Should women care about who wrote Ephesians and Colossians?
The question in the title of this blog might strike some as a bit puzzling. After all, Ephesians starts off with “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, To the saints who are in Ephesus,” and the beginning of Colossians is not that much different (Colossians 1:1-2).
Sounds like a silly “no brainer,” right? Paul wrote these two letters. It’s obvious!
Well, anyone who has studied the development of “historical criticism” over the past several hundred years might tell you differently. While some think this topic is too heady or nerdy for them, it turns out that if you are married, as a husband or a wife, or a woman of any kind, or the concept of misogyny bothers you, this just might be important to you….
…. in a series of blog articles on “historical criticism”.…This is probably the longest post in this series, and while I thought about breaking it up into separate parts, maintaining the flow of the argument convinced me not to do so….
Why Do So Many Scholars Not Believe that Paul Wrote Ephesians Nor Colossians? Is this REALLY True?
In this blog series on “historical criticism,” we have been looking at how historical critical method has had an impact for the past several hundred years, in how people read the Bible. In some cases, the historical critical method has been helpful, in giving us more solid confidence in the Bible as the very Word of God. But in other ways, the historical critical method has led to more doubts about the Bible. This current blog post is a deep dive into one of these issues.
A general consensus among many (though not all !) biblical scholars trained in historical criticism today suggests that of the thirteen letters that are attributed to Paul in the New Testament, only seven of them were actually written by the Apostle Paul: Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon. That leaves perhaps as many as six of them were not written by the great apostle: 2 Thessalonians, 1st Timothy, 2nd Timothy, Titus, and the two to be examined in this blog post, Ephesians and Colossians. Furthermore, some of the issues surrounding the Pauline authorship question have a direct impact upon concerns many women have today in a postmodern age, as I will explain further below.
The question of Pauline authorship for the letters associated with his name is an acute difficulty in biblical scholarship. For example, the Gospels do not explicitly tell us who wrote them; that is, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. We get those attributions of authorship from the unified, consensus tradition of the early church. According to most scholars, titles like “the Gospel according to Matthew,” etc. were attached to these Gospels after they were originally written. The letters of Paul are different. In the letters of Paul, each letter explicitly tells you that Paul, along with perhaps a co-author, like Timothy, for Colossians, wrote the letter.
The reasons why Ephesians and Colossians are considered to be “disputed” among the letters of Paul are not too much different from the most controversial letter of the New Testament, that attributed to Peter, regarding its authorship, namely 2 Peter. The typical reasons such scholars question Pauline authorship include variances in literary style and vocabulary, as compared to the “undisputed” letters of Paul, like Romans and the Corinthian letters.1
A prime example of this type of difference can be found in terms of grammar used in Ephesians and Colossians: like the use of run-on sentences. In much of Paul’s “undisputed” correspondence, the sentences are fairly compact (for the most part). But not in Ephesians 1:3-14. Many scholars contend that this particular passage is one monster, run-on sentence, one of the longest sentences in the entire Bible (though some translations do break up this passage into shorter sentences, to make it easier to read). That’s twelve verses folks, all in a single sentence!
My high school English teacher would probably not have approved of this. She likely would have made Paul stay after class and work on his writing skills.
However, the problems with this type of argument are two-fold. First, Paul does use rather long, run-on sentences in some of his “undisputed” letters, as well. Check out the eight total verses, all in one sentence, in 2 Corinthians 6:3-10 sometime. Sure, there are style and vocabulary differences between the so-called “disputed” and “undisputed” Paul, but these differences are often exaggerated.
Second, such style and vocabulary differences can readily be explained by the use of a secretary, whether named or unnamed, which was actually a familiar practice in the ancient world. Back then, letter writing was more of a professional activity, due to the expense of working with papyrus, and not as commonplace as in modern times, where literacy rates are higher and writing material is much cheaper.
Ever tried buying a pack of papyrus today down at OfficeMax? That is a special order, I am afraid. Paul even tells us that Timothy helped out in the writing of Colossians, so the Bible is far from silent regarding the evidence for Paul getting help from others in producing his letters.
It is also very possible that such secretaries operated like ghostwriters, as we have with many popular authors today, or with political speech writers. Do you really think that the President of the United States writes out every speech he gives? No. Chances are more likely that certain writers are paid to write on behalf of such authors, political figures, etc., as long as they are trying to communicate the same content and message being intended. So, we should not be surprised if style and vocabulary vary between Paul and his use of secretaries.2
Does the Teaching in Ephesians and Colossians, These “Disputed” Letters of Paul, Contradict the Teaching of the “Undisputed” Paul?
The more challenging case to authentic Pauline authorship of Ephesians and Colossians comes down to differences in theological and ethical content. In other words, the claim is that what the author of Ephesians and/or Colossians is teaching is sufficiently different enough from, or even contradictory with, what is found in the undisputed letters of Paul, such that it would rule out the possibility of the Apostle Paul being the legitimate author. This claim suggests that someone, other than Paul, was writing in the name of Paul in order to push their own theological and/or ethical agenda on their readers.3
What type of evidence do scholars cite, when making such claims? Two particular theological differences stand out as examples:
- In Paul’s “undisputed” letters, Paul talks about sin in terms of a hostile power, in the singular sense, and that the Gospel gives us a means of deliverance from that power (see Romans 5:6-11; 7:8, 11). However, in the “disputed” Paul of Ephesians and Colossians, “sins” is referenced in the plural, where deliverance is spoken of as “the forgiveness of sins” (see Ephesians 1:7; 2:1, 4:32 and Colossians 1:14; 2:13; 3:13).
- In Paul’s “undisputed” letters, Paul talks about the resurrection as primarily a future event for believers (Romans 6:5). However, in the “disputed” Paul of Ephesians and Colossians we read that believers already experience Christ’s resurrection (Ephesians 2:4-8 and Colossians 2:12-13; 3:1).4
But even many scholars, who are otherwise not so sure of Pauline authorship, will admit that such differences are not necessarily contradictions. It could easily be understood that such differences result from differences in emphasis, and not some theological conflict.
For example, to speak of “sin” as a power, in one letter, and the forgiveness of “sins” in another letter does not imply a contradiction, but rather can be understood as complementary teachings. Likewise, the idea that the resurrection is a future event, regarding the future bodily resurrection of the saints, as well as it being a current event, in that we as believers share in the resurrection life of Jesus, who is already risen from the dead, are complementary theological themes. They do stand in tension with one another, but they do not conflict with each other.
Furthermore, it could be easily argued that the supposed tension between the “undisputed” and “disputed” Paul is overdrawn by critics who see a contradiction here. For example, Romans 4:24-25 argues that Jesus was “raised [from the dead] for our justification.” Then in Galatians 2:20, Paul teaches that “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” Both Romans and Galatians are regarded as “undisputed” letters of Paul. This suggests that the Christian life is lived, in the here and now, as a result of Jesus’ resurrection, a past event. Therefore, the “undisputed” Paul is not simply relegating the resurrected life for the Christian believer as some purely far off event, way off into the future. The theology of Romans and Galatians need not be pitted against the theology of Ephesians and Colossians, as certain scholars have argued.
Paul could have easily tailored his message in different ways to different audiences, to meet different needs. Even in 1 Corinthians 9:20-22, Paul admits that to the Jews he became as a Jew, in order to win Jews, and to the Gentiles he became a Gentile, in order to win them to the Gospel.
In the 19th. century, a number of German scholars, who originally developed the historical critical method, believed that the undisputed letters have a more democratic, Protestant feel to them, as opposed to a more hierarchal, “early Catholic” feel to what is supposedly found in Ephesians and Colossians. For example, the undisputed letters of Paul have a sense of the church (Greek, ekklesia) as an egalitarian gathering of believers. The term ekklesia was originally a political term, that talked about a group of people assembled in a local community to make decisions together, on an essentially democratic basis. However, in Ephesians and Colossians, the writer talks about the church in a more highly structured, universal, even cosmic sense. Furthermore, Ephesians and Colossians appears to be more concerned about structured social arrangements within a Christian household, all within the larger Christian community, as in the relationship between parents and children, and slaves and masters (Ephesians 6:1-9; Colossians 3:20-4:1).
More can be said about that, but suffice to say, the particular issue about the Protestant “undisputed” Paul versus the more Roman Catholic “disputed” Paul is less of an issue these days. Both the “undisputed” and “disputed” Paul use the language of church as “ekklesia,” just with different emphases. However, the big differentiator, in the minds of many scholars today, concerns how the “undisputed” Paul versus the “disputed” Paul thinks about women. The pronounced concerns about Paul’s treatment of women, in his New Testament letters, more than anything else, overshadows the arguments made to deny that Paul wrote Ephesians and/or Colossians. 5
How Does the Paul (or “Paul”) of Ephesians and Colossians Treat Women?
In our postmodern age, many are concerned about misogyny, the wrongful treatment of women. Sadly, Christians have at times been guilty, and such wrongful treatment has been rightfully exposed. Furthermore, in a day and age where “diversity”, “equity”, and “inclusion” are the watchwords, anything that even hints of misogyny is held suspect. Therefore, many skeptical scholars today suggest that the “disputed” Paul of Ephesians and Colossians has a rather ethically challenged view of women, when compared to what we find in the “undisputed” letters of Paul.
Is this really true? Let us take a look at the case being made.
For example, some argue that the “undisputed” Paul of Galatians 3:28 envisions an egalitarian relationship between men and women, by saying that “there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” So far, so good. However, this is in contrast with the “disputed” Paul of Ephesians 5:21-24:
…..submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.
The “Wives, submit to your own husbands ” part sticks out like a sore thumb, for many 21st century readers.
A generation ago, you might have heard this Ephesians 5 passage read at a Christian wedding, and very few would have raised an eyebrow over it. But in the third decade of the 21st century, this Bible passage would undoubtedly trigger someone, and perhaps spoil the whole wedding day. You are more likely to instead hear the famous “love chapter”, 1 Corinthians 13, taken from one of the “undisputed” letters of Paul, thus avoiding any controversy.
Here in this Ephesians 5 passage, along with a parallel passage in Colossians 3:18-19, the “disputed” Paul is describing the relationship between husbands and wives, along the lines of the Roman “household codes.” In the era of the Apostle Paul, Roman society adopted the idea of “pater familias” (related to the Roman legal code of patria potestas,”power of a father”), where the oldest living male in a household had complete, absolute and unquestioned rule over everyone in the household, including wives, children, slaves, and other servants. The male head of the house had life and death power over everyone in the home. He even had unrestricted sexual access to slaves, without fear of censure by the surrounding society.
Advocates for rejecting Paul as the rightful author of Ephesians and Colossians will contend that the patriarchal, “chain-of-command” approach towards the treatment of women in these “disputed” letters is in contradiction with the egalitarian, “real” Paul of the “undisputed” letters.
Admittedly, at first glance, it does not look good for the Paul, or “Paul,” of Ephesians (and Colossians), as being a paragon supporter of women. But there is more to the argument. See if you can follow where this is all going.
The rejection of pater familias for sexual relations between husbands and wives is clear in the “undisputed” Paul of 1 Corinthians 7:2-4, where the conjugal rights are equally and reciprocally shared between the husband and wife, as opposed to the unilateral arrangement of husbands having complete sexual control over their wives, associated with the pater familias. It is claimed that the “undisputed” Paul of 1 Corinthians, emphasizing this pure egalitarianism, has no room for the contrary message found in Ephesians and Colossians. Many today see that the notion of “male headship” in marriage is actually not a Christian concept, but rather, something smuggled into the New Testament, via Ephesians and Colossians, by someone with an agenda alien to the “real” Paul of 1 Corinthians. 6
If Paul did not write Ephesians/Colossians, why would someone use the name of Paul to promote a teaching that some see as endorsing misogyny? The standard answer has been that Ephesians/Colossians were probably written decades after Paul’s death in the 60’s, between the years of 70 and 100 C.E. Some even date these letters perhaps up to 70 years later, well into the 2nd century C.E., in a time when church officials sought to domesticate the radically egalitarian teachings of the “undisputed” Apostle Paul. According to this view, late 1st century or 2nd century church officials had come to believe that the Apostle Paul’s teachings were too radical for Roman society, and needed to be amended to make Christianity more compatible with the pagan society. 7
This is a serious argument raised by a growing number of scholars (including a few Christian ones). For those who have grown up looking at the “Leave it to Beaver” days of the 1950s, as a hopelessly dark relic of a misogynistic past, this argument gives plenty of fodder for those who would rather leave Paul alone, and reject a good portion of the New Testament (if not all of it).
How to Respond to the Supposedly Misogynistic Views of the “Disputed” Paul?
The reactions drawn from this contrast of the “undisputed” Paul with the “disputed” Paul of Ephesians and Colossians, particularly with respect to the Bible’s treatment of women, vary greatly.
In our contemporary age, where feminism has an enormous impact on both society and the church, some would say that out of respect for women, we should reject Ephesians and Colossians as part of the Christian canon, in order to show Christian solidarity in opposing misogyny. When “diversity,” “equity,” and “inclusion” are the watchwords of the day, at least in certain quarters, a push for Christians to marginalize Ephesians and Colossians is ideologically strong. This position is radical, but at least it is honest and not half-hearted.
Other ways of thinking about this in progressive Christian circles are a bit more complicated. Some might say that it really does not matter what Paul says, whether it be the “undisputed” or “disputed” Paul, and that we should only focus on what Jesus’ says in the Gospels.
Others are more nuanced, and say that we can still embrace Ephesians and Colossians as part of the New Testament, even if Paul never wrote those letters. British Anglican priest and Oxford scholar John Barton is pretty typical of this perspective, as he writes in his A History of the Bible:
‘A lot depends on how we define the authority of biblical books. Are Paul’s letters authoritative because they are by Paul? If so, then establishing that one of them is in fact pseudonymous presumably reduces or even annuls its authority. Or are they authoritative because they are in the Bible? If so, the question of who wrote them might be regarded as irrelevant.’ (p.187)
Such progressive Christians conclude that Ephesians and Colossians were probably written by some avid disciple (or disciples) of Paul’s, decades after his death, with the understanding that these writers could tweak the Apostle’s Paul message in a new way that tried to meet the needs of a new generation. The progressive Christians holding such a view would suggest that we can still accept Ephesians and Colossians as part of the Christian New Testament canon, embracing those elements that are in sync with the “undisputed” Paul, while rejecting those elements that are seen to be in contradiction with the “real” Paul, found elsewhere in the New Testament. This is sort of like the analogy of eating a piece of fish: eat the meaty part, but spit out the bones, as an approach to suspect parts of the Bible.
The problem with this “spit out the bones” approach to Ephesians and Colossians is that it assumes that the practice of writing something in someone else’s name, and changing what is taught, was somehow benign in the ancient world. However, a number of scholars today are challenging that view, that it was “okay” to use the name of a famous person to promote even a slightly different agenda. For if someone in the ancient world was writing in the name of the Apostle Paul, for the purpose of changing the teachings of Paul, then such a literary work should be rejected as a forgery. In other words, writing something with the intent to deceive was considered lying (just as it is now). A forgery is a forgery.
So, is the judgment of “forgery” laid against Ephesians and Colossians a foregone conclusion? Not necessarily. In fact, we have good evidence to indicate even Ephesians and Colossians were authentically Pauline. The process by which certain writings were accepted into the New Testament canon was actually quite rigorous in the early church. Numerous other writings, ranging from the Epistle to the Laodiceans, Third Corinthians, to the Apocalypse of Paul were all rejected from the New Testament canon as being not authentically Pauline, though they all claimed to be. Therefore, to think that Ephesians and Colossians, if judged to be forgeries, simply slipped into the canon unnoticed is quite a remarkable claim indeed. Furthermore, there are good reasons to suggest that Ephesians and Colossians are not as misogynistic as some think.8
A More Faithful Response?: Evangelical Cases for Paul as the Legitimate Author of Ephesians and Colossians
Most evangelical scholars today do uphold the traditional position, that Paul was the real author of Ephesians and Colossians, but when intertwined with the issue of women, and their relationships to men, there are two primary camps within the evangelical fold: the egalitarian and the complementarian. Both the egalitarian and the complementarian camps affirm the equality as well as the non-interchangeability between male and female, yet broadly speaking, the egalitarian camp emphasizes the equality aspect, while the complementarian camp emphasizes the non-interchangeability aspect. Egalitarians tend to emphasize mutuality between male and female. Complementarians tend to emphasize the complementary roles that male and female perform, with respect to the other. Before outlining the distinctives of each position, it is important to highlight where both positions agree. 9
Egalitarian and complementarian evangelical Christians both agree that Paul wrote Ephesians and Colossians, citing the points above that the style and vocabulary differences between the “disputed” and “undisputed” Pauline letters are often over-exaggerated, and can be reconciled when considering Paul’s use of secretaries in writing his letters. When it comes to the theological content argument, where critics say that the “disputed” Paul contradicts the “undisputed” Paul, with what is being taught, evangelical scholars will also argue that such supposed “contradictions” are highly exaggerated, or else not properly understood. Part of the supposed “contradictions” could simply be a result of Paul’s growing understanding of the Gospel truth, as he advanced in his own spiritual maturity, filling out areas of theological and ethical concern that were not wholly addressed in other letters.
Evangelical scholars will also say that when wives are called to “submit to their husbands,” they are to do so “as to the Lord,” or “unto the Lord” (Ephesians 5:21-14). Submission is grounded in the concept that submission is to be understood, first and foremost, to God Himself, and secondarily, that submission more broadly speaking is mutual in human interpersonal relationships (see verse 21, especially, “submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.“). Wives are not to submit to their husbands, as though the rule of the husband is absolute. Rather, they are to submit to God, as their husbands should as well. In other words, husbands and wives are to submit to one another, in mutual, yet different kinds of ways, within the context of giving honor and glory to God.10
Many scholars will say that while Paul in Ephesians and Colossians is using the “household codes” framework for stating his teachings, he is actually calling into question some key components of the Roman pater familias social arrangements. First, it is noted that the Ephesians 5 passage begins with a directive to wives first, and then to husbands, which flips the order of how the pater familias was typically expressed in the Roman era, where husbands/fathers always came first. Changing the order of presentation is important, as it would indicate that Paul is reversing the position of both the stronger and weaker parties in typical Roman thinking. In other words, far from rubber-stamping the pater familias Roman tradition, Paul is subverting it. Here is what follows the directive to wives (the corresponding Colossians 3:18-19 passage is more succinct):
Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. (Ephesians 5:25-30 ESV)
Secondly, this section regarding how husbands are to treat their wives does not in anyway indicate a type of dominating, overbearing relationship that a husband is supposed to have with his wife. Instead, the ethic of love, particularly as following the ethic of how Christ loves His church, is expressed. The husband is required to give self-sacrificially for the wife, just as Christ has done for the whole church. This overarching element of love is missing from the Roman pater familias, which makes explicit reference to the husband’s absolute control over his household, and is therefore in contrast with Paul’s teachings. 11
An Evangelical Egalitarian Approach to Ephesians & Colossians…
Nevertheless, egalitarian and complementarian evangelicals do differ beyond what is argued above. An evangelical egalitarian view will contend that the “disputed” Paul and “undisputed” Paul are one in the same, in that they are both egalitarian. The argument usually centers around the claim that the word “head” in Ephesians 5:21-24 has been mistranslated and misinterpreted. They would argue that “head”, in this context, actually means “source,” as opposed to something more traditional, like “authority,” or “leader.” In other words, to say that the “the husband is the head of the wife” is to say that the husband is the “source” of the wife, and not the “authority” or “leader.” For example, in an analogy of English usage, we could speak about the “head” of a river” as also being the “source” of a river, where the concept of authority is absent. 12
This egalitarian evangelical approach suggests that the claim made by critics, in denying Pauline authorship of Ephesians and Colossians, are doing so on the basis of reading a tradition into the text of Scripture, that simply is not there. At the same time, egalitarian evangelicals argue that the traditional-leaning complementarians are actually encouraging the critics in their resolve to undermine Ephesians and Colossians, by tacitly supporting a more misogynistic reading of these letters. In other words, when complementarians look the other way when some complementarians use their theology to hide the abuse the women, it brings the gospel into disrepute.
An Evangelical Complementarian Approach to Ephesians & Colossians…
A complementarian view will push back on an egalitarian view at this point. First, a complementarian view would call into the question the more “pro-women” perspective articulated by egalitarians, as misrepresenting complementarianism, as complementarianism is actually more “pro-women” than what egalitarians typically think. After all, even in some egalitarian churches, women still find themselves on the receiving end of abuse.
Secondly, a complementarian view may readily concede that there is a real difference between the ethical emphases in the “undisputed” letters versus what we find in Ephesians and Colossians, as more skeptical critics do argue. However, this is not a cause for embarrassment. Rather, this is what we would expect as Paul is tailoring his unified message in different contexts, with different needs, through his different letters. What might have been a concern at Ephesus or Colossae might not have been a concern in Corinth or Rome.
However, a complementarian view also pushes back against those critics who deny Pauline authorship of those latter two letters, in saying that such critics make too much of such a contrast between the “disputed” and “undisputed” Paul. In particular, the “undisputed” letters make no substantial reference to how husbands and wives are to have structure and order, with respect to decision-making, particularly when consensus between marriage partners is not easily reached, etc., whereas Ephesians and Colossians do specifically address such questions of structure and order. For example, Paul’s desire that husbands and wives have mutual conjugal rights in 1 Corinthians 7:2-4 need not conflict with the idea that the husband and wife relationship should parallel the Christ and church relationship.13
While many “broad” complementarians might emphasize the more traditional notion of “authority” and/or “leader“, with respect to interpreting the meaning of “head” in Ephesians 5:21-24 , there is also a “narrow” (or “moderate”) complementarian view that sees a mediating position between the “‘head’ means ‘source’” and the “‘head’ means ‘authority’” camps. This mediating position follows the most current research that argues that “head” in the Ephesians and Colossians context simply means “to occupy the position at the top or front.” 14
Towards a Meeting Place Between Complementarian and Egalitarian Christians?
Many in our postmodern culture today, and even in the church, view any form of complementarianism as an affront to contemporary sensibilities. But complementarians do not necessarily see it that way, as the tendency towards authoritarianism was never in Paul’s view. At least, those who hold a more moderate complementarian view reject a more rigid, authoritarian perspective, though admittedly, more extreme complementarians do go down the more authoritarian route.
Rather, the notion of the man occupying “the position at the top or front” with respect to the woman is simply meant to be understood in a more sacramental, mysterious way. It is part of what makes Christianity weird and unique, not yet just another voice echoing what we hear all of the time in the surrounding culture. In other words, the notion of “male headship” is not any more weird, than say, the Incarnation, Christ’s substitutionary atonement, the idea that we can “feast on Christ” through our participation in the Lord’s Supper, the doctrine of the Trinity, or even a belief in Christ’s resurrection.
Sadly, the sacramental character of a robust complementarian theology gets overshadowed by concerns over the mistreatment, exclusion, and denigration of women.The complementarian side of this debate finds themselves in the awkward position of dealing with extreme traditionalists who misuse passages like Ephesians 5:21-24 and Colossians 3:18-19 to gloss over all kinds of abuse of women, which only reinforces skepticism, not only of the complementarian position, but of the Bible in general. The silencing of women, by extreme traditionalists, has only added fuel to the skeptic’s fire, particularly as 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 often gets weaponized against women, in ways completely unwarranted by what is actually in the text.. 15
But the egalitarian view is not in any better position. In fact, it might be more precarious. For while evangelical egalitarians and skeptical critics of Ephesians and Colossians might find mutual agreement about relations between husbands and wives in marriage, along with the notion of having women serve as elders/presbyters in a local church, the skeptical critics of Ephesians and Colossians will most probably give evangelical egalitarians a silent pass, while dismissing their exegesis of at least some disputed texts as being a case of perhaps well-intentioned, but nevertheless, hopelessly wishful thinking. Perhaps it might be better for complementarians and egalitarians to learn to listen to one another better, and find common ground.16
Holding Onto Ephesians and Colossians as Pauline, Versus Losing Them
Many evangelical Christians look upon the complementarian/egalitarian debate as primarily a matter of how one should interpret particular controversial verses found in the New Testament. While this is still a valid concern for believers, far more is at stake. It should be evident that the current cultural and church debate, concerning how men and women are to relate to one another, has an apologetic component to it. In other words, how do we defend an historically orthodox approach to the Bible, without allowing current cultural concerns to completely alter how we view the nature of the New Testament?
This may sound like a “devil’s advocate” type of response, but this is worth exploring, for those who tend to doubt. After all, Christians are called to be truth seekers, above all else: So, what if the critics are correct, and a final conclusion is reached, that someone used Paul’s name to write Ephesians and Colossians? At one level, losing Ephesians and Colossians is not the end of the Christian faith. For if Jesus Christ is risen from the dead, then Christianity is true….period! If Paul never actually wrote Ephesians or Colossians, this would not destroy the reality of the resurrection of Jesus, which is the foundation of our faith. Christianity would still be true, but our Bibles would be a bit smaller.
However, at another level, ditching Ephesians and Colossians as not being truly Pauline may still cause problems for some doubters. For if the early church did not get the New Testament right, in terms of accurately identifying the letters that bear Paul’s name, then some might wonder, “What else did the early church get wrong?”
Furthermore, losing Ephesians and Colossians throws the debate between egalitarians and complementarians, by default, in the favor of the egalitarians. Some may celebrate this, but it does so at a high cost. Rejecting Ephesians and Colossians as being non-Pauline (and while you at it, toss in 1 Timothy and Titus as well), might provide great comfort to those who find any hint of misogyny in our New Testament objectionable. But what else would you lose?
If Ephesians and/or Colossians are shown to be non-Pauline in origin, we lose certain unique dimensions of Christian teaching that have given strength and comfort to Christians for generations. While other texts in the remainder of the New Testament do speak of the “forgiveness of sins,” without Ephesians and Colossians we lose Paul’s unique contribution to that doctrine. We lose a more robust and enriching Pauline teaching that not only do we await the coming resurrection, we also experience the reality of resurrection presently in our lives, as an established fact. Without Ephesians and Colossians, we lose Paul’s grand vision of the cosmic and universal nature of the church. We could go on citing other unique Pauline contributions to Christian faith, found in Ephesians and Colossians. In other words, we lose a lot without an authentically Pauline Ephesians and Colossians.
Attempts to “eat the meat” and “spit out the bones” of Ephesians and Colossians will not do. For this places the authority of the message, not in the text of Scripture itself, but rather in the hands of the interpreter. The interpreter becomes the one to try to separate the “meat” from the “bones,” as opposed to allowing the Scripture itself to speak authoritatively. Attempts to say that someone else could have written Ephesians and Colossians in the name of Paul, while drastically changing certain elements of his teaching, and still claim that Ephesians and Colossians should be accepted as authoritative Scripture, simply are not convincing. If Ephesians and Colossians are judged to be forgeries, then they are forgeries. Therefore, it is exceedingly more difficult to trust the Bible, if we somehow concede that certain writings in the canon were written with an intent to deceive us as readers.
On the other hand, a closer examination of the evidence indicates that there still is a solid case to be made that Paul is the real author of Ephesians and Colossians. If I have been successful in my argument from this blog post, there are good reasons to continue to affirm Ephesians and Colossians as truly Pauline, though different evangelicals might still differ on some of the details. Rumors of a misogynistic “Paul” obliquely lurking in the pages of the New Testament have been greatly exaggerated. Ephesians and Colossians can be confidently regarded as truly coming from the mind and teaching of Paul. Therefore, we can still enjoy the theological riches that Ephesians and Colossians give us as the very Word of God.
Why This All Matters for Believing Christians… Both Women AND Men (or It Should)
It has become quite common in recent years for some Christians to claim that the denigration of women was a prominent feature in the earliest, historically orthodox Christian communities. Strenuous efforts have been made to separate that ugly history from the Bible itself, in an effort to salvage confidence in the Christian faith as being “on the side” of women. Have these efforts worked?
This blog post documents a view, commonly held by many scholars today, that the Christian Bible we have now is hopelessly filled with misogynistic themes, that place women in a subjugated status. Some progressive Christians therefore conclude that the only way to rescue the Bible from those who wish to completely undermine its relevance to postmodern life is to clip out significantly large chunks of the New Testament, namely certain letters, or certain portions of letters, attributed to Paul, and dismiss such material as having no authority for believers today.
But is that claim true? Was the denigration of women really part of the story of the earliest Christian communities? Furthermore, was it really rooted in the very pages of the New Testament itself?
Or when we read certain difficult passages that we find in either Ephesians and Colossians, do we instead discover that Paul has something utterly different than propagating misogynistic tropes? Rather, is Paul speaking something about the beauty and difference between male and female that is to celebrated, instead of something to be embarrassed about and ignored?
Christian readers should consider these things, particularly when we discuss our faith with our neighbors. It is something to think about.
A few days before I eventually published this post, Erik Manning, an apologist aligned with William Lane Craig, put out the following videos that address some of the arguments made against Pauline authorship of Ephesians and Colossians:
1. This is a pretty technical blog post, but the issue is very important. The notion of “disputed” letters of Paul in the New Testament, in contrast to the “undisputed” letters of Paul, means that scholars across the theological and ideological spectrum dispute about the authorship status of the former letters. Comparatively few Christians are aware of the debate, despite the fact that many scholars in the field doubt the authenticity of the “disputed” letters of Paul. The Oxford Bible Commentary, edited by John Barton, has an article on Ephesians by J.D.G. Dunn that best summarizes the matter: “Was the Letter Written by Paul? The traditional view, from the second century onwards, is certainly in the affirmative… But for the past 200 years the issue has been disputed, and though several prominent contemporary scholars still hold to Pauline authorship…, the majority have concluded that it was most probably written by someone else” (p.1166). A number of “progressive Christians” have been swayed by the debate, in favor of rejecting the six “disputed” letters of Paul as not being genuine; i.e. “fake”, while still coming up with a variety of fairly creative, yet ultimately convoluted ways of still keeping these books within the New Testament canon of Scripture, while selectively dismissing certain elements of teaching found in those “fake” letters (see this typical blog post by Keith Giles, a “progressive Christian.”) As I hope to show in this blog post, the ramifications of this debate are quite substantial, and impact how we view Christian discipleship. Plus, there is good scholarship done by a variety of scholars that suggests that the traditional view, that Paul really authored all 13 letters attributed to him, still has a good case to make….. A note should be added about the missing titles from the original copies of the Gospels: some scholars, like Brant Pitre, argue that the titles of the Gospels were likely included in the texts originally. While this is a possibility, the problem with this view is that it is not necessary to make a defense of the Gospels with that argument. It is sufficient to say that church tradition was unified in saying the Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John wrote their respective Gospels. We have no record of any early church leader suggesting that the authorial designations that we possess now are incorrect. In fact, we have other evidence that indicates that Justin Martyr, an early 2nd. century Christian apologist, simply referred to the Gospels as “the memoirs of the apostles,” without naming the authors. But these need not force the conclusion that the Gospels were purely anonymous, for other church fathers, particularly Irenaeus, explicitly named Matthew, Mark, Luke and John as the respective authors. ↩
2. The classic case illustrating Paul’s use of secretaries can be found in Paul’s most important letter, Romans. In Romans 6:22 we read that Tertius wrote the letter to the Romans. This would suggest that Paul dictated the letter to Tertius, who served as Paul’s amanuensis. It is quite possible that Paul gave his secretaries different degrees of latitude with respect to style and vocabulary. How much latitude would have been granted is greatly debated among scholars. Some find the ghostwriter or speech writer analogy to be too broad, but we simply have no evidence to discount the possibility, in the case of the 13 letters attributed to Paul. ↩
3. There is a special condition, cited by certain scholars, that suggests instances where someone was writing in someone else’s name, but doing so in a non-deceitful manner. Such scholars make a distinction between pseudepigraphical (writing under someone else’s name falsely) and allonymity (writing under another name, but doing so out of indebtedness to that famous person, by summarizing or faithfully restating the famous person’s teachings, intentionally for the benefit of future generations). Evidence in support of allonymity is based on the fact that the ancient world did not have copyright law, and so there was no legal conception of authorial ownership for written materials. The allonymity proposal was suggested by I. H. Marshall, as a middle-alternative between the designation of an ancient letter/document as being written authentically by the named author, and the pseudepigraphical designation, associated with deceit; i.e. forgery. Philip Towner, in his New International Commentary to the Letters of Timothy and Titus, summarizes Marshall’s approach, with explicit reference to Colossians and Ephesians (Kindle location 1525):
To navigate this treacherous middle-ground, Marshall suggests the term “allonymity” to define an authorial process that might close the gap between the apostle and the author who co-opts his name, in a way that allows escape from the allegations of deception and falsehood in the process. He explains that either the student or follower of Paul edits the notes of the deceased apostle, or he steps into the shoes of the dead apostle and carries the master’s teaching forward for future generations in a manner that is faithful to earlier apostolic intentions, even if the key of theological score has been transposed. Examples of this might be found in the philosophical schools, and some aver that Colossians and Ephesians represent letters of the same type. The view allows that the letters to Timothy and Titus, and 2 Timothy especially, may well contain authentic Pauline fragments that a follower worked into the three letters after Paul’s death. At some point between the time of their writing and early circulation and the time of the fathers who first mention them, the “allonymous” authorship of the letters was forgotten and the earliest witnesses attribute them to the apostle.
My New Testament instructor at Fuller Theological Seminary, Donald Hagner, followed this solution, championed by Marshall as well. Some scholars in support of this add that this would explain how the Book of Hebrews was admitted into the New Testament canon, on the basis of its apostolic teaching, despite the fact that there is no name attached to Hebrews anywhere in the text. However, the case of Hebrews differs in that the other letters traditionally associated with Paul all have Paul’s name attached to them, whereas Hebrews as no name attached to it, thereby making it an anonymous writing, in a different class of its own. Perhaps a better candidate might be 2 Peter, which some say was put together by a devoted disciple of Peter, based on sermon notes, etc. made from Peter’s teachings. Nevertheless, other scholars are not convinced that such a fine middle-ground solution can be found. But considering the current state of the evidence, it remains a plausible solution. ↩
4. The Harper Collins Study Bible introductory notes for Ephesians and Colossians do a good job of summarizing the case, arguing that the teachings found in Ephesians and Colossians diverge from the teachings found in the “undisputed” letters of Paul. It should be noted that the degree of suspicion regarding Ephesians is higher than for Colossians. For example, Werner Georg Kümmel, in his classic 20th century Introduction to the New Testament (pp. 340-346, 357-366), makes the case that Colossians is authentically Pauline, while Ephesians is not. Some readers might object that I should not even be entertaining any “historical critical” perspective that would jeopardize the traditional understanding of the New Testament canon. But as I have argued elsewhere, we need not fear the insights that “historical criticism” can give us. Once we understand the assumptions being made by an historical critic, we can then properly appreciate the evidence being presented without necessarily being driven to the same conclusions made by that historical critic, that are often subject to cognitive bias. ↩
5. Readers unfamiliar with the debate regarding “women in ministry” might consider where I try to make a case for a “gentle complementarianism,” a middle way between a more hard-core traditionalism/complementarianism on the one side, and egalitarianism on the other side. A good summary of my position is articulated by Gavin Ortlund, in this YouTube clip, where he coins the term “gentle complementarian”. For more detail, please see this multi-part blog series from a few years ago on Veracity. I find that the distinction between male and female is mainly of a sacramental character, as set forth in the Bible, as opposed to some oppressive hierarchy, on one hand, or some “gender is a social construct” idea, on the other. ↩
6. (See footnote #14 below regarding the special case of 1 Corinthians 11:3, and footnote #15 below regarding the special case of 1 Corinthians 14:34-35)…. Baylor University historian Beth Allison Barr, in her The Making of Biblical Womanhood, makes the argument that the concept of “male headship” was invented by the church, and not Scripture. Barr is correct to observe that at least certain expressions “male headship” have distorted the application of Scriptural principles, all throughout church history. There is no argument against Barr here. However, it is difficult to see how she can call out “male headship” as an invented doctrine, without implicating the Bible itself in the process. The language of “head” with respect to male/female relations, particularly in marriage, is difficult to divorce from Scripture. See my review of Barr’s book here. ↩
7. The case is more pronounced with the Pastoral letters (1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus), where many scholars are more skeptical about Pauline authorship, as compared to Ephesians and Colossians. But a similar logic applies: someone other than Paul wrote these letters, using Paul’s name, in order to domesticate the more radical message of the Apostle Paul, and make it sound more palatable to the social standards of the wider pagan culture, and less offensive. According to Lilian Portefaix:
“…. with the suspicions that Christianity was a revolutionary sect in mind, it was important for the author to convince the authorities that Christian leaders were no revolutionaries. It has been noticed that the catalogue of virtues demand of the office-bearers (bishops, deacons, and elders) in the church (1 Tim 3:1-7; 8-12; Tit. 1:5-9) corresponds to the fixed pattern of traditional qualities appropriate to a military command… which are listed in the Strategikos by the tactic Onosander…. The catalogue of virtues attributable to an army leader embodies the Roman ideal of a paterfamilias who keeps a tight hand over his family; this idea is prescribed for bishops and deacons… who besides their own families, are set to govern the household of God… Presumably the ‘one in Christ’ formula (Gal. 3:28), concealing social and political implications, had tended to place master and slave on a equal footing outside the community and had attracted the attention of non-Christians.” (Feminist Companion to Paul: Deutero-Pauline Writings, ed. Amy-Jill Levine. “‘Good Citizenship’ in the Household of God: Women’s Position in the Pastorals Reconsidered in the Light of Roman Rule,” p. 151).
The problem with this thesis is that it still assumes that the pseudepigraphical author of “Paul’s” letters deemed Paul’s writings to be insufficient, and thus felt the need to change Paul’s teachings; effectively, contradicting the authentic Paul. Jouette M. Bassler is even more condescending in her assessment of the Pastoral Letters, a judgment that can be easily extended to Ephesians and Colossians, for the same reasons. In her discussion about the pseudepigraphical Paul’s treatment of widows in 1 Timothy, Bassler is not simply saying that misogyny crept into the early church. Rather, she is saying misogyny is rooted in the very New Testament itself. Bassler states:
“… the very persistence of the concern to control widows suggests that the church hierarchy continued to feel threatened by their (latent or active?) spiritual power… The Pastoral Letters were accepted into the canon and their pronouncements on widows in particular, and women in general, attained the normative status of inspired authority. Fortunately, the author left enough cracks in the letters’ rhetorical facade that we can get glimpses of the early struggle and expose his words for what they are — a calculus of suppression.” (Feminist Companion to Paul: Deutero-Pauline Writings, ed. Amy-Jill Levine. “Limits and Differentiation: The Calculus of Widows in 1 Timothy 5:3-16”, p. 146).
If Jouette M. Bassler is correct, then you have to wonder why anyone would want to keep these “disputed” letters in the New Testament canon today. But if Bassler is wrong, and the teachings about women in the “disputed” letters can be coherently read together with the content in the “undisputed” letters, thereby viewing the tension as indicative of complementary differences, as opposed to contradictions, then a more vibrant, positive and edifying view of Paul’s teaching can be gained. ↩
8. University of North Carolina bible scholar, Bart Ehrman, who is no ally to historically orthodox Christianity, and who considers Ephesians and Colossians to be forgeries, rejects the notion popular in some “Progressive Christian” circles that is was somehow “okay” in the ancient world to use the name of a famous person to write material that altered the message of that famous person. In Ehrman’s book Forged, he makes a persuasive case that forgery was considered forgery then, just as much as forgery is considered to be forgery now. The difficulty with Ehrman’s thesis is that he does not sufficiently value the evidence in favor of authenticity for the writings associated with the Apostle Paul, as well was seeing contradictions in the New Testament that need not be interpreted as contradictions. In a previous blog post, contrary to Ehrman, I elaborate on the rigorous process at work in the early church to adequately vet the legitimacy of New Testament documents to be admitted into the canon of the New Testament. ↩
9. The Veracity blog series on “women in ministry” goes into the complementarian/egalitarian debate in more detail. ↩
10. Some argue that mutual submission here is more of an egalitarian perspective, specifically. However, mutual submission can also carry the sense of a reciprocative relationship, whereby the movement of one towards another calls for a corresponding movement from the other back towards the initiator, but in a different manner. The analogy of ballroom dancing might be applicable here, as one partner is the leader, and the other follows, but both parties must mutually submit to one another in order for the dance to be a success. Mutual submission, understood this way, has more of a complementarian perspective. One can easily identify extremes on both the complementarian and egalitarian sides of the debate, where on the one side, men are too often given a pass in abusing women, and on the other side, where gender becomes merely a social construct, where “man” and “woman” become purely subjective identifiers. ↩
11. Sarah Ruden’s Paul Among the People offers a refreshingly different view of Paul, that sees him more at odds with the Roman pater familias traditions of his day. Ruden’s perspective is all the more remarkable considering that she is a classicist, with a more progressive theological leaning. Her view on Paul’s understanding of slavery forced me to conclude two things about Paul: First, Paul was not a social revolutionary who sought to overthrow the established slavery system. Secondly, Paul did undercut the whole rationale for how people become slaves in the first place, mainly through what Paul wrote to Philemon about Onesimus. In other words, Paul does not upset the apple cart of slavery as an institution, but by subtly attacking the basis for how people can be regarded as slaves in the first place, Paul renders the slavery system as being mute. For without slaves, you can have no slavery system to uphold. Similar insights in Ruden’s book are applicable to the complementarian/egalitarian discussion. See my review of her book on Veracity. ↩
12. Andrew Perriman, author of Speaking of Women: Interpreting Paul, and a committed egalitarian, does not find such arguments by his fellow egalitarians convincing. He makes a different point that will be brought out below in another footnote. ↩
13. If there is one pet peeve I have about an egalitarian view of marriage is that it is hopelessly unrealistic, for the vast majority of people. I know of several egalitarian Christians with marriages, where they contend that the spouses have been married for decades without any substantial disagreements that could not be resolved by seeking after consensus. Even the prominent New Testament scholar Gordon Fee makes the same claim. Well, great for them. But unfortunately, for the rest of us, the effort to try to arrive at consensus in marital decisions at all costs is really a setup for failure. Yes, we should try to reach consensus when making decisions. But what happens when a consensus can not be reached? Does that mean that the marriage is a failure, or the marriage partners are a failure? Sometimes, someone has to step up to the plate and make a decision. Unfortunately, egalitarian marriage principles do not help you in those circumstances. They just leave you with a sense of failure, with unrealistic expectations prodding you along the whole way. ↩
14. The “to occupy the position at the top or front” understanding of “head” seems to be gaining the consensus in the research today regarding the meaning of “kephale” in Ephesians 5:22-24. I would liken it to standing at the “head” of a line to board a plane or a bus…. A “broad” complementarian view tends to see the authority/lead understanding of male “headship” as having a wide range of applications, not just in marriage or in the church, but in society as well. A more “narrow” (or moderate) complementarian view tends to see male “headship” more in terms of the husband as the gentle leader of the family, and that the office of elder in the church is restricted to qualified men, but allowing women to serve in other church leadership capacities without restriction (like deacon, bible study teacher, worship leader, seminary teacher, etc.). Some see an even more “narrow” view where only the senior pastor needs to be qualified male. Nevertheless, all flavors of “narrow” complementarians do not see any particular application outside of the home or the church (See footnote #5 above about “gentle complementarians”)… Regarding the meaning of “head” in Paul’s writings, see 1 Corinthians 11:3 also. The whole topic of 1 Corinthians probably deserves another blog post focused on that text. But a short response by some critical leaning scholars is to say that the whole of 1 Corinthians 11, regarding male headship, is actually a position that Paul himself does not hold, and that we know this from 1 Corinthians 11:16, which in the Christian Standard Bible reads, “If anyone want to argue about this, we have no other custom, neither the churches of God.” Most Christians traditionally understand Paul to say that the principle of male headship, however it is interpreted, is an inherent belief to be affirmed in the church, and that having such arguments to dispute against it is not a custom that he tolerates. However, these critical scholars will contend that it is the custom of male headship itself which not a custom he tolerates, and that therefore Christians should not bother with the concept of male headship. In this perspective, it is argued that the concept of headship in Ephesians has been horribly misconfigured to mean something opposite to what Paul originally intended.
Anyway, back to “kephale” or “head”: Andrew Wilson has a great summary of where the current scholarship stands regarding the understanding of “head” in 1 Corinthians 11:3 and Ephesians 5, suggesting a middle pathway between complementarian and egalitarian positions. Ian Paul offers an egalitarian view of “head” that is typical in such circles. As foreshadowed in a previous footnote, Andrew Perriman contends for a middle-ground reading for “head.” Interestingly, Andrew Perriman argues as an egalitarian, but dismisses the “‘head’ means ‘source‘” school of thought as wishful thinking speculation, that can not be defended exegetically. Instead, he simply believes that Paul’s teaching regarding wifely submission in Ephesians and Colossians were temporary, an accommodation to the Roman culture of the day. Times have changed now. However, he provides no convincing exegetical basis to support this argument. All Perriman can muster is that we do not live under the Roman system anymore, which does not tell us whether or not Paul’s teaching is prescriptive across all time and places, versus only limited to that particular 1st/2nd century situation. Well, at least Perriman is being honest about it. Here is a review of Perriman’s book Speaking of Women: Interpreting Paul. ↩
15. 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 is one of the most puzzling passages in the Bible, as this passage has encouraged some to conclude that women should remain completely silent in church. This is difficult, not only for egalitarians, but complementarians as well. The most obvious difficulty in this interpretation is that just three chapters prior, in the same letter, in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, Paul is encouraging women to pray and prophesy in church, which entails speech. For a full exposition of this passage, see the previous Veracity posting, on “Women Should Keep Silent in Church? : A Corinthian Conundrum Considered.” In summary, the three main views are (a) women are to remain silent in the church, but only when it comes to judging prophecy, which the preceding passage in 1 Corinthians 14 addresses, (b) this passage is an interpolation; that is, something added later to the text by a copyist scribe, and not part of the original New Testament, and (c) that Paul is actually quoting a view held by the Corinthian community, of which he is strenuously refuting, as being contrary to the Gospel message. Since the earliest New Testament documents lacked quotation marks in the original Greek, it is quite easy to understand how many Christians could have misinterpreted this passage. In that previous blog post, I make the case that the third view (c) makes the most sense of the text. This third view completely removes any hint of misogyny in Paul’s thinking here in this undisputed letter written by the Apostle. ↩
16. Andrew Wilson’s post on “Twenty Myths of the Gender Debate” is exceedingly helpful for both sides in the complementarian and egalitarian debate. ↩