WHAT WAS “THE EPISTLE FROM LAODICEA?”
by Shawn Brasseaux
Colossians 4:16 says: “And when this epistle is read among you, cause that it be read also in the church of the Laodiceans; and that ye likewise read the epistle from Laodicea.” What was “the epistle from Laodicea?” A missing Bible Book—that is, one of the New Testament pseudepigraphal, or apocryphal, works? Could it be a Book in our Bible today but extant under a different name? We will dedicate this study to considering this most important matter.
WHAT THE “SCHOLARS” SAY
One commentator writes the following about Colossians 4:16: “A separate letter from Paul, usually identified as the epistle to the Ephesians. The oldest manuscripts of Ephesians do not contain the words ‘in Ephesus,’ indicating that in all likelihood it was a circular letter intended for several churches in the region.”
Another Bible teacher says: “It seems unlikely that the Holy Spirit inspired this command to read the Laodicean epistle and then allow it to be lost. It is more likely that the Ephesians letter (which contains no personal names) was intended for all the churches of the region. Tychicus would have left it at Ephesus, where it was to be circulated to Laodicea and eventually to Colosse.”
One study Bible has this note: “Once this letter had been read among the Colossian believers, they were to send it or a copy of it to Laodicea. Paul apparently wrote a letter to the Laodiceans that was also to be read in Colossae. The epistle to the Laodiceans was either another of Paul’s epistles (Ephesians?) or a letter that has not been preserved.”
The “scholars” are generally agreed that the “epistle from Laodicea” was Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians. However, as you noticed in their sample quotes, they admit this is speculative. They are not entirely sure themselves. Opinions and hunches aside, friends, are there any Bible verses that can help us here?
WHAT THE BIBLE SAYS
Could “the epistle from Laodicea” have been the Book of Ephesians? No. As noted by the first quoted “scholar,” bringing Ephesians into Colossians 4:16 means removing the words “at Ephesus” from Ephesians 1:1 (thus reducing Ephesians to a “circular,” general letter). After all, the “oldest” manuscripts do not have those words. Making Ephesians the “epistle from Laodicea” necessitates support of the modern textual critics’ claim that “the oldest manuscripts are the best and most reliable.” That itself is an absurd idea, since there have been corrupt Bible manuscripts from the earliest times.
Friends, false teaching existed 2,000 years ago. There were false prophets and false brethren 20 centuries ago. People lied 2,000 years ago just as much as they do today, you know! Refer to Galatians 1:6-9, 2 Corinthians 11:13-15, 2 Peter 2:1-3, et cetera. “Ye have perverted the words of the living God,” Jeremiah 23:36 rebuked the false prophets 600 years before Christ! Second Thessalonians 2:2 speaks of a forged letter, allegedly from Paul but actually from a false teacher. The Holy Spirit wrote through that same Apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 2:17: “For we are not as many, which corrupt the word of God: but as of sincerity, but as of God, in the sight of God speak we in Christ.” Beloved, there were “many”—not “few” but “many”—people “corrupting” the Word of God 20 centuries ago. They were perverting the Bible while the Apostles were still living! Contrary to what textual critics tell us today, just because a manuscript is old, that does not automatically mean it is reliable.
When scholars talk about “the oldest and best Bible manuscripts,” what they really mean is Roman Catholic manuscripts that disagree amongst themselves over 3,000 times in the Four Gospels alone! They are worshipping Codices Vaticanus and Sinaiticus, manuscripts that omit verses, water down verses, add to verses, and outright question verses. These “ancient” and “reliable” witnesses even omit whole Bible Books on occasion! People use these very manuscripts as their “authority” to “correct” the (Protestant) King James Bible and its underlying manuscripts (commonly called the “Textus Receptus,” Latin for “Received Text”).
We must understand that the Apostle Paul wrote a lot of things that were not Scripture. For example, consider 1 Corinthians 5:9: “I wrote unto you in an epistle not to company with fornicators:….” Prior to writing what we know of as the Bible Book of “First Corinthians,” Paul wrote an epistle to Corinth (that is not in our Bible canon). In 2 Peter 3:15, the Apostle Peter writes to the nation Israel: “And account that the longsuffering of our Lord is salvation; even as our beloved brother Paul also according to the wisdom given unto him hath written unto you;….” Peter says Paul wrote to the Jews, and yet we do not have that writing in the Bible either.
Considering how the Bible writers knew when they were writing inspired Scripture, Paul no doubt knew when he was writing God’s Word and when he was just writing a regular (anthropogenic—man-originated) epistle. Notice how Paul recognized he was writing by the moving of the Holy Spirit in the case of First Corinthians: “If any man think himself to be a prophet, or spiritual, let him acknowledge that the things that I write unto you are the commandments of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 14:37). There is a similar claim in 2 Timothy 3:16-17: “ All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness:  That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works.” (Paul was obviously referring to all the Bible here.)
Based on what has gone before, here is what we know about “the epistle from Laodicea.” The Bible (Colossians 4:16) never actually calls that epistle from Laodicea “Scripture.” The epistle referenced in 1 Corinthians 5:9 is never called “Scripture” either, but it was profitable in instructing the Corinthians not to associate with fornicators. However, neither the actual first epistle to Corinth (not First Corinthians, please understand, but the one Paul wrote before it) nor the epistle from Laodicea were preserved in our Bible. We do not have a Bible book called “Laodiceans.” We do not have three Bible Books called Corinthians—only two Books. So, what should we conclude?
There is one of two possibilities as to the identity of “the epistle from Laodicea” mentioned in Colossians 4:16:
- INSPIRED EPISTLE? There was a Bible Book (that is, inspired of God) written by Paul to one assembly, and it was being passed from Laodicea onward to Colosse. Perhaps that epistle was Ephesians, Philippians, or one of Paul’s other prison epistles (1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, or Philemon).
- NON-INSPIRED EPISTLE? Paul wrote an epistle to Laodicea that was not inspired of God but still beneficial for Christians in Colosse to read (just as the epistle to Corinth referred in 1 Corinthians 5:9 was profitable to the Corinthian saints). In referencing it, the Holy Spirit was not endorsing “the epistle from Laodicea” as inspired. He was merely indicating that it was profitable (much like any modern-day Bible study aids—commentaries, Bible dictionaries, history books, language tools, encyclopedias).
Personally, I lean toward the second view (a non-inspired view). Paul wrote the “epistle from Laodicea,” but not under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Like the epistle referenced in 1 Corinthians 5:9, it contained useful information. Like that epistle in 1 Corinthians 5:9, however, it was not inspired of God. The first view (inspired view) is embraced by mainstream theologians and textual critics who attack and omit the words “at Ephesus” in Ephesians 1:1. It is dangerous in that respect, and that is why I shy away from it.
One final note to add, dear friends. While the first position appeals to those who want to solve the dilemma of “Why did God recommend Christians read that epistle from Laodicea if we Christians would lose access to it today?,” that view is not convincing enough for me to embrace it. It is better to hold to the non-inspired and non-canonical view of the “epistle from Laodicea,” so as to defend the integrity of Ephesians 1:1 and its canonical statement “at Ephesus.” In other words, I would rather “lose” that Laodicean epistle (not Scripture anyway) than lose the words of God, “at Ephesus.”