Introduction to Ephesians

The Authorship of Ephesians

Although Ephesians presents itself unambiguously as a letter from Paul the apostle, the genuineness of this claim has frequently been questioned, beginning in the late eighteenth century (Hoehner 2002: 6). At first this may seem surprising, but the practice of composing fictional letters in the name of some influential person was reasonably common in Greco-Roman antiquity and seems to have been particularly popular from the third century BC to the first century AD.

The practical reasons and moral justification for the practice were varied and complex. Some pseudonymous letters were probably innocent fictions. The ten Epistles of Anacharsis, supposedly from a Scythian prince to various influential Greeks, puts Cynic philosophy and morals into the mouth of a well-known non-Greek from the sixth century BC. The fictional nature of the corpus becomes patently clear in epistle 7, addressed to “Tereus, the Cruel Despot of Thrace” (Malherbe 1977: 45). Any attentive reader would realize that if Anacharsis were really writing to the king of Thrace, he would not begin with an insult, however disapproving he may have been of the king’s rule. The insult, says Rosenmeyer (2001: 211), was instead for the entertainment of the readers of the corpus. Here, then, the author of the letter was not trying to deceive but to provide entertaining instruction.

Just as clearly, however, pseudonymous letters were sometimes written to deceive their readers. Donelson has made a good case that the author of “Plato’s” Ep. 12 intended to deceive the document’s readers into thinking it was a real letter from Plato to “Archytas.” This brief missive acknowledges receipt of certain treatises from Archytas, and Plato claims to have “the utmost possible admiration” for the author of these treatises. Epistle 12 also serves as a cover letter for certain treatises that Plato is sending to Archytas, which, although incomplete, Archytas is to preserve according to a prearranged plan between the two that Plato mentions but does not describe. The letter seems to be part of an ingenious scheme to provide Plato’s own approval for treatises that the real author of the letter has himself forged (Donelson 1986: 25-26; cf. Bury 1961: 607; Wilder 2004: 100-101).

Similarly, a number of the pseudonymous Socratic epistles describe networks of specifically named friends and attend to often-elaborate details of everyday life in ways that look realistic. Epistle 21, from the Socratic “Aeschines to Xanthippe, the wife of Socrates,” for example, opens with the information that Aeschines “gave Euphron of Megara six measures of barley meal and eight drachma and a new coat for you so that you can make it through the winter” (Malherbe 1977: 271, trans. S. K. Stowers; Donelson 1986: 33). Donelson thinks these attempts at verisimilitude serve two purposes. They give the letters the necessary air of reality to make their readers believe they are genuine, and once this conviction is established, the people presented in the letters, particularly Socrates, then become examples of how the Cynic philosopher should live (Donelson 1986: 33-42; Wilder 2004: 99).

Between honest fiction and forgery lay a whole range of possibilities. The letters supposedly from Socrates in the Epistles of Socrates and the Socratics, for example, contain a number of references to the details of everyday life that may betray the author’s effort to deceive his readers into thinking the letters are genuine (Wilder 2004: 95). But they also contain third-person references to “Socrates.” These references give away the letters’ fictional nature so obviously that it is difficult to think the author was intentionally trying to deceive anyone. It is difficult to tell, then, whether the author intended to deceive the letters’ readers or only to create a realistic fictional setting for letters that he intended his readers to regard as imaginative.

Although the body of evidence for pseudonymous Christian letters in antiquity is slim, they probably fell along a similar continuum. It is easy to think that the fictional exchanges of letters between Paul and the Corinthians, Paul and Seneca, and Christ and Abgar, for example, were honest fictions. Their form as an exchange of correspondence may have been intended to signal that they were not authentic documents but edifying fabrications.

There is also ample evidence, however, for deceptive pseudonymity in the early Christian movement, some of it unscrupulous. By the second century, letters to the Laodiceans and Alexandrians were circulating in support of Marcion’s heresy, but as the Muratorian Canon puts it, they were “forged in Paul’s name” (63-65, trans. Metzger 1987: 307). A different letter from “Paul” to the Laodiceans appeared around the same time and is itself an attempt to deceive but nevertheless urges its readers not to “be deceived by the vain talk of some people who tell tales that they may lead you away from the truth of the gospel which is proclaimed by me” (3). The Pseudo-Clementine Homilies, probably written early in the third century, begin with a “letter” of Peter to James that is concerned to keep Peter’s “word of truth” free from misrepresentation (2.2; cf. 3.2), but expresses this concern in a document forged in Peter’s name. The late fourth-century Apostolic Constitutions (1.1; ANF 7:391) was forged to look as if it were a letter written by “the apostles and elders to all those who from among the Gentiles have believed in the Lord Jesus Christ,” and yet it includes an entire paragraph warning its readers not to “receive those books which obtain in our name, but are written by the ungodly” (6.3.16; Donelson 1986: 18).

The Apostolic Constitutions sharply raises the question of what led some early Christians to adopt deceptive tactics even while decrying the immorality of deception. Apart from the deception about its authors, the work upholds high standards of fairness, decency, and truthfulness, encouraging its readers to treat others as they would like to be treated (1.1.1), not to seek revenge (1.1.2), and to be careful in one’s use of words (2.1.1). A bishop must, among other upstanding qualities, not be a false witness or a dissembler (2.2.6). What motivated the authors of this text to engage in behavior that seems to be inconsistent with such high moral ideals?

The answer is clearly not that ancient Greco-Roman society was more tolerant of forgery than modern society (Metzger 1972: 12-13; Wilder 2004: 41-49; J. Marshall 2008: 788-89). Inserting one’s own material into the writings of others was an offense serious enough in ancient Athens to merit exile (Herodotus, Hist. 7.6). Cutting out passages from another’s writing could result in a librarian’s termination in ancient Pergamum (Diogenes Laertius, Vit. phil. 7.34). Claudius (Suetonius, Claud. 5.15.2) ordered that the hands of a forger be amputated. Galen (De libris propriis liber [Kühn 1821-33: 19.8-10]) complained bitterly against the forgery of works in his name as well as unauthorized additions, subtractions, and changes to his texts. Jerome (Ruf. 3.25) angrily charged his erstwhile friend Rufinus with forging a letter under his name that contained an embarrassing “confession.”

There is no reason to think that early Christians were any more tolerant of forged documents than anyone else in the prevailing culture (Wilder 2004: 35-63), and so the motive behind the production of documents written in the name of the apostles and clearly intended to deceive their readers remains something of a mystery. Donelson (1986: 18-19) has reasonably offered the Platonic idea of the “noble lie” as the motivation. In the Republic, Plato spoke briefly of a lie that does not merit abhorrence—the lie told to enemies in time of war or to a friend who must be dissuaded from some insanity or foolishness (2.382c; 3.389b, 414c-e). Clement of Alexandria (Strom. 7.9; ANF 2:538), writing in the late second century, adopted this ethic, and it is possible that some authors of forged apostolic documents justified their actions to themselves in the same way.

If the noble lie was a moral compromise of last resort in time of crisis, then for early Christian forgers the crisis seems to have been the battle for apostolic support of Christian truth. Marcionites, gnostics, Ebionites, and orthodox all seem to have used pseudonymity as a means of lending historical credibility to what, in their view, were absolutely critical religious truths. Donelson’s judgment (1986: 17) appears to be correct: “Christian pseudepigraphy found its main impetus in doctrinal disputes, the endless argument between orthodoxy and heresy.”

Precisely here, however, the view that Ephesians is pseudonymous runs into problems. Despite occasional scholarly attempts to argue the contrary (e.g., Smith 1977; Merz 2000), Ephesians is not a polemical document. Although it mentions false teaching and certainly does not want its readers to be seduced by it (4:14; 5:6), there is no theological battle raging behind the text that might justify the extreme measure of a “noble lie” in violation of the author’s otherwise high standards of honesty (4:15, 24-25; 5:9; 6:14).

It is perhaps more plausible that the author thought of himself as a doctor lying to a sick patient (cf. Plato, Resp. 3.389b; Clement, Strom. 7.9). His readers seem, after all, to have been discouraged (Eph. 3:13), and perhaps they needed a word from Paul so badly that a lie was justified in this instance. It is difficult to imagine, however, that such an author would think of his readers as benefiting from a forged Pauline letter any more than they could benefit from the genuine Pauline letters already in circulation (e.g., Philippians) or from a pastoral letter written either without a name attached (cf. Hebrews, 1 Clement) or in the author’s own name (cf. Ignatius’s letters). Even if a letter from “Paul” provided some advantage, the author’s high personal standards for truthful speech would probably have prompted him to choose a less morally ambiguous option than forgery.

Is it possible that the author wrote with no intention to deceive his readers? As we have just seen, the Epistles of Anacharsis seem to have been written in good faith as fictional documents, and it is just possible that the three bodies of fictional letter exchanges mentioned above (Paul and the Corinthians, Paul and Seneca, Jesus and Abgar) were innocent exercises in epistolary fiction writing. Ephesians, however, does not look like an innocent fiction. Nothing in the letter betrays to the casual reader its fictional character. Paul refers to himself in the first person (e.g., 3:1; 4:1; 5:32), and a realistic portrait develops in the letter of an apostle suffering for his faithfulness to what God has called him to do (3:1, 13; 4:1; 6:19-20). If the letter is pseudonymous, then it is difficult to see this portrait as anything other than an attempt to lend an air of authority to the letter that could come to it only if it were thought to be the product of one of Christianity’s foundational figures on the verge of martyrdom. In the complicated world of ancient pseudonymity, it is certainly possible that someone other than Paul wrote Ephesians with no intention to deceive, but that scenario does not seem likely.

This means, in turn, that if Ephesians is pseudonymous, it is something of an anomaly among Christian pseudonymous letters. It urges its readers to speak truthfully, but resorts to lying about its own author without any clear moral justification. As the rest of this introduction and the commentary itself will try to show, however, there is no need to picture the author of this text in this way. The text makes sense as an authentic letter from Paul to Christians in Ephesus, written at the end of a lengthy period of imprisonment and thus after nearly all of his undisputed correspondence (i.e., Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon).

The Literary Character of Ephesians

If scholars debate the authorship of Ephesians, there is virtually universal agreement that it is a difficult and, for Paul, an unusual text. Chrysostom called the letter ὑπέρογκος (hyperonkos), a term that can mean both “sublime” and “difficult” (PGL 1440). Origen, whose introduction to the letter is probably preserved in Jerome’s commentary, thought Paul had “heaped up more obscure ideas and mysteries unknown to the ages in this epistle than in all the others” (Heine 2002: 78). Erasmus believed that Peter had Ephesians in mind when he said, “In these Epistles there are certain things difficult to understand” (CWE 43:299; cf. 2 Pet. 3:16).

Three features of the letter’s style are particularly unusual. First, Ephesians has a high number of long sentences, some of them extraordinarily long. In more objective terms, Ephesians has 2,422 words in the NA27 edition and, according to the punctuation in that text, has 64 sentences. In contrast, Galatians has 2,230 words in 102 sentences. Six sentences in Ephesians are especially long: 1:3-14, 15-23; 2:1-7; 3:1-7; 4:11-16; 6:14-20 (van Roon 1974: 107n3; cf. Percy 1946: 185), each of them with so many subordinate clauses and digressions that the reader tends to get lost along the way.

Second, Ephesians is full of grammatical and lexical ambiguities that affect the meaning of the text. Does Paul pray in 1:17 that God will give his readers a wise spirit or that he will give them God’s Spirit, who in turn will give them wisdom? In 1:18, does he pray that God will give his readers a wise spirit or the Spirit? In 1:23, does the church fill up the one who fills all things, or is it full of the one who fills all things? Does it fill up the one who is entirely filled, or is it full of the one who is entirely filled? Why does Paul begin the sentence after 1:23 with “and” when it has no clear connection to what precedes it (2:1)? When Paul says that his readers once walked “according to the Ruler of the realm of the air, of the spirit of the one now at work among the sons of disobedience” (2:2), does he refer to a hierarchy of spiritual enemies, or does he elaborately describe one of these enemies (presumably the devil)? When he says that Christ “tore down the middle wall of the partition, the enmity in his flesh” (2:14), do the terms “middle wall,” “partition,” and “enmity” all refer to the same object? Did Christ destroy them “in his flesh,” or was the enmity Christ tore down somehow located “in his flesh”? In 2:21, does “every building” hold together in Christ, or does “the whole building” hold together in him? Does Paul command his readers to be rooted and grounded in love in 3:17, or does he say that they have been rooted and grounded in love? The letter’s final sentence pronounces a blessing on those who love Christ “in incorruption” (6:24), but what could this phrase mean?

Third, Ephesians is a highly redundant text. Paul speaks of “the good pleasure of his [God’s] will” (1:5), “wisdom and understanding” (1:8), “the counsel of his [God’s] will” (1:11), “the effect of the might of his strength” (1:19), “rule and authority and power and lordship” (1:21), “the surpassing wealth of his [God’s] grace by kindness” (2:7), “the gift of God’s grace given to me according to the effect of his power” (3:7), “boldness and confident access” (3:12), being “filled up to all the fullness of God” (3:19), and “each single part” (4:16). He tells his readers to “know this, knowing that...” (5:5), addresses the husbands in his audience as “you—every single one of you” (5:33), and urges all his readers to be clothed “in the strength” of God’s “might” (6:10).

In addition to elements like these that contribute to the obscurity of the text, Ephesians is missing the argumentative, fast-paced feel typical of Paul’s undisputed letters. Rhetorical questions, if-then clauses, and syllogisms are virtually absent (cf. van Roon 1974: 102-3).

Since the early sixteenth century, interpreters of the letter have wondered how the Paul who wrote the other NT letters bearing his name could have produced this unusual document. “Certainly, the style differs so much from the other Epistles of Paul,” said Erasmus in 1519, “that it could seem to be the work of another person did not the heart and soul of the Pauline mind assert clearly his claim to this letter” (CWE 43:300n12). In the intervening centuries a number of other scholars went further and saw in the letter’s unusual style evidence of its pseudonymity (e.g., De Wette 1843: 81; Holtzmann 1872: 5; Moffatt 1918: 385-89; Mitton 1951: 11; Lincoln 1990: lxv-lxvi). This evidence seemed especially compelling when it was added to the letter’s tendency to use non-Pauline words for Pauline concepts (e.g., “the devil” for “Satan” or “the heavenly places” for “heaven” or “the heavens”) or to use Pauline words in ways that, for Paul, were unprecedented (e.g., “fullness” applied to the church).

The style of Colossians comes closest to that of Ephesians. Colossians, too, has a proportionately high number of long sentences (1:3-8, 9-20, 21-23, 24-29; 2:1-3, 8-15; 3:5-11; van Roon 1974: 107n2) and uses a number of redundant phrases strung together with genitives (e.g., “the word of the truth of the gospel,” 1:5; “the kingdom of the son of his love,” 1:13; “all the wealth of the assurance of understanding,” 2:2; “the divesting of the body of the flesh,” 2:11). Like Ephesians, it has one rhetorical question (2:20; cf. Eph. 4:9) and is about as free as Ephesians from lively argumentation (cf. van Roon 1974: 105). According to those who think Ephesians is pseudonymous, this stylistic similarity is the result of a close literary connection between the two letters: the author of one letter had access to the other letter, often used the other letter’s phrasing, and wrote under the influence of its style. Usually, the author of Ephesians is thought to have used Colossians (e.g., Mitton 1951: 68-74).

The evidence of a close connection between the two letters is compelling. Not only do the references to Tychicus give the letters the same historical setting by using virtually the same words (Eph. 6:21-22; Col. 4:7-8), but also, according to Mitton’s calculations, 26.5 percent of the wording of Colossians appears in Ephesians (Mitton 1951: 57). At the same time, apart from the unusual Tychicus passage, “the most protracted verbatim correspondence does not exceed seven words, and on only three occasions exceeds five” (Mitton 1951: 63). In other words, the two letters often use the same words and phrases but without clear evidence of direct copying, except in the passage on Tychicus. After a careful investigation, Mitton (1951: 64) concludes that this complex situation suggests not that the author of Ephesians copied and edited Colossians but that his “mind was saturated with the contents of Colossians” as he wrote his letter.