Tuesday, June 07, 2022

How Ephesus Causes Problems For Skepticism

In an earlier post, I discussed some evidence for Paul's authorship of Ephesians. It was largely about the history of the Ephesian church and those who interacted with that church in the earliest decades of Christianity. I was focused on the Pauline authorship of Ephesians in that post, but some of the issues discussed there have bigger implications as well. I want to discuss those implications here and expand upon some of my points in that earlier post.

Paul spent some time in Ephesus (1 Corinthians 15:32, 16:8), apparently multiple years (Acts 20:31). Notice that Acts 20 refers to widespread activity there, even to the point of using the phrase "house to house" (verse 20). Since he wrote 1 Corinthians from Ephesus, the Corinthians would have had access to reliable information on Paul's activities in Ephesus to some extent. And Ephesians wasn't the only letter Paul is reported to have sent to Ephesus. The letters to Timothy seem to have been sent there as well (1 Timothy 1:3, 2 Timothy 1:18, 4:12). Paul didn't just send letters, but sent people to Ephesus as well and received information from individuals sent from Ephesus (Tychicus, Timothy, etc.).

I also discussed John's likely presence in Ephesus in the late first century, maybe even into the early second century. It's likely that all five of the Johannine documents in the New Testament were written during the period of John's residence in Ephesus. I explained that even if the John in question was somebody other than the son of Zebedee, his presence in the city likely had a lot of significance, though he probably was the son of Zebedee. Revelation, which is highly likely to be a first-century document, places a leader named John on the island of Patmos (1:9), which is closer to Ephesus than any of the other churches mentioned in Revelation 2-3, and goes on to address Ephesus before any of the other churches. Those characteristics of Revelation become more coherent in light of the later reports of a prominent leader named John who was a disciple of Jesus and lived into his elderly years in Asia until at least the closing years of the first century. There's further corroboration within other New Testament documents. Two of the letters attributed to John refer to the author as "the elder" (2 John 1, 3 John 1), which becomes more coherent when we consider the later reports of John's activities as an elderly man in Ephesus. He probably had a patriarchal role as one of the last, and eventually the last, of the living apostles. I've said a lot in other posts (like here) about Papias' comments concerning a disciple of Jesus named John in Papias' day. He refers elsewhere to what "the elder" said, probably referring to the same John who wrote 2 and 3 John and is referred to there as "the elder". Papias is reported, by Irenaeus and others, to have been a disciple of John, and Papias lived in Asia, so the evidence from Papias gives us further reason to think John was in Asia in the late first century. My previous post also mentioned other early sources who report that John was in Ephesus. I'll reiterate those, expand on them, and add some other sources:

- Irenaeus refers to John's presence in Ephesus and his writing the fourth gospel while there (Against Heresies, 3:1:1). Irenaeus was a disciple of Polycarp, who was a disciple of John, which puts Irenaeus in a good position to have had reliable information on a subject like where John lived in the late first century.

- And Irenaeus does attribute some of his information on John's Ephesian residence to reports about what Polycarp said (3:3:4). So, there are multiple sources involved here. In fact, Irenaeus uses the plural "those" to refer to multiple individuals who reported what Polycarp said on this issue.

- Something that's seldom mentioned, though, is that the first passage in Irenaeus mentioned above, 3:1:1, seems to have come from a Roman source, perhaps the archives of the Roman church. See here for a discussion of the evidence. So, it looks like Irenaeus' testimony on John's residence in Ephesus reflects the beliefs of at least a few different sources in multiple locations: Irenaeus himself, the multiple unnamed individuals he refers to in 3:3:4, and the Roman source he draws from in 3:1:1.

- Polycrates, a bishop of Ephesus in the late second century (mentioned by Eusebius, Church History, 3:31:2), also refers to John's residence in Ephesus (in Eusebius, Church History, 5:24:3-4). In the nearby context, Polycrates refers to how he's currently at least 65 years old and that several of his relatives also served as bishops (5:24:6-7). He doesn't specify that those relatives lived in Ephesus or were bishops there, but it's unlikely that none of them lived in the city or served as a bishop there, and it's even more unlikely that none of them were even close to Ephesus. Most likely, Polycrates' beliefs about the history of Christianity in Ephesus, and Asia more broadly to whatever extent, were shaped not only by reports from the Ephesian church, but also by family reports. It's significant that Polycrates had two lines of information about these issues.

- Tertullian refers to the seven churches of Revelation 2-3, including Ephesus, as "nurselings" of John whose bishoprics have John as their originator (Against Marcion, 4:5).

- The Acts Of John, a work usually dated to the late second century (J.K. Elliott, The Apocryphal New Testament [New York: Oxford University Press, 2009], 306), has John in Ephesus.

- Since Revelation is relevant to these issues in the ways discussed earlier, it's worth noting that the document was widely accepted among the early Christians. In addition to Tertullian's comments cited above about the Asian churches addressed in Revelation, there's some important information in Irenaeus that seldom gets discussed in this context. In the process of discussing a disputed textual issue in Revelation, Irenaeus refers to the reading found in manuscripts of Revelation that were "ancient" in his day, and he appeals to testimony about the correct textual reading from "those men who saw John face to face" (Against Heresies, 5:30:1). He's appealing to multiple early sources, at least two old manuscripts and at least two individuals who were eyewitnesses of John and who commented on the textual issue in question. It's unlikely that the old manuscripts in question would have been produced and preserved if the people doing so didn't think the book was authentic, and it's unlikely that the eyewitnesses of John who are referred to would have been commenting on the text of Revelation without conveying their view that the document was inauthentic if they thought it was inauthentic. Irenaeus' comments make the most sense if the sources he's citing supported the authenticity of Revelation. And they're very early sources. Justin Martyr, writing in the middle of the second century, referred to how Revelation was written by "John, one of the apostles of Christ" (Dialogue With Trypho, 81). Melito of Sardis, a bishop of that Johannine city (Revelation 3:1-6) in the second century, wrote a work on Revelation (Eusebius, Church History, 4:26:2), which makes more sense if he accepted Revelation's authenticity than if he rejected it. The Muratorian Canon, which is typically thought to have come from Rome in the late second century, also assigns Revelation to John (57-59 here).

- Clement of Alexandria refers to John in Ephesus and makes other relevant comments, such as referring to his old age and his authorship of Revelation (Who Is The Rich Man That Shall Be Saved?, 42). In the process of giving his account, Clement mentions that a city John traveled to is mentioned by "some sources", but not all of them, so Clement is drawing from multiple earlier sources (at least three, apparently, judging by his use of "some").

So, it looks like when we get to Clement in the early third century, there's a double-digit number of diverse sources, ranging from the first century to Clement's day, who refer to a prominent leader named John in Asia, often specifying Ephesus. As early as the first century, we have multiple documents whose author refers to himself as "the elder" and another document in which an author identifying himself as John places himself in Asia, exiled to an island near Ephesus, and goes on to address Ephesus first among the Asian churches. Later sources corroborating John's residence in Ephesus in various ways include individuals who were relationally close to John (Papias, Polycarp) or at least lived in or were geographically close to Ephesus (Irenaeus, Polycrates). Tertullian reports that all of the Asian churches addressed in Revelation 2-3 referred to John as involved in their founding (Against Marcion, 4:5).

I don't recall any early source I've heard of who denies these widespread reports of John's residence in Ephesus in the late first century. Even if there is such a source or multiple ones, they surely have much less weight than what I've outlined above. I consider it highly probable that John, probably the son of Zebedee, lived in Ephesus in his elderly years into the late first or early second century.

And that has some major implications. It means that the allegedly dark and rudderless period of the late first century isn't so dark and rudderless after all. It isn't as easy as critics want us to believe it is to fit their highly speculative hypotheses about early Christianity into the closing decades of the first century. John not only was still alive, but also was in a good enough condition to write documents like the five Johannine ones we have in the New Testament and to travel to some extent, as multiple sources cited above report. He wasn't confined to a bed, suffering from dementia, or some such thing. And the fact that the early Christians were highly networked, meaning that they frequently communicated with one another (through messengers and letters, for example), is beyond reasonable dispute:

"Suggesting that the Fourth Gospel is not directly dependent on the Synoptics need not imply that John did not know of the existence of the Synoptics; even if (as is unlikely) Johannine Christianity were as isolated from other circles of Christianity as some have proposed, other gospels must have been known if travelers afforded any contact at all among Christian communities. That travelers did so may be regarded as virtually certain. Urban Christians traveled (1 Cor 16:10, 12, 17; Phil 2:30; 4:18), carried letters (Rom 16:1-2; Phil 2:25), relocated to other places (Rom 16:3, 5; perhaps 16:6-15), and sent greetings to other churches (Rom 16:21-23; 1 Cor 16:19; Phil 4:22; Col 4:10-15). In the first century many churches knew what was happening with churches in other cities (Rom 1:8; 1 Cor 11:16; 14:33; 1 Thess 1:7-9), and even shared letters (Col 4:16). Missionaries could speak of some churches to others (Rom 15:26; 2 Cor 8:1-5; 9:2-4; Phil 4:16; 1 Thess 2:14-16; cf. 3 John 5-12) and send personal news by other workers (Eph 6:21-22; Col 4:7-9). Although we need not suppose connections among churches as pervasive as Ignatius' letters suggest perhaps two decades later, neither need we imagine that such connections emerged ex nihilo in the altogether brief silence between John's Gospel and the 'postapostolic' period. No one familiar with the urban society of the eastern empire will be impressed with the isolation Gospel scholars often attribute to the Gospel 'communities.'" (Craig Keener, The Gospel Of John: A Commentary, Vol. 1 [Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2003], 41-42)

One of the many issues that's relevant here is how good of a position the early Christians would have been in to judge the authorship attributions, genre, and such of documents closely connected to Ephesus (e.g., John, 1 Corinthians, Ephesians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, 1 John, 2 John, 3 John, Revelation). Not only were Christians outside Ephesus often in contact with the Christians there, but Ephesus also had a steady stream of good sources of information and good leadership in its earliest decades (Paul, Tychicus, John, etc.).

John's time in Ephesus also demonstrates the absurdity of modern speculations about imagined communities that supposedly were antagonistic toward one another (a Pauline community opposing a Petrine community, a Johannine community going off in some other direction, etc.). Ephesus was both a heavily Pauline and a heavily Johannine church, and it was both of those things in the first century and largely simultaneously. It was after John's death when men like Ignatius, Polycarp, and the Ephesian Christians of their day viewed Paul as positively as I documented they did in my earlier post. When Polycrates, the bishop of Ephesus in the late second century, rebuked the Roman bishop Victor in the Quartodeciman controversy, he cited Acts 5:29 in the process (in Eusebius, Church History, 5:24:7). An Ephesian bishop quoted what "Peter and the apostles" said in Acts, a document that speaks so highly of Paul. Yes, Polycrates wasn't writing until the late second century, but the evidence indicates that, in this context, he was expressing what was believed by every previous generation of Christians as well. As Martin Hengel noted, the evidence for the substantial unity of the apostles goes back to our earliest sources:

"The significance of 1 Cor. 15.11, a passage which is all too easily forgotten in New Testament theology (see above, 145ff.), cannot be estimated highly enough. Among other things, despite all the difficulties (which are sometimes great), indeed tensions and fights, it is the basis for the final unity of the primitive Christian proclamation of Christ; one could also say on the basis of 1 Cor. 15.1-11 that it is the basis of the christological unity of the Gospel." (The Four Gospels And The One Gospel Of Jesus Christ [Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International, 2000], 156)


  1. This is a good post that I wanted to return and read thoroughly. I will reblog it. By the way, Paul's epistle which we call "Ephesus" really has to be "to Laodicea." Many writers, good and bad, have recognized this fact. The "to Ephesus" is probably a later addition from a scribe who found the copy in this city. Paul (and the Spirit) wanted the Christians to compare different perspectives, both true, in the letters of Colossians and Laodicea. This is the only way for Col. 4.16 to be fulfilled. Paul instructed both of these letters to become circular, and therefore, copies were commissioned to accomplish this command. The city of Ephesus, scarcely 100 miles to the west by way of a prominent trade route, would have been a natural repository for one of these copies years later, and, would have served subsequent generations who didn't know Paul personally like those among whom he ministered. Because Paul spent nearly three years in Ephesus, that church didn't need a correspondence the way that Laodicea and Colossians did. Paul only "heard about their faith" (Col. 1.4, Eph. 1.15). The absence of any personal greeting in Ephesians, is too out of character for Paul who spent the bulk of his ministry in this city.

  2. P. Chester Beatty II (P46) is one of the earliest (175-225 CE) manuscripts we have as a witness to Ephesians. It omits "to Ephesus" in verse one. My Greek N.T. has the address in brackets.
    If, according to Paul's instruction, both the Colossian and Laodicean letters were to be copied and circulated, where is the Laodicean letter? It seems very unlikely that such a circular letter, presumably copied many times would be lost to history. Christians started copying and disseminating Paul's letters in the first century and seen by 2Pet. 3.16. Since the letter to Laodicea was intended to be circular, it makes sense that a copyist would drop the address when making his local copy.