Context Ephesus

In search of an author

An eighth century mosaic of the apostle Paul
An eighth century mosaic of the apostle Paul

The authorship of Ephesians has been much disputed in recent years.  New Testament scholarship, however, is not unanimous.  In the years 1991 – 2001 fifty percent of published scholars argued for Pauline authorship and fifty percent against Pauline authorship.

Many reasons are given for holding to the non-Pauline authorship of Ephesians, most notably the impersonal nature of the letter; differing language and style that makes use of long sentences and clauses; a change of emphasis in Paul’s theology of the imminent return of Jesus to a more realized eschatology; the letter’s alleged literary dependence on Colossians; and a seemingly later setting than Paul’s time when the unity between Jew and Gentile had already been achieved according to Ephesians 2:11-22.  Scholars who hold to non-Pauline authorship also claim that pseudonymity (writing under a false name) was a widely used and accepted practise in the first century Greco-Roman, Jewish and Christian cultures.  It is claimed by most liberal scholars that the letter was most probably written in the second century by someone in the “Pauline School”.  Murphy O’Connor thinks that the pseudonymous author of Ephesians is better viewed as an editor who worked from the basis of a genuine Pauline letter, possibly the letter to the Laodiceans.  The editor’s purpose was to make the apostle’s authentic voice heard again.

Evangelical scholars have shown that there are strong arguments for viewing the letter as written by Paul, the apostle, to the churches in Ephesus and surrounds.  We could therefore potentially paint a much clearer picture as to the historical context and contingency of the letter.

The main arguments for accepting Paul

Ephesians has the earliest attestation of any New Testament book.  It seems probable that Clement of Rome (fl. 96 AD) referred to Ephesians 4:4-6 already in the first century or very early second century.  Ignatius (35-107/8 AD), in his letter to Polycarp, shows familiarity with the armour of God as described in Ephesians 6:11-17.   Polycarp (69-155 AD) not only quotes Ephesians 2:8-9 and many other verses in the letter but refers to the Ephesian letter as scripture.  Iranaeus (130-200 AD) quoted Ephesians 5:30 when he remarked “as blessed Paul declares in his letter to the Ephesians…”   Clement of Alexander (150-215 AD) quotes Ephesians 5:21-29 and 4:13-15 as the words of the apostle.   Marcion (d.160 AD) in Rome considered Ephesians a genuine letter of Paul.  The Pauline authorship of Ephesians seems never to have been doubted in the early Church.  It was not until the time of F.C. Baur that Pauline authorship was disputed.  The first doubt was however introduced by the English clergyman Evanson who thought Paul could not have written that he had just merely “heard” (Ephesians 1:15-16) of the Ephesians’ faith.  Some years later Usteri doubted Pauline authorship because of the letter’s similarities to Colossians.  De Wette was  subsequently uncertain of the authorship because theology and style.  Baur held that Ephesians should be identified with the post-apostolic era and was composed early in the second century.  Peter O’ Brien, an evangelical scholar, has outlined his main reasons for accepting the traditional view of Pauline authorship and since I broadly agree with his position I have borrowed extensively from him.

The New Testament Canon

O’ Brien makes two assertions: (1) The first issue is not whether pseudonymous writings existed in the ancient world – they no doubt did – but whether they existed in the New Testament.  It may be argued that these latter pseudonymous writings, which are non-canonical, confirm the fact that they were found to be pseudonymous and therefore were not included in the canon.  (2) The second issue is the way these pseudonymous writing were handled.  The general pattern was that if works were found to be pseudonymous they were excluded from the canon of authoritative writings.

Some scholars assert that “the discovery of pseudonymous origins or anonymous redaction in no way prejudices either the inspiration or the canonicity of the work”.  They therefore claim that Ephesians is authoritative for Christians because it is in the canon regardless of authorship.  The early church held the reverse view: It was because Ephesians was recognised as authoritative and apostolic that it was accepted into the canon.  The early church’s closer proximity to the authorship of the letter than contemporary scholars has caused some scholars to think it is far safer and more reliable to follow the early church’s example when evaluating the authenticity of the document.

The ethics of pseudonymity

E. E. Ellis believes that the pseudo-Pauline and pseudo-Petrine authors, if they were indeed pseudonymous, did not merely create a misleading title but engaged in an elaborate and complex deception to transmit their own ideas under apostolic guise. .  Most scholars holding to Pauline authorship would therefore assess the many personal references that Ellis was referring to above (e.g. Ephesians 3:1, 4:1, 3:3-4, 6:21-22) as true, rather than fabricated scenarios as part of a “deceptive rhetorical strategy” formed by someone from within the Pauline school.  Ellis quotes James Candlish who wrote already in 1891 that “in the early Christian centuries, when any work was given out as of ancient or venerable authorship, it was either received as genuine…or rejected as an imposture…”  The response of early Christian leaders to the Acts of Paul and the Gospel of Peter demonstrates this principle.  Serapion, bishop of Antioch, embodied this principle in the counsel: “For we, brothers, receive both Peter and the other apostles as Christ.  But pseudepigrapha in their name we reject…”.     Don Carson also maintains that if some of the New Testament letters where indeed pseudonymous, it would be morally reprehensible as the letters make concrete claims that the apostle is the author.  These alleged pseudonymous letters are not merely educational exercises in a certain school of thought, but deliberate deceptions and should therefore be rejected.

The natural development of human thought

Much of the alleged differences in theological emphasis and literary style in Ephesians can also be explained by creative thinking and development in Paul as new situations arose.  A different emphasis is not necessarily indicative of a different author.    Ben Witherington writes in his commentary on Philemon, Colossians and Ephesians, “style in this case cannot provide any decisive reasons to dispute the Pauline character of these three documents, precisely because ancient writers who were rhetorically adept, as Paul was, adopted different styles for different audiences”.  It is also widely accepted that Paul used an amanuensis (secretary) who no doubt introduced some differences.

The internal evidence

Despite Paul’s name in the greeting and the references to Paul’s life situation, there are two more points to be made from within the text of the letter1.  In Ephesians 6:19-20 Paul asks specifically for prayer.  This would be a weakness to the theory of [non-deceptive] pseudonymity when the later author (and the later readers) knew Paul was already dead!  The second internal consideration is the letter’s strong emphasis on the need for truthfulness (e.g. Ephesians 4:15, 24, 25, 5:9, 6:14 cf. 1:13, 4:21).  Surely the pseudonymous author would have been hypocritical in authoring a document intended to deceive, however noble his motives were?  Pseudonymity may have been prevalent in the ancient world, but there is no evidence to suggest that these documents were treated as authoritative or accepted into the New Testament canon.

Mountains out of mole hills (statistics on words)

Both sides of the authorship debate are armed with numerous statistics on word usage, adverbial clauses, and the like.   Authors are creative, intelligent agents who may vary language and style to suit various recipients and purposes, not machines who replicate language and style2. However, on the other side of the authorship debate, scholars believe that authors do tend to exhibit certain patterns and engage in identifiable literary habits.  It seems that no decisive conclusions can be made based on statistics.

Literary dependence on Colossians

It is the view of some scholars that, considering the obvious literary dependence of Ephesians and Colossians, the two letters could not be penned by the same author.  The same author, they say, would not use the same words with such different meanings.  Other scholars view the literary dependence in another way:  Evangelical scholars argue that Ephesians is not a copy of Colossians, but a development of it, by the same author.


Peter O’Brien believes that we should hold anyone who claims to be the author of any letter coming to us from antiquity to be just that unless there is very strong evidence to the contrary!

If Paul did author Ephesians (as I and evangelical scholars think he did), Paul’s pastoral concern for the house churches in Ephesus and surrounds and his intimate and first-hand knowledge of the Ephesian believers’ religious and magical context can be better understood3.  Paul would have encountered first-hand the issues and known the struggles the Ephesian believers experienced during his ministry in Ephesus.

[1] There is also the argument that the alleged impersonal nature of the letter proves that the author was not the apostle, who had spent two years in Ephesus.  However, despite the fact that Ephesians was most probably an encyclical letter, it seems that the better Paul knew a church the fewer personal greetings were given in his letters.  For example, Romans contains the most greetings, a church Paul had never visited; while 2 Thessalonians has no greetings and Paul had been there a few weeks earlier.

[2] To use a contemporary example, an email to one’s employer would be profoundly different in language and style to an email to one’s mother on her birthday.

[3] Luke tells us that Paul spent more than two years in Ephesus according to Acts 19.


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