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.