Why Scythian?

In his letter to the church in Colosse Paul refers to a strange people, the Scythians.

Col. 3:11 Here there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all and in all.

Here Paul is stressing the multicultural scope of the gospel: It encompasses all kinds of people, and he lists some examples to indicate how broad is the provision of Christ to the peoples of the world. But his list includes not only the various peoples and classes of people within the horizon of the local readers of this letter, but also, perhaps to stress how broad and open is the provision of the work of Christ for all the world, he adds the term Scythian.  Is that the reason – merely to stress that the gospel is so broad that it includes also even the Scythians?

If that was the point it seems an effective way to say it, for the Scythians were a truly exotic, isolated, and minimally developed people. They were one of the early Central Asia nomadic peoples that often flourished in the broad grassy steppe lands that stretched from Mongolia to Eastern Europe. They flourished in this area between 900-200 B.C. but people by this name clearly existed as late as the first century AD. The Scythians raised sheep, goats, cattle, and horses, the horses being a vehicle of war.  In fact, one of the features of the Scythians was their ability to fight from horseback. They used a short bow – reinforced with bone (a product of the steppe) to give it resilience and power. What was known as the Scythian Shot was an arrow shot backwards to kill a pursuing opponent, a means of warfare used by many of the steppe peoples, which gave them a fearsome reputation. Their weapons were swift, deadly, and effective.

So why did Paul refer to the “Scythian” in his list of people to which the gospel applies?

Here is a possibility: Could Onesimus have been a Scythian? One of the things we surmise about the book of Colossians is that it was delivered to the door of Philemon at the same time as the little letter named “Philemon” in which Paul defends a once-runaway-slave named Onesimus. In Walking Blind I have made a case for why the two letters seem to belong together, the letter to Colossians carrying the weight of a serious theological justification for accepting the runaway slave into the community of believers, as well as for Philemon to accept Onesimous as a repentant believer wanting to again serve him as a slave.  In such a case, the verse we have is a kind of punch line in Paul’s argument for receiving believers, for he is stressing that all kinds of people from social statuses of all kinds should be accepted into the church. Even a Scythian, a savage from the steppes, could be a member of in good standing in the church, Paul was saying.

If Onesimus was a Scythian he likely had been taken as booty from war, for the Greeks would frequently have had to engage with the Central Asian people who were notorious for harassing them on their northern frontier. By this time, of course, the Central Asian nomads were less dominant in the region but some people known as Scythians still existed out there beyond the range of Greek “civilized” influence, where savages ranged. In any case, the verse emphasizes how broad and welcoming is the gospel. Even savages could be saved.

Could even the Caucasians have been saved also — those truly backward peoples at that time who lived in the dense misty forests to the north? Yes, even a white man could have been accepted into the church.  Even me.