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Colossians 2:14 - What Paul is NOT saying...

As II Peter 3:14-17 warns, some of the Apostle Paul’s writings provide opportunity for the cursory reader to be led into error. A case in point, the phrase "blotting out the handwriting of ordinances" found in Colossians 2:14 is notoriously misapplied by antinomians to prove there has been an abolition of the Torah from Sinai. Yet, it simply cannot refer to the Mosaic Law of God as this article shall demonstrate. The only way the passage's proper sense is to visit the Greek source and objectively define the terminology therein:

Blotting out the handwriting of ordinances {χειρογραφον τοις δογμασιν} that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross.


To begin, the word rendered into English as “handwriting” is the Greek term χειρογραφον cheirographon. This Greek compound word denotes a handwritten bond or bill of debt. Colossians 2:16 employs it figuratively as The Friberg Lexicon states,

Strictly handwritten document; in legal matters a promissory note, record of indebtedness, bond; figuratively in Col. 2:14 not as the law itself, but as the record of charges (for breaking God's law), which stood against us and which God symbolically removed by ‘nailing it to the cross,’ handwritten account, record of debts.[1]


Friberg understands this word as referring to a record of charges pertaining to the disobedience of God's law. He also points out that the χειρογραφον cheirographon is not referring to the Torah of Moses in particular. Neither the Torah, nor any portion of it is ever called a χειρογραφον cheirographon throughout the entire corpus of Greek scripture. The reason Paul uses a legal term that denotes a bond or debt when describing the record of transgressions is because sin is form debt to God. This understanding is reflected in Yeshua's prayer to Adonai wherein sinful trespasses and debts parallel one another:

... Our Father which art in heaven... And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil... For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you... (Mt 6:9-14)
... Our Father which art in heaven... And forgive us our sins; for we also forgive every one that is indebted to us. And lead us not into temptation; but deliver us from evil. (Lk 11:2-4)


In Mt 6:14, Yeshua explains the statement "And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors" by teaching that "if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you"; thus, debts are equated to trespass-sins in the Matthaen account. And in Luke's account, the phrase "our sins" occurs where the Matthaen version has "our debts". Further, in Luke's version "our sins" and "indebted to us" are plainly paralleled as if both offenses are conceptually synonymous. Therefore, Paul's figurative usage of the legal term χειρογραφον cheirographonto denote a record of sin is not only accurate but also theologically loaded.


The next bit of data pertains to the Greek δογμασιν dogmasin (sing. δογμα dogma) translated as “ordinances”. Deriving from the root δοκεω dokeo which means to “be of opinion” or "suppose”,[2] these δογμαςιν dogmasinare man-made edicts or "dogmas". In fact, this is whence the English word “dogma” is derived. This term never once denotes any sort of divine command throughout the LXX (Septuagint) or the New Testament, let alone refer to the Torah. Rather, it consistently refers to traditions or legal decrees by kings and caesars, as in the following cases:

... And the king said, The word is true, and the decree {δογμα dogma} of the Medes and Persians shall not pass. (Dn 6:13)
Now it came about in those days that a decree {δογμα dogma} went out from Caesar Augustus, that a census be taken of all the inhabited earth. (Lk 2:1)
Now while they were passing through the cities, they were delivering the decrees {δογματα dogmata}, which had been decided upon by the apostles and elders who were in Jerusalem, for them to observe. (Acts 16:4)


It also occurs in the apocryphal literature:

But Dositheus... a Jew by birth who later changed his religion and apostatized from the ancestral traditions {πατριων δογματων patrion dogmaton}... (3 Macc 1:3)
... and after he had plundered them he issued a decree {δογμα dogma} that if any of them should be found observing the ancestral law they should die. (4 Macc 4:24)


More examples can be cited,[i] but the foregoing does suffice. Further, the Colossian pericope is self-explanatory because Paul provides an example of these δογμαςιν dogmasinin Colossians 2:20-22:

... why, as living in the world, are you subject to ordinances {δογματιζεσθε dogmatizesthe}? (Touch not, taste not, handle not) which all are to perish with the using, after the commandments and doctrines of men?


The phrase "subject to ordinances" is conveyed in the passive form of the verb δογματιζω dogmatizo meaning to be subject to δογμαςιν dogmasin. Paul explicitly calls the dogmas "commandments and doctrines of men". This corroborates the earlier statement that δογμαςιν dogmasin derive from men and not God.


At this point, the problem with the common interpretation of Col 2:14 is obvious: the Torah, along with the sacred appointed times therein, originated with God -- not man.[ii] Therefore, the usage of δογμασιν dogmasin in Col 2:14 actually refutes the antinomian interpretation of this verse. These δογμασιν dogmasin cannot be referring to the Torah. Had Paul wished to express the notion of Torah abolition, more specific legal terms such as δικαίωμα dikaioma or νόμος nomoswould've been used in place of δογμα(ςιν) dogma(sin). Yet, these two terms are absent from the entire Colossian epistle.


Now that we've revisited the Greek terms and defined them in an objective manner, a more precise translation of the passage is necessary:

εξαλειψας το καθ ημων χειρογραφον τοις δογμασιν ο ην υπεναντιον ημιν και αυτο ηρκεν εκ του μεσου προσηλωσας αυτο τω σταυρω
Blotting out the handwritten bond (contained) in dogmas that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross.


The above reading agrees with the sense put forth in newer translations such as the New American Standard Bible (NASB).


Paul described the annulment of a debt of sin that was nurtured by way of dogmas. So what are these "dogmas" if they are not the Torah? The answer is a simple one: they are the ungodly teachings of men that resulted in sin. In a Gentile context, they may refer to Paganism, Asceticism, and Gnosticism. In a Jewish context, they may refer to sectarian dogmas conflicting with or being observed in place of God’s commands. One need not leave the NT to encounter this topic, as controversy erupted when Yeshua's disciples neglect to wash their hands before eating. Matthew 15:2 contains the scribes and Pharisees words to Yeshua:

Why do your disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? for they do not wash their hands when they eat bread.


And Yeshua replied,

... you made the commandment of God of none effect by your tradition. you hypocrites, well did Isaiah prophesy of you, saying, 'This people draws close to me with their mouth, and honors me with their lips but their heart is far from me. But in vain they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men. (Mt 15:6b-9)


While Yeshua didn't denounce traditions, he did take issue with their precedence over the written Torah. In case the reader didn't catch the commonality in Mt 15:9 and Col 2:22, here are the passages once more. Yeshua in Mt 15:9 says,

But in vain they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.
μάτην δὲ σέβονταί με, διδάσκοντες διδασκαλίας ἐντάλματα ἀνθρώπων.


Likewise, Paul defines the contextual δογμασιν dogmasin (v.14) in Col 2:22 when he says,

... which refer to things that perish with use, after the commandments and doctrines of men?
ἅ ἐστιν πάντα εἰς φθορὰν τῇ ἀποχρήσει, κατὰ τὰ ἐντάλματα καὶ διδασκαλίας τῶν ἀνθρώπων


The terms διδασκαλίας didaskalias (= "teachings" or "doctrines"), ἐντάλματα entalmata (= "commands" or "precepts"), and ἀνθρώπων anthropon (= "men") are common to both Mt 15:9 and Col 2:22. To establish the point one last time, δογμασιν dogmasin are just as much human inventions as many traditions are: both fall into the category "commandments and doctrines of men", as we've shown.[iii]


With that said, the δογμασιν dogmasin of Col 2:14 may refer to a combination of sectarian Jewish and ascetic-gnostic practices seeing that Paul warns the Torah-observant Colossians against letting the heretics that worship angels, neglect the body, and speculate on vainly puffed up imaginations judge them on matters of Torah. This suggests that the Colossians were being criticized by ascetic heretics, or perhaps a sect of ascetic-Jews.[iv]


In summary, Col 2:14 definitely expresses the idea that something was abolished by the messiah's death. We know it to be a debt of sin that was brought on by various teachings of men. And while the etiology of these teachings is up for interpretation, there is no question as to whether Col 2:14 teaches Torah abolition. It does not teach this, because it cannot. The Greek text simply does not allow this understanding.



[i] Here's a list of every place that the word δογμα dogma and anything related thereto occurs within the LXX and NT: 1 Esd 6:33; Est 3:9; 2 Mc 10:8; 15:36; 3 Mc 1:3; 4:11; 4 Mc 4:23f, 26; 10:2; Dn 2:13, 15; 6:13; Dn (Theodotian) 2:13; 3:10, 12, 96; 4:6; 6:9ff, 13f, 16, 27; Lk 2:1; Acts 16:4; 17:7; Eph 2:15; Col 2:14, 20. The occurrence in Eph 2:15 is an allusion to the Herodian Temple partition erected by innovation to restrict gentile access - see Ant 15:417; Acts 21:28-29; Rv 11:2.


[ii] Exodus 34:1-32; Lv 23:2-4; Dt 33:2; Ps 81:3-4, 119:89; 2 Ch 31:3


[iii] Also see Mt 23:2-4, 13, 15, and compare Col 2:20-22 with Mk 7:2-3.


[iv] See Col 2:8, 16-18, 23 -- Also the head referred to in 2:19 that these heretics neglected is the messiah (cf. 1:18).


[1] See entry 28580 -- Friberg, Timothy, Barbara Friberg, and Neva F. Miller. Analytical Lexicon to the Greek New Testament. Baker's Greek New Testament Library. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000. BibleWorks, v.8.


[2] See entry 7033 -- Friberg, Timothy, Barbara Friberg, and Neva F. Miller. Analytical Lexicon to the Greek New Testament. Baker's Greek New Testament Library. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000. BibleWorks, v.8.

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Comment by Erik Adoniqam on March 26, 2012 at 12:06am
I don't think that's an odd understanding. On the contrary, it makes sense. On a nationalistic level I think the curse is that which Daniel prays about in 9:8-11 only to have his prayer answered in the form of a messianic prediction that culminates with 70 weeks ushering in the messiah by which the cursed are lifted. I think your point is valid.


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