Was There Really an Epistle to the Laodiceans as Stated at Colossians 4:16, and, If so, Why Is It Not In Our Bibles?

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Edward D. Andrews
EDWARD D. ANDREWS (AS in Criminal Justice, BS in Religion, MA in Biblical Studies, and MDiv in Theology) is CEO and President of Christian Publishing House. He has authored over 140 books. Andrews is the Chief Translator of the Updated American Standard Version (UASV).

Was there really an epistle to the Laodiceans, and, if so why is it not in our Bibles? Some scholars maintain that the letter to the Ephesians was not specifically to those at Ephesus but rather it was a general letter to the Ephesians and the Laodiceans, mentioned at Colossians 4:16. In addition, they say, is that the words “which are at Ephesus” found in most translations of Ephesians 1:1 are an addition to the text. They argue the letter that we know as Ephesians was a general epistle sent to the churches in Asia. Are they correct?

In the first century A.D., there was a Christian congregation that existed at Laodicea and obviously met in the home of Nympha, who was a Christian sister there. Unquestionably, it was the efforts of Epaphras that contributed to the founding of the Laodicean congregation. (Col. 4:12-13, 15) Additionally, the results of Paul’s work at Ephesus stretched as far as Laodicea. (Ac 19:10) Even though the apostle Paul never ministered there himself, he was nonetheless worried about the Laodicean brothers and sister. So much so that he wrote a letter to them. “When the letter has been read among you [Colossians], have it also read in the congregation of the Laodiceans; and see that you also read the letter from Laodicea.” (Col 2:1; 4:16) Some scholars have argued that Paul’s letter may have been merely a copy of the one he sent to Ephesus. On this Douglas J. Moo writes, “The most plausible suggestion is that the letter is Ephesians. It is quite possible that Ephesians was a circular letter, and Paul may assume that the Laodiceans will have a copy of it that they are to share with the Colossians. But if, as we think, Ephesians and Colossians were written at the same time and dispatched with the same person, this scenario is highly unlikely. Surely Paul simply would have included Colossae in the churches to whom ‘Ephesians’ was to be circulated. It is unlikely, then, that the ‘letter to the Laodiceans’ can be identified with any extant Pauline letter; it has been lost to us.”[1] Moo has a footnote that reads, “So most commentators; see, e.g., O’Brien, 258. This letter would not be the only Pauline letter to have suffered such a fate; we have also lost the ‘previous letter’ Paul wrote to the Corinthians (see 1 Cor. 5:9). Early writers exploited this reference for their own ends, writing forgeries to fill the gap otherwise left in the Pauline correspondence. Marcionites forged a ‘Letter to the Laodiceans’ that is not extant but is referred to in the Muratorian Canon. And an apocryphal letter of the same name, perhaps originating in the fifth century, has come down to us (cf. Edgar Hennecke and Wilhelm Schneemelcher, New Testament Apocrypha [rev. ed.; Westminster: John Knox, 1992], 2.42–45).”[2]

The Epistle to the Hebrews The Epistle to the Hebrews The Epistle to the Hebrews

Max Anders adds, “The church in each city was to read its letter and then share it with the church in its sister city. Just what the letter to the Laodiceans was remains a mystery, but we know it must have had some significance for all believers in the Lychus valley. Later, a Latin letter to the Laodiceans circulated in some churches and is included in publications of the New Testament Apocrypha, but it was certainly not written by Paul.”[3]

Richard R. Melick,

Laodicea was located in the Lycus valley and was a neighboring city to Colossae. The church there dated from approximately the same time as the one at Colossae, and most likely someone other than Paul founded it. It apparently began as a vital, energetic Christian community, but by the end of the century suffered from lukewarmness and formalism (Rev 3:14–22). Paul took the time to write an epistle to the church, presumably at the same time he wrote Colossians, but the letter no longer remains. Paul also mentioned another city in the area of Laodicea and Colossae, Heirapolis (4:13). There was a church there, but, as far as can be determined, Paul did not write it a personal letter. The reason Paul wrote to the church at Laodicea and not to the church at Heirapolis may have been that Laodicea was located on the road to Colossae. Paul’s courier had to travel through it, and its location encouraged frequent communication between these two cities. Heirapolis lies slightly north, off the main East-West road.[4]

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Wikipedia,

The Epistle to the Laodiceans is a lost (although witnessed in Codex Fuldensis) letter of Paul the Apostle, the original existence of which is inferred from an instruction to the congregation in Colossae to send their letter to the believing community in Laodicea, and likewise obtain a copy of the letter “from Laodicea (Greek: ἐκ Λαοδικείας, ek Laodikeas). The Codex Fuldensis, also known as the Victor Codex, designated by F, is a New Testament manuscript based on the Latin Vulgate made between 541 and 546. The codex is considered the second most important witness to the Vulgate text; and is also the oldest complete manuscript witness to the order of the Diatessaron. It is an important witness in any discussion about the authenticity of 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 and the Comma Johanneum. It is one of the earliest dated manuscripts of the New Testament. It was corrected until 2 May, 546 AD.

Several ancient texts purporting to be the missing “Epistle to the Laodiceans” have been known to have existed, most of which are now lost. These were generally considered, both at the time and by modern scholarship, to be attempts to supply a forged copy of a lost document. The exception is a Latin Epistola ad Laodicenses (“Epistle to the Laodiceans”), which is actually a short compilation of verses from other Pauline epistles, principally Philippians, and on which scholarly opinion is divided as to whether it is the lost Marcionite forgery or alternatively an orthodox replacement of the Marcionite text. In either case it is generally considered a “clumsy forgery” and an attempt to seek to fill the “gap” suggested by Colossians 4:16.

Codex_Tchacos_p33
Codex_Tchacos_p33

Latin Text Translated Into English

To the Laodiceans

1 Paul, an apostle not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ, to the brethren who are of Laodicea. 2 Grace to you and peace from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

3 I give thanks to Christ through all my prayers, that you are continuing in him and persevering in his works, looking forward to the promise [of salvation] in the day of judgment. 4 Neither does the vain prattling of some intruders beguile you, that they may divert you from the truth of the Gospel which is preached by me. 5 And now God will cause that those who are [disciples] of mine will continue serving, to the increase of the truth of the Gospel, and performing goodness and the work of salvation of eternal life.

6 And now well known are my bonds which I suffer in Christ, in which I rejoice and am glad. 7 And this to me is for everlasting salvation, which also is wrought by your prayers, and by the superintendance of the Holy Spirit, whether through life or through death. 8 For to me, to live is to be in Christ, and to die is joy. 9 And likewise he will work his mercy in you that you may have the same love, and may be of one mind.

10 Therefore, dearly beloved, as you have heard in my presence, so hold fast and work in the fear of God, and it will be life eternal for you. 11 For it is God who works in you. 12 And do without retreating whatever you do.

13 And for the rest, dearly beloved, rejoice in Christ, and beware of those who are sordid in wordly gain. 14 Let all your petitions be made openly before God, and be firm in the thinking of Christ. 15 And do those things that are sound, and true, and sober, and just, and amiable. 16 And what you have heard and received, retain in your heart. 17 And peace shall be with you.

18 The saints salute you.

19 The grace of the Lord Jesus be with your spirit.

Michael D. Marlowe, Bible Research website, The Epistle to the Laodiceans, published October 2010, retrieved Monday, July 13, 2020

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It must be noted that we have no Greek New Testament manuscripts containing the words “to Laodicea.” Of course, that is only speculation, wherein scholars are trying to make an effort to account for the fact that the Bible lacks the letter from Paul to the Laodiceans, even though Paul clearly wrote to them. The letter to Laodicea might simply have included information that was not necessary for anyone outside of the Lycus valley, or it may have simply repeated information that had been sufficiently included in other canonical letters. We must keep in mind the aspect of being inspired and moved along by the Holy Spirit. (2 Tim 3:16; 2 Pet 1:21) Clearly, not every time a Bible author wrote something, they were being moved along by the Holy Spirit. Not everything they wrote was intended to be canonical. The apostles wrote numerous letters to the many congregations that he been established, which enabled them to keep in touch while traveling elsewhere. Some as we know became part of the canonical New Testament, but many clearly did not.

Of course, the early Christians were quite anxious to collect the four Gospels, but they too were extremely excited to collect the apostle Paul’s letters as well. When a congregation received a letter, it would have been read to all in the congregation and then a copy would have been made and sent to another congregation in exchange for the epistle that they had received. And so, it goes. (1 Thess. 5:27; Col. 4:16) I an epistle was addressed to multiple congregations; it would then have been copied multiple times. (Gal. 1:2) The apostle Paul had addressed two letters to the Corinthian congregation, which he had expected them to be circulated to a wider audience. (1 Cor. 1:2; 2 Cor. 1:1) Increasingly, different collections of Paul’s letters would have been formed. We really do not have an exact date when there was a complete collection of Paul’s 14 letters were formed. It seems that at least 10 of Paul’s 14 epistles were gathered together by as early as 90-100 A.D. (The Text of the Epistles, by G. Zuntz, 1946, pages 14, 279) Early Christian writers’ evidence that they were well aware of such a collection, as they quoted throughout their works. Even the apostle Peter says, “And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures.” – 2 Pet. 3:15-16.

The Complete Guide to Bible Translation-2 The Complete Guide to Bible Translation-2 The Complete Guide to Bible Translation-2

In addition, we have Papyrus (in the Gregory-Aland numbering), scribal abbreviation P46, which is one of the oldest extant New Testament manuscripts in Greek, written on papyrus, with its ‘most probable date’ between 125 and 150. Some leaves are part of the Chester Beatty Biblical Papyri (‘CB’ in the table below), and others are in the University of Michigan Papyrus Collection (‘Mich.’ in the table below). P46 contains most of the Pauline epistles, though with some folios missing. It contains (in order) “the last eight chapters of Romans; all of Hebrews; virtually all of 1–2 Corinthians; all of Ephesians, Galatians, Philippians, Colossians; and two chapters of 1 Thessalonians. All of the leaves have lost some lines at the bottom through deterioration.”

THE NEW TESTAMENT DOCUMENTS THE NEW TESTAMENT DOCUMENTS THE NEW TESTAMENT DOCUMENTS

So, we can say that there really existed at one time a letter to the Laodiceans, which is established by Colossians 4:16. We do not have it today. We do not have a replica of it. It must not have been inspired; otherwise, we would have a copy. Even though it was not inspired this does not mean the information was inaccurate or not beneficial, but rather it was beneficial specifically for the Laodiceans and those in Colossae. We can infer it was not needed for us today or that the information therein was covered in the other canonical letters, as was stated above. If it had been included, this might have resulted in unnecessary duplication.

When we consider the idea of duplication, we need to consider the letter to the Ephesians. The opening reads: “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus through the will of God, To the holy ones who are at Ephesus and faithful in Christ Jesus.” (Eph. 1:1) However, many manuscripts omit “at Ephesus” and in the Greek merely read “to the saints which are”, without naming any congregation. They omit “at Ephesus” saying “who are” according to Codex Sinaiticus (א), Codex Vatican (B), and the Chester Beatty Papyrus P46. Alternatively, the expression “who are at Ephesus” is found in the manuscripts known as Alexandrine, Bezae, Vulgate and Peshitta Syriac version.

It is for this reason, some have argued that the epistle to the Ephesians was a form letter and that Paul had made numerous copies wherein he left a space after the words “who are ______________”, and the space would have been filled in when it was sent out to a specific location. If we are wrong that the Laodiceans received their own letter and Paul sent the meant for Ephesus also to Laodicea, meaning that the Laodicean letter would have been an exact copy of the one sent to the Ephesians, there would have been no need to make it canonical as well. Therefore, the one sent specifically to the Ephesians was the one chosen to be preserved.

The P52 PROJECT The P52 PROJECT The P52 PROJECT

Philip Comfort writes,

The second variant [“to the saints being —— and faithful in Christ Jesus”] represents the original text as it was written by Paul. There are three good reasons why we can be confident about this: (1) This reading has the support of the three earliest manuscripts (𝔓46 א B), as well as 1739—a manuscript known for its textual integrity in the Pauline Epistles. None of these manuscripts include the words εν Εφεσω (“in Ephesus”). (2) If the text had originally included εν Εφεσω, there is no reason to explain why the words would have been deleted. In fact, the absence of εν Εφεσω makes for a very difficult sentence, grammatically speaking, because something has to follow the participial phrase τοις ουσιν. (3) The scribes of P46 א 1739 could have done something to fix this grammatical problem, but they stayed true to their exemplars, which retained the original form as it left the hand of Paul’s amanuensis. Thus, in the original document (supported by 𝔓46 א B 1739 Marcion) a blank space was likely left between τοις ουσιν (“the ones being”) and και πιστοις εν Χριστω Ιησου (“and faithful ones in Christ Jesus”). The blank would be filled in with the name of each local church (“in Ephesus,” “in Laodicea,” “in Colossae,” etc.) as the epistle circulated from city to city. Later manuscripts reflect the insertion of “in Ephesus” because Ephesus was the leading city in that region.

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Paul intended this epistle to be a general encyclical sent to the churches in Asia, of which Ephesus was one of the leading churches. No doubt, the epistle would have gone to Ephesus (perhaps first) and then on to other churches. Each time the epistle went to another church, the name of the locality would be supplied after the expression “to the saints in ——.” Zuntz (1953, 228) indicated that this procedure also occurred with some multiple copies of royal letters during the Hellenistic period; the master copy would have a blank for the addressee and would be filled in for each copy. Zuntz considered the blank space in the address to the Ephesians to go back to the original. In the later textual tradition, certain scribes identified this epistle with Ephesus and therefore inserted “in Ephesus.” In his own NT canon, Marcion listed this letter as the Epistle to the Laodiceans. But this designation was never inserted into any manuscript that we know of. However, Marcion’s designation signals that the epistle had probably gone to Laodicea. This epistle is probably one and the same as the letter Paul mentions in Col 4:16, where he tells the Colossians, “see to it that you also read the letter from Laodicea.” This language indicates that a letter (presumably written by Paul) would be coming to the Colossians from Laodicea. Since it is fairly certain that Ephesians was written and sent at the same time as Colossians (Tychicus carried both epistles—Eph 6:21; Col 4:7–9), it can be assumed that Paul would expect that the encyclical epistle now known as Ephesians would eventually circulate from Colossae to Laodicea. Coming from Rome, Tychicus would have first arrived at Ephesus along the coast, then traveled north to Smyrna and Pergamum, then turned southeast to Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, Laodicea—and then on to Colossae (as perhaps the last stop). We can surmise that this circulation route would have been similar to the one for the book of Revelation (Rev 1:11), which was also sent to the churches in Asia Minor. (The book of Revelation was circulated from Ephesus to Smyrna to Pergamum to Thyatira to Sardis to Philadelphia to Laodicea.) Just to the southeast of Laodicea was Colossae, thereby making it the next logical stop.[5]

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Bruce M. Metzger,

The words ἐν Ἐφέσῳ are absent from several important witnesses (P46 א* B* 424c 1739) as well as from manuscripts mentioned by Basil and the text used by Origen. Certain internal features of the letter as well as Marcion’s designation of the epistle as “To the Laodiceans” and the absence in Tertullian and Ephraem of an explicit quotation of the words ἐν Ἐφέσῳ have led many commentators to suggest that the letter was intended as an encyclical, copies being sent to various churches, of which that at Ephesus was chief. Since the letter has been traditionally known as “To the Ephesians,” and since all witnesses except those mentioned above include the words ἐν Ἐφέσῳ, the Committee decided to retain them, but enclosed within square brackets.[6]

Inventive explanations have been offered above and they solve some things. We should simply view it as an interesting possibility. Regardless, this author accepts the letter to the Ephesians to be just that, a letter by Paul specifically meant for the Ephesians, and not the one sent to Laodicea discussed at Colossians 4:16. The one to the Laodiceans may be as we have stated above a couple times now, simply for them only, or a repetition of points already covered in the canonical letters, or it simply was not inspired, so it was left out of the Scriptures.

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[1] Douglas J. Moo, The Letters to the Colossians and to Philemon, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2008), 351.

[2] Douglas J. Moo, The Letters to the Colossians and to Philemon, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2008).

[3] Max Anders, Galatians-Colossians, vol. 8, Holman New Testament Commentary (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1999), 347–348.

[4] Richard R. Melick, Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, vol. 32, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1991), 331–332.

[5] Philip W. Comfort, New Testament Text and Translation Commentary: Commentary on the Variant Readings of the Ancient New Testament Manuscripts and How They Relate to the Major English Translations (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 2008), 578.

[6] Bruce Manning Metzger, United Bible Societies, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, Second Edition a Companion Volume to the United Bible Societies’ Greek New Testament (4th Rev. Ed.) (London; New York: United Bible Societies, 1994), 532.

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