The Expository Files

 

Paul’s Letter to the Laodiceans - Is it Lost?

Colossians 4:16


In Colossians 4:16 Paul urges the Colossian brethren “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.” Not a few have noted that the New Testament does not contain an Epistle to the Laodiceans. Where then is this “lost letter?” Some attack the Bible’s credibility and reliability from this passage, while others use the “lost Laodicean letter” to sell books with provocative titles like “The Lost Books of the Bible Found!” How do disciples sort all of this out?

First, Christians need to begin with faith in God and His Word. Peter writes “since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God; for ‘All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord remains forever.’ And this word is the good news that was preached to you” (1 Peter 1:23-25). God has given us His promise that His word will not be lost! Thus, whatever Bible critics may try to say about the process of arriving at the New Testament canon, Christians believe that God, through His providence, superintended that process so that we would have exactly what we need to “be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:17). No inspired material God intended to be in His Word is lost or missing. God would not, and will not, allow His word to be corrupted, for to do so destroys the very means by which we come to know Him (John 6:63).

We would do well to be reminded that the “corrupt Bible” position is precisely what Muslims and Mormons advocate so that people will reject the Bible and put their faith instead a latter day revelation, either the Koran or Book of Mormon. Both groups are arguing consistently and logically if we accept that the “original” Bible is corrupted, i.e. that parts of it are lost. Of course, it might be fair to ask the Muslims and Mormons what assurance anyone has that their holy books won’t also be corrupted? If it happened once, perhaps it will happen again and we will need yet another new revelation. The Bible explicitly teaches that such won’t happen: “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed” (Gal 1:8-9).

The so-called Letter to the Laodiceans that some call attention to now certainly fits this prohibition of a latter day revelation. This nineteen-verse letter is basically a compendium of passages from other Pauline letters. It contains no new doctrine or commands. People who get all excited about “Lost Letters of the Bible” try to create publicity by pretending these “lost books” would radically revolutionize Christianity, but the Letter to the Laodiceans surely wouldn’t. It is innocuous, and while not particularly well written and certainly seems to ramble, it contains nothing new or contradictory to the rest of the New Testament.

It is considered a forgery by most scholars because its textual basis is so poor and it was not written in the first century. There are no Greek copies of the New Testament that contain it. Jerome mentions it in the fifth century but says it was a forgery. It was never widely accepted as canonical. People who get excited about the Letter to the Laodiceans are either misinformed or easily excited. In short, it was never included in the Bible so it hardly qualifies as a lost book of the Bible.

To what then is Paul referring to in Colossians 4:16? There are several possibilities. Let us turn our attention to examine them.

Some have argued that the passage isn’t talking about a letter from Paul to Laodicea but a letter from Laodicea that is coming to Paul. O’Brien notes that several of the early church fathers, including Chrysostom, Theodore of Mopsuestia, and Theodoret together with many other later writers including Beza, took this view.1 Yet the parallelism in the verse seems to imply the Laodiceans will receive a letter from Paul just as the Colossians had. Further, how did Paul know the Laodiceans were writing him, and why would he want the Colossians to read private correspondence from another congregation written to him? How would the Colossians get that letter if it was coming to Paul? Did Laodicea make copies of their letters, and how would Paul know that? Even more importantly, how can an inspired letter from an apostle be placed on par with an uninspired letter written by the Laodicean brethren?

Many have argued that the letter to the Laodiceans is the Epistle to the Ephesians. This view is very attractive for a number of reasons. The idea is that Ephesians is a circular letter, making the rounds of all the churches in the area. Following this line of argument invariably leads to discussion as to when Ephesians and Colossians were written but that cannot be conclusively resolved so as to exclude Paul from referring to the Ephesian letter in Colossians 4:16. Circular letters were used in New Testament times (see Revelation 1-3) and while the Scriptures do not explicitly say Ephesians was for all the churches in that area it is not impossible. This may be the solution to the question “Where is the letter to the Laodiceans?” It may well be in your Bible under the title “Ephesisans!”

William Barclay argues persuasively that the book of Philemon is the epistle from Laodicea.2 While some object that Philemon is a private appeal that would be ruined if read in a church setting3 Barclay says such would only help Paul’s case all the more, as the brethren put pressure on Philemon to receive back his runaway slave, Onesimus. The key to this view is Archippus, who appears in both Colossians and Philemon. In Colossians chapter 4 verses 13,15, 16 and 17 all contain very definite references to Laodicea. Note Archippus is mentioned specifically in verse 17, right after the mention of the epistle to the Laodiceans: “And say to Archippus, ‘See that you fulfill the ministry that you have received in the Lord.’” Archippus may have, therefore, been part of the Laodicean brethren. Barclay asks “Why in any event should he get this personal message? If he was at Colosse, he would hear the letter read, as everyone else would. Why has this verbal order to be sent to him? It is surely possible that the answer is that he is not in Colosse at all, but in Laodicea.” That would place Philemon’s home in Laodicea and make the letter to Laodicea the book we call Philemon. Barclay argues that with slavery being so common in New Testament times Paul “is mobilizing Church opinion both in Laodicea and in Colosse in his favour. The decision about Onesimus is not to be left to Philemon; it is to be the decision of the whole Christian community.”2

The chief objection to this rather neat solution is that Colossians 4:9 seems to say Onesimus was a member of the Colossian church: “Onesimus, our faithful and beloved brother, who is one of you.” The response Barclay and other make is that Hierapolis, Laodicea and Colosse were so close together ... that “one of you” need not mean that Onesimus came from Colosse, but simply that he came from that closely connected group.”5

Because no epistle in the New Testament perfectly fits with what we need for an epistle to the Laodiceans many writers are completely content to announce that this book is indeed lost. For example, O’Brien says it may have been destroyed “accidentally” in the famous earthquake that struck the Lycus Valley area in AD 60-61. Others are equally cavalier about the Bible being destroyed. Carson writes “The letter from Laodicea is now lost but was presumably written by Paul to that church.”4

Not only does such violate what God promises in His own word it also violates what we see as the custom of New Testament Christians. There are a number of smaller epistles that are preserved in our New Testament, chiefly because they come from apostles. 2 and 3 John do not contain dramatic new doctrine or earth-shaking teachings. Yet they are part of the Scriptures because they came from an apostle and so are recognized as inspired documents. The early church clung to them carefully because they represented the voice of God. The same can be said for Philemon. It was from Paul, so it was preserved. How then do some so easily dismiss a letter to a church that Paul clearly believes is authoritative as being lost? In more crass terms, how did Philemon survive and the Epistle to Laodicea didn’t? Such makes no sense.7

Indeed, Wall notes that Colossians 4:16 shows how apostolic documents were treated as significant and worth keeping: “The more interesting historical aspect of this passage, in my mind, is its proposal to preserve and circulate Paul's writings the earliest such proposal in the New Testament. Many speculate that the Pauline collection found in the New Testament had its origin in these instructions. More important, they illustrate why the church formed the New Testament: because a book written for a specific congregation was picked up by another and read for their spiritual benefit. The concerns of one related to the concerns of another. The writings subsequently gathered to form our biblical rule of faith were first picked up and read by congregation after congregation, from generation to generation, with spiritual profit.”8

This not to argue that every time Paul wrote down what he needed at the store that shopping list somehow was divinely inspired and should be treated as Scripture. It is to say that when Paul wrote to churches brethren took those documents very, very seriously and worked very hard to preserve them. There may be other references in the New Testament to other epistles (1 Cor 5:9, for example) but this writer believes all of these can, like Colossians 4:16, be reconciled to existing New Testament documents. To say otherwise does violence to our belief in the inspiration and preservation of Scripture (as noted above) and simply defies what we see the New Testament church’s practice was with the epistles they received from inspired writers.

In conclusion, let our faith in God, His promises and His Word be strengthened. There are no lost books of the Bible. The Bible has not been corrupted and authoritative letters have not, somehow, fallen out of it. Either Ephesians or Philemon could easily be the letter to the Laodiceans that Paul mentions in Colossians 4:16.

1. Peter T. O'Brien, Word Biblical Commentary : Colossians-Philemon, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 2002). 257.
2. The Letters to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon, ed. William Barclay, lecturer in the University of Glasgow, The Daily study Bible series, Rev. ed. (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 2000). 273-75.
3. O’Brien.
4. Barclay 273-74.
5. Barclay.
6. D. A. Carson, New Bible Commentary : 21st Century Edition, 4th ed. (Leicester, England; Downers Grove, Ill., USA: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994). Col 4:7-18.
7. I am indebted to brother Melvin Curry who put me on to this line of thought.
8. Robert W. Wall, Colossians & Philemon, The IVP New Testament commentary series (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1993). Col 4:16.
 

By Mark Roberts
From Expository Files 18.2; February 2011

 

Editor’s Note: Mark Roberts has just published a great book that will help you study the book of Revelation: More about this in future issues of EF, but you can order here:

 http://bookstore.floridacollege.edu/store/product/49490/UNDERSTANDING-APOCALYPTIC-LIT/


 

 

 

 

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