Is Bart Ehrman Right When He Says Ephesians and Colossians Were Forged?
Out of the 13 letters of Paul found in the New Testament, skeptical critics like Bart Ehrman will only grant that 7 of them are genuine. (Those would be Romans, 1&2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon, in case you were wondering) That leaves Christians in a precarious situation — either throw out six books in their Bible or acknowledge that the New Testament contains some pious lies. Whoever wrote these letters passed themselves off as Paul. They didn’t practice what they preached when they admonished believers to “put away falsehood”. (Eph. 4:25)
But if Ehrman’s arguments turn out to be weak and there’s good evidence that Paul wrote all of the letters, then it’s Bart who loses credibility, not the New Testament.
In past posts, I’ve made the case that the Pastoral Epistles and 2 Thessalonians are not forgeries but genuine letters from Paul. Now let’s take a look at Ephesians and Colossians. I’ve bunched these two together because critics like Ehrman think they’re written by the same author due to their strong similarities.
Evidence for Pauline Authorship
First of all, Ephesians and Colossians are cited approvingly in the writings of the early church. Ephesians is approvingly cited by Clement of Rome, Polycarp, Ignatius, The Didache, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, the Muratorian Canon, and Origen. Colossians enjoys the same attestation minus Polycarp and Clement of Rome.
Even the heretic Marcion included them in his canon. These two epistles were copiously quoted by the early fathers and it wasn’t until the late 18th-century did anyone begin to doubt their authorship.
Undesigned coincidences: An Ambassador in a chain
There’s also some interesting internal evidence against these letters being a forgery. In Ephesians 6:20 Paul calls himself an ambassador in chains (ESV), but the Greek literally says “a chain”. This is how it’s quoted in several translations, including Young’s Literal Translation. Compare that with Acts 28:20, where Paul says that “because of the hope of Israel that I am wearing this chain.” The Greek word is ἁλύσει, which means a light chain or bond.
These are the only two places where this term is used, and it refers to the single-chain that bound him to a Roman soldier. This is interesting because church tradition tells us Ephesians was written from prison. Now oddly enough, in the parallel passage of Colossians 4:3, Paul uses a different word. He says: “And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in.” (Greek: δέδεμαι, which means to bind, tie, fasten.)
Hmm…that’s a bit odd. Wouldn’t a forger be a little more careful to reproduce the same word? This might seem like a minor detail but it’s important. The eminent 18th-century scholar William Paley, writing on this undesigned coincidence, remarks:
If it can be suspected that the writer of the present epistle, who in no other particular appears to have availed himself of the information concerning St. Paul delivered in the Acts (writer’s comment: because the author of Ephesians makes no reference to the events in Acts 19–20), had, in this verse, borrowed the word which he read in that book, and had adapted his expression to what he found there recorded of St. Paul’s treatment at Rome, in short, that the coincidence here noted was effected by craft and design, I think it a strong reply to remark that, in the parallel passage of the Epistle to the Colossians(iv. 3.), the same allusion is not preserved: the words there are, “praying also for us, that God would open unto us a door of utterance to speak the mystery of Christ, for which I am also in bonds,” di ho kai dedemai.
… there can be little doubt but that these two epistles were written by the same person. If the writer, therefore, sought for, and fraudulently inserted the correspondency into one epistle, why did he not do it in the other? A real prisoner might use either general words which comprehended this amongst many other modes of custody; or might use appropriate words which specified this, and distinguished it from any other mode. It would be accidental which form of expression he fell upon. But an impostor, who had the art in one place, to employ the appropriate term for the purpose of fraud, would have used it in both places.”
Horae Paulinae, pp. 110
The Archippus/Onesimus connection
There are some other interesting interlocking bits of evidence found between Philemon (which is universally accepted as a genuine letter) and Colossians. Col 4:9 reads “and with him Onesimus, our faithful and beloved brother, who is one of you.”
We know that in Philemon that Onesimus was Philemon’s slave. We don’t know from Philemon what city he was from. All we know is that whichever city it was, it included a fellow by the name of Archippus. (Philemon 1:1) Now turn back to Colossians and you’ll see Archippus was called out by name as a Colossian church member. Colossians 4:17 reads: “ Tell Archippus: “See to it that you complete the ministry you have received in the Lord.”
Paley again here connects the dots:
“The necessary result is, that Onesimus also was of the same city, agreeably to what is said of him, “he is one of you.” And this result is the effect either of truth which produces consistency without the writer’s thought or care, or of a contexture of forgeries confirming and falling in with one another by a species of fortuity of which I know no example. The supposition of design, I think, is excluded, not only because the purpose to which the design must have been directed, that is to say, the verification of the passage in our epistle, in which it is said concerning Onesimus, “he is one of you,” is a purpose, which would be lost upon ninety-nine readers out of a hundred; but because the means made use of are too circuitous to have been the subject of affectation and contrivance. Would a forger who had this purpose in view, have left his readers to hunt it out, by going forward and backward from one epistle to another, in order to connect Onesimus with Philemon, Philemon with Archippus, and Archippus with Colosse? all which he must do before he arrives at his discovery, that it was truly said of Onesimus, “he is one of you.”
Horae Paulinae, pp. 111
It’s these undesigned coincidences that fly under the radar by most readers but cut against the forgery hypothesis.
Bart’s Pro-Forgery Arguments
There’s a number of different arguments Bart uses to argue against the genuineness of these two letters, but I’ll focus on the two that he believes are the strongest.
“…the main reason for thinking Paul didn’t write Ephesians is that what the author says in places does not jibe with what Paul says in his own letters. Ephesians 2.1–10, for example, certainly looks like Paul’s writing, but just on the surface. Here, as in Paul’s authentic letters, we learn that believers were separated from God because of sin, but have been made right with God exclusively through God’s grace, not the result of “works.” But here, oddly, Paul includes himself as someone who, before coming to Christ, was carried away by the “passions of our flesh, doing the will of the flesh and the senses.” This doesn’t sound like Paul of the undisputed letters, who say she had been “blameless” with respect to the “righteousness of the law (Phil 3.4).”
Forged, pp 125
I have to say, this argument is so underwhelming. Bart has no doubts that Paul wrote Romans and 1 Corinthians. Paul says that in 1 Corinthians 15:9 that he didn’t deserve to be called an apostle because he formerly persecuted the church. You don’t think that would qualify as being carried away by the passions of the flesh?
Worse still is it seems like Bart simply forgets Romans 7, where Paul talks about his struggles with sin. Here’s just a sampling:
“ Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. For apart from the law, sin lies dead. I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died. The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me….
For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing… For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?
Using Bart’s logic, we could say that Philippians proves that Romans isn’t a genuine letter of Paul! But I doubt he wants to go there. This just isn’t a very impressive argument.
But let’s give Bart one more shot.
“ Most significantly, Paul was emphatic in his own writings that Christians who had been baptized “died” to the powers of the world that were aligned with the enemies of God. They had “died with Christ”. But they had not been “raised” with Christ. That would happen at the end of time when Jesus returned and all people, living and dead, would be raised up to face judgment. That’s why in Romans 6.1–4 Paul is emphatic; those who are baptized “have died” with Christ, and they “will be raised” with him, at Jesus coming. Paul was extremely insistent on this point, that the resurrection of believers was a future, physical event, not something that had already happened.
One of the reasons he wrote 1 Corinthians was precisely because some of the Christians in that community took an opposing point of view and maintained that they were already enjoying a resurrected existence with Christ now, that they were already enjoying the benefits of salvation. Paul devotes 1 Corinthians 15 to show that is not something that has happened yet. It is a future physical event yet to occur. Christians have not been raised with Christ. But contrast this with the statement with what Ephesians says: “Even when we were dead through our trespasses, God made us alive together with Christ…and raised us up with him and seated us with him in heavenly places” (2.5–6.) Here believers have experienced a spiritual resurrection and are enjoying heavenly existence in the here and now. This is precisely the view Paul argued against in his letters to the Corinthians!”
Forged, pp. 126
So does the writer of Ephesians too much of a ‘realized eschatology’ in comparison with Paul’s other letters like Bart suggests? I think not.
First of all, 1 Corinthians 6:17 says that believers have union with Christ. If Christ is seated in heavenly places, so also are those who are ‘one spirit’ with Him. Secondly, Ephesians 1:22–23 is a continuation of the thought in Ephesians 2:6. He’s talking about the glorious inheritance of the saints, which is that they are members of Christ’s body. Logically speaking, where the body of Christ is, so also is the head.
In 1 Cor. 12:12–31, Paul goes to great lengths to show the Corinthian believers that they’re members of the Body of Christ. So where does that spiritually locate the Corinthian believers? Ephesians simply examines another facet of the same truth.
Moreover, what Paul writes in Romans 8:30 could equally cause him to be accused of having too much of a realized eschatology. For it says that believers now, presently, are glorified in Christ. But I thought 1 Corinthians 15 teaches that only after the resurrection are believers glorified? (See 1 Cor. 15:43) Finally, Paul would seem to teach that believers are not just “dead to sin” but “made alive” unto God. (Roman 6:9–11, 13) This means that because of their spiritual resurrection, they can walk in newness of life and not be bound to sin.
In nearly all of Paul’s letters, there is an already/not yet tension that describes the life of the believer. While believers are “blessed with every spiritual blessing” right now, Ephesians 1:13–14 and 4:30 say that the Holy Spirit is down-payment that guarantees future glorification and redemption. In this life, we still need to “put off the old man” and “put on the new man.” (Eph. 4:22–24) We still have to “put on the full armor of God” and stand our ground as we wrestle against evil spiritual forces. (Eph. 6:10–17)
The believer is seen both victoriously seated with Christ and yet has a great battle to fight. There’s no conflict here. Elsewhere in the uncontested letters of Paul, he uses triumphant language to describe the believer’s position in spite of the struggle they still have in this earthly life. (Rom 8:37, 2 Cor. 2:14)
Paul wrote Ephesians and Colossians
Bart says what can be argued against Ephesians can be said about Colossians, so I’ll stop here. Here’s the bottom line: The external evidence for both of these letters is strong, as is the internal evidence. After examination, Bart’s arguments regarding conflicting theologies in Paul’s other letters turn out to be quite weak.
There are good reasons to think Paul wrote all the letters the early church attributed to him, and there are not strong enough reasons to think they’re forged. Our New Testament contains 13 genuine letters from Paul.
Originally published at https://isjesusalive.com on November 27, 2019.