From Paul, via Ephesus

There is so much said in the six short chapters of the Epistle to the Ephesians, that we cannot pretend to understand it all. Yet in outline, and essential message, it is plain sailing. There is an intense prologue, in two extremely long and involved Greek sentences, amounting to a hymn. This recounts the Blessing brought with Christ into our world. Cumbersome in translation, I once came close to hearing how it sings in Greek.

The hymn then segues into a kind of narrative solo: of Christ’s servant, Paul, apostle or “messenger” to the Gentiles, ending in a fervent prayer.

Tone and style change abruptly and quite purposefully, at the beginning of the fourth chapter, while remaining lyrical. We have an exhortation, in the unity of the Church, to the calling and duty of each member. This begins doctrinally, presenting what resolves into a schematic description of that Catholic, or universal Church; which is, “one body and one Spirit, … called in one hope; … one Lord, one faith, one baptism; … one God and Father of all, above all, through all, in all.”

This in turn devolves to relations between persons within that Church. The verses memorably include the central tenet of Christian matrimony, relating wives to husbands as Church to Christ. Paul invokes, here as everywhere, simplicity of heart, carrying into the reciprocal obedience and love owed between all children and parents, between servants and masters of all kinds. All share membership in their parts within one body of Christ.

And then, the clarion of true spiritual warfare, and the fight each Christian must fight, all for one and one for all. “For our wrestling is not against flesh and blood; but against principalities and powers, against the rulers of the world of this darkness, against the spirits of wickedness in the high places.”

To which end: “Put you on the armour of God.”

From the salutation at its beginning, to its postscript commending Tychicus, Paul’s messenger and his old companion of the road, it is like the structure of a Bach Cantata. The Epistle to the Ephesians has provided the materials for a thousand commentaries and a million sermons. Most significantly, it does not merely “make an argument” for the claims of the Catholic Church. It unambiguously requires “the unity of Spirit in the bond of peace.” (That extraordinary line, which a recusant sonneteer from Warwick so tellingly inverted to: “The expense of spirit in a waste of shame.”)

That the Epistle was written at Rome, during Paul’s first captivity about anno 62, comes from the Tradition, much attested and nowhere contradicted. It also comes confirmed, by statements in the text; a text which echoes in allusion through the earliest Christian literature: in Justin, Ignatius, Hermas, Polycarp, Clement of Rome; and too, in the Didache, since it was rediscovered. Origen and Jerome have not the slightest doubt of its authenticity or its authorship; even Marcion the heretic takes this for known.

There is a fair question whether the Church at Ephesus was the addressee, or rather more likely the point from where the Epistle was disseminated to the farther reaches of Asia Minor; for we know from Basil and other sources that the words “at Ephesus” were missing from the earliest manuscripts. But this is not a mildew question; it invites an understanding that is fresh, of a doctrinal authority that is unmistakeable.

Was Paul the author?

I have, on my shelves up here in the High Doganate, though perhaps not for long, a modern (1998) commentary on Ephesians of more than 700 pages, on each of which this is taken as an open question. Rather than dare say “Paul” the writer diligently substitutes “AE” (for “Author of Ephesians”), in deference to modern textual scholarship, which takes everything as an open question, and can make any factual assertion, however plain or innocently made, into an issue for perpetual, unresolvable disputation. By this means we are distracted constantly, and at tremendous length, from the Scripture itself; as ultimately from the chance of our Salvation.

Indeed, almost any modern commentary on the Epistle to the Ephesians, whether nominally Catholic or Protestant, heads straight into the weeds from the first word, which is, “Paulus.” The same who (at 4:25) puts lying at the top of his list of sins his Christian readers must avoid. Are we to take it the Epistle was written instead by some pretender, whose first word was a lie?

Yet even to state that is to invite another journey through the weeds, the more tortuous because it must be in the company of tin-eared scholars making confident judgements on Paul’s vocabulary, syntax, and style.

The Epistle was from the earliest times paired with that to the Colossians. The two seem sometimes to play one theme together like a pair of violas. From that ancient useful hint, one may solve almost any puzzle that comes to mind, about the relation of Ephesians to the rest of the Pauline canon.

And if we read it on the assumption of Paul’s authorship, we grasp immediately the reason for adjustments in voice from Paul’s other Epistles: for he is writing here not to a local church he knew at first hand, but to new Christians he has never met, in the Church Universal beyond them; and condensing, poetically, what elsewhere he had once had the opportunity, more prosaically, to spell out. Thus, in a sense, he is writing even more directly to us than in his other Epistles.

That we would shoot the messenger of bad news might be understandable in some circumstances. But why tamper with the messenger of Good News?