Written by Peter Blanch
“Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, To the saints in Ephesus, the faithful in Christ Jesus: 2 Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” [Ephesians 1:1-2 – NIV]
So starts to letter the apostle Paul wrote called “Ephesians”. It starts like many ancient letters did in Biblical times – stating who the letter is from and who the letter is to. In many Bible studies or sermons it can be just a small detail of a letter that you quickly take note of and then move on to things of greater interest. However, there two important details even in this opening greeting that will have an impact on how we understand much of the letter that we will be looking at over the next 6 weeks.
The first detail concerns who it actually is that Paul wrote this letter to. In my Bible, in Ephesians 1:1, there is a little letter above the phrase “in Ephesus”, indicating that a footnote at the bottom of the page gives more information about the translation. This photo shows what the footnote says: “some early manuscripts do not have in Ephesus.” I found this curious and so looked up the manuscript evidence. What I found was that those early manuscripts are considered very reliable – and they don’t have “in Ephesus’ in their copy of this letter.
Remember, we do not have the hand-written letter of Paul tucked away in some museum somewhere. What we do have in libraries and museums are copies of the original document. Important letters like those from the Apostle Paul were copied many many times, and we can now very reliably demonstrate what Paul wrote by comparing and contrasting these numerous copies. And we can compare that some copies have ‘in ephesus’ and some don’t.
How do we decide what Paul actually wrote when there is a difference in the copies? We can weigh carefully according to the more reliable manuscripts but we also need to weigh the internal evidence in the letter itself.
When you look at the internal evidence in the letter, you’ll see that Paul does not greet any “Ephesians” in his letter. Whereas in most of the other letters Paul writes to christians in other cities, there is usually a list of greetings to specific people. Romans chapter 16 is a chapter full of greetings to people like Pricilla and Aquila. But in this letter of Ephesians there are no such greetings. If the letter was specifically to the church in Ephesus then you would imagine that Paul, who had spend at least two years in Ephesus before he wrote this letter, would have known many people in the city and would have made just as many specific greetings as in his other letters.
The only person who is mentioned is Tychicus in the final paragraphs of the letter and it is clear from what is written there that he is the courier of this letter who can tell others how Paul is.
Weighing this evidence I think this means that the letter to Ephesians is much more likely to be a general letter a to a number of churches and not specifically to those in Ephesus. Sure – it’s a letter that would have gone to Ephesus but was also intended to be read at other churches in other cities.
If you remove the ‘in Ephesus’ from verse 1, the start of the letter is a little strange. It is clearly from Paul but the addressee is left blank. Perhaps Paul deliberately left it out so that Tychicus could fill in the blank as he read the letter out at each church he went to. Like an ancient form of mail merging!
The importance of this issue is seen later on in the book when Paul will make some applications to people lives that have been somewhat controversial. Over time, people have stated that these applications are not needed today because they were just for the specific and peculiar circumstances in Ephesus at the time and so don’t apply to all christians today.
But, given that we’ve seen this is a general letter addressed to all Christians, that line of argument carries no weight. This is a general letter written by Paul to all christians instructing us to live out the Christian life. So we cannot just ignore the things in this letter that we may find uncomfortable and avoid applying them to our lives by saying this was only applicable to one town at one time.
That second item worth mentioning is that the letter is from Paul to “the saints, the faithful in Christ Jesus.” The saints and the faithful sound like one and the same group of people – but as I investigated it is clear that the NIV translators have left out an ‘and’. This general letter to the saints and to the faithful ones addresses two groups of people. As will become clear as we study this book together, the saints are the Jewish christians [the ones who first hoped in Christ – even prior to his birth – see Ephesians 1:12] and the faithful ones are the Gentile christians (all other followers of Jesus). This letter is about these two groups of people being made one and relating well together.
I’m looking forward to learning from Ephesians together! Peter Blanch