Bill Mounce

For an Informed Love of God

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Monday, March 5, 2018

Did the Laodicean Church Write a Letter? (Col 4:16)

Paul writes, “After this letter has been read to you (καὶ ὅταν ἀναγνωσθῇ παρ᾿ ὑμῖν ἡ ἐπιστολή), see that it is also read in the church of the Laodiceans (ποιήσατε ἵνα καὶ ἐν τῇ Λαοδικέων ἐκκλησίᾳ ἀναγνωσθῇ) and that you in turn read the letter from Laodicea (καὶ τὴν ἐκ Λαοδικείας ἵνα καὶ ὑμεῖς ἀναγνῶτε)” (Col 4:16; NIV).

This verse gives us a nice example of ellipsis; ἐπιστολή is not repeated but assumed in the final clause. τὴν modifies the unexpressed ἐπιστολήν.

It gives us another example as well of how we often write in short-hand and expect the reader to understand the missing parts. If you just read the final phrase, who wrote the second letter? The NIV’s “the letter from Laodicea” sounds like the church in Laodicea wrote a letter to the Colossian church. However, most people (if not all) understand that this second letter was written by Paul to the Laodicean church, and he wanted to make sure that his letter was also sent to Colossae.

If Paul had taken the time to write all the words to be precise and not confusing, he may have written τὴν ἐκ Λαοδικείας ἐπιστολήν μου or perhaps τὴν ἐπιστολήν μου τῷ Λαοδικείᾳ.

The NLT is the only major translation that clarifies the issue: “After you have read this letter, pass it on to the church at Laodicea so they can read it, too. And you should read the letter I wrote to them.”

Even the formal equivalent NASB clarifies with a footnote and italicized words: “read my letter that is coming from Laodicea.” The footnote on “my” reads, “Lit he.” As you know by now, I do not like the use of “lit(erally).” It is simple to see ὁ functioning as a personal pronoun, which does not require a footnote.

I would prefer something like, “in turn, also read my (τὴν) letter coming from (ἐκ) Laodicea (Λαοδικείας),” or more dynamically, “in turn, also read the letter I wrote to the Laodiceans.”

It also illustrates the danger of simply translating words, something the NIV and NET normally do not do. “See that you also read the letter from Laodicea” (ESV, see also CSB, NRSV, NET). Going word-for-word miscommunicates since the Laodicean church did not (most likely) write the letter.

As I have often said, language is the stringing of one ambiguity after another. It is only in context, with a little common sense, that meaning is communicated.