a little deeper: “at Ephesus”

Last night we broke in. But we didn’t get arrested. In the 2000 years that have passed since Paul’s writing (and imprisonment) Christians (specifically American Christians) have a lot more freedom in regards to breaking in to the Bible and breaking out the Good News of Jesus. I recognize that a lot has changed in America since its founding and even since the 1950s, but I am still grateful that we can hold publicly announced meetings like last night and the people attending don’t have to fear being arrested. (By the way, it was our first “South Shores Remix” and it went great… thank you for those who prayed and thank you for those who came and served).

Now, last night’s study had a lot going on… Paul was dense, and so was I. Though I don’t tend to get many (any) follow-up questions after I teach, I do like to imagine that I do. One of the questions I imagined from this study is: “Derick, in my Bible it calls the book “Ephesians” and it says “at Ephesus,” so why do you think it wasn’t meant for just that church?”

That’s a great (albeit, a little contrived) question… so let’s take it a little deeper:

First, a word about manuscripts… since there was no Xerox for the majority of the history of the Church, the copying of Biblical books and letters has been done by hand. Great pain-staking detail was given to this task, but inevitably, over time, human error would creep into some copies. This could be by accident (ever copied something down only to find that you wrote the word “the” twice?) or by intention (ever copy something down that seemed odd and try to make it sound a little “better?”). The wonderful thing is that there is a wealth of manuscript (handwritten copy) evidence for the entire New Testament. Not only are there many, many copies available to cross check, but we can even track these copies through different locations and theological traditions, and even into other languages. This gives our modern scholars a wealth of evidence to make sure that what we have is the actual thing. When they bring the differing manuscripts together they give extra points to the one that is older, the one that is harder (people like to make changes to make things easier, not more difficult), the one that is shorter (people like to add), and the one that better explains how the other one came from it (and not the other way around)… (there are other factors too, but I’m working off what I remember from my Intro to Exegesis class which I took pre-baby… so I’m keeping it simple). And just in case new evidence arises, or scholars aren’t settled on the issue, the editors of your English Bible put little foot notes, or margin tags that note whether certain words are disputed or not and why.

One of the early manuscripts... a papyri known as P46. Pictured here is Romans 16.

“at Ephesus” contains the note: “Three early mss (manuscripts) do not contain at Ephesus”

What does that mean? Well, there are certain older manuscripts that tend to win most wording battles… and these ones don’t say those words. But that is not the only problem…

The letter itself does not have some of the similar hallmarks of other Pauline letters. It is not very personal and it does not speak to any specific situations going on in the church of Ephesus that need to be addressed.  (In 1 Corinthians we see him addressing theological division in the church (calls them “infanfts” – ouch), in Romans he greets many specific people, and just read Phillipians 4 to see some warm love and personal interaction).

One potential solution (that I tend to agree with) is that Ephesians was a circular letter. This doesn’t mean that the shape of the letter was round (since that would hardly solve our problem), but rather that it was intended for many churches in Roman Asia Minor. But, do we have any evidence of letter sharing? Of course:

“After this letter has been read to you, see that it is also read in the church of the Laodiceans and that you in turn read the letter from Laodicea.” Colossians 4:16

There are some scholars (but not the majority by any means) that think this could be that letter, since an old heretic (Marcion) of the early church quotes from Ephesians, but refers to it as the letter from Laodicea… (personally, I tend not to trust heretics much further than I can throw them – and I’m not very strong). And so the sharing of letters between churches is documented, but Colossians was still first sent to the church in Colossae and the manuscripts testify to this, why not Ephesus? Or better yet, why “at Ephesus” in the majority of manuscripts, but not the early ones?

Well, if it was intended as a circular letter it is possible that it was attached to Ephesus as the primary recipient because it was the chief city of the area. And possibly Ephesus became the primary city to go about distributing copies of Paul’s incredible letter.

So, who cares? What does it matter if this is a more general letter or a specific one to a certain city. Well, when studying the letters of the New Testament (epistles) you need to study the location and the events going on in order to help you understand the nuances of what Paul is saying to them. In Ephesians we do not need to do this quite so much. Everything Paul is saying to them (in a first century lens) is very easily applied and understood by us as well. So, in the midst of all this manuscript stuff and circular letter business is the hope that you can sit down, read through this short letter and successfully begin to know God better, Christ better, the Church better and therefore how you must live. It is a good letter, and it is intended for us as well.

Read it this week… all the way through in one sitting (six chapters, 15-20 minutes).

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