Starting Before the Beginning: Precreation Discourse in Colossians

in Religion and Theology
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This essay identifies and examines the function of the language in the Letter to the Colossians that Sociorhetorical Interpretation calls “precreation rhetorolect.” This rhetorolect is a mode of discourse that indicates, counterintuitively, realities behind and prior to what is present. Consequently, it starts before the beginning by describing the protological existence and activity of God and his son. In Colossians this rhetorolect occurs in 1:15–18a, 1:19 and 2:9. Precreation language in these passages describes the protological intelligence and activity that leads to what is right and real in the present. It is employed to persuade audiences to maintain their focus on Christ, the correct person. No other supposed divine or eminent powers, whether cosmic or human, have the precreational existence, the preeminent position, or the divine power to do what the son/Christ does in rescuing, reconciling, and providing a foundation for people. The rhetorolect draws on aspects of its intertextural environment of ideas to convey meaning that shapes its audiences. The rhetorical power of the discourse is found not only in what the texts say, but in how they say it and in what they do to their audiences. This study of the precreation language in Colossians describes how the discourse is employed to make a case, an argument. The precreation language aims at a wisdom conclusion, that is, at correct, mature belief and behaviour.

Starting Before the Beginning: Precreation Discourse in Colossians

in Religion and Theology



ArnoldClinton E. The Colossian Syncretism: The Interface Between Christianity and Folk Belief at Colossae 1996 Grand Rapids Baker

ArnoldClinton E. Ephesians: Power and Magic: The Concept of Power in Ephesians in Light of Its Historical Setting SNTSMS 63 1989 Cambridge University Press

ArnoldClinton E. Powers of Darkness: Principalities and Powers in Paul’s Letters 1992 Downers Grove InterVarsity

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O’BrienPeter T. Colossians WBC 44 1982 Dallas Word

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RobbinsVernon K. Exploring the Textures of Texts: A Guide to Socio-Rhetorical Interpretation 1996 Valley Forge Trinity

RobbinsVernon K. AuneDavid E. “Socio-Rhetorical Interpretation” The Blackwell Companion to the New Testament 2010 Oxford Blackwell 192 219

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WalshBrian J.KeesmaatSylvia C. Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire 2004 Downers Grove InterVarsity

WinkWalter Naming the Powers: The Language of Power in the New Testament 1984 Philadelphia Fortress

WrightN.T. “Poetry and Theology in Colossians 1.15–20,” NTS 1990 36 444 468


See Vernon K. Robbins“Socio-Rhetorical Interpretation.” in The Blackwell Companion to the New Testament. (ed. David E. Aune; Oxford: Blackwell2010) 192–219and idem. The Invention of Christian Discourse. (Blandford Forum: Deo 2009). The word “rhetorolect” is a contraction of “rhetorical dialect.”


Robbins“Socio-Rhetorical Interpretation” 197. A helpful analogy is the ancient Greek concept of modes of music. On this see Thomas Cahill Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea: Why the Greeks Matter (New York: Doubleday 2003) 87: “In our Western music we still know the modes ‘major’ and ‘minor.’ The Greeks had five modes known to us by their names – Ionian Aeolian Lydian Dorian and Phrygian – which referred also to ethnic groupings within Greece. Each of these modes each of which had submodes was easily recognized by listeners and each created a characteristic mood just as we might say ‘That sounded like a Scottish ballad. This sounds like a Spanish dance.’ Each Greek mode was constructed from an invariable sequence of relationships between the notes that no other mode possessed more distinct than E flat major is from C minor perhaps at times more akin to Asian music with its larger intervals and quarter tones. The Dorian was martial the Phrygian engendered contentment the Mixolydian (one of the submodes) was plaintive the Ionian softly alluring apparently making seduction easier. In all Greek music probably sounded something like the late medieval music of Europe with its emphases on catchy easily singable melodies exaggerated rhythms and humble instrumental accompaniment – Gregorian chant gone wild in the streets.”


RobbinsInvention7–9. There may be more rhetorolects that interpreters will identify.


See RobbinsInvention16–17; “Socio-Rhetorical Interpretation” 193.


See RobbinsInvention7–9. Sociorhetorical Interpretation has moved on to see how “critical spatiality theory” and “conceptual blending” can be employed to understand the nature of the rhetorolects of early Christian discourse. See Invention 77–120; “Socio-Rhetorical Interpretation” 199–202.


See Robbins“Socio-Rhetorical Interpretation” 201–202.


On intertexture see RobbinsTapestry96–143; Exploring 40–70.


On this see Wright“Poetry and Theology” 459.


Cf. Peter T. O’BrienColossians (WBC 44; Dallas: Word1982) 44; Markus Barth and Helmut Blanke Colossians: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (AB 34b; New York: Doubleday 1994) 195.


Cf. Lincoln“Colossians” 600.


See the discussion in Barth and BlankeColossians312–314.






Cf. PhiloDe Sacrifiis Abelis et Caini118–119.


Barth and BlankeColossians197–198; Norden Agnostos Theos 240–250.


Some e.g. David M. HayColossians (ANTC; Nashville: Abingdon2000) 57 suggest that the use of prepositions (ἐν διἁ εἰς) may reflect terminology used to describe cosmological processes in hellenistic philosophy.


See for example Clinton E. ArnoldThe Colossian Syncretism: The Interface Between Christianity and Folk Belief at Colossae (Grand Rapids: Baker1996). Contrary to the view of some because the “powers” in view can be created human beings and spirit beings and things (e.g. sun and moon) they are not necessarily only or even primarily demonic and evil beings over which the son is preeminent. They include things of the physical universe and powers of empire. Precreation rhetorolect by definition imagines God and his son relative to the emperor and his son. The empire (βασιλεία) of God and his son are superior to all other empires.


ArnoldThe Colossian Syncretism251–270. Cf. Dunn Colossians 92 who claims that the “thrones” must be located in heaven as Dan 7:9; Rev 4:4 along with “dominions” as Eph 1:21. Dunn suggests there is “a hierarchy of heavenly powers – ‘thrones’ superior to ‘lordships’ and so on” in view. But the repeated word εἴτε does not mean “superior to” but does indicates a rhetorical and melopoeic catena that impresses the scope of powers on the mind.


Cf. Barth and BlankeColossians201–202. Including imperial and political powers significantly affects the argument being made. See below. Against this view see Andrew T. Lincoln “Liberation From the Powers: Supernatural Spirits or Societal Structures” in The Bible in Human Society: Festschrift for J.W. Rogerson (ed. M.D. Carroll R D.J.A. Clines and P.R. Davies; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press 1995 333–354) 344–345 who claims that the list of powers refers only to those “unseen” (ἀόρατα).


On this see Walter WinkNaming the Powers: The Language of Power in the New Testament (Philadelphia: Fortress1984) 11–18; Lincoln “Liberation” 344.


As quoted in PriceRituals and Power55.


As quoted in PriceRituals and Power54.


As quoted in PriceRituals and Power55.


See the catalogue of sites in PriceRituals and Power249–274. Cf. also the statements of praise of Tiberius made by Philo Legatio ad Gaium 149–151.


See Walsh and KeesmaatColossians Remixed89–90.


See also PhiloDe vita Mosis 2.238.


Cf. Barth and BlankeColossians311.




Cf. Wright“Poetry and Theology” 452.


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