Tom Gilson

Colossians and the Implausibility of the Fable Theory

One version of history says that Christianity developed its community, doctrine, and practices over a period of multiple generations. In the process Jesus Christ, who may have lived some kind of extraordinary life but was certainly no God, was deified. His virgin birth, miracles, and resurrection were added back into the story of life so he could be made an object of worship. And the point of all that was to strengthen a community for resistance under persecution.

There is growing external evidence that this is false, but it’s not my purpose to explore that this morning. I just read the short New Testament book of Colossians this morning, and there I see ample internal evidence that Christian belief is based on reality. This was a letter Paul wrote to one of the early churches, at Colossae, probably around 60-62 AD. There is some lingering controversy over his authorship and that date, but that is a matter for another discussion; it does not bear on what I have to share this morning. Everything I have to say here is based on the internal content of Colossians.

I encourage you to read the letter before proceeding here. It’s short—less than 5 pages long if pasted into a word processor document. Having done that, consider these questions:

1. Who or what is at the center of the letter? Quite clearly it is Jesus Christ. The first two chapters present his preeminence as the one in whom all the fulness of deity dwells bodily, through whom all things were created, who is the head of the church, the hope of glory, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.

2. Is there any hint that Christ is being used as a means to an end? None whatever. Rather he is the end himself, the object of reverence and worship. It seems implausible that the early church community would have built up a Christ-fable as a means to their survival under persecution, without some taint of that intention touching documents like this.

3. What role then does he play for the community? In saying he is not a means to an end I do not mean that Christ did nothing for the church. He was for them the possessor and passer-on of the treasures of wisdom and knowledge, he is the firstborn from among the dead (meaning that others, his followers, would also rise after him), and it is the promise of life with him that motivates godly behavior.

4. In what sense does Christ personally accomplish this? Note how present-tense all of Christ’s work for the church is. It’s never “Christ was…” but “Christ is…” or in some cases “Christ will…” There is just one single-sentence reversion to the past tense, which (quite appropriately) is in reference to Christ’s work in creation. Note also that it is an actual person, not some vague spirit of Christ-ness, who is constantly referred to here.

5. How does the letter’s ethical instruction fit in with this? The latter part of the book, as is true of many of Paul’s letters, is about ethical application of truths already expounded. The ethical instruction here (and in other books) rests on a present-tense view of Jesus Christ, clearly understood to be a real person. So it is in Colossians 3:1-2, which rests on the Christ-centered teaching of the first two chapters, and sets the stage for all the guidance that follows.

This is just one brief New Testament example among many showing that wherever the fable theory of Christianity’s formation came from, it wasn’t from the New Testament documents. Generally speaking, proponents of fable theories come to their conclusions by way of anti-supernatural presuppositions: “Christianity could not have originated in a real Son of God who did miracles and rose from the dead, because we know those kinds of things can’t happen. So where could it have come from?” Thus whole histories are invented with no documentary basis, no footing in facts.

But enough of that. I can’t help myself sometimes: I tend to read Scripture with apologetical questions in the back of my mind. It’s time to re-read Colossians the way it was originally intended. The early readers weren’t asking themselves whether this was consistent with fable theories; they were there, they had people among them (or visitors at least) who had known Christ personally on earth, and they didn’t need scholarly analysis to prove they weren’t inventing it all one or two hundred years after Christ! When Paul wrote it, and when they read it, they took it for what it is: a letter of highest praise to Jesus Christ, and guidance on living life well in light of the life of Christ.

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