Colossians and Ephesians are very similar to each other in many ways, but both are significantly different from the earlier "undisputed" letters of Paul; yet biblical scholars disagree as to how these differences can best be explained.
Some scholars say the differences are the result of shifts in Paul's thinking as he got older; thus, both letters must have been written late in Paul's life, just before his death (see Col 4:3-4, 10, 18; Eph 3:1; 4:1).
Other scholars say the differences are better explained by considering the letters to be pseudepigraphic; some of his followers wrote after his death to carry on his teachings, applying and adapting them to changing circumstances.
The authorship of Colossians is disputed about 50/50 (half of all scholars think it is authentic; the other half think it is pseudepigraphic); on the other hand, Ephesians is almost certainly pseudepigraphic (80/20 divide among scholars).
When and from where were these letters written?
If they are authentic: in the early 60's, from Caesarea or Rome, while Paul was imprisoned (Phase IV of Paul's life)
If they are pseudepigraphic: in the 80's or 90's, probably from Asia Minor (maybe from Ephesus itself?)
In either case, the author(s) know(s) some people in these churches, and they know several of the authors' associates, indicating lots of travel back and forth between the various Pauline communities in Asia Minor.
Ephesians was almost certainly written later than Colossians, and is literarily dependent upon it.
It is placed earlier in the NT in most Bibles today simply because it is longer (Eph has 6 chapters; Col only 4 chapters).
In some early manuscripts of the NT, however, Ephesians is first in the group of Paul's letters, thus functioning like a "cover letter" or introduction to the Pauline corpus.
Historical and Geographical Context
City in Asia Minor, about 120 miles east of Ephesus (a major Pauline center; although not mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles)
Location of a gentile Christian church, founded by Paul's associate Epaphras (see Col 1:7-8)
Paul himself has never been in Colossae; so most of the believers have not met him yet! (see 2:1; 4:12-13)
Other Pauline associates send greetings in Col 4:7-17 (implying that the Colossians know them): Tychicus, Onesimus, Aristarchus, Mark (cousin of Barnabas), Jesus a.k.a. Justus, Epaphras, Luke (beloved physician) and Demas.
The author also sends greetings to "brothers in Laodicea" (a sister church in a neighboring town) and "to Nympha and the church in her house" (4:15-16)
Largest city and political capital of Asia Minor; location of a large temple dedicated to the Greek goddess Artemis.
Paul and his associates spend several years in Ephesus (see Acts 18:19-21; 19:1-40; 20:16-38; 1 Cor 15:32; 16:8-9).
Other early Christian preachers also passed through Ephesus, such as Priscilla and Aquila (Acts 18:18-26) and Apollos (Acts 18:24-26)
The Church in Ephesus continued to grow and became a major center of Pauline Christianity after Paul's own death (cf. 1 Tim 1:3; 2 Tim 1:18; 4:12; cf. Rev. 1:11; 2:1-7)
Note: The words "in Ephesus" are missing from Eph 1:1 in many early biblical manuscripts.
Originally, verse one probably just read, "To the saints who are faithful in Christ Jesus"
This again indicates that Eph may have been composed as a summary or an introduction to Pauline thought.
Outlines of the Letters to the Colossians and to the Ephesians:
Letter Opening (1:1-8)
Sender & Recipients (1:1-2a)
Formulaic Greeting (1:2b)
Thanksgiving: Faith, hope, love of the community (1:3-8)
Letter Body (1:9—4:6)
Prayer for the well-being of the community (1:9-14)
The exalted Christ as source of our heavenly salvation (1:152:23)
Hymn to Christ as image of God and Savior (1:15-20)
many local churches, each forms the “body of Christ”
(Rom 12:4-5; 1 Cor 12:12-27)
one world-wide body, with Christ as head of the body (Col 1:18, 24; Eph 1:22-23; 3:8-10; 5:23-32)
(on Sin & Forgiveness)
freedom from sin (sing.) (Rom 5:1-21; 6:1-23; 8:1-4; Gal 5:1, 13)
forgiveness of sins (pl.) through Christ
(Col 1:14; 2:13; 3:13; Eph 1:7; 2:1-3)
(on the End Times) & Soteriology:
temporal focus, “imminent” expectation:
Christ will return soon,
we will be raised on the day of the Lord (1 Cor 4:5; 15:20-24; 1 Thess 4:13-18; 5:1-6)
spatial focus, “realized” interpretation:
Christ now reigns above,
we share resurrection life already now
(Col 1:11-14; 2:12-13; 3:1-3; Eph 1:20; 2:4-6)
Opponents of the Author and Teachings Opposed in Colossians:
No identifiable opposing teachers or groups are named; so the "opponents" of the author remain somewhat generic.
They are not just "Judaizers" (Jewish-Christians who required circumcision of Gentile converts), as in Paul's earlier letters.
Author opposes requiring Christians to follow various spiritual teachings and ritual practices
Strange teachings: "See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ." (2:8)
Religious asceticism and rituals (see 2:16-18)
Purpose of Colossians: to emphasize that Christ is enough; we don't need anyone else.
Some people apparently said Christ was not enough for salvation; Jesus did not free us from cosmic powers or give us wisdom and access to God.
The author of Colossians asserts that Jesus has done this! Christ is all we need!
Literary and Theological Highlights of Colossians:
Christological Hymn (1:15-20):
Probably a pre-Pauline early Christian "hymn" that was used in liturgical worship
Evidences "High Christology": stresses Jesus' full divinity (similar to Phil 1:6-10 and John 1:1-3)
Salvation of the Gentiles, through the Gospel preached by Paul
Remain faithful to the tradition you received through the gospel (1:21-23)
Significance of Paul's Sufferings:
"I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church." (1:24)
Does not imply that Jesus crucifixion was inadequate, or that Paul needed to do more.
Believers must truly live "in Christ," with "Christ in you"
3:1-4: Intro: new life in Christ
3:5-11: vice list (actions to avoid)
3:12-17: virtue list (not just moral actions, but full religious life)
Ephesians is longer and better organized, but somewhat more generic than Colossians.
No specific opponents or false teachings are identifiable in Eph, in contrast to the greater detail of Col.
Theological ideas are more developed and language is even more "Christianized" in Eph than in Col.
Colossians is more personal and specific (thus possibly authentically by Paul); while Ephesians is much more formal and generic (thus more likely pseudepigraphic)
There are no greetings to individuals in the community at the end of Eph 6; this is very surprising, since Paul lived in Ephesus for over 3 years!
Several Pauline associates (Tychicus, Onesimus, Aristarchus, Mark, Jesus/Justus, Epaphras) are mentioned at the end of Colossians (4:7-9), but only one, Tychicus, is mentioned as Paul's envoy in Eph 6:21-22.
Similarities between Eph and Col (whereas both are different from Paul's earlier letters; see the table above)
Christology: Focus is on the divine, exalted, cosmic Christ
Soteriology: God's mysterious plan, now revealed, is to save the whole world
Ecclesiology: Church is one worldwide entity; Christ is the head of the body/church
Eschatology: Christ is already now seated at God's right hand (spatial)
Household Codes: Focus on community relations; longer and more "Christianized" in Eph
Result/Implication: Most scholars think Colossians was the literary "source" and Ephesians was a later "expansion"; consider the following similarities in the themes and structures of both letters.
Intercession for the readers
Riches of glorious inheritance
You he made alive
Aliens brought near
Abolishing the commandments
Paul, the prisoner
Divine mystery made known to Paul
Paul, minister of the universal gospel
Paul to make known the mystery to all
Lead a life worthy of your calling
With all lowliness, meekness, patience forebearing one another
Christ unites members of the Church
Put off old nature and put on new nature
No immorality among you
Walk wisely and make the most of time
Sing songs, hymns, and spiritual songs, giving thanks to God