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?

19 thoughts on “Why Not 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. Hearing about these types of arguments encourages me because it lets me know that people are still asking questions. Even if an answer seems obvious it is good to do research and challenge our faith. Although I would agree with your points in support of Ephesians is written by Paul, even if it had not been, the letter would be in the voice of Paul, and written to complete the purpose it intended. Each church is different and Paul, being human has the ability to change the topic he writes about. If the main theme he writes about is unity, maybe we should all become unified in stating that these things matter, but it does not change the authority of Scripture, and we do not need to be afraid of shifting theology.

Leave a Reply