1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Ephesians, Epistle to the

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EPHESIANS, EPISTLE TO THE. This book of the New Testament, the most general and least occasional and polemic of all the Pauline epistles, a large section of which seems almost like the literary elaboration of a theological topic, may best be described as a solemn oration, addressed to absent hearers, and intended not primarily to clarify their minds but to stir their emotions. It is thus a true letter, but in the grand style, verging on the nature not of an essay but a poem. Ephesians has been called “the crown of St Paul’s writings,” and whether it be measured by its theological or its literary interest and importance, it can fairly dispute with Romans the claim to be his greatest epistle. In the public and private use of Christians some parts of Ephesians have been among the most favourite of all New Testament passages. Like its sister Epistle to the Colossians, it represents, whoever wrote it, deep experience and bold use of reflection on the meaning of that experience; if it be from the pen of the Apostle Paul, it reveals to us a distinct and important phase of his thought.

To the nature of the epistle correspond well the facts of its title and address. The title “To the Ephesians” is found in the Muratorian canon, in Irenaeus, Tertullian and Clement of Alexandria, as well as in all the earliest MSS. and versions. Marcion, however (c. A.D. 150), used and recommended copies with the title “To the Laodiceans.” This would be inexplicable if Eph. i. 1 had read in Marcion’s copies, as it does in most ancient authorities, “To the saints which are at Ephesus”; but in fact the words ἐν Ἐφέσῳ of verse 1 were probably absent. They were not contained in the text used by Origen (d. 253); Basil (d. 379) says that “ancient copies” omitted the words; and they are actually omitted by Codices B (Vaticanus, 4th century) and א (Sinaiticus, 4th century), together with Codex 67 (11th century). The words “in Ephesus” were thus probably originally lacking in the address, and were inserted from the suggestion of the title. Either the address was general (“to the saints who are also faithful”) or else a blank was left. In the latter case the name may have been intended to be supplied orally, in communicating the letter, or a different name may have been written in each of the individual copies. Under any of these hypotheses the address would indicate that we have a circular letter, written to a group of churches, doubtless in Asia Minor. This would account for the general character of the epistle, as well as for the entire and striking absence of personal greetings and of concrete allusions to existing circumstances among the readers. It appears to have drawn its title, “To the Ephesians,” from one of the churches for which it was intended, perhaps the one from which a copy was secured when Paul’s epistles were collected, shortly before or after the year 100. That our epistle is the one referred to in Col. iv. 16, which was to be had by the Colossians from Laodicea, is not unlikely. Such an identification doubtless led Marcion to alter the title in his copies.

The structure of Ephesians is epistolary; it opens with the usual salutation (i. 1-2) and closes with a brief personal note and formal farewell (vi. 21-24). In the intervening body of the epistle the writer also follows the regular form of a letter. In an ordinary Greek letter (as the papyri show) we should find the salutation followed by an expression of gratification over the correspondent’s good health and of prayer for its continuance. Paul habitually expanded and deepened this, and, in this case, that paragraph is enormously enlarged, so that it may be regarded as including chapters i.-iii., and as carrying the main thought of the epistle. Chapters iv.-vi. merely make application of the main ideas worked out in chapters i.-iii. Throughout the epistle we have a singular combination of the seemingly desultory method of a letter, turning aside at a word and straying wherever the mood of the moment leads, with the firm, forward march of earnest and mature thought. In this combination resides the doubtless unconscious but nevertheless real literary art of the composition.

The fundamental theme of the epistle is The Unity of Mankind in Christ, and hence the Unity and Divinity of the Church of Christ. God’s purpose from eternity was to unite mankind in Christ, and so to bring human history to its goal, the New Man, the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ. Those who have believed in Christ are the present representatives and result of this purpose; and a clear knowledge of the purpose itself, the secret of the ages, has now been revealed to men. This theme is not formally discussed, as in a theological treatise, but is rather, as it were, celebrated in lofty eulogy and application. First, in chapters i.-iii., under the mask of a conventional congratulatory paragraph, the writer declares at length the privileges which this great fact confers upon those who by faith receive the gift of God, and he is thus able to touch on the various aspects of his subject. Then, in chapters iv.-vi., he turns, with a characteristic and impressive “therefore,” to set forth the obligations which correspond to the privileges he has just expounded. This author is indeed interested to prosecute vigorous and substantial thinking, but the mainspring of his interest is the conviction that such thought is significant for inner and outer life.

The relationship, both literary and theological, between the epistle to the Ephesians and that to the Colossians (q.v.) is very close. It is to be seen in many of the prominent ideas of the two writings, especially in the developed view of the central position of Christ in the whole universe; in the conception of the Church as Christ’s body, of which He is the head; in the thought of the great Mystery, once secret, now revealed. There is further resemblance in the formal moral code, arranged by classes of persons, and having much the same contents in the two epistles (Eph. v. 22-vi. 9; Col. iii. 18-iv. 1). In both, also, Tychicus carries the letter, and in almost identical language the readers are told that he will by word of mouth give fuller information about the apostle’s affairs (Eph. vi. 21-22; Col. iv. 7-8). Moreover, in a great number of characteristic phrases and even whole verses the two are alike. Compare, for instance, Eph. i. 7, Col. i. 14; Eph. i. 10, Col. i. 20; Eph. i. 21, Col. i. 16; Eph. i. 22, 23, Col. i. 18, 19; Eph. ii. 5, Col. ii. 13; Eph. ii. 11, Col. ii. 11; Eph: ii. 16, Col. i. 20; Eph. iii. 2, 3, Col. i. 25, 26, and many other parallels. Only a comparison in detail will give a true impression of the extraordinary degree of resemblance. Yet the two epistles do not follow the same course of thought, and their contents cannot be successfully exhibited in a common synoptical abstract. Each has its independent occasion, purpose, character and method; but they draw largely on a common store of thought and use common means of expression.

The question of the authorship of Ephesians is less important to the student of the history of Christian thought than in the case of most of the Pauline epistles, because of the generalness of tone and the lack of specific allusion in the work. It purports to be by Paul, and was held to be his by Marcion and in the Muratorian canon, and by Irenaeus, Tertullian and Clement of Alexandria, all writing at the end of the 2nd century. No doubt of the Pauline authorship was expressed in ancient times; nor is there any lack of early use by writers who make no direct quotation, to raise doubts as to the genuineness of the epistle. The influence of its language is probably to be seen in Ignatius, Polycarp and Hermas, less certainly in the epistle of Barnabas. Some resemblances of expression in Clement of Rome and in Second Clement may have significance. There is here abundant proof that the epistle was in existence, and was highly valued and influential with leaders of Christian thought, about the year 100, when persons who had known Paul well were still living.

To the evidence given above may be added the use of Ephesians in the First Epistle of Peter. If the latter epistle could be finally established as genuine, or its date fixed, it would give important evidence with regard to Ephesians; but in the present state of discussion we must confine ourselves to pointing out the fact. Some of the more striking points of contact are the following: Eph. i. 3, 1 Peter i. 3; Eph. i. 20, 21, 1 Peter iii. 22; Eph. ii. 2, 3, iv. 17, 1 Peter iv. 3; Eph. ii. 21, 22, 1 Peter ii. 5; Eph. v. 22, 1 Peter iii. 1, 2; Eph. v. 25, 1 Peter iii. 7, 8; Eph. vi. 5, 1 Peter ii. 18, 19. A similar relation exists between Romans and 1 Peter. In both cases the dependence is clearly on the part of 1 Peter; for ideas and phrases that in Ephesians and Romans have their firm place in closely wrought sequences, are found in 1 Peter with less profound significance and transformed into smooth and pointed maxims and apophthegmatic sentences.

Objections to the genuineness of Ephesians have been urged since the early part of the 19th century. The influence of Schleiermacher, whose pupil Leonhard Usteri in his Entwickelung der paulinischen Lehrbegriffs (1824) expressed strong doubts as to Ephesians, carried weight. He held that Tychicus was the author. De Wette first (1826) doubted, then (1843) denied that the epistle was by Paul. The chief attack came, however, from Baur (1845) and his colleagues of the Tübingen school. Against the genuineness have appeared Ewald, Renan, Hausrath, Hilgenfeld, Ritschl, Pfleiderer, Weizsäcker, Holtzmann, von Soden, Schmiedel, von Dobschütz and many others. On the other hand, the epistle has been defended by Bleek, Neander, Reuss, B. Weiss, Meyer, Sabatier, Lightfoot, Hort, Sanday, Bacon, Jülicher, Harnack, Zahn and many others. In recent years a tendency has been apparent among critics to accept Ephesians as a genuine work of Paul. This has followed the somewhat stronger reaction in favour of Colossians.

Before speaking of the more fundamental grounds urged for the rejection of Ephesians, we may look at various points of detail which are of less significance.

(1) The style has unquestionably a slow and lumbering movement, in marked contrast with the quick effectiveness of Romans and Galatians. The sentences are much longer and less vivacious, as any one can see by a superficial examination. But nevertheless there are parts of the earlier epistles where the same tendency appears (e.g. Rom. iii. 23-26), and on the whole the style shows Paul’s familiar traits. (2) The vocabulary is said to be peculiar. But it can be shown to be no more so than that of Galatians (Zahn, Einleitung, i. pp. 365 ff.). On the other hand, some words characteristic of Paul’s use appear (notably διό, five times), and the most recent and careful investigation of Paul’s vocabulary (Nägeli, Wortschatz der paulinischen Briefe, 1905) concludes that the evidence speaks for Pauline authorship. (3) Certain phrases have aroused suspicion, for instance, “the devil” (vi. 11, instead of Paul’s usual term “Satan”); “his holy apostles and prophets” (iii. 5, as smacking of later fulsomeness); “I Paul” (iii. 1); “unto me, who am less than the least of all the saints” (iii. 8, as exaggerated). But these cases, when properly understood and calmly viewed, do not carry conviction against the epistle. (4) The relation of Ephesians to Colossians would be a serious difficulty only if Colossians were held to be not by Paul. Those who hold to the genuineness of Colossians find it easier to explain the resemblances as the product of the free working of the same mind, than as due to a deliberate imitator. Holtzmann’s elaborate and very ingenious theory (1872) that Colossians has been expanded, on the basis of a shorter letter of Paul, by the same later hand which had previously written the whole of Ephesians, has not met with favour from recent scholars.

But the more serious difficulties which to many minds still stand in the way of the acceptance of the epistle have come from the developed phase of Pauline theology which it shows, and from the general background and atmosphere of the underlying system of thought, in which the absence of the well-known earlier controversies is remarkable, while some things suggest the thought of John and a later age. Among the most important points in which the ideas and implications of Ephesians suggest an authorship and a period other than that of Paul are the following:

(a) The union of Gentiles and Jews in one body is already accomplished. (b) The Christology is more advanced, uses Alexandrian terms, and suggests the ideas of the Gospel of John. (c) The conception of the Church as the body of Christ is new. (d) There is said to be a general softening of Pauline thought in the direction of the Christianity of the 2nd century, while very many characteristic ideas of the earlier epistles are absent.

With regard to the changed state of affairs in the Church, it must be said that this can be a conclusive argument only to one who holds the view of the Tübingen scholars, that the Apostolic Age was all of a piece and was dominated solely by one controversy. The change in the situation is surely not greater than can be imagined within the lifetime of Paul. That the epistle implies as already existent a developed system of Gnostic thought such as only came into being in the 2nd century is not true, and such a date is excluded by the external evidence. As to the other points, the question is, whether the admittedly new phase of Paul’s theological thought is so different from his earlier system as to be incompatible with it. In answering this question different minds will differ. But it must remain possible that contact with new scenes and persons, and especially such controversial necessities as are exemplified in Colossians, stimulated Paul to work out more fully, under the influence of Alexandrian categories, lines of thought of which the germs and origins must be admitted to have been present in earlier epistles. It cannot be maintained that the ideas of Ephesians directly contradict either in formulation or in tendency the thought of the earlier epistles. Moreover, if Colossians be accepted as Pauline (and among other strong reasons the unquestionable genuineness of the epistle to Philemon renders it extremely difficult not to accept it), the chief matters of this more advanced Christian thought are fully legitimated for Paul.

On the other hand, the characteristics of the thought in Ephesians give some strong evidence confirmatory of the epistle’s own claim to be by Paul. (a) The writer of Eph. ii. 11-22 was a Jew, not less proud of his race than was the writer of Rom. ix.-xi. or of Phil. iii. 4 ff. (b) The centre in all the theology of the epistle is the idea of redemption. The use of Alexandrian categories is wholly governed by this interest. (c) The epistle shows the same panoramic, pictorial, dramatic conception of Christian truth which is everywhere characteristic of Paul. (d) The most fundamental elements in the system of thought do not differ from those of the earlier epistles.

The view which denies the Pauline authorship of Ephesians has to suppose the existence of a great literary artist and profound theologian, able to write an epistle worthy of Paul at his best, who, without betraying any recognizable motive, presented to the world in the name of Paul an imitation of Colossians, incredibly laborious and yet superior to the original in literary workmanship and power of thought, and bearing every appearance of earnest sincerity. It must further be supposed that the name and the very existence of this genius were totally forgotten in Christian circles fifty years after he wrote. The balance of evidence seems to lie on the side of the genuineness of the Epistle.

If Ephesians was written by Paul, it was during the period of his imprisonment, either at Caesarea or at Rome (iii. 1, iv. 1, vi. 20). At very nearly the same time he must have written Colossians and Philemon; all three were sent by Tychicus. There is no strong reason for holding that the three were written from Caesarea. For Rome speaks the greater probability of the metropolis as the place in which a fugitive slave would try to hide himself, the impression given in Colossians of possible opportunity for active mission work (Col. iv. 3, 4; cf. Acts xxviii. 30, 31), the fact that Philippians, which in a measure belongs to the same group, was pretty certainly written from Rome. As to the Christians addressed, they are evidently converts from heathenism (ii. 1, 11-13, 17 f., iii. 1, iv. 17); but they are not merely Gentile Christians at large, for Tychicus carries the letter to them, Paul has some knowledge of their special circumstances (i. 15), and they are explicitly distinguished from “all the saints” (iii. 18, vi. 18). We may most naturally think of them as the members of the churches of Asia. The letter is very likely referred to in Col. iv. 16, although this theory is not wholly free from difficulties.

Bibliography.—The best commentaries on Ephesians are by C. J. Ellicott (1855, 4th ed. 1868), H. A. W. Meyer (4th ed., 1867), (Eng. trans. 1880), T. K. Abbott (1897), J. A. Robinson (1903, 2nd ed. 1904); in German by H. von Soden (in Hand-Commentar) (1891, 2nd ed. 1893), E. Haupt (in Meyer’s Kommentar) (8th ed., 1902). J. B. Lightfoot’s commentary on Colossians (1875, 3rd ed. 1879) is important for Ephesians also. On the English text see H. C. G. Moule (in Cambridge Bible for Schools) (1887). R. W. Dale, Epistle to the Ephesians; its Doctrine and Ethics (1882), is a valuable series of expository discourses.

Questions of genuineness, purpose, &c., are discussed in the New Testament Introductions of H. Holtzmann (1885, 3rd ed. 1892); B. Weiss (1886, 3rd ed. 1897, Eng. trans. 1887); G. Salmon (1887, 8th ed. 1897); A. Jülicher (1894, 5th and 6th ed. 1906, Eng. trans. 1904); T. Zahn (1897–1899, 2nd ed. 1900); and in the thorough investigations of H. Holtzmann, Kritik der Epheser- und Kolosserbriefe (1872), and F. J. A. Hort, Prolegomena to St Paul’s Epistles to the Romans and the Ephesians (1895). See also the works on the Apostolic Age of C. Weizsäcker (1886, 2nd ed. 1892, Eng. trans. 1894–1895); O. Pfleiderer (Das Urchristenthum) (1887, 2nd ed. 1902, Eng. trans. 1906); and A. C. McGiffert (1897).

On early attestation see A. H. Charteris, Canonicity (1880) and the New Testament in the Apostolic Fathers (Oxford, 1905).

The theological ideas of Ephesians are also discussed in some of the works on Paul’s theology; see especially F. C. Baur, Paulus (1845, 2nd ed. 1866–1867, Eng. trans. 1873–1874); O. Pfleiderer, Der Paulinismus (1873, 2nd ed. 1890, Eng. trans. 1877); and in the works on New Testament theology by B. Weiss (1868, 7th ed. 1903, Eng. trans. 1882–1883); H. Holtzmann (1897), and G. B. Stevens (1899). See also Somerville, St Paul’s Conception of Christ (1897).

For a guide to other literature see W. Lock, art. “Ephesians, Epistle to,” in Hastings’s Dictionary of the Bible, the various works of Holtzmann above referred to, and T. K. Abbott’s Commentary, pp. 35-40.  (J. H. Rs.)