These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.—Colossians 2:17
Colossians 2:17 gives us another important insight into how the earliest Christians put their Bibles together. But, the NIV here nicely obscures some of the difficulties of this verse, which literally reads: “These are a shadow of the things to come, but the body of Christ.” Here I simply want to surface Paul’s biblical theology by untangling his compressed logic.
An uncommon metaphor. Paul uses an uncommon metaphorical word pair when he contrasts shadow with body. Let me tease this out with five observations on the use of this sort of metaphor and word-pair in Paul’s day. (a) Literal objects cast shadows. (b) One of the objects that casts a shadow is a body. For a quick example, see Philo, Confusion 190. (c) This literal phenomenon generated various metaphors. For the classic example of this, see Plato’s Allegory of the Cave here. (d) When this sort of metaphor was used, the reality casting the shadow was most often a “thing” (Heb 10:1) or a “model” (Philo, Alleg. Interp. 3.96) and only occasionally a “body.” One clear example of the latter is found in Herod Antipas’s accusation against his brother Archelaus, whom he insisted “desire[d] the shadow of…royal authority, whose substance [“body,” σῶμα] he had already seized to himself” (Jos., J.W. 2.28). (e) Paul, therefore, uses the less-common metaphorical word-pair “shadow-body” in Col 2:17 likely because of the prominence of the latter word (“body”) in the letter. See Col 1:18, 22, 24; 2:11, 19, 23; 3:15 (cf. also 2:9).
Mosaic law. The “shadow” in Col 2:17 is the Mosaic law. This is confirmed by four observations. (a) The “shadow” in Col 2:17a is cast by “the things that were to come.” And these “things…to come” are related in Col 2:17b to the messianic era, since the “body”—“reality”—casting the “shadow” is related to Christ or messiah: literally, “the reality of Christ/messiah.” What else, besides pre-Christian Judaism and, more specifically, its law, could be described as the preparatory “shadow” of the messianic era? (b) The items in Col 2:16 called a “shadow” in verse 17 are all Jewish practices, rooted in the Mosaic law. This is seen, above all, in the mention of “Sabbath” observance. For the association of “eat[ing] and drink[ing]” with the law, take a look at the Letter of Aristeas, 128, 142 and 158 (see here, 129, 143 and 158) and Heb 9:10. (c) This understanding of the Mosaic law—that it’s a shadow of the messianic era—would correspond with early Christian thought found elsewhere (see Heb 8:5; 10:1). (d) And, in fact, this understanding would correspond with Jewish thought found elsewhere. For example, the Jewish commentary on Genesis, Genesis Rabbah, notes, “There are three antitypes: the antitype of death is sleep, the antitype of prophecy is dream, the antitype of the age to come is the Sabbath” (17:5; for this translation, see here).
Ellipse. The trickiest part of Col 2:17 is the ellipse in the second half of the verse. The Greek simply reads “but the reality of Christ.” Translators, therefore, have to infer the phrase’s logic, since it’s incomplete as it stands. Thus, the NIV reads “the reality, however, is found in Christ” and the ESV and NASB both have “But the substance belongs to Christ.” The verse would have read quite a bit smoother had Paul exchanged “not” for “but” (NIV’s “however”) and repeated “of the things that were to come” instead of inserting “of Christ”:
These are a shadow of the things that were to come not the reality of the things that were to come.
Paul, however, wanted to say more than this. He wanted to say not only that the Mosaic law is a shadow and not the reality that is to come; he also wanted to identify what the reality that is to come is and show that it had come. (After all, if what was to come is still to come, Paul’s argument would have lost its steam. His opponents might simply have insisted on the shadows “in the meantime.”) Paul, in fact, wanted to do this—to identify the reality and show that it had come—and he wanted to make a word play. What Paul says here then is this: “these practices are the-things-that-were-to-come’s-shadow, but [...] the body of Christ” and what he means is this:
These practices are the-things-that-were-to-come’s shadow, but the-things-that-were-to-come’s reality belongs to Christ.
What is left implied, therefore, (the ellipse) is “of the things that were to come.” Moreover, the genitive “of Christ,” like the genitive “of the things that were to come,” signals something like possession, which explains my insertion of “belongs to” (as in the ESV and NASB) and the apostrophe in the (admittedly-clunky) “the-things-that-were-to-come.” Thus, Paul identifies the things that were to come with Christ, which indicates the coming things had indeed come—the opponents, after all, were ready to admit messiah had come—and, Paul’s ellipse preserves the word play, which literally reads, “body of Christ.” In other words, had he repeated “the things that were to come,” this would have muted the word play, giving us instead (and, once more, quite literally): “but the body of the things that were to come of Christ.” That this sort of word play explains Paul’s ellipse here is suggested by the uncommon metaphorical word-pair (noted above) of “shadow-body” and by the familiarity of the Pauline idiom it preserves: “body of Christ.” For other occurrences of this phrase, see Rom 7:4; 1 Cor 10:16; 12:27; Eph 4:12 and here. (Compare the similar idioms found in 1 Cor 6:15; 11:24, 27; Eph 1:23; 5:30 and Col 1:22, 24.)
In short, what Paul says here in Col 2:17 is this: the regulations of the Mosaic law and, thus, the law itself foreshadowed the Christian era. “Why let anyone judge you by the shadow, when the reality has come?” Finally, this understanding of the role of the law is of a piece with what Paul says elsewhere. The law served a specific purpose and that purpose has expired (see, for example, Gal 3:10–4:7 and 2 Cor 3:7–18, on which, see here).