We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Reading Ephesians 1:1-2

It is the challenge, joy, and headache of our times that when it comes to the Christian faith everything is pretty much up for grabs.  Nothing can be taken for granted.  Things are often not what they seem to be.  Take, for example,  the first word in the first two verses of Ephesians (Eph. 1:1-2).  These two verses purport to be the opening salutation of the Apostle Paul to the Christians at Ephesus and read::
(1) Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, To the saints who are in Ephesus and are faithful in Christ Jesus: (2) Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
There is a problem with the first word of the text, "Paul".  Mainstream biblical scholars seem to generally agree that the actual Paul didn't write this letter—for reasons of both content and linguistic usages.  The best guess is that a colleague or disciple of Paul wrote this letter and that it was probably written after his death, sometime later in the first  century.  The actual author probably signed it with Paul's name so that it would be more widely read and accepted as having the authority of Paul, which is to say the Book of Ephesians is a forgery.  Forgeries are not uncommon in the New Testament, and in the past we have glibly claimed that it was common in ancient times for authors to attribute their writings to famous individuals so they would carry more weight.  There's been some more recent scholarship, however, that contends that this sort of thing was no more acceptable in ancient times than it is now.  The ancients knew what constituted a forgery and rejected the practice just as we do today.

So, if Paul didn't write these words and they are a forgery that apparently fooled the ancient church, do they carry any weight for Christians today?  My sense is that our best answer is, "yes," in spite of the admitted serious flaw of their being forged.  It is impossible to believe that every letter Paul ever wrote is now in the New Testament.  The early church found some to be of more value than others, enough so that these valued letters circulated more widely in the Christian movement than Paul had originally intended.  The measure of a letter's value was not just that Paul wrote it but, rather, that it had an intrinsic value in and of itself.  Ephesians was one such "letter".  This letter to the Ephesians thus is of value in its own right in spite of the fact that it is not Pauline, and the fact of the matter is that we can't be 100% sure it didn't come from Paul anyway.  We can think of circumstances in which the author believed himself to be conveying Paul's thoughts directly even though he was not using Paul's words.  Admittedly, it probably didn't happen that way, but as long as the authorship is uncertain we should not totally rule out a legitimate connection to Paul that would place the letter in a category other than being a forgery.

The point is that the early church valued this letter for its contents, which means that we can give it the benefit of the doubt.  It is in the scriptures, and we can treat it as scripture.  For those of us who are not biblical literalists, furthermore, the uncertain origins of Ephesians serves to remind us that the Bible too participates in the flawed reality of life.  The Spirit works through its flaws just as it does in other arenas of life.  The Book of Ephesians, thus, can have serious spiritual value for us today just as it did in ancient times.  Amen.