Book Review: Ephesians by Ernest Best Part I

Best, Ernest, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Ephesians. International Critical Commentary. Edinburgh, Scotland: T & T Clark Ltd., 1998. (Amazon Hardback) (Amazon Paperback)
Ephesians by Best

Ernest Best’s introduction is comprised of eleven sections, though not all of them contain the same level of detail. He spends 30 pages dealing with authorship while only taking one page (or two halves) to examine textual criticism. In addition, two of his sections, #4 A Pauline School and #5 Picture of Paul, could easily fit under the subject of authorship, increasing that discussion up to forty pages. The next two largest sections focus on the thought of the author and the letter’s purpose/occasion.

This first part of the review will be more negative than the second part, where I have plenty of positive things to say.


One interesting element of his discussion of the recipients is that the two options he sets up as answers are not distinctly different from each other:

…[they] were either (a) members in a group of Christian communities which we cannot identify but which probably lay in Asia Minor (cf 1 Peter) and may possibly have included the community at Ephesus, or (b) Christians in general, though probably those in a restricted area like Asia Minor.

Its hard to imagine a more vague distinction being made between two possibilities. Its either an unidentifiable group of churches probably in Asia minor or Christians in general, probably restricted to an area like Asia Minor.

Best doubts that AE [Author of Ephesians] actually knew the recipients, which fits well with his view that the letter is to Christians in general. Little at all can be known about their social situation or composition. They were likely baptized and have been believers long enough to accept the Old Testament as authoritative.


Best gives five possibilities regarding the authorship of Ephesians and Colossians:

  1. They both are written by Paul
  2. They are both written by the same person other than Paul
  3. Paul wrote Colossians only
  4. Paul wrote Ephesians only
  5. Both Ephesians and Colossians were written by separate unknown authors.

To end any potential suspense, Best concludes that option #5 is the most likely option given the evidence. So then, who is this author?

The author of Ephesians is a man. He is clearly a Jewish Christian, since he often uses first person plural pronouns when drawing a contrast between Jews and Gentiles (cf. Eph 2).

Most interesting is Best description of the author’s thinking and writing. He observes that the author is very comfortable in Greek. He style is full of complexity. “He rarely uses one word when two will do, often linking synonyms with ‘and’ or placing them in a genitival relationship” (8). He is educated, playing with words and their roots, relating words together. “There is an alliteration through π in 1.23, and through η in the endings of 4.9; κ sounds throughout 4.24, as in 4.28 and 5.23f.” (9).

Best considers AE’s ethical and moral teaching as straight forward (9). And while this might be the case to an extent, the moral teaching becomes much more complex in light of the deep theology embedded throughout. Ephesians 5.18-33 is heavily related to the arguments of chapter 2 and develops impresses Christology through the passage.

He also views the household codes to be inadequate since they only apply to completely Christian households when it seems highly unlikely that there would be more than a small number of such families. “It is hard to see Paul failing in this way” (9). This is a significant point. Unfortunately, Gordon Fee did not write his article on Ephesians 5 until the past year, which gives excellent explanation of why such a “failure” might have occurred. Fee argues that Colossians, Ephesians and Philemon should view understood together, that when Paul wrote the household code, it is likely that he had specifically Philemon’s household in mind.

Regarding the idea that a person wrote in Paul’s name, Best rejects the idea that since Ephesians is in the Canon and therefore inspired that its authorship is to be trusted by definition. This is a fait statement. Such an argument merely avoids historical inquiry. And yet, his comparison with Hebrews does not add up. Hebrews may have been understood historically to be written by Paul in the first centuries. And it may not have lost any respect when it was realized otherwise. But Hebrews is a completely anonymous letter/homily. By contrast, it already seems clear that Ephesians has lost respect. Best continually sets up the author of Ephesians against Paul and in general Paul wins as the better theologian and writer. He also view this unknown author rather negatively on other points:

“AE [fails] to understand the true nature of the households in his communities … His failure to understand correctly life around him is seen also in the way in which he describes the secular world” (2).

Such statement seem to suggest that Best’s respect for the author has lessened, contrary to his assertion.

Best also recognizes that he must deal with the question of his author’s truthfulness. Before directly answering the question, he points out that pseudonymous writings did exist in antiquity. But his final answer might not satisfy all readers and it certainly does not satisfy this reader.

“This question may be acute since AE stresses truthfulness (4.15, 25; 6.14). The need for truthfulness is absolute but the perception of what is truth varies from age to age and from culture to culture; it is wrong then to judge the first century by our standards of truth. Leaving aside the question of authorship it can quite easily be seen that deception is accepted as a proper activity in parts of the OT e.g. Gen 20.2; 27.1ff; Josh 2.1-7; 2 Kings 10.15-17. If these seem remote from our century we find the same approval of deception in Philo, Qu Gen 4.67, 206, and Origen, c. Cels 4.19. If then pseudonymous writing is acceptable to contemporary Jews and AE was a Jew, and if it was also acceptably to second century Christians, are we to expecc a different standard of truth from the authors of the first century whose writing have been accepted into the canon? We cannot expect a standard of honesty from NT writers other than what was normal in their Jewish Christian culture (12).

This argument sounds convincing enough on it own. But none of the Old Testament passages even remotely fit the argument. Genesis 20 and 27 in no way suggest that there is approval of the deceit being described. The narrative acknowledges its existence. But if we continues on, we see that the King in chapter 20 is angered by Abraham’s lie. Jacob in Genesis 27 gets his dose of deceit back at him when he meets his father in law later on. There is no approval. He gets a taste of his own medicine on his wedding night.

Regarding Joshua 2, the story of Rahab, this example does not help Best’s case either for two reasons. First, the only approval show to Rahab deceiving of the soldiers is given by them men she is protecting. I highly doubt that the soldiers she lied to appreciated it. Secondly, it does not follow that this sort of approval is limited only the ancient culture. For example, Corrie Ten Boom and her family lying to the Germans to protect the Jews they were hiding is viewed with approval by us today (and again, the Germans, like Rahab’s soldiers would not have appreciated it). Thus, Rahab is an exception based specific circumstances, not the normal pattern.

Regarding Philo and Origen, Best cites his sources selectively, failing to acknowledge that,

No one [in the ancient world] ever seems to have accepted a document as religiously and philosophically prescriptive which was known to be forged. I do not know a single example…. [There are] innumerable examples of the opposite. Both Greeks and Romans show great concern to maintain the authenticity of their collections of writings from the past, but the sheer number of the pseudepigrapha made the task difficult.
L. R. Donelson, Pseudepigraphy and Ethical Argument in the Pastoral Epistles (Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr [Paul Siebeck], 1986), 11.

There is no mention of the fact that the pseudopigraphic Letter to the Laodiceans was rejected by the church in spite of the fact that it was doctrinally pure.

Also, Eusebius, in his Church History, describes Serapion the Bishop of Antioch and deserves to be quoted at length.

1 It is probable that others have preserved other memorials of Serapion’s literary industry, but there have reached us only those addressed to a certain Domninus, who, in the time of persecution, fell away from faith in Christ to the Jewish will-worship; and those addressed to Pontius and Caricus, ecclesiastical men, and other letters to different persons, and still another work composed by him on the so-called Gospel of Peter.
2 He wrote this last to refute the falsehoods which that Gospel contained, on account of some in the parish of Rhossus who had been led astray by it into heterodox notions. It may be well to give some brief extracts from his work, showing his opinion of the book. He writes as follows:
3 “For we, brethren, receive both Peter and the other apostles as Christ; but we reject intelligently the writings falsely ascribed to them, knowing that such were not handed down to us.
Philip Schaff, The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Second Series Vol. I (Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, 1997), 257.

I think it would be most interesting to hear Best interact with this quote at some point.

Regarding external evidence for authenticity, I refer the reader to Harold Hoehner’s discussion of the apostolic fathers and Ephesians.

When Best moves to a discussion of the relationship of Ephesians and Colossians there is an interesting shift in his argumentation. We find him arguing less against those who accept Pauline authorship and more against those who agree with him. Best considers the relationship between Colossians and Ephesians to be too complex to simply assume as so many have that the author of Ephesians simply borrowed from Colossians. There are simply too many times where it could go the other way. And in these cases, the evidence is simply ignored (22).

This section of our investigation . . . 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 (25).

Conclusions such as this and other statements that follow to a degree cause me to wonder if Best is more unsure of his argument against Pauline authorship than he would like to admit. He writes:

It is fairly easy to see that AE is aware of and accepts major Pauline ideas not found in Colossians nor common in the non Pauline parts of the NT (25).

Best acknowledges that AE knew Romans, including Romans 1’s description of fallen man. This is interesting with regards to his statement so much earlier that AE did not understand his culture around him (see above and on page 2) because in both cases, he references Ephesians 4.17-19. Does Best consider Paul to not understand the culture surrounding him on the basis of Romans 1? Once again, I am very interested in how Best would respond.

It is also very interesting that Best accept Philemon as being written by Paul (2) while rejecting Pauline authorship of Colossians. He believes that both originated from a Pauline school (36-40).

One interesting element of Best’s commentary which I do not understand is that his discussion of certain specific Greek words is not found under Vocabulary, Syntax and Style but under Thought. Regardless of that fact, Best observes that Ephesians and Colossians use the word αποκαταλλάσσω while Paul’s other letters simply use καταλλάσσω. And in fact the former word is used in Ephesians and Colossians differently ways.

My problem is with what it means for a word to be used differently. This is because the word αποκαταλλάσσω has the same meaning in both letters. The difference is that in Ephesians 2.16 and Colossians 1.20 the words have a different referent. But this is far from unusual for anybody. Word in no way require the same referent every time they are used, even by the same person. And in Colossians 1.22, the referent is similar enough to Ephesians 2.16 to be considered the same. Thus Paul usage of these two words has less to do with authorship questions and more to do with language in general,

Best also does not seem to be aware of the recent studies of the past decade applying Corpus Linguistics to the New Testament. Matthew Brooks O’Donnell has shown (and I’ve written about this particular study HERE) that basing authorship arguments on the rarest of words in a given letter is linguistically and statistically illegitimate, especially when the corpus of Pauline letters is so very small to begin with (and Best makes it smaller still with his rejection of other letters such as Colossians).

Best concludes saying that the arguments against Pauline authorship are more like an axe against a tree, slowing weakening the trunk, than a chain link fence. But for the reasons stated above, it seems to me that while he might have found a better metaphor, his axe appears to be rather dull.

The More Positive Part II – Introduction and Exegesis ==>

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