Saturday, January 26, 2008

The Letter to the Ephesian Christian Community

The city of Ephesus was the Roman capital of Asia Minor and is mentioned frequently in the New Testament (twenty times). It was a center of commerce and religious pilgrimage. The Christian community in Ephesus was not established by Paul, though he was apparently there from around 54 to 57 CE and it is often argued that Paul wrote a number of his letters during this time. The church is mentioned in Revelation, and the city was associated with Johannine literature and was the site of a major church council in 431 CE. While the letter as we have it is addressed “to the saints who are in Ephesus,” a number of ancient manuscripts don’t mention Ephesus but rather say that the letter is “to the saints who are also faithful.” This letter, then, was most likely not address to a particular Christian community but was a circular letter written to the churches in a larger region.

If destination is one question, with this letter we also arrive for the first time at the question of Paul’s authorship. Traditionally this letter has been attributed to Paul, and if it was written by him it would have come later in his career, most likely written in Rome 59-early 60s. Biblical scholars disagree about the validity of this traditional understanding. Why? They raise a number of points. The vocabulary and style of this letter are apparently quite different from the undisputed letters of Paul. The ideas and theology in the letter represent distinctly different emphases from the uncontested Pauline letters. In the genuine Pauline letters, Paul holds in significant tension the present reality of Christians in Christ and a future complete salvation, the emphasis in Ephesians is on the present experience of Christian faith. Marriage in Ephesians is seen as representing the relationship between Christ and the church, a significant shift from Paul’s writing in I Corinthians. In the uncontested Pauline letters, Paul always writes to the church in a particular place, whereas in Ephesians references to “the church” are to the universal church.

This evidence does not prove, however, that Ephesians is not authentically Pauline. Some reputable scholars maintain that Paul wrote the letter, arguing that Ephesians was written at the end of Paul’s life and that the thought represents the “mature” Paul…. Still others who do not think that Paul wrote Ephesians do think it is genuinely Pauline. They explain that in Ephesians, students and followers of Paul preserved and applied the apostle’s teaching. For them, Ephesians is a pseudonymous work in the Pauline tradition. Ephesians might have been written intentionally as a summary of Paul’s thought. Pseudonymous authorship, which is writing under a false name or under the name of someone else, was common in the biblical world and not considered plagiarism. To honor a teacher, preserve his ideas, and employ his authority, disciples wrote works in their teacher’s name. In the case of Ephesians, at about 85 to 90 CE a disciple of Paul may have written this letter in Paul’s name to reflect his thought and to apply it to new situations. (New Interpreter’s Study Bible).

Does any of this matter? Of the twenty-two New Testament letters, counting Revelation as a letter, only eight indicate an authorship that is virtually uncontested (seven of Paul’s letters and Revelation). So does it matter that we have so many books attributed to persons who did not write them? On the one hand, not really. The fact that the books are in the canon indicates that the early church, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, heard in these documents the word of God, the authentic witness to the apostolic faith, as it tried to find its own way forward after the death of the apostles but before any authoritative tradition, canon, or organizational structure had been accepted. (People’s New Testament Commentary) These writings are in our Bible, are Christian Scripture and we need to grapple with them as such. On the other hand, it matters. It matters to those who try and write about Paul’s theology. If we want to figure out what Paul wrote and taught, we need to focus on his genuine writings. More importantly, however, the very notion that within the New Testament itself we find a development of thought for new situations encourages us to make this faith real and relevant for our time. That persons “developed” Paul’s thinking in some fresh directions, emphasized parts of it while leaving other parts relatively silent, encourages us to creatively engage the Scriptures. We are reminded that there are a variety of ways to discuss what God did in and through Jesus and how that makes a difference in our lives. No single set of images is adequate. We are enriched when we can use a variety of images, see things from multiple angles. While the Christian faith is not infinitely elastic, as was already said, it is much more elastic than many of us have been taught to believe.

Ephesians follows the same outline as Colossians, and some argue that it appears to be an expansion of Colossians (another possible argument against Pauline authorship). In both letters, a typical Pauline pattern is followed. The first part of the letter is theological and provides a grounding for the second part which is practical and ethical – giving instructions for Christian life and Christian community. Much of the theological material has a distinct liturgical and poetic flavor to it. It is less analysis than doxology. One noticeable element in the letter is that the author and recipients don’t seem to know one another which would be unlikely if Paul spent three years here (1:15, 3:2). The letter does not include some of the personal elements found in undisputed Pauline letters.

The main theme of Ephesians is God’s plan to reconcile Jews and Gentiles, which was accomplished through the death and resurrection of Jesus. The author’s vision is cosmic. He understands that God’s final purpose is not only human reconciliation, but also unity and harmony in the universe. The church, with Christ as its head, is the means of accomplishing that purpose. (New Interpreter’s Study Bible).

Eugene Peterson in his introduction to Ephesians in The Message assumes Paul’s authorship of the book. Peterson is less concerned with this critical, scholarly debate than with helping this text have an impact on our lives. His comments on the relevance of the book are worth quoting at length. What we know about God and what we do for God have a way of getting broken apart in our lives. The moment the connection between what we believe and what we do is damaged in any way, we find ourselves living lives that are far less than what God had originally intended. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians joins together what has been torn apart in our sin-wrecked world. He begins with a dynamic study of what Christians believe about God, and then, like a surgeon skillfully setting broken bones, “sets” this belief in God into our behavior before God so that the bones – belief and behavior – knit together and heal. Once you start looking, you notice broken bones in every relationship of our lives…. There isn’t a single relationship that has escaped injury, that isn’t out of joint or limping in pain…. Not only is Jesus the “mender of relationships”; we, because of our relationship with him – are menders as well, and what we and Jesus are doing by trying to bring relationships together is urgently needed. Now that we know that the healing of relationships is the dynamo at the heart of the universe, we support God’s plan with every ounce of energy and endurance we can come up with.

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