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Did the New Testament Authors Lie? (1)


Someone recently linked to an article by Bart Ehrman entitled, “Who Wrote the Bible and Why it Matters,” first published on The Huffington Post on March 25, 2011. Ehrman is among those who think that the Apostle Paul, for example, wrote at most seven of the thirteen letters traditionally associated with his ministry. The other six letters are called “pseudepigrapha.” Someone else wrote them under the alias of the apostle. Thus these NT authors “lied” when they identified themselves as Paul (or as Peter or John, etc.). What are we to make of this? Since Ehrman singles out Ephesians as one example of a letter purportedly written by Paul, but in fact was not, let’s use it as our test case.

By the way, for those of you who find this sort of exercise unnecessary and tedious, you certainly have my permission to cease reading! But I have to confess that I find this fascinating and reassuring as I consider the integrity and truth of the NT documents!

Pauline authorship of Ephesians was rarely if ever questioned in the early church. It wasn’t until the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries that scholarly opinion began to shift. It may come as a surprise to learn that the majority of NT scholars today (such as Ehrman), including some conservative theologians, do not believe that Paul wrote the book, in spite of the fact that the author twice explicitly identifies himself as the famous apostle (1:1; 3:1).

Before proceeding further, be it noted that some of those who reject Pauline authorship still believe in the inspiration and authority of Ephesians and its relevance for the church today. Says Andrew Lincoln: “Whether written by Paul or by a follower, Ephesians is now canonical; it has the same authoritative and foundational status for the Church’s teaching and life as, for example, one of the gospels or Paul’s letter to the Romans” (lxxiii).

For those who wish to study the issue of authorship in more depth, begin with the commentaries by Lincoln (against Pauline authorship) and Peter O’Brien (for it). The most detailed information is found in The Epistle to the Ephesians (Oxford: Clarendon, 1951) by Leslie Mitton (against) and in The Authenticity of Ephesians (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1974) by A. Van Roon (for).

The options concerning authorship are as follows:

(a) The letter was written by Paul (if so, see below on possible dates and provenance). (b) The letter was written by Paul but with later additions by an unknown figure. (c) The letter was written by a close disciple of Paul’s under his direction or perhaps immediately following Paul’s death. (d) The letter was written by a disciple and imitator of Paul, several years after his death (some suggest Onesimus, Tychicus, or Luke).

What reasons are given for rejecting Pauline authorship? Here are the five most common.

First, scholars point to the alleged impersonal character of Ephesians.

The author gives no details of his suffering or imprisonment and appears to have only a general knowledge of his readers (cf. 1:13,15,16). Some also point to the absence of personal greetings to members of the church at Ephesus and contrast this with Romans 15-16. We know that Paul lived and ministered in Ephesus for almost three years and developed a deep and emotionally intimate relationship with the people and their leaders (see Acts 20:17-38). This being true, how could he now address to them specifically a letter that is so relationally distant and emotionally impersonal?

But this reflects more on the identity of the letter’s recipients than it does on the identity of its author. If the words “in Ephesus” (1:1) were not part of the original text (and there is good reason to doubt they were), then the letter might still have been written by Paul as a general epistle or circular document that was sent not only to the Ephesian church but to all the many Gentile congregations in southwestern Asia Minor. If so, the seemingly impersonal character of the letter would make perfectly good sense.

[In his article in DPL, Clinton Arnold argues for the authenticity of the words “in Ephesus” in 1:1. Yet he acknowledges that the letter was sent to more than the Christians in that one city: “The letter was probably a circular letter in the sense that it was intended primarily to circulate among the house churches of Ephesus, its environs and perhaps even more broadly in western Asia Minor” (245).]

Something should also be said about the alleged impersonal comment of Paul in 1:15 (“ever since I heard about your faith . . .”). Critics of Pauline authorship wonder why the apostle would describe only in terms of hearsay the faith of people he purported knows so well. But as Liefeld points out,

“further reflection . . . helps us realize that the Pauline churches grew and declined with sobering rapidity. Galatians 1:6 (“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you . . .”) illustrates that, and even the Ephesian church eventually forsook its first love (Rev. 2:4). Surely it was important to Paul that he ‘heard’ sometime after his time in Ephesus of the Ephesians’ continuing faith and love” (15).

Second, they appeal to language and style.

A standard argument by those who reject Pauline authorship is that the language and style of Ephesians is different from the uncontested Pauline letters. a) There are 41 hapax legomena (words used only once in the NT) in Ephesians and another 84 words are not found in Paul’s other letters but are used in other NT documents. b) They also point to numerous phrases or combinations of words that are unique to Ephesians. Finally, c) there are several lengthy sentences in Ephesians that are extended by relative or causal clauses.

But consider Galatians, a letter that no one denies was written by Paul. In it there are 35 hapax legomena! Philippians contains 79 words that do not appear in the other undisputed Pauline letters, including 36 that appear nowhere else in the NT. We must also remember that “Paul uses distinctive vocabulary in each of his letters, not just in Ephesians. This may be due to a range of factors bound up with the apostle’s mood, his relationships with the readers, and the issues addressed -- in short, the whole epistolary situation” (O’Brien, 6). Best also points out that hapax legomena “are in fact rarely a good guide since subject matter affects the choice of words” (28).

Finally, when compared with other Pauline literature the long sentences are not that out of the ordinary, even if Ephesians does have a few more than most. I agree with O’Brien’s conclusion: “To suggest that he [Paul] could not have written in this vein [i.e., with longer sentence structure] is really to question Paul’s resourcefulness. . . . Perhaps in a more reflective mood, when there were no major or pressing pastoral problems, the apostle deliberately used exalted liturgical language . . . as he praised God for his glorious plan of salvation . . . and edified his predominantly Gentile readers” (7-8).

Third, there is the literary relationship between Ephesians and Colossians.

Anyone can see the often striking similarities between these two letters. Of the 1,750 words in Colossians, 34% are paralleled in Ephesians, while 26.5% of the 2,411 words in Ephesians are paralleled in Colossians. See especially the commendation of Tychicus in Col. 4:7-8 and Eph. 6:21-22 where there is a verbatim correspondence between 29 consecutive words. There are also numerous thematic and structural parallels between the two books. Most modern scholars believe, therefore, that Colossians was written first (whether by Paul or not is hard to determine) and that Ephesians is dependent upon it. As Lincoln notes, “everything points . . . to a later follower of Paul who used Colossians as the basis for his own reinterpretation of the Pauline gospel” (lxviii).

But even should we concede the literary dependence of Ephesians on Colossians (which, by the way, is far from certain), this hardly proves that the former is non-Pauline! Is it not just as likely, if not more so, that one person wrote two letters in the same time frame (one of which was addressed to a specific problem in one congregation and the other more general and addressed to a broader area)? Clinton Arnold put it this way: “it is not unreasonable to think of Paul re-expressing, developing and modifying his own thoughts for a different readership facing a different set of circumstances” (DPL, 243).

Then there are, fourthly, alleged theological differences.

The argument is made that there are significant theological differences between what we read in Ephesians and what we read in the undisputed Pauline letters. It is true, on the one hand, that Ephesians emphasizes Christ’s resurrection and exaltation more than his death and humiliation, focuses less on justification by faith alone than does Romans or Galatians, has a developed ecclesiology, and stresses a realized eschatology (with less emphasis on the parousia). But none of these doctrinal emphases is in any way incompatible with Pauline theology. That Paul shifts his theological focus is more readily explained by the needs of his readers, his own personal circumstances, as well as the literary creativity of this great mind. The burden of proof would appear to rest on those who contend that Paul was incapable of this sort of literary and theological versatility.

Fifth and finally there is the portrait of Paul himself.

The primary argument here is that Paul would never have written what we read in Eph. 3:1-13. “The seemingly self-centered statements about Paul’s own apostolic role, for example, have led those who reject Pauline authorship to conclude that these verses are the attempt by a pseudonymous writer to claim Paul’s authority and theology for himself” (Klyne Snodgrass, 26). The most troublesome verse is 3:5 where the expression “holy apostles and prophets” is found. Would Paul have used this adjective of himself? Does it not seem pompous and self-promoting?

No. We must remember that the word “holy” meant “those whom God had set apart” or “consecrated” to himself. Indeed, this is the word Paul uses frequently to describe all Christians (i.e., “saints” or “holy ones”). I agree with Snodgrass that “nothing more is intended by 3:5 than one finds in Romans 1:1-5, where Paul describes himself as ‘called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God’ and as one who has received ‘grace and apostleship’ to bring about the obedience of faith among the Gentiles” (27).

H. J. Cadbury once wrote: “Which is more likely – that an imitator of Paul in the first century composed a writing ninety or ninety-five percent in accordance with Paul’s style or that Paul himself wrote a letter diverging five or ten percent from his usual style?” (“The Dilemma of Ephesians,” NTS 5 [1958-59], 101). The latter seems more likely to me.

If indeed Paul the apostle wrote Ephesians, as I believe he did, he did so while in prison. Three Pauline imprisonments are possible, Rome being most likely: in Ephesus, hence @ 55; in Caesarea, hence @ 58; or in Rome, hence @ 60 (O’Brien says it is closer to 61-62 a.d.)

In the next post we’ll look at why it is more than reasonable to conclude that Paul himself wrote Ephesians.


It's a very good case.

I needed something good to read this independence day morning! Thank you Pastor Sam!

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