Book Review: Peter O’Brien – Ephesians Part II

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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Previously in part one (HERE), we dealt with O’Brien’s discussion of the question of authorship in Ephesians, where he concluded that the evidence for Pauline authorship is strong enough to be accepted as valid. In this second part of the review, we will focus on the Destination (II) and the Life Setting, Purpose, and Provenance (III).

II. Destination

O’Brien’s discussion of the destination of Ephesians is not terribly original. It functions mainly as a survey of scholarship, with with very little in terms of original conclusions. While some might be disappointed by this, it is actually completely understandable because there is very little to be said in terms of developments. Thus, the question is, “How well does O’Brien do in surveying the literature accurately and fairly?”

With the modern consensus, O’Brien rightly rejects E. J. Goodspeed’s theory that Ephesians functioned as an introduction to Paul’s letters written by a disciple who collected them. This rejection is based on the fact that there is no evidence at all that Ephesians every functioned in this way. Ephesians, among other things, does not appear at the beginning of the corpus in the Pauline lists of letters. The theory has inherent difficulties.

O’Brien also notes that Clinton Arnold and Harold Hoehner believe that the original text of Ephesians 1.1 contained the phrase “εν Εφέσω.” He notes Arnold’s arguements, but says little more. These include the fact that Ephesians was a city of at least 250,000 people at this time in history. It would be fair to assume that a letter to Ephesus would likely be a letter dozens or more smaller house churches. The fact that in 1.15, Paul states that he “heard of their faith” may very well simply mean that Paul has heard about the progress that the Ephesian believers have made since they were last together.

It is also possible that Ephesians could have been a letter intended to be read by a wide range of believers through western Asia Minor with Ephesus as the center point.

Finally, O’Brien notes that Arnold argues that the lack of personal greetings is not necessarily significant since other letters whose authorship has not been questioned to churches Paul knew quite well also do not have such personal greets, such as 1-2 Corinthians, Philippians and Galatians.

The next paragraph begins, “In contrast to Arnold, we contend that the textual tradition which omits the words ‘in Ephesus’ was the original” (48). But this supposed “contrast” does not actually carry very much weight. O’Brien’s conclusion is not very different at all. The main different is that he considers the impersonal nature of the letter to be more significant for the destination than Arnold. For O’Brien, Ephesians is not written to many many house churches in a very large city and the surrounding area, rather, Ephesians is just written to the surrounding area, “perhaps in and around Ephesus, or on the road to Colossae” (49). The manuscript evidence, for O’Brien, shows nothing more than the fact that most of the copies made of Ephesians came from the copy Paul had sent to Ephesus.

III. Life-Setting, Purpose, and Provenance

O’Brien begins with the quite common observation that Ephesians is the most general of all Paul’s letters. Nevertheless, he does attempt to glean as much information as he can from the letter in order to determine as much as possible its setting, purpose, and provenance. He notes the following:

  • The original audience has been blessed with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ by God (1.3).
  • God has chosen them from the foundation of the world (1.4-5).
  • They have heard the gospel, the word of truth, and have made it their own (1.13).
  • Paul describes them with a number of designations for God’s people in both the OT and the NT.
  • Paul uses multiple images to describe his audience, including “saints,” “follow citizens with God’s holy people,” brothers and sisters,” and others.

But as O’Brien himself knows, all of these designations and images are true of all followers of Christ and thus do not say much about these particular believers (50). So then, more concretely, it is clear that Paul’s reader’s have heard of him (1.1; 3.1; 6.21-22), his imprisonment and sufferings (3.13; 4.1). Potentially, they also knew about his status in Roman awaiting trial to bear witness of Christ before Caesar himself (51). Lastly, Paul’s audience will receive with this letter a visit from Tychicus who will tell them about Paul’s personal circumstances that they might discover how Paul is doing and be encouraged (6.21-22, page 50).

Regarding the purpose of the letter, O’Brien’s discussion begins with a quite survey of previous suggestions, just as he did with the destination of the letter. Because the information that can be gathered from Ephesians about the original audience is not very specific, (not to mention the lack of authorship agreement) there has be very little consensus about the purpose of Ephesians.

Some scholars doubt that Ephesians is a letter. For them it becomes a baptism or Eucharist liturgy, a wisdom discourse, an early Christian hymn, a sermon, or a theological tract. To these proposals, O’Brien states that we should not be so confident in our specification of a concrete situation when none is described in the text.

There is no reason, in principle, why a letter could not be general in nature and written for the purpose of instructing and edifying Christians over a wide area or in a range of congregations. In the case of Ephesians, its solemnity and broad sweep of God’s majestic saving purposes set forth in the first half of the epistle, together with the wide-ranging exhortatory material of chapters 4-6, suggest that Paul could have had such purposes in mind (51-52).

In his survey, O’Brien speaks quite highly of Clinton Arnold’s proposal (though he rejects that the letter was only written to Ephesians as Arnold holds). Arnold focuses on the theme of the spiritual powers in Ephesians, which O’Brien sees as a definite strength in comparison to other proposals who have ignored that element in their analysis. But in the end, Arnold’s proposed setting for Ephesians does not satisfy or explain the other important themes of the letter such as cosmic reconciliation in Christ, something that Arnold himself admits. Nevertheless, O’Brien view’s Arnold’s proposal as a “creative and fresh approach.”

O’Brien also considers A. T. Lincoln’s warning against creating a specific life setting as justified on account of the wide and divergent views amongst commentators and students of the letter. The best way forward in O’Brien’s view is to view the purpose of Ephesians as one of “identity formation, following Klyne Snodgrass (NIV Application Commentary) and J. P. Sampley (56).

Thus a plausible situation for O’Brien places Ephesians being written by Paul from Rome around 61-62 CE. Tychicus then carried Colossians, Philemon and Ephesians to their respective recipients, accompanied by Onesimus. On this view, in agreement with Max Turner,

[Ephesians] was written for the churches along or near the road Tychicus would have taken from Ephesus to Colosse, including Magnesia, Tralles, Hierapolis and Laodicea (58, citing Turner).

The central message is cosmic reconciliation and unity in Christ. Within this pointed is the fact that all things are summed up in Christ (1.9). In fact, O’Brien considers the berakah or eulogy of verses 1.3-14 to be the summarizing section of the letter, through which the rest can be explained and understood. Throughout the eulogy, all of God’s purpose described is said to be “in Christ” or “in Him.” O’Brien views this phrase not to denote instrument (that is through Christ or by Christ), but rather denoting the sphere.

Christ is the one in whom God chooses to sum up the cosmos, the one in whom he restores harmony to the universe. He is the focal point — not simply the means, the instrument, or the functionary through whom all this occurs. The previous examples of ‘in Christ’ and its equivalents within the eulogy focussed [sic] on the Son as God’s chosen one in whom believers have been blessed…. The mystery which God has graciously made known refers to the summing up and bringing together of the fragmented and alienated elements of the universe in Christ as the focal point. All things are to be summed up in God’s anointed one and presented as a coherent totality in him (59).

For this reason, the second half of the letter, which contains significantly more imperatives and exhortations draws on this theme.

Significantly, Paul’s exhortations are directed against those sins, such as anger and falsehood (4:25–26), which cause dissension and alienation within the [Page 65] body, that is, they are sins which work against the body’s unity (64).

Not surprisingly, O’Brien rejects that Ephesians should be described with ancient rhetorical forms. On the basis of the initial verses and the closing, he considers it to be a letter and attributes its uniqueness as a letter to it much more general circumstances as compared to Paul’s other letters.

The challenge to the genre of Ephesians is found in its body. No one is completely sure where the body begins or ends. Because this is true to some extent of Paul’s other letters as well, O’Brien sees it best to speak of the “Pauline body” of the letter, such as the extended paraenetic (exhortation) section of the letter and various types of prayer materials. Also noteworthy of Paul’s letters in general and found in Ephesians is the extensive use of and dependence on the Old Testament for themes allusions and direct quotes.

Because of the closely woven themes through the first three chapters of the letter, O’Brien sees it best to view 1.3-3.13 as a unit in of itself. He notes that this is very similar to the structure of 1 Thessalonians, which also has an extended thanksgiving section.

He is also cynical of the claim that Ephesians is a sort of theological tract dressed up as a letter. This is “unnecessary” he says because of the lengthy exhortation in 4.1-6.20.

On better footing, but still not acceptable to O’Brien is Andrew Lincoln’s theory that Ephesians was sent as a homily to be sent to Asia Minor.

This suggestion is plausible, but it should not be based on the absence from Ephesians of specific issues or personal greetings. Furthermore, if Ephesians is regarded as a written sermon or homily, then what are we to make of Romans, Galatians, and several other Pauline letters, which were obviously read aloud like homily to a Christian audience?

This statement is one that I do not entirely understand. If it should not be based on the absence of specific issues, then what is it to be based upon? Upon what criteria does O’Brien reject this proposal? This question is pertinent because of his following statement about Romans, Galatians and other letters. These letters while to be read out loud, do refer to specific issues and personal greetings. O’Brien rejects Lincoln’s criteria and then argues that Ephesians as a homily cannot stand because like Ephesians, Romans and Galatians were also intended to be read out loud, two letters that do not fit the criteria Lincoln proposed. Such argumentation is unfair to Lincoln and his commentary.

O’Brien is rightly highly critical of the use of rhetorical criticism and its application to Paul’s letters. He writes quoting Stanley Porter:

After a careful evaluation of some nineteen rhetorical analyses of seven Pauline letters (including six on Galatians), produced by New Testament scholars between 1977 and 1995, Stanley Porter makes the following observations: first, the dissimilarity in the findings among the commentators results from differences in the analyses, both as to the genre of rhetoric and the arrangement of the rhetorical parts. Secondly, there is ‘a wide divergence in the categories’ used, including Aristotelian and a mix of Greek and Roman categories, which is not evidenced in the ancient rhetorical handbooks themselves. Thirdly, the amount and kind of Pauline material placed within each rhetorical category vary significantly. Fourthly, and most seriously, a consistent difficulty that surfaces in these analyses is ‘the relationship of [the] rhetorical and epistolary structures’. Porter points out, as he has done in earlier evaluations of this issue, that ‘the Pauline writings are first and foremost letters, no matter what other category of analysis [exists] into which they may fit’ (74; citing S. E. Porter, ‘Paul of Tarsus and His Letters’, in Handbook of Classical Rhetoric in the Hellenistic Period 330 B.C.A.D. 400, ed. S. E. Porter [Leiden: Brill, 1997], 533–85).

When it comes down to it, it is unlikely that Paul was trained in Greco-Roman rhetoric, especially since he was schooled in Jerusalem. The Corinthians were not impressed with his speaking abilities, considering “his speech of no account” (2 Co 10.10). The Corinthians also viewed him as untrained, which Paul himself acknowledged. “I may indeed be untrained as a speaker, but I do have knowledge. We have made this perfectly clear to you in every way” (2 Co 11.6). O’Brien also makes the observation that Paul’s speeches in Acts do not reflect the categories on Greco-Roman rhetoric, a point that damages the case of those who believe rhetorical criticism is the best way to interpret Paul’s letters.

Thirdly, rhetorical criticism fails to recognize that ancient writers do not use rhetorical categories in their own epistolary handbooks and nor do the rhetorical handbooks make any more than cursory references to the writing of letters. Indeed, those comments they do make are focused on the question of style, not rhetoric.

The fact is, the parallels between Paul’s letters and ancient rhetorical strategy has more to do with the fact that “argumentation is universal as well as particular” (78, citing J. T. Reed, ‘The Epistle’, 174 in Handbook of Classical Rhetoric).

Finally, O’Brien points out that those early church fathers, who were trained in rhetoric, did not interpret Paul in light of rhetorical theory.

But all of this is not O’Brien’s central problem with the application of rhetorical theory being applied to Paul’s letters. The greatest issue is that those who concentrate on the genre and arrangement of sections in Paul’s letter from a a rhetorical perspective “have no real theoretical basis for their enterprise” (79). And for the reasons stated above, “the notion that ‘this method better than any other holds the hermeneutical key that will unlock the true meaning of the apostles writings’ is seriously flawed” (80, citing J. A. D. Weima, ‘Rhetorical Criticism’, 468, in Handbook of Classical Rhetoric).

O’Brien’s Exposition and Exegesis of the Text:

Over all, O’Brien’s discussion of the text of Ephesians is one of the best available. O’Brien does not avoid challenges, but does not get bogged down in the details. O’Brien’s argumentation so convincing that he converted me to be a complementarian for several months during my study of Ephesians 5.18-24 last year (though it must be noted that in the end as I studied more I found his arguments wanting).

What is most impressive is that his discussion with those with whom he disagrees is always extremely irenic and fair. He represents Gilbert Bilezikian’s view of Ephesians 5.21 very well. The failure of O’Brien’s argument in this passage is that in delineating the meaning of υποτασσομαι (submit) he fails distinguish between sense and referent. The sense of the word is to place oneself under another for any number of reasons. Often times the referent of the word deals with placing oneself under a person of authority. But this is not always the case (Cf my post, “The semantic range of υποτασσω,” forthcoming). Thus he incorrectly writes, “[T]he term regularly functions to describe the submission of someone in an ordered array to another who was above the first, that is, in authority over that person (401). It would be more accurate to say that the term regularly functions to describe one person placing themselves under another where the reason and manner are only derived from the context, the concept of authority is not inherent in the word itself.

That the word inherently contains the concept of submission to an authority does not account for such usage as 1 Clement 38.1:

“So in our case let the whole body be saved in Christ Jesus, and let each man be subject (ὑποτασσέσθω) to his neighbor, to the degree determined by his spiritual gift,”

or for that matter, 2 Macc 13.23,

“[King Antiochus Eupator] got word that Philip, who had been left in charge of the government, had revolted in Antioch; he was dismayed, called in the Jews, yielded (ὑπετάγη) and swore to observe all their rights, settled with them and offered sacrifice, honored the sanctuary and showed generosity to the holy place.”

It can be hardly said that the Jews were in authority over Antiochus Eupator, the Seleucid king. Similarly in 1 Clement submission does not refer to and ordered structure of authority but simply where one defers to another regarding gifting. Submission becomes an act where one person defers to another depending on circumstances. In fact we see that the one who is supposedly in authority in 1 Clement actually ends up serving the one who submits. The following sentence states:

The strong must not neglect the weak, and the weak must respect the strong. Let the rich support the poor; and let the poor give thanks to God, because He has given him someone through whom his needs may be met. Let the wise display his wisdom not in words but in good works. The humble person should not testify to his own humility, but leave it to someone else to testify about him. Let the one who is physically pure remain so and not boast, recognizing that it is someone else who grants this self-control (1 Clement 38.2).

The strong are the authority on strength. The rich were always the ones who had authority of all sorts, but they submit to the poor by supporting them, and so forth.

So then, we see rather apparently that υποτάσσομαι is a much broader term than O’Brien is willing to admit.

With all this said, though I disagree with O’Brien on this point, this does not detract from the value of his commentary in any way. I say this because he works incredibly hard to be fair to those with whom he disagrees. This fact is seen through out the volume.

His exegesis is thoroughly stimulating and engaging throughout the volume. He is fair to those with whom he disagrees and rarely, if at all, gets bogged down by too many details. He also brings with him the experience of already writing on Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon. On top of that, O’Brien’s commentary of theologically refreshing in many ways. His ability to develop and expound Paul’s theology from this letter is top notch. In fact, if I were forced to choose only one commentary on Ephesians, this would be it.

7 thoughts on “Book Review: Peter O’Brien – Ephesians Part II

  1. Everything I’ve seen in Arnold looked very good. I haven’t read it cover to the cover the way I’ve read O’Brien, Hoehner, Lincoln, Barth and others, but I’ve see enough to be extremely impressed. Though I’m yet to see the “definitive” commentary on Ephesians, I would say that I prefer Arnold over O’Brien.

    My favorites would be: Snodgrass, Leifeld, Lincoln, Arnold, and O’Brien. If Leifeld wasn’t so short, it would easily be in the top spot.

  2. Hi,
    Thanks for your input, much appreciated. I love the layout of the ZECNT series. Have you checked the ZECNT for galations any thoughts there. Thanks in advance.

  3. Cf my post, “The semantic range of υποτασσω,” forthcoming. Did that post ever come? I’d be keen to read it as I’ve been having similar thoughts.

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