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§ 96. Colossians and Ephesians Compared and Vindicated.


The Epistles to the Colossians and Ephesians were written about the same time and transmitted through the same messenger, Tychicus. They are as closely related to each other as the Epistles to the Galatians and to the Romans. They handle the same theme, Christ and his church; as Galatians and Romans discuss the same doctrines of salvation by free grace and justification by faith.

But Colossians, like Galatians, arose from a specific emergency, and is brief, terse, polemical; while Ephesians, like Romans, is expanded, calm, irenical. Colossians is directed against the incipient Gnostic (paganizing) heresy, as Galatians is directed against the Judaizing heresy. The former is anti-Essenic and anti-ascetic, the latter is anti-Pharisaic and anti-legalistic; the one deals with a speculative expansion and fantastic evaporation, the latter, with a bigoted contraction, of Christianity; yet both these tendencies, like all extremes, have points of contact and admit of strange amalgamations; and in fact the Colossian and Galatian errorists united in their ceremonial observance of circumcision and the Sabbath. Ephesians, like Romans, is an independent exposition of the positive truth, of which the heresy opposed in the other Epistles is a perversion or caricature.

Again, Colossians and Ephesians differ from each other in the modification and application of their common theme: Colossians is christological and represents Christ as the true pleroma or plenitude of the Godhead, the totality of divine attributes and powers; Ephesians is ecclesiological and exhibits the ideal church as the body of Christ, as the reflected pleroma of Christ, "the fulness of Him who filleth all in all." Christology naturally precedes ecclesiology in the order of the system, as Christ precedes the church; and Colossians preceded Ephesians most probably, also in the order of composition, as the outline precedes the full picture; but they were not far apart, and arose from the same train of meditation.11661166    Lardner, Credner, Mayerhoff, Hofmann, and Reuss reverse the order on the ground of Col. 4:16, which refers to "the Epistle from Laodicea," assuming that this is the encyclical Epistle to the Ephesians. But Paul may have done that by anticipation. On the other hand, the καὶ ὑμεῖς (that ye also as well as those to whom I have just written) in Eph. 6:21, as compared with Col. 4:7, justifies the opposite conclusion (as Harless shows, Com., p. lix). Reuss thinks that in writing two letters on the same topic the second is apt to be the shorter. But the reverse is more frequent, as a second edition of a book is usually larger than the first. De Wette, Baur, Hilgenfeld, and Holtzmann regard Ephesians as an enlarged recasting (Umarbeitung and Ueberarbeitung)of Colossians by a pupil of Paul.

This relationship of resemblance and contrast can be satisfactorily explained only on the assumption of the same authorship, the same time of composition, and the same group of churches endangered by the same heretical modes of thought. With Paul as the author of both everything is clear; without that assumption everything is dark and uncertain. "Non est cuiusvis hominis," says Erasmus, "Paulinum pectus effingere; tonat, fulgurat, meras flammas loquitur Paulus."11671167    Annot. ad Col. 4:16.


The genuineness of the two cognate Epistles has recently been doubted and denied, but the negative critics are by no means agreed; some surrender Ephesians but retain Colossians, others reverse the case; while Baur, always bolder and more consistent than his predecessors, rejects both.11681168    DeWette first attacked Ephesians as a verbose expansion (wortreiche Erweiterung)of the genuine Colossians by a pupil of Paul. See his Introd. to the New Test. (1826, 6th ed. by Messner and Lünemann, 1860, pp. 313 sqq., and especially his Com. on Eph., 1843 and 1847). He based his doubts chiefly on the apparent dependence of Ephesians on Colossians, and could not appreciate the originality and depth of Ephesians. Mayerhoff first attacked Colossians (1838) as a post-Pauline abridgment of Ephesians which he regarded as genuine. Baur attacked both (1845), as his pupil Schwegler did (1846), and assigned them to an anti-Gnostic writer of the later Pauline school. He was followed by Hilgenfeld (1870, 1873, and 1875). Hitzig proposed a middle view (1870), that a genuine Epistle of Paul to the Colossians was enlarged and adapted by the same author who wrote Ephesians, and this view was elaborately carried out by Holtzmann with an attempt to reconstruct the Pauline original (Kritik der Epheser- und Kolosserbriefe, Leipzig, 1872). But the assumption of another Epistle of Paul to the Colossians is a pure critical fiction. History knows only of one such Epistle. Pfleiderer (1873, Paulinismus, p. 370 sq. and 434) substantially agrees with Holtzmann, but assumes two different authors for the two Epistles. He regards Ephesians as an advance from old Paulinism to the Johannean theology. Renan and Ewald admit Colossians to be genuine, but surrender Ephesians, assigning it, however, to an earlier date than the Tülbingen critics (Ewald to a.d. 75 or 80). On the other hand, the genuineness of both Epistles has been ably defended by Bleek, Meyer, Woldemar Schmidt, Braune, Weiss, Alford, Farrar. Bishop Lightfoot, in his Com. on Col., promises to take the question of genuineness up in the Com. on Ephes., which, however, has not yet appeared. Dr. Samuel Davidson, in the revised edition of his Introduction to the Study of the New Test. (1882, vol. II. 176 sqq. and 205 sqq.), reproduces the objections of the Tübingen critics, and adds some new ones which are not very creditable to his judgment, e.g., Paul could not warn the Ephesians to steal no more (Eph. 4:28), and not to be drunk (5:18), because "the Christians of Asia Minor had no tendency to drunken excesses, but rather to ascetic abstinence from wine; and the advice given to Timothy might perhaps have been more suitable: ’Drink a little wine’" (p. 213). But what then becomes of the Epistle to the Corinthians who tolerated an incestuous person in their midst and disgraced the love feasts by intemperance? What of the Epistle to the Romans which contains a similar warning against drunkenness (Rom. 13:13)? And what could induce a pseudo-Paul to slander the church at Ephesus, if it was exceptionally pure?

They must stand or fall together. But they will stand. They represent, indeed, an advanced state of christological and ecclesiological knowledge in the apostolic age, but they have their roots in the older Epistles of Paul, and are brimful of his spirit. They were called forth by a new phase of error, and brought out new statements of truth with new words and phrases adapted to the case. They contain nothing that Paul could not have written consistently with his older Epistles, and there is no known pupil of Paul who could have forged such highly intellectual and spiritual letters in his name and equalled, if not out-Pauled Paul.11691169    Farrar (II. 602): "We might well be amazed if the first hundred years after the death of Christ produced a totally unknown writer who, assuming the name of Paul, treats the mystery which it was given him to reveal with a masterly power which the apostle himself rarely equalled, and most certainly never surpassed. Let any one study the remains of the Apostolic Fathers, and he may well be surprised at the facility with which writers of the Tübingen school, and their successors, assume the existence of Pauls who lived unheard of and died unknown, though they were intellectually and spiritually the equals, if not the superiors, of St. Paul himself!" The external testimonies are unanimous in favor of the Pauline authorship, and go as far back as Justin Martyr, Polycarp, Ignatius, and the heretical Marcion (about 140), who included both Epistles in his mutilated canon.11701170    See the quotations in Charteris’s Canonicity, pp. 237 sqq and 247 sqq.

The difficulties which have been urged against their Pauline origin, especially of Ephesians, are as follows:

1. The striking resemblance of the two Epistles, and the apparent repetitiousness and dependence of Ephesians on Colossians, which seem to be unworthy of such an original thinker as Paul.11711171    This is DeWette’s chief argument. See his table of parallel passages in Einleitung, § 146a (pp. 313-318 of the sixth ed.). But this resemblance, which is more striking in the practical than in the doctrinal part, is not the resemblance between an author and an imitator, but of two compositions of the same author, written about the same time on two closely connected topics; and it is accompanied by an equally marked variety in thought and language.

2. The absence of personal and local references in Ephesians. This is, as already remarked, sufficiently explained by the encyclical character of that Epistle.

3. A number of peculiar words not found elsewhere in the Pauline Epistles.11721172    Such as αίσχρολογία (Col. 3:8), ἀνταναπληρόω (1:24), εἰπήοποιέω (1:20), ἐθελοθρησκεία (2:23), πιθανολογία (2:4); τὰ ἐπουράνια (Eph. 1:3, 20; 2:6; 3:10; 6:12),τὰ π́ευματικά (6:12), κοσμοκράτορες (6:12), πολυποίκιλος σοφία (3:10). Even the word ἄφεσις (Col. 1:14 and Eph. 1:7) for πάρεσις (Rom. 3:25) has been counted among the strange terms, as if Paul had not known before of the remission of sins. Holtzmann has most carefully elaborated the philological argument. But the veteran Reuss (I. 112) treats it as futile, and even Davidson must admit (II 219) that "the sentiments (of Ephesians) are generally Pauline, as well as the diction," though he adds that "both betray marks of another writer." But they are admirably adapted to the new ideas, and must be expected from a mind so rich as Paul’s. Every Epistle contains some hapaxlegomena. The only thing which is somewhat startling is that an apostle should speak of "holy apostles and prophets" (Eph. 3:5), but the term "holy" (ἅγιοι) is applied in the New Testament to all Christians, as being consecrated to God (ἁγιασμένοι, John 17:17), and not in the later ecclesiastical sense of a spiritual nobility. It implies no contradiction to Eph. 3:8, where the author calls himself "the least of all saints" (comp. 1 Cor. 15:9, "I am the least of the apostles").

4. The only argument of any weight is the alleged post-Pauline rise of the Gnostic heresy, which is undoubtedly opposed in Colossians (not in Ephesians, at least not directly). But why should this heresy not have arisen in the apostolic age as well as the Judaizing heresy which sprung up before a.d. 50, and followed Paul everywhere? The tares spring up almost simultaneously with the wheat. Error is the shadow of truth. Simon Magus, the contemporary of Peter, and the Gnostic Cerinthus, the contemporary, of John, are certainly historic persons. Paul speaks (1 Cor. 8:1) of a "gnosis which puffeth up," and warned the Ephesian elders, as early as 58, of the rising of disturbing errorists from their own midst; and the Apocalypse, which the Tübingen critics assign to the year 68, certainly opposes the antinomian type of Gnosticism, the error of the Nicolaitans (Rev. 2:6, 15, 20), which the early Fathers derived from one of the first seven deacons of Jerusalem. All the elements of Gnosticism—Ebionism, Platonism, Philoism, syncretism, asceticism, antinomianism—were extant before Christ, and it needed only a spark of Christian truth to set the inflammable material on fire. The universal sentiment of the Fathers, as far as we can trace it up to Irenaeus, Justin Martyr, and Polycarp found the origin of Gnosticism in the apostolic age, and called Simon Magus its father or grandfather.

Against their testimony, the isolated passage of Hegesippus, so often quoted by the negative critics,11731173    Baur, Schwegler, and Hilgenfeld (Einleit., 652 sq.). has not the weight of a feather. This credulous, inaccurate, and narrow-minded Jewish Christian writer said, according to Eusebius, that the church enjoyed profound peace, and was "a pure and uncorrupted virgin," governed by brothers and relations of Jesus, until the age of Trajan, when, after the death of the apostles, "the knowledge falsely so called" (ψευδώνυμος γνῶσις,comp. 1 Tim. 6:20), openly raised its head.11741174    Eus., H. E., III. 32: "The same author [Hegesippus], relating the events of the times, also says that ’the church continued until then as a pure and uncorrupt virgin (παρθένος καθαρὰ καὶ ἀδιάφθορος ἔμενεν ἡ ἐκκλησία); whilst if there were any at all that attempted to pervert the sound doctrine of the saving gospel, they were yet skulking in darkness (ἐν ἀδήλῳ που σκότει); but when the sacred choir of the apostles became extinct, and the generation of those that had been privileged to hear their inspired wisdom had passed away, then also arose the combination of godless error through the fraud of false teachers. These also, as there was none of the apostles left, henceforth attempted, without shame (γυμνῇ λοιπὸν ἤδη τῇ κεφαλῇ), to preach their falsely so-called gnosis against the gospel of truth.’ Such is the statement of Hegesippus." Comp. the notes on the passage by Heinichen in his ed. of Euseb., Tome III., pp. 100-103. But he speaks of the church in Palestine, not in Asia Minor; and he was certainly mistaken in this dream of an age of absolute purity and peace. The Tübingen school itself maintains the very opposite view. Every Epistle, as well as the Acts, bears testimony to the profound agitations, parties, and evils of the church, including Jerusalem, where the first great theological controversy was fought out by the apostles themselves. But Hegesippus corrects himself, and makes a distinction between the secret working and the open and shameless manifestation of heresy. The former began, he intimates, in the apostolic age; the latter showed itself afterward.11751175    The same Hegesippus, in Eus., IV. 22, places the rise of the heresies in the Palestinian church immediately after the death of James, and traces some of them back to Simon Magus. He was evidently familiar with the Pastoral Epistles, and borrowed from them the terms ψευδώνυμος γνῶσις , ἑτεροδιδάσκαλοι., ὑγιὴς κανών. Gnosticism, like modern Rationalism,11761176    The critical school of Rationalism began in Germany with Semler of Halle (1725-1791), in the middle of the eighteenth century, and culminated in the Tübingen School of our own age. had a growth of a hundred years before it came to full maturity. A post-apostolic writer would have dealt very differently with the fully developed systems of Basilides, Valentinus, and Marcion. And yet the two short Epistles to the Colossians and Ephesians strike at the roots of this error, and teach the positive truth with an originality, vigor, and depth that makes them more valuable, even as a refutation, than the five books of Irenaeus against Gnosticism, and the ten books of the Philosophumena of Hippolytus; and this patent fact is the best proof of their apostolic origin.

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