Roman Empire in the Mid-1st Century C.E.
These two letters were sent nearly 2,000 years ago. They were written to people in foreign lands and authored by folks whose experiences are pretty darn different from ours (no iPhones in 1st century Asia). If all that sounds terribly confusing…it is.
All About Ephesus
Paul spent quite a bit of time in Ephesus during his missionary journeys across the Roman Empire. It was located in the western half of modern-day Turkey on the coast of the Aegean Sea. Back in the day, it was a major commercial hub (because it was right on the water) and was home to both Jews and Gentiles. When Paul stopped by, he managed to convert some folks, cause a pretty fantastic riot (Acts 19:21-41), and get thrown to wild beasts (1 Corinthians 15:32).
Trouble just follows him everywhere.
But for a place that Paul had so many exciting adventures in, he doesn't offer too many specifics about what life was like in Ephesus. Paul only mentions the name of one person in town, even though he usually likes to pack in shout-outs to everyone he know. He also doesn't discuss any of the local problems… and you know things were tense for Christians because Paul totally caused a riot and fought with wild animals the last time he was in town.
Because of all this stuff (and more), most scholars don't think that Paul actually wrote this letter or that it was sent to the real-life Ephesians. Another big hint is that the address "to the saints who are in Ephesus" doesn't even appear on the oldest versions of this manuscript. And every time the letter gets mentioned up through the 2nd century, no one seems to know that it was sent to the folks in Ephesus. Those are some serious red flags right there.
It's way more likely that Ephesians was meant to be a letter that would circulate to various churches in the area around Ephesus, which 1st-century folks just referred to as Asia. People would read it during services or celebrations as a way to teach and encourage the community. Someone who was close to Paul probably wrote it down after he died in the mid-60s as a kind of meditation on Paul's thoughts and theology. That means were talking anywhere from the 70s to 80s CE. (Source, 1165-67.)
Sure, it's close, but it's no Paul.
When in Colossae
The Epistle to the Colossians, on the other hand, is more likely an actual letter from Paul sent to actual folks in Colossae. Back in the 1st century, Colossae was a huge, big-deal kind of city in the Lycus Valley (in modern-day Turkey). It benefitted because it was one of the stops on the road from the Euphrates River to the seaport in Ephesus. Along with it's neighbors, Laodicea and Hierapolis, Colossae was large and in charge in this area.
The town had a pretty tight monopoly on wool production until around the 3rd century CE. Even after things started to decline when other towns started cranking out the quality textiles, Colossae was still famous for a special kind of purple fleece that was only made there. Hey, people gotta have their adorable purple fleece blankets, areweright?
Paul says that his pal, Epaphras, was the one who first started the churches in Colossae, Laodicea, and Hierapolis. Even though there were a mix of Gentiles and Jews in town, it seems like almost everyone Epaphras managed to convert was a Gentile.
Since Epaphras was a native of Colossae, he was in a good position to spread the word about Jesus there. This was actually a little lesson that Paul learned after he was forced to start from scratch evangelizing in places like Philippi and Thessalonica. It was rough. He soon figured out that the best way to spread the word about Jesus was to have people go back to their hometowns to talk about him. It was actually a pretty good plan.
When Epaphras came back to Colossae after meeting Paul in his travels, he wouldn't have had to look for work in town to support himself. He'd also have a network of family and friends who would at least have to humor him while he went on and on about Jesus. It's kind of like what happens when your cousin decides to start selling Tupperware.
Paul probably wrote this letter while he was in prison in Ephesus between 53-54 CE. Remember the riots? They didn't like him there. He also spent a few years in lock up in Rome in the early 60s, but he wrote other stuff then. (Yup, that's right. Paul did a lot of time in prison. More on that later.) Besides, it makes more sense that this letter would have come from Ephesus because it's only about 120 miles from Colossae. Rome is a much farther trip for one little letter to make.
So Colossae sounds nice, right? Maybe you'd like to add it to your travel plans? Well, we hate to break this to you, but a few years after this letter arrived, in 60 CE, a major earthquake hit the Lycus Valley. Laodicea and Hierapolis were rebuilt, but Colossae never got the same treatment. By, the 9th century, the town had been totally abandoned. Today, it only exists in ruins. (Source, 1191-92.)
Poor Colossae! We hardly knew ye!
Beware False Teachers!
Unlike in Ephesians, Paul does get down and dirty with what's going on in Colossae. Apparently, there are some "false teachers" who are causing a tiny bit of trouble. Note: this is truly a tiny bit of trouble. In his letters to the Corinthians and the Galatians, Paul is facing serious attacks from guys who are way more influential than these guys in Colossae. In other towns, Paul's so angry he's practically foaming at the mouth. But in Colossae, he has a hard time getting more than mildly annoyed.
It's kind of hard to figure out what these false teachers were saying because Paul is pretty vague in his warnings. Some of them may have been talking about ideas that took their root in Judaism. Maybe they wanted people to keep following some Jewish laws. But there was also some talk about "elemental spirits of the universe" (Colossians 2:8) and the "worship of angels" (Colossians 2:18). In any case, Paul doesn't get too worked up about it because it seems like these guys aren't actually a real threat to his ministry. He just tells the Colossians to watch out in general. (Source, 1191.)
Paul Goes to Prison
Remember when we mentioned that Paul went to jail a lot?
Both of these epistles say that the author was behind bars when he wrote them. Philippians and Philemon were produced in lock up, too. In another letter, Paul brags that he's suffered "far more imprisonments" (2 Corinthians 11:23) than his rivals. The dude took pride in his time in the Big House. Trust us, he got around…and got into trouble.
Paul's main issue was that, wherever he went, he started telling people about Jesus. Eventually he would rile up some group in town. Sometimes he made the Jews mad by saying Jesus was the Jewish messiah; other times, he ticked off the pagans by saying that there was only one God and his son was named Jesus Christ. Whatever happened, it tended to end with him being arrested, beaten, and taken to trial.
For a good part of his life, Paul was held in captivity, and according to Acts, Paul was imprisoned for 4 years while he waited for his trial in Rome (Acts 24:27, 28:30). We can't resist pointing out that it's sort of ironic that Paul, who once imprisoned Christians, was then imprisoned for being a Christian himself.
God sure does have a funny sense of humor.
How did Paul's prison setting affect his writing? Well, it probably made him want to reach out to friends a little more. He couldn't visit any of the people he's writing to, so he did the next best thing and sent a letter. He was also hoping that he'd hear some good news back from these areas so he didn't have to fret so much while he's doing his time. Oddly enough, his mood in Colossians is pretty darn cheerful. Life on the inside wasn't getting him down.
But Paul's not the only author who spent his time inside writing. Here are just a few more examples of major works penned from behind bars:
• The Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan
• Fanny Hill by John Cleland
• The 120 Days of Sodom by the Marquis de Sade
• Letter from Birmingham Jail by Martin Luther King Jr.
• The Sixteenth Round by Rubin "Hurricane" Carter
Slaves for You
What other stuff was going on at the time? Well, slavery was kind of a big deal. Paul talks directly about the relationship between masters and slaves in his letters.
Slaves were pretty common around the Roman Empire at the time. They worked in people's homes, businesses, and even for the government. As you might imagine, the lives of Roman slaves were no picnic. They could be beaten or even killed by their owners for any reason. Judaism also allowed for Jews to own slaves, but the Torah at least had some standards for how they should be treated. Sure, the standards were pretty low, but at least it was something. (Source.)
But for the most part, people just accepted this as the norm. Paul doesn't really even question the institution of slavery, but he does say that Christian slaves and masters have an obligation to each other. Slaves work hard and masters be nice. Why? Because every Christian has to serve God—their true master—first. Sure, it's no Emancipation Proclamation but it's a start.
Women and Children Last
What about the roles of women and children? Paul talks about how wives, sons, and daughters should obey the man of the house. What's up with that?
Well, feminism hadn't exactly taken hold in the 1st century Roman Empire. Back then, the man of the house—a.k.a. the paterfamilias—had absolute and total control over his household. He was the only one would could earn money and own property and his wife and children were expected to support and obey him in everything he did. A dad could even disown, kill, or sell his own kids in slavery if they made him mad. You did not want to step out of line with Roman daddies. (Source.)
Basically, it was a man's world. Although (if we can even use "although" in this sense), Paul also encourages husbands and dads not to act rashly and to be loving and kind in their interactions with their family. That was just a tiny bit radical back then, so we'll take it as a step in the right direction.