Why Not Ephesians?

Ephesians is one of the books in the Pauline collection which is frequently assumed to be pseudonymous.  Despite the fact that Paul refers to himself four times in the letter (1:1, 3:1, 4:1, and 6:19-22), the majority of scholarship in the last 150 years denies the authenticity of the letter. Rather than written by the “historical Paul,” the letter was created in the late first century, perhaps as a companion to the book of Acts.

P49 Verso

While there are many variations on this argument, many introductions to Paul reject the letter as authentic on the basis of vocabulary, style, and theology.  For many, the letter does not sound enough like Romans, Galatians, or 1-2 Corinthians to be accepted as authentic.  Usually the letter of Ephesians is thought to be a post-Pauline compendium of Paul’s theology.  It was written by a disciple of Paul (“Paul’s best disciple,” Brown, 620).  Sometimes the reconstruction of the circumstances are quite complex. For example, Goodspeed suggested that Onesimus returned to Philemon, was released from his slavery and eventually became the bishop of Ephesus. After Acts was published, there was a great deal of interest in Paul, so Onesimus gathered all the various letters Paul sent to the churches of Ephesus as an introduction to Paul’s theology.  As Brown says, this is interesting but “totally a guess.”

There are some differences between Ephesians and the other Pauline letters.  For example, the common Pauline term brethren is missing (except 6:23), and the letter never calls the Jewish people “Jews” in the epistle, even though the Jews are an important part of his argument.  More surprising is the fact that the verb “to justify” is not used, even though while it is common in Galatians and Romans and might have been useful in the argument of 2:11-22.

Does it matter if Paul did not write the letter himself?  If the letter contains the actual “voice of Paul” then the letter can be considered Pauline.  By way of analogy, in the study of the Gospels there is a great deal of discussion over the words of Jesus.  When I read the words of Jesus in my ESV Bible, can I know that these are the real words of the historical Jesus?  The answer which satisfies me is that the words of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels are true “voice of Jesus,” even though they are not the actual words Jesus’ words were originally spoken in Aramaic, translated to Greek and then to English for me to read!

In the same way, even if Ephesians was not written by Paul, the true “voice of Paul” can be found in the letter.  As it happens I think Paul did write Ephesians, albeit much later in his life during his Roman house arrest.  The letter was intended to go to all the house churches in Ephesus and there is no burning problem which Paul has to address (as in Galatians or Corinthians).  This explains why the letter is generic in terms of theology and practice.

Considering Ephesians to be an authentic Pauline letter may change the way we envision Paul’s  theology.  While Romans and Galatians are concerning with justification and the struggle to define the Church as something different than Judaism, Ephesians is a witness to the universal church which includes Jews and Gentiles in “one body.”  Unity of the church seems to be Paul’s main theme in the letter.  Rather than drawing lines, Paul is arguing for unity among those who are “in Christ.”

How might taking Ephesians seriously change the way we think about various elements of Pauline Theology?

18 thoughts on “Why Not Ephesians?

  1. Usually the authorship of Ephesians is questioned while citing Colossians as authentically Pauline (or vice versa). But if both Ephesians and Colossians are seen as Paul’s own work, then it is possible to see them (as I do) as broader and more theologically encompassing than either Galatians or Romans. Ephesians and Colossians address the theme of reconciliation – of humans and God, of Jews and Gentiles, and of all things to God. This seems more cosmic in scope than the justification issue at stake in Romans and Galatians.

    • I would think the number of scholars who accept Ephesians but not Colossians is fairly low. But I do agree with you that the theological differences are not as important as once stated. I think that the length of the books is the main reason Romans is the “center” of Pauline theology and not Ephesians in most Pauline Theologies. Scholars develop a theology of Paul out of Romans, then use Ephesians (or Colossians) as a “supporting text.”

      What would Pauline Theology look like if you started with Ephesians and read Romans through that lens? My guess is that there would be more emphasis on the “apocalyptic” aspects of Paul’s theology, spiritual warfare, etc.

      The trouble is always going to be balancing all 13 of the letters appropriately. I really do not think you have to refer to Ephesians 3.9% of the time since that is the relative size of Ephesians to the rest of the Pauline letters, but some sort of theological exegesis of the letter needs to be taken into account when treating all of Paul’s theology.

  2. The arguments used by writers who deny the authenticity of Ephesians, etc. are exchusively internal. Personally I think we loose the depth of the mind and reality of St. Paul if we look to the idea of Pseudonymity in his NT Epistles/Letters. Certainly as St. Paul aged his mind settled on the revelation of God, and he also grew in a certain catholic spirit & ecclesiology, which we can see in the Pastorals also. But even in the Letter to The Ephesians it is there in form too. But indeed the Letter of St. Paul to the Ephesians is certainly cosmic and catholic!

    There are so many good commentaries on Ephesians, but I can think of one no better, in modern time, than that one by the Anglican, Peter O’Brien, in the Pillar Series.

  3. “Does it matter if Paul did not write the letter himself?”

    I remember seeing a video with Ehrman saying Paul did not write Ephesians and that’s ok with some scholars but the writer wrote “put away lying, speak the truth” (eph4:25). For Ehrman, another example of why the bible is not all it’s cracked up to be.

    I remember thinking, I guess I should start believing Paul wrote it because I love Ephesians. (and hoping there is good evidence for this.)

    • Thanks Jeff. There is evidence, of course. Your comment that the letter admonishes the reader to speak the truth is important since four times Paul claims to be the author. I think that the nature of letter writing in the first century is important as well – there is not a lot of evidence of people creating fictitious letters of living or recent dead people. Christians did create some additional letters (3 Corinthians, for example), but that was found out to be a fake and no one accepted it as authoritative. There is some apocryphal letters between Paul and Seneca, but I am not sure anyone ever thought that they were authentic.

      If someone (like an Erhman) wants to say that Ephesians is non-Pauline, that is seriously problematic since theologically it is Pauline. On the other hand, if someone says it is Pauline, although not necessarily written as a letter by Paul to Ephesus, that is less of a problem to me. I prefer the more or less traditional view that Paul wrote the letter during his Roman imprisonment to a growing number of churches in Ephesus for the purpose of building unity among those churches.

      • Phillip: Ephesians is about as non-Pauline as is the mention of his name in the text! I wonder if Erhman has even seen the work by T.K. Abbott, Ephesians and Colossians, ICC, 1897? And I guess Ignatius, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen don’t matter towards the authenticity of the Letter, not to mention Eusebius.

  4. First I would like to discuss whether or not it matters if Paul did not write the letter himself? Personally I don’t think it does if they are actually Paul’s words. We talked about in class how Paul probably had a secretary to write some of his letters so he might not have written most of what is in the Bible anyway. I also like the example P. Long gave us in the post about Jesus. Jesus never wrote a word of the Bible but his words and ideas were put down by others and we accept that. However, I would start having problems if someone did write the letter and sign it as if Paul wrote it. It seems to me that everything is biblically correct compared to the rest of the New Testament but I still don’t like to think that there could be authorship problems with more books in the Bible. But should we even worry about this?

    Polhill gives examples of things that might suggest that someone besides Paul wrote Ephesians. One says, “Like Colossians, Ephesians has a rather large number of distinctive words…Generally speaking there are around thirty-nine words in Ephesians found nowhere else in the New Testament” (356). This by itself seems kind of convincing until he says, “Galatians, which is shorter than Ephesians, has forty-two” (356). Another common argument used against the Pauline authorship of Ephesians is its literary relationships to the other epistles. Polhill says that Goodspeed argues, “a full 88 percent of the contents in Ephesians is drawn from Paul’s other epistles” (357). I can see where this argument is going but in my opinion it could be argued the other way with just as much or more power. Polhill says, “They show common thought, not literary parallels” (357). This seems to point at the fact that Ephesians wasn’t copied from a bunch of other letters and put into one that doesn’t seem to speak about anything all too important. But Ephesians 6:21-22 and Colossians 4:7-8 do have a lot in common. Both refer to Tychicus as the letter bearer. There is a good streak where many of the words are the same. We could probably argue for days and not go anywhere. My question is how can we properly argue the problem with having 29 words match exactly up with another book?

    • It would seem that when the Letter to the Ephesians was written that the Colossian Letter was also to hand, and St. Paul used it as a basis in idea and places for the Ephesian Letter, but of course Ephesians is not for the Church of Ephesus alone, but more of a circular or encylical letter. (As has been noted by many) This somewhat explains also why the Letter appears rather impersonal. But certainly we don’t know the place or depth the scribe or secretary could have been allowed by Paul himself. But just in my personal thought, this was probably minimal, based upon Paul’s personality and mission as an Apostle himself. And Paul really did like to sign his Letters at times… 2 Thes. 3:17 / Gal. 6:11 / 1 Cor. 16:21 / Col. 4:18 / Phile. 19.

      However, the benediction of 6: 23, is beautiful and seems Pauline like itself (noting 2 Cor. 13: 11-14).

  5. With St. Paul using a secretary quite often (Rom. 16: 22), the whole idea of common or words used over and over is called into question. The biggest problem is the fact that as Paul aged and the revelation of God became both intellectually & spiritually inward for him, he also was pressed (as I believe we can see), in a more catholic, ecclesial way. And St. Paul could write that his life is itself a “pattern” of “longsuffering” “to those who are going to believe on Him for everlasting life.” (1 Tim. 1:16, etc.) And though for example the Pastorals don’t present more or deeper revelation, from what Paul had already written, they do compel the church and the people of God to greater faith and confession! (1 Tim. 6: 11-16 / 2 Tim. 1:13)

  6. Ephesians just happens to be my favorite book in the Bible. I have been taught theology from it since I was a wee tot. But if Ephesians is not truly authored by Paul, how can I trust the authenticity of any of the theologies presented in the book? If it was authored by a copycat, how would I know they weren’t just making stuff up? I would like to err toward the notion that P. Long stated. Paul was writing this book later in life, when his theological concepts were fully developed and cemented in his mind, and since there was no great single problem to be address in Ephesus, he just decided to dictate to his secretary a general theological instruction letter.

    And I, also, like what P. Long said about the “voice of Paul” being similar to the “voice of Jesus.” The “voice of Jesus” that we read in the gospels is interpreted by different authors anyway. The same sermon or event may be explained differently by Luke than it is by Matthew, and so forth. But in both cases we still believe both accounts to be true. Likewise, even if Ephesians may not have been written directly by Paul himself, and instead by one who merely wrote out in letter form Paul’s verbal teachings, I would still be comfortable believing in the validity of the theology and content of the letter

  7. I wonder too if Paul told his “secretary” or scribe what to right while he was under house arrest. Which would mean that the words in Ephesians are not exactly Paul’s words but are his words paraphrased. And what if Paul told his secretary person that he wanted him or her to write that these were his words (i.e. Eph. 1:1, 3:1, 4:1, and 6:19-22)? I have no problem with the book of Ephesians being written with the “voice of Paul” and not necessarily with Paul’s pen.

    I do think there is some importance to understanding whether or not Paul actually wrote this book. I think most of us would agree that Paul had something to do with the writing of this book, but what if Paul didn’t have anything to do with it at all? What if it was actually written by someone like Onesimus? Would our theology that is based on Pauline letters like Ephesians change? In my opinion I do not think it would change much at all. Nothing in Ephesians dictates what is written in the Corinthian books, Romans or Galatians. It may add to those letters and add new insight into how to live a Christian life, but it does not take anything away.

    I also take into consideration that this book may have been written later in Paul’s life. By taking that into consideration I would suspect that Paul’s word choice would change with his age. I think it’s true for us today, so why wouldn’t it be true for Paul. The older I get the more fine tuned and comprehensive my letters, papers, and Reading Acts post become. I would assume the same for Paul and his writing style. It was bound to change and use different wordage.

  8. In response to P. Long’s question, “How might taking Ephesians seriously change the way we think about various elements of Pauline Theology?”: After reading Polhill, it stood out to me that one of the most important theological elements in Ephesians (to my understanding) is Paul’s relation of the marriage between a man and a woman to that of Christ and the church. I think this goes far to develop what our relationship with Christ should be. Polhill says, “Paul chose marriage to depict Christ’s union with his church. Just as our relationship with our Lord is holy, so should be our union with our spouses,” (Polhill 373). If this scripture was not written in the authority of the apostle Paul, this would leave a huge gap in our understanding of the correct relationship of a man and woman in marriage – but more importantly in our understanding of our relationship as the church to Christ. “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church,” (Eph 5:31-32).

  9. “The main theme of Ephesians is unity. The emphasis begins in chapter 1 and carries through to the last chapter of the epistle. The scope of the unity is all-embracing, from the entire universe down to the lone individual. (p. 361)” John Polhill hit the nail on the head. The book of Ephesians is about unity, and it is about unity of ALL people, not just some people joining hands and singing show tunes together in one happy circle of love. Being united isn’t easy, it is hard. Marriage is an example of this. You must remain steadfast within your marriage in order to make it truly work, and there must always be a part of you that fights for the betterment of your spouse over your own selfish or desires or needs. It can arguably become making the needs and desires of your spouse your own needs and desires. But whatever you stand for, you stand for together. You have been joined together for support and love. There are so many trials in life, that you need someone who will love you through those tough times. But this united status should extend past a marriage and into the universal church. We should all rejoice in success in the ministry and weep for those who are lost or hurting. We should constantly be on our knees and realizing that God is not limited to our denomination or congregation, but it extends to the whole world! We, as a universal church, should support each other no matter what. We are warriors for Christ together, fighting for one God and for one mission until He returns. “God’s ultimate purpose of unifying all things in Christ, things seen and unseen, spiritual and tangible. God’s purpose in Christ is to unite all things, and God’s people, the church, are at the heart of that purpose. (p. 361)” All people are united through the love of God and it is up to us to support each other no matter what.

  10. For me, there is no issue as to whether Ephesisans lines up with Pauline style and theology in his other writings. I write a paper differently for a Phil Long Bible class than I do for a Matt Loverin Theology class based off a couple of reasons. 1) My audience is different and I know what each professor wants in a paper; so, I try my best to meet their desires.The collection of the churches in Ephesus is going to be much different than a church in the middle of Rome. 2) My goal in a Bible paper is different than in a theology paper. Paul, in my opinion (as well as P. Long’s (If understood correctly)), is that Paul is not writing a letter of correction and rebuke (i.e. Corinthinas) but is writing a letter of instruction/theological emphasis.Paul does not need to address the same issues as he did in an entirely different letter of different purpose.

  11. PLong’s analogy between the words of Jesus and the words of Paul is pretty effective for me in really limiting the true importance of this letter being written by Paul. I tend to think it is written by Paul, primarily because I don’t have enough information in my head to drive me away from that belief, but I don’t think the accuracy of that belief is important enough that it necessarily warrants finding more information on it immediately. Maybe someday, but to me, it really just boils down to the legitimacy of the ideas, not so much the exact words of the author. If the ideas originate from Paul, and no one seems to be claiming that they don’t, then I won’t make too much fuss when someone claims Paul didn’t write it or dictate it himself. Kudos on that analogy PLong.

  12. One of the first things that we did in our class was to learn about Paul’s background. On of the first things that should be done when studying a specific person’s literature is to find their background and then apply that knowledge to their writing. We would see Paul’s literature differently if he was not once a Pharisee or not a Roman citizen. When we study a book of the Bible, finding out who wrote the book is a worthy cause. As we discussed in class, Paul had a scribe who wrote down his thoughts and his scribes may have changed from letter to letter. I do not believe that a different scribe or giving a scribe more liberty to write out the specifics of Paul’s thoughts would change Paul’s main points and emphasis in his letters. The style and wording would change but I believe that to be all. If Paul was not the driving force behind the letter I do not think that the voice of Paul would come out of the letter. As Polhil stated, “The idea of the offended party being the one who initiates reconciliation was totally unique to Paul” pg 367. Paul was unique and his ideas were new. It would be difficult to write a letter pretending to be him without it being obvious.

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