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Presenting the Pauline Voice: An Appreciation of the Letter to the Laodiceans

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 November 2015

Bruce W. Longenecker
Department of Religion, Baylor University, One Bear Place #97284, Waco, TX 76798, USA. Email:
Scott C. Ryan
Department of Religion, Baylor University, One Bear Place #97284, Waco, TX 76798, USA. Email:


It is commonly thought that the apocryphal Letter to the Laodiceans was composed by an author who was little more than an editor, piecing together phrases from Pauline texts in a mediocre fashion. Not only does the text seem devoid of conceptual rigour and theological merit, but it is also thought to lack a coherent structure. This essay proposes that, to the contrary of most estimates, the Letter to the Laodiceans exhibits a discernible structural coherence from which a rhetorical strategy is evident.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2015 

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1 The instruction is specifically to read the letter ‘from Laodicea’ (καὶ τὴν ἐκ Λαοδικείας ἵνα καὶ ὑμεῖς ἀναγνῶτε). This is usually understood to be a letter sent to Christians in Laodicea by Paul, which will be given ‘from’ them to Christians in Colossae, as J. B. Lightfoot argues (Saint Paul's Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1959) 274–6). Richard I. Pervo notes the various readings of Col 4.16 in patristic and medieval interpreters. ‘Antiochene interpreters’, he writes, ‘including Theodore of Mopseustia and Theodoret, favored the position that a letter to Paul was in view. This was a weapon against the authenticity of Laodiceans’ (The Making of Paul: Constructions of the Apostle in Early Christianity (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2010) 319 n. 396).

2 The view that Marcion's reference to a Laodicean letter should be identified with Ephesians may have held currency at times but has little traction in contemporary discourse (see M.-É. Boismard, ‘Paul's Letter to the Laodiceans’, The Pauline Canon (ed. S. E. Porter; Boston: Brill, 2004) 45). Likewise, scholars largely reject Adolf von Harnack's suggestion that this epistle is a Marcionite forgery (A. von Harnack, Marcion: The Gospel of the Alien God (trans. J. E. Steely and L. D. Bierma; Durham: The Labyrinth Press, 1990) 110; Quispel, G., ‘De Brief aan de Laodicensen een Marcionistische vervalsing’, NedTT 5 (1950) 43–6Google Scholar). Boismard, following the proposal of A. Lindemann (Der Kolosserbrief (ZBK; Zürich: Theologische Verlag, 1983) 76–7), claims that the editor of the Pauline canon in the 80's ce combined Colossians with a letter written at the same time to communities in Laodicea with similar problems to those in Colossae. Consequently, the Laodicean letter ‘still exists today, but in the form of membra disjecta, in a letter which we still possess’ (ibid., 51; see also M.-É. Boismard, La lettre de saint Paul aux Laodicéens (CahRB 42; Paris: Gabalda, 1999)).

3 See especially Lightfoot, To the Colossians and to Philemon, 281. See also the initial exchange between Sellew, Philip (‘Laodiceans and the Philippians Fragments Hypothesis’, HTR 87.1 (1994) 1728)CrossRefGoogle Scholar and Holloway, Paul A. (‘The Apocryphal Epistle to the Laodiceans and the Partitioning of Philippians’, HTR 91.3 (1998) 321–5)CrossRefGoogle Scholar on the composition of the text, as well as Sellew's, rejoinder (‘Laodiceans and Philippians Revisited: A Response to Paul Holloway’, HTR 91.3 (1998) 327–9)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Sellew reconstructs the source behind Laodiceans, which he believes is the so-called Letter B of Philippians (‘Laodiceans and Philippians Fragments’, 20). Not much is known about the origins of the Letter to the Laodiceans. Wilhelm Schneemelcher may be right in surmising that it was produced in the West and later made its way to the East, where it met strong opposition (see his ‘The Epistle to the Laodiceans’, New Testament Apocrypha, vol. ii: Writings Related to the Apostles, Apocalypses and Related Subjects (ed. W. Schneemelcher and R. McL. Wilson; Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1992) 42). A number of important witnesses, including the best manuscripts of the Latin Vulgate, include the text; see Burnet, R., ‘Pourquoi avoir écrit l'insipide épître aux Laodicéens?’, NTS 48.1 (2002) 132CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Lightfoot, To the Colossians and to Philemon, 282–6; Pink, K., ‘Die Pseudo-Paulinischen Briefe ii’, Bibl. 6 (1925) 179–82Google Scholar.

4 A. Jülicher, An Introduction to the New Testament (London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1904) 544.

5 Montague Rhodes James, The Apocryphal New Testament: Being the Apocryphal Gospels, Acts, Epistles, and Apocalypses (Oxford: Clarendon, 1924) 478–9.

6 Lightfoot, To the Colossians and to Philemon, 281–2.

7 Schneemelcher, ‘The Epistle to the Laodiceans’, 44.

8 Bauckham, R., ‘Pseudo-Pauline Letters’, JBL 107 (1988) 485Google Scholar.

9 Ibid., 487.

10 Pervo, The Making of Paul, 96.

11 Ibid., 106.

12 Ibid., 108.

13 Ibid., 109.

14 Ibid., 108.

15 Ibid., 107.

16 Ibid., 109.

17 P. L. Tite, The Apocryphal Letter to the Laodiceans: An Epistolary and Rhetorical Analysis (ed. S. E. Porter and W. J. Porter; TENT 7; Boston: Brill, 2012) 12. Tite utilises the work of D. L. Stamps on the ‘entextualization’ of a text in order to determine not the historical situation behind the letter, but the situation created by the rhetoric within it. See D. L. Stamps, ‘Rethinking the Rhetorical Situation: The Entextualization of the Situation in New Testament Epistles’, Rhetoric and the New Testament: Essays from the 1992 Heidelberg Conference (ed. S. E. Porter and T. H. Olbricht; JSNTS 90; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 1993) 193–210.

18 Tite, Apocryphal Letter to the Laodiceans, 52.

19 Ibid., 53.

20 Ibid., 52–3. Tite proposes two other possible structures for the body of the text. The first is a ‘two-fold thematic focus' on Pseudo-Paul's suffering and the community's situation: (a) Body Opening (v. 4); (b) Body Middle (vv. 5–8); and (c) Body Closing (v. 9). The Body Middle in vv. 5–8 elucidates the purpose for writing, with Pseudo-Paul's faithful suffering as the moral exemplar for the Laodicean community. Another possible structure is an a–a–b–b–c pattern: (a) veritate evangelii (v. 4); (a) veritatis evangelii (v. 5); (b) in Christo (v. 6); (b) in Christo (vv. 7–8); (c) et id ipsum in vobis faciet misericordiam suam, ut eandem dilectionem habeatis et sitis unianimes (v. 9). This structure, Tite argues, ‘progressively reinforces the foundation of the “true gospel”, Pseudo-Paul's exemplary suffering “in Christ”, with the climax of divine benefit (“mercy”) for the Laodicean community – if they remain in (or for the sake of attaining to) a state of unity’ (ibid., 55). In this case, divine activity links thematically all of vv. 4–9, beginning with divine activity, moving forward to human activity and the activity of the Laodicean Jesus-groups, and ending with reference to divine activity again. According to Tite, this structure also results in stress being laid on Pseudo-Paul's exemplary faithful suffering in v. 6.

21 Compare Tite, Apocryphal Letter to the Laodiceans, 50: ‘it is necessary to read these verses as integral to the occasion of the text’.

22 For reasons outlined above, it is hardly evident that ‘[v]erse 9 constitutes the body closing’, as Tite proposes (Apocryphal Letter to the Laodiceans, 48).

23 Paulus Apostolus non ab hominibus neque per hominem sed per Ihesum Christum, fratribus qui sunt Laodiciae. Compare Gal 1.1–2: Παῦλος ἀπόστολος, οὐκ ἀπ’ ἀνθρώπων οὐδὲ δι’ ἀνθρώπου ἀλλὰ διὰ Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ καὶ θεοῦ πατρὸς τοῦ ἐγείραντος αὐτὸν ἐκ νεκρῶν, καὶ οἱ σὺν ἐμοὶ πάντες ἀδελφοί, ταῖς ἐκκλησίαις τῆς Γαλατίας.

24 gratia vobis et pax a Deo patre et Domino Ihesu Christo. Compare Gal 1.3: χάρις ὑμῖν καὶ εἰρήνη ἀπὸ θεοῦ πατρὸς καὶ κυρίου ἡμῶν Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ.

25 The apostle also consistently opens his letters with a similar greeting: χάρις ὑμῖν (see Rom 1.7; 1 Cor 1.3; 2 Cor 1.2; Gal 1.3; Phil 1.2; 1 Thess 1.1; 2 Thess 1.2; Phlm 3; cf. Eph 1.2; Col 1.2; 1 Tim 1.2; 2 Tim 1.2; Tit 1.4).

26 If these verses were not original to Paul's epistle to the Romans, they quickly became attached to it and circulated with the text long before the composition of the Letter to the Laodiceans.

27 As Tite notes (Apocryphal Letter to the Laodiceans, 79), these expressions of grace ‘creat[e] an epistolary inclusio between the opening and the closing of the letter’. In fact, however, the inclusion operates within a larger chiastic structure. The issue of whether or not an additional verse should be added between vv. 17 and 18 (salutate omnes fratres in osculo sancto) (as in most manuscripts) or omitted (as in Codex Fuldensis) does not affect the argument of this essay. Since scholars often believe this verse to be a secondary addition, we exclude it from our analysis (see Schneemelcher, ‘The Epistle to the Laodiceans’, 46).

28 Tite, Apocryphal Letter to the Laodiceans, 66. Nonetheless, the structure proposed here makes better sense of the text as a whole than Tite's structuring. For instance, Tite proposes that vv. 10–16 form a unit that itself comprises a chiasm, with vv. 10–11 and 14–16 forming the outer units, leaving vv. 12–13 as the centre of the chiasm (Apocryphal Letter to the Laodiceans, 64). Besides missing the chiastic relationships being proposed here, this simply places far too much structural weight on vv. 12–13. Studies on chiastic structures often note that an author's primary point of emphasis is best seen in the chiasm's centrepiece(s) (see Man, R. E., ‘The Value of Chiasm for New Testament Interpretation’, BSac (1984) 146–57Google Scholar); vv. 12–13 are ill-suited to serve that structural role.

29 For an alternative layout of vv. 10–14, which Tite calls the ‘Paraenesis’ section, see his Apocryphal Epistle to the Laodiceans, ‘Appendix One’, 127.

30 It is also interesting to note that, except for the anomalous sentence that refers to the Colossians, the only two sections that make no mention of Jesus Christ are the chiastically paired sections D and D’. This, of course, may be simply coincidental.

31 On the role of chiasm for pedagogical and liturgical purposes in early Christian communities, see N. W. Lund, Chiasmus in the New Testament (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1942) 28–9.