Did Timothy Co-Author Colossians?

For those of us who are unconvinced by arguments against the authenticity of Colossians, we consider it to be Paul’s letter. But the opening of the letter states that it is from both Paul and Timothy. We find this in a number of Paul’s letters.[1] The letter relays greetings from Aristarchus, Mark, Jesus called Justus, Epaphras, Luke, and Demas (4.10-14), yet only Timothy is mentioned in the opening.

What should we understand this to indicate? Is this simply courtesy as most commentators suggest? Is the letter in some sense the work of both Paul and Timothy? Is Timothy responsible for some of the content? Or does this indicate that he physically wrote the letter for Paul, or that he was the letter carrier? What does his inclusion in the opening signify?

Letter carrier?

Letter carriers were not indicated by being named in the address,[2] and it is clear Tychicus was accompanying the letter along with Onesimus (4.7-9).

Courtesy?

There is no evidence of a convention of including non-authors in letter openings as a matter of courtesy. Indeed the extant evidence indicates that the practice of naming co-senders in the address was rare.[3]  Further, why would Paul single out Timothy for special mention from among those who send their greetings (4.10-14)? Was Paul showing courtesy to Timothy and not his other co-workers?

Secretary?

It is clear that in keeping with common practice, Paul did not typically pen his own letters. In his letter to the Romans for example, we find this statement in 16.22: ‘I Tertius, the writer of this letter, greet you in the Lord.’ Tertius had acted as Paul’s secretary in the writing of this letter. This practice is also indicated in one of the ways authors used to authenticate a letter, by providing a farewell in their own handwriting. We see this clearly in Colossians: “I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand. Remember my chains. Grace be with you.” (4.18)

By ‘secretary’ we mean someone who physically wrote letters (and other documents) on behalf of another, an amanuensis.

  • Secretaries were used by both the literate and illiterate alike.
  • Both the wealthy and the poor made use of secretaries.
  • They were used for both business and private letters.
  • The use of secretaries was pervasive, it was standard practice.

We should not imagine that the role of the secretary was necessarily simply to record dictation; a secretary had as much or as little control over the content, style, and form of the letter as was granted by the sender. Randolph Richards in his book Paul and First-Century Letter Writing provides this spectrum:

Transcriber—contributor—composer

The author could grant to the secretary complete, much, little or no control over the content, style and even the form of the letter… At one extreme the secretary was a transcriber who had no input in the letter, taking strict dictation from the author. At the other extreme the secretary composed the letter for the author. Most letters fell somewhere in between.[4]

As is the case with letter carriers, secretaries were not indicated by being named in the address. Could Timothy have acted as secretary for Paul’s letter to the Colossians? James Dunn suggests this may account for the difference in style he discerns between Colossians and the undisputed Pauline letters.[5] Would his inclusion in the address as a co-sender then indicate that his contribution as secretary in this instance went beyond transcription?[6]

Co-author?

The fourth option is that Timothy was in some sense responsible for the content of the letter. A closer examination of the text perhaps brings us closest to understanding Timothy’s contribution.

  • The letter begins by stating that it is from both Paul and Timothy: ‘Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother’ (1.1).
  • After the initial greeting and well wish we encounter the first person plural (‘we’, 1.3). The entire section from 1.3-13 is presented as expressing the concerns, activities, and knowledge of both Paul and Timothy.
  • This changes in 1.23c where the “us/we” turns to “I Paul”, and Paul’s mission with regards to God, the gospel, the church, the Gentiles, and the world is narrated.
  • This speaking as “I” continues up until 2.5, where the attention of the letter then turns away from those sending the letter to the Colossians and their circumstances.[7]
  • They are not included again until 2.13 where along with the Colossians they are beneficiaries of God’s forgiveness.
  • They do not get another mention until 4.3a where prayer is requested for them (“us”), but this quickly switches to mention of Paul’s imprisonment (“for which I am in prison”) and then prayer specifically for Paul in his ongoing mission (4.4).
  • The final greetings mixed with instructions are spoken of in the first person singular of Paul, while reference is still made to his and Timothy’s circumstances (4.8).
  • Finally the letter is closed by Paul: “I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand. Remember my chains. Grace be with you.” (4.18).

The placement of Paul’s name first in the opening, along with the first person singular that pervades the letter and the ease with which the text changes from the first person plural to the singular, indicates that it is largely Paul’s voice being mediated through the letter. My judgment is that the inclusion of Timothy in the opening and the use of the first person plural (‘we’, ‘us’) show that as a pair who work closely together, the encouragement, concerns, and prayers for those in Colossae (especially in 1.3-13) are shared by Paul and Timothy.[8]

While the inclusion of Timothy in the address does not seem to fit contemporary practice, Paul’s letters are somewhat unique among their peers and we must be open to innovations in the letter genre given the new nature of the Christian movement.[9]


[1] Letters with Timothy as co-sender: 2 Corinthians, Philippians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, Philemon. 1 Corinthians also mentions Sosthenes, and 1 and 2 Thessalonians Silvanus.

[2] E. Randolph Richards, Paul and First-Century Letter Writing: Secretaries, Composition and Collection (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP, 2004), 35 n.19

[3] There are two general types of letters that named co-senders: Letters sent in the name of a group, and letters from husbands and wives. While we may question how much input the named co-senders had in either of these, neither is analogous to Paul’s letters (Richards, 33-34).

[4] Richards, 64
 

[5] James D. G. Dunn, The Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon NIGTC (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans/ Carlisle, Cumbria: Paternoster, 1996), 38, 47

[6] This suggestion would need to then account for the five other letters in which Timothy is named as a co-sender, did he act as secretary in each?

[7] The one exception here is 1.28 where Paul states that ‘it is he whom we proclaim’, presumably referring to his team (him and Timothy) but could also include all those who proclaim/teach the gospel.

[8] Richards (Paul and First-Century Letter Writing,  35) points out that we find the first person plural used in thanksgivings only in letters where Timothy is named in the address.

 [9] Richards (34) judges that the entire practice of “true co-authorship” “seems largely to have been a Christian Phenomenon”.

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One thought on “Did Timothy Co-Author Colossians?

  1. I appreciate your balance and lack of overstatements. I would tend to err on the side of caution and say that Timothy was probably more of a secretary here. He could have very well “co-authored” the letter, but I will stick with the former. Thanks for including the references. I am bookmarking your site, and I will cite your article as a reference in my upcoming devotional book on Colossians.

    I also see that you were studying Hebrews in 2012. I am on chapter 6 of my comprehensive book analysis. Hebrews will be the third devotional book in my series. I look forward to reading more from your site.

    Like

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