Who Was the Letter of Ephesians Written To?

Ephesians CodexMuch debate in these modern times surrounds the intended recipients of the letter of Ephesians, mostly because of a textual issue in Ephesians 1:1. Therefore, it is worthwhile to take a look at this issue more in-depth, for if the key phrase ἐν Ἐφέσῳ was not in the original autograph, figuring out who the intended recipients were becomes much more difficult.

Hiebert states the prevailing view clearly, “This epistle has always borne the title ‘To the Ephesians’ as far back as we have any knowledge.” And while titles are not regarded as part of the original document, it does carry the tradition of the Church. In fact, all known manuscripts, except five, include ἐν Ἐφέσῳ in the first verse.[2] Two early church fathers, Tertullian and Origen seemed to have the letter without the designation in the first verse. Tertullian (in A.D. 208), in writing against Marcion who changed the title of the letter to “To the Laodiceans,” only stated that Marcion was going against the tradition of the Church, rather than citing the first verse of the letter as proof that Marcion was mistaken.[3] And Origen (A.D. 185-254) seems to make a metaphysical point of the words τοῖς οὖσιν as meaning “the saints who are” (Basil seems to agree with Origen as well).[4]

Textual criticism, with which this argument is based, is both a science and an art. Elliott and Moir state, “collecting, classifying and collating of manuscripts is a science – a precise exercise of verifiable scholarship that can be ordered along undisputed lines. The analysis and resolution of the differences detected between manuscripts is inevitably open to debate. That is the ‘art.’”[5] In this study the writer will ignore the science because it goes beyond the scope of this study and focus more on the art, which is the opinion of scholars after having viewed the science aspect of the argument.

On the extreme end of this discussion are those who simply try and fix the text by adding whatever they feel fits the context. One such opinion is that of James P. Wilson, who fixes the whole issue by providing us with esoteric knowledge that the original autograph read ἐνί where ἐν Ἐφέσῳ lies in most manuscripts. But even Wilson admits: “I am not aware that this has ever been suggested.”[6] But guesswork does not get anyone closer to deciding who the originally intended recipients of this letter were.

Petrovich, in his Master’s of Theology thesis on this subject, concludes that, “Ephesians was probably not written to the church at Ephesus, but to a specific group of churches whose overall identity is only a matter of speculation, [emphasis added].”[7] But even he admits that, “The reading ἐν Ἐφέσῳ is not limited to manuscripts of only one geographical area, as is true of its omission. The reading that includes the variant is widespread, encompassing most of the civilized ancient world, including Rome and the West, Greece, Syria and Palestine, and even parts of Egypt itself.”[8] And so, even after dedicating a whole thesis to the subject, if Petrovich cannot come to a clear decision one way or the other, this writer feels no need to go against the testimony of the Church throughout the ages. It seems best to hold to the traditional view that the intended recipients of this letter were those at the church at Ephesus.[9]

[1] D. Edmond Hiebert, An Introduction to the Pauline Epistles (Chicago: Moody Press, 1954), 260.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 261.

[4] Ibid.

[5] J. K. Elliott and I. A. Moir, Manuscripts and the text of the New Testament : an introduction for English readers (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1995), 4.

[6] James P. Wilson, “Note on the Textual Problem of Ephesians 1:1,” The Expository Times 60 (September 1948): 225-26.

[7] Douglas N. Petrovich. “ἐν Ἐφέσῳ and the Destination of the Ephesian Letter”, (Th.M. thesis, The Master’s Seminary, 1998), 186.

[8] Ibid., 83.

[9] D. Edmond Hiebert, An Introduction to the Pauline Epistles (Chicago: Moody Press, 1954) 265.


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