The Purpose of Ephesians – still a mystery…

With my grad students, I have been studying Ephesians. I had to admit that this is the first time in my life I have really thought about and studied deeply this letter. Recently, my research has been consumed with Colossians, but it is refreshing to turn to Ephesians and find so many similarities as well as differences.

There are many challenges to reading Ephesians. Authorship. Provenance. Literary integrity issues. The ethnic make-up of the first recipients. These are important issues, but I am pretty much bored to tears with the exhausting repetition of the same tired arguments. I think that the more critical question is the purpose of Ephesians. (I acknowledge knowing who wrote it and to whom helps us along in this, but I am just tired of the authorship debates.)

Most scholars are committed to thinking that Paul had no serious or urgent concern, but this is more of a homily, a general word of praise to God and a generalized call for unity. I would say this seems more appropriate than thinking that Paul was battling a very specific threat (Gnostics, Judaizers, etc…). However, I really do not feel like Ephesians is as general as it is sometimes made out to be. Just because it is pleonastic and repetitive with a poetic quality, doesn’t mean that Paul wasn’t aiming for some kind of serious change. Many people treat it as an “FYI” letter – just “for your information.” This, I think, makes too little of Ephesians’ “edge.” Here are a few reasons why I think Ephesians has a directed message

1. The persistent use of divine-election language. It is so emphatic that there seems to be more of a reason for this than just “identity formation,” though it is at least that much.

2. Intentional alternation of “we” and “you” pronouns. This is especially obvious in ch 2, where Paul draws clear distinctions between “you” (Gentiles) and “us” (as Jews) and “us” (as Jews and Gentiles). The call for unity could be general, but it seems to me to be so dramatic that Paul seems even desperate to get his point across.

3. The place of Paul (in prison) and the mission of Paul (as apostle). Paul does not just mention it. He hammers it into the letter. Also, the very end of the epistle focuses quite strongly on Tychicus communicating to the Ephesians (or whoever) Paul’s own situation and condition (6:20-22).

4. The emphatic and specific moral teaching in chs. 2 and 4. Yes Paul gives stock paraenetic advice in all his letters, but it would seem gratuitous in Ephesians if this were an FYI letter only.

Now, just because I think that Ephesians is another “word on target” (like Romans) doesn’t mean I see Judaizing opponents in the background. Here is my own guesswork scenario.

1. Paul sees the destruction of the problematic mystical philosophy on the Colossians, including how this leads to fighting and disunity within the church.

2. Paul sends a letter to a wider circle of Gentile believers concerned that

a. Gentiles fear evil powers

b. Many Gentiles are attracted to Jesus communities and salvation in Christ

c. Some Jewish believers have a tendency to urge Gentiles that they must accept Torah to be truly safe from evil powers and also to be fully “one” with God’s people.

d. Gentiles tend to (a) give in and follow Torah, (b) push back against this pressure and even express libertine “freedom” by flaunting sin, or (c) scratch their heads, confused about what it means to follow Christ and be a part of the church.

It is not that Paul knows of some serious problem in Ephesus or somewhere else specifically in Asia Minor and sends this letter. The situation in Colossae caused Paul to reflect on certain intra-communal tendencies that lead to fear, rivalry, legalism, anti-nomianism, boasting, and a kind of worship setting that takes the focus away from the Most High God. So, this letter aims at remedying this. Thus, on the one hand, it is “general” insofar as it is sent to a larger region and Paul is not trying to remedy a problematic situation he specifically heard about. On the other hand, it is “specific” insofar as he really wants to see something specific change in the way that Jews and Gentiles interact and worship.

When it comes to actual purpose statements, then, I think O’Brien comes pretty close to what I think to  be the case.

 “Having addressed a specific problem in Colossians, Paul has remodeled his letter for a more general Christian readership. He writes Ephesians to his mainly Gentile Christian readers, for whom he has apostolic responsibilities, with the intention of informing, strengthening, and encouraging them by assuring them of their place within the gracious, saving purpose of God, and urging them to bring their lives into conformity with this divine plan of summing up all things in Christ (1:10).” (Ephesians, Pillar; p. 57)
Some might think that my perspective is dangerous because it reads too much into the text. True enough, I am hypothesizing a background or contextual scenario. It becomes dangerous, though, only if I use this imaginative construction to force the actual text into my perspective. With my students, I try not to let the hypothetical contextual construct dictate interpretation. No, my goal is to continue testing the hypothesis while reading the text more generally. Having a proposed background theory is freeing when it is held rather loosely (in want of more evidence), but constraining when it becomes the only possible determinant of all exegetical concerns.
What do you think?

New Books on My Desk (Cockerill, Longenecker, Burns, Witherington)

I will be doing some reviews this summer on the books I am about the mention, but I thought I would briefly introduce them as “new releases” for any that might not have heard about them yet, or had not known they were released.

Gareth Lee Cockerill, The Epistle to the Hebrews (NICNT; Eerdmans, 2012). This one is hot of the presses – I got it in the mail yesterday. I met Gareth at IBR last fall and he is a wonderful person. He is involved in the seminar I co-chair on the relationship between the OT and the NT. He is an expert in Hebrew’s use of the OT and, supposedly, has made some new proposals in this commentary in that area. I look forward to exploring that dimension of the commentary in particular.

Bruce Longenecker, Hearing the Silence (Cascade, 2012). This is a short work on Luke 4 from a narrative perspective, trying to imagine what was going on in 4:30 when, after an unruly crowd tried to mob him, he “passed through the midst of them and went on his way” (4:30). Luke can get away with not making explicit how Jesus managed this. But Longenecker points out that modern Jesus novels try to fill in this gap in all sorts of creative ways that make for good lessons in narrative perspective.

May I also say that I finally purchased Longenecker’s now classic Lost Letters of Pergamum and I am very excited to read it. I began going through it when I ordered in through ILL. I had to return it before I completed the story. So, I bought it and am eager to jump back in.

J. Patout Burns Jr. has translated and edited the Romans volume for Eerdmans’ “The Church’s Bible” series (general ed. R.L. Wilken). This is a hefty collection of commentaries (newly translated) by early Christian writers. Without even cracking the spine, I already anticipate that this volume will be massively useful in research.

Ben Witherington III, A Week in the Life of Corinth (IVP, 2012). This is a historical tale of a fictitious character from Corinth named Nicanor. It is a clever attempt to help students better understand the first century Greco-Roman world in which Paul lived and taught. I have already read a dozen or so pages and I can tell you that Witherington is a very good story-teller. In fact, his literary chops outmatch almost anyone else I know in Biblical Studies. This is hard to debate, if you know Ben. For me, both Longenecker’s Lost Letters and now Witherington’s A Week in the Life of Corinth would make for great supplementary textbooks for NT courses (Longenecker best for a course on the Gospel of Luke; Witherington best for a course on Paul, particularly 1 Corinthians).