🔼The name Colossae: Summary
- Confederacy of Preventers, City Of Refuge
- From the noun κολοσση (kolosse), in turn possibly from verb κωλυω (koluo), to hinder or prevent, the adjective κολος (kolos), cut down a size, or the noun κωλον (kolon), patrolman.
- From the verb כלא (kala'), to shut in or shut up.
🔼The name Colossae in the Bible
The name Colossae occurs a mere one time in the Bible, namely in Paul's letter to the Colossians (Colossians 1:2). It belonged to a city of Phrygia in Asia Minor (or the south-west of modern Turkey), a few hours walk from Laodicea, one of the seven cities of John's apocalypse — and the noun αποκαλυψις (apokalupsis), does not mean "end of the world" but discovery, disclosure, or revelation.
As we point out in our articles on the names Onesimus, Philemon, Carpus, Cleopas and Legion, since the Roman Empire depended on people's religious adherence to Roman Imperial Theology (worship of state, state deities, state rules and state rulers), the Gospel of Jesus Christ (whose purpose is ελευθερια, eleutheria, freedom: Galatians 5:1) became inevitably associated with resistance to the Roman Empire. This made participation in any kind of Christianity an act of high treason, punishable by death in the most horrendous ways. Since popular correspondence was inspected at every check point — every cross roads, every bridge crossing, every city gate — Paul, or anybody else, would never have recorded actual names of actual Christians and their actual addresses and activities anywhere in the Empire. More specifically: an escaped slave, and anybody who helped one, would be executed. So no, Paul's letter to Philemon, which he wrote in a Roman prison, was certainly not about a runaway slave named Onesimus.
Paul's letter to the Colossians, likewise, is also certainly not about what it seems to be about, but instead a sophisticatedly coded polemic addressed to folks who were most likely not even actually living in Colossae, but who were very actually bent on resisting, opposing and ultimately destroying the Roman Empire. Paul wrote just prior to the Great Jewish Revolt (66 AD), when the reality of resistance was rampant and only the most efficient way was ever up to debate. Paul's most central theme was always his strong preference to non-violent opposition (Colossians 1:20-22, Romans 13:1-4, Titus 3:1).
His other main theme was the very nature of the gospel movement, which (confusingly even up to the modern era) has nothing to do with any particular religion, denomination or sect but with a broad base of general knowledge (1 Kings 4:33, Hosea 4:6, Isaiah 5:13, John 21:25, Romans 1:20) and technological sophistication (Exodus 31:1-11), an investigation of all things (1 Thessalonians 5:21) and a helpfulness to the entire world, including any Roman, pagan, Scythian, Hellene, slave, master, woman or child (Colossians 3:11, Galatians 3:28, Matthew 19:14). The gospel of Christ applies to all people (Colossians 1:28) in the whole world (Colossians 1:6), even the whole of creation (Colossians 1:23, Romans 8:19-22).
🔼A treasure in earthen jars
In Christ "are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge" (Colossians 2:3), which means that Christ embodies information technology — from the completion of the alphabet (see our article on YHWH) to the recognition of the archetypal metaphor as a unit of information (Psalm 78:2, Matthew 13:35).
In deep antiquity, literacy was the exclusive prerogative of the priestly elite but Christ results in mass-literacy and mass-hyper-literacy (i.e. a fluent agility in the deployment of complex metaphors, and an ability to process fractalic narrative), which makes priests out of all common people (Exodus 19:6), so that all common people may rise above their natural ignorance (Colossians 1:13) and build up their own minds and discuss the great mystery of being human with their own neighbors (Isaiah 1:18). So doing they can construct a kind of decentralized self-government of the people by the people (Isaiah 9:6), based on the joined wisdom of every Tom, Dick and Harry (Acts 2:46, Philippians 2:2, Ephesians 4:3), and not on the centralized power of some tyrannical brute (1 Corinthians 15:24, Colossians 2:10).
We moderns can't seem to reach a consensus on whether we've been to the moon or not, or who shot JFK, or whether some dark cabal is trying to kill us all. The solution to this conundrum — this social entropy that will only increase — is not more data, but a more efficient way to organize the data we got, not a stricter way to verify validity but a broader one, one that also asks why a story is told and clung to; the relative meaning, the meaning of the meaning. The gospel of Jesus Christ is not a new story that was added to the pile two-thousand years ago, but a hyper-narrative that made sense of everything else. The gospel reverses the inevitable decay of conscious order and converges the mind of man upon a state of universal oneness. Truth, you see, is not some absolute vagueness but ultimately the only thing we can all agree on.
Let's put it like this: only a blind person requires religious belief to accept the reality of something as obvious as, say, the sun. Someone with eyes in their head does not. Such a person lives, works, enjoys and celebrates their life in the sun — and "believes" all sorts of things about their world, the tall tales of neighbors, hopes for the future, myths about the past — while basking in the blaze of that same good old sun, the source of light and life, and the difference between night and day and work and rest.
Becoming literate does not confine a student to one particular story but, rather contrarily, opens up a vast human world plus its history and its future (1 Corinthians 13:7). Likewise, belief in Christ does not have Christ as subject but as the environment in which everything human becomes openly available for review (1 Corinthians 6:12). People who require religious belief to accept the reality of Christ, obviously don't see Christ, just like anybody who requires a text to be read to him is obviously not literate.
🔼Buried in baptism
Colossae had a few modest claims to fame in Paul's days. The 5th century BC historian Herodotus mentioned Colossae in his account of the second invasion of Hellas by the Persians, under Xerxes this time (H.7.30). From the moment the world at large had breathlessly observed the social experiment of Athens bloom into the world's first true self-governing republic — in the words of the 8th century BC prophet Isaiah: "and the παρθενος (parthenos) will be with child and bear a son, and she will call his name Immanuel" (Isaiah 7:14, Matthew 1:23) — the conflict between Persia and Greece had become the quintessential war of empire versus autonomy, and slavery versus freedom, supplying imagery for the discussion of all similar conflicts since (from the Roman Empire to Hitler's Third Reich to Star Wars).
Herodotus was himself a Greek living under Persian rule, and Paul, as a Jew under Roman rule, doubtlessly sympathized with him. Herodotus hailed from Halicarnassus, not far from Colossae and its river Lycus — λυκος (lukos), wolf — which he claimed went underground in Colossae for about 1 kilometer (five stadia). Herodotus incorporated much legendary material into his work but was careful to always add whether he personally knew something to be true, or had it on hearsay and rather doubted its validity. He certainly knew, and knew that everybody else knew, that the physical Lycus did not go underground for a kilometer, not even at Colossae, not even when Xerxes was marching on Hellas. Evidently, not every text that employed the literary style of the Bible would make it into the Bible (Matthew 15:27).
In the decades directly after Herodotus' death in 425 BC, a Persian satrap (a client king, not unlike the later Herodian family in Roman Judea) named Tissaphernes reacted indelicately to the rebellion of a colleague satrap, and ultimately caused so much trouble between Athens, Sparta and the Persian imperial government that emperor Artaxerxes called for his arrest. According to Diodorus (1st century BC), Tissaphernes was apprehended while he was in a bath in Colossae, and his subsequently severed head was forthwith sent to the king (D.14.80.8). About a century after Herodotus, Alexander of Macedonia conquered the Persians and paved the way for what would become the modern Roman world. Darius, Xerxes, Tissaphernes, Alexander, Augustus — all of them bit the dust and all their efforts would either have always lined up with the true head of things, or never mattered at all (Colossians 1:18).
Or in the words of Herodotus: "so that things done by man not be forgotten in time, and that the great and marvelous deeds, some displayed by Hellenes, some by barbarians, not lose their glory, including among others what was the cause of their waging war on each other" (H.1.1.0).
🔼Etymology of the name Colossae
The name Κολοσσαι (Kolossai) or Colossae is spelled like the plural form of the feminine noun κολοσση (kolosse), of which the more common masculine version κολοσσος (kolossos) is one of those familiar words that assumed a meaning in our modern English that it never had in the original Greek:
The familiar noun κολοσσος (kolossos) is of unclear origin but probably does not actually mean "anything very large". The first few recorded usages of this word — by Herodotus in the 5th century BC — describe relatively small wooden ceremonial figurines, and only because such items became increasingly formidable over time, the word that described them became erroneously associated with anything big.
Our noun probably stems from the adjective κολος (kolos), which means truncated (describing something cut down a size) or de-horned (describing a cow with horns removed), or its related verb κωλυω (koluo), meaning to prevent, hinder or restrain, or even the noun κωλον (kolon), which means (vertical) limb or (standing) member of anything really, but mostly of collectives that go around in circles (stars, gods, herds). The -σσος (-ssos) termination is not uncommon for toponyms (think of Knossos), which would make a κολοσσος (kolossos) a "place of prevention".
Later authors made use of a much rarer feminine form, namely κολοσση (kolosse), but it isn't clear what distinguished a feminine one from a masculine one (as the latter would both describe both male and female figures).
It's an admitted mystery what may have prompted classical authors to adopt a feminine version of a masculine word that described both male and female figurines, but it's even not at all certain that this is the way it went. The familiar masculine name Alexander, for instance, derives from a much older and far less frequently used feminine name Alexandra, and our name Κολοσσαι (Kolossai) reminds with little friction of the name Αθεναι (Athenai), which belonged to a poetically depicted sisterhood of Athenian devotees (which in historic reality rather obviously were pre-Solon urban societies experimenting with democratic principles).
By the time of Paul, the word κολοσσος (kolossos) commonly denoted very large statues (like the colossus of Helios at Rhodes or the one of Nero in Rome), whose purpose was to forbid or restrict — forbid or restrict any kind of access or passage, or perhaps general uncivilized behavior. But if our noun were generally applied (and we have no evidence that it was) it would have described anything forbidding or preventive, not anything very large. The confusion probably arose when in the 6th century AD, Rome's signature place of public restriction and truncation, namely the Flavian Amphitheatre (built in the 70s AD and paid for with the spoils of the Jewish War), began to be referred to as the Colosseum, and an innocent but erroneous audience began to assume that this was because of its great size. A similar process gave us the prefix Jumbo (of unknown pedigree, but the name of a famous 19th century performing elephant) for anything large (the Jumbo jet, for instance), as well as the name Goliath as synonym for giant (while it actually means Captive or Refugee).
As many scholars point out (and see our article on Sceva for a closer look at this), several Jewish schools engaged in the religious veneration and appellation (θρησκεια, threskeia) of angels, and Paul's letter to the "Colossians" may in fact be a letter to "whoever venerates or invokes some superhero to fix things, rather than take responsibility and learn how to govern their own world" (Colossians 2:18).
Where the κολ- (kol-) word-group came from is an enigma, but as Herodotus opens his histories with tales of international trade between the Semitic Phoenicians and the Indo-European Hellenes, it's not unthinkable that our words are adaptations of a Semitic root, which was imported into the Greek language basin along with the Phoenician alphabet. If so, then an excellent candidate would be what in Hebrew became the verb כלא (kala'), to shut up or shut in:
The root כלל (kll) deals with limits, and particularly the limit on growth or progression. This limit may be incurred by interment or incarceration, but it may also mark the asymptotic quality of perfection or completion.
Verb כלא (kala') means to shut in or shut up. Nouns כלא (kele'), כלוא (klw') and כליא (keli) mean imprisonment. Noun מכלה (mikla), means enclosure or fold. Verb כול (kul) means to contain or cause to contain.
Verb כלה (kala) denotes the bringing to a completion of some process, and that usually but not always in a negative sense. Noun כלה (kala) mostly describes complete destruction or complete annihilation. Adjective כלה (kaleh) describes a failing with desire and noun כליון (killayon) means either a failing or pining of the eyes or annihilation. Noun מכלה (mikla) means completeness (and is identical to the word meaning enclosure or fold). The noun תכלה (tikla) means perfection. Noun תכלית (taklit) means end or completeness. The very common noun כלי (keli) describes any kind of article that (possibly) took a while to make but is now finished, or a vessel that was designed to hold some finished product; a holding pot.
Verb כלל (kalal) means to complete or make perfect. The very common noun כל (kol) means all or the whole. Adjective כליל (kalil) means entire or whole. Nouns מכלול (miklol) and מכלל (miklal) mean perfection. Noun מכלל (maklul) describes something made perfect.
The noun כלה (kalla) means bride or daughter-in-law, and noun כלולה (kelula) means espousal, which obviously reflects the Bible's expectation that humanity's ultimate perfection makes her a Bride to the Creator.
The name Colossae appears to reflect the idea of a group of Places Of Prevention, which immediately directs our attention to what in the Hebrew world was called a City of Refuge. All Hebrew law was based on reciprocation, of which the principle of "an eye for an eye" is probably the most familiar (Exodus 21:24), but which also forms the basis of the Great Command to "treat others the way you want to be treated", which sums up the entire Law and Prophets (Matthew 7:12), as well as all the preservation laws of modern thermodynamics (preservation of energy, momentum, baryon number, and so on).
When social contracts became more complex, the "eye for an eye" principle was adapted relatively straightforward, with stronger and milder reciprocations for willful and involuntarily inflicted damage. But the problem arose with establishing the penalty for involuntary manslaughter. Willful murder was to be reciprocated by summary execution (by the community, through stoning; Genesis 9:6, Exodus 21:12), but involuntary manslaughter could hardly be rectified by an accidental execution.
And so, involuntary manslayers were to flee to specifically assigned Cities of Refuge (Numbers 35:11). The Hebrew word for City of Refuge is מקלט (miqlat), from the verb קלט (qalat), to be stunted, cut short or held back, which is obviously not unlike our verb κωλυω (koluo), to prevent or restrain:
The verb קלט (qalat) means to be stunted, cut short or held back. Noun מקלט (miqlat) describes the kind of city that was reserved for accidental man-slayers. These cities are usually called cities of refuge but that's a misnomer. They were holding pens for folks whose fatal blunders were not curbed by the regime of the incumbent high priest.
A willful murderer was himself murdered in order to purge Israel from murderous rage, and the purpose of the Cities of Short-Cutting was to purge Israel from irresponsible carelessness. The cities of short-cutting were peopled by Levites, who certainly outnumbered the causers of deadly accidents. That means that the cities of short-cutting were rather correction and rehabilitation centers. They were places of learning much rather than places of refuge.
Here at Abarim Publications we surmise that the celebrated Hellenistic culture could emerge only because the Hellenes first absorbed the Semitic alphabet and some key ideas on how to gradually draw a stable complex society from the chaotic dust clouds that still hovered over the arena of the Bronze Age Collapse. The idea of the City of Refuge never seems to have made the transition into the Greek world, but the Phrygians may very well have embraced it.
In Hebrew, masculinity reflects a tendency toward individuality (which is why God, who is One, is a He), whereas femininity reflects the tendency toward collectivity (which is why mankind, who is many, is a She). The name Colossae is a plural feminine, possibly to reflect the larger system of multiple cities of refuge. But like the singular city of Athens that emerged as focal point from the many Athenai, so Colossae may have arisen as singular embodiment of the original multi-centered societal facility. The name means City Of Refuge, or somewhat more elaborate Capital Of The Social System That Includes Cities of Refuge (compare Luke 23:43 to Colossians 1:19-22, 2:12-15, 3:1-17).