Who wrote St Paul’s letter to the Ephesians?

Although twice in the epistle to the Ephesians the writer claims to be Paul (1:1; 3:1), Pauline authorship has been greatly disputed in the last century.

The first doubts concerning the authorship of Ephesians appeared in 1519 when Erasmus pointed out stylistic idiosyncrasies. In the 20th century, many scholars denied Pauline authorship. There are four main schools of thought, and the main arguments center on differences of vocabulary, style and theology found in Ephesians when compared with other Pauline epistles.

First, there are those who concede Pauline authorship – among them Harnack and Wescott. Second, those who believe the original Pauline document has been augmented by interpolations. Third, those who reject Pauline authorship – among whom are Bultman, Kummel, Marxsen,, and Moffat.

Lastly, those who observe a lack of conclusive evidence. Among those is H. J. Cadbury, who in his article “The Dillemma of Ephesians” (New Testament Studies, 1958, pp. 91-102) cites seven problems.

First, the letter might not have been addressed to the Ephesians. Although the words ἐν Ἐφέσῳ (“in Ephesus,” 1:1) are not present in p46, they are in Codex Alexandrinus (A). They are not present in the original writing of Codex Sinaiticus (א) and Codex Vaticanus (B), but only in those manuscripts’ corrected form. Cadbury actually thinks this counts in favor of authenticity, for it removes the apparent contradiction between a letter written to unfamiliar people by a person who spent years in Ephesus.

Second, the a priori possibility of the pseudonymous character of Ephesians must be admitted. Third, many early quotations of Ephesians did not mention Paul. Fourth, Pseudonymous writings can come very early after the namesake’s lifetime. Fifth, there is a lack of early pseudonymous works to be compared with Ephesians, which makes a verdict more difficult. Sixth, a follower of Paul might have used Colossians to write Ephesians. Finally, there is difficulty in pinpointing an occasion for the writing of the letter.

Markus Barth points out four main arguments against the Pauline authorship of Ephesians. First, there are problems in vocabulary and style. Second, there is the possible dependence on Colossians. Third, historical and literary relationships with the Pauline corpus. Fourth, theological distinctions (e.g. imagery of the broken wall, Israel’s nearness to God, no mention of dying with Christ, the stronger sense of communal salvation as opposed to individual justification). He states that the last argument is the most important today.

Pauline Authorship

In defense of Pauline authorship, many points can be made. First, the letter itself claims to be written by Paul twice (1:1 and 3:1). Strong evidence is needed for disregarding this.

Second, its authenticity was universally accepted by both orthodox and heretics (e.g. Marcion) alike since the earliest days of the Church.

Third, Pauline features abound; the style, it is generally agreed, only deviates 5-10% from the usual Pauline style, but even this is inconclusive. Differences in style are largely accounted for by the circumstances attending the time of writing and the intended audience. In the absence of a stronger evidence, the burden of proof rests on those who go against unanimous tradition that extended for about 1,700 years since the early Church.

Fourth, Ephesians is not so much a copy of Colossians, but a development of it. It is not necessarily dependent on it, but addresses similar concerns at different (although close) times.

Fifth, Paul apparently was not widely recognized as a great apostle and figure in the area; this is seen by the lack of any reference to him in Revelation. Thus, it is unlikely that a forger would have tried to draw authority from his name.

Sixth, the theology of Ephesians is hardly unique in Paul. It includes elements such as justification by faith (not alone, but as opposed to the works of the Law), grace, the flesh, reconciliation, the Jews and the Law. Justification by faith is not the only theme in Paul, and should not be used as a criterion for Pauline authorship. The milder and yet more majestic theological style in Ephesians can certainly be accounted for by Paul’s more advanced age and experience. Moreover, the debates about what theology does or does not sound like Paul, given the demonstrable similarities elsewhere, are highly subjective.

Finally, Paul was likely a prisoner when he wrote the letter (cf. 3:1; 4:1). This accounts for the developments of other letters as he got closer to the end of his life. Also, pseudonymity was not tolerated in the early Church due to considerations of inspiration and canonicity. Christian pseudepigraphic letters were very rare, especially because it was easier to detect a false claim to writing a letter than other kinds of literature.

Paul instructed the Thessalonians give no credence to any “prophecy, report, or letter supposed to have come from us” (2 Thess. 2:2); he also often made sure, as seen in 2 Thess. 3:17, that his authorship was clear his own signature, “the distinguishing” mark in all his letters.

There are no known forgeries of Christian letters from the New Testament times, and very few from later times. Some of the canonical books even exhibit a lack of urgency for apostolic stamp, as evidenced by the lack of explicit signature in them (the four gospels, Acts, Hebrews, 1 and  2 and 3 John). Evidence from the early Fathers (e.g., Tertullian) shows that if any presbyter attempting to draw from apostolic authority by forging documents were to be removed from office. Christian teaching itself regarded deception as unacceptable behavior.

Discussions of canonicity were paramount to the careful examination of the proper authorship of the documents the church was to accept as the Word of God. Ephesians was extensively and unanimously accepted as Pauline in the early church. Since the considerations against his authorship, as discussed above, are at best inconclusive, there is no reason to reject it in face of strong tradition and evidences in its favor. The burden of proof still rests on the critics.


Important Witnesses to the Text of the New Testament (Partial List)


Manuscript         Name/Family                       Description                    Date              Text

p45 Chester Beatty Gospels, Acts 200-250 Ceasarean, Alexandrian, Western
p46 Chester Beatty Pauline (inc. Hebrews) 200 Alexandrian
p47 Chester Beatty Revelation 250-300
p52 John Rylands Oldest copy of any portion of NT known today (John) 100-150 (p. older)
p66 Bodmer John 200 Alexandrian, Western
p72 Bodmer Jude, 1,2 Peter 3rd c. Alexandrian
p74 Bodmer Acts, James, 1-2 Peter, 1-3 John, Jude 7th c. Alexandrian
p75 Bodmer Luke (earliest), John (one of the earliest) 175-225 Alexandrian
א Codex Sinaiticus Some OT, entire NT (only one) 4th c. Alexandrian (some Western)
A Codex. Alexandr. Most of NT 5th c. Alexandrian, Byz.(Gospels)
B Codex Vaticanus Most of OT, most of NT, Deuterocanonicals 450 Alexandrian
C Codex Ephraemi Portions of OT& NT; Palimpsest 5th c Mixed
D Codex Bezae Gospels (most; Western sequence), Acts, 3 John 5th-6th c. Western, many variations.
E Codex Basiliensis Gospels 8th Byzantine
I Wash. Paul Pauline Epistles 5th-6th c. Alexandrian
W Washington Gospels (Western) different end of Mark 4th-5th Mixed
Family 1 Ceasarean text of the 3rd & 4th cent. 12-14th c Ceasarean
Family 13 Ceasarean text of the 3rd & 4th cent. 12-15th c Ceasarean
Old Syriac 2 Man, text from end 2th-3th c. 4th & 5th Western
Peshitta (Syriac) Was the standard version of Syrian Christianity 5th, 6th Byz. (Gospels), Western
Latin Versions Old Latin, Latin Vulgate, etc.
Coptic Versions Sahidic, Bohairic
Gothic Version Translation (from Greek) in 350-400 5th-6th Byzantine
Armenian Vers. Very accurate translation 5th c. Ceasarean

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