Epistle to the Laodiceans (Expanded Summary)

The apocryphal Epistle to the Laodiceans is a short letter of approximately 20 verses written in Paul’s name (in some manuscripts, verse 17 is not present). The letter may have been originally written in Greek (so Lightfoot, where a retroversion of the Greek is offered building on Anger and Hutter’s editions), but has only survived in several Latin manuscripts (the most important being Codex Fuldensis, ca. 546 CE) and various medieval translations. Ep. Lao. enjoyed a degree of acceptance in the Western Church as an authentic letter of Paul, but was quickly rejected in the Eastern Church (since the Second Council of Nicea, 787 CE). In the West, the letter was finally omitted from the New Testament canon by the Reformers and the the Council of Trent. (On medieval transmission of Ep. Lao. see especially Hall and Backus; cf. Erbetta, Firpo, Lightfoot, Mackay, and Vouaux.)

Until recently, modern scholarship has almost universally treated this pseudonymous letter with disdain, describing it as an inept forgery comprised of lifted phrases from the authentic letters of Paul, specifically Philippians and Galatians, in an attempt to supply the “lost letter” from or to the Laodiceans mentioned in Col. 4:16. This intertextual relationship to the Pauline letters has been described as a mere rhaposody, a cento, a catana, a patchwork, or a pastiche thoughtlessly thrown together with no theological point or compositional logic. Indeed, most scholars view Col. 4:16 as the inspiration for the production of Ep. Lao. (i.e., to simply “fill a gap” in the Pauline collection – the assumption being that a letter of Paul would have been preserved and thus scholars have searched for this “lost letter,” sometimes identifying it with Ephesians, Philemon, Hebrews, or incorporated into canonical Colossians; see, e.g., Boismard, Hermann, and Knox). Lightfoot referred to Ep. Lao. as a “ghost of a Pauline letter” while M. R. James described it as “wholly uninteresting.” Although this dismissal approach has dominated scholarship, a few scholars have utilized Ep. Lao. for other research projects, thereby granting the letter a derivative value where the letter may assist in some other, more important, area of study. Harnack’s and Quispel’s attempts to link Ep. Lao. to the Marcionite Church (a view rejected by most scholars, though see discussions and modifications in Blackman, Obolensky, Pink, Firpo, Penny, and Erhman) has been the most prominent attempt along these lines, though a Marcionite connection was suggested earlier by Barry. Other attempts include the debate between Sellew and Holloway over the compositional integrity of Philippians (Sellew claiming that Laodiceans only demonstrates awareness of Philippians Letter B), Burnet’s exploration of second-century appropriations of Paul, Kelhoffer’s contrast between Ep. Lao. and the longer ending of Mark, MaGee’s use of Ep. Lao. for arguing the authenticity of Colossians and Ephesians, Moorehead and Penny on the Pastorals, and Collins on Ephesians all illustrate this derivative value approach.

The scholarly consensus on this letter has been challenged in recent years. Tite’s comprehensive analysis of Ep. Lao. argues that the letter follows the five-fold Pauline letter structure, fits the paraenetic genre, and stresses Paul as a moral exemplar for the recipients in the face of false teachers (the charlatan trope) (cf. Donelson’s very brief treatment). Pervo offers a similar epistolary analysis, albeit in much shorter form. Pervo argues that the letter is the product of a strong Paulinist. An epistolary structure is also recognized, though not explored, by Penny and Vouaux. But it is the epistolary and rhetorical analyses by Pervo and Tite that have broken with the dismissal approach and have opened the Ep. Lao. for further analysis of second-century Christianity.

The letter has the following structure (following Tite): Prescript (vv. 1-2), Thanksgiving (v. 3), Letter Body (Body Opening: v. 4; Body Middle: vv. 5-8, either with two major subsections [community situation as challenge to Paul’s gospel/threat to the community and Paul’s situation as sufferer for Christ] or a chiastic structure with v. 6 as central unit; Body Closing: v. 9), Paraenesis (vv. 10-14, with the emphasis falling on v. 13 as the central unit of persuasion/dissuasion), and Letter Closing (vv. 17-20). Alternatively, Pervo offers the following breakdown: Epistolary Greeting (vv. 1-2), Thanksgiving (vv. 3-5), Paul’s Situation (vv. 6-8), Exhortations (vv. 9-16), and Epistolary Conclusion (vv. 17/18-20). Since Pervo and Tite’s work, but also with a strong appreciation for the internal logic and purpose of the letter, yet largely breaking with ancient letter conventions, Longenecker and Ryan have applied chiastic analysis to the entire letter to arrive at similar readings as Tite and Pervo. Theologically, Ep. Lao. demonstrates a simple Trinitarian theology, a typical Pauline eschatology (intersecting realized and future eschatologies), and a superficial eccesiology (i.e., of a universal church network).

The Ep. Lao. is often dated to the late second or third century, though a date to the first half of the second century has been suggested by Tite and, subsequently, supported by Smith. A date of ca. 200 CE relies upon a brief mention in the Muratorian Canon (though a 200 CE date for this list is debatable) to an epistle to the Laodiceans (as well as a Pauline letter to the Alexandrians), connected to the Marcionite Church. A Marcionite connection sets the terminus post quem to about the mid-second century, when Marcion flourished in Rome, with the terminus ante quem set at 200 CE. Our extant Latin letter, however, does not demonstrate Marcionite teaching and thus is likely different from the letter mentioned in the Muratorian Canon. Furthermore, Tertullian (Adv. Marcion 5.17) indicates that Marcion identified Ephesians as the lost letter to Laodicea. Pervo has taken the Trinitarian theology of the letter as indicator of a 200-250 CE date. Prior to the fourth century, such as with Jerome and Gregory the Great, it is uncertain if patristic references are to the Latin letter or not. Our earliest and best manuscript evidence is Codex Fuldensis (ca. 546 CE), though other notable manuscripts include Cavensis and Ardmachanus (see also Mackay’s discussion of Codex Sangallensis, Codex Boernerianus, and Codex Augiensis with regard to Lightfoot’s hypothesis of a Greek original).

Internal evidence may suggest that the author of this letter was concerned over charlatans in Christian communities (see especially v. 13), a pervasive concern in the first half of the second century (though not limited to that period; cf. 1 Thess. 2:1-2 and Irenaeus, Adv. Haer. 1.13.3). Smith has suggested that Ep. Lao. (see v. 5) may fit into an early second-century tendency of pseudonymous letters to trace lineages of authentic/inauthentic teaching (as a precursor for the fully-developed heresy catalogues that arose later in the second century). Furthermore, given the possible use of Philippians Letter B by the author of Ep. Lao., an earlier date is viable. Regardless of dating, the Ep. Lao. is one of the few pseudonymous Pauline letters from the second or third century (others include the disputed letters in the New Testament, Alexandrians, 3 Corinthians, the Correspondence of Paul and Seneca, and possibly a letter to the Macedonians [see Clement of Alexandria, Protrepticus 9), illustrating the appropriation of Paul for the construction of early Christian identity vis-à-vis other early Christian claims to authentic identity. It is also an example of ancient Christian paraenesis that utilizes epistolary conventions with Paul serving as an authoritative and heroic figure for these early Christians.