Sunday, 6 January 2013

Ephesians: Why So Impersonal?

     Following his inaugural visit to Ephesus, Paul spent up to three years evangelizing in this city and developing close emotional ties with the Christians there (Acts 20:31-38).1 One would expect, therefore, that any correspondence he sent to this church would be just as warm and familiar as letters written to other congregations with whom he spent considerably less time.2 However, Ephesians gives the appearance of one of the least personal letters in the collection of Paul’s writings, second only to Colossians. These two documents are the only Pauline epistles in which second person ("you") terminology significantly overshadows that in the first person ("I/we"),3 with Ephesians employing 28% more second person terms than first person (154/88), and Colossians 46% more (151/55). Consequently, these two letters seem to be far less personal than the other Paulines.
     While an unusual feature like this is understandable for Colossians, seeing that Paul had no direct affiliation with these saints prior to the time of writing (cf. 1:4; 2:1), this is surely not the case with the Ephesian church. Accordingly, the somewhat general, non-personal nature of Ephesians has led a number of New Testament scholars to suspect that it was intended as a circular letter for multiple churches rather than for any one particular congregation.4 This suspicion is bolstered by the fact that the three oldest extant manuscripts, viz. P46, Sinaiticus, and Vaticanus, omit the phrase en Ephesō ("in Ephesus") at 1:1.
     Most proponents of this encyclical theory, however, tend to ignore the fact that all manuscripts containing the epistle (including the three just mentioned) have the title, "To the Ephesians." In fact, no location besides Ephesus is recorded in any surviving text. The participial expression tois ousin ("the ones being . . .") always has an appended place name in the openings of Paul’s other congregational letters, and since the document is clearly written in letter form, the naming of a recipient in the opening address is necessary. The weight of evidence strongly supports the conclusion that in 1:1 the words "in Ephesus" are original (see also Missing Letters of Paul).5 It is also significant that a similar phenomenon occurs in Romans, wherein some manuscripts omit the words "in Rome" at 1:7 and 1:15, which, if not accidental, may have been an intentional scribal excision to give the epistle broader applicability (cf. B. M. Metzger, Textual Commentary [2nd ed.] 446-47, 532).
     If Ephesians is in fact a genuine Pauline letter addressed to the actual church he founded in the city of Ephesus, how do we account for its uncharacteristic/ impersonal language and style? Comparative analysis indicates that the message of Ephesians is a further development of the material in Colossians, composed with broader purposes to a different audience.6 Thus Ephesians appears to be more of a theological treatise than a personal letter, although some personal touches are included (cf. 1:1, 15-17; 3:2, 13-19; 4:17-21; 6:18-24). But what logical reason could there have been for this deviation from the apostle’s normal practice?
     At the time of composition Paul may have already been planning to write 1 Timothy, which was penned shortly thereafter and sent to Ephesus as well (cf. 1 Timothy 1:3). When he had last visited with the leaders of the Ephesus church, he warned that "from you yourselves [ex humōn autōn] men will rise up speaking perverted things, to drag away the disciples after themselves" (Acts 20:30, author's own translation). Surely it is no mere coincidence that the primary focus of 1 Timothy is for certain ones to be charged "not to teach different doctrines" (1:3; cf. vv. 4-7, 18-20; 4:1-16; 6:3-10, 17-21).
     It is of further interest that in Paul’s letter to the Philippians, written around the same time as Ephesians, reference is made to the "overseers and deacons" (1:1). In contrast, there is no mention in the Ephesian letter of any overseers or deacons, even though at one time the Ephesus church did have overseers (Acts 20:17, 28). Paul even deems it necessary to include in 1 Timothy qualifications for overseers and deacons (3:1-13), with instructions to honor worthy elders and to publicly rebuke unworthy ones without partiality (5:17-21).
     Despite the unique literary features of Ephesians, it is not necessary to jump on the scholarly bandwagon and dismiss Paul’s authorship and/or Ephesus as the letter’s intended destination. On the contrary, taking the epistle at face value and accepting it just as it has been preserved through the centuries has solid justification. This is especially true when consideration is given to the prospect that Ephesians was intended to lay the theological groundwork for 1 Timothy, plus the frustrating leadership problems at Ephesus that naturally would have prompted the document’s less-than-personal tone.
–Kevin L. Moore
       1 It is commonly believed that Paul was in Ephesus for only two years and three months (Acts 19:8-10) and that his reference to "three years" (Acts 20:31) is to be understood as a mere generalization. However, after Luke records Paul’s teaching for three months in the synagogue and for two years in Tyranus’ school, he mentions in Acts 19:22 that the apostle "stayed in Asia for a time," employing the term chronos, meaning "a period of time . . . a long time . . . considerable time" (BAGD 887; cf. BDAG 1092). This extended period could very well have been the nine months or so that would have completed the entire three-year period.
      2 Cf. 1 Corinthians 1:4; 2 Corinthians 1:15; Philippians 1:3-8; 1 Thessalonians 1:2; 2 Thessalonians 1:3-4.
      3 While 1 and 2 Thessalonians and 1 Timothy have more second person words than first person, the difference is only slight (154/129, 61/50, and 66/49 respectively).
      4 The proposal of E. J. Goodspeed (The Meaning of Ephesians) and J. Knox (Philemon Among the Letters of Paul) is that Ephesians served as an introduction letter to the entire Pauline corpus.
      5 See also Hans Conzelmann, Interpreting 204-205; and C. E. Arnold, "Ephesians," in DPL 243-45.
      6 There are a number of common themes, with overlapping vocabulary, shared by the two epistles (see D. A. Carson and D. J. Moo, Introduction to the NT 481, 485, 520-21). That Ephesians was written after Colossians is suggested by the fact that Timothy is named as co-sender in all of Paul’s so-called "prison epistles" except Ephesians, which could indicate that Ephesians was penned after Timothy had been sent away to Philippi (Philippians 2:19-23).

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