When Paul tries to help believers in the Colosse church understand why some of the teaching they are receiving is harmful, he asks them why, as followers of the Messiah, they “submit to the rules (dogmatizesthe)” of this world, as if they still belonged to that evil regime (Colossians 2:20). This is the only place in the New Testament where this verb occurs and it seems to have a negative connotation in this context. The cognate noun dogma was also used by Paul twice (Colossians 2:14; Ephesians 2:15) and three times by Luke (Luke 2:1; Acts 16:4; 17:7).
In Ephesians 2 Paul explains some of the consequences of Jesus’ death and resurrection. In particular he argues that a primary purpose for this sacrifice was “our peace,” enabling Jew and non-Jew become one people of God, “creating in himself one new man out of the two” (Ephesians 2:15). However, to accomplish this required Jesus to “destroy the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations (en dogmasin).” Literally Paul says that Jesus has nullified “the law of commandments in regulations or decrees.” The genitive “of commandments” defines the content of the law. The prepositional phrase “in regulations or decrees” probably describes what these commandments consist of, namely God’s decrees or ordinances revealed through Moses to Israel.
Paul’s other usage in Colossians 2:14 occurs with the discussion of similar ideas, namely what Jesus accomplished through his death. The NIV translates “He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the written code, with its regulations (tois dogmasin), that was against us….” The “written code” presumably refers to the Mosaic law and the noun tois dogmasin defines its contents, i.e. regulations. Believers no longer live under this regime of regulations or ordinances that God gave to Israel. Jesus has taken it away by nailing it to the cross. In both of these contexts Paul seems to use the noun dogma to describe specific regulations within the Law of Moses, regulations that God have given to Israel.
Luke used the noun three times. Luke 2:1 says that “Caesar Augustus issued a decree (dogma) that a census should be taken….” This was in imperial edict, a law that all had to obey. Similarly in Acts 17:7 the Jews of Thessalonica claim that Paul and his friends are “defying the decrees (apenanti tōn dogmatōn) of Caesar, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus.” Once again the word refers to edicts or imperial Roman decrees issued by Caesar.
When Paul and Silas engage a second journey to encourage the churches and take the Gospel to new regions, Luke says that they “delivered the decisions (ta dogmata) reached by the apostles and elders in Jerusalem” (Acts 16:4). This is a very interesting usage because the term in this context has been translated as “decrees, which had been decided upon by the apostles…” in the New American Standard Bible, which carries a strong connotation of authority. Rendering it as “decisions” lessens the sense of authority somewhat. When the apostles and elders drafted the letter to the Gentile believers, they used the expression “it seemed good (edoxen) to the Holy Spirit and to us…” (Acts 15:28). The verb dokein is cognate to the noun dogma. The noun can mean “opinion or belief,” similar to the sense of the verb, i.e. “what seemed to be right.” So we may be justified in rendering the sense of the noun at 16:4 as “the opinions/beliefs discerned and expressed by the apostles and elders” about certain matters. Or it could have the sense of the “resolution” achieved by the gathering in Jerusalem which included apostles, elders and the Jerusalem church. Given that this is not a context in which government or imperial issues are being discussed, we probably should not use the term “decree” in this context. Perhaps this usage most closely aligns with its use by Josephus to describe the community rules followed by the Essenes.
Within the Greek translation of the Old Testament the noun occurs primarily in Daniel (Theodotion edition) and the Maccabean literature. In Daniel it renders the Aramaic noun dath (a loan word from Persian) which means decree or law. The close relationship between this noun and the cognate verb is illustrated in the two Greek versions of Daniel. In Daniel 2:13 where the Theodotion edition reads “and the edict (dogma) went forth” the Old Greek translation reads “and it was decreed (edogmatisthē).” In this context it was the Babylonian king issuing commands. It also translates the Aramaic noun ṭʽm meaning law or decree (Daniel 3:10; 6:12(13)). The Theodotionic version renders the context at 3:10 as “”you, O King, made a decree (dogma)” but the Old Greek edition chose “you have ordered (prosetaxas).” The renderings are quite similar in meaning even though different terms were chosen. Again this terminology occurs in a royal context. In 3 Maccabees 1:3 Dositheus, an apostate Jew, is described as “changing his ancestral beliefs (tōn…dogmatōn).” In that context the reference undoubtedly is to the Jewish law. The writer of 4 Maccabees 4:26 tells us that “his [Antiochus Epiphanes] decrees (ta dogmata autou) were despised by the people [Jewish people].” These would be edicts of the king, Antiochus.
Philo used the noun frequently, usually with reference to the Jewish law. He also used the adjective dogmatikos, but did not use the cognate verb. For example, when he discusses the character of the human being “made in the image of God,” this first being created by God becomes tenacious in “the retention of the holy precepts (tōn hagiōn dogmatōn)” (Leg. All. I, 55). The other, later human being who is moulded and shaped is “only introduced to the truths (ta dogmata) by the rich bounty of God” (Leg. All.I, 54). In this usage Philo seems to following the employment of this term by the earlier Greek philosophers who used it to describe their philosophical principles. Philo argues that the Sacred Scriptures of the Jews also communicate “principles” but these are divine in origin. In the pious person “the high priest Reason, though he has the power to dwell in unbroken leisure amid the sacred doctrines (tois hagiois dogmasi), has received free license to resort to them at every season, but barely once a year (Lev. xvi.2 and 34)” (Gig.52). He refers specifically to the matters revealed by God to Moses.
The noun also finds use in Greek Philosophical writings (e.g. Plato, Aristotle, later philosophers) to describe their ideas and arguments, “things that seemed right to them.” According to Josephus the Greek philosophers held view about God that were similar to those taught by Moses in the Jewish Scriptures. Greek philosophers only taught their ideas to the few “and did no venture to divulge their true beliefs (tēn alētheian tou dogmatos) to the masses” in contrast to Moses (Contra Apionem II.169). The Jewish Scriptures contain the “decrees of God (theou dogmata)” (Contra Apionem I.42). The principles or rule by which the Essenes live are termed dogmata (Bellum II. 142). Finally, Josephus seems to describe Jewish prophets and priests as “messengers sent by God” through whom the Jews have learned “the noblest of our doctrines (tōn dogmatōn) and the holiest of our laws” (Ant. XV.136). Josephus seems to play the word from both ends when he applies it to God’s commands. He favourably compares the Jewish principles with Greek philosophical principles, but also reserves the divine kingship of Yahweh by using this term which can also mean royal edict or decree.
Within his letter to the Colossians Paul warns the believers about the “philosophies and empty deceit” which depend on “human tradition and the basic principles of this world” (Colossians 2:8). In Colossians 2:20 Paul argues that Christians are no longer alive to “the basic principles of this world” and so he questions why they “are submitting to its rules (dogmatizesthe).” However, it is important to remember that Paul has just used the cognate noun dogma (Colossians 2:14) to refer to the Jewish religious regulations incorporated in the Law. Note in these contexts the connection between human philosophy, certain principles connected with “the world,” the Jewish Law, and the verbal action of being ruled by these principles.
The verbal form dogmatizesthe Paul chose is second person plural, present indicative, suggesting a current reality attributed to his audience. However, it is difficult to know whether Paul intends it to be interpreted as a middle or passive form. If it is middle, the sense might be “you are subjecting yourself to regulations;” the passive form would convey “you are being regulated.” The middle voice, if this was Paul’s intent, would emphasize their willing compliance to this situation. Liddell and Scott (1966, page 441) identify its use in Colossians 2:20 as a passive form. In the latest edition of A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament…(2000, page 254) it is classified as a “permissive pass…= permit yourselves to be put under….”
The verb dogmatizesthai seems to be a first century B.C. formation. Josephus (late first century A.D.) employed to describe decrees or laws passed by the Roman Senate (edogmatisen hē sugklētos Ant. XIV. 249-251). However, a first century B.C. writer named Diodorus Siculus used the same construction (Bib. Hist. 188.8.131.52). Within the Septuagint the verb occurs twice in 2 Maccabees. When Maccabeus and his followers recapture Jerusalem, they “decreed (edogmatisan) by public ordinance and by vote that the whole nation of the Judeans should observe these days every year” (10:8). Again, a few chapters later Judas Maccabeus defeats Nikanor, the Seleucid general. As a result “they all decreed by public vote never to let this day go unobserved…” (15:36). In these contexts the decree is affirmed by the vote of the people. It concerns the establishment of a religious festival in God’s honour. According to 3 Maccabees the Egyptian Ptolemy decreed (dedogmastismenon) or ordered that the Jews rounded up in his persecution be put in the hippodrome at Schedia (4:11). We find similar uses in Daniel 2:13 (edogmatisthē) and Esther 3:9 (Old Greek edition: dogmatisatō). In both cases the verb expresses the decision and command of a pagan king.
It would seem that Paul, referencing previous discussions in the Colossian letter to Greco-Roman philosophy and religious regulations and practices, as well as Jewish religious commands, used this verb dogmatizesthai to warn these believers about adopting religious regulations from either source and regarding them as mandates for Christians. These practices found in other religious systems are categorized by Paul as “the basic principles of the world” (cf. Galatians 4:1-8). When people identify with Jesus Messiah in salvation, such regulations no longer exercise claims over them. They now live by “keeping in step with the Spirit” of the Messiah. Their focus is on the things above (3:1-2) because their living is now defined by the Lord Jesus.
i. Paul frequently warns believers not to add things to the Gospel (cf. Galatians). Here in Colossians he does the same. What believers today being tempted to add to the Gospel and thus distort and even destroy its message?
ii. What are the implications from Paul’s statements in Colossians 2:20 for understanding the relationship between the Old and New Testaments?