Did Paul write Ephesians?

I rarely digress from my commentary on the Gospels, however my conversations with students and peers impels me to write a blog post on one of Paul’s epistles. According to modern scholarship, Paul’s letters (the “Pauline Corpus”) can be pooled into three groups.

The Pauline Corpus

First, there are the letters described by modern scholars as “authentic,” meaning Paul almost certainly wrote them. These letters include 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Romans and Philemon.  These letters can be grouped geographically. Galatia and the churches in the Lycus River Valley (Laodicea and Colossae), the region to which Philemon is addressed, are in Asia Minor. Thessalonika, Philippi and Corinth are in Greece. Romans is addressed to the people of the Empire’s capital.

Second, there are “deutero-Pauline” letters that seem to be written by Paul but do not share, according to modern scholars, the tell-tale signs of the authentically Pauline letters. These letters include 2 Thessalonians, Colossians, and Ephesians. Two of the three deutero-Pauline letters are written to established churches in Asia Minor: Ephesus and Colossae. Third, there are letters whose style and/or theological focus is quite different when compared with the “authentic” letters: 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, [and Hebrews.]


asia minorPaul wrote three letters to the churches in the relatively well-populated Lycus/Meander River Valley in Asia Minor. These letters include Ephesians, Colossians and Philemon, and they are written to communities that lie within one hundred and fifty miles of each other. A fourth letter, Galatians, is different in style, and written to a church deep in the Asia Minor interior, about 400 to 600 miles north and east of Colossae and Ephesus.

Tradition holds that Saint Paul wrote the letter to the Ephesians. Beginning in the nineteenth century, scholars of the “historical-critical” school rather counter-intuitively proposed that Paul may not have written the letter to the Ephesians. I say “counter-intuitively,” because we would fully expect Paul to write to the church in Ephesus.  In chapter 19 of Acts of the Apostles, we are given an extensive account of Paul’s missionary work in and around Ephesus. Paul was so successful, that his enemies were quoted as saying, And you see and hear that not only at Ephesus but almost throughout all Asia this Paul has persuaded and turned away a considerable company of people, saying that gods made with hands are not gods (Acts 19:26).


432px-Workman'sPaulineHapaxesEphesians bears signs and evidence of Paul’s hand. For instance, the structure of the letter to the Ephesians is classically Pauline, where the author begins with a gracious salutation, moves into the structure of the letter, and closes the letter with a doxology or a gracious conclusion. Also, the incidence of hapax legomena (words that appear once in a letter) is statistically similar to Paul’s authentic letters of similar length.

According to scholars, Ephesians bears some stylistic similarities with Colossians. However, Ephesians bears considerable kinship with the corpus of “authentic” Pauline letters, including Paul’s letters to the Romans, Corinthians and I Thessalonians. In fact, the similarities are so substantial that disproving Pauline authorship requires a statistical burden of proof that no scholar has been capable of meeting.

Textual Similarities with Romans and Corinthians

As is the case with many Pauline letters (Romans, 2 Corinthians, Philippians, Colossians), Paul begins his letter by addressing the saints (tois hagiois) of the Church in Ephesus.  In the same opening passage, Paul calls himself an Apostle of Christ.  In Romans, he calls himself, a slave of Christ called to be an Apostle. His opening line, grace to you and peace from God our Father is identical to his letter to the Colossians, and theologically similar to the ‘authentically’ Pauline letters.

Paul uses other ‘Paulisms’ in Ephesians. For instance, he calls himself a prisoner of Christ. In Philippians, he says my imprisonment has become well-known in Christ. Paul expands upon the statement (1 Cor 8:6) that there is one God… and one Lord Jesus Christ, with the classic phrase in Ephesians: one Lord, one faith, one baptism (Eph 4:5). He borrows another classic line from Romans: but grace was given to each of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift (Eph 4:7, c.f Rom 12:6).

Paul borrows other imagery from Romans and Corinthians. In Ephesians, he says, put on the armor of God, so that you may stand firm against the tactics of the devil. This phrase parallels Romans: put on the armor of light (Rom 13:12). In Ephesians 5:30, Paul writes we are members of his one body, borrowing from Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 6.

In Ephesians 5:5, Paul says

be sure of this, that no immoral or impure or greedy person, that is, an idolator, has any inheritance in the Kingdom of God.

His language is actually more diplomatic than 1 Corinthians 6, where he says

Do not be deceived; neither the immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor sexual perverts, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor robbers will inherit the kingdom of God.

In Ephesians 1:22, Paul says,

And He put all things in subjection under His feet, and gave Him as head over all things to the church, which is His body

In 1 Corinthians 15:27-28, Paul says,

“For God has put all things in subjection under his feet.” But when it says, “All things are put in subjection under him,” it is plain that he is excepted who put all things under him. When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things under him, that God may be everything to every one.

What is notable about Ephesians 5:5 and Ephesians 1:22 is that the thoughts expressed are a little clearer and more concise than the ideas expressed in Corinthians. As there is a consensus that Ephesians was written after Romans and Corinthians, we should expect Paul’s writing to evolve in this direction. The thoughts expressed are as little clearer, and the theology is more general.

Statistical Similarities that Go Beyond Editing Romans and Corinthians

Some scholars have written off these parallels by suggesting that the author of Ephesians simply inserted Pauline phrases into his letter.  But this argument is facile, and it ignores similarities that are more difficult to explain, and more difficult to detect. To wit – Paul’s vocabulary in Ephesians is so similar to the authentic Pauline letters that in order for a scribe to copy Paul’s style, he would have needed a computer, a word processor and a biblical concordance.

To put it another way, the similarities between Ephesians one the one hand and Romans and Corinthians on the other are not merely thematic but also unintentional. The author of Ephesians unwittingly used Pauline vocabulary. The author did not insert keywords here and there: the letter is sprinkled, if not littered, with the vocabulary that only Paul was accustomed to using. To continue my argument – the author of Ephesians did not attempt to copy Paul’s style – rather he employed, unconsciously, Paul’s style. Paul used similar vocabulary in his letter to Ephesians but expressed different ideas because he was writing to a different audience, at a later date in his life.

A Greek Verb Lesson

Scholars who argue that Ephesians is not a Pauline letter will point to the vocabulary original to Ephesians. For instance, Paul uses verbs like apatao (to deceive), epiphausko (to shine forth), skotoo (to darken), apalgeo (to not feel pain),  ektrepho (to nourish), epiduo (to go down), ananeoo (to renew), kludonizomai (to toss about), kleroo (to receive a share in), proelpizo (to hope for), sunarmologeo (to fit together), sugkathizo (to sit together), and katoikeo (to dwell) that do not appear in the Pauline corpus. Then there are a handful of verbs that are common to Colossians and Ephesians, but not found elsewhere: rhizoo (to take root), suneigero (to raise together), apallotrioo (to alienate), themelioo (to lay the foundation) and apokatallasso (to reconcile).

What biblical scholars fail to note is that the incidence of verbs unique to Ephesians, or Ephesians and Colossians, is  statistically meaningless. Every letter written by Paul has a given percentage of verbs unique to one or two letters. In fact, if there is an any letter by Paul that is a statistical outlier in terms of original vocabulary and hapax legomena, it is Romans (considered 100% authentic), not Ephesians!

What should be of greater interest is the enormous statistical correlation between the use of verbs in Ephesians with the author’s choice of verbs in Romans and Corinthians. Consider the verbs common to Ephesians and Romans: katherao (to see clearly), harizo (to demarcate), anakephalaioo (to sum up), latreuo (to serve), metadidomi (to share), sumparakaleo (to exhort together), protithimi (to purpose), and epaischunomai (to be ashamed). Or, consider the verbs common to Ephesians and Corinthians: katanao (to arrive), phtheiro (to corrupt), airo (to lift away), luo (to loose), anastrpho (to overturn), epoikodomeo (to build upon), periphero (to carry), auxano (to grow), aiteo (to ask), krataioo (to strengthen), uperballo (to surpass) and photizo (to shine).

Finally, consider the totally astonishing number of non-everyday verbs common to all three letters – Romans, Corinthians and Ephesians: 20. Remember, we are excluding verbs like to be, to put, to call, to hear, to show, to make, to understand, to work, to save, to become, and to make known. Statistically, we would expect the number of verbs common among three Pauline letters (especially if Ephesians is actually non Pauline) to be low. But that is not the case – there are 18 verbs that are rather technical and yet are common to the three letters.

Here is the list of twenty non-everyday verbs common to all three letters: pro-orizo (to predetermine), sphraigizo (to seal), perisseeuo (to abound), katargeo (to abolish), apokteino (to kill), euaggelizo (to preach good news), eucharisteo (to give thanks), peripateo (to walk – 5x in Romans, 8x in Corinthians, 8x in Ephesians), kauchaomai (to boast), apokalupto (to uncover), pleroo (to fulfill), parakaleo (to exhort), anabaino (to ascend), charizomai (to forgive), paradidomi (to hand over – 6x in Romans, 8x in Corinthians, 3x in Ephesians), enduo (to put on), onomazo (to name), phaneroo (to make visible), hupotasso (to subject – 6x in Romans, 9x in Corinthians, 3x in Ephesians), and dokimazo (to prove/approve).

Only Slightly Different

So why do scholars argue that Paul’s letter to Ephesians may not be authentic? The differences are minor. One issue for modern scholars is that Paul does not personalize his letter to the Ephesians with references to people he knew in the community at Ephesus. A counter-argument is that Paul wrote to the Ephesians from Rome, towards the end of his tenure. If that is the case, the church leadership may have changed from the time when Paul preached in Ephesus himself, possibly eight, ten or fifteen years earlier.

Secondly, modern scholars wonder why there is no mention of justification in his letter to the Ephesians. But then again, this caveat is ironic. Scholars are suggesting that, in order for a letter to be authentically Pauline, it must contain material from Romans and Corinthians. This is, quite frankly, a preposterous argument. It is not reasonable to expect Paul to revisit the same subject in every letter that he writes.

A third issue is that Paul does not correct any perceived problem in the church at Ephesus: the letter is simply an exhortation. None of the reservations (the absence of mention of people known to Paul, absent references to justification, or the absence of any fraternal correction) credibly establishes that Paul did not author the letter to Ephesians.

Paul’s Take on Social Issues 

In chapter 5, the first twenty verses consist of advice: avoid immorality, silly or suggestive talk, the influence of empty rhetoric, the fruitless work of darkness, or getting drunk. In each instance he counterpoints the negative arguments with affirmations: be imitators of god, live in love, learn the will of God, be filled with the Spirit.

In verses 22 to 33, his stream of consciousness writing leads him to discuss marriage. He first suggests that wives should be subordinate to their husbands, a position that is consistent with his stronger language in 1 Corinthians 14:34. He then advises husbands to love their wives. In so doing, he balances his admonition so that both parties are under an obligation to respect each other. 

Paul’s position is not particularly progressive, but Paul proceeds to use marriage as an analogy for the Church. He tells us that a husband is to his wife what Christ is to the church. Note the implication as well: the two are one. But Paul’s development of this analogy is by no means unique to Ephesians. On the contrary, Paul makes a weaker analogy in 1 Corinthians 11:3 –  Now I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God.

In chapter 6, Paul remains with this theme of obedience. He tells children to obey their parents, Fathers not to provoke their children, and, slaves be obedient to you human masters in verse 6:5.

Chapters 5 and 6 of Ephesians is not particularly forward-thinking. However, it would be a mistake to dismiss the letter as not authentically Pauline, simply because Paul’s writing is occasionally awkward. As we have pointed out, Paul’s views on marriage are not original to the letter to Ephesians. He expresses similar sentiments in 1 Corinthians, a letter considered authentically Pauline.

We Need to Deal With Paul’s Theology

Rather than dismiss the Pauline authorship of Ephesians, modern scholars need to deal with meaning and context of Paul’s writing. Paul’s views on marriage are the product of someone who lived in the first century. Paul is not sensitive to the issue of individual rights and equality. Jesus, on the other hand, shows some sensitivity to the rights of women when he discusses marriage and divorce in Matthew’s Gospel.

As to the question of slavery, the Church has never promoted the idea that slavery was consistent with a Christian worldview. The early church was, on the contrary, rather hostile to the practice of holding household slaves. By the third and fourth century, Christians were adamantly opposed to the practice, and the Roman tradition of house slaves fell out of use completely within a hundred years of the legalization of the practice of Christianity in the Empire.  A good commentary on the early church’s opposition to slavery during Roman times can be found in the biography of Saint Martin, written in the fifth century by Sulpicius Severus.

In either case, Paul’s occasionally awkward and politically-incorrect phraseology is not credible reason to dismiss Ephesians as not being authentically Pauline. On the contrary, Paul is known for awkward phraseology and politically incorrect commentary.

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