Critical students of the New Testament are not in agreement concerning the Epistle upon the study of which we now enter. Their difference is not concerning its right to a place in the sacred Scriptures, nor concerning its authorship, but whether it was addressed by Paul to the church at Ephesus, or to some other church.
The reasons which have suggested a doubt are briefly as follows: One of the three most ancient and trusted manuscripts, the Vatican, omits at Ephesus in the first verse ; the heretic Marcion, in the third century, ascribes it to the Laodiceans; Basil, in the fourth century, speaks of the absence of the words at Ephesus in the manuscript; in chapter 1:15 , Paul speaks as if his knowledge of the Ephesians had been gained by report rather than by personal acquaintance; and in Col. 4:16 , Paul speaks of an Epistle to the Laodiceans, which has been lost unless this be the Epistle of which he speaks. These facts had such weight with the authors of Conybeare and Howson's Life of Paul that they affirm the "one thing certain to be that the Epistle was not directed to the Ephesians."
On the other hand, in the Vatican, as well as in all other most valued manuscripts, the heading is The Epistle of Paul to the Ephesians; in the Vatican the words at Ephesus, wanting in verse 1 in the body of the manuscript, are supplied in the margin; no manuscript is in existence which supplies these words by any other name; in the second century, at a time when there could have been no doubt about the facts, it is spoken of by the Fathers as "The Epistle to the Ephesians," as though the matter was not under discussion; the remark of Paul in 1:15 , about hearing of their faith, has an exact parallel in Philemon 5 , and yet Philemon was his own convert ( verse 19 ), and is entirely natural when we remember that several years had passed since he had last seen them; the absence of at Ephesus in a few manuscripts of the fourth century, and in the Vatican, as well as all other difficulties, can be explained without the necessity of denying that the Epistle was addressed to the Ephesians. Hence the great majority of critics have agreed in following the authority of existing manuscripts and of the ancient church in the statement that the Epistle was addressed to the great congregation founded by its writer in the capital of proconsular Asia, which had enjoyed his apostolic labors for a longer period than any other of which a record has come down to us.
The city of Ephesus, a Grecian city on the Asiatic coast almost exactly east of Athens, was a great commercial metropolis in the first century, and the capital of the Roman province which was called by the name of Asia. Its greatest distinction hitherto had been, not its commercial pre-eminence, but the splendid temple of Diana, which was counted one of the Seven Wonders of the world. The city lay upon the edge of a plain, which extended to the sea, and in its artificial harbor were seen the ships from all the ports of the eastern Mediterranean. In our times, half-buried ruins are the only relics of its former greatness. The only inhabitants I saw upon the site in 1889 were the occupants of two black tents, who were pasturing their flocks upon the alluvial plain. We can still, however, see the proofs of its former magnificence in the outlines of the great theater ( Acts 19:29 ), and in the ruins of the temple of Diana ( Acts 19:27 ). The modern Turkish village of Agasalouk, a wretched hamlet, is nearly two miles distant from the site of the Ephesus of the times of Paul.
The Ephesian church was virtually founded by Paul. About the close of his second missionary journey ( Acts 18:19-21 ) he paused at Ephesus on his way to Jerusalem and preached in the Jewish synagogue. Leaving Priscilla and Aquila to follow up the impression which he had made, he went on, but returned on his third missionary journey ( Acts 19:1 ), at which time he spent about three years ( Acts 20:31 ), preaching the gospel with a success which threatened to effect an entire revolution in the city and province ( Acts 19:17-20 ), and finally stirred up the avaricious fears of certain trades which profited by the old superstitions to such an extent that a commotion was aroused which caused him to leave the city. Since that date he had not seen Ephesus, though he had met the elders of the church at Miletus when on his way to Jerusalem ( Acts 20:17 ).
It is not possible to determine the date of this Epistle with exactness. It was written at a time when Paul was a prisoner ( 6:20 ), and hence must have been written either at Cæsarea or at Rome. Meyer inclines to the first place, but the general consensus of opinion is that it belongs to the group of the Epistles which were sent forth from his Roman prison. Tychicus was the messenger to whom, on the same journey, were entrusted both this ( 6:21 ) and the Epistle to Colosse ( Col. 4:7 ).
It was probably written to meet certain difficulties which were arising in the church. It was asked why the imperfections of Judaism and the errors of the Gentile religions existed so many ages before the Gospel was revealed? Was the Gospel an afterthought of God? Probably the leading thought is that, "The church of Jesus Christ, in which Jew and Gentile are made one, is a creation of the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit, decreed from eternity, and destined for eternity." In chapters 1-3 , he shows the church was foreordained of God, that it had been redeemed, and that Jew and Gentile have been made one in Christ. In chapters 4-6 , the Apostle enters upon a practical application, enforcing unity, love, newness of life, walking in the strength of the Lord, and the armor of God.