Questions about the composition of Ephesians were raised as far back as Erasmus, Theodore of Mopsuestia, and Jerome, not necessarily doubting Pauline authorship but noting unusual features of the epistle. More substantial attacks came from E. Evanson in 1792 and W. M. L. de Wette in 1826, followed by F. D. E. Schleiermacher, F. C. Baur and the Tübingen school. Ephesians is currently counted among the "disputed" Pauline letters by up to 70-80% of critical scholars (cf. Raymond Brown, An Introduction to the NT 620, 629).1Those who reject Paul’s authorship have pointed out that the letter differs from the undisputed Paulines in at least the following ways. (1) The vocabulary of Ephesians contains over ninety words not found elsewhere in Paul’s extant writings. (2) The literary style of Ephesians is more formal (with long, elaborate sentences) than the undisputed letters (with a more direct, conversational style). (3) Ephesians appears to have borrowed wording from Colossians, with seventy-five of the 155 verses in Ephesians paralleled in Colossians. (4) The theology of Ephesians lacks emphasis on typical Pauline doctrines (e.g. justification by faith) and is at variance with the theology espoused in the genuine Paulines. For example, (a) in Ephesians the church is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets (2:20), whereas elsewhere Paul unequivocally affirms that the only foundation is Christ (1 Corinthians 3:11). (b) In Ephesians there is reconciliation of Jews and Gentiles (2:11-18), but in Paul’s undisputed writings the Jew-Gentile conflict is an unresolved issue (Romans 2–4, 9–11, 14–15; Galatians 2–4). (c) Ephesians anticipates a long period of development for the church (3:21), in contrast to the expected immediacy of Christ’s return in the genuine Paulines (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; Philippians 4:5).
Are these objections as decisive as anti-conservative critics would have us believe? Consider the following responses. (1) The distinctive thrust of Ephesians necessarily calls for specific terminology. While word usage is an extremely subjective gauge for evaluating an author’s writing style, surely Paul’s vocabulary was broader than what is contained in a selective handful of his letters (see Biblical Authorship Part 3). Seeing that Ephesians is the only Pauline epistle wherein the terms politeia ("citizenship," 2:12) and hudōr ("water," 5:26) are employed, is it reasonable to conclude that these basic words were not in the apostle’s vocabulary and that he did not and could not have ever used them?!2 The other side of the proverbial coin is having to explain why there are so many more words in Ephesians that are shared with the undisputed Paulines but no other New Testament writings (see F. B. Clogg, Introduction to the NT 96). In fact, liberal critics like G. Johnston ("Ephesians," in IDB 2:110-11) curiously maintain that Ephesians exhibits signs of forgery because it contains too many parallels to the authentic Pauline letters!
(2) A hypothetical "Pauline literary style" fails to appreciate the varied contributions of Paul and his coworkers (see Biblical Authorship Part 4), not to mention the different purposes and themes that would naturally affect the writing style from one document to the next. The less-than-personal nature of this letter (see Ephesians: Why So Impersonal?) is a significant factor that would obviously affect its manner of presentation. A. Roon argues that at least some of the differences between Ephesians and the other Pauline letters may be due to the fact that Ephesians was written by Paul alone, whereas the rest were written with secretarial assistance (Authenticity of Ephesians 85-87). Obviously the manual writing of a letter is quite different than verbally dictating a letter. Alternatively, G. L. Borchert suggests that Paul’s amanuensis (perhaps Luke) may have had more liberty in drafting the form and content of Ephesians, as the letter betrays Lukan patterns of writing (Galatians 248, 257). Even W. G. Kümmel, who rejects Pauline authorship, acknowledges that the amanuensis hypothesis could explain the unique style and language of Ephesians (Introduction to the NT 252).
(3) The relationship between Ephesians and Colossians (and other Paulines) argues for common authorship. It has been estimated that between one third and one half of the verses in Ephesians are parallel to Colossians in both order and content, one fourth of the words in Ephesians are in Colossians, and one third of the words in Colossians are in Ephesians (R. E. Brown, An Introduction to the NT 627-28). Similar parallels are also recognized between Ephesians and the other Pauline letters (see G. Johnson, "Ephesians," in IDB 2:110-11).
(4) It is not realistic to expect Paul to have addressed the exact same themes in exactly the same way in all of his letters, irrespective of audience, circumstances, and occasion. This is particularly relevant to Ephesians, seeing that for three years Paul did not refrain from declaring to these brethren the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:20, 27). Further, when the apostle’s teachings are read in context and one recognizes that similar metaphors are sometimes used to emphasize different points for different purposes (e.g. 1 Corinthians 3:6-9; 15:36-37; Galatians 6:7-9), the theology of Ephesians is easily harmonized with that of the other Paulines.
(a) In Ephesians the church is said to be built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets (2:20) because of the important contributions these godly men made through their inspired teachings (3:1-5). At the same time, Jesus Christ is still acknowledged as the preeminent foundation stone (2:20b), consistent with the comparable imagery of 1 Corinthians 3:5-11. (b) In Ephesians 2:11-22 the reconciliation of Jews and Gentiles is stated according to God’s purpose rather than assuming a lack of any Jew-Gentile tensions. (c) That the Lord is to be glorified in the church "unto all generations" (Ephesians 3:21) is actually a prayer for eternity. And Paul never expressed certainty as to the timing of Christ’s return, whether it was to be during the apostle’s lifetime (1 Thessalonians 4:15) or after his death (1 Corinthians 6:14; 2 Corinthians 4:14). The reference to the nearness of the Lord in Philippians 4:15 is thus better understood as an affirmation of spatial proximity rather than time.
None of the objections against Pauline authorship is convincing enough to override the weighty evidence to the contrary. The author claims that he is "Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ" (1:1), with the added self-description, "I, Paul, the prisoner of Christ Jesus" (3:1).3 The author asserts apostolic authority (1:1; 3:1-9; 4:1, 17) and exhibits an obvious familiarity with his audience (1:15-17; 3:2, 13-19; 4:17-20; 6:21-22). He even makes a personal prayer request: "for me, that speech may be given to me in opening my mouth in boldness to make known the mystery of the gospel" (6:18-19). For whom were these readers being asked to pray, and how would they have understood and responded to this request? Notice further that Tychicus was to personally communicate to these brethren specific news about this author who professed to be the apostle Paul (6:21).
The outright dismissal of the self-claims of the text (1:1; 3:1; cf. 6:18-21) unnecessarily impugns the moral integrity of the writer. Why would he purposefully deceive his readers by alleging to be someone he is not despite the repeated emphasis on speaking truth (4:15, 25; 6:14)? This would also raise serious doubts, without solid justification, about matters of canonicity and divine inspiration (cf. 3:1-7; 6:14-17). Would the first recipients (who supposedly knew the author) have been duped? For whom would they have prayed (6:18-19)? About whom would Tychicus (a party to the deception?) have brought news (6:21)?
Another significant factor is the vast manuscript evidence. Of the 779 extant copies of the Pauline writings,4 the authorship of Ephesians is ascribed to no one other than the apostle Paul. There is also the unanimous testimony of the early church (and even heretics like Marcion!), who were in a much better position than any modern critic (historically and geographically) to receive and transmit authentic information. By the mid-second century Ephesians was widely circulated and Pauline authorship undisputed.5
Either Paul is the inspired author of Ephesians or he is not. It is the height of inconsistency to maintain the letter’s divine inspiration or at least its moral value, on one hand, while rejecting Pauline authorship, on the other. Is it realistic to argue that the contents of Ephesians are credible and true except for 1:1 and 3:1? If the authorial claims of 1:1 and 3:1 are false and misleading, how can the rest of the document be trusted? Unless one’s agenda is to undermine the integrity of the biblical record, it is hard to understand how so many significant variables can be ignored and how one can confidently maintain that Ephesians belongs in the suspect category of "disputed" writings.
--Kevin L. Moore
1 Note, however, that H. W. Hoehner has shown this figure to be exaggerated (Ephesians 2-20).
2 Furthermore, if Ephesians 1:3-14 and 5:14 are potential samples of pre-formed materials that have been adopted from other sources and incorporated into this epistle, as a number of modern scholars contend, is it then legitimate to include these words in the embellished charge of the author’s use of non-Pauline vocabulary?
3 All scripture quotations in English are the author’s own translation.
4 See Kurt and Barbara Aland, The Text of the NT (2nd ed.) 91; also David Trobisch, Paul’s Letter Collection (1994).
5 The Marcionite canon (ca. 140), the Muratorian canon (ca. 180), early Latin and Syriac versions; cf. also Clement of Rome, Ignatius, Polycarp, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, and Hermas. Even critics like W. G. Kümmel concede: "Without question Ephesians was extraordinarily well attested in the early church" (Introduction to the NT 251).