In the world of NT scholarship, the authorship of the letter to the Ephesians has long (1500s) been debated. Many have proclaimed (perhaps ‘bewailed’ would be a better term) the letter’s “‘sublime’ and ‘difficult'” nature (Chrysostom). Origin thought Paul had “heaped up more obscure ideas and mysteries known to the ages in this epistle than in all the others” (Thielman, Ephesians, 6). “Erasmus believed that Peter had Ephesians in mind when he said, ‘In these Epistles there are certain things difficult to understand'” (6).
Throughout my life I have often heard that scholars have long debated the authorship of Ephesians, though I never knew what the big deal was. What makes admitting Pauline authorship of Ephesians so difficult?
In his commentary on Ephesians, Frank Thielman shows us three features of Ephesians are particularly unusual:
1. “Ephesians has a high number of long sentences,” more than any of Paul’s other letters (6).
- In the NA27 Ephesians has 2,422 words and, according to punctuation, has 64 sentences.
- In contrast, Galatians has 2,230 words with 102 sentences.
Six sentences in Ephesians are substantially long (1.3-14, 15-23; 2.1-7; 3.1-7; 4.11-16; 6.14-20).
2. “Ephesians is full of grammatical and lexical ambiguities that affect the meaning of the text” (6).
- In 1.17, Does Paul pray that God will give his readers:
- a wise spirit?
- or God’s Spirit, who in turn will give them wisdom?
- 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?
- In 2.2:
- Does Paul refer to a hierarchy of spiritual enemies?
- or does he elaborately describe on of these enemies (the devil)?
- In 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?
- In 3.17,
- Does Paul command his readers to be rooted and grounded in love?
- or does he say that they have [already] been rooted and grounded in love?
- In 6.24, the final sentence of the letter pronounces a blessing on those who love Christ “in corruption.”
- What could this phrase mean?
3. “Ephesians is a highly redundant text” (7). Look at how many synonyms Paul uses (as the last sentence says) “redundantly.”
- Some examples are:
- 1.5, “the good pleasure of his [God’s] will.”
- 1.8, “wisdom and understanding.”
- 1.19, “the effect of the might of his strength.”
- 1.21, “rule and authority and power and lordship.”
- 3.19, “being ‘filled up to all the fullness of God.'”
- 4.16, “each single part.”
- 5.5, “[Paul] tells his readers to ‘know this, knowing that….'”
- 5.33, He “addresses the husbands in his audience as ‘you – every single one of you.'”
- Also read 1.11; 2.7; 3.7,12; 6.10.
4. Ephesians is “missing the argumentative, fast-paced feel typical of Paul’s undisputed letters. Rhetorical questions, if-then clauses, and syllogisms are virtually absent” (7).
From the early 16th century, interpreters have wondered how the apostle Paul could have produced such an unusual letter. In 1591 Erasmus said, “Certainly, the style differs so much from the other Epistles of Paul 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).
Thielman lists for the reader a few scholars (De Wette, Holtzmann, Moffatt, Mitton, and Lincoln) who went further and saw evidence of a pseudonym in use.
Yet do these difficulties mean that Paul, not didn’t, but couldn’t write Ephesians? Could it still be plausible that the apostle authored the letter of Ephesians? Thielman gives two pieces of evidence that show Paul “could write this way if circumstances demanded it” (10).
- In his undisputed letter, Paul could write in a variety of styles (see 1 Cor 13; 2 Cor 6.14-7.1; Phil 2.6-11; Rom 16.25-27). These texts all show that Paul “was clearly a versatile writer” (11). (Thielman believes that these texts all come from Paul, and “arguments to the contrary are not convincing”).
Given Paul’s high education from Gamaliel (Acts 22.3), a leading authority in the Sanhedrin, he, like any good author, wasn’t strapped to one writing style. If the circumstance calls for it, Paul could (and did) write as different as Colossians and Galatians.
In the words of Dionysius, “Variation is a most attractive and beautiful quality” (Comp 19). We know this maxim to be true with our favourite actors and actresses in the films we watch. We enjoy seeing the different kinds of roles they step into and watching how they fill those shoes. He can play a 12-year-old boy who overnight grows up to be an adult, but how well does he play a brave captain whose ship is hijacked by Somalian pirates?
- The long sentences and broken syntax that appear in Ephesians also appears in other Pauline letters.
- Eph 1.3-14 and 2 Thess 1.3-12 “are roughly the same length, contain a torrent of words, and have a number of emphatic redundancies” (11).
- The long sentences found in Eph 2.1-3; 3.1-7, 8-12, 14-19; and 4.11-16 also appear in 1 Cor 1.4-8 and Phil 1.3-7.
- The broken syntax and digressive nature of Eph 2.1-7 and 3.1-19 are not unlike Rom 5.12-18 and 2 Cor 2.12-7.7.
“It is easy to imagine…that the circumstances of Paul’s imprisonment, and the need to dictate letter with little opportunity to revise them, accounts for this unusual element of the letter’s character” (11).
In the End
Thielman has a keen sense of understanding of Paul’s letter. Looking through, this is my favourite BECNT volume so far. Often times I’ve found the main text in the BECNT to be filled with references to other authors and writings, which unfortunately gets in the way of a clear and lucid reading. The information is still good, I would prefer to see the references relegated to footnotes. But here, Thielman gives his own opinion more often than referencing all of the other commentaries. Of the BECNT volumes I have read so far, Thielman’s volume is the easiest to read and understand. As with the BECNT volumes, he keeps the entire text, the flow of thought, and Paul’s argument in mind. He works to stay true to the text, but points to God’s word, hoping that no one will focus too much on “the bus” that brought them to “the mountain.”
On his blog Matthew Montinini interviews Thielman about his commentary. Thielman shows great humility and is an excellent read if you are interested. This is also where I get the “bus”/”mountain” imagery from.