St. Paul to the Laodiceans

Christians of all stripes are familiar with the Epistles of St. Paul which form such an integral part of the New Testament and the Church's liturgical life, but did you know that for centuries there has been speculation about a missing letter of St. Paul?

In the closing sentences of Colossians, we find the following phrase:

Luke the beloved physician greets you, as does Demas. Give my greetings to the brothers at Laodicea, and to Nympha and the church in her house. And when this letter has been read among you, have it also read in the church of the Laodiceans; and see that you also read the letter from Laodicea (Col. 4:14-16).

Here St. Paul is admonishing the Church at Colossae to pass their letter on to Laodicea when they are finished with it, and likewise, to obtain a letter from Laodicea which Paul apparently wrote to them. Most biblical scholars believe this to actually be the circular letter to the Ephesians, but it could also be a reference to I Timothy, which in certain Greek manuscripts begins with the phrase "Written at Laodicea, metropolis of Phrygia Pacatiana."

Nevertheless, it has been maintained by many over the centuries that this "letter from Laodicea" is actually a lost letter of St. Paul. If so, no trace of it has ever been found. There was once a heretical Epistle to Laodicea attributed to Marcion that circulated in Asia Minor in the 3rd century, but more interesting is an orthodox but apocryphal "Letter of Paul to the Laodiceans" that was compiled in the early fourth century that consists of twenty short lines and is mainly made of citations taken from Philippians and other Epistles, and pieced together without sequence or logical aim. In the patristic age it had no authority whatsoever; it appeared in no codices, either Greek, Syriac, Latin or other. St. Jerome said that "it is rejected by all."

However, this apocryphal Epistle of Paul to the Laodiceans took on more popularity in the Middle Ages. A Greek manuscript from the ninth century actually includes it in the New Testament immediately after Philemon. It appears in over one hundred different Latin texts, beginning around the sixth century.

Opinions on it have been varied. Priscillian (c. 385) thought it was a genuine work of St. Paul, but was nevertheless not Scripture. Filastrius of Brescia, around 390, also thought it was genuine but thought it should not be read in Church, which implies that some were reading it as the Epistle in Mass, otherwise its liturgical use would not be condemned. Interestingly, Pope St. Gregory the Great also shared the opinion of Filastrius.

In Britain, Alfric, Abbot of Cerne (c. 989) accepted it fully as a fifteenth letter of St. Paul, as did John of Salisbury (1165). In the High Middle Ages it was translated into German and was actually included in German Bibles after Galatians for a brief period from 1466 until Luther. This apocryphal epistle also was translated into Arabic and was debated at Tubingen as late as 1600. The French scholar Faber Stapulensis (c. 1526) included it among St. Paul's legitimate works.

Following the renewal of the study of ancient languages in the 15th and 16th centuries, coupled by the turmoil of the Protestant Revolt, this apocryphal Letter to the Laodiceans was finally and definitively rejected by everybody and was of course left out of the Canon at Trent. The text of this forged epistle can be read here. It takes about twenty seconds to go through.

The above information is taken from The Formation of the New Testament, a book by Edgar Goodspeed (1926), which is somewhat progressive in its theology but is a pretty good read about the compilation and historical development of the Canon.