Friday, August 23, 2013

Review of "Colossians and Philemon For the Practical Messianic" by J.K. McKee [COMPLETED]

[This book can be purchased HERE]
"Every Messianic Believer…at one point in his or her faith experience has been quoted Colossians…often by a well-meaning Christian friend or family member who wonders why we attend worship services on Saturday (Shabbat), remember special times of year like Passover, or abstain from pork and shellfish....Many of the Christian family and friends you have will take Colossians 2:16 and inappropriately use it to judge you for your obedience to God's commandments," (pgs. 67-68). 

Is the Book of Colossians really an attack on Judaism?

While this may be what the Christian layperson believes, McKee observes that, "...many of today's evangelical commentators correctly recognize that the overarching issue [in Colossians] is a proto-Gnostic/mystical and Jewish amalgamation of errors unique to Colossae and the Lycus Valley.  Their thoughts will be carefully considered in our examination," (pg. 52).

Thus, this review will highlight McKee's methodology of using evangelical Christian commentators to bolster his own case that Paul never attacks Judaism in the Book of Colossians; rather, Paul attacks a "hijacked" version of Judaism (to use McKee's expression).


"13 When you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions, 14 having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross.  15 When He had disarmed the rulers and authorities, He made a public display of them, having triumphed over them through Him," (Colossians 2:13-15)

COMMON PRESUPPOSITION:  "...Colossians 2:14 ["certificate of debt...nailed to the cross"] is commonly used to assert that 'the Law of Moses has been nailed to the cross,'" (pg. 60).

CONTEXTUALIZED EXEGESIS:  But was it the Law of Moses that was nailed to the cross?  The following scholars disagree that the "certificate of debt...nailed to the cross" was in fact the Torah of Moses:

Dunn:  "...[W]e should note that it is not the law which is thought of as thus destroyed, but rather its particular condemnation...of transgressions, absorbed in the sacrificial death of the Christ (cf. Rom. 8:3)," [emphasis added] (pgs. 62-63). 

Ben Witherington III:  "Here [the term 'cheirograph'] seems to be a reference to the heavenly book of deeds in which a record of one's wrongdoings is kept.  In fact in Apocalypse of Zephaniah 3.6-9; 7.1-8 the same word is used for that book..." (pg. 63). 

McKee concludes:  "It is perfectly legitimate to recognize how the 'certificate of debt' that has been paid by Yeshua's sacrifice, is the condemnation and record of human sin.  The power of this condemnation was found in various 'decrees against us,' the stated death penalties for high crimes as specified in the Torah.  It is not at all incorrect to recognize that by His death and shed blood, our relationship to the Torah has certainly been changed, but that does not mean that the Torah is to be thrown by the wayside and never studied or meditated upon (Psalm 119:15, 27).  The Torah remains relevant instruction that is to be upheld and taught as a standard of God's righteousness and holiness (Romans 3:31)..." (pg. 66).  Lastly, McKee notes that the term nomos ("law") is noticeably absent from the passage.


"16 Therefore no on is to act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day--17 things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Messiah," (Colossians 2:16-17).

COMMON PRESUPPOSITION 1:   The false teachers taught a pure, unadulterated form of Judaism.  They judged the Colossians Believers for refusing or neglecting to keep these standard Jewish observances. 

"Many Christian lay readers simply conclude that the false teachers in Colossae were judging Paul's readers for not observing these various rituals," (pg. 68).

CONTEXTUALIZED EXEGESIS 1:  " it at all possible that the Colossians were told not to accept judgment for not keeping these things in the manner that the false teachers did?" (pg. 68) [emphasis added].  In other words, McKee here suggests that the standard by which the false teachers were so presumptuously judging was in fact a paganized (and minority-held) version of Judaism.  He finds corroboration from the following scholars:

Moo:  "We should therefore at least keep open the possibility that the Colossian false teachers' abstinence from food and drink had its origins elsewhere, since many ancient Greco-Roman philosophical and religious traditions also featured prohibitions of meat and wine,' (pg. 69).  "Only Sabbath observance that is connected inappropriately to a wider religious viewpoint is here being condemned.  These interpreters [who agree] are quite right to emphasize the importance of interpreting contextually and historically.  And they are also right, we have suggested, to argue that Sabbath was taken up into a larger, syncretistic mix," (pg. 70).

Lincoln:   "...the false teaching at Colossae...was a fusion of Jewish and pagan elements..." (pg. 48) "[T]here is no indication here that the motivation for abstinence from food and drink was due to observance of Torah....Instead, it is probable that in the philosophy they were linked to a desire to please the cosmic powers," (pg. 69).

O'Brien:  "There are various reasons why abstinence from food and drink was practiced in the ancient world:  the belief in the transmigration of souls might prevent a person from eating meat.  Some practiced asceticism since it was bound up with their views of purity.  Others thought that by fasting one served the deity, came closer to him or prepared oneself for receiving a divine revelation, a point that is important in the light of verse 18....For Israel the keeping of these holy days was evidence of obedience to God's law and a sign of her election among the nations.  At Colossae, however, the sacred days were to be kept for the sake of the 'elemental spirits of the universe,' those astral powers who directed the course of the stars and regulated the order of the calendar.  So Paul is not condemning the use of sacred days or seasons as such; it is the wrong motive involved when the observance of these days is bound up with the recognition of the elemental spirits,"  (pgs. 69-70). 

F.F. Bruce:  "[The Colossian false teaching] appears to have been basically Jewish, but to have included features of pagan affinity...associated with an asceticism which was not characteristic of the mainstream of Jewish life," (pg. 52).

COMMON PRESUPPOSITION 2:  Some people read v. 17 as Paul denouncing Jewish observances as unhelpful "shadows."

"The NIV Study Bible is about as far as many Christian  laypeople go in examining the meaning of Colossians 2:17.  Its brief commentary describes, 'The ceremonial laws of the OT are here referred to as shadows...because they symbolically depicted the coming of Christ; so any insistence on the observance of such ceremonies is a failure to recognize that their fulfillment has already taken place,"  (pg. 71).

Even certain Messianic Jewish teachers have used the "shadows" reference to argue that the Biblical Appointed Times are unhelpful for non-Jews.  Stern writes "For Gentiles...[these] Jewish practices are in most cases nothing more than a shadow, insofar as they do not arise out of their own national experience....these shadows are irrelevant to Gentiles, since God did not give these commands to Gentiles..." (pgs. 75-76).

CONTEXTUALIZED EXEGESIS 2:  But is Paul really using the "shadow" language to undermine the legitimacy or helpfulness of Biblical Appointed Times?  Or might he simply be noting an incongruity--that false teachers were judging others when they themselves had not even grasped that Yeshua was the source reality behind the instructionary shadows?  McKee suggests that the false teachers were "only able to go after shadows with their philosophy of error," (pg. 74) because their philosophy rejected Yeshua's Divinity:

"8 See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Messiah.  9 For in Him all the fullness of the Deity dwells in bodily form, 10 and in Him you have been made complete, and He is the head over all rule and authority," (Colossians 2:8-10).

And given that the false teachers had used such observances (e.g. Shabbat) as a time for starvation-induced hallucinations and ecstatic angel-worship, it seems that the false teachers had undermined even the shadows themselves:

"Paul says that the false teachers were advocating tapeinophrosune [Col. 2:18]...most often related to fasting--or in this case, an extreme fasting..." which was "designed to give them ecstatic hallucinations" (pg. 77, 76).  In short, McKee writes that the false teachers had "perverted [the Appointed Times]," (pg. 76).


"20 If you have died with Messiah to the elementary principles of the world, why, as it you were living in the world, do you submit yourself to decrees, such as, 21 'Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!' 22 (which all refer to things destined to perish with use)--in accordance with the commandments and teachings of men?  23 These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence."

COMMON PRESUPPOSITION:  Paul here argues that the Torah's food laws and purity laws ("Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch) are elementary principles of the world, destined to perish, containing only an appearance of wisdom, and offering no value when it comes to curbing fleshly appetites:

"Too frequently when encountering v. 20, lay readers will focus their attention upon 'submit yourself to decrees,' and then assume that God's commandments in the Torah are being spoken against," (pg. 80).

"It is very tempting for readers to conclude that various aspects of the Torah are specifically being targeted against here, especially regulations that regard touching an unclean person (Leviticus 15; Numbers 19:11-13) or unclean animals/meat (Leviticus 5:2-3; 11)," (pg. 81).

CONTEXTUALIZED EXEGESIS:  But are the worldly, ascetic, deceptive "decrees" spoken against in vs. 20-23 really the commandments contained in G-d's Word?

McKee argues that, "[t]hese principles or 'commandments' are not considered by Paul to be of Divine origin.  He finds corroboration with Vaughan and Moo:

Vaughan:  "Some may have been reenactments of the Mosaic law; others were doubtless prohibitions stemming from pagan asceticism.  There is a descending order in the terms, the climax being reaching in the last word--i.e., 'Don't even touch,'" (pg. 80).

Moo:  "...Paul's claim that the rules involved here are closely related to 'the elemental forces,' and that they are 'worldly' in orientation (v. 20), also suggests that these Jewish-oriented...rules have been taken up into a larger and syncretistic religious philosophy."

McKee concludes that since the false teacher's prohibitions "Do not handle, taste, or touch" are connected to "elementary forces", extreme self-debasement, worldliness, and angel-worship, " is inappropriate to assume an exclusive Jewish context..." pg. 81.  To put it another way, the false teachers were not teaching a pure, unadulterated version of Judaism but rather a paganized version of Judaism.  


"The letter to a Biblical text that often draws a blank stare from many people is often thought to be too small to demand any serious attention....It has been my observation that too frequently, it is those small, rather obscure Biblical books that often contain a lesson or two that are vital..." (pg. 125).

What lessons does McKee draw out from the text?

The answer to that lies beyond the scope of this review; however, one interesting point will be noted.  For those few individuals who have given the book of Philemon more than a cursory examination, there might be a temptation to conclude that the lesson of the book pertains only to slavery.

But is the lesson of Philemon merely that slavery should be abolished?

McKee agrees with Moo that there are "revolutionary implications" in the letter.  Somewhat cryptically he quotes from Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics:

"Friendship between brothers is like that which unites the members of a social club, because the parties are equal in standing and age...but there can be no friendship or justice towards inanimate things, and not even towards a horse or an ox, nor yet towards a slave qua slave; because there is nothing common to both parties:  the slave is a living tool in the same way that a tool is an inanimate object."

This quote hints, at least to this reviewer, that the "evil" that Paul addresses might be a bit broader than slavery, perhaps including any social inequities which would inhibit "friendship between brothers."  Just what implications this might have for Messianic ecclesiology one is left to imagine.  However, McKee provides one more possible clue:

"Knowing the Torah, Paul realized that slaves could be released in the year of jubilee (Exodus 21:2-13), slaveowners who killed their slaves could be executed (Exodus 21:12), and harsh punishment of slaves would mean that the slaves could immediately go free (Exodus 21:26-27).  These were casuistic laws in the Pentateuch, originally designed to regulate Ancient Israel's economy in the Ancient Near East--not the Roman province of Judea, nor a widespread Diaspora Jewish community in the Mediterranean basin.  So Paul was informed from these Torah commandments on how Philemon needed to act toward Onesimus, but he also had to deal with the necessities of Roman law, and most importantly how the gospel of salvation is blind to one's status as either slave or free," (pg. 133).


Rather than attacking Christians and Christianity as being followers of a hopelessly confused religious system, McKee explains where Christians get it right!  The real problem is that Christian laypersons haven't studied with the same level of depth as the Christian scholars.  The Christian scholars, acquainted with first-century pagan influence at Colossae, have recognized that Paul is actually attacking a paganized version of Judaism (i.e. "hijacked" Judaism).

McKee has not only written a cutting-edge commentary on Colossians and Philemon but he has also subverted many of the anti-Christian feelings prevalent in the Messianic movement, effectively demonstrating that Messianics and Christians have much to learn---from each other!

Colossians and Philemon for the Practical Messianic is a MUST-HAVE for every Messianic home library.




  1. Thank you for this gracious review! It is good to know that it has helped you, and hopefully many others.

    Those who want to purchase the Kindle version of Colossians and Philemon for the Practical Messianic, can do so here:

    1. You are most welcome! And I'll go ahead and add a clickable link to the main post now...

  2. Peter, thank you for posting your review of "Colossians and Philemon For The Practical Messianic" by J K McKee. I find herein your reference to the appointed times of Leviticus interesting.
    Sometime, if you have not already, would you explore the conclusion, The Leviticus feasts were innovations of humankind to help believers follow God in the same manner in which church history has offered similarly.
    This argument seems based on the timing and actual formation of this book of the Bible, hence its name, Leviticus.
    Thank you.