Tuesday, May 24, 2022

The Importance Of And Evidence For Paul's Authorship Of Ephesians

I've sometimes brought up the importance of Ephesians 6:1-3 in the context of early Christian eschatology. I've also mentioned the evidence Ephesians provides for Jesus' Bethlehem birthplace. And the letter is valuable in other apologetic and non-apologetic contexts. People typically underestimate the importance of Paul's authorship of the document. They also underestimate the evidence for his authorship.

We need to keep in mind that the sources who were best informed about the authorship of Ephesians wouldn't have been limited to the people we think the most about, like Paul, some other author under a pseudonymous scenario, and the recipients of the letter. Other individuals would have been involved as well, such as other people close to Paul in the relevant contexts, like any amanuensis or letter carrier involved or a church Paul was with when he wrote Ephesians and sent out the letter. So, there could have been, and probably were, many people in multiple locations who had significant information about the document's origins, including its authorship. Think, for example, of the Tychicus of Ephesians 6:21 and those he influenced. See the references to Tychicus in Acts 20:4, Colossians 4:7, 2 Timothy 4:12, and Titus 3:12. Given how unusual that name was and the multiple references to his connections with Paul, Asia, and Ephesus in particular, his traveling, and his being a "beloved brother" and "faithful", it's likely that the same person is being referenced in all of these passages. If Ephesians and Colossians were written close in time, as is often suggested, then the Colossians' being "informed…about the whole situation here" (Colossians 4:10) could easily have included their being given information about the letter to the Ephesians. There were early collections of Paul's letters, which is another context in which information about Ephesians would have circulated early on (Colossians 4:16; 2 Peter 3:15-16; Ignatius, Letter To The Ephesians, 12; see here for more relevant material). And so forth.

Both the Ephesians and the other sources involved would have known that the document was attributed to Paul (in the main body of the text and elsewhere) and would have assigned a lot of significance to whether that attribution was correct. Regarding the importance of authority figures like Paul in early Christianity and the early Christians' opposition to pseudonymity, see here. On the early church's high view of scripture more broadly, see here and here (including the comments section). It's highly unlikely that a document claiming Paul as its author would have been as widely used as Ephesians was, and especially that it would have been considered scripture, if the document's claim of Pauline authorship wasn't thought to be true.

Ephesians is widely quoted or alluded to in the earliest sources of the patristic era, both among those who lived close to Ephesus and those who were further away (e.g., Bruce Metzger, The Canon Of The New Testament [New York: Oxford University Press, 1997], 42, 45, 61, 66-67, 71, 81-82, 94; Michael Slusser, ed., Dialogue With Trypho [Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University Of America Press, 2003], 136 and n. 32 on 136). It's not just that certain authors use the letter, but also that they seem to expect their audiences to be familiar with it without any accompanying explanation or argument. Given the widespread familiarity with and use of Ephesians so early, it's very likely that the Ephesian church knew about the letter.

With all of that in mind, let's look more closely at some of the earliest sources relevant to the authorship of Ephesians.

Here's an article by Chris Price about the evidence from Ignatius. The liberal Jesus Seminar scholar Clayton Jefford wrote:

"His [Ignatius'] letters are replete with Pauline ideas and letter structure. The most obvious example of this may be found in a comparison of the bishop's letter to the Ephesians with the Pauline letter of Ephesians, which I assume to be a product of the Pauline school and not of Paul himself. The elaborate greeting that Ignatius offers to the Ephesians, which is typical of his other letters as well, undoubtedly has been modeled upon similar Pauline forms. Numerous terms and phrases that Ignatius has employed in this greeting bear striking similarity to those that appear in the Pauline salutation (Eph 1:3-14). The themes and movement of ideas that follow throughout the bishop's letter show further parallels....we discover here a certain acknowledgment by the bishop that the church at Ephesus knew and revered Paul as well....The fact that Ignatius had modeled his own letter to the Ephesians so closely upon the pseudo-Pauline letter to Ephesus suggests that this form would have gained a happy reception by the Christians there....To some extent, he [Ignatius] specifically patterned his letter [to Rome] upon Paul's own letter to Rome....Ignatius borrows constantly from Pauline literary style....Ignatius makes special mention of Paul as a faith link between his own journey and that of the apostle (Ign. Eph. 12.2)." (The Apostolic Fathers And The New Testament [Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2006], 41-42, 138-39)

Allen Brent, who isn't a conservative either, comments that the Ephesian church possessed Ephesians at the time when Ignatius wrote to them, and he cites, with apparent approval, W.R. Schoedel's view that Ignatius patterns his letter to the Ephesians after Paul's (Ignatius Of Antioch [New York, New York: T & T Clark International, 2009], 132). On the same page, Brent notes that Schoedel finds nineteen references or allusions to Ephesians in Ignatius' letter to that church. Brent also argues that the letter to the Ephesians in the New Testament presents a form of church organization that predates that of Ignatius (133).

In his letter to the Ephesians, Ignatius makes reference to his interactions with multiple individuals from that church. He also refers to his interactions with the Ephesian Christians elsewhere (Letter To The Magnesians, 15; Letter To The Trallians, 13; Letter To The Romans, 10; Letter To The Philadelphians, 11; Letter To The Smyrnaeans, 12). Those interactions with the Ephesian Christians include their involvement in composing and delivering Ignatius' letters. Think of how easily comments could have been made in such contexts about the letters of Paul and Paul's sending a letter to the Ephesians. Given how often Ignatius uses material from Ephesians in his letters to the churches he writes to, you have to wonder why the Ephesian Christians would repeatedly be so cooperative in contributing to and delivering those letters if they considered Ephesians a forgery. At the close of his letter to the church of Ephesus, which draws so heavily from Ephesians, he refers to how some of the Ephesian Christians were with him in Smyrna, where he was composing the letter (21). In that letter to the church of Ephesus, Ignatius makes much of the Ephesians' relationship with the apostles in general (11) and Paul in particular, and he mentions Paul's writing of letters in that context (12). Ignatius' interactions with the Ephesian Christians, his interest in Paul's relationship with the church of Ephesus, and his interest in Ephesians put Ignatius in a good position to have been well informed about the authorship of the letter.

Even if we were to assume that the Ephesian Christians never discussed the authorship of Ephesians with Ignatius under any of the circumstances summarized above, a scenario I consider unlikely, they probably at least would have noticed the high view of Ephesians reflected in Ignatius' letter to them. So, the importance of Ephesians and what others believed about its authorship would have been known to the Ephesian Christians early on.

It's highly unlikely that Ignatius would put so much effort into appealing to Paul's letter to the Ephesians while writing to the church of Ephesus, followed by Ephesians being so widely accepted as a genuine Pauline letter afterward, if Ephesians was pseudonymous. For example, think of a scenario in which it was a forgery composed in the 80s or later. Some of the people still alive in the Ephesian church at the time when Ignatius wrote would have been in a position to know if Ephesians didn't start circulating until long after Paul's death. And if the letter had been forged earlier, its closeness to the time of Paul would make its success as a forgery less likely because of the presence of so many eyewitnesses and contemporaries of Paul. It seems that there isn't enough time between Paul's death and Ignatius' letter to the Ephesians for forgery to make much sense. In fact, it could easily be the case that one or more individuals alive in the Ephesian church during Paul's lifetime were still alive when Ignatius wrote to that church.

We know that the church of Ephesus was among the most prominent churches in early Christianity, as we see in the New Testament, the letters of Ignatius, and later sources (e.g., Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3:3:4). As the New Testament and Ignatius' letters demonstrate, the Ephesian Christians were frequently traveling and in contact with Christians outside Ephesus during the earliest decades of Christianity. The Ephesian church had a prominent voice in the early church and would have had a lot of influence on how people viewed issues like the authorship of Ephesians. Tertullian wrote, "there will be no less agreement that that was handed down by the apostles which is held sacred and inviolate in the churches the apostles founded. Let us consider what milk it was that Paul gave the Corinthians to drink, by the line of what rule the Galatians were again made to walk straight, what the Philippians, the Thessalonians, and the Ephesians are given to read, what words are spoken also by our near neighbours the Romans, to whom Peter and Paul left as legacy the gospel, sealed moreover with their own blood." (Against Marcion, 4:5) He appeals to the testimony of the Ephesians about what Paul gave them to read. So, Tertullian thought Ephesians was "held sacred and inviolate" by the Ephesian church. For reasons like the ones explained above, it's very unlikely that the church of Ephesus would have held such a view of Ephesians if they didn't think it was written by Paul. Tertullian goes on, just afterward, to contrast the canonical version of Luke with Marcion's version: "that gospel of Luke which we at this moment retain has stood firm since its earliest publication, whereas Marcion's is to most people not even known" (ibid.). It's doubtful that Tertullian would have made such a comment about Luke just after commenting on Ephesians if Ephesians and/or its acceptance by the Ephesian church and others had originated as recently as Marcion's version of Luke had. Tertullian isn't just appealing to the beliefs current in his day. He's appealing to the history leading up to his day as well.

Then there's Polycarp's citation of Ephesians as scripture (Letter To The Philippians, 12). And Polycarp speaks highly of Paul repeatedly in that letter (3, 9, 11), to the point that it seems that he followed Paul's life closely. Polycarp lived close to Ephesus, Ephesian Christians sometimes visited the Christians in Polycarp's church (Ignatius, Letter To The Magnesians, 15), and he was a disciple of John, who knew Paul (Galatians 2:9-10).

Early and widespread reports place the apostle John in Ephesus at the close of his life in the late first or early second century (e.g., Irenaeus, citing Polycarp, in Against Heresies, 3:3:4; Polycrates, in Eusebius, Church History, 5:24:3-4; Clement of Alexandria, Who Is The Rich Man That Shall Be Saved?, 42). I'm not aware of any reason to reject those reports, and they add some coherence to John's Patmos location, which is near Ephesus, in Revelation 1:9 and the focus on the churches of Asia and the placing of Ephesus first in Revelation 2-3. If John had a large role in the church of Ephesus in the late first to early second century, then his influence there and elsewhere probably shaped how Ephesians and its authorship were perceived. In addition to the material in Galatians cited above, there are other indications that the apostles, including Paul, were often in contact with one another and monitoring each other's activities (e.g., 1 Corinthians 9:5, 15:11; Papias' citation of "the elder", probably John, commenting on the activities of Peter and Mark in Eusebius, Church History, 3:39:15). If individuals like Ignatius and Polycarp were so interested in and knowledgeable about Paul and his letters, somebody like John probably had such characteristics even more. The presence of somebody like John in Ephesus until around the turn of the century would make it even more unlikely that a document like Ephesians would be forged and popularized around that time, especially in Ephesus. I've argued elsewhere (here, for example) that the John in question was the son of Zebedee. Notice, though, that even if he was some other John, much of what I've argued in this context could remain true (he was named John and was a disciple of Jesus, in a sense involving being an eyewitness of Jesus, and a prominent leader in Asia, most likely in Ephesus especially; he lived into his elderly years until the late first or early second century; he'd had contact with and had a lot of interest in the apostles; etc.). Anybody who wants to argue that the Asian leader in question not only wasn't the son of Zebedee, but also didn't have one or more of the other attributes in question would have to provide an argument to that effect. Arguing that the individual under consideration was some John other than the son of Zebedee wouldn't, by itself, be much of an objection to my position in this context.

One of the cumulative effects of what I've discussed in this post is that there seems to have been a steady stream of individuals from the middle of the first century into the second century who were in contact with Ephesus or lived there and would have been in a good position to judge the authorship of Ephesians (Paul, Tychicus, John, Ignatius, Polycarp, etc.). As Acts, Paul's letters, and the letters of Ignatius illustrate, the Ephesian church was in frequent contact over several decades with some of the people outside Ephesus who would have been making the earliest judgments about Ephesians' authorship. The early Christians and their opponents acknowledged that there were doubts circulating about the authorship of some Biblical books (e.g., Daniel, 2 Peter). Ephesians, however, was among the New Testament documents Eusebius refers to as undisputed (Church History, 3:3, 3:25).

1 comment:

  1. I think there is also good evidence for Ephesians (many of the same evidences) if it is the "lost" letter to the Laodiceans and was meant to be circulated among those churches in Asia Minor (including Ephesus, but not originally written with the Ephesians in mind). I've argued to that latter effect,and I think IIRC that was Paley's position as well. The letter bears several marks of being written to people who didn't know Paul personally. I think it was written concomittantly with Colossians and both of those and Philemon delivered by Tychicus on the same trip.