Study Guide

Paul in Ephesians and Colossians


According to Christian tradition, Paul is responsible for writing over half the books in the New Testament. That's a pretty impressive publishing career. The epistles to the Ephesians and Colossians name Paul as the author right there in the first line. But is that the end of the story?

The Real Paul

The author of the letters to the Ephesians and Colossians actually doesn't actually go into too many biographical details about the Apostle Paul. That's sort of weird. If you've read anything else that Paul has written (like one of his letters to the Romans, Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, or Thessalonians), you know that he kind of loves talking about himself. Hey, we can't blame him. Paul's got a pretty amazing origin story. All it's missing is a radioactive spider bite.

Paul was born into a Jewish home in Tarsus (a big city outside of the Jewish homeland of Judea). Though he was only a few years younger than Jesus, Paul never actually met J.C. while he was alive. Weird, right? Especially since Paul would spend the majority of his life writing, preaching, and teaching all about the guy he saw as the Jewish messiah.

Because he was part of the Jewish Diaspora around the Roman Empire, Paul had a ton of experience living and working with Gentiles. Paul would have not only had access to a great Jewish religious education (he eventually joined up with the Pharisees, those dreaded baddies from the Gospels); he also would have mixed with non-Jews and been exposed to Greek universities in Tarsus, too. (Source, 60.)

Acts of the Apostles is the place you want to go if you're looking for the Bible's version of Paul's story. But that's a pretty long book, so here's Paul's deal in a nutshell. Paul was a devout Jew (which explains why he's always quoting Jewish scripture in his letters). He was actually so hardcore that he persecuted Christians after the death of Jesus. One day, when Paul was traveling to Damascus to go terrorize some more believers, he was blinded by a light on the road. Then he heard Jesus' voice say: "Why are you persecuting me?" (Acts 22:7)

Um, good question.

Needless to say, Paul took the hint, changed his ways, and became "an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God" (Colossians 1:1). He spent the next thirty years traveling all around the eastern half of the Roman Empire trying to get everyone to join Team Jesus. Paul felt especially called to spread the word to Gentiles:

Surely you have already heard of the commission of God's grace that was given me for you, and how the mystery was made known to me by revelation […] Although I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ. (Ephesians 3:2-3, 8)

We'd say Paul was pretty darn successful. He set up churches, wrote letters, and generally laid the groundwork for a religion that billions of people follow to this day. Not so bad for a lifetime's work.

Life Behind Bars

So, Paul was a lot of things. An apostle. A Jew. A world traveler. But he was also a convict. That's right. Saint Paul himself spent tons of time behind bars. According to Acts, he got locked up at least three times. And both Ephesians and Colossians claim to have been written from inside the big house.

  • "I, Paul, am a prisoner for Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles." (Ephesians 3:1)
  • "I, the prisoner in the Lord." (Ephesians 4:1)
  • "I am an ambassador in chains." (Ephesians 6:20)
  • "I am in prison." (Colossians 4:3)
  • "My fellow prisoner greets you." (Colossians 4:10)
  • "I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand. Remember my chains." (Colossians 4:18)

Yikes. We get it Paul. You've totally got street cred.

So, why did Paul spend so much time in lock-up? His main trouble was the way he worked. Usually, Paul would stroll into a new town and immediately start talking up Jesus. He might manage to convert a few people, but it wouldn't be too long before he upset a whole bunch of folks, too. He might annoy the Jews in town by saying that Jesus did away with Jewish law. He also might get on some of the pagans' nerves by calling their gods demons. Pretty soon, Paul would find himself in chains in one dark, damp prison cell or another.

For his part, Paul was pretty cool with the whole prison thing. He believed he was fighting for a just cause, so he was willing to spend some time on the inside if that's what it took to spread the message of Jesus. He tells his friends:

  • "I pray therefore that you may not lose heart over my sufferings for you; they are your glory." (Ephesians 3:13)
  • "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." (Colossians 1:24)
  • "I toil and struggle with all the energy that he powerfully inspires within me." (Colossians 1:29)
  • "I want you to know how much I am struggling for you." (Colossians 2:1)

See? Silver linings all over the place.

A Faux Paul

These two letters pretty much jibe with Paul's life, right? That means he definitely wrote these. Case closed. Let's get an ice cream sundae!

Hold on a second. Shmoop loves delicious ice cream sundaes as much as the next website, but scholars over the years have raised some questions about the truth behind Paul's signatures on these little letters. Could we be dealing with forgeries here?

For hundreds and hundreds of years, no one doubted whether or not Paul actually wrote these letters. But then the whole Enlightenment rolled around about 250 years ago and questioning sacred wisdom didn't seem so darn blasphemous anymore. Today, Ephesians and Colossians are known as "disputed letters" in scholarly circles. That just means that scholars can't say for sure who wrote them. Was it Paul? Or some pretender?

There are lots of arguments for or against either. Take Ephesians. While the real Paul has a couple of defenders here, the majority of scholars lean to the Paul-you-are-not-the-author side. Why?

  • Paul died in the mid-60s CE, but the writer talks more about second generation Christian stuff.
  • The author mentions the "holy apostles" (Ephesians 3:5) as if he didn't personally hang out with these guys.
  • The real Paul visited Ephesus many times, but he barely mentions anything that's going on in town and focuses more on the universal church.
  • The author hardly mentions Jewish law at all. Paul loved talking about how God has totally done away with all that.
  • He says that Christians have already been saved by Jesus. But Paul's other letters make it seem like that's something that's gonna happen later.
  • The letter never mentions the second coming of Jesus. That was a huge deal for Paul. He's was sort of counting on it to fix everything. (Source, 1166)

How about Colossians? Well, this letter has way more scholars convinced that it's the real deal. Some of the arguments against it being an authentic piece of Paul's correspondence are pretty compelling, though:

  • Paul says he doesn't mess with churches he hasn't founded, but here he is writing to Colossae, a place he's never been.
  • The author says a couple things that are slightly different from other letters. He talks about Jesus as "firstborn" differently than Romans.
  • He has an expanded view of baptism and the church as a body.
  • The author also talks about sins and trespasses instead of the way sin enslaves and destroys us. A slight difference.
  • The names that he rattles off at the end of the letter are mostly from other letters. A faker could have added these names to make the whole thing more believable.
  • And that whole "I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand," (Colossians 4:18) could totally be a lie. (Source, 1126)

You might notice that these arguments sound a little less convincing. Lots of folks who think that Paul actually did write Colossians would say that these are mainly just minor style issues. The real Paul still could have written this letter, but he might have been influenced to slightly alter his ideas by fellow disciples, co-authors, or even the secretary who was writing the letter down. Sure, his style might have changed a little, but it's not so completely out of line with his other letters. Besides, change is a good thing. (Source, 1191)

Our Conspiracy Theory

That's a lot of controversy and conflicting opinions to sort through. How can we figure this all out? Here's how Shmoop thinks it all went down.

Colossians was written first by Paul while he was in prison (just like it says). Later, sometime after Paul died in the mid-60s CE, a disciple or close follower of Paul used the letter to the Colossians as a template to write a new letter from "Paul." That would account for the similarities between the two. This anonymous author used some stuff from his mentor, but also put down a couple things in his own words (source, 1166). The letters were sent all around the Roman Empire, got popular, and eventually made their way into the Bible.


That's our take. But we know that other folks will come to different conclusions and that's cool.

Oh, and even though we're going out on a limb and saying that Paul isn't the author of Ephesians, for the sake of clarity, we're just gonna keep calling this anonymous guy Paul. It just makes life easier.

But you know the score.

Nothing But a Big Phony

So, if we're saying that Colossians is real and Ephesians is a fake, then we can just toss Ephesians right out with the trash, right? After all, the author is a big liar and plagiarizer.

Not quite.

Today we know all about plagiarism and copyrights and intellectual property laws. You can't take something someone else created and pass it off as your own. That's wrong! That's stealing! But people in the Bible did it all the time.

Back in the 1st century, written words were pretty much public domain. And integrity in authorship wasn't such a big deal. Look at the first five books of the Bible. People say they were written by Moses, but they were probably the work of all kinds of different people over many years. (Besides, it's pretty tough to write a book which concludes in your own death, Mo.) Matthew copied sections of Mark for his gospel. 2 Peter lifts stuff right from Jude (source, 1166). For shame!

Today, these guys would get kicked out of school for turning in someone else's work. But back in the day, this was no big deal. And just because Ephesians might be both plagiarized and a forgery doesn't mean it's not awesome in its own right. People have looked to that book for years to for inspiration and guidance. Whoever this anonymous author was, he must have done something right.

But seriously, don't plagiarize stuff. Sure, the Bible did it, but your teacher will not be swayed by that argument. We promise.

The End of the Road

Wow. Paul (and his various pretenders) had one crazy life. So, how did it all end for everyone's favorite apostle?

Since Paul spent so much time in prison, you probably won't be surprised to hear that at the end of Paul's life, he wound up in a jail cell once again. This time, he was shipped off to Rome to stand trial in front of the Emperor. So, what happened there? Was Paul executed in Rome? Was he released to keep on preaching? Did he live to a ripe old age playing pinochle in his living room with other disciples of Christ?

No one actually knows. The Bible is silent on the subject, but church tradition says that Paul was beheaded in Rome in 64 CE when Nero decided to start persecuting him some Christians. Lots of religious icons and paintings will show Paul holding a sword, even though we can't imagine he would have been too excited about carrying that around. Unless, of course, it was the "sword of the Spirit" (Ephesians 6:17) and he was getting ready to put on the armor of God. Fingers crossed.

However Paul died, it's obvious that his name could still sell tickets (and move letters) long after he was gone. Because of letters like these two, Paul's legend grew throughout the Roman Empire and eventually the world.

Hey, here we are talking about him 2,000 years after he died. Not too shabby.