Book Review – Ephesians by Peter O’Brien

O’Brien, Peter Thomas. The Letter to the Ephesians. The Pillar New Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1999. (Westminster Theological Seminary Book Store) OR (Amazon)

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Of the three largest Ephesians commentaries that have been published in the past 10 years, Peter O’Brien’s is the shortest by about sixty pages (528). It is also the most readable commentary written as well. But this does not reduce the quality or value. Rather, its probably the best volume on Ephesians available, even better than Harold Hoehner’s massive thousand page tome. O’Brien could definitely be considered a (if not the) leading authority on the captivity letters (Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Philemon). With this volume on Ephesians, he has now provided us with technical commentaries on all four of these books (the best and most detailed of them probably being Philippians).

The first section I’m going to look at is the preface of his commentary. While this is a bit unusual, the truth is that much can be gained in understanding the author and his perspective through reading his preface, which often reveals who has influenced him most. This is the case for O’Brien. In reading his preface, we find two interesting bits of information:

  • His greatest debt seems to be from A. T. Lincoln
  • He had access to Harold Hoehner’s commentary manuscript before it was published three years later (which definitely gives O’Brien an edge in his exegesis and exposition).

And a search through the volume finds Lincoln mentioned an impressive 351 times, which is more than every two pages. O’Brien also did an excellent job staying up to date with other recent commentaries. Earnest Best, whose ICC volume on Ephesians was only published a merely year before O’Brien, is referenced 250 times through the book. What is also significant is the influence that Max Turner’s small commentary in the New Bible Commentary: 21st Century Edition has had on O’Brien, which is referred to 30 times (impressive for an article in a one volume Bible commentary).

Normally, the more recent commentary will be most important because it can take advantage of more recent writings that did not yet exist, but since O’Brien had access to Hoehner, that distinction is essentially lost.


O’Brien’s introduction is divided into five main sections, most of which are then sub-divided into several smaller sections. These are Authorship; Destination; Life-Setting, Purpose and Providence; The Central Message; and finally Contents and Genre. For O’Brien Ephesians is a bit of an enigma, a mystery if you will, because of our lack of clear information regarding destination, date, origin and purpose.

I. Authorship

To state the conclusion at the beginning, Peter O’Brien accepts and argues for Pauline authorship of the letter. Like others who have argued as such, he points out the fact that Paul’s authorship was never questioned until the recent two centuries. He positively quotes Carson, Morris, and Moo from the Introduction to the New Testament saying, “The ‘man who claims to be Paul was known to the readers and was confident that his claim would not be overthrown’.” (4, citing D. A. Carson, D. J. Moo, and L. Morris, An Introduction to the New Testament [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992], 306).

The form that O’Brien’s argumentation takes is that of a response or rebuttal of the challenges presented to Pauline authorship. Thus, he deals with Impersonal language, Language and Style, Ephesians’ relationship with Colossians, Theological Emphases, and the letter’s view of Paul. O’Brien concludes with a discussion of authorship and pseudonymity and then brings all of the relevant data together seeking to show that the case weighs against non-Pauline authorship.

(The question, of course, is how successful O’Brien is in this endeavor. Do O’Brien’s arguments hold up to scrutiny. To so degree, this is a question I cannot fully answer, since in general, I agree with O’Brien and as of yet, there have not been any scholars who have responded to either O’Brien, Hoehner, and most recently, Heil, all of whom have held that Pauline authorship is the best route for interpreting Ephesians. As far as I have read, the most recent major work on Ephesians has concluded on Pauline authorship. And I would expect this trend to continue. Max Turner’s volume in the NIGTC on Ephesians will likely hold to Pauline authorship as he did in his New Bible Commentary article. Frank Thielman and Clinton Arnold will likely do the same when their commentaries on Ephesians are published.)

Regarding the impersonal nature, O’Brien hold to the theory that “in Ephesus” in verse 1.1 is unoriginal, that the letter is a general letter being sent to the whole of Asia Minor. This is a supposition that is entirely plausible, though unfortunately, as Hoehner shows, the question of whether “in Ephesus” is original is much more complex than O’Brien suggests.

The discussion regarding language and style is somewhat disappointing. It is a subject that needs to be discussed more by both sides, particularly in response to Matthew Brooks O’Donnell’s work in Corpus Linguistics as they relate to authorship studies, which I have blogged about several months ago.

O’Brien’s conclusion to this discussion simply states:

Although there are some differences of language and style in Ephesians, they are not enough, in our judgment, to discount authenticity. If the letter was written by a disciple of the apostle, it is surprising that such an outstanding author, of the calibre of Paul himself, should be unknown in the first-century church (8).

The main problem is that this conclusion has been being repeated over and over again over the past 100 years regarding authorship of the letter. And while I do agree with the statement, if those who hold to Pauline authorship are going to move forward in convincing others, they to go beyond these words. Those who have held to Pauline authorship have been on the defensive. Convincing others of the truth of the claim will require moving into the offensive arena (as Hoehner has done in his authorship discussion). With that said, O’Brien’s words here continue to ask a question that has not been answered by scholars who reject Paul as the author.

Excellent is O’Brien’s discussion of Colossians and Ephesians, entitled, “Challenging the Consensus.” This is O’Brien’s most important contribution to the authorship discussion. In it, he sets up various scholars who reject Paul’s authorship against each other, weakening their own position.

Most scholars have held that Colossians was written first and the author of Ephesians borrowed and adapted the vocabulary and themes from Colossians and other Pauline letters (eps. Romans). While O’Brien does not mention Victor Paul Furnish’s article in the Anchor Bible Dictionary, it is an exemplary example. He writes,

If Paul wrote Colossians, then it is unlikely that he also wrote Ephesians, since the latter borrows so extensively from the former. Indeed, if Paul did not write Colossians, then it is certain that Ephesians too is pseudepigraphical (ABD, 2:541).

The question O’Brien asks of Lincoln, Furnish, Mitton and others is whether is can be so clearly demonstrated whether Ephesians depends on Colossians. The studies of H. J. Holtzmann and van Roon have shown that some of the parallels suggest the opposite direction of dependence, that is of Colossians on Ephesians. O’Brien takes this fact and combines it with the thoughts on Earnest Best, a giant in the realm of Ephesians study, who also happens to reject Pauline authorship.

After an extensive analysis, Best concludes: ‘There is . . . insufficient evidence to enable us to come down firmly in favour of the priority of either letter, though there is a slight probability in favour of the use of Ephesians by A/Col [i.e., the author of Colossians]’ (14, citing E. Best, ‘Who Used Whom?’, 79; cf. also his commentary, 22–25).

But O’Brien goes one step further in his references to Best:

In fact, he contends that his research ‘removes one main argument from those who believe the non-Pauline authorship of Ephesians can be firmly asserted on the basis of the use of Colossians by Ephesians’! (Best, 25; cf. his further comment: ‘There is a relationship with Colossians but it cannot be proved that AE [sc., the author of Ephesians] used that letter; the customary argument that his use of it would imply he was not Paul cannot then be sustained’) (15).

With one road block is removed regarding Pauline authorship, O’Brien moves on to another, dealing with the question of Ephesians’s very unusual introduction and the berakah in verses 3-14. Nothing like this is found in any of Paul’s other letters. Would a writer other than Paul have risked creating a new letter for that does not have any parallel with any of Paul’s other letters? O’Brien finds such a possibility highly unlikely.

By inserting an introductory thanksgiving after the opening berakah the author has made this letter different not only from Colossians but also from any other letter in the Pauline corpus. Would an imitator have taken such a risk? In our judgment, the person most likely to have done this is Paul. Further, why is there no mention of the Colossians ‘hymn’ (1:15–20) in Ephesians or, for that matter, no reference to any polemic against the ‘heretics’ in Colossians 2? (15).

The following section examines the theology of Ephesians from the perspective of authorship. This section replaces any independent discussion of theology for the letter. On the one hand, some argue that because Ephesians focuses on Christ’s exaltation rather than his death (as in other Pauline letters), Ephesians cannot have been written by Paul. O’Brien response by pointing out that such an emphasis is the focus of the New Testament as a whole, including the Pauline corpus (Rom. 8:34; 1 Cor. 15:3–28; Phil. 2:9–11). Such claims also ignore reference to Christ’s death in the use of words such as his “‘blood’ (1:7; 2:13), ‘cross’ (2:16), ‘flesh’ (= ‘death’ at 2:15), ‘sacrifice’ (5:2), and ‘gave himself up’ (5:25)” (22).

O’Brien’s discussion of pseudonymity is also excellent in that he does well summarizing many of the challenges brought forward to the perspective of pseudonymity described by those who reject Pauline authorship of Ephesians. He rightly begins by pointing out what is involved in this discussion. The question is not whether there were pseudopigraphical letters in the first centuries BCE, but whether Christians who knew of such letters written in the name of an apostle would accept them. To put it another way, those who reject Pauline authorship of Ephesians (or any other letter) must do two things. They must first give a historical reason for why the second and third generations of Christians would accept a pseudonymous letter. And secondly, they much provide a historical explanation for why these same early Christians accepted Ephesians, while rejecting 3 Corinthians, the Letter to the Laodiceans. It should be noted that both the letter to the Laodiceans and 3 Corinthians are both entirely orthodox in their theology. So their rejection cannot rest on theology, but on their spurious character. This explanation must also take such statements by early church leaders such as that by Serapion, the Bishop of Antioch:

For we, brothers, receive both Peter and the other apostles as Christ. But pseudepigrapha in their name we reject, as men of experience, knowing that we did not receive such [from the tradition]. (41).

From here, O’Brien begins his interaction with the work of D. G. Meade, who has done very important research on this issue.

He seeks to show that this literary device, practised [British spelling] in New Testament times, has its basis within the Old Testament and Jewish writings where traditions were supplemented, interpreted, and expanded in the names of earlier authors (41-42).

Meade’s best example of this is the expansion of Isaiah by multiple authors over the course a several centuries. But O’Brien finds several faults with this proposal. For one, the genre of literature is completely different between Isaiah and Ephesians (or any of Paul’s letters). Secondly, the process itself is different, Meade argues that 2 and 3 Isaiah update Isaiah’s message to their contemporary audience. This is not seen in Ephesians or other letters. No material is added, rather completely separate letters are written in another’s name.

Further, Meade’s hypothesis is based on critical Old Testament presuppositions proposed during the last two centuries for which there is no historical evidence in the Jewish or Christian communities (42).

Meade must also explain the statement of a so called pseudonymous author in 2 Thessalonians “We ask you, brothers, not to become easily unsettled or alarmed by some prophecy, report or letter supposed to have come from us, saying that the day of the Lord has already come” (2.1-2). If this statement is not by Paul, it is rather contradictory.

If Ephesians was pseudonymous and the church knew, it is quite impressive that the church so quickly forgot and concluded that is was by Paul only 40-50 years later. If Ephesians was pseudonymous and the church did not know, then it is striking to find such an emphasis on truth in the letter itself, while at the same time, the pseudonymous author creates a false travel plans for Paul in the midst of writing about the need for truthfulness (4:15, 24, 25; 5:9; 6:14; cf. 1:13; 4:21).

[I]s the author being hypocritical when he condemns deceit at 4:25: ‘Putting away falsehood, let each one speak truth with his neighbour’? (44).

To conclude the discussion of authorship, O’Brien writes,

In our judgment the traditional view has the most evidence in its favour. ‘It is not unreasonable to think of Paul re-expressing, developing and modifying his own thoughts for a different readership facing a different set of circumstances’. The onus of proof is upon those who must establish that Paul was incapable of this versatility. We agree that ‘the best explanation . . . seems to be that the same man wrote Colossians and Ephesians a little later, with many of the same thoughts running through his head and with a more general application of the ideas he had so recently expressed’. (46, citing C. E. Arnold, DPL, 243 and D. A. Carson, D. J. Moo, and L. Morris, Introduction, 308).

The second half of this review will overview the second half of the introduction and quickly comment on the O’Brien’s exegesis and exposition through the book.


6 thoughts on “Book Review – Ephesians by Peter O’Brien

  1. Thank you very much for taking the time to write this review. I’m going through 1 Corinthians now and O’Brien’s commentary has been on my list for when I get to Ephesians. The extra info will be very helpful in confirming my decision. These books are expensive and I need to choose carefully.

  2. I just went back to read section 1, which makes strong points favoring Pauline authorship. I find nothing unPauline in the vocabulary and style. Thanks again.

  3. Carl, September 23, 2013 at 9:31pm
    I have not read the book as yet, but based on the review and the recommendation of a friend concerning this book I am surely going get a copy.

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