Book Review: Ernest Best – Ephesians (ICC) Part II

Best, Ernest, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Ephesians. International Critical Commentary. Edinburgh, Scotland: T & T Clark Ltd., 1998. (Amazon Hardback) (Amazon Paperback)
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(Part I Can be found by Clicking HERE)

One element of Best’s introduction that I find to be helpful is that in his introduction, he develops his thoughts in two directions. He seems to always provide an explanation for issues like date, recipients, or place of writing for both those who reject Pauline authorship, like himself, and those who accept it. This makes much of his introduction much more useful for those who disagree with him than otherwise. It also suggests to me that he is a careful scholar who holds views about a given book, not dogmatically, but in an open palm, open to revision when the nature of the view is somewhat speculation. There is much to say for such a perspective. And it is one that we all ought to strive for. And for this reason, though I disagree with him on the question of authorship, I have much respect for him.

Where and When Written:

On the whole of things, Best considers the fact that Ephesians emphasizes the universal church over against the local congregation good evidence that the letter was probably written between 80-90 CE. This is made on the assumption that Paul is not the author (45).

But what about the implied author created by the author of Ephesians? This question, for Best, functions in two ways. One the one hand it is merely a discussion of what AE seeks to convey by his work. But on the other hand, this gives Best’s readers who disagree with him on the authorship question a chance to see his thoughts about where Ephesians is written if Paul did write the letter (45).

This involves one main element: Paul is depicted as a prisoner in Ephesians. The question then becomes a matter of which imprisonment is referred to in Ephesians. The book of Acts refers to several. The one at Philippi is unlike because it was quite short. The only two that are of a probably length to give Paul an opportunity to write a letter or two took place at Caesarea and Rome. But in spite of that, based on the close association of Colossians and Philemon, a significant amount of personal information can be extracted. Best considers an escaped slave such as Philemon to have more likely gone to the dense city of Rome to find anonymity. For these reasons, Best rightly views Rome as a more likely, but not completely definite, location for the letter (if Paul is the author). This location would place the date around the early 60’s CE (46).

The Thought of Ephesians:

This section of Best’s commentary is quite helpful because, in a way, it functions as a miniature commentary on the letter. Best deals with the theological themes that he view AE as bringing to the table. He seeks to expound the theology and thought of the letter apart from the Pauline corpus. While Best does this for what many would consider the flawed view that Paul did not write the letter, in general, it is also very helpful for everyone to see the unique contribution that Ephesians makes to the New Testament as a whole.

To begin, there is a cosmic setting to the whole letter that goes from the very foundation of the world in verse 1.4 to its consummation in 1.10. The focus of this cosmic setting is on salvation history, the “plan of redemption which is now being revealed through Christ” (47). Because of the way AE relates Christ and the church throughout the letter (particularly 2, 4, 5), Best views the Christology of Ephesians to have an ecclesiastical “thrust” in a way that sets itself apart from the Christology of the main Pauline letters (51).

Best views AE’s soteriology to be completely in line with that of Paul, but he draws a distinction between the two. While Ephesians 2.8-10 is an excellent description of the Pauline message of salvation, several facts set AE’s soteriology apart from that of Paul. For one, Best argues that AE places much more emphasis on the church in terms of the corporate elements of salvation. “While for Paul salvation is corporate in that believers become members of the church, he never actually says, as AE does, that God redeems the church as a whole (5.25)” (52).

A second point Best makes in showing the distinction between Paul’s soteriology and AE’s. is that in Ephesians 2.8 where we see this concise description of salvation by faith. Paul almost always describes salvation as either a future or progressive act, according to Best. The only time he does not, in Romans 8.24, he adds multiple qualifies so that his thought is correctly understood. In contrast, by using the perfect tense in 2.8, AE views salvation as a past act (52).

This argument would have been more convincing before 1989, which is when Stanley Porter published his book on the Greek verbal system, Verbal Aspect, but since then exegetes speak with much less confidence regarding whether time is expressed morphologically in the verb. Based on the author index and his citations, it is clear that Best has read Stanley Porter’s work, though at no point does he make any statement about whether it should be accepted or rejected. In fact, rather strangely on page 433, Best writes,

The infinitive, imperative and subjunctive of the aorist do not carry the same implications in regard to time as the indicative and the participle.

And yet, in the footnote connected to this statement, Best goes on to cite the grammarians Burton, Robertson, BDR, Stagg, McKay, Fanning, and Porter, as references for reading on the aorist, none of which receive a “contra” or “but cf.” This is odd because at least two of these referenced grammarians do not think time is expressed in either the indicative or the participle, namely McKay and Porter, while at least two others, Robertson and Fanning, believe that time is only relative to the context for the participle (and thus is also not expressed morphologically in the verb itself).

For this reason, it seems that Best overstates his case in appealing to the tense of the verb to draw a distinction between Paul’s thought and that of Ephesians.

Literary Character:

On this topic, Best rightly rejects the various suggestions of Ephesians being some sort of theological tractate, liturgy, speech, or a meditation of some sort. Best believes that Ephesians is best classified as a homily that was later transformed into a letter (61). The second part of his conclusion is based on the fact that he rejects Pauline authorship. If Pauline authorship is accepted, then it could very well be that Ephesians is a homily sent out as a letter to the general area of Asia Minor surrounding Ephesus. This is actually something that Best points out (though without the reference to Pauline authorhsip):

It should be remembered that NT letters, with the possible exception of Philemon, were never intended for private reading; they would be read aloud at gatherings for worship and so the characteristics of ‘letter’ would be forgotten, especially if, as in the case of Ephesians, these characteristics were not emphasized (62).

Purpose and Occasion:

Best surveys dozens of the proposed suggestions for the reason of Ephesians’ writing, but none of them can stand on their own two feet. Despite of the variety among them, every proposal brought forward fails for the same reason: they all focus too narrowly on a single element of the letter at the exclusion of the rest.

To establish the purpose of the letter it must be looked at as a whole and minor interests and sections must not be elevated to a primary position (74).

Best correctly recognizes that the purpose of the letter must be found in the concept of unity.

[T]he first half sets out teaching on the unity of the church and its relation to Christ; the second half instructs believers how they are to live with one another within their Christian communities (74).

For Best, this unity functions in relationship to a large in pouring of new believers from the pagan world. Ephesians functions to introduce them to this new group of which they have now become a part. These new believers had a need to understand the nature (i.e. Ephesians 1-3) and conduct (Ephesians 4-6) required of them as new believers in Christ (75).

This proposal for the occasion and purpose of Ephesians is very likely regardless of whether Pauline authorship is accepted or not. It does well to create a possible historical background to the letter that fits well with the content of the letter. This view of a homily/letter written to new believers fits well with the exalted tone of chapter 1, the exhortation and theology described in chapter two, Paul’s prayers for them and expansion of the necessity of salvation and thus also missionary activity in three, the need to moral living and turning from sin in chapter 4-5, and the exhortation chapter six.

The Text of Ephesians:

Best concludes the introduction with a very short discussion of the text of Ephesians. This consists of informing the reader that the base text is the NA27/USB4. And the majority of variants discussed are those of the NA27. According to Best, rarely do any of the variation units affect the meaning of the letter, whether in part or whole. The greatest number of variant readings are in the unicials D, F, and G (94).

One thing that would have been quite helpful would have been a more lengthy discussion of the text, unique readings, the reliability or relationships between manuscripts in Ephesians, but this is a small quibble. Best’s textual commentary within the commentary proper are generally excellent and valuable, see for example page 216 on 2.5 or also page 337 on 3.15. Especially on 2.5 does Best do an excellent job showing the interaction between the exegetical task and the text critical task.

Exegesis and Commentary:

Quite early on in a reading of the commentary proper, one quickly grasps at the impressive breath of knowledge Best has of this letter and of its surrounding context both in the Pauline corpus and within the first century setting. For example Best rightly recognizes that a Dionysian background for Ephesians 5.18-19 is more likely than most scholars are willing to concede (such as O’Brien and Hoehner). Where some reject such a background because there is no evidence of Christians struggling with such a cult in any of the other discussions of Ephesus, Best argues correctly that it is not a matter of the church struggling with the issue but with former unbelievers who have recently come out of such a cult. One interesting element of his discussion of this background is that he does not think it is necessary for the introduction of the topic of drunkenness itself. Rather, Best sees this Dionysian background as parallel with the combination of both drunkenness and the spirit.

Whether AE knew this account of Pentecost or not, drink is sometimes associated with spiritual exaltation so that those who desire the latter turn to the former to produce it (the Bacchantes attained ecstasy through wine (509).

The Bacchantes were those who danced, drank and followed Bacchus, which is another name for Dionysus.

It also must be noted that Carson believes Best to often sets AE over against Paul too often (New Testament Commentary Survey, page 93). Specifically he refers to Best’s discussion of the Household Code at 5.22-6.9. Carson is correct on this point. Best writes,

AE’s approach to family relationships is thus both limited and simplistic, for has avoided most of the serious problems that would arise within households. It is thus pastorally unrealistic. Would Paul have ever gone about it in this way? By limiting himself to Christian households AE has failed to address many, perhaps the majority of his readers in respect of their conduct toward their kinsfolk (526).

This argument is simply not true if the author is simply attempting to address specifically Christian relationships. Surely there were Christian marriages, even if the whole household was not Christian. And there were likely master/slave relationships where both the master and the slaver were believer as well. If this is how we view Paul casting his net in dealing with these relationships, then there is very little problem with the section. Even taken as a whole, it is likely, especially in the larger cities such as Ephesians, that there were a few completely Christian households, who could benefit from the instruction.

And contrary to Carson, it seems that this passage (along with one or two others) is actually an exception, not the rule. More often than not, when Best directly makes a distinction between AE and Paul, he will also give an alternative explanation following the more traditional view of Pauline authorship as he did in the introduction.

Conclusion:

While there are some serious disagreements that many will have with Best on the question of authorship, Ernest Best provides an excellent introduction and commentary on Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. His introduction provides an excellent survey examining the thought and theology of the letter. His exegesis is thoughtful and thorough and his textual decisions provide ample explanation of the issues involved in the variation units. This is a commentary that is well worth reading, though as with all ICC volumes rather over priced for most students of scripture.

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