Structure and Contents.
I. God's great work is completed through Jesus Christ and his Spirit (chaps. 1–2).
(a) 1.3–14: God's love has been poured out as an abundant blessing; through grace and forgiveness Jews and gentiles now praise God's glory (1.6, 12, 14). (b) 1.15–23: Thanksgiving and intercession for the congregation issue in praise of God's power, which has raised Jesus Christ from death and made him the head over all things, especially over the church. (c) 2.1–10: Christ's resurrection reveals the omnipotence of God's love; all were dead in their sins, but they are freed by grace to do works pleasing to God. (d) 2.11–22: Peace between the divided, hostile parts of humanity, and peace of all with God, was established by the crucifixion of Jesus and his announcement of peace. The church, as yet the unfinished house of God, is evidence of God's presence among all peoples.
II. The publication and continuation of God's work (3.1–4.16).
(a) 3.1–13: To Paul and other apostles before him it was revealed that Jews and gentiles are common heirs of God's fulfilled promises. The suffering of the apostle in prison, for the sake of this message, is reason for joy, not despair. (b) 3.14–21: In his prayer Paul asks the Father for Christ's presence in every heart, and for increased appreciation of the love bestowed through Christ. (c) 4.1–16: A call to unity prepares the way for an outline of the constitution of the universal church. The one and only God (Deut. 6.4) has now revealed himself as Spirit, Lord (Jesus), and Father. The exalted Lord provides the church with diverse gifts to maintain its unity. The diversity of the members of his body supports its harmony.
III. The testimony of daily life (4.17–6.22).
(a) 4.17–32: The only way to affirm God's full revelation in Christ is to make a radical break with non‐Christian behavior and to put on Christ. (b) 5.1–20: By experience Christians will learn to discern and do God's will, being inspired by God's Holy Spirit rather than by alcoholic spirits! (c) 5.21–6.9: The so‐called Haustafeln (home rules; see Ethical Lists) deal with the three essentials of the human condition: sexuality (husband‐wife relationship), historicity (generation problems), and economics (owner/slave; rich/poor; strong/weak). While Greek philosophers and other teachers used to direct their moral advice to the stronger groups only (fathers, kings, slaveholders), in Ephesians the weaker are addressed more extensively than are their stronger counterparts. They are declared worthy and capable of a voluntary co‐responsibility for the common good (cf. Rom. 13.1–7; 1 Cor. 7.21–23). (d) 6.10–20: Threatened by the attacks of superhuman forces, Christians can trust God to provide them with an armor first used by himself, then given to the Messiah. Their active life and the tribulations they suffer reveal their solidarity with Paul's mission and suffering.
Date and Authorship.
According to 1.1; 3.1–13; 4.1; and 6.19–22, the letter was written while the author was in prison. A very few postscripts to ancient Greek manuscripts state that Ephesians was written in Rome; if this is true, the date of the letter would be about 61–63 CE. However, the Caesarean imprisonment of the apostle (between 58 and 60?; see Acts 23–26) and an Ephesian captivity (in the mid 50s) have also been suggested.
In 1792 the English divine Edward Evanson first questioned Pauline authorship. During the nineteenth century, German scholars gathered arguments in favor of pseudonymous origin, and today most researchers treat the letter as non‐Pauline, dating it between 70 and 100 CE, mainly in the 90s. Some think that the author was Onesimus, the runaway slave mentioned in Paul's letter to Philemon, who is then further identified with the bishop of Ephesus bearing the name Onesimus (mentioned in Ignatius's letter to the Ephesians 1.3; 2.1; 6.2). The arguments against Pauline origin include the following, which are balanced with counterarguments.
Ephesians has to a large extent a liturgical and/or hymnic style; it has a tendency to be heavy, baroque, if not bombastic (e.g., 1.18–19, 21; 3.5; 4.15–16, 30). Extremely long sentences frequently contain vocabulary not found in unquestioned Pauline letters; well‐known words occur with a new meaning; favorite Pauline terms and phrases are missing. On the other hand, whenever in his undisputed letters (such as in Romans 8.38, 39; 11.33–36) Paul breaks out in prayer, his diction is similarly pleonastic and/or liturgical. Since Ephesians contains numerous citations of or allusions to pre‐Pauline confessional and hymnic elements (see 2.4–8, 10, 14–18; 3.5, 20–21; 4.4a, 5–6, 9, 21c‐24, 25b‐27), it is not astonishing that its style and vocabulary differ from Pauline prose usage.
are spearheaded by the observation that a mutual acquaintance between Paul and the readers is denied in 1.15; 3.23; 4.21. But Acts 18.17–20.1, 17 clearly speaks of short and lengthy periods of Pauline activity in Ephesus. The alternatives seem inescapable: either this is a genuine Pauline letter that was addressed not to Ephesus but to an unknown city that Paul never visited, or Ephesus is the correct address, as it were, but Paul is not the author. Still, even this dilemma can be resolved if one assumes that Paul wrote to only a part of the congregation in Ephesus, namely to former gentiles (2.2, 11, 19; 4.17–19; 5.8) who had joined the church after the apostle's departure. Just as Paul warns against triumphalism over the Jews in Romans 11.17–24, so Ephesians is a call to remember that the church owes its existence to inclusion of gentiles into God's people Israel.
Other arguments against authenticity are based upon historical developments. The absence of a sharp dispute with judaizers seems to presuppose that the struggle about justification by faith, not the Law, belongs to the past. The dynamic Pauline preaching of justification appears to be replaced by the proclamation of apostolic and church authority, transmitted in a fixed tradition. Dualistic, deterministic, and mythical gnostic elements are said to have invaded formerly pure doctrines of sin, Christ, salvation, and the church. Although it is acknowledged that the letter contains elements of antignostic reaction, it is yet considered a victim of the enemy it tried to battle: since no one wants to burden Paul with such weakness and defeat, the letter is not considered Pauline. On the other hand, since about 1960 the Nag Hammadi documents have shown that the composition and the spread of the “gnostic myth” is to be dated no earlier than the second century CE. In consequence, Ephesians could neither have fought it nor have fallen prey to it.
Personal elements in Ephesians, together with original elaborations on doctrines less developed elsewhere, discourage the notion that Ephesians is no more than a composite of quotations from genuine Pauline letters. Paul was not bound always to speak of justification, nor to lash out against misuse of the Law. In other letters he also speaks of reconciliation and peace. A development of his teaching about the church's relation to Israel cannot be excluded on historical grounds: it is certainly a long way from sharp reference to God's wrath upon the Jews in 1 Thessalonians 2.14–16, to the statement that the legalistic part of Israel was driven out (Gal. 4.30), to the proclamation of God's faithfulness to his promises, which even finally may lead to the regrafting of cut‐off branches (Rom. 9–11), and finally to the irenic stance taken in Ephesians 1–3, where the gentiles are described as adopted into God's eternally beloved people, Israel. At the same time, it cannot be proven that Paul was unable to learn, to develop, even to correct himself. Paul changed his teachings about the presence of salvation, the nature of the church (universal rather than local), marriage, and other issues. A plagiarist would hardly have dared to be so independent of earlier Pauline letters.
of Ephesians upon the Pauline letters, especially Colossians, revealed by many almost identically phrased sentences, seems to exclude the pen of a man who in his undisputed letters is a wellspring of ever‐new ideas and formulations. Thus, 6.21–22 appears to be copied to a large extent from Colossians 4.7–9. In Colossians 1 and Ephesians 1 and 3, Christ, the head of the church and the world, is described in similar terminology, though in Colossians Christ's cosmic rulership is emphasized more than in Ephesians. The latter concentrates attention upon the universal church's function, and it contains several explicit biblical quotations, together with interpretive sentences or hints (see 1.18–22; 2.13–17; 4.8–10; 5.31–33; 6.14–17), while Colossians never explicitly cites the Bible. Scholars tend to favor dependence of Ephesians upon Colossians, making Colossians more likely to be authentic. A secretary or a later disciple of Paul may have written the letter. Pseudonymous authorship was often a sign of respect toward the one whose name was put at the head of a document; to speak of falsification and plagiarism misses the point.
Still, not even the undisputed letters (except Galatians) were written without secretarial help. The similarity between Ephesians and Colossians might have a simple reason: at about the same time of his life, Paul may have used the same general outline to address the Colossians in polemical terms and to send a peaceful message to the Ephesian church, a kind of encyclical to all the churches in Asia Minor.
The distinct theology of Ephesians appears to tip the scale in favor of pseudonymity. Protestant scholars point out that in this letter ecclesiology overshadows Christology; that gnosticizing knowledge and cosmological speculation encroach upon the genuine, existential faith; that institution and tradition replace trust in grace and eschatological hope; that biblical ethics have yielded to petit‐bourgeois moralism. In short, though under protest by Orthodox and many Roman Catholic scholars, Ephesians is considered, together with the Pastoral Epistles and Acts, to expound what is called “early Catholicism.” Others have dubbed it a “Marseillaise of church triumphalism.”
Indeed, if the theology of Paul has been fully grasped and described by the Augustinian, Lutheran, and existentialist understanding of justification, then salvation has to do primarily with the encounter between God and the individual. Because in Ephesians salvation is a social event with cosmic dimensions, the letter is thought to contradict the core of Paul's message and to be spurious. On the other hand, even in undisputed letters Paul not only speaks of justification but also of the reconciliation and solidarity of Jews and gentiles under God's grace. He also speaks of peace, of mission, of the final liberation of the whole cosmos, though these topics often receive only minor attention. The special theological features of Ephesians may reveal how much there is still to learn of Paul's complete message.
In conclusion, Ephesians should be considered an authentic Pauline letter. Its irenic and embracing character distinguishes it among the more bellicose letters of Paul. It deserves to be called his testament.
Highlights and Influence.
At least four traits distinguish Ephesians from most other Pauline writings. First, this letter speaks of only one mystery. This mystērion is unlike the numerous apocalyptic‐historical and theological‐interpretative mysteries that will be disclosed only at the end of time. Whenever the term “mystery” occurs in this letter (1.9; 3.3–4, 9; 9.19; cf. “wisdom” in 3.10), it designates a secret that has recently been disclosed, first to a few chosen people and now to be communicated to all. Its substance is the eternal will of God to save the gentiles as well as the Jews, to whom alone he had first given the hope of an inheritance and of the Messiah to come. Especially in 1.10 and 2.11–12, God's means to carry out his will are described: since the time of fulfillment has come, the Messiah, long ago promised to Israel, has come and has died on the cross to make peace between formerly hostile groups. The Holy Spirit continuously confirms (“seals” 1.13–14; 4.30), based upon Christ's completed work, that all sinners are forgiven and now enjoy equal rights as children in one family and as citizens of God's kingdom (2.1–19). In this letter, the “new person” is not an individual, but two former enemies (of one another and of God) now joined together in peace by the removal of what had formed a legal wall of separation (2.14–16). Even more clearly than in Romans 3.21–31 and 9–11, Ephesians reveals that the intervention of the God‐sent mediator terminates segregation, hostility, and strife. Nowhere is it denied that salvation pertains also to persons and their souls. According to Ephesians, however, the liberation of individuals takes place within the framework of God's kingdom, in the victory of his love and righteousness over all injustice and misery.
Second, together with Matthew 16.17–19 and John 17.17–22, Ephesians is, within the New Testament, the magna carta of the one, holy, apostolic, and catholic church (4.4–6). The church is the palpable evidence of the work of unification accomplished by Jesus Christ (2.20–22). It is a beacon for all the world (5.8) and is the still‐incomplete structure of God's house, waiting for the insertion of the capstone, that is, Christ who will come again (2.20; 4.13, 15–16).
Since the Jews have been and remain the first members of God's people, there is no unity of the church available without them. When the church is depicted as Christ's bride (5.25–27, 31–32), and when the relationship between Christ and his church is explained in terms of the union of a man and a woman (Gen. 2.24 is quoted), then love is shown to be the bond of unity. On the other hand, it is also made clear that an identification of Christ and the church is not in question. Further, Ephesians does not support the claim that certain sacraments are to be administered exclusively by ordained clergy, nor that the difference between clergy and laity constitutes the church. In this letter, God's love for Jews and gentiles, not the church, is the “mystery of God,” “mystery of Christ,” and “mystery of the gospel.” Since the reconciliation of Jews and gentiles with one another and with God is the paradigm of the unification of all human groups (as the Haustafel in 5.21–33, compared with the text about the broken wall in 2.11–22, shows), in this letter the doctrine of the church is identified with social and personal ethics.
Third, in Ephesians, the situation of the church in the world is described in an apparently antiquated way. Above, around, and perhaps even within the church and its male and female, older and younger, free and dependent members, and in the same position over against all human beings, there are good and evil principalities and powers, and a devilish realm high up in the air (1.21; 2.2, 7; 3.10; 6.11–12; see Prince of the Power of the Air; Satan). Rather than imposing a mythological or demonic worldview upon the readers, the author of Ephesians probably means by these terms biological and psychological, social and political, cultural and religious forces that are unseen and yet encountered in human existence (cf. Rom. 8.38–39; also Colossians and Revelation). Ephesians intends to assure the tempted, suffering, and desperate among humankind that God has made his own cause not only the suffering that must be endured, but also the resistance, combat, and victory over the superhuman ruling powers.
Finally, traditional interpretations of the passage about husbands and wives (5.21–33) have required women to be submissive toward men. Feminists disdain this part of Ephesians and call for removal of allusions to it in marriage liturgies. The biblical text, however, speaks first of mutual subordination (5.21), never of submission, and only of married persons. It controls and qualifies the husband's headship by making it clear that only an unselfish and self‐giving love characterizes such a “head.” Speaking to wives, the text is far from requiring a forced subordination: Ephesians encourages wives to place themselves at the disposition of the common good. In the same way, which has nothing to do with loss of honor and selfhood, Christ subordinates himself to the Father (1 Cor. 15.28; cf. Phil. 2.6–8), and the church to Christ when it acknowledges the love he has bestowed upon it (Eph. 5.24). Since already in 1 Corinthians 7 and Galatians 3.28 Paul has spoken of the interrelationship of equally free partners under the unifying lordship of Christ, his marriage counseling in Ephesians must not serve to substantiate male superiority; rather, it promotes the partnership of those married.
Markus K. Barth