Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Colossians 2:14 Nailing Smeared Handwriting


Today's post is based on another verse by Paul. A friend requested me to have a look at this verse and see if I could parse out any additional meaning from the translation.

Blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross;

Colossians 2:14

The notable word that jumps out from this verse is handwritng. This is the only place in the King James Version where this word is used. I also noted the word ordinances as interesting and probably the reason this verse is cross referenced in the LDS version with Ephesians 2:5. This word occurs only a handful of times in the New Testament.

One thing is certain from looking at the various commentaries on this verse is that there is little agreement about the meaning of the verse by the various exegetes. Some have linked the handwriting to anything from the Ten Commandments to the Law of Moses to "Law" in general. The translation is problematic. The Greek word χειρόγραφον cheirographon appears only here in the scriptures. It's companion word δόγμασιν dogmasin (translated "ordinances" in KJV) from which we get the word dogma occurs only 5 times, usually indicating a decree such the decree from Caesar Augustus (Luke 2:1). Only one time is it used similarly to here and that is also by Paul in Ephesians 2:15 which needs to be considered carefully with this verse.

The English word "ordinance" has a variety of meanings itself producing an ambiguity to this translation that confuses matters. One meaning of the word is a law or decree such as "a city zoning ordinance". This meaning is congruent with dogmasin as used here. In Latter-day Saint circles and a few others the word has come to mean sacred rites or ceremonies, a word similar to "sacraments". Then there is also the word ordnance which has a very different meaning. I don't think translating dogmasin as "ordinances" is appropriate here, at least not in the sense the word is applied by Latter-day Saints. It has no sense of religious ritual.

Cheirographon is also a problem. It may have been used as a technical term at this time for document of indebtedness. It needs to be considered with its verb ἐξαλείψας exaleipsas another uncommon word occurring only 5 times in Scripture. Twice it is used to describe wiping away tears, once wiping away sin, once not wiping away a name in the Book of Life, and here wiping away the cheirographon. The sense is plastering over or smoothing out. In ancient times writing was often done in wax. The idea here is smearing out or canceling the wax handwriting or document of indebtedness. With this understanding the idea of nailing it to a cross also has the sense of publishing to the world it's fulfillment and cancellation.

I think with this background a look at other reputable translations is warranted:

Having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross.


By canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.

English Standard Version

Perhaps as a final exercise on this verse it would be helpful to zoom out a bit and look at the larger context of the passage and its companion passage in Ephesians 2.

Paul speaks of the common theme of Jewish and Gentile Christians getting along. He refers to the Circumcision and the Uncircumcised as representing these two groups. He makes a strong connection between circumcision and baptism, suggesting baptism was a spiritual circumcision. Interestingly, Joseph Smith made this same connection between baptism and circumcision (see JST Genesis 17:11). The sense is not one of relieving the Gentiles from any law, moral or ritual, but of bringing both groups under a new covenant in Christ, one specifically capable of canceling the debt we carry as condemnation. He then specifically tells the Gentile Christians not to let people judge them for obedience to kosher laws, sabbaths, monthly rituals, or other practices Jewish Christians were involved with, but instead to focus on the spiritual requirements of the covenants.

Examining Ephesians 2 Paul agains speaks of the Circumcised and Uncircumcised this time with the image of a hostile wall built between them. The Uncircumcised lack citizenship and hope, two things provided by the covenant of the law. Christ breaks down this wall and makes the "law of commandments in ordinances" inoperable by his own flesh. Again the sense is not of abolishing the law but of bringing the Gentiles under it. He then grants them citizenship with the saints (Jewish Christians) and uses the imagery of them building a temple together with a foundation of prophets (the old Hebrew scriptural sages) and apostles (the new current church leadership) with Jesus Christ as the chief cornerstone and the power that holds the whole structure together. The temple of course was the ultimate expression of the covenant. Again there is no sense that the goal is to abolish the covenant or law, but to bring the Gentiles under it or at least under those spiritual principles that form its foundation.

So in conclusion, I reject the notion that this verse is a statement of abolishment of the Law of Moses or any other law but is instead a statement about the payment for our sins through Christ and his unifying effect on the Church between both the old guard Jewish Christians and the new Gentile converts who came from a very different background. It is not focused on relieving old covenants as much as it is pointing to a new covenant with this greater debt canceling and unifying power. It does have the sense that through Christ's sacrifice certain physical acts, specifically circumcision, are not required as Christ's pierced flesh somehow negates the need for his followers to physically perform this act of the covenant, but there is a strong sense of them now being under an even higher covenant than before rather than being released from a covenant.





  1. This seems to be a major component in understanding Paul - the efforts it took to integrate the Jewish Christians with the Gentile Christians. It must have been very difficult.

    Joseph Smith dealt with a similar problem early on when a large group of converts suddenly came into the church in Ohio and the rest of the mostly New York church came to live with them. D&C 42 was an attempt to bring the separate groups together under one law.

    We still struggle with these issues somewhat with converts from all over the world coming into the church, bringing with them their unique cultural heritages.

    1. Inclusion is a very important part of the Church today. We went through a bit of an insular phase where we were very Utah centric, and I think that was healthy and needed to get the base foundation we needed to grow. In this generation we are being called on to grow and become more as the Church now pulls from many races, political ideologies, nations, languages, and social classes. We face problems very relevant to what Paul faced. How do we keep the old guard pioneer stock happy that we are honoring our heritage while welcoming a massive influx of members who may not have made a full connection with all aspects of that pioneer heritage? As our Ward participated in a trek activity this summer we repeatedly emphasized that the pioneer heritage was the heritage of all members not just literal pioneer descendants. It was a teaching that echoed Paul. Doesn't mean new converts need to learn how to make funeral potatoes and green jello but they can claim our heritage as much as those who do.

  2. I should add - we would do well to remember we are all brothers and sisters under one covenant, as Paul is reminding us here.