Paul’s letter to the Ephesians looks different from Paul’s other letters, simply because it was patterned on Peter’s first letter. This letter is called Ephesians only by tradition; unlike Paul’s other letters, “Ephesians” does not indicate its intended destination in its opening sentence. However, Marcion of Sinope knew it as the letter to the Laodicians (also mentioned in Colossians), and there seems no reason to reject Marcion’s evidence.
1 Peter and Ephesians
There is a strong relationship between 1 Peter and Ephesians. This becomes clear once the themes considered in both works are identified and separately considered. While each author dealt with the parallel themes in his own way, analysis of these themes shows that ideas that first emerged in 1Â Peter receive an expanded treatment in Ephesians. Indeed, it appears that Paul developed the main structure of Ephesians based on that found in 1 Peter:
|Blessed be God||1:3-5||1:3-14|
|Old Testament prophecies||1:10-12|
|Their former lives||1:13-2:3||2:1-10|
|Unity of the body||4:1-16|
|New life in Christ||2:11-12||4:17-5:20|
|Rules on submission||2:13-3:7||5:21-6:9|
|Elders and young people||5:1-7|
|Stand firm in the faith||5:8-11||6:10-20|
While the scholarly consensus is that 1 Peter is based on Ephesians (rather than the other way around), this is a dead end. The current approach has resulted in two inconsistencies and a certain illogicality in the scholars’ arguments.
- Scholars have argued that 1 Peter could not have been written by Peter since it depends so heavily on Ephesians. Yet 1 Peter is structured as extended chiasmuses, also found in Peter’s speeches in Acts, and has similar emphases to those found in Peter’s speech on the Day of Pentecost and before the Sanhedrin, both in Acts. (Without any hard evidence, many scholars also assume that Acts does not actually reflects Peter’s speeches.)
- Scholars have also argued that Ephesians could not have been written by Paul since it introduces a new set of vocabulary words not found in Paul’s other works. Yet many of the new vocabulary items can be found in 1 Peter (and others can be attributed to the different content of this letter). While it is agreed that some of the words used in this letter conflict with Paul’s natural vocabulary choices, this can be explained on the basis that Paul used these words because he had Peter’s letter in mind when he wrote his letter.
It can be noted that the scholars’ vocabulary test does not exclude Colossians. Therefore some scholars are willing to entertain the idea that this work was written by Paul. Yet they seem to forget that the content of Colossians mirrors that of Ephesians. There has to be a relationship between these two letters, yet Colossians itself indicates that the Laodicean letter (that is, Ephesians) was written before Colossians.
Ordering the letters
Rather than taking the scholars’ skeptical approach, sympathetic consideration of the evidence would lead to a recognition that the following sequence of events is indicated by the texts themselves.
- Paul wrote the Thessalonian letters in conjunction with Silas / Silvanus and Timothy.
- After Silas’ return from Macedonia and Achaia (Greece), and after missionary activity in northern Anatolia had already been undertaken, Peter dictated his letter in Aramaic, and it was translated into Greek with the assistance of bilingual scribe. Silas took this letter around Anatolia, sharing it with each of the churches along the way, including Ephesus (a city on the west coast of Anatolia).
- Paul was in Ephesus when Silas arrived with his letter. After reading Peter’s letter, and warmly receiving it, he wrote his own letter, giving the basic outline of the Christian faith, basing it on Peter’s letter. He sent one copy of this letter to the new Christians in Laodicea, whom he had never met.
- Later, Paul received more news of new Christians in Colossae, whom he had also never met. He wrote a letter to them, modelling it on his “Laodicean letter” (the so-called Ephesian letter). That letter is our Colossians.
On this basis, all the “difficulties” associated with 1 Peter, Ephesians and Colossians melt away.
The differences in matters covered in the two letters can be explained by the different situations facing these two different audiences.
- There is no reference to Old Testament prophecies in Ephesians. This would suggest that the target audience for that letter did not have a Jewish or “God-fearer” synagogue background.
- Paul’s defence in Ephesians 3:1-21 of his own ministry and the assertion of his authority over the churches established in the province of Asia could have been provoked by the arrival of 1 Peter in southern Phrygia (in the province of Asia). This region was next to southern Galatia. This was significant since Paul had been required to defend his leadership on a previous occasion and had sent the Galatian letter to them. The arrival of Peter’s letter could have given rise to questions about Pete’s involvement with the churches founded by Paul, and also raised questions about Paul and Peter’s authority. Paul’s strategy seems to have been two-fold: he referred his readers to his Galatian letter in which the basis of his authority was set forth; and he unreservedly endorsed the “holy apostles and prophets” who were labouring to build up the Church. Paul can be seen here to have defended his own position, while standing in support of Peter’s authority as well.
- Ephesians 4:1-16, appears to be dealing with another aspect of what could have been a nascent challenge to Peter’s authority among the Christians in southern Galatia and their neighbours in southern Phrygia. Such a challenge would not have been surprising in the light of the interpretation that could have been given to Paul’s comments in Galatians 2:7-8, where he seems to have distinguished between the mission to Jews and that to the nations. In Ephesians, Paul said that there is only one Church, not a Jewish Church and a non-Jewish Church. He taught that Christians drawn from Jews and from the nations are equal partners; he said that there is no dividing wall between the Jews and non-Jews. This can be seen as Paul’s rebuttal of such an incorrect interpretation of Galatians.
- Ephesians does not include a section directly paralleling the extended treatment of suffering for the faith found in 1 Peter 3:8-4:19. While Paul warned his readers that there was a day of evil coming, in which they would be called upon to stand their ground (Ephesians 6:13), and referred to being a prisoner for their sake (Ephesians 3:1), yet it appears that those to whom Ephesians was written were not suffering any kind of harassment at the time of writing.
- Similarly, Ephesians does not include a section paralleling Peter’s exhortation to elders and young people, found in 1 Peter 5:1-7 (even though Peter was following 1 Thessalonians 5:12-15 here). This omission in Ephesians can probably be explained on the grounds that, since Paul has not yet appointed leaders for the church in that community, he was not willing to reproduce the strong endorsement of the local leadership found in 1 Peter and in 1 Thessalonians.
A major limitation on scholarly analysis of ancient texts is the lack of resource material. However, this is not the problem in this case. Rather, the evidence available is relatively complete.
Through a sympathetic reading of the available evidence we can gain meaningful insights into the events of those times. There is much more that we can know than is immediately apparent, but only if we are willing to consider all of the evidence.