Ehrman on Paul, Part 2 Ephesians and Colossians


I turn my attention now to Ehrman’s claims that Paul did not write Ephesians and Colossians. I have skipped the section on why Paul’s letters were forged, because if such deception did take place it is clear people were trying to take advantage of Paul’s authority to make their point.


I turn my attention now to Ehrman’s claims that Paul did not write Ephesians and Colossians. I have skipped the section on why Paul’s letters were forged, because if such deception did take place it is clear people were trying to take advantage of Paul’s authority to make their point.

Of course, I have argued that Ehrman has not shown that this took place for those books he has examined so far in the New Testament (the Petrines, Pastorals and 2 Thessalonians).

So what of Ephesians and Colossians?

EPHESIANS: Ehrman’s arguments here involve style (mainly sentence length), vocabulary, and distinct theology (pp. 108-112). These are the same kinds of arguments made for the Pastorals, only details differ.

Let’s take vocabulary first. Ehrman argues that Ephesians use of 116 words not present elsewhere in Paul shows its likely origin elsewhere (he never tell us here what counts for Paul in this case, the seven, the ten? The smaller the sample the higher the number will be). He goes on to note that this is 50% more than Philippians, which he claims is about the same length. This is fudging. Philippians has 104 verses, while Ephesians has 155 verses. It is 33% longer. So now the number of distinct words is not so high especially since the letter covers elements of ministry not covered in such detail elsewhere and the letter is less localized in its concerns. This difference is in part because Ephesians is not generated by a specific problem, but appears to be a regional letter. For example, Hoehner (Ephesians, p. 24) noted that Ephesians has 41 words not found elsewhere in the NT and 84 not found elsewhere in Paul, but the number for Galatians is 35 and 90 respectively, a comparable number. Yet virtually no one doubts Paul wrote Galatians. Here is another statistic noted by Carson and Moo’s Introduction. 2 Corinthians has 5.6 hapax terms per page and Philippians has 6.2, while Ephesians has 4.6. These kinds of numbers tell us that statistics do not solve our question about authorship.

When one comes to style, Ehrman is correct that we have more long sentences here. However long sentences are not unique to this letter and the presence of two prayers and a praise psalm may be in play here in terms of making some sentences longer. Compare Romans 8:28-39, 10: 11:8-9; 11:24, 11:25-27, 11:30-31, or 11:33-36 (where praise is present) in a section of Romans about as long as this letter or 1 Corinthians 1:4-8 (where we have thanksgiving). Many of these sentences are not 50 words long, but they are close enough to suggest length is not a decisive factor.

This leaves us with the arguments tied to theology, the category Ehrman stresses the most as decisive. Here Ehrman uses three examples: Paul and works of the flesh, saved, and being raised. I take them one at a time.

Works of Flesh: Ehrman argues that Ephesians presents Paul as carried away by lusts of the flesh, apparently citing Ephesians 2:3. Ehrman contrasts this with Paul’s claim in Philippians 3:4 that Paul was blameless with reference to the law. He says in effect that the same person cannot have said both things. However, Ehrman fails to note two key points. (1) Ephesians 2:1-10 is not strictly a biographical reference but an ethnic reference to Jews and Gentiles (as collective we and you). So what Ehrman leaves as a biographical portrayal of Paul is a generalized remark about Jews where Paul includes himself as an expression of corporate solidarity. This is EXACTLY like what he does in Romans 2–3 as he includes Jews (and himself as a result) in the guilt that requires Christ’s work. (2) Ehrman ignores Roman 7 which is stated in a first person singular (and also is surely rhetorical). Here Paul declares himself guilty in terms of the law in a way that his flesh is not able to follow his desire to do the law. This is a conceptual overlap with Ephesians 2 and shows Paul can indeed express himself this way.

Saved: Ehrman argues that saved is only a future tense idea in Paul. Two observations need to be made here. (1) Ehrman sees Paul as a rather static theological thinker. He expresses himself and can express himself in one way and one way only. Yet scholars recognize that Paul was one of the most creative and reflective theological thinkers in the early church. If Paul is so theologically adept, what rule says he cannot develop his own thinking in various directions. Is a theologically fossilized Paul really reflective of such a theologically active mind? This means we need to be careful not to trap Paul in a corner of our own making. (2) But the use of the idea of having life now in relationship to being saved is not as absent in Paul as Ehrman suggests. In Romans 6, the very passage Ehrman cites, Paul uses the picture of baptism to picture moving out of death into life. Paul does not intend to say we die now and only are raised to life later. Paul intends to say we die now and are raised into life now, also to await in the future a resurrection that brings us into everlasting life. Just look at Romans 6:8-11 that summarizes Paul’s argument and puts it all together side by side. It reads, “Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that since Christ has been raised from the dead, he is never going to die again; death no longer has mastery over him. For the death he died, he died to sin once for all, but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you too consider yourselves dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus.” Resurrection life is not strictly future here, neither is being saved; the act of actual resurrection which culminates salvation is. If there is doubt about this, read also Galatians 2:20, where Paul lives the life of Christ in him now. So this difference is also not as great as Ehrman claims.

Raised: This last example leads right into being raised as well. In Romans 4:25, Jesus was “put to death for our trespasses and raised for our justification.” Now Paul ties justification to faith and not to the eschatological future (see Romans 3:22-26 and the example of Abraham Romans 4 discusses). So here resurrection is not strictly about the future but also links to how God delivers in response to a present faith.

Our little survey shows that Ehrman has not made the case with any of these examples. He has not even come close. The theology of Ephesians is not so different than Paul after all.

COLOSSIANS: The case for this book Ehrman covers briefly, as he thinks he made his case with Ephesians. Colossians is more of the same for him. The argument from style comes with more statistics about uncommon expressions. To wrap up his claim for Colossians, Ehrman repeats his argument about being raised here, saying it parallels Ephesians.

What do we make of the case for this book not being written by Paul? As sure as Ehrman is that Paul’s style is so different, other scholars looking a the same data conclude differently. Werner Kümmel, a German and no fundamentalist who surely knew about the German study of Bujard that Ehrman cites, says this about the style of this letter, “The language and style of Colossians, therefore, gives no cause to doubt the Pauline origin of the epistle.” (Introduction to the New Testament, rev. ed., p. 241). Kümmel is not alone as a German scholar coming to such a judgment about style after having spent time in this book. Lohse in the introduction to his commentary on the book also concluded that linguistic and style issues could not decide this issue (p. 91). Lohse opted instead for a distinct theology as the key for deciding against Paul (pp. 177-83), issues already treated in the discussion of Ephesians above.

So there we have it. The case Ehrman makes for Ephesians and Colossians is a weak one. How does he get there? Differences in theology are exaggerated. Texts showing a closer connection between the undisputed Paulines and these letters go undiscussed.

When one puts the results here together with the previous posts on Paul, the case for arguing Paul did not write the New testament letters ascribed to him is weak. The Pastorals may be the closest example, and the case there also has serious problems. So far, Ehrman has been able to argue many books outside the New Testament are forged, but the case he makes for that going on in the New Testament is much more suspect.

In sum, we now have covered the key books where these claims of pseudonymity come up, having covered 15 of the 18 books where an author is named. Only Revelation (and which John?), James and Jude are left. So far the case for New Testament books being forged has not been nearly as impressive as Ehrman contends. He will not cover Revelation in this light. So only two Catholic epistles are left to discuss. However, even now we can say that the bulk of the New Testament has come through Ehrman’s examination unscathed. The conclusion starts to emerge that likely counters the book cover’s claim, namely, the “Bible’s authors ARE [not are not] who we think they are.”  



  • Avatar

    Jesse P

    length of Philippians and Ephesians

    Dr. Bock,

    You note that Ephesians is 33% longer than Philippians based on a verse count of 155 in Ephesians compared to 104 verses in Philippians.  However, if you compare the length based on total word occurrences (just like students do a total word count when calculating the length of a term paper), the issue becomes even clearer.  By my count (using the Greek text in Bibleworks), Ephesians has a total length of 2,422 word occurrences while Philippians has a total length of just 1,629 word occurrences.  Thus, Ephesians is actually 48% longer than Philippians rather than just 33%. It becomes even less remarkable that Ephesians has 50% more vocabulary that is not used elsewhere in Paul compared to Philippians, given that Ephesians is actually 48% longer than Philippians.

    I'm not sure whether I've crunched the numbers correctly here, so I'd be interested to hear your thoughts if you get a chance to check these figures yourself.

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    Darrell L. Bock

    Length of Philippians and Colossians

    Jesse: Nice. One of the issues here is that length of words can impact overall length, so having both sets of statistics is nice. The point you make is well taken.

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    Ephesians and Clement

    One thing I really wanted to ask Ehrman, but couldn't, was about Ephesians and 1 Peter. He claims both aren't by the claimed authors.

    Ephesians and 1 Peter are both quoted by 1 Clement. If you are convinced that Ephesians wasn't written by the same author as the other Pauline (traditionally claimed), I would conclude those quoted by Clement are genuine. I can't think of a writer of antiquity whose writings are still extant in a better position to know about Pauline authorship (and Peter's) than Clement.

    Does Ehrman even bring up this piece of data?

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    Darrell L. Bock

    Ephesians and Clement


    Great point. I'd say the same about Papias and Mark. Both are much closer the action than we are almost 2000 years later.

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    Do you make your students

    Do you make your students read Bauckman's "Jesus and the Eyewitnesses"? Papias didn't make an impression on me until I read that book.

    A really compelling book regarding the authorship of the gospels.

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    Darrell L. Bock


    We discuss Papias and Bauckham's work. About to recommend another good book on the topic by Charles Hill.

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    Douglas Pearce

    Bibilcal Forgery/Ehrman

    I recently listened to your radio debate with Ehrman and there was not a single point he made that you refuted with any degree of certitude, from the issue of literacy in the ancient world  to the question of dictation and/or use of a secratary.

    In fact you didn't even refute Ehrman's assertion that only those who favor biblical inerencey in this regard are those with  theological motivation, merely citing that you both have your own "consensus"

    While  I appreciate it is not always easy to marshall ones thoughts in such an environment even taking this into account your case for original authorship of the biblical text in question is a lost cause.