Ephesians 4-6 and Colossians 3-4: An Apostolic Didache?

It can be argued that the material in Ephesians 4-6 and Colossians 3-4 reflect an early form of apostolic teaching or catechism material. The terms kerygma and didache are used to distinguish between two types of apostolic message.  Kerygma is the “preaching” material of the gospel for sinners (Christ’s death and resurrection), while didache is the teaching material aimed at the person that has already accepted this message and is concerned with the living out of that message in terms of ethical behavior.

didache-largeThis may imply some pre-existing documents that eventually are used in the production of the New Testament books, although these types of materials also circulated orally.  The kerygma material, for example, may include 1 Corinthians 15:3-5 or Phil 2:5-11.  But this is not to say that there was any single document called “kerygma” – the word simply refers to the material that was used in evangelism by various preachers in the early church.

The same applies to the term didache.  There would have been a core of teaching that Paul used in establishing churches and training leaders.  That material would have been generally the same in every church (i.e. qualifications for elders and deacons) but flexible enough to adapt to a slightly different cultural situation (the difference between the qualifications list in 1 Timothy and Titus, for example, show some adaptation for the situation on Crete where Titus was to appoint elders). By the end of the first century a short book of church practice known as Didache did circulate, although the contents are not quite the same as this collection of material.

This core of teaching is found as early as Acts 2:42, where we are told that the new converts were devoted to the daily instruction of the apostles. Since all of these converts in the early part of Acts are Jews, and likely observant Jews in Acts 2, the need for ethical instruction would have been less of a priority than instruction in the teachings of Jesus (i.e. doctrine – Christology (who was Jesus, what did he teach) and Eschatology (the Christ is returning very soon).  It is not unlikely that at this stage that the stories of Jesus’ acts and his teachings began to be passed from the Apostles to their disciples.

What are the implications that Paul might have used and adapted a kind of “standard teaching” in these two letters? Does this “early Christian standard” of ethics help us understand how the Church was teaching ethics in the first century?

Some bibliography: E.  G.  Selwyn, The First Epistle of St.  Peter, 363-466; Philip Carrington, The Primitive Christian Catechism; A. M. Hunter, Paul and his Predecessors; C. H. Dodd,  The Apostolic Preaching and its Developments;  Everett F.  Harrison, “Some Patterns of the New Testament Didache” BSac V119 #474 (Apr 62) 118-129; V. P. Furnish, Theology and Ethics in Paul, 68-111.

The Opponents in Philippi

In his commentary on Philippians, Gordon Fee pointed out that as many as 18 different suggestions have been made for the identity of the “opponent” in Philippians.  In this case, the identity of the opponent may provide a bit of a hint to the date of the letter.

Paul begins to deal with these false teachers” in chapter three, although those who preach the gospel from impure motives in chapter one are likely the same group.  One of the more common  identifications of the false teaching is that they are Judaizers, similar or identical to those in Galatia.  Certainly circumcision is an issue (3:2), and the fact that Paul boasts in his own credentials as a law-observant Jew might imply that his opponents have a similar boast.  It is possible that these are Jewish teachers trying to re-convert the Jewish Christians or Gentile God-fearers trying to encourage gentile converts to join them in keeping the law.

If the book was written in the early 60’s from Rome, it is surprising that the issue of Gentile conversion is still a major issue.  The issue seemed to be settled after Acts 15; for it to arise again nearly twelve years after the Jerusalem Conference seems unlikely.  As such, this is a good argument in favor of the early date of the book, written from an Ephesian imprisonment (Polhill, P&HL, 166).

On the other hand, if Philippians was written from Rome in the early 60’s, it is only a few years before the outbreak of the war against Rome in Palestine.  This was a time of extreme nationalistic pride and hopes for an independent Israel.  If this period was anything like the Maccabean period, it is possible that circumcision for those within the Jewish covenant was emphasized.  We are on the same sort of ground as Galatians (are the Gentiles converts to Israel)?  If they are, then they must conform to the covenant and be circumcised.  Even as far away as Rome, it is possible that Diaspora Jews saw the boundary markers of circumcision and food laws as non-negotiable for the Jewish people, including those who were ethnically Gentile and sought to align themselves with the Jewish Messiah Jesus.  (Even if the letter is written five years earlier in Ephesus these factors may still be important.)

Another suggestion which has merit is that of David deSilva.  Based on his reading of Philippians as a “letter of friendship” he has suggested that the opponents of Paul in the letter are not actual opponents in the church, but rather Paul is “using a common strategy for building up unity and cooperation within a group: warning about the presence of hostile and dangerous groups on the outside, against whom the Philippians need to present a united front” (deSilva, “No Confidence In The Flesh” Trinity Journal 15:1 (Spring 1994): 31-32)

On balance, I tend to agree with Polhill and date the letter early.  While the evidence for an Ephesian imprisonment is thin, there is enough to lead to me believe Philippians at least was written from Ephesus in the mid 50’s rather than Rome in the early 60’s.  (The other prison epistles were written from Rome, but that is for another time!)  The “opponent” in Philippians 3 is therefore a real threat to Paul’s converts who are encouraging a return to their Jewish roots. This is more or less the same “context” as Galatians, although perhaps with less intensity.

If the opponents are in some way related to the Judaizers of Galatians, who might this effect our reading of 1:27-30, where Paul places an emphasis on living a “worthy life” in the face of false teachers?  Or 1:15-18, which seems to say that there are some (perhaps the opponents, but maybe not) who preach the Gospel out of impure motives – but it is still the gospel!

Perhaps this is more controversial, but how ought we apply this in a present context?  I have occasionally said that I think the word heretic gets thrown around a bit too easily these days,  What would the Paul of Philippians say about controversial teachers such as Rob Bell?

Pastoral Epistles?

First and Second Timothy and Titus are usually described as “pastoral epistles.”  The standard view of these three letters is that Paul is writing to individuals who he has placed in a leadership position overseeing churches.  The three books were first called “pastoral epistles” by Paul Anton in 1726.  The description has become so common that nearly every commentator on the books has described the letters as “church manuals” or “advice to young pastors,” etc.

Timothy has taken on additional responsibilities as a superintendent over several churches planted by Paul.  First Timothy is therefore letter is personal advice to Timothy on how to organize the church, as well as other ministry related issues. The second letter written to Timothy is to ask him to come to him in Rome, and to bring Mark with him, but the pastoral emphasis is still the main theme.  In Titus, the content is very similar to First Timothy, elders are described, and various potential problems are addressed.

Gordon Fee, however, has called this description into question.  As Fee notes, if these are “church manuals” they are not particularly effective ones.  We end up with far more questions about the church after reading them!  It seems hard to believe that such a wide variety of church structures and styles would all call upon these letters to validate their ecclesiology, if in fact Paul intended them to be read as “manuals for doing church.”  Furthermore, he states “It is a mistaken notion to view Timothy or Titus as model pastors for a local church. The letters simply have no such intent” (147)

The key, for Fee, is to read seriously what Paul about his reason for writing the letters in 1 Tim   1:5 and 3:15.  In the light of Paul’s speech to the elders from Ephesus in Acts 20:17-35, it would appear that the purpose of the letters might very well to be false teachers in the Ephesian community.

1 Timothy 1:3 As I urged you when I went into Macedonia, stay there in Ephesus so that you may command certain men not to teach false doctrines any longer

1 Timothy 3:15 …if I am delayed, you will know how people ought to conduct themselves in God’s household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth.

Acts 20:30 Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them.

These verses do not concern organizing the churches from scratch, as if Paul has done just a bit of church planting and Timothy is sent in to finish the job, like a modern evangelist with a followup team.  There seems to be a serious false teaching that has caused the church at Ephesus serious problems.  The problem is internal (Acts 20:30), people from the inside have begun to teach things opposed to Paul’s message.  As Fee puts it, “What we learn about church order in 1 Timothy is not so much organizational as reformational” (146).

This observation may help with the most difficult problem of 1 Timothy.  If Fee is correct and the problem is straying elders, does this effect the way we look at the prohibition of woman teaching and exercising authority in 2:11-12?

Bibliography: Gordon D. Fee, “Reflections On Church Order In The Pastoral  Epistles, With Further Reflection On The  Hermeneutics Of Ad Hoc Documents”  JETS 28:2 (June 1985) p. 141-151.

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.

Ephesians 4-6 and Colossians 3-4: An Apostolic Didache?

It can be argued that the material in Ephesians 4-6 and Colossians 3-4 reflect an early form of apostolic teaching or catechism material. The terms kerygma and didache are used to distinguish between two types of apostolic message.  Kerygma is the “preaching” material of the gospel for sinners (Christ’s death and resurrection), while didache is the teaching material aimed at the person that has already accepted this message and is concerned with the living out of that message in terms of ethical behavior.

This may imply some pre-existing documents that eventually are used in the production of the New Testament books, although these types of materials also circulated orally.  The kerygma material, for example, may include 1 Corinthians 15:3-5 or Phil 2:5-11.  But this is not to say that there was any single document called “kerygma” – the word simply refers to the material that was used in evangelism by various preachers in the early church.

The same applies to the term didache.  There would have been a core of teaching that Paul used in establishing churches and training leaders.  That material would have been generally the same in every church (i.e. qualifications for elders and deacons) but flexible enough to adapt to a slightly different cultural situation (the difference between the qualifications list in 1 Timothy and Titus, for example, show some adaptation for the situation on Crete where Titus was to appoint elders).

This core of teaching is found as early as Acts 2:42, where we are told that the new converts were devoted to the daily instruction of the apostles.  Since all of these converts in the early part of Acts are Jews, and likely observant Jews in Acts 2, the need for ethical instruction would have been less of a priority than instruction in the teachings of Jesus (i.e. doctrine – Christology (who was Jesus, what did he teach) and Eschatology (the Christ is returning very soon).  It is not unlikely that at this stage that the stories of Jesus’ acts and his teachings began to be passed from the Apostles to their disciples.

Some bibliography: E.  G.  Selwyn, The First Epistle of St.  Peter, 363-466; Philip Carrington, The Primitive Christian Catechism; A. M. Hunter, Paul and his Predecessors; C. H. Dodd,  The Apostolic Preaching and its Developments;  Everett F.  Harrison, “Some Patterns of the New Testament Didache” BSac V119 #474 (Apr 62) 118-129; V. P. Furnish, Theology and Ethics in Paul, 68-111.

Romans and the New Perspective

Polhill has a brief discussion of the New Perspective on Paul which packs a lot of the developments in Pauline theology into just about a page of text (P&HL, 296-97).  Since Romans is such an important book for understanding Paul’s theology, this is a good place to pause in our survey of Paul’s letters and think about what effect the New Perspective has had on our perceptions of Faith and Works, justification and other classic Pauline topics.

The so-called New Perspective on Paul offered a critique of the traditional view of Paul’s doctrine of justification and generated a fierce debate on both sides of the issue.  Most of the writers who have challenged the established view of Pauline reconciliation have emphasized reconciliation as only one of many metaphors which Paul uses in order to describe salvation.  E. P. Sanders, for example, does not want to privilege any one metaphor as the main or controlling idea for Paul’s soteriology, whether that metaphor is justification or not.

The core of Sanders’ argument is that Jews of the Second Temple period believed that they were a part of the covenant because of God’s election, and they remained part of the covenant on the basis of their good works.  But even here it is not complete and totally adherence to every part of the Law, since no one could keep everything perfectly.  Sanders therefore suggests that there was a sub-set of the Law which functioned as “boundary markers,” things which could function as defining who was “in” the covenant and who was “not in.”  Sanders’ conception of Second Temple period Judaism under the rubric of “covenantal nomism” is an application of these last two emphases.  Election is what gets one into the Covenant, if you are Israel then you are “in”; but what is it that maintains that relationship with God?  Can someone find themselves outside of the covenant?

Most of the literature of this period asks this sort of question: What is it that defines “in the covenant.”  In Maccabees it is Sabbath, circumcision and dietary Laws which are clear boundaries; in Jubilees and 1 Enoch, the Qumran literature proper Calendar is included as a boundary marker, in Sirach it is a life of wisdom that marks out the elect.

With this in mind, one could argue that Romans or Galatians does not say that Jesus ended the Law, i.e., no one has to keep the Law anymore at all.  Rather, Jesus ended the “boundary markers” which defined who was in or out of the covenant.  Circumcision no longer was the sign of the covenant; the day of worship was not longer an issue; food taboos were no longer clear signs of right-standing with God.  I am inclined to think that the calendar issues found in much of Second Temple period literature are behind some of Paul’s statements in Col 2:16, for example.  The old boundary markers are done away; the people are God are to be defined as those who are “in Christ.”

What then does this do to the classic reformation formulation of Justification by Faith? Perhaps nothing, the doctrine may still be a correct inference from scripture. But if justification is simply one metaphor for salvation among many, perhaps the emphasis placed on justification as the central theme of Paul’s theology is over-played.  I am not convinced it is, but the door is now open to other ideas from Paul which have been under-played for the last 400 years.

Was Thessalonica a “Gentile” Church?

What was the ‘social setting” of the church at Thessalonica?  Pollhill has a good summary of the usual arguments for the church being primarily Gentile (P&HL, 185).  But this is problematic because Acts tells us that the congregation was formed after a period of time teaching in the Synagogue. In addition, Jews stirred up trouble for Paul out of jealousy – presumably because of his success in their synagogue.

The argument that the recipients of the letters are Gentiles rests on three observations.  First, they are said to have turned “to God from idols.”  Paul would not describe a Jewish convert as “turning from an idol.”   Secondly, 1 Thess 4:1-8 describes some sexual ethics problems in the church.  This would be more typical of a Gentile congregation than Jewish. Thirdly, 1 Thessalonians does not quote from the Old Testament,  although 2 Thess seems to allude to the Hebrew Bible.  If the church were written to a gentile audience with very little synagogue training and knowledge, we would expect few biblical quotations.

So where to these Gentiles come from? If the Gentile converts were God-fearers from the synagogue, then it is also unlikely that they would have “turned from idols” since they were worship God in the synagogue.  In addition, a Gentile God-fearer might be expected to know as much of the Hebrew Bible as a Jewish person.  The fact that the second letter is laced with allusions to the Hebrew Bible makes me think that there are other reasons for the lack in 1 Thessalonians.  Paul was only in the city for a short time and there is no reference to evangelism in the marketplace, but he may have made contacts there which Luke chose not to report.

I think that the answer goes back to the persecution faced by the church.  If they are persecuted for “rejecting Rome,” perhaps some of the “prominent people” Luke mentions in Acts 17:4 left the Christian church and returned to the synagogue, or to secular life.  Those who remained “turned from idols,” specifically the national Roman cult.  Someone like Jason was able to use wealth and power to deal with the court system in the city, so there is at lesat an implication that he was wealthy and connected politically.  Perhaps Jason or other wealthy persons had left  the church by the time Paul writes (suggested by Adolf Deissmann, c.f., Malherbe, 65).

The letter itself seems to praise the church for their strength in persecution, so maybe it is not wise to make too much of this alleged defection of some prominent converts, but it might explain the last of Jewish allusions in the letter.