Authorship of Ephesians

John Polhill comments that Ephesians is unique among the Pauline Letters (P&HL, 354).  The letter has the most to say about the “universal church” and lacks the sort of specific problems which form the occasion for each of the previous letter of Paul.

The traditional view is that Paul is the author as is claimed in 1:1 of the letter.  While Pauline authorship was questioned by Erasmus as early as 1519, it was not until F. C. Bauer that Paul as author was seriously questioned.  Since the mid-nineteenth century, Pauline authorship of the letter is routinely dismissed.  An increasingly common view is that the book was written in Paul’s name by someone who was familiar with Paul’s thought (Luke? Onesimus?)  It is possible that Paul was the writer of an original letter but that letter was edited by another writer who may or may not have been acting under Paul’s orders.

Several arguments can be made against Pauline authorship of Ephesians:

Vocabulary and style of the letter. There are more than 80 words that are not found elsewhere in the Pauline literature, almost half of which are not found anywhere else in the New Testament.   Five of these words are not found in the New Testament or the LXX, but are common in the Apostolic literature.  This fact is used to argue that Ephesians was written late in the first century.

  • The common Pauline term brethren is missing (except 6:23)
  • The writer never calls the Jewish people “Jews” in the epistle, even though the Jews are an important part of his argument.
  • The verb “to justify” is not used, while it is common in Galatians and Romans.
  • The more common vocabulary for time and Satan  are not used.
  • Some vocabulary that is used in Ephesians is used with a different meaning than in other Pauline epistles.
  • Words such as mystery, stewardship, church, inheritance, possession, etc. are used with an unusual meaning if the epistle were written by Paul.

Similarity to Colossians. The apparent dependence on Colossians and other Pauline writings leads some to draw the conclusion that the writer is a later Christian drawing on sources rather than Paul himself.

The relationship of the epistle to the history and literary background of the New Testament. The title, “to the Ephesians” is missing in some key manuscripts. In addition to this, Paul does not seem to know his readers at all (as implied in 1:15; 3:2-3; 4:21).  There is no specific mention of the church or any problems within the church, nor is there any explicit reference to the city of Ephesus in the letter.

  • It is clear only Gentile Christians are addressed even though the church in Ephesus (as we know it from Acts) was a mixed congregation.
  • There are no personal greetings by Paul as is his normal practice in each of his other epistles.
  • There is a final blessing to the readers, but rather than the typical second person blessing  it is in the third person.
  • It is commonly thought that 3:5 speaks of the other Apostles as if they are already dead.
  • The reference to the “dividing wall” in 2:14 is taken as an allusion to the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70,  placing the writing of the epistle after this time.
  • It was popular at one time to find Gnostic teaching in the book, pushing the date into the second century.

While this list of potential objections seems formidable, each can be explained without resorting to non-Pauline authorship.  Concerning the vocabulary of the epistle, it is true that there is a wide variety of vocabulary present in the epistle that is not found elsewhere in Paul of the New Testament.   The differences are not, however, out of line with the other unchallenged Pauline letters.  Romans and Corinthians have about 100 hapax legomena each, Philippians has 50, and Galatians has 30.  The 80 in Ephesians are slightly higher than average, but not so far above normal to raise concern.   Paul had a rich and flexible vocabulary.

How are we to explain the very difficult problem of Paul’s ignorance of the church at Ephesus and the lack of details pertaining to the church? This is best explained by pointing out that there are no details concerning any church or city, not Ephesus or any other church.  There are manuscripts that are missing the words “to Ephesus” and Marcion calls the letter “To the Laodicians.”  The book we have as Paul’s letter to the Ephesians may have been intended as a circular letter to be read and passed on in many churches.  The church at Ephesus may have kept their letter and sent on a copy to the next church, or the copy that was preserved happened to have been last delivered to Ephesus.  This would explain the general tone and the lack of specific details concerning the church.

The book does parallel Colossians and other Pauline letters.  This does not have to be an argument against Pauline authorship.  The similarities could imply that the letter is Pauline as well as it can argue against Pauline authorship. It is not unthinkable that Paul could have written a similar letter to two different recipients, in fact it may be quite likely that Paul did write many similar letters to the churches.

Finally, the doctrinal differences in the letter to the Ephesians are not as great as they might appear (or, as they have been made to appear).  Paul does have a different outlook on some things in this epistle than in others, but in the larger context of the whole book it is very consistent with his theology.  He does teach justification by faith (2:5-8) and he does refer to the Second Coming of the Lord (1:14; 4:30; 5:6; 6:8).  Because Paul is emphasizing some doctrines over others (the universal church as opposed to the local church, for example) does not mean that he is totally contradicting his teaching elsewhere.

Does it matter if Paul wrote the letter or not?  Inerrancy aside, if one were to argue Paul did not write the letter in order to move it into a sort of “second canon” separate from the four undisputed letters, then there is a serious problem for developing a New Testament theology of Paul.  If Ephesians is set aside as secondary to Paul, a great deal of theology of the church must be thought of as post-Pauline and perhaps less authoritative.

27 thoughts on “Authorship of Ephesians

  1. I really have a hard time with the idea that Pauline authorship can be doubted, and still allow for a credible Bible. I know that there are a lot of scholars who have their theories about ‘key’ differences between Paul’s letters, but I can’t imagine challenging a book that contains theology so parallel to Paul’s other letters. We can bring up style and all sorts of other factors, but they don’t stand against the message contained. The major difference in apocryphal books, that are often pseudepigraphacal, is the theology. There is a big difference in reading an inspired text verses one that is not. (It is almost as though you can feel the Bible’s authority as you read it.) To deny Pauline authorship of a book in the Bible is to challenge its authority as scripture; it claims that the statement of authorship to be false. I don’t think opponents to Pauline authorship come close to putting Ephesians with the apocryphal books, so I can’t deny its Pauline authorship.

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    • While I agree with you, let me explain how if could work. The argument is that writing a letter in another person’s name was acceptable int he ancient world, especially within Judaism. There are many example so pseudepigrapha (writings which are falsely attributed to others, such as 1 Enoch, 2 Baruch, etc.) Since this was a common way of writing at the time, it does not count against inerrancy in the same way a parable (which is not a true story, there was not “historical prodigal”) does not make the teaching false. It is simply a way for perpetuating an author’s work after he is dead.

      I am not sure what a writer thinks he is doing by claiming to write in Paul’s name, perhaps he is trying to collect the “last teachings” of Paul, or record real teachings of Paul in his own words, etc. IF that is done under the inspiration of the Spirit as a part of the genre of an open letter, one could argue that does not make it any more errant than a parable.

      At least that is how I would try to argue it and stay within inerrancy.

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  2. To be able to argue that Paul was not the author of Ephesians is to question inerrancy which would lead to a complete lack of trust in the entire text of the Bible. It is good to be on our toes, critically engaging with the text, yet this questioning seems to be risky business. However, the case has been draw up against Pauline authorship, but as stated above and evident from Polhill, all arguments can be promptly answered. Especially in the following quote: “This ‘circular letter’ hypothesis would account for many of the distinctive features of Ephesians: the general nature of its contents, its lack of personal greetings, the need of Paul to introduce himself to churches on the circuit which would not have met him, and the like.” (356). Polhill argues easily and eloquently against the four primary objections which leads to Polhill’s definite conclusion: “There is nothing in Ephesians which is not compatible with or a natural development of Paul’s thought as found in his other epistles.” (358).

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    • I’m not sure I would look at a lot of the scholars who hold a “Ephesians-not-Pauline” view as somehow attacking Scripture. I understand what you are saying, and everyone who has posted thus far, but I don’t think any one who holds this view is trying to undermine the Bible in any way. Those who are for this view find other ways of find coherency apart from using Ephesians as they do not believe Paul wrote Ephesians, so to them it is not authoritative as the rest of canonical scripture. I think they error when they leave Ephesians (and the rest of the “prison” and “pastoral” epistles) out of canon, and I believe their theology and studies would only prove much richer if the had; however, I do not feel that an “attack on canon” is what they are after at all.

      Having said this, now, I know that James D.G. Dunn, who is one of the brightest and most inspiring scholars of the New Testament (sorry Wright fans…and yes I know Wright and Dunn are good buddies and all that, but I enjoy reading Dunn far more than I do Wright), holds that the “pastoral” and “prison” epistles are not written by Paul. My admiration for Dunn aside, when I read his “The Theology of Paul the Apostle” I couldn’t help but find it ironic that he found himself citing Ephesians a lot even though he didn’t believe it written by the Apostle. He felt, I’m sure, that Ephesian, though not of Pauline authorship (which he was apt to relate to the reader at every chance he got), was influenced heavily by Pauline thought.

      All of this to say that, even, in my opinion, which may not count for much, the brightest scholars have a hard time with coming up with a coherent and complete theology of Paul without relying on Ephesians and the other letters (as Long has already pointed out).

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    • I am in complete agreement with you Caleb. What is to stop someone from saying that the same people that wrote Ephesians wrote the other Pauline books, to account for the similarities between them. Any time we make a statement that goes directly against what the Bible proclaims, i.e. Paul didn’t write Ephesians (1.1). If the Bible says it, why is it not true. This seems to be the point where exegesis can take things too far. In the Christian walk, there needs be balance between stated faith and historical truth. Whether or not these things can be easily explained, which they obviously can, it is very dangerous to go against what the Bible states plainly.

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    • I agree with You, Caleb (channeling Pohill, of course), but I will caution you against this “all or nothing” thing you set up here, since i am not sure how authorship of Ephesians really effects our thinking about, say, Leviticus. That is the attitude of the radical skeptic who thinks they can snipe a few minor problems with the Bible and shoot the whole thing down. Evangelicalism has tried to articulate a robust view of inerrancy that allows for some discussion of hard passages and apparent contradictions.

      If the destination of the letter could be proven to be to Laodicea rather than Ephesus, then is the “whole Bible false”? Obviously not, there is a good explanation for that sort of a variant reading in the letter (as you say in your own post).

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  3. This seems to have become a pretty straight forward debate. To question Pauline authorship would certainly lead, as Caleb stated, “to question inerrancy which would lead to a complete lack of trust in the entire text of the Bible” and as Zach stated, “To deny Pauline authorship of a book in the Bible is to challenge its authority as scripture.” The founding questions that lead to the canon we use today are does it have…

    “1. Apostolic Origin — attributed to and based upon the preaching/teaching of the first-generation apostles (or their close companions).
    2. Universal Acceptance — acknowledged by all major Christian communities in the ancient world.
    3. Liturgical Use — read publicly when early Christian communities gathered for the Lord’s Supper (their weekly worship services).
    4. Consistent Message — containing a theological outlook similar to or complementary to other accepted Christian writings.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biblical_canon)

    Would these continue to hold true if Paul wasn’t the author of the books credited him? Also, why is it that Pauline authorship wasn’t challenged “before the 18th century” (Polhill 356)?

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    • I am not sure if I totally agree with Zach and Caleb or with John. I think I partially agree with both camps on their arguments. I think I agree with Zach that it is hard to imagine a credible canonized Bible with Pauline authorship questioned. However, agree with John when he says people are not trying to attack scripture in their conjectures.

      I think people who are of the opinion of it being a different author are often trying to do a good thing and understand as much as they can about the Bible and it’s history. I think to assume they are attacking the Bible may be unfair to them.

      When Caleb says it is good to interact critically with the Bible but questioning seems to be risky business. I agree that questioning is risky, but sometimes questions aren’t bad.

      Polhill’s defense of Paul as the author seems like it can be summed up as this. “Yes, it is different in writing, but same in mind. Show me more proof.” I know that statement has flaws, but I think it is a descent nutshell for many of his defenses.

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    • PJ – I bow to your superior cut and paste skills. Wikipedia almost always trumps what I say.

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  4. I agree with Zach and Caleb, that it would be hard to see the entire Bible as credible if we question the authorship of Ephesians, and conclude that it was written by somebody else besides Paul. I believe that God had His hand in the compiling of the Bible of all the different books. Maybe it’s because I have grown up in the church my whole life, and have been taught this stuff since I got here, but to say that verse one of Ephesians is not true, “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, To the saints in Ephesus, the faithful in Christ Jesus:” is lying is silly talk to me. If somebody was able to prove for a fact that Ephesians was not written by Paul, then I would truly have a hard time trusting what the rest of the Bible says. So I do think that it is a big deal, because the way I see it, if the author of Ephesians is not written by Paul, then how can we trust the rest of the Bible?

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  5. Here is the deal the Bible says that Ephesians is written by Paul. God’s word is TRUTH. There should be no more questions of authorship after that. Only in western civilization do we have time to discus who the letter of Ephesians was written to. We need to stop caring so much about what we think and simply live out what the Bible says. The book of Ephesians is so rich with wonderful truth that we should be studding and living out and instead we are discussing who it was written to.

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  6. I think that it is really stupid that people question stuff like that. I really hate it because other people see it and they think that we are stupid for arguing over who wrote Ephesians or not. There is no doubt that Paul is the author of Ephesians. He clearly states that he is. I also think that we can not judge if he is the author by the writing style. I know when I write letters, I write different in most of my letters. I think that most people do that. We may have a “writing style” but we can also change it up. I do not think that that is a legitimate argument. So if we are going to argue about this, is the rest of the Bible true? Can we trust it? It does not make sense to say some of the Bible is true, but not all of it.

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    • Because they question it, we need to have an answer for it. The book of 1 Enoch clearly declares that Enoch is the author, but I do not believe he is. I have some good reasons for that, mostly because I do not believe that everything in the book of Enoch is the truth.

      If I do not already believe that the Bible is without error, then I am free to question whether Paul wrote the book or not. It is not stupid (which is sort of a mean thing to say about people), it is built on a different assumption than yours. I think that the people that question Pauline authorship are wrong, but it is far better to discuss their arguments and ideas.

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  7. It it wasn’t written by Paul I think it would take alittle of the authority away from the letter. It is like this if the president of the united states wrote you a personal letter it would be pretty special and meaningful. However, he wrote a note down and said this is the idea that I want to get across to a letter writter or an intern working for him. To me it would lack luster. To me I would open the letter and then throw it away.

    But, I think with so many similarities that have been brought up the idea that Paul did not write the letter is something that I could not forsee.

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    • That is an interesting analogy, Jed, but ultimatly problematic for your point.

      I do not think any president in recent history really writes their own speeches and letters — they have people for that. There may be some ideas that came from the president, which were written up by a speech writer, who then worked with the president after the speech was written in order to make sure it is what he wants to say. In this case we always say “the president gave the speech” and attribute his words to him, when in fact someone else is responsible for the actual words.

      This sounds like a great analogy for non-Pauline authorship, since it is based on the ideas of Paul, but written by someone else, perhaps at the instigation of Paul, or from real knowledge of Pauline ideas.

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  8. The fact that a non-Pauline determination of authorship can be identified based on vocabulary usage seems a bit vague to me. Perhaps it’s worthy of curious questioning, but to determine against an authorship because of this is an unfortified theory. We’re talking of an author who has written many major letters over the course of many years. Time changes a person, divinely inspired or not. There can be countless factors that influence an author’s vocabulary style, not to mention the subject material itself which may require different stylistic approaches.

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  9. Similarity in authorship is the key in this. The fact that Paul could have used an emmanuenses is vital to determining something along the lines of the authorship of a particular letter. P. Long made a good point in that somebody may have been using a “Pauline Dialect” when they wrote the letters that some may consider to not have been written by Paul.

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  10. When it comes to the authorship of Ephesians, my stance at this point is that it is in fact written by Paul as is stated in Ephesians 1:1.
    The argument of vocabulary seems plausible at best. It makes perfect sense that some of his letters differ in style and vocabulary usage. I know for myself that I would use different vocabulary in a letter depending on who I was talking to, what mood I was in, and the reason for the letter. Why then should we expect anything different from Paul than we would for anyone else? Paul himself says in 1 Corinthians 9:22, “To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some.”

    Concerning the argument that Ephesians is too similar to Colossians to be written by Paul, I agree with Polhill’s reply, “The obvious rejoinder is that Paul himself would be the most likely candidate for using similar ideas and language in two different epistles written at the same time. That similar language is applied in different ways is due to the different purposes of the writings-one to combat a specific false teaching, the other as a more general expression of his concerns” (357).

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  11. I would have to say that if Paul is not the author of Ephesians the authority of Scripture goes out the window. If Paul did not write the book, even though it says he did, how can we be sure any of the books were written by those who claim to have written them? The whole canon can start to fall apart if we start down that slippery slope. It all comes down to faith, is this the preserved Inspired Word of God, or it isn’t.

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    • Shaun, “the authority of Scripture goes out the window.” While agreeing that Paul is the author, I think that this sort of argument is dangerous, see my comments above to Caleb.

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  12. I think I am agreeing with everyone when I say that I think Paul is the author. It did surprise me before that some really do not even think Paul wrote this letter. It is pretty plain in Eph. 1:1 and like said by others, if that is what it says then we should take it at that. The only way I can see it changing is if the culture did use other people’s name as their authority in letters. However, I do think that most of the time it is frowned upon.

    And to add to what everyone has said, to pick and choose who is author of what and what is true and not is very dangerous. It is to choose what you want to believe and what you do not, it allows people to choose their own theology and thinking. It is like taking a magic marker and erasing a phrase just because “we didnt like it”. If that is the road this is heading then I do not want any part in it

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    • Brent said “however, I do think that most of the time it is frowned upon.” Excellent point, if you can prove it. How can you prove that (or someone else, no pressure on Brent here)? You have to look at letter writing int he first century – where there any examples of letters of well known people that are “falsely attributed.” Not really, nor are there any in the Christian world until a bit later (Barnabas may be an example in the 90’s, but that is after all the apostles were dead.) There is only one false Pauline letter (third Corinthians), and this was so clearly a forgery that they caught the guy and punished him for faking scripture.

      IF you wanted to attribute a letter or book to someone else, you needed to pick a name that was dead, like an Enoch or Abraham. You did not pick someone with a well known body of literature who is still alive to say that he did not write the letter.

      In addition, what is the motive for falsely writing a Pauline letter? My guess it is not inject your own theology into Paul’s. But you do not get that sort of thing here.

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  13. Does it matter if Paul wrote the letter or not? Inerrancy aside, if one were to argue Paul did not write the letter in order to move it into a sort of “second canon” separate from the four undisputed letters, then there is a serious problem for developing a New Testament theology of Paul. If Ephesians is set aside as secondary to Paul, a great deal of theology of the church must be thought of as post-Pauline and perhaps less authoritative. – P.Long

    In light of this, I think it would be a serious problem – the majority of Paul’s letters seem to mesh together as far as ideas, themes, etc. It would be extremely difficult to even consider developing a NT theology of Paul because there isn’t clarity within the authorship of these letters.

    Could we even fathom Ephesians as some sort of a “second cannon”? Probably not.

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  14. seriously? why does it really matter if this book “SOUNDS” like something else paul wrote or if it doesn’t? clearly in 1:1 it says he wrote it.

    Just because it doesn’t match up with other ways he has written doesn’t mean that it isnt his work. all “normal” Pauline writing style aside, he could have just decided to write it in a different way. Example: I took a creative writing class in high school. This was how I became accustomed to writing in my english class because it was the same teacher who enjoyed creative writing. When I came to GBC, my first attempt at an English paper in Ms. Seely’s class totally bombed because it wasn’t formal writing. I eventually figured out how to write a formal paper, but that doesn’t prevent me from still doing creative writing on the side.

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  15. Amanda, “seriously? why does it really matter if this book “SOUNDS” like something else paul wrote or if it doesn’t?” It matters since if you are going to say that 1:1 is wrong, “authorial voice” can be one argument against it.

    If a book claimed to be written by Stephanie Meyer but sounded like Dick and Jane, you might have some pause to wonder if she really wrote it. (I think this is a great idea for a book, btw: “See the Vampire. Bite Vampire Bite. Scary Vampire.”)

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