36. Prison Epistles: Ephesians - Introduction

Course: New Testament Survey - Acts to Revelation

Lecture: Prison Epistles: Ephesians - Introduction


From The History of Primitive Christianity, by Hans Conzelmann: “In addition to the genuine epistles of Paul, [Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, and Philemon and 1 Thessalonians] primitive Christian literature includes all the other writings of the New Testament. Some of these even stand already on the outermost border of primitive Christianity. Epistles which were composed under Paul’s name and are consciously committed to this legacy, namely the epistles to the Colossians and Ephesians, the second epistle to Thessalonica, and the pastorals ….” So the disputed letters of Paul are Colossians, Ephesians, 2 Thessalonians, and the pastorals.

Some of the arguments against the authorship of Ephesians go as follows:

• The language is supposedly un-Pauline. If you compare for instance the number of hapax legomenon, words found only once in Paul, there are a great many more in Ephesians than you would find in Romans or 1 and 2 Corinthians. But it’s also interesting to note that there is a greater percentage of these kinds of words found only once in Paul in Philippians than in Ephesians, and everybody acknowledges Philippians as Pauline. And there are more in 2 Corinthians than in Ephesians, and everybody acknowledges 2 Corinthians as Pauline. One way of determining this number is to find out how many words there are per Greek page in the Greek texts, which are hapax legomenon, found only once. In Ephesians there are 4.6 of these found on every Greek page, and when you look at 2 Corinthians, there are 5.6. But everybody acknowledges that Paul wrote 2 Corinthians, so if you go by hapax legomenon , words found only once, in this letter and nowhere else in Paul, then you’d have to say that 2 Corinthians on this basis is not Pauline. And everybody acknowledges that 2 Corinthians IS Pauline. And when you get to Philippians (which everybody acknowledges as Pauline), the number rises to 6.2, as compared again to 4.6 in Ephesians. So it becomes rather interesting.

• And there are some people who have argued that the vocabulary of Ephesians is too Pauline to have been written by Paul. It seems that there are some critics charging that it’s “not Pauline enough” to have been written by Paul [using the hapax legomenon as a basis]; and others arguing that it’s too similar to Paul to have been written by Paul. How is any letter determined as authentically Pauline in this regard? The vocabulary argument is somewhat strange that way.

• Some suggest the style is un-Pauline.

• Look at 1:3-14 – these verses comprise a single sentence in the Greek text. No English translation would dare make it into a single sentence, because people would go bonkers trying to read it that way. And sometimes you wonder if Paul’s Greek readers also went bonkers trying to find the end of that sentence. Germans are very enamored with long sentences, and it becomes even more frustrating in German, because the verb always comes at the end of the sentence, so you have to keep everything in your mind as you go along waiting for that verb to come at the end. There’s even a joke that one person wrote an article in German, and it was so long that it came out in two editions, with the verb in the second month of the journal. Also, if you look at 1:15-23, this also is a single sentence in the original Greek text. 3:14-19 is a single sentence in the Greek text, as is 4:11-16. So this is true, and it’s not normal.

But there are places elsewhere that Paul writes long sentences. For instance, Romans 1:28-32 is a single sentence (that’s a long sentence). In Colossians, 1:3-8 is a single sentence, and vv. 9-20. In Philemon (which all attribute to Paul), vv. 8-14 are a single sentence. So that, whereas it may be that Paul doesn’t usually write long sentences, this doesn’t mean that in epistles widely acknowledged to be Pauline we don’t find sentences that are lengthy.

• Some have argued that Ephesians is too much like Colossians; and if you accept Colossians as Pauline, there must have been someone who read Colossians, and then wrote Ephesians (but not Paul himself). If you look for instance at Ephesians 4:16, “from whom the whole body, joined and knit together at every joint with which it is supplied, when each part is working properly makes bodily growth and upbuilds itself in love.” Compare that with Colossians 2:19, “and not holding fast to the Head, through whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments grows with a growth that is from God.” Supposedly, when you’re too much like a previous letter, this suggests that some later copyist, some pseudo author is using an established epistle for the basis of that. You get in Ephesians 4:22-24, “Put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” If you compare that to Colossians 3:9-10, they look quite similar, “Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new nature, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.” You can look at others. If you follow closely, you’ll see that the Ephesians and Colossians parallels are close to one another.

Note that both of these letters (Colossians and Ephesians) are written during Paul’s imprisonment. So according to a traditional understanding, they’re written at the same time, probably since they’re heading into the same area (western Turkey). They would have been written at the same time so that they could be sent by the same messenger. So there might be similarities that would carry over, because Paul is thinking in a particular direction, and the similarities might be there simply because they’re written at the same time to a similar kind of audience in Asia Minor.

• Some suggest that the theology is un-Pauline.

• In Colossians 2:6-7, Paul emphasizes the uniqueness of Christ as the only foundation, “As therefore you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.” In Ephesians 2:19-20, we have a somewhat different emphasis, “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone.” And here supposedly there’s a conflict because Christ is the only foundation in Colossians and in Corinthians 3:11; while here in Ephesians, you have him being the chief cornerstone, and the other foundations being the apostles and prophets. To me, you just have a different emphasis each time. There’s no question that Christ is the chief cornerstone in Ephesians, and he mentions the apostles and prophets perhaps to consolidate his own relationship and his own authority in the church. Whether you see a conflict here or just a different emphasis depends upon how critically you look at that. You have another supposed difference in 3:5 and Colossians 1:26. I won’t read those – you can look at them on your own.

• There is a major difference in the emphasis on the church in the Book of Ephesians. Elsewhere, as in Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philippians, “the church” is understood as the local church. The emphasis in Ephesians is on the church universal. In 1:22-23, “He has put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.” Here, we’re not talking about the Ephesian church, but the church universal. When you go to 3:10, you have this emphasis again: “that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.” In 3:21, “To him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever.” Here we’re talking again about the church universal. In 5:23-25, you have again this emphasis on not the local church, but the church universal, “For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its savior.” Here we’re not talking about church in a local city, but the church universal. You can also look up 5:27, 5:29, and 5:32. So there is a difference in the understanding of the church in the Ephesian letter. It is the church universal being addressed, not the local church.

That brings up the real issue of whether the letter to the Ephesians was written to the church in Ephesus. It looks very doubtful. It seems that it was written to a broader area, and that it was therefore not so much a letter to a church, but more like an epistle to the Pauline churches in that area. And that makes this as good a time as any to look up 1:1 in your translation. The RSV reads, “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, To the saints who are also faithful [and then there’s a note, which says “some authorities read ‘who are at Ephesus and faithful”’] in Christ Jesus.” The NIV reads, “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, To God’s holy people in Ephesus, the faithful in Christ Jesus,” with a note that states that some authorities omit “in Ephesus”. NASB says “in Ephesus”, with a note that some manuscripts omit the phrase. The majority of Greek manuscripts include “in Ephesus”. But if you were to pick out the three best Greek manuscripts in the world, Codex Vaticanus (Codex B), Codex Sinaiticus (Aleph), and the Papyrii 46 (the Chester Beatty Paryrii). These are probably the three best manuscripts of all, and in these, the phrase “in Ephesus” is not found. So it does raise the question as to whether the original letter said “… to the saints who are also faithful in Ephesus in Christ Jesus”, or whether “in Ephesus” was not found in the original manuscript. I see no reason why it would have been omitted if it was there. But I could see why, if it was not there, someone would have added it. So, my understanding is that “in Ephesus” is not part of the original text, but was later added to it. And this letter furthermore does not seem to have been written to the Pauline church (we’ll look at that later on), because the way he addresses the audience, makes it seems that they’ve never met him before. He was in Ephesus for three years, so surely they knew him. It does not seem to be a letter to a church where he had ministered for three years. But we’ll hold off and look at that more specifically later.

• There are some unusual “in Christ” formulas in Ephesians. “In Christ” is a very common formula used in Paul, but in 3:11 for instance, this is not the way that he usually uses that formula, “This was according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Normally, you’d just have “in Christ”, but here you have “in Christ Jesus our Lord.” That’s somewhat unusual.

• Some have suggested that the understanding of marriage here in Ephesians is too positive, because Paul had a more negative view of marriage in 1 Corinthians 7. I don’t agree, though, that 1 Corinthians 7 is a negative view of marriage. Why does Paul give the advice hi gives on marriage and not marrying in chapter 7? Do you remember what the issue was? Because of “the present distress”. We don’t know what that was, but there was something there that gave a particular emphasis on marriage and not marrying because of “the present distress”, not because of marriage itself.

• The author supposedly himself, in 2:3 admits to certain kinds of sins that only the Gentiles were guilty of (beginning 2:1), “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience – among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.” But is this “we” here an admission that the author was guilty of the same kind of sins that these Gentiles were guilty of, or is it an editorial “we”? Later on, it seems quite clear that it’s an editorial “we”. Look at vv. 11, ff. where he makes a clear distinction, “Therefore remember that you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands – remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel.” It seems here that the writer at this point is referring to himself as a Jew, so that the usage in vv. 2-3 is an editorial kind of “we”.

When you preach, and you start talking about sins, etc., how do you address the congregation? Do you say sin is amongst US? YOU do no tithe? YOU do not love one another, and YOU hide animosity in your hearts? Or, do you say WE don’t tithe; WE harbor animosity in our hearts towards one another; WE don’t love one another, even if you’re not particularly guilty of that? I hope you don’t use “you”. I hope you’ll always use an editorial “we” in your preaching. And many times the “we” is editorial – you’re not guilty of that sin yourself. And that to me is good writing, and I think that’s what Paul has done here. The rest of the letter makes clear that he is not guilty of the things the Gentiles do in that particular instance, because he’s simply using this editorial “we”.

• Sometimes there’s an unusual emphasis in realized eschatology, and there is present a rather cosmic Christology. In 2:6, for instance he says, “He raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus,” where we see Christ in these heavenly places. And then he goes on 3:11, “This was according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord,” and supposedly the Christology is too exalted here. But wait a minute. In Philippians, do we have a high Christology anywhere? Remember 2:6-11, “Though he is in the form of God, he did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself ….” And in Colossians 1:15-20 you have another very high Christology (and Colossians may very well be Pauline, even by some of the critics’ understanding). So the presence of a cosmic Christology here does not conflict with what we find in Philippians, certainly.

• Some also argue that Paul usually doesn’t write letters to churches in general, but to specific churches. That’s true, although even Galatians is not written to a specific church, but a group of churches.

• And, finally there’s no specific reference to the second coming, or the Parousia of the Lord in Ephesians, whereas in some letters that’s a very strong emphasis. But if you look at 1:14, 4:30, and 6:8, there are references that would be in harmony with an understanding of (though not direct, specific references to) the Parousia.

One scholar, a man by the name of Goodspeed, has argued that a follower of Paul wrote this letter -- a man by the name of Onesimus (and we’re going to look at the letter to Philemon, which deals with Onesimus), sometime around AD 90. And he wrote the Book of Ephesians as a preface to all of Paul’s letters – that he brought a collection of these together, and Ephesians was a kind of an introduction to Paul’s letters which he himself wrote. We do read of an Onesimus who is a leader in the church later on, in the second century, but that was a fairly common name, and it’s dangerous to say that it was the very Onesimus that is referred to in the Book of Philemon.

So those are some of the arguments used against the Pauline authorship of the Book of Ephesians. In favor of Pauline authorship is:

• It claims to be Pauline. Some people don’t think this is any argument at all, but to me it is. The burden of proof to me is always on whoever is saying that it’s not what it says it is. It’s not the other way around – the burden of proof falls upon those who would argue it’s not Pauline. But in 1:1, “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God …” It claims to be Pauline. And if you look at 3:1, he refers to himself again, “For this reason I, Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus on behalf of you Gentiles – assuming that you have heard of ….” So the letter claims to be written by Paul. The burden of proof is for those who say Paul did not write it.

• Furthermore, tradition – the early church – was unanimous. And we have material going back to 110 AD with Ignatius, Polycarp (156), Marcion (140), Irenaeus, etc. And you may ask why there are no earlier ones, but there are hardly any writings at all earlier than these in the Christian literature. 1 Clement doesn’t refer to Ephesians especially, but that’s AD 96. But it’s hard to get much earlier than this, because we simply do not have any extant writings of the early church outside the New Testament essentially before these dates.

• The writer clearly is a Jew. In 2:11-14 that becomes very apparent,

“Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called ‘the uncircumcision’ by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands – remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility.”

• This writer furthermore claims to know Tychicus. In 6:21, “Now that you also may know how I am and what I am doing, Tychicus the beloved brother and faithful minister in the Lord will tell you everything.” And Tychicus’s name will appear in Colossians and 2 Timothy and Titus as well. So this person, who is a Jewish leader, writing to Gentiles, knows Tychicus, who is a known follower of Paul. When you put just that together, who do you know who was a Jewish leader, who tended to write letters to Gentiles? Aside from Paul, we don’t know of too many others – we don’t know of any others, really, in that regard. These are strong arguments in favor of Pauline authorship.

• Some of the language is un-Pauline. You will always find un-Pauline language in every letter, even those that everybody admits are Pauline. And the argument is whether it’s easier to see Paul writing a letter in which maybe 5-10% of the vocabulary and style is not Paul’s and 90-95% is; or is it easier to think of somebody who’s not Paul, writing a pseudonymous letter and claiming to be Paul, in which somehow he happens to have 90-95% of the Pauline vocabulary and style, and only 5-10% that’s not? It’s much easier to think of Paul being un-Pauline in 5-10% of the time than it is to imagine someone who’s amazingly 90-95% of the time like Paul. If you’ve traveled with Paul a great deal, you could say that one might pick up his style and vocabulary, but we know of somebody who’s traveled with Paul, and whose style and vocabulary is not very Pauline at all – Luke.

• If this is written as an epistle, an encyclical letter, one would expect to find more emphasis on the church universal than on a local church. In other words, if this is not written to a specific, well-known church which he himself had founded, but to a group of churches, many of which had never seen Paul personally, then you would find this kind of a letter, and I think you’d find this kind of an emphasis. If you look at the letter, there are lots of parts that look very Pauline, very personal. I’m not going to read all of those, but I’ll read some:

• 3:1, “For this reason I, Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus on behalf of you Gentiles – assuming that you have heard of the stewardship of God’s grace that was given to me for you ….” That’s an emphasis that we looked at in Romans – that Paul has a unique apostleship as THE apostle to the Gentiles, and here this is emphasized. I don’t know if this would have been so strongly emphasized by someone writing in Paul’s name, but Paul himself would do that. “… how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I have written briefly. When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ.”

• 3:7-10, “Of this gospel I was made a minister according to the gift of God’s grace, which was given me by the working of his power. To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ ...” I don’t know if an admirer of Paul would have called him “the least of all the saints”. This looks autobiographical. It’s something that Paul might say of himself, but not something that somebody who thinks highly of Paul would write. “… and to bring to light what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things, so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known.”

• v. 13, “So I ask you not to lose heart over what I am suffering for you, which is your glory.” That looks like something that would be difficult to write 30 years after Paul’s death, or something like that. It seems very much like a contemporary kind of thing that Paul is writing.

• 3:14, “For this reason I bow my knees before the Father.”

• 4:1, “I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord ….”

• 6:18-20, “To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints, and also for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains, that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak it.”

• 6:21-22, “So that you also may know how I am and what I am doing, Tychicus the beloved brother and faithful minister in the Lord will tell you everything. I have sent him to you for this very purpose, that you may now how we are, and that he may encourage your hearts.” How would this ever be read for the first time in a church, if Tychicus is bringing a letter that does not come from Paul? It’s just strange to try to put this together, and it’s difficult to assume that any pseudonymous writer has somehow adapted the persona of Paul in such a way that he can write in this manner.

There has been a great deal of debate as to whether pseudonymous authors and authorship of books was a legitimate literary genre. Some were. For instance, if you look at books such as the Book of Enoch, the Psalms of Solomon, Baruch (the secretary of Jeremiah), everybody knew from the beginning that these were pseudonymous books. But pseudonymity tends to be a legitimate genre when there can’t be any confusion that the alleged author really wrote this book. For instance, when Enoch comes on the scene, no one thinks Enoch wrote it because Enoch died 2000 years earlier. There’s no real confusion as to whether he could have written this book. This is also true of the Psalms of Solomon –Solomon’s been dead for 800 years, so there’s no confusion.

But here you have a letter which is so close to Paul that there’s confusion from the very beginning as to whether he wrote it or not. Is this a literary genre, or is this a deception? The issue of the morality of this comes up here. If a writer wrote this and was not Paul, this is deceiving; whereas, as a genre, pseudonymity would assume that everybody knows that Paul didn’t write this. But from the very beginning, everybody assumed that Paul DID write it. But no one assumed Enoch wrote the Book of Enoch, or that Solomon wrote the Psalms of Solomon, etc. Furthermore, there was a bishop in the church (a presbyter, I should say), who wrote a book called The Acts of Paul and Thecla in 82 AD, which was pseudonymous. And when it was discovered, he was essentially de-frocked from his church position. This would indicate that pseudonymity was not something that everybody accepted as such. It was also argued (I think Don Carson from Trinity has argued) that pseudonymity in certain kinds of books and works were accepted, but not in letters. The letter was not the normal form of pseudonymity, because it could be confused as being a real letter; whereas books like the gospel or something like that could be known as a pseudonymous form of one sort or another.

So, to put it all together, the burden of proof is to disprove that Paul wrote Ephesians, and I don’t think the arguments are sufficient to overcome that burden of proof. I must admit, though, that in preparation for this class, on the flight home last week, I read Ephesians. And there are a lot of things there that just don’t look like the normal kind of emphasis Paul has. It’s not the kind of thing that you generally find in Romans or 1 and 2 Corinthians. But it’s written at a different time than Romans and 1 and 2 Corinthians, it’s written while Paul’s imprisoned, and it’s written to a broad group of churches; and therefore the differences may be in light of that particular situation. So I would argue for Pauline authorship.

The occasion of the letter: I think he’s trying to emphasize clearly the universal nature of the church, that Gentile and Jew now are together, and I’ve listed some of these things to show that one-ness of argument. If you’re writing to a group of churches, I think one of the things that you always want to do is emphasize the unity of the church. That would be much more of an issue than if you write to a specific church. But here he’s writing to a group of churches, and that’s the occasion of it. The outline is pretty straightforward: salutation, thanksgiving, body, ethical exhortation, and the closing as such.