Vincent Pizzuto has produced a comprehensive study of the status and significance of the cosmic Christological “hymn” found in chapter one of Colossians. His analysis includes a detailed survey of the modern history of interpretation of this text – something that would appeal to biblical historians and specialists – and concludes with a synthetic interpretation of its theological significance – something that could contribute to a systematic understanding of a contemporary Christology.
Broadly sketched, Pizzuto’s thesis maintains that a pseudonymous author of the Pauline school composed the letter, including this passage with its chiastic structure, to be shared among Christian communities in the Lycus valley sometime during the decade of the seventies or early eighties. The purpose was to combat a variety of syncretistic tendencies threatening these communities (centering around Laodicea) by upholding Paul’s earlier vision of Jesus crucified and exalted as the eikon of God who is now understood as both the foundation of the world and its restoration through the universal church.
Every element of this synoptic statement about Colossians is contested. One of the strengths of Pizzuto’s work consists in the detailed and careful marshalling of evidence in support of his argument, including acknowledging the way in which earlier elements both point toward and depend upon later conclusions. For example, one piece of his defense of the pseudonymous authorship of the letter is his claim that the notion of the “church” is used in a universal sense in the hymn, something not quite done in the authentic Pauline writings. That the sense is universal presumes, in part, an understanding of the hymn, something toward which Pizzuto’s argument is pointing at this stage, as composed by the author with a chiastic structure relating the firstborn of creation with the firstborn from the dead. This delicately balanced manner of thinking is supported, moreover, by his thorough review of the major alternative hypotheses regarding the letter on every major point. In other words, his strategy includes examining major competing hypotheses by a close reading of the (Greek) text of Colossians and to argue that every major alternative that has been proposed has significant weaknesses that his own contribution overcomes. Like much of the best of biblical scholarship, then, Pizzuto’s argument is not overwhelming, but he makes a convincing case that it is the most viable proposal currently available for interpreting the text.
In my estimation, the most significant contribution of Pizzuto’s work is his careful exposition of the way in which the hymn is best understood as a work composed by a Christian author on the basis of earlier Pauline insights. Thus claims proposed earlier in the twentieth century that the “high” Christology of Colossians was dependent upon external stimulation from Hellenistic (pagan or Gnostic) sources are effectively challenged. The speculation of Late Second Temple Judaism, stimulated to be sure by syncretistic speculation threatening the Christian gospel, mediated through the reflection of Pauline eikon-christology, provides the needed context. What emerges in this letter is a “leap” beyond the earlier Pauline speculation, but one still tied to the historicity of the Christ-event, that is, to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. In this basic claim Pizzuto’s work thus corroborates the efforts of Larry Hurtado’s studies (which, surprisingly to me, are not cited anywhere here). Accordingly, Pizzuto’s thesis provides further support that the developing understanding of the significance of Christ is a matter of the unfolding of an inner dynamic of the communities emerging out of the preaching of Jesus, not some alien doctrine imposed on the fledgling religion. And this is a thesis well worth studying by anyone working in contemporary systematic theology.
One monitum for non-biblical specialists: since this is a scholarly work in the traditional European style, every biblical passage quoted by Pizzuto is printed in Greek, with the exception of his rendering in English of the chiastic pattern of the hymn (205). To follow the trajectory of his argument, then, it does help to be able to read the Greek text, which – aside from a few omissions of accents and breathing marks – is well produced by the publisher. But a determined reader can overcome this lack by reading Pizzuto’s work with a copy of the NT in hand – something I would heartily recommend.