Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Colossians 4:16 and Early Canon Formation

    When reading through the  New Testament I often think about the early Christian communities who first received Paul's letters and I wonder about how their initial treatment and acceptance of them would have been. While reading through the last part of Colossians recently one verse in particular caught my attention and caused me to think on the early Church and the beginnings of the New Testament canon.
"And after you have read this letter, have it read to the church of Laodicea. In turn, read the letter from Laodicea as well. (Col. 4:16, NET)"
     There are several features of the early Church that can be understood from this verse, but I would like to focus on one aspect that is significant to me, that of copying, collecting and distributing Paul's letters. Though Paul does not specifically command the Colossian Church to copy his letter in this verse, it is implied in his command to have his letter read in another city. Rather than send the original, the community would have copied  the letter and sent it on its way to Laodicea. The same would have been true of the Laodicean letter (most likely Ephesians; a subject of another post); it would have been copied then sent along its way to Colossae. Hierapolis, Laodicea and Colossae were important cities in close proximity to each other in the Lycus valley (part of western Turkey). Tychicus, most likely the bearer of the letter (Col. 4:7), would have walked straight through Laodicea on his way to Colossae, they were only a few miles apart. Thus it would have been no trouble to circulate the letter as Paul directed them by copying and distributing.
     Perhaps here in Colossians 4:16 we can begin to see the New Testament canon already developing, at least where Paul's epistles are concerned. Most likely, the church at these locations began to gather Paul's letters onto a single scroll or bound them into a single papyrus codex for further copying and circulation, or for their own use.
     This probably happened at Paul's end as well. One of his close companions, say Luke or Timothy, could have kept copies of Paul's letters for publication as a collection. It was very common in antiquity for notable figures, scholars or statesmen to collect and publish their correspondence in a single volume, whether scroll or codex, for their followers to read.
     Pliny the Younger (ca. 61-112? CE) was a Roman statesman and an accomplished orator and writer in his day. He often made joyful comments in his letters when others compared him to Cicero, Tacitus or the like. Pliny must have enjoyed some popularity and a following in his day. A friend of his, whether pupil or peer, urged Pliny to gather his numerous letters and publish them as a collection for others to enjoy.
"To Septicius Clarus,
You have often urged me to collect and publish any letters of mine which were composed with some care. I have now made a collection, not keeping to the original order as I was writing history, but taking them as they came to hand. It remains for you not to regret having made the suggestion and for me not to regret following it; for then I shall set about recovering letters which have hitherto been put away and forgotten, and I shall not suppress any which I may write in the future. (Pliny, Letters, 1.1)"
     This is the first of Pliny's letters and must have been the driving force behind this published collection which has survived from antiquity. It is also interesting to note that book ten of Pliny's correspondence would have been gathered after his death by a friend and included in the publication.
   This same situation could have occurred with Paul's epistles. As the letters circulated among the various Christian communities they would have been gathered and copied into a single scroll or codex, which was the common practice of the time.
P46 showing 2 Corinthians (Wikimedia Commons)
    One superb example of this gathering activity has survived surprisingly well, despite the ravages of time. Papyrus P46, as it has come to be designated, is an early collection of Paul's epistles in a single codex. Though under some discussion, the approximate date is some where around 200 CE and originates in the Fayum of Egypt (Comfort, 206). The codex contains the texts of Romans, Hebrews, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Ephesians, Galatians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 Thessalonians and, though missing now, would have originally contained 2 Thessalonians as well (Royse, 202). 
    The codex of P46 was made only 100 years after the time Colossians was written. In this space of time Paul's epistles were collected into a single volume and widely distributed to at least as far as Egypt. It is safe to assume that this collecting and publishing occurred very early most likely when Paul was still alive. This activity occurred not only as a result of Paul's commands like we see in Col 4:16, but because the early Christians valued and cherished his epistles.

Comfort, Philip Wesley and David P. Barrett. The Text of the Earliest New Testament Greek Manuscripts. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 2001.

Radice, Betty, trans. The Letters of the Younger Pliny. London, England: Penguin Books, 1969.

Royse, James R. Scribal Habits in Early Greek New Testament Papyri. Leiden: Brill, 2008.


  1. I would suggest a slightly different scenario. The church would make a copy and then send Paul's original on. It sounds like sending the original on to be read elsewhere is what Paul is requesting and also telling them to be looking for his letter, also an original, circulating through Laodicea. Good post. Don't wait so long between posts!

  2. Yes, I can see what you mean. He does say "this letter." It makes me wonder how long the autograph would have stayed in circulation. Maybe they ended up with the original audience, such as Colossae. It would be an interesting study to examine the circulation practices of letters like these in the Greaco Roman culture. After reading chapter 10 "Archives and Dossiers" in the "Oxford Handbook of Papyrology" I am more convinced that this collecting activity of Paul's letters was normative of the culture and an expected outcome. Thank you for the comments.