Monday, June 19, 2017

Colossians 2:14 And The Certificate Of Debt

Certificate of debt? Record of debt? Debt? Written code? Handwritten certificate? Etc. What exactly did Jesus "cancel out"? What was it that Paul says was hostile against us? When we talk about this word as we are teaching through this passage, what should we emphasize and what should we not emphasize?

I wanted to show you what some people have written in the commentaries concerning this word.

John MacArthur writes: "Certificate of debt translates cheirographos, which literally means 'something written with the hand,' or 'an autograph.' It was used to refer to a certificate of indebtedness handwritten by the debtor in acknowledgement of his debt" (Colossians and Philemon, 112)

Richard Melick writes: "Literally, the handwriting is a certificate of indebtedness written in one's own hand. Taken this way, this means that there is a pronouncement that the personal note which testifies against us is canceled" (Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, NAC, 263).

Allan Bevere writes: "Several different interpretations have been given by scholars: a certificate of debt, a heavenly book of deeds, and the Mosaic law...[I]t is my contention that the χειρόγραφον refers to the Mosaic law...I simply want to make a couple of internal arguments from the text of Colossians itself to support this view. To my knowledge it has not been noticed by commentators that there may be a play on words taking place in ch. 2 between ἀχειροποιήτῷ (2.11) and χειρόγραφον (2.14). The believer in Christ has been circumcised with περιτομῇ ἀχειροποιήτῳ which means, implicitly, among other things, that a circumcision 'done with hands' is no longer essential because the 'hand-written document' which requires such circumcision has been erased in the cross of Christ. This would, of course, make the χειρόγραφον a reference to the law of Moses...[Referring to τοῖς δόγμασιν,] the law was known as 'decrees' and 'regulations' in the Judaism of the first century" (Sharing in the Inheritance: Identity and the Moral Life in Colossians, 139-140).

Murray Harris writes: "A χειρόγραφον (-ου, τό) was a handwritten document or note of any description, and in particular a signed certificate of debt in which the signature legalized the debt (cf. Phlm 18-19), a promissory note signed by the debtor...'certificate of indebtedness'...'bill of indictment'...'record of debt'...[The χειρόγραφον was] an accusation of guilt; it also constituted a threat of penalty because the human inability to discharge the debt" (Colossians and Philemon, 96).

Jerry Sumney points out that this word appears nowhere else in the New Testament (Colossians: A Commentary, 146).

Daniel Durken writes: "'The bond' is the legal document listing human failures. The image is like the slave with the impossible debt in Jesus' parable (Matt. 18:21-35)" (NCBC: New Testament, 644).

BDAG has this: "a hand-written document, specif. a certificate of indebtedness, account, record of debts."

The UBS has this: "record of one's debts."

Louw-Nida has this: "A handwritten statement, especially a record of financial accounts (similar in meaning to γράμμα 'account,' but perhaps with emphasis upon the handwritten nature of the document)."

N. Walter writes: "But the assumption that χειρόγραφον is being used in its literal, legal-technical sense for indebtedness also makes good sense here...[The readers] recognize, as it were 'by their own hand,' their own guilt as binding, since it exists according to norms (δόγματα) that they in this fear consider valid" (EDNT).

I didn't provide all of the commentaries, of course. And, I didn't quote them entirely on this section of Scripture. But, out of those quoted above (excluding BDAG and those below it), which author at least tries to wrestle with the word in its context? It doesn't mean he is right, but it does show us that exegesis, especially lexical exegesis, has to involve more than looking up a word in a dictionary.

Let me add this really fast...Some have said that this word "literally means" something written with the hand. With what then is a γράμμα written, or a γραφή? Feet? How far does this χειρ- need to be emphasized, if at all really? Be careful with defining a compound word based on the root meaning of its different parts (a+b=ab; instead of a+b=c).

I can't tell you how many people I have heard say something like, "This word is formed by the two words . . . meaning "hand" and "writing." Therefore, this is the "handwriting." Therefore, God wrote it himself . . . or something like that. This is crazy exegesis, and we should do better than woo people with stuff that is not built into the text. What is more important, folks? --A connection to "handwritten" or the fact that this is canceled out? I think some preacher/teachers get lost in the etymology and never get their people to understand that this is an image of debt being cancelled out.


  1. Allan Bevere brings this same argument in Colossians & Philemon: A Participatory Study Guide (which I publish), but doesn't cite his larger work (he doesn't have to cite himself!). You also left out the full reference. Could you provide it?

    I could ask Allan, but that almost seems like cheating!! :-)

    1. Added. Thanks for catching that.

  2. Thomas, thanks for the shout out and offering a nice summary of the options.

    1. You are most welcome, Allan. Thanks for modeling what it looks like to wrestle with the meaning of a word in its context.