A Commentary by John Stott
In keeping with the convention of his day the author begins by announcing himself. He identifies himself as the apostle Paul.
Now the Pauline authorship of Ephesians was universally accepted from the first century until the beginning of the nineteenth. Why is it then that German scholars from the 1820s onward began to question the letter’s authenticity, and that this scepticism about Paul’s authorship of Ephesians is widespread today? To quote one example: ‘There are many grounds for thinking that it comes neither from his hand nor even from his lifetime’.
Most commentators draw attention to the letter’s distinctive vocabulary and style. They tot up the number of words in Ephesians which do not occur in Paul’s other letters, and the number of his favourite words which are not found in Ephesians. His style, they add, is far less impassioned than usual. Markus Barth, for instance, has written of the author’s ‘pleonastic, redundant, verbose diction’ and of his baroque, bombastic or litany-like style’. But this is a largely subjective judgment. Besides, linguistic and stylistic arguments are notoriously precarious. Why should we expect such an original mind as Paul’s to stay within the confines of a limited vocabulary and an inflexible style? Different themes require different words, and changed circumstances create a changed atmosphere.
Two other and more substantial arguments are advanced, however, to cast doubt on the letter’s authenticity, the first historical and the second theological. The historical argument concerns a discrepancy between the Acts account of Paul’s longstanding and intimate acquaintance with the Ephesian church and the entirely impersonal and ‘hearsay’ relationship which the letter expresses. Although his first visit had been brief (Acts 18:19-21), his second lasted three years (Acts 19:1-20:1, 31). During this period he taught them systematically both ‘in public and from house to house’, they came to know him well, and at his final parting from the church elders their affection for him had been demonstrative, being accompanied by tears, hugs and kisses (see Acts 20:17-38, especially verses 18,20,34 and 36-38). It comes as quite a shock, therefore, to discover that the Ephesian letter contains no personal greetings such as conclude Paul’s other letters (no fewer than twenty-six people are mentioned by name in Romans 16). Instead he addresses his readers only in generic terms, wishing peace to ‘the brethren’ and grace to ‘all who love our Lord Jesus Christ’ (6:23-24). He alludes to his own situation as a prisoner (3:1; 4:1; 6:20), but makes no allusion to theirs. He urges them to live in unity and sexual purity, but he gives no hint of any factions or of an immoral offender such as he mentions in 1 Corinthians. He refers in general terms to the craftiness of false teachers (4:14), but he identifies no particular heresy as in Galatians or Colossians. Moreover, he gives no indication that he or they know one another personally. On the contrary, he has only ‘heard’ of their faith and love, and they of his stewardship of the gospel (1:15; 3:2-4).
This impersonal character of the letter is certainly surprising. But there is no need to deduce from it that Paul was not its author. Other explanations are possible. Paul may have been addressing a group of Asian churches rather than just the Ephesian church, or, as Markus Barth suggests, ‘not the whole church at Ephesus but only the members of a Gentile origin, people whom he did not know personally and who had been converted and baptized after his final departure from that city’.
The second argument which is raised against the Pauline authorship of Ephesians is theological. On this subject commentators make a wide variety of different points. It is emphasized, for example, that in Ephesians as distinct from the letters of unquestioned Pauline authorship, the role of Christ assumes a cosmic dimension, that the sphere of interest is ‘in heavenly places’ (a unique expression occurring five times) in which the principalities and powers operate, that the focus of concern is the church, that ‘justification’ is not mentioned, that ‘reconciliation’ is more between Jews and Gentiles than between the sinner and God, that salvation is portrayed not as dying with Christ but only as rising with him, and that there is no reference to our Lord’s second coming. None of these points is more than a comparatively minor shift in emphasis, however. And there can be no mistaking the letter’s essentially Pauline theology. Even those who deny its Pauline authorship are obliged to admit that it is ‘choc-a-bloc with echoes of the undoubted writing of Paul’.
In addition, there is the foreign ‘feel’ of the letter which some readers get. Nobody has expressed this more vividly than Markus Barth in his earlier study (1959) entitled *The broken wall*. He calls his first section ‘Paul’s puzzling epistle’, and presents it as ‘a stranger at the door’. What is the ‘strangeness’ of Ephesians? He lists the doctrine of predestination, the emphasis on intellectual enlightenment, ‘superstition’ (by which he means the references to angels and demons), an ‘ecclesiasticism’ which divorces the church from the world, and in his teaching about home relationships a ‘moralism’ which he calls ‘patriarchal, authoritarian, petit bourgeois’ and lacking in originality, breadth, boldness and joy. This is how he sums up his original impression of Ephesians: ‘This strange fellow resembles a fatherless and motherless foundling. He uses a tiresome barogue language. He builds upon determinism, suffers from intellectualism, combines faith in Christ with superstitious demonology, promotes a stiff ecclesiasticism, and ends with trite, shallow moralism.