Scythians and barbarians: Colossians and others on ritual recitations (late first or early second century CE)

Citation with stable link: Maia Kotrosits, 'Scythians and barbarians: Colossians and others on ritual recitations (late first or early second century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified January 14, 2023,

Ancient author: Paul or, more likely author writing in the name of Paul, Letter to the Colossians 3:5-11 (link to Greek text and full LEB translation).

Comments (by Maia Kotrosits): This brief mention of Scythians occurs in the epistle to the Colossians (Colossae or Kolossai is in Phrygia, Asia Minor) attributed to but not actually written by the apostle Paul, and usually dated to the late first or early second century CE. The writer of the Letter to the Colossians is likely evoking words and ideas recited as people were ritually bathed (or: baptized) “in Christ,” which promised a new way of imagining oneself in relation to others.

Similar formulations (but without Scythians) appear in letters by Paul himself. Paul’s letter to the Galatians (3:27-28) includes this: “For as many of you were baptized into Christ, you have put on Christ. There is neither Judean nor Greek, enslaved nor free, neither is there male and female, all are one in Christ Jesus.” In writing to a group at Corinth, Paul includes a similar phrasing, while eliminating the phrase “male and female” (1 Corinthians 12:13).

The introduction of Scythians (along with barbarians, and circumcised/uncircumcised) by the writer of the Letter to the Colossians seems to be evoking the stereotype of Scythians both as iconic barbarians and as associated with enslavement, since it is placed between the two terms. Doing this creates a sense that even the most extreme distinctions and hierarchies are overcome – imaginatively if not necessarily materially – by being “in Christ.” On Scythian diasporas as enslaved populations, which is a presumption of the author of Colossians, go to this link. Later on, Epiphanius (the bishop of Salamis on Kypros in the fourth century CE), cites the passage from Colossians as he expands on his concept of the supposed heresy of “Scythianism” between “barbarism” and “Hellenism” in his heresiological text, the Medicine Chest (Panarion) (on which go to this link (coming soon)).

Source of the translation: Translation by Maia Kotrosits


Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly – sexual perversion, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed – which is worshiping images (eidololatria). Because of these the wrath of God is coming on those who are disobedient. You also once followed these ways, when you were living that life. But now you must avoid all such things: anger, rage, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Judean, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, enslaved and free, but Christ is all and in all!

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