Did Paul Write Ephesians?

Ephesians is one of the books in the Pauline collection, which is frequently assumed to be pseudonymous. It may strike some readers as strange to ask,”Did Paul Write Ephesians?” since 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 letter’s authenticity. 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 this argument has many variations, many introductions to Paul reject the letter as authentic based on 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 is 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 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 that satisfies me is that the words of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels are the true “voice of Jesus,” even though they are not the actual words Jesus 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 that Paul has to address (as in Galatians or Corinthians).  This explains why the letter is generic in terms of theology and practice.

So, did Paul write Ephesians? Considering Ephesians as an authentic Pauline letter may change how we envision Paul’s theology.  While Romans and Galatians are concerned 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.”  The letter’s unity of the church seems to be Paul’s main theme.  Rather than drawing lines, Paul is arguing for unity among those who are “in Christ.”

How might taking Ephesians seriously change our thinking about various elements of Pauline Theology?

23 thoughts on “Did Paul Write Ephesians?

  1. Great points here. Wright deals with this exact issue of in Paul and the Faithfulness from pg. 56-63, arguing for the inclusion (albeit in a chastened role) in constructing a portrait of Paul and his theology. Certainly some scathing rebukes!

    • I have yet to crack the tome, sad to say. He has said things like that before, although I think he has avoided it in the past as a source for Pauline theo in order to avoid criticism. He did the same thing with John’s gospel in Jesus and the Victory of God. Not that John is un-historical, but rather using it raises so many red flags in the academy that he chose to set it aside rather than make John’s reliability the issue.

  2. It is this kind of debate and scholarship that causes the average Joe sitting in the pew(if you lucky enough to get him there) to throw up his hands and declare that the Bible is only for the clergy and the educated. Why should the average person even bother if they cannot trust what they read. The creation account is false (a lie), the endtimes information is also flawed, the gospel is not as morrow as some would think, and the miracles of Jesus are nothing but myth.

    • Hello Tim, Good to know you are reading the blog. We used your comment in class today in our discussion of the authorship of Ephesians. This debate is of interest because it is “out there” in scholarship and students need to think through the issues so that they have an answer for Joe, assuming he turns up in church. I would suggest to you that any pastor who begins a sermon series on Ephesians by even discussing the authenticity of the letter is not doing his congregation any good. In the classroom,however, this is an appropriate topic.

      Second, the topic is important since it touches on the doctrine of inerrancy. If Eph 1:1 is a lie (Paul is not the author) then the whole book is a lie; that was the consensus of the students this morning. But it is possible for someone to believe that the literary convention of letter writing in the first century allowed for false attribution of letters. If that is true, then the letter is not telling a lie any more than Jesus is when he tells a parable. That is just the way the literary genre works.

      That strategy can only work if you can prove that letter writing in the first century allowed for pseudonyms to be used in this way. There are examples of apocalyptic that used false names (Enoch or Baruch, for example), but the names are always clearly false. As it happens, there are no examples of authentic letters with false attributions, pseudonyms are only used in forgeries. This means that one cannot argue the Paul in Eph 1:1 is a pseudonym without ignoring the literary history of the first century.

      The point I made here is that including Ephesians in the discussion of Pauline theology might change the way people read Paul. Typically, Galatians and Romans are read as a kind of core of Paul’s gospel, sometimes 1-2 Corinthians are included. By reversing the order (or at least giving Ephesians a voice) Pauline theology becomes more robust, especially on topics like the “body of Christ,” unity in the body between Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free, etc. perhaps you saw the allusion to a recent book on Paul in the previous comment that chastised modern scholarship for ignoring Ephesians – that was my point here.

      My guess is you start in Ephesians and go the other way, but that is OK too.

  3. Maybe by questioning the authorship of Ephesians, it would become easy for one to begin to discredit the theology and legitimacy of what is written in the book if they felt that Paul really did not have anything to do with the writing and it was “Paul’s best disciple”, as stated in the post. What is important (to me at least) is not necessarily who wrote it, but what is written. If we take Ephesians seriously, it might change the way we look at Pauline theology by understanding that Paul could be the real author, just writing in a more general sense of Christianity. As stated in the blog, he was not addressing a specific issue in Ephesians as he was in Galatians or Corinthians. There isn’t anything in Ephesians that would cause me to discredit it as a valued piece of the Bible, regardless of who wrote it. In class, the example was used that one student writes very different papers for different class. It is the same student, with just a very different style of writing depending on the subject matter assigned in the class. It is possible that this is also true of Ephesians; same writer, just a very different topic to cover, which would explain the parts of Ephesians that do not “sound” like Paul.

  4. So much emphasis is placed on the authorship and not enough on the content. Some say it would not matter if Paul wrote it ot not, while others look to a “best disciple.” Some look to the language and style of writing in order to determine the author. All of these arguments stop short of remembering that the same Author wrote the entire Bible; all 66 books. The writers wrote as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. These different arguments are made while we declare that ALL Scripture is “God-breathed.” What should amaze us is that the Holy Spirit can inspire different writers in various times to pen words in different dialects and forms of speech and writing abilities. Why do we discredit or minimize the power and place of God in the giving of Scripture. Who is it that decides which Scripture is inspired and which is not? Who has been elevated to such an esteemed position of omniscience? Perhaps we should take Paul (or in reality, the Holy Spirit) at his word. He claimed to be the author, that’s good enough for me. Too many have reduced portions of the Scriptures to mere stories and have declared parts to be in error at best. The first eleven chapters of Genesis have been “proven” to be untrue. Yet that belief makes God out to be a liar. Revelation is only fiction to some, and again God is a liar. When will we learn that the Bible (at least the N.T.) was originally given in the common language of the common man to be understood by the common reader. Let the scholars tear apart and down the Word of God and see what you are left with. As for me and my house, we chose the Word.

  5. For me the bigger question is to whom the letter was written. I accept the authorship of Paul but am puzzled why he would write to a church such a detailed theological treatise if he already knew them. He did know the Ephesians having ministered among them a long time and such details would have been covered during his time with them.
    As with some others, I hold it was written to Laodicea and intended to be a circular letter from the instruction “read the letter from Laodicea” (Col.4.16). This view has Philemon, Colossians, Ephesians/Laodicians in a packet carried by Tychicus and Onesimus.

    • I think this is essentially correct, although we could never know for certain (and there is not much hope of re-titling Ephesians as “Ladocians”). The idea of a “packet” of letters is exactly what would have happened when someone traveled anyway (take this letter to so-and-so for me”), and the book of Revelation has generally the same circuit (missing Colossae, which might have not really existed as a church by that time). I think I might add Hieropolis to the list based on Colossians 4:13. A city that size would have been an attractive location for a church and it is quite close to Laodicea.

      I have always been attracted to Ephesians as a kind of summation of Paul’s theology, although that would offended the Reformed world due to the lack of Justification by Faith language.

      • Philip,
        As a Reformed Pastor, I find your comment above baffling! Whatever would make you believe that any portion of Scripture, too include Ephesians would make those who hold to Sola Scriptura? Care to expand?😎


      • I’m referring to the reactions “new perspective on Paul” which shifted justification by faith from the central doctrine of Pauline theology to one of the many metaphors Paul uses for salvation. You may recall that there was a great deal of angry response to scholars like James Dunn and NT Wright for messing around with justification by faith. (I would rather not argue about that here sine authorship of Ephesians is my topic.)

        My point was more aimed at scholars who reduce the database of Paul’s letters to Romans, Galatians, and the two Corinthian letters and then judge Ephesians and Colossians to be “non-Pauline“ because they lack reference to justification by faith.

        In order to demonstrate this is not a good approach, I suggested reversing the procedure, assuming Ephesians and Colossians are the core of Paul’s doctrine, and then wonder why justification by faith comes up in Romans and Galatians. The slightly snarky and sarcastic humor is lost on a blog post comment. Sorry about that.

        So my intention was not to baffle a reformed pastor, but rather to suggest the critical scholarly approach is insufficient for arguing the prison epistles are not authentic Pauline letters.

  6. Gotcha. I would argue that most Reformed scholars would accept all 13 – 14 of the Pauline epistles. Likewise, while most Reformed scholars would find the NPP lacking I didn’t see angry responses, but ones that responsed biblically. Maybe we saw different responses because of our different circles😎

  7. Re: authorship. According to 2Tim. 4.13 Paul was still studying! So these new topics found in Eph. and Col. could have been revealed to Paul later. Evidently He founded the church of Colossae and installed Archippus. Ephesians (and Colossians) seem to be new revelation to Christians whom Paul had worked among previously. Since there are no personal greeting in Ephesians it seems likely that Paul wanted this to be an encyclical giving new information.

  8. Also, Paul labored among the Ephesians for nearly 2.5 years! If it was written to Ephesus, why no personal exchange of greetings? Acts 19 tells us Paul took the road though the interior (Laodicea was due west of Ephesus by 100 miles. With the mention of Hieropolis, Laodicea, Colossae, Philemon, Paul had connections to this area. Acts tells us of the impact Paul had throughout the region, therefore an encyclical makes much sense given the instruction in Colossians to distribute the letters.

  9. The book of Ephesians authorship has been a much-debated argument. Scholars believe that it is not written by Paul because when compared to Romans and other books that Paul has written, Ephesians does not sound like him. It is interesting to think about because Ephesians is written in the first person. “Ephesians is a witness to the universal church which includes Jews and Gentiles in one body,” (Long, 2019). If people took the theology of Ephesians seriously, perhaps Christians would treat each other better. There is a lot of judgment within the community and Christians are harsher with each other than unbelievers. Paul is writing about the body of Christ within the Ephesian letter. “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 and Corinthians),” (Long, 2019). Paul was addressing all the churches and he was trying to communicate that we are apart of one body in Christ. Each of us are given gifts to help the body work together for the glory of Christ. The book of Ephesians is different than most of Paul’s other books that he is known to have written. Ephesians is short but straight to the point. It is important that we recognize that what Paul was trying to communicate. Which is unity in the body of Christ Jesus, this is Christians coming together to serve Jesus Christ and to spread the gospel throughout the entire world.

  10. Over the last 150 years we have seen that most scholars have denied the fact tat Ephesians was written by the apostle Paul. They say that rather than Paul writing the book of Ephesians, it was a companion book to what we know to be Acts. We know this to possibly be true based on the differences that we may see from Ephesians than the rest of Paul’s letters. P Long gives an example of these differences. In all of Paul’s letters we see that he uses the reference of “Jews” to the Jewish people, but we see in Ephesians that the author does not refer to the Jewish people as “Jews”. I feel that most people in the Christian faith believe that everything is set in stone and all questions have already been answered. I have always been afraid that everybody’s questions have been answered and there can be no arguments about what one thinks of certain things. This post has reassured me that there is still room for good conversation about the Bible.

  11. I think I would agree with your assumption on Paul being the author of Ephesians, most likely written later in his life which would explain the differences between Ephesians and Paul’s other letters.

    You bring up an interesting point in whether or not we should be concerned about the true authorship of the Pauline letters and even the gospels; the contents of the New Testament are the “voice of Jesus” and the “voice of Paul” so even though they are not their original words (being translated and changed slightly for readability, comprehension, etc.) they still convey the intended message. In a way, I think it all boils down to 2 Timothy 3:16: “All Scripture is God breathed and profitable for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness.” If God did not ordain for those letters to be in the Bible, he would not have allowed them to be included. Granted, there are many who add or take away from the Bible, something we are commanded to never do (Deuteronomy 4:2, 12:32, Proverbs 30:5-6, etc.), but the books of the New Testament line up with the rest of the Bible’s teaching and theology.

    I think if one were to take Ephesians seriously from a Pauline perspective, it would allow for the enhancement of our Christian faith and beliefs. Ephesians contains so many great points that if we were to ignore or remove Ephesians from the Bible, we would take away a vital resource of Christian theology. One of my favorite chunks of verses in the NT is Ephesians 6:10-18, where we find the command to take up the armor of God in order to withstand spiritual attacks and things that may rock our faith. If it weren’t for the inclusion of Ephesians in the Bible, we would not have this amazing analogy!

  12. I believe that there are two major problems at play here. The first is, was Ephesus the intended target of this letter or was it actually the nearby city of Laodicea. Secondly, if Paul was not the author, than who was writing in the voice of Paul.
    There is compounding evidence to conclude that the letter was indeed circulated around the area surrounding Ephesus and beyond due to the fact that there are several manuscripts and church fathers that refer to it as the letter to the Laodiceans (Long). There is some degree to which I wonder if the view that this letter was originally addressed to the Laodiceans was not more popularized due to what John writes regarding this church in the book of Revelation.
    Regardless, of who the exact target of the letter was, the options for who could have written it and when mean that understanding and interpretation of the letter will differentiate depending on the viewpoint regarding authorship.
    If it was written by a second generation Christian, it was likely someone who knew Paul directly and therefore could have either been commissioned by him or taken several of his writings and compiled them into a small letter. This has been done with modern works such as was done with J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion, which was compiled by his son following his death, but still published under his name.

  13. I find it interesting that there is a huge debate over whether Paul actually wrote the letter of Ephesians or if someone else wrote it instead. Prior to reading this blog article, I always held the view that Paul wrote the letter of Ephesians. However, this article lists some reasons that seem plausible on why Paul did not write the letter. One of the reasons is that this letter does not align with the vocabulary and style that Paul used in his other writings like Romans, Galatians, etc. One example of this is how the author of Ephesians did not address the Jewish people as being Jews. The reason why this is viewed as being abnormal for Paul is because the Jewish people were heavily involved in the letter. Typically in Paul’s writings, he will address his crowd(s) by name. Overall, I would say that it is not of utmost importance who the true author is of Ephesians. What is most important is reading through and reflecting on the material found in the book of Ephesians. It is claimed that Paul wrote Ephesians, but there truly is no way to know for sure.

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