Introduction. Ephesians is a small book which makes a very large contribution to Pauline Theology. Yet one of the first problems one encounters with commentaries on Ephesians is a discussion of authorship. For many contemporary scholars, Ephesians is post-Pauline, perhaps written as a summary of Paul’s theology by a disciple of Paul. This unknown disciple may (or may not) have been authorized by Paul to write the letter. Commentaries on Ephesians often have lengthy, complicated surveys of the various options for authorship before settling on either the traditional view that Paul wrote the letter or some form of pseudonymity.
While I do not use Pauline authorship as a litmus-test for a good commentary on Ephesians, it is interesting that three of my choices support the traditional authorship, two do not. Hoehner observes that the scholarship is fairly evenly divided on the issue, although some prefer to remain agnostic on the issue. Others have changed their views over the years, in Lincoln’s case from Pauline authorship to non-Pauline.
Sometimes commentary series will include Ephesians with the other Prison Epistles, usually Colossians, in a single volume. The parallels between Ephesians and Colossians make this a convenient combination. This obviously reduces exegetical details, but also obscures the unique contribution of the letter to the Ephesians. I have given preference to single-volumes on Ephesians here, but there are a few combined commentaries which are also good. Brevity is not necessarily a bad thing in a commentary.
Harold Hoehner. Ephesians (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 2002). Hohner’s commentary on Ephesians is magisterial, demonstrating a mastery of the massive secondary literature on Ephesians. At 930 pages, this is the one of the most detailed modern commentaries on Ephesians available. His detailed examination of the Greek text is excellent, yet not overly technical. He steps through the text of the book phrase-by-phrase, with the Greek text provided without transliteration. He makes occasional text-critical observations in footnotes. The commentary has 130 pages of introduction, half of which concerns authorship (including 16 pages of bibliography on authorship alone!) This includes a chart with virtually every major commentary on Ephesians and New Testament introduction indicating whether they are for or against Pauline authorship (up to 2001). He supplements the commentary with a number of excursuses on technical details, particularly good are his comments on “Mystery” (pages 42–34) and “Slavery” (pages 800-4). Both include extensive bibliographies in the notes.
Ernest Best, Ephesians (ICC; T&T Clark, 2004). Best’s commentary on Ephesians is an excellent replacement to the classic ICC volume by T. K. Abbot (Ephesians and Colossians, available free at Google Books). Best is more or less agnostic on authorship, called the author AE (author of Ephesians). This exegetical comments on the Greek text are excellent, perhaps the best example of how a Greek text commentary ought to work. Best does not stop at reading the Greek, however, his comments draw out implications for the theology of the letter. T&T Clark published a Shorter Commentary on Ephesians which reduces the exegetical detail, this version of the commentary would be more helpful for the busy pastor.
Frank Thielman, Ephesians (BENTC; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 2010). Thielman is well-known for his book Paul and the Law and a New Testament theology from Zondervan, but this is his first exegetical commentary. He deals with the problem of authorship in only a few pages, finding pseudonymity too unusual in the early Christian community to be a viable option. The commentary follows the user-friendly design of the Baker series, offering exegetical comments on the Greek text with transliteration. Compared to other volumes in the BENTC, Thielman’s commentary has more syntactical detail. I particularly appreciate his use of Greco-Roman sources, especially in the “Household Code” section of the letter.
A. T. Lincoln, Ephesians (WBC; Dallas: Word, 1990). It is perhaps strange to say, but this commentary is the ‘classic” on this list. Lincoln thinks that Ephesians is a reinterpretation of Colossians (page lv), but also that Ephesians draws on other authentic letters of Paul (page lvi). The book was written by a follower of Paul who attempted to summarize Pauline theology for his generation. His assumptions are worked out in the commentary. In his comments on Eph 2:11-22, for example, he points out several parallels to Colossians and argues that Ephesians is an expansion or commentary on the earlier (Pauline) material. This kind of argument is found in the “Form / Structure / Setting” sections standard to the WBC series. The exegesis sections are structured by longer phrases and is not overly technical in matters of syntax. That sort of material is found in the notes on the translation of each pericope. What is most helpful is Lincoln’s frequent comments on the use of the LXX or Hebrew Bible as foundational for understanding the text.
Peter T. O’Brien, Ephesians (PNTC; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1999). O’Brien has written major commentaries on each of the Prison Epistles for different series (NIGTC, WBC) and has contributed much to the study of Paul in recent years. His introduction to Ephesians is more brief than others on this list, but it is quite efficient. He defends a traditional view of Pauline authorship, pointing out that the problems created by pseudonymity are quite difficult, perhaps more so than the problems associated with Pauline authorship. The body of the commentary is based on the English text with Greek commentary relegated to the footnotes, as is the style of the Pillar series. This makes for a readable commentary which will be very helpful for the busy pastor or student preparing to preach the text of Ephesians.
Conclusion. Once again, there are a few good commentaries I was forced to omit to keep it to five. This give you (the reader) a chance to let me know what you have found useful in your preaching and teaching. I left off Clint Arnold’s commentary (Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament) simply because I have not used it yet (see Nijay Gupta’s comments here). This list is “light” in the New Perspective on Paul (is there anything reflecting that view on Ephesians?), and the oldest commentary I list is from 1990 – what “classic” should the student of Ephesians have on their shelf?
Index for the Top Five Commentary Series
Matthew Mark Luke John Acts
Romans 1 Corinthians 2 Corinthians
Galatians Ephesians Philippians Colossians
1-2 Thessalonians Pastoral Epistles Philemon
Hebrews James 1 Peter 2 Peter & Jude
Letters of John Revelation