyone would agree. But why has it not led them to rethink apekdysamenos in Colossians 2:15? Perhaps there Paul actually is saying that Christ stripped himself of something on the cross.
I understand that there is an apparent difficulty in 2:15. How could the subject change from God (in 2:13) to Christ? And how could Christ have “stripped off” the powers on the cross? But I think commentators are suffering from a failure of imagination, a sluggishness or resistance in tracking with Paul’s nimble metaphorical moves. Or perhaps they fear to admit a daring Pauline metaphor. Even Tom Wright, who ordinarily doesn’t flinch from “following the text where it leads,” calls the interpretation I’m maintaining “more gnostic than Pauline” (Wright, Colossians & Philemon, p. 115). I want to say, “Tom, buck up.” Just because the Gnostics fastened onto it (as in Gospel of Truth) doesn’t mean it’s gnostic in Paul (or Paul and Timothy).
Stepping back, there is further evidence in favor of Christ “stripping off” something in 2:15. In Colossians 2:11 Paul (or Paul and Timothy) uses the noun apekdysis (which is related to the verb form we’ve been discussing), “putting off.” Unless something has turned up in recent years, this word is not yet attested outside of Paul, and it occurs this once (a hapax) even in Paul. Here in 2:11 Paul says that in Christ (who is the head of all powers and authorities) the Colossians “were circumcised in a circumcision not done by hands, in the stripping off of the body of flesh, in the circumcision of Christ.” The language is dense with evocations. [And let’s bracket out arguments over circumcision as it relates to infant baptism!] The important point for my present argument is that this “circumcision of Christ” is here a vivid metaphor for Christ’s death in which the one in whom “all the fullness of deity dwells bodily” (Col 2:9) “stripped off” his “body of flesh” (tou sōmatos tēs sarkos). And here we need to be mindful that this echoes Colossians 1:22, where Christ’s reconciling work is “in the body of his flesh through death” (en tō sōmati tēs sarkos autou dia tou thanatou). So in Colossians we have a theme of “body of flesh” evoking Christ’s body, and that is tied to the cross. And moving from 1:22 to 2:11, we go from speaking of “death” of this body of flesh (with the cross implied) to the “stripping off” of this body of flesh (with the cross implied). Are we not being prepared then to think of a “body of flesh” involved in the “stripping off” on the cross at 2:15—and that it just might involve the powers and authorities that we’ve already met in 2:10 (and 1:16)?
The answer, I’ve long believed, is yes.
But more than that—and the point of this blog—is that patristic commentators apparently had no problem with this imagery. Look at the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, NT Volume 9, where you will find Origen, Chrysostom, Theodore of Mopsuestia and Theodoret of Cyr, (cf. too Athanasius and Augustine) all, by explicit statement or implication, taking this approach to Colossians 2:15. As the nineteenth-century commentator J. B. Lightfoot pointed out, it is the view of the Greek fathers that Christ strips off the powers of evil at the cross (rather than only the flesh). Lightfoot, having weighed the exegetical evidence and consulted the fathers, gives the fathers their due and interprets the passage with metaphorical flourish: “The powers of evil, which had clung like a Nessus robe about his humanity, were torn off and cast aside for ever. And the victory of mankind is involved in the victory of Christ. In his cross we too are divested of the poisonous and clinging garments of temptation and sin and death” (Saint Paul’s Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon, 188). I was delighted to find that, among more recent contemporary commentators, James Dunn (none other than Emeritus Lightfoot Professor of Divinity at the University of Durham) in his NIGNTC volume on Colossians and Philemon agrees with this interpretation (and with an interesting angle of his own)! He should instruct the present Bishop of Durham.
Naturally, this patristic evidence doesn’t prove the case, but it does give the interpretation a certain weight. And so far as the taint of Gnostic interpretation goes, it doesn’t seem to have bothered these fathers, who were far closer to the heat of that battle than we are. I would commend Lightfoot as one model of how exegetes and commentary writers might profit from critical appropriation of patristic interpreters.
Another point this passage raises—and perhaps heightened by the interpretation I am arguing for—is the role of metaphor in Paul’s speaking of the death of Christ. It’s as obvious as can be that if we speak of Christ’s death as a “circumcision of Christ” or a “stripping off” or as a triumphal procession of the powers (Col 2:15), we are dealing with imagery and metaphor. No one would argue with that. But when it comes to something like hilasterion (propitiatory/expiatory sacrifice or mercy seat) in Romans 3:25, I have observed an impulse—and sometimes an implied argument—among evangelical interpreters that here we have the literal truth, not just a metaphor. But that won’t hold up. Where’s the temple, the altar, the priest etc.? It’s another metaphor. Possibly a controlling metaphor, but a metaphor nonetheless. It may seem silly to have to point this out. But in our reflexes against what we perceive to be erroneous interpretation, we can let ourselves get backed into some silly corners.
The truth is, the biblical writers engage in some bold metaphors. And they do so in the process of their “doing” theology. Colossians 2:14-15 is particularly bold—even if you don’t go along with “my” understanding of apekdysamenos. A “hand-written document” (cheirographon) that was “against us” and is now nailed to the cross? An open and showy triumphal procession over powers taking place on a state execution site just outside Jerusalem? Yes, that’s a bold rendering of it.
Two closing thoughts. First, I have often wondered whether we need more work done—by and for evangelicals perhaps—on understanding metaphor. I know there has been a lot of scholarly work done on this (here is a good place to start—and note the introduction!), and if you are an old hand at hermeneutics, what I’m saying is passé. But how can that work be made more accessible for, say, seminarians and ministers? Why does a good book like Brent Sandy’s Plowshares and Pruning Hooks come as a revelation to some and disturbing to others? Second, and tied in to the previous point, is the similar need for more evangelical thinking, or perhaps effective writing, on the role of metaphor in theology. I’ve already alluded to an evangelical tendency (at least in some quarters) to think that “real” theology deals in non-metaphorical, abstract concepts. But theology is woven of metaphors, as is richly evidenced in the very language of the Bible. And yet we still encounter the anxiety that truth will evaporate into “just metaphor,” “just language.” I guess we are engaged in a continuous process of reflecting, writing, teaching and discussing these issues for each generation.