External Evidence for Pauline Authorship of Ephesians

I was recently visiting a church on a beautiful Sunday morning when the pastor made an assertion in her sermon to which I felt I should respond.  She stated that Paul did not write the book of Ephesians.  In fact it allegedly was not written for 100 years or more after Jesus’ death, at which time an unknown author attached Paul’s name to the letter in a practice that this pastor urged the congregation was considered perfectly acceptable at that time.

She expressed herself in much the same way as I just outlined, as if the issue of the authorship of Ephesians was clearly resolved, with no mention of the abundance of scholarship that disagreed with her conclusion.  After listening to the sermon, her congregation would have no idea that a differing point of view even existed in scholarly circles, let alone realize that the perspective they were hearing from the pulpit had no advocates in its favor for at least 1,400 years after Jesus’ time and was a minority view even today.

Being a guest, and having more than an ounce of decorum, I did not stand up mid-speech and interrupt in order to insert my two cents.  Rather, I sent an e-mail after the fact in an attempt to encourage this pastor to look beyond the oft refuted criticisms of the likes of Bart Ehrman and instead evaluate what I believe is the overwhelming external evidence of Pauline authorship of Ephesians.  What follows is the text of that e-mail.  In order to keep the focus of this post on the merits of my position rather than a critique of this individual pastor, I have excluded her name and the exact date of my visit.

By placing this information on the TMM and CAA blogs, it is my hope to encourage others to look at the totality of the evidence and not believe everything they read in such narrowly focused works as Dr. Ehrman’s “Misquoting Jesus” or his latest book, “Forged.”  God bless.

——————————————————————-

Dear Reverend **************:

My name is Ken Coughlan and I was a guest in your church on Sunday, ********* **, 2012.  I would first like to thank you for your hospitality and that of your congregation.  My worship experience was very rewarding.  Just so you can know a bit about me, I am a lawyer by trade, but for the past six years I have run Ten Minas Ministries, a Christian apologetics ministry.  I have also recently become affiliated with Ratio Christi, a national apologetics organization.

I was intrigued by the part of your sermon in which you said that Paul did not write the letter to the Ephesians.  In fact, it was not written until sometime in the second century (at one point I believe you stated it was approximately 100 years or more after Jesus’ death) and someone else attached Paul’s name to it.  You explained this to your congregation as if it was a matter of fact, and also told them that five other books traditionally attributed to Paul were actually written by other authors.

I am sure you have studied this subject, probably including the works of Bart Ehrman such as “Misquoting Jesus” and “Forged,” so I do not expect that by writing an e-mail (no matter how long) I can convince you otherwise.  It is my wish, though, that perhaps (to quote Greg Koukl) I can “put a stone in your shoe” and give you something to think about if you are interested in hearing from someone with a differing opinion.  I apologize for the length of this e-mail and certainly understand if it is not something you can take the time to fully digest right away.  Please believe me when I say that I have attempted to keep it as brief as possible and to that end I have tried to narrow the field of evidence I include.

I am familiar with Dr. Ehrman’s approach to challenging the authorship of various books, including Ephesians.  Generally he focuses on internal evidence, meaning evidence derived from within the book itself.  His objections can be placed into three categories: alleged differences in style, vocabulary and theology between Paul’s accepted writings and those in dispute.

Part of the reason these attempts at using internal evidence are not personally persuasive for me is because they run so contrary to our common understanding.  Take me, for example.  In this e-mail I am attempting to write in a friendly, yet formal and informative manner (you will have to be the judge at how well I succeed in this undertaking).  Yet only a few shorts weeks ago I surprised my wife by composing a love poem on her Facebook wall.  For your sake I will spare you any quotations from my poem (I will never be confused with Robert Frost; even on my best day I definitely write poetry of the “roses are red, violets are blue” variety).  My point is simply that I wrote two compositions of drastically different style.  The sentence lengths were different; the vocabulary varied greatly, etc.  This alone, however, does not mean that two different authors wrote them, and the alleged stylistic differences between the various epistles do not come anywhere near those of my two writings.

Additionally, I find it interesting that there is no record whatsoever of anyone contesting the genuine Pauline authorship of Ephesians until Erasmus in the fifteenth century.  One would think that if the evidence of a different author were so overwhelming, at least one critic of Christianity would have raised this objection at some point during approximately 1,400 years (especially during the first few centuries when they undoubtedly had access to information that for us has been lost to the ravages of time).  I grant that this “argument from silence” is not affirmative proof of Pauline authorship.  After all, it is possible that such a critic did arise but his work remains in a heretofore-undiscovered manuscript.  However, if we were to rely upon the mere possible existence of such evidence, it appears we are elevating possibilities over probabilities and depending upon what might be rather than what is.

Also, p46, a papyrus found in Egypt that dates to approximately 200 AD (or perhaps sooner) contains the entire book of Ephesians.  If the letter really was not written until the second century, it must have been copied and circulated extremely quickly (given the practical limitations of that era) in order to have made its way to Egypt by that time and be included in a collection with so many other canonical writings (p46 also includes portions or all of Romans, Hebrews, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, Colossians and 1 Thessalonians).

Finally, I feel that Dr. Ehrman fails to give appropriate consideration to the role of scribes in ancient writing.  Many of the stylistic differences he cites are easily explained by the differing techniques of individual scribes.  Not only is there ample evidence of scribes placing their “imprint” upon a work in ancient times, there is also clear scriptural evidence that Paul utilized their services on several occasions (Romans 16:22, 1 Corinthians 16:21, Colossians 4:18, 2 Thessalonians 3:17, Philemon 1:19).

But I do not want to spend any more time addressing Dr. Ehrman’s specific objections in detail because I think his entire approach dramatically misses the point.  For me, the external evidence is far more persuasive.  By “external,” I am referring to sources outside of the document itself that allow us to place it within a certain chronological period and that attest (either directly or indirectly) to its authorship.  Even assuming the legitimacy of the alleged differences Dr. Ehrman contends are present, if we can show through other sources that it is virtually impossible for the epistle to have been written as late as he contends then we must look elsewhere to explain the “discrepancies.”

I am sure you would agree with me that it is impossible to quote from a document before that document exists.  Later today you may decide to speak to a friend about this e-mail and read some quotations from it.  However, you certainly could not have offered up any such quotations last week because the e-mail did not yet exist.

Similarly, if the Epistle to the Ephesians was not written until sometime in the second century then it would be impossible for someone to refer to it during the first century.  Given the lack of an internet, printing press or postal service, even an extremely early second century writing of Ephesians is virtually impossible if there is evidence that the book was already in wide circulation in the early 100s.  It took time for letters to be copied and distributed in the ancient world.

Proof of early references to Ephesians does not necessarily require direct quotations, although obviously direct quotes provide powerful evidence.  If the writings of the earliest apostolic fathers demonstrate that the unique lessons and terminology of Ephesians had already permeated the church, then (absent another candidate for the source of these teachings) the epistle must have been highly circulated and accepted by that time.

This is the external evidence I am referring to.  I believe there is overwhelming support that the letter to the Ephesians existed in the first century because other early sources refer to or even quote directly from it.  If I am right in this, then no matter how many questions Dr. Ehrman raises about style, vocabulary and theology, the letter cannot be a second century document.

For the purposes of this discussion I will rely upon three early apostolic fathers of the church with whom I am sure you are familiar: Clement of Rome, Ignatius and Polycarp.

CLEMENT OF ROME

Clement of Rome (to be distinguished from the later Clement of Alexandria) was one of the earliest leaders of the church in Rome.  He was born in the first century and historians generally believe he was martyred very early in the second century, perhaps between 101 and 105 AD.  His existence as a historical figure is attested in multiple writings, including 2nd/3rd century authors Tertullian, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria and Eusebius.

Only a single authentic writing of Clement survives today, a letter to the church in Corinth generally referred to as “First Clement” (although ironically “Second Clement” is almost universally recognized not to be genuine, so there really only is one “Clement”).  This book was written in the late first century near the end of the reign of Emperor Domitian, a date widely accepted by scholars due to a number of factors.  For example, in Chapter 1 of his letter Clement explains that his writing to the Corinthians was delayed by “the sudden and successive calamitous events which have happened to ourselves.”  Clement was writing on behalf of the church in Rome, leaving two candidates for these “calamitous events,” either the persecution of Roman Christians under Emperor Nero (64 AD) or that under Emperor Domitian (89-96 AD).  Given that Clement also refers to the deaths of Peter and Paul (Chapter 5) as well as the deaths of a second generation of Christians (Chapter 44), the latter date seems more likely.

Clearly, if 1 Clement refers to the book of Ephesians, the allegedly Pauline letter must have already been in existence by the end of the first century.  As it turns out, Clement includes several such references.  He does not necessarily draw direct quotes from the canonical epistle, but he definitely demonstrates an awareness of its teachings and even reiterates some unique phrases and concepts not found elsewhere.  Below I have provided quotations from 1 Clement immediately followed by the seemingly parallel passage from Ephesians so that you may evaluate the similarities for yourself.

(All scripture quotations are from the New King James Version unless otherwise noted.  All citations to the apostolic fathers are from “Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume 1, The Apostolic Fathers, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus”; Ed. Roberts & Donaldson, 1994, 2004.  All points of emphasis are mine in order to highlight the similarities; they are obviously not in the originals.)

First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians:

(1)
Clement 36
“By Him are the eyes of our hearts opened.  By Him our foolish and darkened understanding blossoms up anew towards His marvelous light.”<

Ephesians 1:18
“I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened, so that you will know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints.”  (NASB)

Ephesians 4:17-18
“This I say, therefore, and testify in the Lord, that you should no longer walk as the rest of the Gentiles walk, in the futility of their mind,having their understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God, because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart”

(2)
Clement 38
“Let our whole body, then, be preserved in Christ Jesus; and let every one be subject to his neighbor, according to the special gift bestowed upon him.”

Ephesians 5:21
“…be subject to one another in the fear of Christ.” (NASB)

(3)
Clement 46
“Have we not [all] one God and one Christ?  Is there not one Spirit of grace poured out upon us?  And have we not one calling in Christ?”

Ephesians 4:4-6
“There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.”

IGNATIUS

Ignatius was the leader of the church in Antioch.  He was born sometime in the middle of the first century and died either in the late first or early second century.  Both Polycarp (Ignatius’ contemporary) and Eusebius refer to him.  He wrote a number of letters, including those to the Ephesians, Romans and to his friend Polycarp.  Some controversy has arisen as to the authenticity of certain of his writings because additions were clearly inserted into his letters at later times.  For example, both short and long versions of his writings have been found, the latter including many explicit quotations from scripture that are absent in the former.  However, the general consensus is that the shorter versions are (at least for the most part) genuine, and aside from hypothetical speculation there is no concrete evidence to suggest otherwise.

Like Clement, Ignatius also demonstrates a familiarity with the teachings of the letter to the Ephesians.  But unlike Clement, he also includes an explicit reference to Paul as the author of at least one (or perhaps more, depending on the appropriate translation) epistle mentioning the Ephesian church.  All of the quotations I have included come from the genuine short version of Ignatius’ letters.

Epistle of Ignatius to the Ephesians:

(1)
Ignatius 1
“For, on hearing that I came bound from Syria for the common name and hope, trusting through your prayers to be permitted to fight with beasts at Rome, that so by martyrdom I may indeed become the disciple of Him ‘who gave Himself for us, an offering and sacrifice to God,’ [ye hastened to see me].”

Ephesians 5:2
“And walk in love, as Christ also has loved us and given Himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling aroma.”

(2)
Ignatius 12
Ye are initiated into the mysteries of the Gospel with Paul, the holy, the martyred, the deservedly most happy, at whose feet may I be found, when I shall attain to God; who in all his Epistle makes mention of you in Christ Jesus.”

The Epistle of Ignatius to Polycarp:

(1)
Ignatius 1
Bear with all, even as the Lord does with thee.  Support all in love, as also thou doest.”

Ephesians 4:1-2
“I, therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you to walk worthy of the calling with which you were called, with all lowliness and gentleness, with longsuffering, bearing with one another in love.”

(2)
Ignatius 5
“In like manner also, exhort my bretheren, in the name of Jesus Christ, that they love their wives, even as the Lord the Church.”

Ephesians 5:25
“Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her.”

POLYCARP

Polycarp was the bishop of Smyrna.  He was born in approximately 69 AD and died in the mid second century.  He was a contemporary of Ignatius and the two were friends prior to Ignatius’ martyrdom.  The sole surviving writing of Polycarp’s is his letter to the church in Philippi (c. 110-140 AD).  The late second century apologist Irenaeus mentions Polycarp and provides details of his life in “Against Heresies” (III.3.4; c. 180 AD) as well as in his letters to Florinus and Victor.  The reference in “Against Heresies” even specifically mentions Polycarp’s letter to the Philippians.  Tertullian also mentions Polycarp and identifies him as a disciple of John the apostle (“The Prescription Against Heretics”, c. 196-212 AD).

Polycarp provides some of the most explicitly clear quotations from the book of Ephesians, including one of the most famous passages of scripture (Ephesians 2:8-9).  One quotation from Ephesians 4:26 also clearly identifies it as “Sacred Scripture,” not a label Polycarp would likely attach to a document written by someone other than an apostle over one hundred years after Christ’s death.

The Epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians:

(1)
Polycarp 1
“’In whom, though now ye see Him not, ye believe, and believing, rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory;’ into which joy many desire to enter, knowing that ‘by grace ye are saved, not of works,’ but by the will of God through Jesus Christ.”

Ephesians 2:8-9
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God,not of works, lest anyone should boast.”

(2)
Polycarp 3
“For neither I, nor any other such one, can come up to the wisdom of the blessed and glorified Paul.  He, when among you, accurately and steadfastly taught the word of truth in the presence of those who were then alive.”

Ephesians 1:13
“In Him you also trusted, after you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation; in whom also, having believed, you were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise.”

(3)
Polycarp 12
“For I trust that ye are well versed in the Sacred Scriptures, and that nothing is hid from you; but to me this privilege is not yet granted.  It is declared then in these Scriptures, ‘Be ye angry, and sin not,’ and, ‘Let not the sun go down upon your wrath.’”

Ephesians 4:26
“’Be angry, and do not sin’: do not let the sun go down on your wrath.”

While “Be angry, and do not sin” is a quote from Psalm 4:4 (and therefore Polycarp could be quoting the Psalm), “do not let the sun go down on your wrath” is unique to Ephesians, not from the Psalm.  Therefore, this must be a reference to Ephesians as “Sacred Scripture.”

Conclusion

Here is the difficulty with placing the book of Ephesians in the second century.  If even one of these authors was referencing that letter on even one occasion, such a dating is impossible.   They could not have been referring to a book that did not exist.  If these authors were referring to Ephesians, then the only way to support a later date for the book would be to claim that Clement, Ignatius and Polycarp are also forgeries and misdated.  But that leads to a snowball effect because the works of these three authors are in turn referenced in other works.  So in order for Polycarp to be fraudulent and misdated, for example, Irenaeus and Tertullian must also be mistaken.  You cannot reject Ephesians without rejecting Polycarp, but you cannot reject Polycarp without also rejecting Irenaeus and Tertullian.  Incidentally, you cannot reject Tertullian without also rejecting Jerome and Eusebius, and on and on.  It produces a never ending cycle.  In the end, one thing leads to another until you are forced to reject virtually the entire library of Christian antiquity.

This is precisely why Dr. Ehrman’s approach is misguided.  The book of Ephesians simply cannot (as you stated in your sermon) date to over 100 years after the death of Jesus.  The historical record and variety of cross references simply does not allow that as a possibility.  Therefore, even if someone believes that Dr. Ehrman raises interesting concerns as to the style, vocabulary and theology of Ephesians, any attempt to resolve those concerns by pushing the date of the book back 100 years cannot withstand the scrutiny of the evidential record as a whole.  And if the traditional date assigned to Ephesians is correct, it certainly begs the question of how it could possibly have been elevated to a canonical level if it was forged under the virtual nose of the very apostle to whose authorship it was fraudulently assigned.  It seems impossible that such a forgery could have been distributed throughout the early church yet escaped Paul’s notice (if he was still alive at the time of its composition) or that of his closest disciples who could have quickly exposed it as the fake that it was.  In the end, it seems far more reasonable to ask why Paul may have made mild changes to his style, vocabulary or theology (or if he truly made such changes at all) rather than ignore the overwhelming weight of the historical record and contend someone other than Paul wrote the letter.

If you have actually made it to this part of my e-mail, I thank you for your very kind consideration in giving me a fair hearing.  As I said when I began, I did not necessarily expect to convince you of the genuine Pauline authorship of Ephesians in a single e-mail, but hopefully I have at least succeeded in giving you something to think about.  If nothing else, perhaps it may be more accurate to inform your members that some scholars do not accept Pauline authorship of Ephesians as opposed to simply stating as a matter of fact that a second century Christian assigned his name to it long after Paul had passed, leaving your congregants oblivious to the existence of the large amount of scholarship to the contrary.

Thank you again for your time.  God bless you and the flock over which you are a shepherd.

Sincerely,

Ken Coughlan

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DISCLAIMER: Blog entries made by individual authors reflect the views of the author and not necessarily the view of other CAA authors, or the official position of the group at large.
About Ken Coughlan

Ken Coughlan founded Ten Minas Ministries, a Christian apologetics ministry, in January, 2006. He is now a Director with Ratio Christi. In addition to these ministries, Ken is a practicing attorney, earning his Juris Doctor from the College of William & Mary in 1998. He is currently licensed in four different jurisdictions.

You can contact Ken via Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/kencoughlan.ratiochristi.

  • Jonathan McLatchie

    Brilliant article! Thanks for this.

  • http://www.facebook.com/ken.coughlan.7 Ken Coughlan

    Thank you for the kind words, Jonathan.