The Colossian Heresy: Proto-Kabbalistic?


The Apostle Paul, in his epistle to the church at Colossae, mentions a series of false beliefs and practices to which he urged his readers not to fall prey.

See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ. For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority. In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.1

The Apostle goes on to condemn the suggestion that the believers at Colossae could be judged by what they eat, drink, festivals, new moons, sabbaths, asceticism, not worshiping angels or accepting visions from those who obviously seek to undermine the faith Paul taught them.2 The designation of this specific heresy has been the subject of many scholarly articles and books, and yet remains largely a mystery. The best we can do is look carefully at the clues left for us in this epistle and offer potential answers. In doing so we will explore the intersection of Judaism, philosophy, and paganism in the First Century, demonstrating the proto-gnostic nature of the Colossian heresy. If indeed the Colossian heresy is a synthesis of paganism, philosophy, and Judaism, which it appears to be, it is an internal error brought in by Jewish converts seeking to find footing in the church at Colossae and not an external threat.

Colossae, Angels and Qumran

It appears that the epistle to the Colossians was written around the year 60 AD3 to a fledgling congregation in the city of Colossae, once a rather cosmopolitan city due to being located on a major travel route, located in Phrygia, in Asia Minor.4 By the time of Paul's epistle the city had dwindled in significance. Today it is situated in modern Turkey. It is a little more than nine miles southeast of Laodicea. The city's population was comprised of both Jews and Gentiles.5 This connection of the Jewish world with that of the pagan Gentiles would have brought with it unique challenges regarding religious observances, not to mention influences from each community on the thinking of the other. It is worth noting that Paul does not feel the need to explain what the Jewish observances are that he is condemning, which may indicate that many of the Christians at Colossae were Jewish and understood.

One thing that is important to note in any study of the Colossian heresy is that there was a cult in the city itself that reflects in part what Paul wrote against. As F.F. Bruce notes:

Those churches which claimed an apostolic foundation attached great importance to the maintenance of the teaching which they had originally received. There were powerful forces at work in many of them which militated against the maintenance of that teaching; chief among these were those tendencies which in a few decades blossomed forth in the elaborate systems of the various schools of Gnosticism. One form of incipient Gnosticism is the syncretistic angel cult of non-conformist Jewish foundation and pagan superstructure attacked in the epistle to the Colossians.6

According to one source, this cult believed that the archangel Michael had caused a spring to flow whose waters were believed to have curative powers.7 It may at first seem odd that pagans would worship angels, but we must keep in mind that it was the nature of ancient paganism to adopt and adapt beliefs and practices from other religions freely. Communion with angels is also a common feature of the Old Testament, as well as the Dead Sea Scrolls, wherein we discover that the Qumran community believed themselves to be in mystical relationships with angelic beings. For example, Michael R. Jost writes:

The liturgical communion goes beyond this cosmological communion. The angels and the earthly worshipers not only pray at the same time separated in heaven and earth but build one community in the same place. Therefore, the ritually impure must leave the congregation, for the holy angels are part of it (1QSa 2:3–9). We also find this kind of communion in 1QS, 1QSb, and 1QHa. For example, we read in 1QHa11:21–22: “The depraved spirit you have purified from great offence so that he can take a place with the host of the holy ones and can enter in communion [or: in the yaḥad] with the congregation of the sons of heaven.”8

Clearly there was a keen interest in angels in the Jewish community that extended to seeking mystical communion with them. The problem with identifying the Qumran sect (Essenes) as the heresy at Colossae is the fact that, as Kostenberger notes9, the Essene community was so far removed geographically from Colossae and the Lycus Valley as to render the suggestion extremely unlikely.

Character and Identification of the Heresy

The source of this heresy seems to be fairly narrowed down for our study, having only the Jewish and pagan philosophical communities for logical origin. However, within those communities were a variety of expressions as well. Some of the potential sources are mystery cults, mystical Jewish sects such as the Essenes who were heavily influenced by mysticism, and Gnostic sects who often mixed philosophy with religion. Kostenberger, quoting the work of I.K. Smith, states the following:

I. K.Smith. Smith surveyed four main proposals: (1) Essene Judaism and Gnosticism, (2) Hellenism, (3) paganism, and (4) Judaism. This arrangement is pedagogically instructive, but the categories are not watertight since many reconstructions blend themes from two or more of them.10

H. Wayne House takes the position that it is very difficult to positively identify the source.

The most one can say of the error in Colossians is that it was a syncretism of Jewish, Gentile, and Christian features that diminished the all-sufficiency of Christ's salvation and his personal preminence.11

Like House, Kostenberger also recognizes the difficulty in identifying the specific group to which Paul refers.

Scholars have studied these strands and attempted to locate a group or movement in the first century that matches all the criteria. Paul’s opponents were notoriously difficult to identify with precision, so the sheer multitude of scholarly proposals should not surprise the reader.12

Kostenberger does provide an interesting list of identifying markers though, which aid us in focusing our choices a bit more narrowly:

Scholars have noted some of the distinguishing marks of the teaching through a mirror reading of Colossians. At the formal level, it is identified as a “philosophy” that has a longstanding pedigree of support in “human tradition”. (2:8) It is more difficult to detect certain catchwords of this philosophy in Colossians, but a few phrases stand out: “the entire fullness” (2:9); “with delight in ascetic practices and the worship of angels” (2:18); “claiming access to a visionary realm” (2:18); and “self-made religion, false humility, and severe treatment of the body” (2:23)13

John MacArthur proposes a very similar list of identifying markers, along with potential identification of the heretics in questions.

The specific heresy threatening the Colossians is unknown, in that Paul does not name it. We can, however, reconstruct some of its tenets from 2:8-23. It contained elements of philosophy (2:8-15), legalism (2:16-17), mysticism (2:18-19), and asceticism (2:20-23). Because those beliefs were shared by the first-century Jewish sect known as the Essenes, we noted in the introduction it is possible they (or a group holding similar beliefs) were the ones threatening the Colossian believers. This heresy also had components that were early forms of Gnosticism, the belief that there was a transcendent kind of knowledge beyond Christian doctrine known only to elite initiates who had ascended to that level.14

Gnosticism was indeed an attempt to transform religion through a syncretism of any given religious cult and pagan philosophy. As Nicola Spanu notes, Christian Gnosticism was an attempt to “teach Christianity as a philosophy.”15

That said, it is worthwhile noting that surviving Gnostic texts do indeed emphasize spiritual “fullness”. In these texts the Pleroma (πλήρωμα) literally means “fullness” and refers to possessing complete divine power. Thus, if we are indeed dealing with a Gnostic sect in Colossians, Paul's statement that in Christ “the whole fullness of deity dwells” makes perfect sense as a refutation of the heresy. This also makes sense in light of the fact that the concept of the Pleroma has connections to Neo-Platonic philosophy. Philosopher John M. Dillon, in his contribution to the publication Neoplatonism and Gnosticism proposes that Gnosticism took the concept of the Pleroma from Neo-Platonism's concept and the “ideal realm”, or fuller expression of the material.16

Again, this connects well with Paul's comment about ascetism, as this belief in the immaterial realm being pure, whereas the material (physical) is impure and something to be escaped from by extreme asceticism, is completely in line with Gnosticism. It is interesting to see that many commentators have identified the Colossian heresy as Gnosticism without really considering the characteristics Paul mentions that are in conflict with what we know of Gnosticism. In his commentary on Colossians 2:2,3, wherein Paul writes of, “the acknowledgment of the mystery of God, and of the Father, and of Christ; in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.”, William Barclay pays special attention to Paul's use of the word apokruphos (ἀπόκρυφος), a Greek adjective meaning “secret” or “hidden”. He states:

His use of that word is a blow aimed at the Gnostics...Gnostics believed that a great mass of elaborate knowledge was necessary for salvation. That knowledge which they set down in their books which they called apokruphos because they were barred to the ordinary man. By using this one word, Paul is saying: 'You Gnostics have your wisdom hidden from ordinary people; we too have our knowledge, but it is not hidden in unintelligible books; it is hidden in Christ and therefore open to all men and women everywhere.”17

R. Kent Hughes takes a very similar approach to the identification of the heresy, writing:

This was a swing at the Gnostic heretics who claimed to have the way to wisdom and knowledge. Paul said there was (and is) no other treasury of knowledge, for “all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” are in Christ.18

However, we cannot say for certain that Gnosticism is the definite heresy here, as Kostenberger explains, “...full-fledged Gnosticism postdates Colossians”.19 Blomberg agrees that we cannot state the Colossian heresy is Gnosticism, writing:

This can be immediately set to one side by the observation that there are more competing yet plausible theories for the Colossian heresy than for any other false teaching mentioned anywhere in the New Testament, and not the slightest hint of any consensus as to its makeup.20


If this journey through the potential identities of our heretical culprits has been unsatisfying it is only so because we are left with a multitude of questions. However, the significant markers of the heresy itself, when examined in light of both Gnosticism and Judaism present us with a tentative answer. Recognizing the lack of solid evidence that can lead to a positive identification, at best, we can propose a proto-Gnostic movement or proto-Kabbalistic tradition as the heresy in question. The connection between ancient Gnosticism and what has become known as Kabbalah has been a study of occultists and Jewish theologians and mystics for many years. While it is true that we have no definitive evidence of such a connection, the doctrinal commonalities of the two schools of thought are striking. Like the Gnostics, Kabbalists have written a series of books that are intended to keep the secret spiritual knowledge from those who are impure. Such books as the Sefer Yetzirah and Sefer Ha-Zohar were kept hidden and taught by a Kabbalistic rabbi to his small circle of initiates. And many modern Kabbalists have embraced a connection between the two schools. For example, Kabbalistic author and clinical psychologist Sanford L. Drob explores the potential connections of Gnosticism to Kabbalah.

For the Gnostics, the divine spark present in man is entrapped in an evil realm of shadows, which is a close parallel to the Kabbalist's Sitra Achra (the "Other Side"). This spark, in the guise of individual men, is unaware of its true origins, but nevertheless possesses an unconscious desire to return to its divine home. The divine spark thereby constitutes the individual's essential but forgotten reality

The Gnostics held that the material, empirical, human being is essentially an illusion that envelops, indeed imprisons, the inner, true self. It is only by acquiring knowledge or "memory" (in the Platonic sense of anamnesis) of this inner self that the Gnostic devotee can free himself from this hostile world and achieve ultimate spiritual fulfillment.

For the Gnostics, knowledge (gnosis) is not achieved through a purely cognitive procedure. Gnostic knowledge is first and foremost knowledge of the heart; it is an experience of spiritual regeneration, of immediate salvation. It is in essence, the awakening of the long-dormant inner, divine self. Meditation, dialectic, and reflection are all useful in preparing the intellect, but the intervention of a divine luminous power creating a profound emotional experience is necessary to create the image of the "essential man" which is consubstantial with the divine world.

All of these ideas are found in relatively unaltered form in the Lurianic Kabbalah and in the writings of the Hasidim that are based on Luria's ideas.21

So, where does this leave us? F.F. Bruce appears to lean toward the conclusion that we are dealing with an early form of merkabah mysticism, which gave rise to later Kabbalistic mysticism. While Bruce stops short of positively identifying the Colossian heresy as having been merkabah mysticism, he explains that the heavenly ascent referred to in verse 2:18, “appears to have been of the same character as the experience which the merkabah mystics sought. The Colossian heresy evidently encouraged the claim that the fullness of God could be appreciated only by mystical experiences for which ascetic preparation was necessary.”22 Bruce finds a connection between Gnosticism and these merkabah mystics, writing that a suitable definition of Gnosticism that fits the criteria of Paul's condemnation is one which refers specifically to Jewish Gnosticism. Noted Jewish scholar Gershom Scholem provides Bruce with his definition. Scholem defined Gnosticism as a “religious movement that proclaimed a mystical esotericism for the elect based on illumination and the acquisition of a higher knowledge of things heavenly and divine”- the higher knowledge being “soteric” as well as “esoteric”.23 This combination of soteric observances, which would include new moons, food laws, and Sabbath observance with the esoteric elements of “hidden” wisdom, mystical visions, and ascetic practices found in merkabah mysticsm and later in Kabbalah, certainly lends credence to the most likely identification of the heresy as having been a Jewish one that was proto-Gnostic and proto-Kabbalistic, sharing all of the most significant markers in common.


1Colossians 2:8-12, English Standard Version.

2Colossians 2:16-19.

3Andreas Kostenberger, L. Scott Kellum, et al, The Crade, the Cross, and the Crown, (Nashville, Tennessee: B&H Academic, Second Edition) 2016, ePub, 1374.

4F.F. Bruce, The Colossian Heresy, (Dallas, Texas: Bibliotheca Sacra 141) (1984) 195.

5Peter T. O'Brien, Word Biblical Commentary, Volume 44, (Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson Inc.) 1982.

6F.F. Bruce, New Testament History, (New York, N.Y. Galilee/Doubleday) (1980) 415.

7Encyclopedia of the Ancient World, (Cambridge, UK: Brill) 2010) 579.

8Michael R. Jost, The Liturgical Communion of the Yahad with the Angels: The Origin of the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice Reconsidered (Cambridge, UK: Dead Sea Discoveries Journal) July 2021, 57.

9Andreas Kostenberger, L. Scott Kellum, et al, The Crade, the Cross, and the Crown, (B&H Academic, Second Edition) 2016, ePub, 1387.

10Ibid., 1385.

11H. Wayne House, Heresies in the Colossian Church, (Dallas, Texas: Biblotheca Sacra 149) 59.

12Andreas Kostenberger, L. Scott Kellum, et al, The Crade, the Cross, and the Crown, (B&H Academic, Second Edition) 2016, ePub, 1384.

13Ibid., 1384.

14John MacArthur, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Colossians and Philemon, (Chicago, Illinois: Moody Publishers) 1992,153.

15Nicola Spanu, Gnosticism and Christianity: Some Remarks (Vetera Christianorum: Journal of the Department of Classical and Christian Studies, University of Bari Aldo Moro, Italy, Vol. 50) 2013, 342.

16Richard T. Wallis, Jay Bergman Neoplatonism and Gnosticism (New York, N.Y.: State University of New York Press) 1992, 99.

17William Barclay, The Letters to the Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians, (Edinburgh, Scotland: Saint Andrews Press) 2003, 219.

18R. Kent Hughes, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon, (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway) 2013, 361.

19Andreas Kostenberger, L. Scott Kellum, et al, The Crade, the Cross, and the Crown, (B&H Academic, Second Edition) 2016, ePub, 1387.

20Craig L. Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the New Testament, (Nashville, Tennessee: B& H Academic), 2016, 396.

21Sanford L. Drob, Gnosticism and the Kabbalah, Article, 2001,

22F.F. Bruce, The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdman's Publishing) 1984, 26.

23Ibid., 21.


Kostenberger, Andreas, L. Scott Kellum, et al, The Crade, the Cross, and the Crown, (Nashville, Tennessee: B&H Academic, Second Edition) ePub version, 2016.

Bruce, F.F., The Colossian Heresy, (Dallas, Texas: Bibliotheca Sacra 141) 1984.

Peter T. O'Brien, Word Biblical Commentary, Volume 44, (Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson Inc.) 1982.

Bruce, F.F., New Testament History, (New York, N.Y. Galilee/Doubleday) 1980.

Encyclopedia of the Ancient World, (Cambridge, UK: Brill) 2010.

Jost, Michael R., The Liturgical Communion of the Yahad with the Angels: The Origin of the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice Reconsidered (Cambridge, UK: Dead Sea Discoveries Journal) July 2021.

House, H. Wayne, Heresies in the Colossian Church, (Dallas, Texas: Biblotheca Sacra 149) 1984.

MacArthur, John, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Colossians and Philemon, (Chicago, Illinois: Moody Publishers) 1992.

Spanu, Nicola, Gnosticism and Christianity: Some Remarks (Vetera Christianorum: Journal of the Department of Classical and Christian Studies, University of Bari Aldo Moro, Italy, Vol. 50) 2013.

Wallis, Richard T. and Jay Bergman Neoplatonism and Gnosticism (New York, N.Y.: State University of New York Press) 1992.

Barclay, William, The Letters to the Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians, (Edinburgh, Scotland: Saint Andrews Press) 2003.

Hughes, R. Kent, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon, (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway) 2013.

Blomberg, Craig L., The Historical Reliability of the New Testament, (Nashville, Tennessee: B& H Academic), 2016.

Drob, Sanford L., Gnosticism and the Kabbalah, Article, 2001,

Bruce, F.F., The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdman's Publishing) 1984.