Facts and summary
Acts is the tenth book of the Christian New Testament. The author of the book is traditionally understood to be the Apostle Paul. It is believed that Paul wrote the book around 60 A.D. while he was in prison. The original recipients of the book are the Christians at Ephesus. The primary purpose of the book is to help readers understand God's eternal purpose and high goals for the church. Its teaching emphasis is on God's goals for the church ("to bring all things in the universe together under Christ"), spiritual gifts, unity of the church, purity.
None of the epistles which are ascribed to Paul have a stronger chain of evidence to their early and continued use than that which we know as the Epistle to the Ephesians. Leaving for the moment the question of the relation of Eph to other New Testament writings, we find that it not only colors the phraseology of the Apostolic Fathers, but is actually quoted. In Clement of Rome (circa 95 AD) the connection with Ephesians might be due to some common liturgical form in xlvi.6 (compare Eph 4:6); though the resemblance is so close that we must feel that our epistle was known to Clement both here and in lxiv (compare Eph 1:3-4); xxxviii (compare Eph 5:21); xxxvi (compare Eph 4:18); lix (compare Eph 1:18; 4:18).
Place and Date of Writing
The time and place of his writing Ephesians turn on the larger question of the chronology of Paul's life and the relation of the Captivity Epistles to each other; and the second question whether they were written from Caesarea or Rome. Suffice it here to say that the place was undoubtedly Rome, and that they were written during the latter part of the two years' captivity which we find recorded in Acts 28:30. The date will then be, following the later chronology, 63 or 64 AD; following the earlier, which is, in many ways, to be preferred, about 58 AD.
The title says to the Ephesians. With this the witness of the early church almost universally agrees. It is distinctly stated in the Muratorian Fragment (10b, 1. 20); and the epistle is quoted as to the Ephesians by Irenaeus (Adv. Haer., v.14, 3; 24, 3); Tertullian (Adv. Marc., v.11, 17; De Praesc., 36; De Monag., v); Clement of Alexandria (Strom., iv.65; Paed., i.18) and Origen (Contra Celsum, iii.20). To these must be added the evidence of the extant manuscripts and VSS, which unite in ascribing the epistle to the Ephesians.
The only exception to the universal evidence is Tertullian's account of Marcion (circa 150 AD) who reads Ad Laodicenos (Adv. Marc., v.11: "I say nothing here about another epistle which we have with the heading `to the Ephesians,' but the heretics `to the Laodiceans' .... (v.17): According to the true belief of the church we hold this epistle to have been dispatched to the Ephesians, not to the Laodiceans; but Marcion had to falsify its title, wishing to make himself out a very diligent investigator").
This almost universal evidence for Ephesus as the destination of our epistle is shattered when we turn to the reading of the first verse. Here according to Textus Receptus of the New Testament we read "Paul unto the saints which are at Ephesus (Grk: en Epheso) and to the faithful in Christ Jesus." When we look at the evidence for this reading we find that the two words Grk: en Epheso are lacking in Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus, and that the corrector of the cursive known as 67 has struck them out of his copy.
Besides these a recently described MS, Cod. Laura 184, giving us a text which is so closely akin to that used by Origen that the scribe suggests that it was compiled from Origen's writings, omits these words (Robinson, Ephesians, 293). To this strong manuscript evidence against the inclusion of these two words in the inscription we must add the evidence of Origen and Basil. Origen, as quoted in Cramer's Catena at the place, writes: "In the Ephesians alone we found the expression `to the saints which are,' and we ask, unless the phrase `which are' is redundant, what it can mean.
May it not be that as in Exodus He who speaks to Moses declares His name to be the Absolute One, so also those who are partakers of the Absolute become existent when they are called, as it were, from non-being into being?" Origen evidently knows nothing here of any reading Grk: en Epheso, but takes the words "which are" in an absolute, metaphysical sense.
Basil, a century and a half later, probably refers to this comment of Origen (Contra Eun., ii.19) saying: "But moreover, when writing to the Ephesians, as to men who are truly united with the Absolute One through clear knowledge, he names them as existent ones in a peculiar phrase, saying `to the saints which are and faithful in Christ Jesus.' For so those who were before us have handed it down, and we also have found (this reading) in old copies."
In Jerome's note on this verse there is perhaps a reference to this comment on Origen, but the passage is too indefinitely expressed for us to be sure what its bearing on the reading really is. The later writers quoted by Lightfoot (Biblical Essays, 384 f) cannot, as Robinson shows (Eph, 293), be used as witnesses against the Textus Receptus. We may therefore conclude that the reading Grk: en Epheso was wanting in many early manuscripts, and that there is good ground for questioning its place in the original autograph.
But the explanations suggested for the passage, as it stands without the words, offend Pauline usage so completely that we cannot accept them. To take "which are" in the phrase "the saints which are" (Grk: tois ousin) as absolute, as Origen did; or as meaning "truly," is impossible. It is possible to take the words with what follows, "and faithful" (Grk: kai pistois), and interpret this latter expression (Grk: pistois) either in the New Testament sense of "believers" or in the classical sense of "steadfast." The clause would then read either "to the saints who are also believers," or "to the saints who are also faithful," i.e. steadfast. Neither of these is wholly in accord with Paul's normal usage, but they are at least possible.
The Evidence of the Letter Itself
The determining factor in the question of the destination of the epistle lies in the epistle itself. We must not forget that, save perhaps Corinth, there was no church with which Paul was so closely associated as that in Ephesus. His long residence there, of which we read in Acts (chapters 19; 20), finds no echo in our epistle. There is no greeting to anyone of the Christian community, many of whom were probably intimate friends. The close personal ties, that the scene of Acts 20:17-38 shows us existed between him and his converts in Ephesus, are not even hinted at.
The epistle is a calm discussion, untouched with the warmth of personal allusion beyond the bare statement that the writer is a prisoner (Eph 3:1; 4:1), and his commendation of Tychicus (Eph 6:21,22), who was to tell them about Paul's condition in Rome. This lack of personal touch is intensified by the assumption underlying Eph 3 and 4 that the readers do not know his knowledge of the mysteries of Christ. In 3:2 and 4:21,22 there is a particle (Grk: eige, "if indeed") which suggests at least some question as to how far Paul himself was the missionary through whom they believed. All through the epistle there is a lack of those elements which are so constant in the other epistles, which mark the close personal fellowship and acquaintance between the apostle and those to whom he is writing.
This element in the epistle, coupled with the strange fact of Marcion's attributing it to the Laodiceans, and the expression in Col 4:16 that points to a letter coming from Laodicea to Colosse, has led most writers of the present day to accept Ussher's suggestion that the epistle is really a circular letter to the churches either in Asia, or, perhaps better, in that part of Phrygia which lies near Colosse. The readers were evidently Gentiles (Eph 2:1; 3:1,2) and from the mission of Tychicus doubtless of a definite locality, though for the reasons given above this could not well be Ephesus alone.
It is barely possible that the cities to whom John was bidden to write the Revelation (Rev 1 through 3) are the same as those to whom Paul wrote this epistle, or it may be that they were the churches of the Lycus valley and its immediate neighborhood. The exact location cannot be determined. But from the fact that Marcion attributed the epistle to Laodicea, possibly because it was so written in the first verse, and from the connection with Colossians, it is at least probable that two of these churches were at Colosse and Laodicea.
On this theory the letter would seem to have been written from Rome to churches in the neighborhood of, or accessible to, Colosse, dealing with the problem of Christian unity and fellowship and the relations between Christ and the church and sent to them by the hands of Tychicus. The inscription was to be filled in by the bearer, or copies were to be made with the name of the local church written in, and then sent to or left with the different churches. It was from Ephesus, as the chief city of Asia in all probability, that copies of this circular letter reached the church in the world, and from this fact the letter came to be known in the church at large as that from Ephesus, and the title was written "to the Ephesians," and the first verse was made to read to the "saints which are in Ephesus."
Relation to Other New Testament Writings
Ephesians raises a still further question by the close resemblances that can be traced between it and various other New Testament writings.
The connection between Ephesians and 1 Peter is not beyond question. In spite of the disclaimer of as careful a writer as Dr. Bigg (ICC) it is impossible to follow up the references given by Holtzmann and others and not feel that Peter either knew Ephesians or at the very least had discussed these subjects with its author. For, as Dr. Hort tells us, the similarity is one of thought and structure rather than of phrase. The following are the more striking passages with their parallels in 1 Peter: Eph 1:3 (1 Pet 1:3); 1:18-20 (1 Pet 1:3-5); 2:18-22 (1 Pet 2:4-6); 1:20-22 (1 Pet 3:22); 3:9 (1 Pet 1:20); 3:20 (1 Pet 1:12); 4:19 (1 Pet 1:14). The explanations that 1 Peter and Ephesians are both from the pen of the same writer, or that Ephesians is based on 1 Pet, are overthrown, among other reasons, by the close relation between Ephesians and Colossians.
The connection with the Apocalypse is based on Eph 2:20 as compared with Rev 21:14; Eph 3:5 and Rev 10:7; Eph 5:11 and Rev 18:4, and the figure of the bride of the Lamb (Rev 19:7; compare Eph 5:25). Holtzmann adds various minor similarities, but none of these are sufficient to prove any real knowledge of, let alone dependence on Ephesians. The contact with the Fourth Gospel is more positive. Love (Grk: agape) and knowledge (Grk: gnosis) are used in the same sense in both Ephesians and the Gospel.
The application of the Messianic title, the Beloved (Eph 1:6), to Christ does not appear in the Gospel (it is found in Mt 3:17), but the statement of the Father's love for Him constantly recurs. The reference to the going up and coming down of Christ (Eph 4:9) is closely akin to Jn 3:13 ("No man hath ascended into heaven, but he," etc.). So, too, Eph 5:11,13 finds echo in Jn 3:19,20; Eph 4:4,7 in Jn 3:34; Eph 5:6 in Jn 3:36. Eph 5:8 f is akin to 1 Jn 1:6 and Eph 2:3 to 1 Jn 3:10.
When we turn to Colossians we find a situation that is without parallel in the New Testament. Out of 155 verses in Ephesians, 78 are found in Colossians in varying degrees of identity. Among them are these: Eph 1:6 parallel Col 1:13; Eph 1:16 ff parallel Col 1:9; Eph 1:21 ff parallel Col 1:16 ff; Eph 2:16 parallel Col 2:20; Eph 4:2 parallel Col 3:12; Eph 4:15 parallel Col 2:19; Eph 4:22 parallel Col 3:9; Eph 4:32 parallel Col 3:12 ff; Eph 5:5 parallel Col 3:5; Eph 5:19 ff parallel Col 3:16 ff; Eph 6:4 parallel Col 3:21; Eph 6:5-9 parallel Col 3:22 through 4:1. For a fuller list see Abbott (ICC, xxiii).
Not only is this so, but there is an identity of treatment, a similarity in argument so great that Bishop Barry (NT Commentary for English Readers, Ellicott) can make a parallel analysis showing the divergence and similarity by the simple device of different type. To this we must add that there are at least a dozen Greek words common to these two epistles not found elsewhere.
Over against this similarity is to be set the dissimilarity. The general subject of the epistles is not approached from the same standpoint. In one it is Christ as the head of all creation, and our duty in consequence. In the other it is the church as the fullness of Christ and our duty--put constantly in the same words--in consequence thereof. In Ephesians we have a number of Old Testament references, in Colossians only one.
In Ephesians we have unique phrases, of which "the heavenly spheres" (Grk: ta epourania) is most striking, and the whole treatment of the relation of Jew and Gentile in the church, and the marriage tie as exemplified in the relation between Christ and the church. In Colossians we have in like manner distinct passages which have no parallel in Ephesians, especially the controversial section in chapter 2, and the salutations. In truth, as Davies (Ephesians, Paul to Ephesians, Colossians, and Philippians.) well says: "It is difficult indeed to say, concerning the patent coincidences of expression in the two epistles, whether the points of likeness or of unlikeness between them are the more remarkable."
This situation has given rise to various theories. The most complicated is that of H. Holtzmann, who holds that some passages point to a priority of Colossians, others to that of Ephesians; and as a result he believes that Colossians, as we have it, is a composite, based on an original epistle of Paul which was expanded by the author of Ephesians--who was not Paul--after he had written this epistle. So Holtzmann would give us the original Colossians (Pauline), Ephesians (based on it), and the present Colossians (not Pauline) expanded from the former through the latter. The theory falls to the ground on its fundamental hypothesis, that Colossians as it stands is interpolated.
The most reasonable explanation is that both Colossians and Ephesians are the work of Paul, written at practically the same time, and that in writing on the same subjects, to different people, there would be just the differences and similarity which we have in these epistles. The objection that Paul could not repeat himself and yet differ as these two letters do is purely imaginary. Zahn shows us that men do just this very thing, giving an account of Bismarck's speaking on a certain subject to a group of officers and later to a large body of men, and yet using quite different language. Moreover, Paul is not averse to repeating himself (compare Romans and Galatians and 1 Timothy and 2 Timothy) when to do so will serve his purpose. "Simultaneous authorship by one writer," and that writer Paul, is the only explanation that will satisfy all the facts in the case and give them due proportion.
If our interpretation of the circumstances, composition and destination of Ephesians be right, we are now in a position to look beneath the surface and ask why the apostle wrote it. To understand its central theme we must remember that Paul, the prisoner of the Lord, is writing in the calm of his imprisonment, far from the noise and turmoil, the conflict and strife, that marked his earlier life. He is now able to look out on the church and get a view of it in its wholeness, to see the part it is to play in God's scheme for the restoration of the human race, to see God's purpose in it and for it and its relation to Him.
With this stand-point he can write to the churches about Ephesus on the occasion of Tychicus' return to Colosse, not to correct false views on some special point, but to emphasize the great central truth which he had put in the very forefront of his letter. God's eternal purpose is to gather into one the whole created universe, to restore harmony among His creatures and between them and Himself.
The apostle's whole prayer is for this end, his whole effort and desire is toward this goal: that they may have full, clear knowledge of this purpose of God which He is working out through Christ Jesus, who is the head of the church, the very fullness of Him who is being fulfilled all over the world. Everything, for the apostle, as he looks forth upon the empire, centers in the purpose of God. The discord between the elements in the church, the distinction between Jew and Gentile, all these must yield to that greater purpose.
The vision is of a great oneness in Christ and through Him in God, a oneness of birth and faith and life and love, as men, touched with the fire of that Divine purpose, seek to fulfil, each in himself, the part that God has given him to play in the world, and, fighting against the foes of God, to overcome at last.
It is a noble purpose to set before men this great mystery of the church as God's means by which, in Christ, He may restore all men to union with Himself. It is an impossible vision except to one who, as Paul was at the time, is in a situation where the strife and turmoil of outside life can enter but little, but a situation where he can look out with a calm vision and, in the midst of the world's discord, discern what God is accomplishing among men.