Colossians 4:16—What happened to the lost epistle of the Laodiceans?

Problem: Paul refers to the “epistle from Laodicea” as a book he wrote that should be read by the church at Colosse, just as the inspired Book of Colossians was to be read by the Laodiceans. However, no such 1st century epistle to the Laodiceans exists (though there is a 4th century fraud). But, it is very strange that an inspired book would perish. Why would God inspire it for the faith and practice of the church (2 Tim. 3:16–17) and then allow it to be destroyed?

Solution: There are two possibilities. First, it is possible that not all divinely authoritative or inspired books were intended by God to be in the Bible. Luke refers to other gospels (Luke 1:1), and John affirmed that there were many other things Jesus did that are not recorded in his Gospel (John 20:30; 21:25). So, it is possible that only those inspired books that God preserved by His providence were intended to be in the canon of Scripture.

Second, there are some good reasons to believe that “the epistle from Laodicea” is not really lost, but is really the Book of Ephesians. First of all, the text does not call it the epistle of the Laodiceans, but the “epistle [coming] from Laodicea” (Col. 4:16), whatever name it may have had. Second, it is known that Paul wrote Ephesians at the same time he wrote Colossians and sent it to another church in the same general area. Third, there is evidence that the Book of Ephesians did not originally bear that title, but was a kind of cyclical letter sent to the churches of Asia Minor. As a matter of fact, some early manuscripts do not have the phrase “in Ephesus” in Ephesians 1:1. It is certainly strange that Paul, who spent three years ministering to the Ephesians (Acts 20:31), sent no personal greetings to them, if the book known as “Ephesians” was intended for them alone. By contrast, Paul had never visited Rome, but he greeted numerous people in his letter to them (Rom. 16:1–16). Fourth, no epistle of the Laodiceans is cited by any early church father, though they make over 36,000 NT citations including every book and almost every verse of the NT. A fraudulent epistle of the Laodiceans appeared in the 4th century, but scholars do not believe it is the one referred to by Paul. Indeed, it is largely a collection of quotations from Ephesians and Colossians which the Church Council of Nicea (a.d. 787) called a “forged epistle.”

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This excerpt is from When Critics Ask: A Popular Handbook on Bible Difficulties (Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books, 1992). © 2014 Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe. All rights reserved. Used by permission. Click here to purchase this book.