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Lenten Reading Challenge: Ephesians 1-6 (all)

• When and Where
Ephesians is another of the “disputed letters” usually attributed to Paul but considered later by the majority of scholars, who think it was written a generation or so after Paul’s death.

The content of the letter focuses on general themes rather than specific situations of a single community and does not seem to convey a personal familiarity as some earlier texts did, which would be odd if Paul, who spent considerable time in Ephesus, actually wrote it to that community. Rather, this letter seems to have been written as a general circular letter, and Borg notes that our best and most ancient copies do not say “in Ephesus” in verse 1, that was apparently added later as the tradition took root.

Borg suggests a date around 90AD because of close parallels to Colossians – which seem to indicate that text was known to this author – and from references to this letter made by Ignatius, an early Christian author around 100AD. So, we know it was written before that and suspect it was after Colossians.

Further confirming a late date, note that the letter concerns the unity of Christians and Jews – but treats controversy about the full status of gentiles as a resolved issue, in the past and settled. Ephesians does not argue for unity but celebrate it as achieved! The letter also treats “the Apostles” as figures of the past, not near contemporaries as Paul’s earlier letters did.

• Key Insights
Like Colossians, Ephesians echoes a number of Pauline themes, but also differs from earlier letters in significant ways, including style and subject. The sentences here in Greek are very long (for example, in the Greek, 1:3-14 is one uninterrupted sentence!)

The emphasis on family relationship found in Paul earlier here has been transformed into household codes that don’t seem to reflect the same kind of equality “in Christ” proclaimed in Paul’s undisputed letters.

This text takes it for granted that Christians would own Christian slaves, a direct departure from Paul’s letter to Philemon and Galatians.

The well-known passage concerning “the Armor of God” uses militaristic images but is clearly metaphorical.

• Big Picture
Despite the fact that this author goes beyond and sometimes compromises what Paul wrote earlier, this letter is still clearly derived from the general stream of his teaching and theology. The text affirms justification by grace through faith even as it shows accommodation to the late first-century Roman world.

Again, I want to emphasize that considering the author not to be Paul himself does not make this letter a forgery in the modern sense. Rather, this was the accepted ancient practice, writing in the name of one’s teacher was the proper way to continue that line of teaching, even as times and precise thought changed. For me, it helps to see the tradition unfolding and invites me to wrestle with my own response to God’s ongoing acts of creation and revelation in my own time and place. We all accommodate culture and we all challenge culture, our task is to discern when each is appropriate and “god-breathed.”

Blessings on your reading!

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