In the NT, the fifth of the letters of Paul. But it is more of a doctrinal treatise, dressed up as a letter by having an opening and formal greetings at the end. It was known to Ignatius (d. 107) and possibly even to Clement of Rome in 96 CE when he wrote to Corinth. Although explicitly regarded from the end of the 2nd cent. as a work of the apostle Paul, more modern scholarship hesitates to authenticate the Pauline claim. It is particularly necessary to examine the relationship between Ephesians and the (Pauline) epistle to the Colossians. On the one hand the references to the writer’s imprisonment (Eph. 6: 20; cf. Col. 4: 18) and to the letter being conveyed by Tychicus (Eph. 6: 21; cf. Col. 4: 7) argue composition at about the same time, in quick succession. And the similarities between the two epistles are remarkable; one-third of Ephesians’ 155 verses are parallel to Colossians (See e.g. the ‘household codes’ of Eph. 5: 21–6: 7 and Col. 3: 18–4: 1.) On the other hand, there are striking differences between the two documents in style and content; the word ekklesia, ‘Church’, refers to the universal Church in Ephesians, but in Colossians both to the universal Church and to the local congregation in Colossae. Key terms are used in different senses: in Eph. 1: 9–10 ‘mystery’ (which means, not a mysterious secret, but the revelation of a secret), is that the purpose of God demands Gentiles as well as Jews to be equally members of the Body, whereas in Colossians the ‘mystery’ is Christ himself. It is hard to believe that the same author could use so much from a letter he had recently written and yet introduce such differences.
The likelihood therefore is that the author is a disciple of Paul who had access to at least some of Paul’s previous epistles and wrote this document towards the end of the century to a group of Churches. (Several early MSS omit the words ‘in Ephesus’ at 1: 1 and Marcion referred to it as the epistle to Laodicea: cf. Col. 4: 16 and Rev. 3: 14). In accordance with an accepted custom it was dispatched under a pseudonym, a legitimate literary device in those days by which the writer acknowledged his dependence on his master, and he has not so much misused his name as attempted to preserve Paul’s authentic message. Perhaps he had even expanded a letter which Paul had, in fact, written to the Laodiceans.
The epistle does not deal with the doctrine of Justification, which so dominates Romans and Galatians, but is an exposition of Christ’s supremacy over all cosmic forces (1: 21); he embodies God’s plan for the fullness (Greek, pleroma) of time (1: 10) which is the goal of creation. It is he who draws the whole human race into a unity, Jews and Gentiles alike; and the Church, which is the fullness (pleroma) of Christ (1: 23)—completely filled by him—is the means by which God’s plan is to be accomplished. Christ’s universal work of reconciliation must begin in the Church itself, when unity is achieved by love and mutual service. From the Body of Christ (5: 30) unity is to spread outwards. Whereas the place of the Jews as the covenant people of God had marginalized Gentiles, now, since the death of Christ, that division and distinction is removed. The Body of Christ is a united community within the purpose of God, with gifts of ministry to enable it to fulfil its universal and cosmic role (4: 1–16) by supporting the organs of society.
The high doctrine of the Church in the epistle and its references to ministry (4: 11) and to the headship of Christ in (or over?) the Church (5: 23) have given the document an important place in modern ecumenical discussions.