But Let Everyone Discern the Body of Christ (Colossians 2:17)

by Troy Martin
But Let Everyone Discern the Body of Christ (Colossians 2:17)
Troy Martin
Journal of Biblical Literature
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Saint Xavier University, Chicago, IL 60655

The short clause TO ohpa TOG XptoroG at the end of Col2:17 is mis- understood by an exegetical tradition that ignores the grammatical structure of the clause in favor of a semantic antithesis behveen shadow (o~ta) and body (oGpa).l Eduard Schweizer calls the construction obscure and suggests emending the genitive XptozoG to a nominative so that the clause would corre-

The completely negative assessment of the shadow conception among some commentators is not present in this text. Subtly shifting the antecedent of the relative pronoun at the beginning of


17 from practices to regulations or stipulations permits many commentators to interpret oxta in an absolutely pejorative manner. The regulations or stipulations of the opponents are considered as worthless shadows. See Eduard Lohse (Colossians and Philemon [Hermeneia; Philadelphia: Fortress, 19711 117 n. 22). However, the opponents' regulations are not necessarily mentioned in


16, which may mention the practices of the Colossian community that are being critiqued. These Christian practices may comprise the shadow, and they are not presented negatively except by the opponents. Furthermore, some commentators subtly shift the tense of to~iv in the relative pro- noun clause at the beginning of v. 17. The tense is present and affirms that these things are now shadows. These commentators translate the past tense and conclude that these stipulations have ended now that the true substance has arrived since they were only shadows. This shift of tense is evident when Lohse states, "The regulations are merely shadows ofthings to come. . . .Since reality is with Christ alone, the shadowy appearances hnoe lost all right to exist. . . . The reality that exists solely wvith Christ is shared only by those who, as members of the body of Christ, adhere to the head (2:19). Therefore, for them the shado\vs haoe become completely meaningless, and the 'regula- tions,' to which the arrogant exponents of the 'pl~ilosophy' refer, hnce lost all binding force" (Cobssinns, 117). In spite of this eisegesis, the text affirms a present, albeit temporary, validity to the shadow. H. A. W. Meyer correcdy argues, "The pkMovr& have not yet been-manifested at all, and belong altogether to the aihv ptMwv, which will begin wvith the coming again of Christ to set up His kingdom. . . . The ptUovra could only be viewed as having already set in either in whole or in part, if iv and not &mi were used previously, and thereby the notion of futurity were to be taken relatively, in reference to a state of things then already pt" (Critical and Exegetical Handbook to the Epistles to the Pl~ilippians nnrl Colossians [Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 18751 387). Petr Pokorny (Colossians [Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 19911 144) concurs with Meyer. Although Meyer and Pokorny correctly understand the temporal reference, they do not understand its significance, since they insist on associating m~awith the opponents' practices.

250 Jm~malof BiblicalLiterature

spond "precisely to the usual contrast between shadow and substance."Wis emendation, which has no textual support, demonstrates the importance of the antithesis between shadow and body for the interpretation of this clause. Schweizer concludes his interpretation by saying, "However one understands this phrase grammatically, the meaning at least is clear."3 His conclusion shows the irrelevance of the grammar for his interpretation. Schweizer should not be criticized too harshly, since he merely follows the exegetical tradition he has received. At least, his recognition of the grammatical problems inherent in the text surpasses inany other exegetes. In order to remove the misunderstanding of this clause, an adequate explanation of its graminar and syntax is needed.

The first exegetical issue that demands resolution is the syntactical rela- tionship of this clause to its larger sentence. This clause occurs at the end of a sentence that begins in Col2:16. The Greek text of this sentence reads as fol- lows: Mil oh zt< d~&< 8v pphoet ~ai

~ptv~zw 8v rcooet ij 8v p8pet kopzfi<

The critical exegetical tradition allnost unaniinously connects the last clause in the sentence with the relative clause that immediately precedes it because of the contrast behveen o~taand ohya.

For example, Peter T. O'Brien interprets the clause zb 66 ohpa 706 XptoroCi as a nominal clause with an ellipsed 8oziv. He connects this clause syntactically to the subordinate relative clause a 8oztv o~ta zhv pehMvzov because of the semantic connection between o~taand oh~a.~

He then adopts the NIV's translation, which reads, "These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ."5 O'Brien's grammatical analy- sis does not support his preferred translation. He identifies the construction as a compound subordinate clause but shifts to independent clauses in order to translate the construction. O'Brien's error is shared by virtually every other commentator.

This interpretive error is caused by forcing a coordinating conjunction to connect hvo clauses that are not grammatically equivalent. When it is used to connect clauses, the coordinating conjunction 68 can only connect clauses of the same type.6 When the clause zb ohpa TOG XptozoC is understood as a nom- inal clause with an ellipsed ~oziv,then it becomes an independent clause. Syn- tactically, a coordinating conjunction cannot link this independent clause with the subordinate relative clause a 8ortv o~tazhv pehhovrov. In order to con-

Eduard Schweizer, The Letter to the Colossions (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1982) 157.

3 Ibid., 158.

Peter T. O'Brien states, "But the sentence can be understood more simply by referring it to the shadowlsubstance contrast alone" (Colossians, Phileinon [WBC 44;\\Taco: Word, 19821 141). 5 Ibid., 140. 6 According to BDF $438, the conjunction 66 is always coordinating, and coordinating con-

junctions are "those which connect elements in sentence structure which are on a par with each other."

nect these two clauses, O'Brien and others interpret the subordinate relative clause as an independent clause. This interpretation contradicts the grammati- cal construction of the text, which clearly contains both a subordinate and an independent clause. Thus, his connection of the concluding independent nom- inal clause with the preceding dependent relative clause is i~npossible gram- matically because in this clause 6rL is a coordinating conjunction that can only connect grammatical equivalents.

If the clause introduced by 68 is connected with the relative clause as the commentators insist, then TO ocCyla in this clause must be a predicate nomina- tive with the relative pronoun a as its subject. Since o~taalso serves as a predi- cate nominative for this pronoun, TO ohpa would form a compound predicate nominative with ona. The translation would read, "which things are a shadow of the things to come but which things are the body of Christ." The relative pro- noun's antecedents, the food and temporal references in v. 16,would then be equated with the body of Christ.7 This equation is nonsensical, since the eating and drinking and the temporal references are not likely both the shadow and the body at one and the same time. Therefore, the clause TO 6&oGpa roc Xplo~06does not connect with the relative clause that precedes in spite of the overwhelming consensus of modem commentators.

In contrast to the explanation offered by the commentators, the scribal tradition in the manuscripts often places a full stop after pehh5vrov and takes 70 6& o6pa rob Xptorob as the direct object of the following verb ~azappaf3eurLroin 2:18. Ian A. Moir has championed this understanding in more recent times, and he translates the construction, "But (or 'see that you') let no one deprive you of / defraud you of / do you out of / exclude you from /

The majority of commentators understand the criticisms both of food and of time in v. 16 as the antecedent to the relative pronoun a. For example, H. \an Soden comments on this pronoun in 2:17,saying, "\Vas (nicl~tnur auf die Zeiten, sondern auch auf die Speiseordnungen zu beziehen; die Relativsatz gibt in Form einer Aussage uber jene Dinge eine Begriindung der Forderung: pi

nq up85 rp~vb~o)"

(Der Brief an die Kolosser [EIKNT 3; Freiburg: Akademische Verlagsbuch- handlung, 18911 52). See also Johannes Lahnemann, who says, "da13 der 'Schatten des Kom- menden' die in 2,16 angedeuteten Gebote kennzeichenen soll" (Der Kolosserbrief [SNT 3; Gutersloh: Mohn, 19711 136). Others, like Paul Ewald, argue that the antecedent is limited to the temporal references because only these pertain to the Jewish law, which was a shadow of the things to come (Der Brief an die Kolosser [Kommentar zum Neuen Testament 10; Leipzig: Deichert, 19051 392). Grammatically, either interpretation is possible. However, the conjunction fiprimarily indicates disjunction, not contrast, and consequently is not able to bear the weight that Ewald and others put on it. If the Colossian author explicitly intended a contrast between the eating and tern- poral references, a contrasting construction like ptv . . .&& instead of the coordinating conjunction fiwould be necessary. Furthermore, the variant reading in some manuscripts of a singular pronoun instead of the plural pronoun indicates that several early Christian scribes understood the entire preceding verse as the antecedent for the pronoun a. For these reasons, it is best to include both the temporal and the food regulations as the antecedents for this pronoun as the majority of com- mentators do. See J. B. Lightfoot (Saint Poul's Epistles to the Colossinns ant1 to Phileinon [Zondervan Commentary Series; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 19791 195).

the body of Christ."B This suggestion is appealing because it recognizes the integrity of 6&as a coordinating conjunction and understands TO 68 o6pa 70% Xpto~oGas an accusative direct object.

Moir himself, however, expresses hesitation about this interpretation because it requires the extremely unlikely construal of ~a.rappap&u&.ro

with two accusatives.9 In addition to this objection, Moir and the scribal tradition's explanation of the syntax destroys the parallelism between pfi . . .~ptv8.s~

and pq6~iq. . . ~aTaPpaP&u&To.

It also results in a strange parenetic construction in which two negated imperatives are connected by 68. In the usual parenetic construction, the coordinating conjunction 68 contrasts a positive imperative with a negative one. Consequently, TO 68 o6pa TOG Xpto~oGshould not be con- strued with the verb ~a~appap&u&.ro

in 2:18, and the critical texts correctly place a full stop after Xpto~o6.

Since the prepositional phrases in 2:16 cannot be grammatically equiva- lent to this independent clause either, the only remaining grammatical option is to connect TO 68 o6pa TOG XptozoG with the independent clause pfi o6v dp&q ~ptv&zo at the beginning of the sentence. This conclusion resolves the first exegetical issue of the syntactical relationship of TO 68 o6pa 706 Xpto~oG to the overall sentence. However, this conclusion generates the second exegeti- cal issue of how the two independent clauses in this antithetical compound sen- tence relate to one another.

The construction pfi o6v ~tq dp&q ~ptv&~o

. . . TO 68 o6pa TOG Xpto~oGis an antithesis. The negative meinber is stated first; the contrasting positive member introduced by an adversative conjunction occurs second. Obviously, there is an ellipsis in the second member. All the commentators supply the ellipsed verb &oziv,which is a possibility since this verb can be ellipsed at any time. The resulting translation reads, "Therefore, let no one judge you . . . but the body (substance) belongs to Christ." As this translation demonstrates, sup- plying the verb tmiv in the second meinber does not produce a clause thatis antithetical to the previous one. Whatever such a statement might mean, it is not an antithesis. Another option is required.

A common ellipsis in antitheses occurs when the verb of the first member is not repeated in the second inember.10 A clear example is 1Cor 10:24,which reads, "Mq6~iqTO Bau~oG Lq.r&i.sw aXXa TO 706 B~8pou." The imperative Lq.s&izobelongs to both members even though it is absent from the second, and the verse translates, "Let no one seek her or his own benefit, but let evey- one seek the benefit of another." Except for the absence of o6v and the substi-

8 Ian A. Moir, "Some Thoughts on Col. 2,17-18," TZ 35 (1979) 363-65. See also his earlier discussion in his article "The Bible Societies' Greek Netc Testament, edited by Kurt Aland, Matthew Black, Bruce M. Metzger and Allen Wikgren," NTS 14 (1967) 142.

Moir, "Some Thoughts," 365. For additional problems with Moir's interpretation, see Robert H. Gundry, Soino in Biblical Theology (London: Cambridge University Press, 1976) 42-43. lo This is a good classical constn~ction according to BDF $479.1.

tution of ahha for 68, this verse is grammatically parallel to the antithesis in Col 2:16-17. This example from Corinthians indicates that ~erhaps the verb ~p~v8zo

is ellipsed in the second member of the antithesis in Colossians. When this ellipsed verb is supplied, the antithesis in Col2:16-17 reads, pfi o6v .r~q iq16q ~ptv8.rw . . . 70 6i: o6pa zoG Xp~o.roG ~p~v8.r~.

The antithesis is formed by the negative adverb pfi in the first ineinber and the adversative con- junction 68 in the second. The accusative personal pronoun 6~6~

and the accusative neuter noun o6pa function as the direct objects of the first and sec- ond inembers respectively." The verb ~ptv8to determines the action that is forbidden by the first ineinber and then enjoined by the second member of this antithesis. This explanation of the relationship between the two independent clauses of this antithesis leads to a third exegetical issue; namely, the meaning of the verb ~p~v8.rw

in each clause.

From its basic meaning of to part or to sqt, the verb ~pivw develops a number of different nuances including clizjicling, selecting, deciding, discerning, determining, valuing, assessing, andjuclging.1"ome of these nuances are posi- tive or neutral while others are negative. The prohibition in the first clause of the antithesis in Col2:16 indicates that the nuance of ~p~v8zo

is negative. Hence, the nuance of judging or criticizing is probably the best selection. How- ever, the action enjoined by the second clause requires a positive nuance. Con- sequently, the nuance of deciding or discerning is the best option here. An example of precisely this combination of nuances occurs in the antithesis in Roin 14:13, which reads, M~KE~ ~pivopev.ahha zoko ~pivaze

oh ahhfihou~ p6hhov. . . . It translates as follows, "Let us no longer judge (~pivwpev) one another, but rather determine (~pivwpev) this. . . ."I3 These same nuances occur in the antithesis found in Col2:16-17, where ~p~v8zo

in the first clause of the antithesis refers to judging and in the second clause to discerning.

This type of ellipsis, where the meaning of the ellipsed word changes from the meaning of its nonellipsed occurrence, is a coininon type of ellipsis. For example, Socrates says in his own defense, "I did not care for the things that most people care about (apehfioaq dvnep oi xohhoi [&x~peho~vza~])."l4 Socrates' description of his own action as apehdo indicates that some form of this verb with a different nuance should be supplied to describe the actions of the people with whom Socrates contrasts himself. Herbert Weir Sinyth com- ments, "From a preceding word its opposite must often be supplied, especially

l1 Understanding ohpa as an accusative is contrary to all the commentators who understand

it as a n0minatij.e. Of course, it can be either according to its form. If my arguments regarding the

grammar and syntax of this verse are correct, then ohpa must be accusative, as the scribal tradition

often indicates by its punctuation of this verse.

Friedrich Buchsel, "rpivo,"TDNT 3.922-23.

l3 BAGD, 453.

l4 Plato, Laws 36b. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns, eds., The Collected Dialogues of

Plato (Bollingen Series 71;Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1985) 21.

an affirmative after a negative."Is The shift in the nuances of ~ptv8~o

in the two independent antithetical clauses of Col 2:16-17 is common in antithetical ellipses.

In addition to the shift in the ineaning of K~IV~T~,

the subject of this verb needs clarification. In the first inember of this antithesis, the subject of ~ptv8zw is specified as no one (pfi 715). When a restrictive reference such as pq6ei~or pfi zt~

occurs in the first member of an antithesis, the following mein- ber takes an understood subject such as evenjone (nfi~)or each (E~ao~o5)

that includes all persons excluded by the first subject.16 Demosthenes says, "No one should marvel at my extravagance toward Zeus and the gods, but let everyone favorably ponder what I say (~aipou npO~ At05 ~ai

8e6v pq6ei5 zjv dnep- Pohjv Baupaq, ahha PET' e6voiaq o Gyo 8ewpqoazo)" (De Corona 199). The implied subject of 8ewpqoa~w is either n&~ or E~aoTo5 and eueyone inust be added to the English translation for the ineaning to be clear.'; Thus, the subject of the ellipsed ~p1v8zo in the second clause in the antithesis in Col2:16-17 is evenjone or each one.

One further observation about Greek ellipsis bears on the understanding of the syntax of this antithesis in Col 2:16-17. Greek ellipsis occurs when two clauses are grammatically parallel. Only a few of the elements of the first clause are repeated in the second clause and the remaining parallel elements must be supplied. In the 68 clause, the direct object TO o6pa TOG Xp~ozoG parallels the direct object in the first clause. Hence, everything following dpfiq in the first clause from KPIVETW to pehhovzwv should be supplied in the 68 clause.I8

The resolution of the grainmatical and syntactical problems of the clause TO 68 o6pa TOG XPIOTOG, supports the following translation of Col2:16-17, "Therefore do not let anyone critique you by [your or herlhis?] eating and drinking or by [your or herlhis?] participation in a feast, a new moon, or sab- baths, which things are a shadow of future realities, but let everyone discern the body of Christ by [your or herlhis?] eating nnd drinking or by [your or herlhis?] participation in a feast, new moon, or sabbaths, which things are a shadow offirtzire realities."

As this translation indicates, the determination of whose practices are being critiqued remains ambiguous even though the graminar and syntax of

15 H. W. Smyth, Creek Cmtninor (Cambridge, hlA: Harvard Uni\,ersity Press, 1980) 93018m.

16 Ibid.

17 1Cor 1024, discussed and translated above, also illustrates this principle.

'8The preposition EV linked to the verb ~ptvbrwthat has an accusative direct object desig- nates the activity by \vhich the direct object is condemned. Someone is attempting to condemn the Colossians either for their dietary practice or from the standpoint of the accuser's own practice of eating and drinking. Von Soden says on 2:16, "Richte itn (tv bezeichnet das Gebeit, in welchem sich das Richten bewegt, vgl. Rm 2:l; 14:22)" (An die Kolosser, 51). More precisely, Wilhelm Steiger states, "'Ev zeigt die Sphgre oder den Gegenstand an" (Der Brief Pn~rli nn die Kolosser [Erlangen: Carl Heyder, 18351 244).

this sentence have been explained. Some commentators attribute the eating and drinking to the Colossians, while others identify these practices with the opponents.19 Almost all commentators, however, attribute the time-keeping scheme to the opponents. The ambiguity in this passage arises because of another ellipsis. The author felt no need to supply the missing pronouns, since his readers knew ~erfectly well whose practices were being critiqued.20 The definitive determination of which pronoun should be supplied depends on the identification of the opponents at Colossae. Since such an identification pro- ceeds beyond the grammar and syntax of this passage, the determination of whose practices are being critiqued must await a further, more comprehensive study."

Nevertheless, the preceding grammatical and syntactical investigation of the clause zb 6i:o6la 70%Xp~ozoC in Col2:17 suggests that the practices men- tioned in 2:16 are those of the Colossian Christians and not the opponents. The eating and drinking associated with the Christian Eucharist certainly fore- shadow future realities. Although the observance of veopqvia is less certain, early Christians observe both feasts and sabbaths. If the practices in 2:16 are those of the Christians, then the humility and worship of angels in the parallel construction of 2:18 probably also represent Christian practices.

In future studies, exegetes should seriously consider the possibility that Christian practices, and not those of the opponents, are criticized in Col2:16,

18. The exegetical tradition's failure to adequately consider the grammar and syntax of zo 6i: o6pa 706 Xp~ozoC in Col2:17 results in a misunderstanding of this clause along with the whole of Colossians. In contrast, the preceding study of the grammatical structure coherently explains this clause in its immediate context and suggests new possibilities for the interpretation of Colossians as well.

'9 It is significant that the words for eating and drinking here designate an activity. Lohse says, "The words 'eating' (ppha~~)

and 'drinking' (ncia4) are to be distinguished from 'food' (ppciyta) and 'drink' (x6pa)" (Colossians, 115 n. 4). If the eating and drinking are practices of the Colossian Christians, then a related idea of discerning the body of Christ through the Eucharist


occurs in 1 Cor 11:29, which reads, "For the person who eats and drinks while not discerning (6~arpivov)the body eats and drinks judgment p pi pa) to herself or himself."

'0 "Ellipses dependent on individual style and choice go much farther, especially in letters, where the r&er cancount on the knowledge-which the recisent shares with himsclf and where he imitates ordinary speech (BDF $481).

2' See my forthcoming book, "By Philosophy and Empty Deceit": Colossians as Response to a Cynic Critique (Shefield: Academic Press).

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