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The Disputed Authorship of Ephesians

The Disputed Authorship of Ephesians


The authenticity of Ephesians as a genuinely Pauline epistle has been doubted especially since the time of the Dutch Humanist Erasmus in the sixteenth century. Several schools of thoughts exist today in connection with the authorship in Ephesians. Barth (1974) identifies four such options. Some scholars accept Paul as the author. Others see him as responsible for an original manuscript that has been augmented by an editor. A third set – Moffatt, Goodspeed, Dibelius etc. – rejects Pauline authorship and the fourth thinks there is not enough evidence to decide. Gabel, Wheeler and York observe in their discussion on the canon of letters that Ephesians is categorized as a disputed letter that is “almost certainly not by Paul” (1996, 237). Scholars “have tried to explain this letter as the writing of a student and admirer of Paul’s, bringing the apostle’s gospel to his own later generation” (Turner 1984, 1222). Some conclude that it is most reasonable to consider it as deuteron-Pauline, that is, in the tradition of Paul but not written by him. While I recognize the strength of the other views, I accept (with supportive evidence) the traditional view that classifies Ephesians as an authentic Pauline letter.


Rhein (1974) asserts that “Ephesians is thought to be spurious by many” (264). His argument is that the purpose and impersonal tone are difficult to explain if it is attributed to Paul.


Some see the Ephesians as an early Catholic writing and that there is an un-Pauline interest in various orders of ministry. Rhein (1974) also rejects Paul’s authorship on the basis of dating. He observes that “the subject matter indicates a later date than its companions. Christ is no longer the lone foundation of the Church” (268). He asserts that the apostles have taken his place (2:20-22), heretical sects have had time to make their appearance (4:14), and the church itself is now regarded as a means of revelation.


Some doubt Pauline authorship since a number of words in Ephesians cannot be found in other Pauline writings (Drane 1986). Examples include aswtia (wantonness) and politeia (citizenship/commonwealth). Others include some prominent features such as the references to ‘the heavenly world’ (Eph. 1:3; 1:20; 2:6; 3:10; 6:12). Guthrie (1965) admits that “the style (in Ephesians) is certainly different from the other nine undisputed Pauline epistles and this has seemed to some to weigh against Pauline authorship” (483).


Drane (1986) observes that “the way Ephesians is put together is also distinctive. Instead of the unplanned – and largely unrestrained- language of the other letters, Ephesians moves from one theme to another in more sedate fashion” (346).

Relationship with Colossians

Drane (1986) observes that some scholars view Colossians as the original letter which was subsequently copied and adapted by the later author of Ephesians who cannot be Paul. Colossians is usually considered to be a genuine Pauline letter, and Ephesians is thought to be the work of an imitator who used Colossians for some of his ideas.

Doctrine and theology

Drane (1986) also comments on the fact the Ephesians seems to reflect concerns that were especially typical of church life later than the time of Paul. Examples cited include the use of the term ‘church’, apparent absence of any reference to the parousia of Jesus, and to the theme ‘justification of faith’. Furthermore, it is observed that believers are built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets (2:20), whereas Paul sees Christ as the one foundation (I Cor. 3:11). Some believe that these are really in contradiction, for “in 2:20, Christ is ‘the chief cornerstone’, which surely accords with the passage in I Corinthians. Others note that in Ephesians ekklhsia always refers to the universal church, while Paul normally uses the word for the local congregation” (Carson, Moo and Morris 1992, 307). It is noted that “further differences are claimed to appear in Paul’s Christology in this Epistle” (Guthrie 1965, 489). Acts attributed to God in the other epistles are attributed to Christ in Ephesians. Ephesians 2:16 (where reconciliation is described as the work of Christ) is compared with Colossians 1:20 and 2:13-14. Another example is Ephesians 4:11, where Christ is paid to appoint officials in the Church as compared with I Corinthians 7:28.

Possible authors

Barnett (1946) proposed that Onesimus prospered so well in Christian service that he later became Bishop of Ephesus and believed that he wrote Ephesians. Miller and Miller (1973) comments on Goodspeed and Mitten’s submission that the likely authors are Onesimus (Col. 4:9) and Tychicus (Col. 4:7); Eph. 6:21) respectively. If Paul was in prison, Holding (2003) argued, then he was probably in no condition or had no ability to do significant cross-checking, and would give his scribe considerable latitude in composition, indicating only major points to be developed – if indeed it was someone he trusted. On this account, he further argues, and given other factors, Timothy is a likely candidate. The issue is that “there has been a question whether Paul himself wrote it or one of his disciples after his death” (Chamberlin and Feldman 1950, 1111).


My conviction of Pauline authorship is in consonance with the following supportive evidence.

Doctrine and theology

Drane (1986) observes that “whatever we conclude about the person who actually wrote the words down, we should certainly not miss the weakness of the other arguments put forward against Paul’s authorship” (346). He dismisses the close relationship as proving nothing since a modern author writing about theology will quite base on book on something that has been written – and Paul had certainly done this before. Furthermore, nothing in Ephesians actually contradicts previous statements by Paul, and much is a logical development of things he had said elsewhere. The parousia is not mentioned in Ephesians, but it is not mentioned in Romans either. According to Wallace (2003), “the case is quite similar to the relation of Galatians to Romans: the first, an occasional letter, is less developed theologically; the second, a more reflective letter, is more developed” (3). Both the time when written and the reason for writing shape Paul’s style and theological statements.


Gundry (1981) firmly believes that Paul must have written Ephesians and Colossians at approximately the same time because the subject matter in the two epistles is quite similar. He asserts that “Tychirus must therefore have carried both letters at once. (Colossae was about one hundred miles east of Ephesus)” (294). Commenting on the view that the reference to “the holy apostles and prophets” (Eph. 3:5; cf. 2:20; 4:11) indicates that the writer belonged to the second generation, Thiessen (1955) argues that “this cannot be, for the writer includes himself among the ‘holy ones (saints) (3:8)'” (241).


Commenting on the argument that synonyms are used instead of Paul’s usual words and that more words are used in a new sense, Thiessen (1955) argues that the criticism is strange and doubtful. He continues, “besides, is a man always obliged to use a word in the same sense unless he does not care about losing his identity?” (241). He attributes the absence of personal greetings in the last chapter due to the encyclical character of the epistle and observes that the reference to the Church, rather than to some local church or churches, is likewise in harmony with the destination of the letter. Responding to the objection that there are forty-two words in Ephesians not found in other Pauline writings, McCain (1996) observes that “this is about the same percentage of unique words found in other Pauline writings” (249). Carson, Moo and Moris (1992) quote Cadbury’s forceful and convincing argument: “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 per cent from his usual style?” (306). Even if the style may be different from Paul’s usual manner of writing, Guthrie (1965) argues that “it may, in fact, be regarded as evidence of Paul’s versatility” (493).

Relationship with Colossians

Scholars have argued that the same writer could not have produced Colossians and Ephesians and that the latter is the work of an imitator. Carson, Moo and Morris (1992) dismiss this argument as unconvincing for they seem to support the view that “the same man wrote Colossians and Ephesians a little later, with many of the same thoughts running through his head and with a more general application of the ideas he had so recently expressed” (308).

Relationship with I Peter

Thiessen (1955) argues that the similarities in the Epistle to the Ephesians and in I Peter do not disprove the Pauline authorship of Ephesians. He notes that “if there is any dependence between the two writers, it is more likely that Peter borrowed from Paul than that Paul borrowed from Peter” (241).

Internal evidence

Among other things, “the writer twice calls himself Paul” (Eph. 1:1; 3:1). The epistle is written after the Pauline pattern, beginning with greetings and thanksgiving, leading on to a doctrinal discussion, and concluding with practical exhortations and personal matters” (Theissen 1955, 240).

External evidence

Ephesians had been in wide circulation from the early days and its authenticity does not seem to be questioned. From all indications “it was accepted by Marcion (as the letter to the Laodiceans); it is the Marcion (as the letter to the Laodiceans); it is in the Muratorian Canon and was used by heretics as well as the orthodox. No one seems to have queried Pauline authorship” (Carson, Moo and Morris 1992, 306).

To echo my thesis statement in the introduction, I endorse the argument that “from all this, we conclude that there are no insurmountable obstacles to the traditional view of the Pauline authorship of this Epistle” (Theissen 1955, 241). In other words, “when all the objections are carefully considered it will be seen that the weight of evidence is inadequate to overthrow the overwhelming attestation to Pauline authorship, and the Epistle’s own claims” (Guthrie 1965, 507). Bruce (1961) logically defends Pauline authorship in an indirect but forceful argument:

If Epistle of the Ephesians was not written directly by Paul, but by one of his disciples in the Apostle’s name, then its author was the greatest Paulinist of all time – a disciple who assimilated
his master’s thought more thoroughly than anyone else ever did. The man who could write
Ephesians must have been the Apostle’s equal, if not his superior, in mental stature and spiritual insight (11).

In spite of the fact that pseudonymity is regarded in modern scholarship to have been an established practice among the early Christians, the advocates of the traditional view (the researcher included) are entitled to emphasize the self-testimony of the Epistle as supportive evidence for their position “until some satisfactory explanation is found which accounts for the universal acceptance of the Epistle at its face value” (Guthrie 1965, 507).


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New York: Abington-Cokesbury Press.

Barth, M. 1974. Ephesians.

New York: Doubleday.

Carson, D.A., Douglas J. Moo and Leon Morris. 1992. An Introduction to the New Testament.

Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House.

Chamberlain, R.B. and H. Feldman. 1950. The Dartmouth Bible.

Boston: Hougton Mifflin Co.

Gabel, J.B., C.B. Wheeler and A.D. York. 1996. The Bible as Literature: An Introduction. 3rd ed.

New York: Oxford University Press.

Gundry, R.H. 1981. A Survey of the New Testament.

Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House.

Guthrie, Donald. 1965. New Testament Introduction.

Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press.

Holding, J.P. 2003. Wrote Wrote Ephesians?” Available [Online]:

[http://www.tektonics.org/ephauth.html]. 20th August 2003.

McCain, D. 1996. Notes on New Testament Introduction.

Jos: African Textbooks.

Miller, M.S. and J.L. Miller. 1973. Harper’s Bible Dictionary.

New York: Harper and Row Publishers.

Rhein, F.B. 1974. Understanding to the New Testament.

Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing House.

Turner, M. 1984. Ephesians. In New Bible Commentary. 21st century ed., 1222-12244.

Leicester: Inter Varsity Press.

Wallace, D.B. 2003. Ephesians:Introduction, Argument and Outline.

Available [Online]: http://www.bible.org/docs/soapbox/ephotl.htm. 19th August 2003.