The Case for Paul: Investigating Ephesians and Colossians’ True Authorship

In the world of Paul’s New Testament letters, most modern scholars only accept 7 out of the 13 attributed to him. This leaves a tough choice for believers: either discard six letters from the Bible or grapple with the notion of possible deceit within the New Testament. The writers of these disputed letters posed as Paul, urging honesty while deceiving others. (Eph. 4:25)

But if modern scholarship’s arguments falter and evidence confirms Paul as the true author of all these letters, it’s their credibility that suffers, not the New Testament’s. Let’s now examine Ephesians and Colossians, often bundled together due to their resemblances, and explore their authorship.

Different writing styles?

In his book “Forged: Writing in the Name of God—Why the Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are,” Ehrman puts forth three primary arguments against the authenticity of these letters. These arguments are put forth as a representation of why scholarship on a whole rejects their authenticity. Let’s take a look at his first argument.

“For one thing, the writing style is not Paul’s. Paul usually writes in short, pointed sentences; the sentences in Ephesians are long and complex. In Greek, the opening statement of thanksgiving (1:3–14)—all twelve verses—is one sentence. There’s nothing wrong with extremely long sentences in Greek; it just isn’t the way Paul wrote. It’s like Mark Twain and William Faulkner; they both wrote correctly, but you would never mistake the one for the other. Some scholars have pointed out that in the hundred or so sentences in Ephesians, 9 of them are over 50 words in length. Compare this with Paul’s own letters. Philippians, for example, has 102 sentences, only 1 of which is over 50 words; Galatians has 181 sentences, again with only 1 over 50 words. The book also has an inordinate number of words that don’t otherwise occur in Paul’s writings, 116 altogether, well higher than average (50 percent more than Philippians, for example, which is about the same length).”

pg. 125

Ehrman has a point. The way this letter is written does indeed stand out. It’s got these super long sentences that you might not even notice in modern translations because they get split up. One chunk from 1:3 to 1:14 is just one big sentence, and the same goes for 1:15 to 1:23 and 3:1 to 3:7 (if you peek at the King James Version). Scholars call this style “pleonastic,” meaning it’s really full, with tons of extra bits like phrases, clauses, and synonyms stacked up one after another.

But here’s the twist: that crazy long-winded style? It’s mainly in the first half of the letter, which is filled with prayers and things that sound creedal. The second half? Way more in line with how Paul usually writes. Unless we’re suggesting two different people wrote this thing (and that’s not a serious idea), maybe the unusual style in the first half fits the grand prayers and big ideas there. When Paul gets deep into heavy themes in his other letters, his style can get just as flowery (like in Romans 8:28–39 or 11:33–36). You could say that some of the unique words used might come from traditional teachings, and that explains some of the Christological creeds we see in Ephesians 1:20-23 and Colossians 1:15-20. Also, having three separate prayer sections in the letter (1:3–14; 1:15–23; and 3:1, 14–21) probably affects how the writing style and wording differ.

Do Ephesians and Colossians contradict Paul’s genuine letters?

Let’s consider Ehrman’s second objection:

“But the main reason for thinking that Paul didn’t write Ephesians is that what the author says in places does not jibe with what Paul himself 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 his grace, not as 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 senses.” This doesn’t sound like the Paul of the undisputed letters, who says that he had been “blameless” with respect to the “righteousness of the law” (Phil. 3:4). In addition, even though he is talking about the relationship of Jew and Gentile in this letter, the author does not speak about salvation apart from the “works of the law,” as Paul does. He speaks, instead, of salvation apart from doing “good deeds.” That simply was not the issue Paul addressed.”

pp 125

I’ll keep this short. This argument doesn’t really hold up. Like, at all. Ehrman seems to overlook Paul’s struggles with covetousness, like what he mentions in Romans 7, where Paul talks about how he faces temptation and wrestles with doing the right thing and following the Law. If we follow Bart’s reasoning, it’d be like saying another of Paul’s letters disproves the authenticity of Romans, and of course no scholar doubts Paul wrote Romans. This is just not a convincing argument. Furthermore, Ephesians does say that Jesus set aside in his flesh “the law with its commands and regulations.” (Ephesians 2:15) What is Ehrman reading?

Different theologies?

We’ll now move on to Ehrman’s next complaints:

“Moreover, this author indicates that believers have already been “saved” by the grace of God. As it turns out, the verb “saved” in Paul’s authentic letters is always used to refer to the future. Salvation is not something people already have; it’s what they will have when Jesus returns on the clouds of heaven and delivers his followers from the wrath of God. Relatedly, and most significantly, Paul was emphatic in his own writings that Christians who had been baptized had “died” to the powers of the world that were aligned with the enemies of God. They had “died with Christ.” But they had not yet 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’s second 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 already were enjoying the benefits of salvation. Paul devotes 1 Corinthians 15 to showing that, no, the resurrection is not something that has happened yet. It is a future physical event yet to occur. Christians have not yet been raised with Christ. But contrast this 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 the heavenly places” (2:5–6). Here believers have experienced a spiritual resurrection and are enjoying a heavenly existence in the here and now. This is precisely the view that Paul argued against in his letters to the Corinthians!”

pg. 126

Wow. This is incredibly weak. Ehrman’s idea that Ephesians leans too heavily on the idea of everything already happening doesn’t quite add up. He thinks the author of Ephesians also wrote Colossians, so the same arguments for forgery apply to both. But Luke Timothy Johnson’s response to this “realized eschatology” objection hits the nail on the head:

“Apart from the issue of how much latitude an author has before he reaches self-inconsistency, and apart from the rather obvious shifts in eschatological emphasis in the undisputed letters, this charge simply misreads these sections of Colossians. It is clear from 2:20 and 3:1–4 that the “death” to sin in baptism leads to a “resurrection life” not of glory but of faith, which requires of the Colossians a conversion of their behavior. Their “life” indeed is “hid with God in Christ”; only at the end, “when Christ our life appears,” will they themselves be in a state of “glory” (3:4). The language is slightly different, but the thought is virtually identical to that found in Rom. 6:1–14. And though the language underscores the transformation of human character that has occurred through faith and baptism—one has died to the old and been raised to new life—it should not be taken as a statement on eschatology as such.”

Invitation to the New Testament Epistles III: A commentary on Colossians, Ephesians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus, pp. 395-396

Also, look at Romans 8:30. Paul says believers are already glorified in Christ—right now. Even though a few verses before he talks about the future resurrection. Does that mean Romans has too much of a realized eschatology, making it suspect? All of Ehrman’s arguments in Forged regarding Ephesians and Colossians fail to convince.

Positive evidence: External attribution and early use

But what evidence supports the genuineness of these letters? Let’s explore the positive case. Firstly, let’s consider the external evidence. Ephesians and Colossians were highly regarded among early Christian writings. Ephesians was praised by Clement of Rome, Polycarp, Ignatius, The Didache, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, the Muratorian Canon (an early Christian manuscript listing canonical scriptures), and Origen. Colossians also received similar acknowledgment, albeit without Polycarp and Clement of Rome.

Interestingly, even the infamous heretic Marcion included these letters in his canon, and they were also referenced by the Gnostic Valentinus. These epistles were extensively referenced by church leaders and heretics throughout the early period. Surprisingly, doubts about their authorship only emerged in the late 18th century.

In a nutshell, in the ancient church, all of the thirteen of the Pauline letters were unanimously ascribed to Paul. Keep in mind that this unanimity didn’t extend to all beloved books, as doubts arose about the authorship of other texts like Hebrews, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, and Revelation. But those doubts never extended to the Pauline letters in our Bibles today.

Internal evidence: The Philemon connection

Now let’s move on to the internal evidence. Let’s focus on the evidence that links Onesimus to Colossae. Virtually all scholars acknowledge that Paul wrote Philemon. In the letter addressed to Philemon, we learn that Onesimus was actually a servant or slave of Philemon. So where did Philemon live? Oddly enough, the letter doesn’t directly say where he was from. But there’s a clue – Philemon seems to be connected to a well-known Christian named Archippus from the same place.

In Philemon 1:2, we read: “Paul, a prisoner of Jesus Christ, and Timothy our brother, to Philemon our beloved co-worker, and to our dear Apphia, Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house.” Now, if we backtrack to the letter to the Colossians, we find that Archippus is specifically greeted by name among the Christians in that church, along with an instruction: “Tell Archippus, ‘See to it that you complete the ministry you have received in the Lord.’” (Colossians 4:17).

The idea that Onesimus was from the same city as Philemon seems to be either a consistent detail between the texts or a complex network of forgeries that strangely fit together.

A forger intentionally creating this connection seems unlikely. Not only would most readers miss the intended point of saying “he is one of you” in our letter, but the steps needed to connect Onesimus to Philemon, Philemon to Archippus, and Archippus to Colossae are too complicated. Would a forger really expect readers to dig through multiple letters to make these connections?

This alignment isn’t just about confirming Onesimus’s link to Colossae; it also reveals several related details.

  • Philemon is encouraged to welcome Onesimus, whom Paul fondly calls “my very heart,” and Paul indicates that he became like a son to him during his imprisonment (Philemon 1:12). So, from that earlier mention, it seems Onesimus was around when Paul wrote his epistle to the Colossians. Paul wrote that letter while in prison, as he talked about it in Colossians 4:3: “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 chains.”
  • Paul asked Philemon to get a guest room ready, hoping that, with their prayers, he’d soon be free. This lines up with his expectation of getting out soon, which he mentioned in another letter written while he was in prison: “I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you soon, that I also may be cheered when I receive news about you.” (Philippians 2:23-24).
  • Since Paul wrote letters to Philemon and the Colossians at the same time, both delivered by the same person—one addressed to an individual and the other to the whole Colossian group—it’s expected they’d include similar people sending their regards. And yep, we see names like Aristarchus, Mark, Epaphras, Luke, Demas, and Timothy in both letters (Philemon 1:23-24). But here’s the catch: while these names appear in both, there’s a difference. In Colossians, Aristarchus is called a fellow prisoner (Colossians 4:10), but in Philemon, he’s mentioned without this title. Instead, the term “fellow prisoner” is used for Epaphras. A forger would’ve made sure there was more of an alignment in terms.

In Colossians, Philemon isn’t mentioned, and details about Onesimus as a servant, his mistakes, escape, or conversion aren’t brought up. If the Colossians letter were fake, it missed a chance to make clearer connections with Philemon.

If we establish Philemon as genuine and note its close ties with Colossians through shared names of Paul’s friends and companions, then the relationship between Ephesians and Colossians becomes significant. Both mention Tychicus as the letter carrier, a detail found nowhere else. Interestingly, the strongest verbal similarity between these two letters lies in Ephesians 6:21–22 and Colossians 4:7–8, containing a sequence of thirty-two consecutive words that are identical in the standard Greek New Testaments.

Suppose these three letters were dispatched by Paul via Tychicus from Rome at the same time. In this scenario, Ephesus would have been a logical stop on the way to Colossae, enabling all necessary deliveries.

Image source: ccel.org

Supporting evidence from Acts

Paul’s letters, like the ones to the Colossians and Ephesians, match up pretty well with his life story in Acts. It’s almost too precise to be a fluke but too indirect to be planned or copied. This points strongly to their authenticity.

In these letters, Paul talks about why he’s in prison. It’s not because he preached Christianity, but because he stood up for the right of Gentile people to join the faith without following all the Jewish rules. He saw this as a big deal, even a reason for his suffering. Like in Colossians 1:24, where he’s happy to go through hard times for their sake, even though he hadn’t met them. Then, in Ephesians 3:1, he calls himself ‘a prisoner of Jesus Christ for you Gentiles.’

In Colossians 4:3, Paul asks for prayers to share the ‘mystery of Christ,’ which he talks more about in Ephesians. This mystery is about how Gentile people are part of God’s plan just like Jewish people, all because of the Gospel. It lines up exactly with what he says in Romans 16:25-26.

Now, let’s compare this with Luke’s historical account. In Acts, after Paul’s return to Jerusalem, an uproar arises due to his teachings about allowing Gentiles into the faith. Though the legal accusations against him concern temple desecration, his mission to the Gentiles is the real contention, as he openly acknowledges. (Acts 22:21-22)

His imprisonment isn’t due to a general Christian persecution—others preached similarly without trouble. It was solely because of his insistence on equality for Gentiles within the faith. These letters from his imprisonment remarkably align with this account of why he was imprisoned in the first place.

But there’s more. In Colossians 4:10-11, we read: “My fellow prisoner Aristarchus sends you his greetings, as does Mark, the cousin of Barnabas. (You have received instructions about him; if he comes to you, welcome him.) Jesus, who is called Justus, also sends greetings. These are the only Jews among my co-workers for the kingdom of God, and they have proved a comfort to me.”

Aristarchus is mentioned as Paul’s companion in Acts 19:29 during a chaotic scene in Ephesus. Later, in Acts 27:2, he’s noted as being with Paul on the journey to Rome. The writer of this letter seems to include Aristarchus among the greetings, possibly because he knew Aristarchus had traveled with Paul to Rome, but he makes no references to the scenes from Acts. However, there’s more to this coincidence. Alongside Aristarchus, the writer includes Mark and Justus, whose journey to Rome isn’t documented in Acts. If the writer had solely based the list by referencing Acts, it’s likely only Aristarchus would have been mentioned.

Furthermore, the mention of “Mark, the cousin of Barnabas” sheds light on Barnabas’ favoritism toward Mark. This relates to the rift between Paul and Barnabas regarding Mark’s involvement in their travels, as documented in Acts. Interestingly, the historical account of their dispute in Acts doesn’t mention Mark’s relation to Barnabas, unlike the detail found in this letter. (see Acts 15:36-41)

Finally, there’s an interesting detail in Ephesians 6:19-20 where Paul speaks about boldly preaching while he’s in chains, using the Greek word “desmios,” specifically meaning “in a chain” or “bound.” In Acts 28, it’s mentioned that Paul was under house arrest in Rome and chained to a soldier. This form of custody, where a prisoner was bound to a soldier by a single chain, is precisely what Paul describes in Ephesians. This specific term “desmios” used in Ephesians aligns only with this type of custody and isn’t used elsewhere for different kinds of imprisonment in the New Testament.

All these little connections make sense if these letters are really from Paul. But if they were fake, these details would be quite surprising.

Paul wrote Ephesians and Colossians

In sum, the evidence both inside and outside these letters stands strong. Bart’s claims about conflicting theologies in Paul’s other letters don’t hold up under scrutiny, and his arguments about different usage of words isn’t very weighty.

There are strong reasons, both from the early church fathers and internal evidence, to support Paul’s authorship of the letters attributed to him. There aren’t convincing grounds to label them as forgeries. Ultimately, our New Testament retains 13 genuine letters from Paul.

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