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Friday, 11 January 2013

Paul's Epistle to the Laodiceans

"Turn with me in your Bibles this morning to the Epistle To The Laodiceans," says the preacher one Sunday.

Would you do it?

Well, first of all, you'd probably say that there IS no Epistle to the Laodiceans. Well hang on, if you've read Paul's Epistle to the Colossians, you should already know about it:
And when this epistle is read among you, cause that it be read also in the church of the Laodiceans; and that ye likewise read the epistle from Laodicea.--Col. 4:16
So there's no question that Paul wrote an epistle to Laodicea. Nor that he expected to to be read widely. So what happened to it?

Here's what Jerome wrote of what passed for that epistle in his day (4th century):
"Some read the Epistle to the Laodiceans, but it is rejected by everyone."
He was referring to a pastiche of Pauline content found to this day in some copies of Jerome's Vulgate. And truly, not a single patristic writer identifies it as a unique Pauline composition.
But what if there really was an Epistle to the Laodiceans, that got somehow misplaced, and the pastiche was only a lame attempt to provide what the author thought to be missing? What if another epistle was, in turn, re-labeled in a lame attempt to provide what someone else thought was missing?

Well, I propose exactly that. The Epistle to the Laodiceans is still in your Bible, just a few pages before Colossians. It's what has been known since at least the second century as the Epistle to the Ephesians.

Although I recently came to this conclusion independently just from studying the extant texts of Ephesians and Colossians, it turns out that this subject was hashed out rather thoroughly over a century ago--so, rather than rehash it here I provide links to two authors who wrote deeply on the subject:

F. Hugh Pope wrote in favour of the theory.

William Burgon wrote in opposition to the theory.

It goes much farther back than this, of course. Like virtually every textual debate currently raging, there can be some evidence found way back in Christianity: in this case, the late second century, when Tertullian wrote against the doctrines of Marcion. One of Marcion's purported errors, it turns out, was labeling what appears to have been what we now call Ephesians as the Epistle of Paul to the Laodiceans.
Tertullian's Against Marcion, Book V goes through the Pauline Epistles, pointing out areas in which Marcion's ideas ran contrary to orthodox doctrine. The order in which he treats these epistles gives us an idea of the arrangement of Marcion's canon:
1 & 2 Corinthians
1 & 2 Thessalonians
Laodiceans (i.e., Ephesians)

This is what he has to say of the Epistle to the Laodiceans:
I pass by another epistle which we have inscribed to the Ephesians, but heretics to the Laodiceans. . . .
We have it on the true tradition of the Church, that this epistle was sent to the Ephesians, not to the Laodiceans. Marcion, however, was very desirous of giving it the new title, as if he were extremely accurate in investigating such a point. But of what consequence are the titles, since in writing to a certain church the apostle did in fact write to all? It is certain that, whoever they were to whom he wrote, he declared Him to be God in Christ with whom all things agree which are predicted.
Now, to what god will most suitably belong all those things which relate to “that good pleasure, which God hath purposed in the mystery of His will, that in the dispensation of the fulness of times He might recapitulate all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth,” (Eph. 1: 9, 10).
So, in essence, Pope was recapitulating Marcion's argument of the mid-2nd century, and Burgon Tertullian's of the early third century. 'Tis a pity we have no record of any evidence in favour of Marcion's argument, and that Tertullian's consists of no more than an appeal to authority.

There are, of course, several possibilities. The only one that I do not accept is that we have, in our Bibles, what Paul wrote as an Epistle to the Ephesians. I have read this epistle dozens of times, and have come to the following conclusions about its recipients:

1. They lived near Colosse.
2. Paul didn't know them.
3. Paul hoped to get to meet them sometime.

As I get time I intend to fill in these three points, but you can actually do it yourself by studying the epistle and comparing it to Colossians and Philemon, which appear to have been delivered on the same trip.

Here are the remaining possiblitities:

1. There was another letter to the Ephesians, which was lost. This one was re-labeled to replace it.
2. There was no letter to the Ephesians. They felt so left out that they appropriated this one instead.

I recommend this website for a thorough coverage of the question from an Alexandrian Priority perspective. Don't bother reading the whole thing, as he goes on and on in favour of the Alexandrian text; the best stuff in is the vicinity of pages 47 and 67. To get to the bottom line, he believes that the epistle was a general letter intended for churches in the vicinity of Laodicea, and that name became attached to it due to the reference in Colossians 4:16.

I should probably go into even more detail as to how it got its present name, but that would really just be sheer speculation . . .

1 comment:

  1. We also know that Paul wrote a third letter to the Corinthians so this type of thing is not unusual. Since I believe that part of the inspiration of scripture involves its preservation, I am not worried about it. God had his reasons for removing some.

    Based on my preconceived beliefs I will reject any suggestion that Ephesians does not belong in the Bible as much as I would reject any new "finding" of a lost letter someday.

    I will still read what you say with interest. I had totally missed this reference to another epistle.

    Keep developing. It helps us all think.

    Grace and peace.


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