Ephesians, Epistle to the
EPHESIANS, EPISTLE TO THE
A New Testament letter traditionally regarded as sent by St. Paul to the Christian community in Ephesus. Two problems, especially perplexing, surround the study of the epistle, viz., its destination and its origin. Despite the title and the address in Eph 1.1, there are solid reasons for questioning its destination as the Ephesian community. The words "who are at Ephesus" are lacking in the two major codices, Vaticanus and Sinaiticus, in important papyri, and in some of the Fathers. Moreover, though purporting to come from Paul, who worked at Ephesus for a fairly long time (Acts 19), it contains no personal references to any of his friends there. Most scholars agree, therefore, that it was not originally written to the Ephesian church. But there is no agreement on the originally intended readers or on how the "Ephesian" tradition originated.
Contents and Doctrine. The introductory chapter contains a blessing (1.3–14) and a thanksgiving (1.15–23). In the body of the letter the christology of Colossians is further developed (2.1–3.21). The Church is viewed as a cosmic, universal entity; Christ as the head of the Church is the head of all creation. An important theme of the letter is the reconciliation of Jews and Gentiles (2.11–22), who form one humanity in the body of Christ. The emphasis is on sharing in the resurrection as a present reality rather than as a future hope. Following the exposition is a lengthy section of exhortation (4.1–6.20) that contains traditional materials—a list of vices (5.3–5) and a household code (5.21–6.9).
In content and vocabulary, Ephesians shows literary dependence on Colossians and on other epistles of the Pauline corpus. As in Colossians, the doctrine of Ephesians can be examined under the triple heading of Christ, the Church, and the Christian.
Christ. Colossians had already stated the cosmic dimensions of Christ's supremacy, both in the order of creation and in the order of redemption (Col 1.15–20). This is restated now, although more briefly: all things are to be "reestablished" in Christ (Eph 1.10). The term that is used (ἀνακεφαλαιώσασθαι) means "to sum up" or "to bring together under one heading," indicating Christ as the source of unity through the one and same salvation. This bringing together in Christ necessarily involves the absolute supremacy of Christ, and the angelic orders are included (1.21). This had been a major point in Colossians, and despite the generally less polemical tone of Ephesians, one can note even here traces of a lack of sympathy with any who would question this doctrine. As in Colossians, πλήρωμα is applied also here to Christ (4.31), but not in the same way. It is always in relationship to the Church and is considered under that heading. Eph 4.10 states the reason for Christ's achieving the position of being the πλήρωμα: it consists in His descent into the lower regions and His consequent ascension into heaven. By this means He brought His redemptive presence into the whole of the universe.
The Church. The major emphasis of the epistle is on the understanding of the Church. As in Colossians, Christ is explicitly called the head of the Church (Col 1.18; Eph1.22; 4.15; 5.23) and the Church referred to as the body of Christ (Col 1.18, 24; 3.15; Eph 1.22–23; 4.12, 16;5.30), the reference in these cases being to the universal Church and not to the particular, local communities. Ephesians further develops the concept. Christ formed His "body" by making Jew and Gentile one through the cross (Eph 2.13–16), which destroyed the wall between them (a reference to the wall separating the court of the Gentiles from the court of the Israelites at the Temple of Jerusalem). It is Christ, too, who sees to the "building up" of his body, a process that is described in overflowing terms in 4.13–16. The image of head and body has evoked a wealth of other images that bring out the intimate union between Christ and the Church. It is because of this union that the word πλήρωμα and its derivatives can be spoken of the Church, although it is difficult to know precisely what is meant in all of the cases. Christ fills the Church with all things so that she might attain "to the mature measure of the fullness of Christ" (4.13). In this way can the Church be called the "completion of him who fills all with all" (1.23), although the phrase can also be understood in the more restricted sense in which a "body" is the complement of the "head." Both the image and the insistence with which it is applied justify the conclusion that the writer was thinking of a real, organic, though spiritual, union between Christ and the Church and among the various members of the Church.
The intimacy of the union suggested by this image, in turn, evoked the image of a spouse and his bride to describe the relationship between Christ and the Church. The figure is a familiar one from the Old Testament (e.g., Hos 1–3; Ez 16) and is taken up in the New Testament by several writers (e.g., Mk 2.18–20 and parallels; Jn3.29). Ephesians makes an explicit comparison between Christ's relationship to the Church and a husband's to his wife (5.21–33). Christ's love was such that He delivered Himself up for the Church "that he might sanctify her, cleansing her in the bath of water by means of the word…" (5.25–26). Thus is the Church presented in "all her glory, not having spot or wrinkle …" (Eph 5.27). While the writer was concerned in this section primarily with the ordinary husband-wife relationship, the introduction of the Christ-Church analogy has conditioned his whole presentation; the analogy is repeated several times (e.g., 5.24, 25, 29, 32). The climax of the passage, the quotation from Gen 2.24 about the man cleaving to his wife "and the two shall become one flesh," is used to describe the spiritual marriage of Christ and His Church (Eph 5.32). The epistle calls this teaching about the Church a "great mystery," i.e., a part of the whole design of God from the beginning, but hidden until now when it is revealed in Christ.
Ephesians uses still other figures to describe the Church. Eph 2.12–22 proposes a variety of images. In2.12 the author says that his Gentile readers were at one time "excluded from the community [πολιτεία] of Israel. …" This is a reference to the theocratic state orcommonwealth of the Old Testament that had God as its sovereign and that was to prepare for the coming kingdom of Christ and God (cf. Eph 5.5). Although the Church is not explicitly called a πολιτεία in this passage, such an application can be inferred from the fact that the writer calls the Christians συμπολ[symbol omitted]ται (fellow citizens) a little later (2.19); the term supposes that a new πολιτεία, the Church with Christ at its head, has been constituted. In the same verse the Christians are said to be "members of God's household" (οἰκε[symbol omitted]οι το[symbol omitted] θεο[symbol omitted]), a figure suggestive of a family and based on the adoptive sonship of Christians. The foundation of the household is the apostles and prophets; its chief cornerstone is Jesus Christ (Eph 2.20). The resulting structure is then identified as a "temple holy in the Lord" (2.21). This rich combination of images (see 1 Cor 3.10–17) is varied in Eph 4.12, 16, where the "building up" is applied to the "body of Christ." These passages take on greater significance in that the images are applied to the universal Church, not to the local church, as is generally the case in Paul's undisputed letters.
The universal character of the Church in Ephesians is most clear from 4.1–16, where the author pointed out three dangers that threaten the unity of the Church (Benoit). These are, first of all, the divisions that can rise up among Christians themselves (4.1–3). They must preserve unity because all Christians together make up "one body and one Spirit, even as you were called in one hope of your calling" (4.4). The unity in catholicity is most strikingly stated in the familiar words: "one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and throughout all, and in us all" (4.5–6). The second danger to unity is the variety of gifts within the Church (4.7–11). This variety must be seen as necessary to the perfect building up of Christ's body (4.12) and for the attainment of true unity (4.13). Here there is a strong argument for diversity in unity, even for the necessity of such diversity if true unity is to be attained. The final danger is heretical teaching (4.14) that could interfere seriously with "growing up in Christ" (Eph 4.15).
The Christian. The life of the Christian will be greatly influenced by this deeper understanding of the unity of the Church as expressed by the images of the body of Christ, the bride of Christ, the commonwealth and the household of God, the spiritual edifice, and the holy temple. A greater appreciation of the need for love should emerge (4.15–16; 6.23–24); and Christians have the perfect model and stimulus in the love that Christ has shown them (5.2, 25, 29), as well as in the love that the Father manifested in saving them through Christ (2.4–6). This love will be expressed in those virtues that regulate the conduct with one's neighbors (4.2); a further motive is presented in the Christian vocation itself, which is a great thing and calls for correspondingly great actions (4.1). In a fairly long ethical passage the author reminds Christians, first of all, that they are not to imitate the conduct of the Gentiles, since this is not in accord with Christian teaching (4.17–21). Rather, they are to put off the old person entirely, by which is meant anything that is reminiscent of the pagan past, and put on the new person, which means complete correspondence to the life of Christ (4.22–24). This will mean the avoiding of a large number of vices that the epistle lists (4.25–32). The ethical section is continued in chap. 5, which begins with the positive appeal to imitate God as His children and then goes on to show that immorality of any kind is incompatible with their status as "saints," "children of light," and "filled with the Spirit" (5.1–20). The writer is aware that it is no easy task to live such a life, but he urges his readers to make use of the extensive armor at their disposal. The passage illustrates the author's genius for making applications of ordinary material objects to the spiritual life (6.10–17).
In three passages in which the epistle deals with domestic morality, it urges the primacy of mutual subjection, something foreign to the pagan society of the time. Beyond the general attitude affecting the relationship of all Christians (5.21), there is a special one affecting that of husband and wife (5.22–33). On the part of the wife it is one of subjection to the husband (5.22). There is no doubt that this subjection would be understood differently in the social order of that day than in the present. That some aspect of this special relationship is essential to the married state seems demanded by the comparison with Christ's relationship to the Church (5.23–24). Once that comparison has been established, the writer uses it again to describe the mutual love between husband and wife as a basic element of the married life (5.25–33).
The second passage concerns children and parents, inculcating obedience on the part of the former and religious disciplining of the children on the part of the latter (6.1–4). The third passage outlines the mutual conduct of Christian masters and slaves. Although the epistle does not declare slavery to be intrinsically evil (such a judgment would have been almost impossible in the social order of that day), it does bring Christian principles into the picture reminding all parties of their responsibility to each other and that they are subject to a Higher Power (6.5–9). Again, these three passages have a parallel in Colossians (Col 3.18–4.1); but in Ephesians the treatment of husbands and wives has been greatly extended.
Time and Place of Writing. The author speaks of himself as a prisoner (3.1; 4.1). Scholars who suppose Pauline authorship, generally place provenance in Rome where Paul would have written it in the early 60s during his imprisonment. The Caesarean or an unrecorded Ephesian imprisonment have been suggested with less convincing arguments (for details, see captivity epistles). Those who deny Pauline authorship see the epistle as a much later document.
As to its destination, some suggest that it was intended as a circular letter for more than one Christian community (which would account for its strictly epistolary form and lack of personal greetings), or that it was addressed to a community that later became unworthy of it (suggested is Laodicea; cf. Rv 3.14–21; the address would then have been changed to a worthier candidate), or that an unknown author composed it. While none of these opinions can be absolutely excluded, neither can anyone of them be claimed as more probable at the present time.
Despite almost 18 centuries of unanimous, though uncritical acceptance of the Pauline authorship of Ephesians, modern scholars have proposed several serious arguments against it. (1) The vocabulary includes several words that are not used in the seven letters generally recognized as having been written by Paul, as well as an additional number of words that are rarely used by Paul or that are used by Paul with a different meaning. (2) The style is heavy and marked by redundance, unlike the vigorous, hurried style of Paul's letters. (3) The epistle shows a development of thought that is regarded as unPauline. (4) The striking surface similarity between Ephesians and Colossians is accompanied by unexplained differences in the meaning of common words and expressions. The last two points have led some scholars to suggest that an unknown author wrote the Epistle to the Ephesians as a summary of Paul's writings or as a conscious development of the doctrine in the Epistle to the Colossians.
Not all scholars find these arguments convincing, but acknowledge the influence of Pauline thought. Among the defenders of scholars who defend Pauline authorship are P. Benoit, L. Cerfaux, Markus Barth, F. F. Bruce, E.H. Maly, and P. T. O'Brien. Scholars who regard the letter as Deutero-Pauline include H. Conzelmann, M. Dibelius, J. Gnilka, E. J. Goodspeed, E. Käsemann, R. Schnackenburg, R. F. Collins, J. A. Fitzmyer, A. T. Lincoln, and M. Y. McDonald. The question of the origin of Ephesians, like that of its destination, remains without a certain solution.
Bibliography: p. j. kobelski, The Letter to the Ephesians, in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey 1990). e. j. goodspeed, The Meaning of Ephesians (New York 1933). k.-m. fischer, Tendenz und Absicht des Epheserbriefes (Göttingen 1973). a. van roon, The Authenticity of Ephesians (Leiden 1974). r. schnackenburg, Der Brief an die Epheser (Neukirchen, 1982). p. benoit, "L'Horizon paulinien de l'épître aux Éphésiens," Revue biblique 46 (1937) 342–61, 506–25. h. schlier, Christus und die Kirche im Epheserbrief (Tübingen 1930). r.f. collins, Letters That Paul Did Not Write: Letters to the Hebrews and the Pauline Pseudepigrapha (Wilmington 1988). a. t. lincoln, Ephesians (Dallas 1990). p. t. o'brien, The Letter to the Ephesians (Grand Rapids 1999). m. y. macdonald, Colossians. Ephesians (Collegeville 2000). For additional bibliography, see captivity epistles.
[e. h. maly/
m. p. horgan.]