Off the Track A time-traveler’s guide to Colossae, home to Judaistic heresy
I had been to Turkey a number of times, though not to Colossae. True enough, I had come close. My visits with tour groups had brought me several times to Hierapolis (modern Pamukkale) and to nearby Laodicea. But Colossae was 30 kilometres further on, past Denizli, the major city of the region. Tour groups are always pushed for time and there just had not been enough of it to make it to Colossae — ever! Last year, though, I was with a TV crew filming the light-hearted Bishop, Chef and Fisherman series and — yes — we were including Colossae in the itinerary. At last!
The three Roman cities — Hierapolis, Laodicea, Colossae — were built next to the old Lycus river, a tributary of the Meander which does indeed meander all the way to the Aegean near Miletus. These rivers are long since silted up, the rich topsoil having washed downstream to make fertile plains for cotton fields, citrus and stone-fruit groves.
The Lycus valley is wide and flat-bottomed. Rainfall levels so far inland are not high, but the area is fertile. I was reminded a little of the Hunter Valley or the Barossa Valley: dryish, yet fruitful. The closeness of the cities is evidence of the natural wealth of the land. The river that snakes its way through the surrounding hills and mountains formed a kind of frontier between Roman civilisation and the wild tribes to the east.
Laodicea was the biggest of the three — probably. Laodicea was famous for its black-wooled sheep, for its local eye-salve and for its wealth through banking. The terrible earthquake of 60AD destroyed the city, but the locals had the money and the drive to re-build, all without outside help from the emperor’s purse. Apparently, this was a matter for local pride. Laodicea is a vast empty, elevated archaeological site overlooking the Lycus. Remnants of race tracks, theatres and aquaducts tell of past splendours.
Hierapolis, just a few miles away and clearly visible, was most likely the next biggest. The mineralized hot springs cascading down the cliff leaving their gleaming white deposits justify the modern name Pamukkale, “Cotton Castle”.
Just as many people came to see the wonders in Roman times, so today the area attracts millions of visitors. However, in ancient times people came not just to visit for the day or so, but to live there. Or rather, to die there. That is, to die over a greater span. It was believed that the hot springs — taken by bathing or drinking — prolonged life. In fact, Hierapolis (Temple City) became a necropolis, a city to die and be buried in. The remains of the city are full of tombs as well as boasting one of the finest, best preserved Roman theatres anywhere.
Colossae was on the further side, about 11 miles beyond Laodicea. Unlike the other two, there is only a “tell” (or mound) to be seen. It is, perhaps, 80 feet high and covers many acres. Apart from some sherds (broken pottery) there is absolutely nothing else. It all lies beneath the surface awaiting the archaeologist’s spade. The same earthquake of 60AD struck Colossae. Unlike, Laodicea, its people had neither the money nor the drive to rebuild. Doubtless the locals scattered and re-settled. Colossae finds no mention in Revelation.
Colossae is the most picturesquely located of the Lycus cities. Quite nearby, the massive Honaz mountains rear up, with their chilly waterfalls descending from the heights. Is this the explanation for Jesus’ words to Laodicea, that they are lukewarm? Hierapolis had hot water gushing up from the depths and Colossae had cold water plunging down from the heights. But Laodicea was tepid, neither hot nor cold; not one thing or the other.
Paul most likely passed through the Lycus valley on his third missionary journey as he travelled overland from on the east west Roman Road from Antioch in Syria through southern Galatia to Ephesus. It does not appear, however, that he stopped to preach the gospel along the way, except in the existing churches of Derbe, Lystra, Iconium and Antioch (the colony).
Based in Ephesus, however, his ministry touched Epaphras, a man from Colossae and — so it appears — Philemon also. Both were to play significant roles in bringing the gospel to the Lycus Valley cities. It is clear from Paul’s letters to the Colossians and also to Philemon, that churches had been established in Colossae (both the main church and the church in Philemon’s house), in Laodicea and in Hierapolis.
I am always amazed that churches had been established in such a remote location as in the Lycus Valley a mere two decades after the historical lifespan of Jesus. This speaks volumes of the enthusiasm of Paul and his fellow-workers like Epaphras and Philemon. Let God give us a new outpouring of that enthusiasm today, along with the sacrifice that goes with genuine discipleship.
Not all was well, however, in Colossae. Paul’s churches faced great difficulty, including the felt pressure to merge with the existing and powerful cultural environment, whether pagan or Jewish. With the Corinthians (in the First Letter) the problem the church faced was their pagan environment and its preoccupation with rhetoric, temple culture, the ecstatic and disbelief in resurrection.
However, in the case of the Colossians — as with the Galatians — it was Judaism. Specifically, a form of mystical Judaism that was seeping into Colossian attitudes. It seems that some of the Colossian believers were inclining to the view that Jesus was an angelic figure, as in some form of Jewish angel-hierarchy, so that both his genuine deity and humanity were being denied. At the same time, salvation was being sought in Jewish-style ways, through Sabbath-keeping and self-denial through food laws. Gentile males, apparently, were to submit to circumcision. These, apparently, are the contours of new teaching sweeping through the Colossian church, in contrast to what they had been taught by Epaphras who, in turn, had been instructed by the apostle Paul.
Scholars debate when, and from where, Paul wrote to the Colossians and Philemon. Some say Rome after 60AD. But for me there is no doubt that Paul wrote from Ephesus (during a brief imprisonment) in the early middle 50s.
Many reject Pauline authorship, calling Colossians deutero-Pauline. This holds no water for me as a theory. Philemon is undoubtedly by Paul. If so, then Colossians is also by Paul; the two are peas in a pod. So too is Ephesians; these three letters are very closely connected in style and circumstances. There are some differences in style compared with other Pauline letters, but these can be accounted for by the author’s accommodation to local Asian writing idioms.
At any rate, the letters to Colossae, whether to the church proper or to Philemon’s “house church”, are brilliant shorter epistles from the great apostle and are worthy of our loving attention.