The Argument of Ephesians

About: this paper was delivered to Professor Peter Rodgers at Fuller Theological Seminary during my final quarter for a self-directed study of Socio-Rhetorical Analysis. Paper below the jump.

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How should we understand the Letter to the Ephesians when it was written in a different language during a different time and within a different culture? If at all possible, we should attempt to understand the letter as the original audience understood it, which requires taking into consideration the values and morals of the social setting within which the letter was addressed, the language the letter was written in, and the structure of the letter. For now, we will be examining the structure of the letter and leave the language and social setting for a different time. Studying the structure of the letter involves looking at the whole composition in order to determine its themes and points of emphasis. The arrangement might also show us how one part of the letter is to be understood. In this case, we will see that the Letter to the Ephesians follows an epideictic rhetorical structure. This structure contains several rhetorical elements, such as an exordium, a narratio, and an exhortatio, where the exhortatio is to be understood in light of the narratio. And the letter as a whole works up to the peroratio, the emphasis of the letter in accordance with ancient rhetorical practices. We will now focus on the epideictic structure of the letter as we consider ancient epideictic style.

The Letter to the Ephesians is a letter of praise. As such, it is epideictic. This form of rhetoric had several parts according to Aristotle. It had an exordium, a narratio, and an epilogue or peroratio. For epideictic rhetoric, an exordium was like a music prelude in that it would have a keynote throughout that linked it with the rest of the song. The source for the exordium was praise, blame, exhortation, dissuasion, or appeals to the listener. The author used it to make the listener believe that he or she shared in the praise (or blame, etc.) that was being given.1 For Aristotle, praise meant language that set forth the greatness of one’s virtue. He held that it was necessary to demonstrate how a person’s actions were virtuous. The actions themselves were not disputed; all that was necessary was to amplify the actions.2 People that were noble were worthy of praise for they were both good and virtuous. To have virtue was to have the ability to produce good things. Virtue consisted of justice, courage, self-control, gentleness, and wisdom among other things. But the greatest virtues were those that were the most useful. Vengeance was understood to be a virtue because it was seen to be just. Courage required not allowing one’s self to be beaten, as it is just and therefore noble. Victory and honor were also seen to be noble.3 After the epistolary prescript, where Paul introduces himself and gives a brief greeting to the recipients (1:1-2), the Letter to the Ephesians has an exordium (1:3-14). This section of the letter is a eulogy or a praise of God. God is being praised for the virtuous and noble work that he has done. But the language is in the first person plural so that the author is including the listeners in the praise (cf. 1:1). This section praises God for the work that he has done in Jesus Christ; this work takes the focus throughout the rest of the letter, and it is the keynote that links the exordium to what comes after it (cf. 1:11).

Following the exordium, the narratio is disjointed, being one part inartificial (i.e., it reports the facts) and one part art. But the narratio was also to have a sense of moral character. It was to make clear the moral purpose of the facts; that moral purpose was the end goal for the listeners. Furthermore, the narratio was also to draw upon the emotions.4 Furthermore, epideictic rhetoric utilizes amplification as proof of the honorable, useful, virtuous, and noble deeds of the one being praised; such proof was utilized in the narratio.5 In the Letter to the Ephesians, following a section of thanksgiving and prayer (1:15-23), there is a narratio (2:1-3:13). This section reports the facts, but it is not in consecutive sequence, and it uses imagery to artfully convey the facts (cf. 2:14). The tone of the narratio in the letter is emotionally charged (cf. 2:12-14) and focuses on God’s work for the listeners (and author) and its moral ramifications (cf. 3:4-7).

Aristotle also wrote of an epilogue or peroratio. The peroratio was composed of four parts. First, it disposed the listener favorably towards the author and unfavorably towards the adversary. Second, it amplifies and depreciates. Third, it heavily excites the emotions of the listener. Finally, it recapitulates with a summary statement of the proofs. The emotions that the peroratio appeals to typically ranged from pity to anger, jealousy, or emulation. Note that the peroratio was not to have any sort of connecting particle according to Aristotle, so that it would not be confused with an oratio.6 From a rhetorical perspective, the peroratio is in the place of emphasis; for this reason it was also to be most memorable.7 Near the end of the Letter to the Ephesians, there is a peroratio (6:10-20). There is no connecting particle, but instead, a closing statement, “of the rest” or “finally” (6:10). This section disposes the listeners favorably towards God for equipping them with the ability to stand firm against the powers, rulers, and authorities (6:12-13). It amplifies God’s provisions, thus summarizing the earlier proofs, that is, the exhortatio, with imagery of a warrior suited for battle against the evil one who is attempting to harm them with flaming arrows (6:14-17). It also appeals to the emotions by asking the listeners to pray for boldness (or courage) to be given to Paul and the saints (6:18-20).

The Letter to the Ephesians is not comprised solely of an exordium, narratio, and peroratio. Instead, it also has a thanksgiving and prayer section, and an exhortation section. There were three forms of ancient rhetoric. There was Koine, Attic, and Asiatic. Koine was the common form utilized in the New Testament. However, it was not the only form. Attic, which sought to formulate itself with classical structures, was not seen in Christian writings until the second century. Asiatic rhetoric, however, is evident in the New Testament. Cicero referred to two kinds of Asiatic styles, one that was “smooth, sententious, and euphonious” and another that was “swift and impetuous.” The latter Asiatic style was full of “ornamentation, redundancy, and fine language.”8 The thanksgiving section in Ephesians (1:15-23) seems to be rather redundant. It starts with thanksgiving for the recipients, but then it restates what was already said in the preceding eulogy. Ephesians appears to be of the second Asiatic style, which explains why the letter is being redundant.9 (But why use Asiatic style? This style would have been prevalent throughout the regions around Ephesus.10) The thanksgiving section thus adds amplification. According to Quintillian, a first century rhetorician, the exordium should be linked with “the pursuit of the matter one wants to discourse about.”11 The thanksgiving section not only amplifies the praise, but it also links it with what the rest of the letter was going to be talking about. Furthermore, the thanksgiving section can be compared with the peroratio, which indicates that it can be viewed as a kind of propositio, a main point or thesis for the letter.12 Not only is the thanksgiving section an amplification of the eulogy, but it also provides the transition for the rest of the letter, and within that transition, it affirms the following proposition: God has worked in Christ, raising him from the dead, seating him at his right hand in heaven, placing him in authority over all things, appointing him as the head of the church, which is his body (1:20-23). This propositio rings throughout the whole letter. It is not proved in the duration of the letter, but instead, being epideictic, the rest of the letter seeks to praise and expound upon it by revealing or explaining it in detail.13

The Letter to the Ephesians also has an exhortatio (4:1-6:9). This section follows after the narratio in 2:1-3:13. Note that the narratio is followed by a prayer and a doxology in 3:14-21. The prayer and doxology function as a transition from the narratio into the exhortatio. In epideictic, the exhortatio replaced the proofs that were used in other forms of rhetoric. While it further amplified the themes of the praise, thus acting as proof, it was still substantiated by inartificial facts (cf. 4:7-16) and logical sequences (cf. 1-6).14

Therefore, the Letter to the Ephesians has an eightfold structure. This structure was influenced by an Asiatic style of epideictic rhetoric. The structure is as follows: the epistolary prescript (1:1-2); the exordium (1:3-14); the thanksgiving and prayer (1:15-23); the narratio (2:1-3:13); the prayer and doxology (3:14-21); the exhortatio (4:1-6:9); the peroratio (6:10-20); and the epistolary postscript (6:21-24). Notice that prayer functions as a transition for each major section. Prayer ends the introduction (prescript and exordium) before entering into the narratio; and the exhortatio does not come until after a prayer and doxology. Furthermore, the peroratio ends with a section on prayer (6:18-20), so that prayer also brings the peroratio to a close, allowing the postcript to enter and conclude the letter. Prayer functions as a means for progression.

Within this structure, the tone is of praise and the theme is God’s work. The narratio speaks of the work of God mentioned in the introduction in further detail; the exhortatio speaks of the response to the work of God mentioned in the narratio. There seems to be a three-part structure to both the narratio and the exhortatio, so that the latter must be understood in accord with the former. The narratio can be broken into three related sections. First, there is the section that focuses on God’s remedy for the sinful condition (2:1-10). Second, there is the section that focuses on what God did with grace; he made a new person, the church (2:11-22). Third, there is the section that focuses on the church as a mystery planned from before the laying of the foundation of the world (3:1-13). The exhortatio has three parts, each beginning with “walk” language. The first section exhorts the listeners to walk worthily according to their calling (4:1-16). The second section exhorts the listeners to walk like the new person and not the old (4:17-5:14). The third section instructs the listeners to walk carefully in the mystery, which is the wisdom of God (5:15-6:9). The first part of both the narratio and exhortatio shares a focus on the grace-gift of God.15 The second part of both shares a focus on the new person.16 The third part of both shares a focus on the mystery. 17 The nature of the exhortatio is to replace the proofs for the narratio; as such, it is further expounding upon the narratio even though it is practical. Therefore, we cannot begin to understand the parts of the exhortatio without first understanding the respective parts of the narratio.

One word should be mentioned about the division of the parts of the exhortatio. It could be that someone would argue that the phrase, “Therefore, be imitators of God . . .” should be the start of the next section. However, it is so closely tied to the second part of the exhortatio that it is not best to see it as the start of the third section. It not only shares language with the second section of the exhortatio, but also shares a keyword from the second section of the narratio. Both 2:12 and 5:8 use the second person plural imperfect active indicative of eimi in reference to the former life. Furthermore, 4:32 exhorts the readers and the basis of God’s action: forgive as God forgive you. The next sentence, 5:1, concludes 4:32 with this statement: “Therefore, imitate God . . .” The section starting in 5:1 is not the start of the third part of the exhortatio simply because it has the connecting particle oun, but instead, it is the beginning of the ending to the second part of the exhortatio. It is further connected with the second section by the use of several key words, which are as follows: akatharsia (4:19 and 5:3); pleonexia (4:19 and 5:3); dikaiosynê (4:24 and 5:9); and alêtheia (4:24 and 5:9). The second part begins with a statement not to walk as the non-Jews and starts to come to a close with a statement to walk in love, so that it is a section devoted to the “dos and don’ts” of living.

The Letter to the Ephesians follows an Asiatic style of epideictic rhetoric. It has all the major parts of a rhetorical composition—an exordium, narratio, and peroratio. It may be redundant, but this is due to its Asiatic style, where redundancy builds amplification, which is a noteworthy feature among epideictic compositions. The overall argument of the letter emphasizes God’s work and our response to it. In this argument, there is an intricate structure within which we must consider when interpreting its parts. The exhortatio cannot properly be interpreted without taking into consideration the narratio. The peroratio, the final point of the exhortatio, though set apart as the most important feature of the letter, comes into play to summarize the argument in colorful imagery and emotion. We must consider the full weight of the argument throughout the letter, but also understand each section in light of the progression of the argument and how each section functions within the structure.


Aristotle. Art of Rhetoric. Loeb Classical Library, Aristotle, XXII. Translated by John Freese. Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London, England: Harvard University Press, 2006.

Witherington, Ben. The Letters to Philemon, the Colossians, and the Ephesians: A socio-rhetorical commentary on the captivity epistles. Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Cambridge, U.K.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007.

1 Aristotle, Art of Rhetoric, Loeb Classical Library, Aristotle, XXII, translated by John Freese (Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London, England: Harvard University Press, 2006), III.xiv.1-11.

2 Aristotle, Art of Rhetoric, I.ix.33-40.

3 Ibid., I.ix.3-13, 24-25.

4 Ibid., III.xvi.1-10.

5 Ibid., III.xvii.3.

6 Ibid., III.xix.1-6.

7 Ben Witherington, The Letters to Philemon, the Colossians, and the Ephesians: A socio-rhetorical commentary on the captivity epistles (Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Cambridge, U.K.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007), 344-45.

8 Witherington, The Letters to Philemon, the Colossians, and the Ephesians, 4-5. Witherington depends heavily on Cicero’s Brutus, which is a history of Roman oratory, to describe Asiatic rhetoric.

9 Witherington, The Letters to Philemon, the Colossians, and the Ephesians, 238-39.

10 Ibid., 223.

11 Quintillian, Institutio Oratio, IV.i.16-17, in Witherington, The Letters to Philemon, the Colossians, and the Ephesians, 239.

12 Witherington, The Letters to Philemon, the Colossians, and the Ephesians, 239.

13 Ibid.

14 Witherington, The Letters to Philemon, the Colossians, and the Ephesians, 280-81. Witherington is heavily relying on references to Quintillian, Institutio Oratio, III.vii.1-6.

15 Note particularly the “grace” and “gift” language in 2:8 as compared with 4:7.

16 Note the exact phrase is in the second section of both: “kainon anthrôpon.” Both also share the idea of being formerly like the non-Jews (2:11, 12 and 4:17-19; 5:8).

17 Note the recurrence of the “mystery” language in 3:3 and 5:32. Wisdom language is present in both (3:10 and 5:15). Also, the idea of the oikonomia mentioned in 3:9 is implicit in 5:21-6:9.