Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God
To the saints who are [in Ephesus] and are faithful in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 1.1)
In the post introducing this series, I mentioned that it would be front-heavy and today’s post is a good example of this, focusing as it does on this single verse. On the surface there isn’t much of interest here, but if we dig down even just a little bit, a whole world of ‘interesting’ and even ‘controversial’ opens up.
This verse tells us three things: It’s a letter (based on this typical formula introducing a Roman-era letter), from the apostle Paul, to the Christians in Ephesus. And yet, none of these three things are actually to any degree certain. So, today I’ll be investigating all three a bit further: What are we looking at? Who is the author, and how does he present himself? Who is the audience, and how does the author describe them?
On the surface, it seems obvious that Ephesians is a letter. But if it’s actually a ‘letter’, it’s a special kind of letter, as it bears only a superficial formal resemblance to ancient letters. Yes, it has the ‘Author’s Name, to Recipient’s Name: Greetings…’ at the beginning and a note with delivery instructions and closing blessing at the end, but nothing in between marks it as a letter. There are few relational details present in the text (in marked contrast not only to contemporary letters generally speaking, but to the letters in the New Testament as well, which are full of personal details — even Romans, which was written to a community Paul had never visited), and the text bears as much resemblance to Wisdom literature (e.g., the household codes in chapter 5 and ‘armour of God’ in chapter 6), and liturgical texts (e.g., the blessing in 1.3-14, doxology in 3.20, and prayers in 1.15-22 and 3:14-19) as it does to letters.
Another formal curiosity is that Ephesians bears an eerily strong resemblance to Colossians. It follows the shorter letter beat by beat, sometimes even using the same words. The resemblance is so great that that it seems likely that the two were either written at the same time for a similar purpose to a similar context, or that Ephesians was written with Colossians in hand.
But, in the absence of alternate texts or source materials, these formal questions are unanswerable, and I’m not sure there would be much benefit in knowing one way or the other. So, I think it’s smartest to take the approach of canonical and narrative criticism and accept the text as we have it: A letter — albeit an unusual one — containing prayers, liturgical material, and Wisdom sayings, written to a general audience rather than to a specific community. (See the sections below on authorship and audience for more on this.)
One of key steps in my hermeneutical method is to consider who it is we encounter in the text. For a letter, like Ephesians, the overall ‘who’ whom we encounter are the author and audience. But, in the case of Ephesians, both of these are surrounded by big question marks.
The text clearly claims to have been written by the Apostle Paul, not only in the superscript here, but also in a lengthy passage (3.1-13) that defends the authority of the letter’s message on the grounds of Paul’s calling as the apostle to the Gentiles. So why then is there any controversy about authorship? The arguments fall under three broad categories: style, theology, and tone.
When it comes to style, there are striking ways Ephesians differs from Paul’s undisputed writings (1 Thessalonians, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Romans, Galatians, and Philippians). Grant R. Osborne notes, for example, that Ephesians includes 125 words not found elsewhere in Paul’s writings, in addition to unique phrases such as “in the heavenlies,” “spiritual blessing,” “the mystery of his will,” and “the father of glory.”* And, as Peter T. O’Brien notes, the way Ephesians talks about God and especially the Church often bears more resemblance to the apostolic fathers — the first generation of Christian leaders after the apostles (late first-, early second-century)— than it does to the rest of the New Testament. Lastly, in terms of style, some scholars point to the large number of very long sentences (by one count, nine of the letter’s fifty sentences in the Greek text contain over fifty words!) as an indication that Ephesians was not written by Paul. None of these points speaks decisively against Pauline authorship. Least convincing is the argument about sentence length. While Ephesians certainly has comparatively more of these than other Pauline writings, Paul definitely did not avoid long, complicated sentences. And, the places where Paul deploys them — in doxologies and prayers, in theologically rich statements, and in exhortations and encouragements — are precisely the types of material of which Ephesians is full. More compelling is the argument that the language of Ephesians is unique in the New Testament and reminiscent of later (second-generation) writings. This could indeed indicate that Ephesians was written later, or it could just as easily mean that the unique ways Ephesians talks about the Gospel and Church life resonated with the early Christian communities and caught on quickly. To this point we might add that many of the texts from that second generation had strong connections to the Roman province of Asia, in which the letter likely first circulated, or its direct neighbours.
Turning to theology, some of the themes that have been suggested as indicating that the author was not Paul are: an emphasis on Christ’s exaltation more than his death; the lack of emphasis on justification by faith; a focus on the global rather than local scope of the Church; and a ‘realized eschatology’, which is to say that it presents the implications of salvation as more about the present than about a future time when Jesus returns. The difficulty with these arguments is that they all rely on a certain preconception of what Paul believed or considered important: Are the concerns of Romans and Galatians Paul’s own core theology, or are they a certain application of his theology to the specific circumstances of those churches? Again, without independent access to Paul’s thought, we really have no way of answering this question.
Moreover, it’s less a case of different theology in Ephesians as compared to Paul’s undisputed letters than it is a case of different emphases. Justification by faith is not absent from Ephesians (see 2.8-9), nor is an emphasis on Christ’s resurrection and exaltation absent from the undisputed Pauline writings (see Romans 8:34, 1 Corinthians 15:3-28, and Philippians 2:9-11). And, a fairer reading of Paul’s thought about ‘the end times’ would suggest that he didn’t believe in either a ‘realized eschatology’ or simply in a coming return of Jesus, but held what is commonly known as an inaugurated eschatology, where we live in a time of ‘now-but-not-yet’, in which we have received a foretaste or deposit of the Kingdom of God but still await its coming in full. What’s funny is that, in my initial re-reading of Ephesians to prepare for this study, my first thought was that it was so Pauline, almost reading like a ‘Paul’s Greatest Hits’ album. I’m not alone in this assessment — the late eminent Scottish biblical scholar F.F. Bruce said pretty much the same thing, when he called Ephesians, “the quintessence of Paulinism” (cited by Osborne). Ralph P. Martin likewise considers Ephesians to be “a compendium of Paul’s teaching.”
By far the element of Ephesians that has raised the most discussion about authorship, or better, the relationship between the author and the recipients, is the almost complete lack of personal detail in the letter. There is no reference to specific controversies, no individual greetings, or personal reminiscences. This is particularly notable considering, according to Acts 19-20, Paul was based in Ephesus at least twice, for a total of about two years. Every single commentary I picked up for this study commented extensively on this. I’ll let Martin summarize the whole discussion:
The absence of personal greetings is remarkable, and the suspicion that the author’s relationship with the readers is strangely impersonal and indirect — so unlike that of the Paul who wrote to the Galatians and the Philippians — is all but confirmed [as the text goes on.]
Clearly it is difficult to believe that Paul would write in an impersonal and roundabout way to a Christian fellowship he had lived and labored among for some considerable time (Acts 19:10; 20:17–38).
This problem has two likely answers: Either the text was not written by Paul or it was not written to the church in Ephesus. As the next section will show, the latter option is more likely than the first.
For me, the best reason to agree with the text and accept that Ephesians is ‘authentically’ Pauline is the weight of the early historical evidence supporting Pauline authorship. Ephesians was known to Clement of Rome — within thirty years of Paul’s death — and was quoted by Ignatius of Antioch (d. early 100s) and Polycarp of Smyrna (d. 155). Irenaeus of Lyons, likely writing in the 170s, specifically mentions Ephesians as having been written by Paul. Marcion (d. c. 160), a leader of a quasi-Christian sect, likewise accepted the text to have been written by Paul, and an early New Testament Canon known as the Muratorian Canon (c. 180) lists Ephesians among Paul’s writings. All this is to say that there is a strong and early acceptance of Ephesians as Pauline, particularly in Rome (where it was most certainly written) and Asia Minor (where it was most certainly first circulated), and as far as we know, there were no questions about its apostolic origin.
In light of all of this, I’m happy to conclude that Ephesians was probably written by Paul — either that or by a close colleague writing under Paul’s instruction or authority — in the early 60s while Paul’s trial in Rome was dragging on. It’s likely that Colossians and Philemon were written at around the same time and that all three were given to Tychicus to deliver upon his return to Asia. Either way, I feel comfortable referring to the author as ‘Paul’ and will do so throughout this series, even as I am aware of and not unsympathetic to the questions surrounding the book’s authorship.
So, accepting a Pauline origin to Ephesians, what does the greeting tell us about how Paul wanted to frame his ministry? He identifies himself as “an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God.” Apostle is a word we throw around as Christians quite a bit to refer to the immediate followers of Jesus and, by extension, to Paul. But what did the word signify to those who first received Paul’s letters? That’s a more interesting story. The word apostle generally referred to someone sent on a formal mission to a foreign land, such as an ambassador or military envoy. This is a helpful insight into how Paul understood his vocation: he acts as an ambassador for the most foreign of foreign powers: the Kingdom of God. Despite these political origins, the term ‘apostle’ quickly took on a fixed meaning within the Christian community, referring to those who had formally received the mission to spread the word about Jesus throughout the world. Among these, Paul is the exception, since he had not been a follower of Jesus during his earthly life, but received his mission after his encounter with the risen Jesus on the Road to Damascus. (This is likely what he means by calling himself an apostle “by the will of God.” — He didn’t fall into apostleship because of a pre-existing relationship with Jesus, but because God stopped him in his tracks and told him he would be!) By introducing himself as an apostle, Paul is claiming a certain right and authority for himself and his teaching. He is speaking on behalf of the King, Jesus.
Finally, we have to ask who it was to whom Paul (or his companion) was writing. Reading most Bibles, this would seem to be cut-and-dry, since it says, “to the saints in Ephesus,” Ephesus being an important port, commercial and religious centre, and the capital of the Roman province of Asia, which roughly covers what is now western Turkey. But, several of the earliest and best manuscripts of Ephesians lack the critical words “in Ephesus.” This textual tradition is attested to by important Church Fathers, including Origen, St. Basil the Great, and St. Jerome. The resulting text is strange, borderline ungrammatical, and would have to read something like, “to the saints who really are also faithful…”, or “to the saints who are, and to the faithful.” Origen and Basil both preferred this last interpretation and felt the need to discuss it considering how bizarre it sounds (see Origen’s On Ephesians frag., and St. Basil’s Against Eunomius 2.19). For his part, Jerome discusses the two textual variants openly: “Others, however, think it has been written straightforwardly not to those ‘who are,’ but ‘who are saints and faithful in Ephesus’.” (See Clinton E. Arnold’s commentary for more on this discussion.)
This textual issue has led some scholars to suggest that it was a circular letter and the person reading it was meant to ‘fill in’ the missing location, something like “to the saints who are __________, faithful…” The problem with this reading is that it would need there to be a convention of reading circular letters in this way in Roman culture, and there doesn’t seem to be evidence for this. However, with the exception of Marcion, who seems to have believed this letter was addressed to the church in Laodicea (another city in Asia Minor, about 160 km inland from Ephesus), the early references to it associate it with Ephesus. It should be noted that Origen, Basil, and Jerome all accepted the book’s association with Ephesus despite the texts they were using. An Ephesian, or at least Asian (in Roman terms) audience is further supported by the text’s references to Tychicus, a known companion of Paul who, according to Acts 20.4, was from Asia. As we will see throughout our exploration of Ephesians, recent work by evangelical scholar Clinton E. Arnold has provided additional historical evidence that supports a setting in and around Ephesus.
There is now a fairly wide consensus among biblical scholars that the letter we know as Ephesians was a circular letter for the churches of Asia (likely the seven churches referenced in Revelation, along with Hierapolis and Colossae), of which Ephesus was the most important — by most accounts Ephesus was likely the third largest city in the Empire in the mid first century, a wealthy and cosmopolitan trading hub with upwards of 200,000 inhabitants. This hypothesis has a few things going for it: It explains the lack of the words ‘in Ephesus’ in some of the earliest manuscripts, while honouring the ancient association of the text with that city; it also meshes with the reference to Tychicus; and, importantly, it helps to explain the lack of personal greetings, which would not be appropriate for a letter destined to multiple communities.
What does Paul have to say about these Christians in Asia? The descriptors in the opening address are typical of Paul, but are no less important for that. He addresses them first as “saints,” that is, ‘holy people’. This was a designation the early Christians picked up from their Jewish origins, as the Israelites were called by God to be a “holy people” (Leviticus 11.44, cf. Exodus 19.5-6). The basic meaning of ‘holy’ is ‘separate’; it’s a word that refers to objects, people, or places that are set aside for God. So, for example, a ‘holy’ bowl would not be used for everyday use, but only for ritual purposes; to use it to eat your morning porridge would be to ‘profane’ or ‘defile’ it. So, the idea behind this descriptor is that just as Paul had been set apart by God to be an apostle, so too are the Christians understood to have been set apart for God’s purposes, as the Israelites had been before them. True to Paul’s ‘inaugurated eschatology,’ as the letter goes on, we will see that this status as ‘holy’ is both a gift to be received and a calling to grow into.
The second description of the addressees is that they are “faithful in Christ Jesus.” Here we come to a bit of a divisive question in contemporary biblical scholarship: Does pistoi, ‘faithful’ refer primarily to intellectual belief (in which case a better translation is ‘who believe in Christ Jesus’), or does it refer primarily to trust? While the former fits in very well with traditional Protestant thought and is argued for in a lot of the scholarship, there doesn’t seem to be much evidence for such a meaning anywhere in ancient Greek usage, where the term refers almost exclusively to trustworthiness. Additionally, the term’s Latin equivalent, fidus (and the noun form fides), was a tremendously important idea in Roman civil culture and imperial ideology, making a trust-and-responsibility reading more contextually likely. As I previously concluded in a study of this concept:
What we see in all three of these ancient languages [Hebrew, Greek, and Latin] is that, despite their differences in nuance, the words we translate as ‘faith’ in English are about personal integrity, responsibility, and accountability. It’s about doing what you say you’ll do, being who you say you are, and living up to mutually understood and agreed-upon responsibilities in relationships.
So by saying they are pistoi, Paul is saying that they are in a relationship with Jesus and one another that involves mutual responsibility. They trust Christ and are themselves trustworthy; so are they called to be faithful to one another. Again, the realities of Christian life mean that this title is both to be received as a gift and grown into.
This has been a long post about a simple verse. But I think it’s been a helpful exercise. It’s introduced us to our text, a letter written either by the Apostle Paul or under his direct authority, towards or at the end of his life, to a general audience of Christians in several churches in the province of Asia. It provides a summary of Paul’s thought to inspire and strengthen the Church as the apostolic age was starting to wind down. The message is a general one delivered not to respond to a specific situation in a specific community, and therefore we can expect it to be more readily applicable to our own situations than more particular letters. As we read it, we should remember that we too are saints — and called to be saints — and faithful — and called to grow in faithfulness. All of this is “in Christ,” words which will be a common refrain in the book and will guide the reflections that follow.
* See the series Bibliography for the series for details on all works cited.