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A Prose Hymn of Christ: The Language, Form, and Content of Colossians 1:15-20 in Its Greco-Roman and Jewish Contexts and in the Context of the Epistle to the Colossians

posted on 2006-04-05, 00:00 authored by Matthew Eli Gordley
This dissertation endeavors to read the Colossian hymn (Col 1:15-20) in light of its cultural and epistolary contexts. I will argue that Col 1:15-20 is a citation of a pre-existing prose-hymn which represents a fusion of Jewish and Greco-Roman conventions for praising an exalted figure. While Christ is not explicitly praised as God, the qualities and actions ascribed to him as agent of God resonate with some of the qualities and actions ascribed to the divine in the Jewish and Greco-Roman hymns of the ancient world, thus moving this passage beyond the realm of praise of honored humans and justifying the appellation hymn. A review of hymns in the literature of Second Temple Judaism will demonstrate that the Colossian hymn owes a number of features to Jewish modes of praise, including the clear movement from the work of God in creation to the work of God in redemption, key terminology in the hymn which derives from Hellenistic expressions of Judaism, as well as the prominent use of parallelism. A review of hymns in the broader Greco-Roman world will demonstrate that the Colossian hymn is equally indebted to conventions used for praising the divine in the Greco-Roman tradition, including the arrangement and order of the topics of praise, the style of the passage including prose rhythm, and the introduction of philosophical concepts into the hymn. In light of the hymnic traditions of antiquity, the analysis of the form and content of the Colossian hymn will show that the passage fits well into a Greco-Roman context, and is best understood as a quasi-philosophical prose-hymn cited in the context of a popular philosophical/paraenetic letter. The final chapter of this dissertation demonstrates that in its epistolary context the Colossian hymn serves a number of significant rhetorical functions. These include: 1) development of the character of the writer, 2) establishment of a prior tradition that could be drawn on for didactic purposes, 3) affirmation of values already embraced by the Colossians, and 4) the laying of a foundation for acting on those values.


Date Modified


Defense Date


Research Director(s)

David Aune

Committee Members

James VanderKam Gregory Sterling Jerome Neyrey


  • Doctor of Philosophy

Degree Level

  • Doctoral Dissertation


  • English

Alternate Identifier



University of Notre Dame

Program Name

  • Theology

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