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The majority of critical scholars now believe that Colossians was written in Paul’s name decades after his death. Are the parallels between Colossians 4:14-17 and Philemon 23-24 sufficient evidence that Colossians’ author knew the Epistle to Philemon?

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John Barclay says (Colossians and Philemon, page 24) a comparison of the greetings in Colossians 4:7-17 with the names listed in Philemon 23-24 reveals both a close matching and a wide variation in order and style. That suggests either that Colossians was written by Paul at the same time and in the same circumstances as Philemon or that it was written by a Pauline imitator who knew Philemon and was capable of very skilful adaptation of its names to make Colossians look authentic. He says (page 22) that Colossians is now routinely bracketed as ‘deutero-Pauline’.

In Colossians 4:14, the reference to Luke is, by itself, evidence that, if Paul was not the author of Colossians, its author knew Philemon, which is the only undisputed Pauline epistle to mention Luke (Philemon 24). True, Luke is also mentioned in 2 Timothy 4:11, but it is the almost universal consensus of scholars that 2 Timothy was not written by Paul.

Demas sends his greetings in Colossians 4:14, just as Demas sends his greetings in Philemon 24. Philemon is, once again, the only undisputed Pauline epistle to mention Demas, although 2 Timothy 4:10 also mentions Demas. This is further, strong evidence that the author of Colossians knew Paul’s Epistle to Philemon.

Philemon and Colossians both contain salutations by Epaphras and Aristarchus, but Colossians strangely reverses their roles, possibly as a result of confusion by the author:

Philemon 23: There salute thee Epaphras, my fellowprisoner in Christ Jesus
Philemon 24: Marcus, Aristarchus, Demas, Lucas, my fellowlabourers.

Colossians 4:12: Epaphras, who is one of you, a servant of Christ, saluteth you
Colossians 4:10: Aristarchus my fellowprisoner saluteth you

If, as Barclay suggests as one explanation, Colossians was written by Paul at the same time and in the same circumstances as Philemon, then Epaphras was at that time a fellow-prisoner and Aristarchus was not. On this ground alone, Paul could not have written both epistles at the same time and in the same circumstances. It is implausible that at some time other than when Paul wrote Philemon, Paul was in prison, Aristarchus was in prison with Paul and Epaphras was free, and that Paul wrote an epistle in which Aristarchus and Epaphras should include their greetings. Whether our author reversed the situations of Aristarchus and Epaphras because of some confusion on his part, or for some other reason, this reversal is strong evidence, first to confirm that Paul did not write Colossians, and second that our author learnt these names from Philemon.

In summary, the author of Colossians must have learnt the names of Luke, Demas, Aristarchus and Epaphras from Philemon. There is no other extant source that was written before Colossians and contains all four names. Even if another source mentioning the names Aristarchus and Epaphras existed at that time, it is most unlikely that it would have described Aristarchus as a fellowprisoner and Epaphras as a free servant of Christ, in reversal of Philemon’s description of them.

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  • You might want to add that Colossians agrees to a very large extent (in content and even in wording) with Ephesians. On the whole, Colossians is a kind of pastiche of Ephesians and Philimon. – fdb Jul 8 '16 at 11:45

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