NT Words and Verses
Eph. 2:11-16, When Too Much Rhetoric Ruins A Good Thing
In my essay below on the rhetorical power of Col. 1:21-23 I argue that Paul’s use of alliteration in selecting crucial verbs and nouns in that passage leaves a lasting impression on the reader. From alienation to reconciliation, to becoming holy, blameless and irreproachable—all five of these alpha-beginning words are indelibly etched in our minds. No doubt they also had that effect on the author of the Epistle to the Ephesians (and looking at the passage for today presents one of the strongest arguments to me that Ephesians was not written by Paul but was written by a Pauline disciple who had the Epistle to the Colossians available to him), but when he tried to take over the concepts of alienation and reconciliation from Paul, he managed to bungle things pretty badly.
Let’s first review the flow of Paul’s brief argument in Col. 1:21-22. The reality of the Gospel is that God takes those who formerly were estranged or alienated from faith and, through reconciliation, makes them holy and blameless. God roots or grounds them in this faith, so that they don’t waver from the hope of the Gospel. Paul uses the “at one time/now” and “alienation/reconciliation” words to present his meaning.
It’s striking to me that when the author of Ephesians treats the same subject in these verses, he not only uses the same ἀπαλλοτριόομαι and ἀποκαταλλάσσω pair in vv 12, 16, but he neatly balances his argument using the identical conjunctions as Col 1, ποτὲ (v 11) and νυνὶ (v 13). That is, not only are the theological concepts the same, expressed in identical verbs, but the temporal conjunctions are identical.
And, at first, he does little more than reiterate the ideas of Colossians, though he does ramp up the rhetoric in clear language. Those who once were alienated from the “polity/commonwealth” of Israel, and “strangers” to the covenant, having no hope and “godless” in the world now are in Christ. They were far off (μακρὰν) but now are near (ἐγγὺς) through the blood of Christ. All we would need is for the verb ἀποκαταλλάσσω to be dropped in and we would have the same, though slightly rhetorically enriched, argument that we saw in Colossians.
But instead of reaching for that, the author of Ephesians pauses and takes on the concept of “peace” (ειρήνη, v 14), and this is the entrance into difficulty. Christ is our peace, ὁ ποιήσας τὰ ἀμφότερα ἓν, “who has made both things one.” The word for “both” is in the neuter plural, which must refer to things rather than people. The only “things” previously mentioned, if indeed they are “things,” are “far off” and “near.” Both of those are now “one,” whatever that means. Some “things” are now “one.”
Then we are ready for the next phrase: τὸ μεσότοιχον τοῦ φραγμοῦ λύσας. Well, I’m not sure we are ready for it. Literally it is, “having destroyed the middle wall of the barrier/fence,” but it can’t mean what it says because that doesn’t make sense. So, one might have to go with something like (following Danker), “the barrier formed by the dividing wall.” Well, Christ has destroyed it. No mention of what this wall is, nor what it divides, nor how it is related to “both” things that he made one.
Now that he has mentioned a dividing wall, or a “middle wall of the fence,” he defines it as “the enmity in his flesh.” Whoops. Missed that. I wish he would run that past me again, but do the simple version for dummies. So what we have now is something about enmity in his flesh that relates to a dividing wall that is in the middle of unspecified things.
While we are nonplussed at his words, he just blithely continues: “having done away with the law of commandments in its dogmas.” Just as we did a double-take when he mentioned “the middle wall of the fence,” so we do a triple-take when he starts talking about the “laws” of “commandments” in “dogmas.” He is floating away from us, and no amount of coaxing seemingly will bring him back to earth. So, in sum, we have middle walls that separate unspecified things, then we have enmity in his flesh, and then we have the doing away with or nullifying the law of commandments in the dogmas. He has, in the title of this essay, “ruined” a good thing by his rhetoric.
Trimming the Rhetorical Sails?
Perhaps sensing that he has going over the top or has left the universe of meaning far behind, he quickly retreats to the verbal sphere of Colossians 1 by using the other verb ἀποκαταλλάξῃ (“he might reconcile”) from Col. 1. Phew, We understand the movement from alienation to reconciliation and maybe, we think, he is safely taking us to a soft landing with reconciliation. So, he reconciles “both of them” (τοὺς ἀμφοτέρους). Now we have the same word (“both”) but it is personal rather than impersonal. So, he is reconciling both people in one body to God through the cross, once he has ἀποκτείνας τὴν ἔχθραν ἐν αὐτῷ or “killed the enmity in him/in it.”
Oops! Just when he had a chance to bring clarity to his argument and so redeem himself, he plunges back into the world of inky darkness. We don’t know who are the two whom he has reconciled; earlier it was “both things” that were made one; now it is persons or some kind of masculine object. While he was dying on the cross, however, he was actually killing enmity “in it/in him.” It would make sense to say that he killed enmity in himself on the cross, but we have no idea if the author is trying to say this.
In v 17 he does move back to the idea of peace, which he introduced in v 14, and he repeats his mention of “far off” and “near,” perhaps to try to save himself by referring to concepts he has already mentioned. But it is too late. Our author has become tied up in rhetoric and, because he isn’t nearly as skilled or clear-minded as Paul in Col. 1, he ends up using language that isn’t clear. His redundancies end up leading to more confusion than light.
It is often said that imitation is one of the true signs of flattery. In this case I argued that the argument in Eph. 2:11-17 imitates that of Col. 1:21-23. Inspired by the deft rhetorical moves of Paul in Colossians, our author tried his hand at rhetorical flourishes and, unfortunately, he crashed. But at least he WAS trying to flatter Paul.
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