This is part of a larger project reviewing commentaries on each book of the Bible. Follow the links from that post for more information on the series, including explanations of what I mean by some of the terms and abbreviations in this post. You can see my annotated Amazon Listmania! list of Ephesians commentaries if you want a quick overview of what I think are the most important commentaries if you want that before looking more deeply at this more detailed review.
My top picks on Ephesians are Peter O'Brien's PNTC and Harold Hoehner's commentary published by Baker (not in a series). They happen to be the most recent commentaries on Ephesians, but I think they would be best even if some of the others I'll mention had been published later. O'Brien is the easiest to read of the best Ephesians commentaries. He uses Greek font. It annoys me to no end when someone transliterates the original language without using the original font at least in footnotes, unless the intended audience is exclusively popular level. O'Brien was forced to transliterate in the main text due to the format of the series, but he insisted on using real Greek text in the footnotes. That's ideal when a commentary's audience will include people with good Greek skills and people with no or not very good Greek. I can therefore recommend O'Brien to more people than some of the others in the list. I also think he exercises at least slightly better judgment about the basic meaning of the text than some of the others whose commentaries still qualify among the best. He's thoroughly mined all the major commentaries and has filtered out what's most crucial for interpreting the text accurately, but his exegesis and exposition derives directly from the text.
Hoehner has some of this as well. He offers more detail than O'Brien, though it's tougher going for those without good Greek skills. His focus is more on the words Paul uses, and O'Brien is stronger in overall grammatical issues of how the words fit together. O'Brien seems to me to be a little more theologically acute than Hoehner, and Hoehner focuses a little more on individual words and less on grammatical considerations, but both books are excellent guides to Paul's thought in this epistle. Hoehner's dispensationalism occasionally colors his remarks, as you might expect from anyone coming from a particular interpretive framework, but most of his commentary steers away from trying to be an apologetic for dispensationalism and simply examines the text. I should say the same about O'Brien's Reformed Anglican perspective. He doesn't see his commentary as a way to find Reformed thought behind every nuance the way some Calvinists have. When these issues arise, I think O'Brien is more often correct than Hoehner, but these issues aren't in the forefront most of the time, even in a theologically crucial book like Ephesians. That's a testament to the carefulness of both commentators, who each had access to the other's manuscript. Both cite each other frequently, most of the time favorably. Hoehner is more familiar with pre-modern commentaries than most Ephesians commentators, but his use of them is more for linguistic issues than for theology, which is unfortunate. One reason for my slight preference for O'Brien is that his approach seems a little more comprehensive. Hoehner is much more focused on the meanings of words with less attention to other matters, even if he acknowledges the dangers of word studies without issues of context. See the discussion below in the comments for more on this issue.
I must deal with two issues before going on to other commentaries. Ephesians is one of the disputed Pauline epistles. O'Brien and Hoehner both offer formidable defenses of the traditional view that what the letter says about its own authorship is in fact true. Hoehner in particular has a substantive discussion (about 100 pages of his 900) that includes a survey of authors writing about the issue. The result is a decicive refutation of the claim found often among those who deny Pauline authorship that most commentators agree that Paul didn't write it. Nothing could be further from the truth. Hoehner shows that, over the time when the issue has been an issue, scholars have swung back and forth within the 40-60% range in favor of or against Pauline authorship, which means about half of scholars have taken each view at any given time. Ultimately, the head-counting method of biblical exegesis isn't too good to begin with, and it doesn't take up much of Hoehner's 100 pages on this issue, but it's just so refreshing to see. The claim is false, and it's worth the space Hoehner gives to it to show how false it is. My NT professor in college told me that many of the people who think Paul didn't write Ephesians do think he wrote Colossians, and many of the people people who think he didn't write Colossians think he did write Ephesians. In some ways, these arguments cancel each other out unless it can be shown that he could only have written one of these books.
I think O'Brien and Hoehner's arguments are not just good but utterly compelling, and anyone who denies Pauline authorship has a lot to do to respond to them. Few denials of Pauline authorship, as far as I've seen, really engage with the best defense of Pauline authorship, which is one reason I have a less favorable attitude to some of the following commentaries. O'Brien and Hoehner get high marks partly because they seem to me to be best on this issue among the best commentaries. Someone with a different view on this issue might still like O'Brien and Hoehner for other reasons, but they'd be less inclined to view Lincoln, Best, and others as merely going along with trends in scholarship without good arguments, as I view them.
Another issue that I need to say something about is the controversial passage in Ephesians 5 about husbands and wives. In my view, many scholars, including many evangelical scholars, seek to make that passage say something it doesn't say and mask what it plainly says. I haven't looked as much at Hoehner on this issue, but O'Brien's treatment is the best I've seen on that issue. More than one of the following commentaries seem to me to be dodging the issue or changing the subject in many ways. I'd rather a commentator acknowledge what the text says and then simply indicate that they don't accept it as the authoritative word of God than try to make the word of God say what they want it to say while considering it the word of God. Even aside from both these issues, O'Brien is my favorite among Ephesians commentaries, and Hoehner is a close second. These issues make O'Brien's top spot even clearer to me.
O'Brien and Hoehner are my favorite in-depth commentaries, but before I move on to other detailed works I wanted to list my favorite popular-level commentary. That honor falls to the NIVAC by Klyne Snodgrass. I've spent a lot less time in it than I have in O'Brien and Hoehner, but I've really appreciated what I've found in it, and it's gotten high marks from most reviewers. He seems to me to present both sides well enough on the gender issues, which I can't say for most egalitarians, and he supports Pauline authorship. This series is generally weak on exegesis, not that the authors haven't done it but that they haven't included that in their commentary for others to see. It's usually very good in terms of thinking through how to extract principles that lie behind the specific context of the biblical text that can then be moved into another context such as our own, and it's often insightful about particular application ideas of those principles in contemporary contexts, though these of course will vary from setting to setting.
Until O'Brien and Hoehner came along, I considered Andrew Lincoln's WBC the best Ephesians commentary. Like Hoehner, he uses Greek font in the text, so those who don't have good Greek skills will have a harder time with it. The WBC series has a love/hate format. Some people think it's wonderful, because it separates different kinds of information into different sections. I absolutely hate it. You have to look in three different places for information sometimes, and you can't just read through what the commentator has to say on each part of the text in order. You have to do all of one thing, then all of another, then all of a third thing. The series is also well-received for having lengthy and all-inclusive bibliographies but highly criticized for having the most difficult bibliographies to find anything in. The bibliographies are scattered throughout the book and not repeated all in one place, and the index for every volume I've had the opportunity to spend time in is usually incomplete and often doesn't include the first time a book is mentioned in a bibliographic entry. It's too frequent that I can't find the full information on a book referred to in the text. Even with all the annoying problems of this series, Lincoln has written a great commentary. In most cases, he engages carefully with the text and gets to the heart of what's going on. Lincoln is especially good in the area of eschatology, both realized and future, arguing convincingly that Ephesians contains much of both, contrary to many modern scholars who minimize the future elements of Ephesians' eschatological thought.
My two biggest gripes are his views on the two issues I've spent some time explaining. He doesn't think Paul wrote Ephesians, and he unbelievably maintains an inerrantist view of the book, saying that it would have been understood by the recipients that Paul didn't write it, so everything the book intended to communicate is still true. I find his arguments against Pauline authorship unconvincing, and I don't think he can succeed in maintaining the authority of the book in the face of insisting that it says something literally false right at the outset with respect to its origin. He also wants to interpret all of Paul's statements about gender and authority as if Paul's talk of headship has nothing to do with authority and as if a wife's submission to her husband is absolutely equivalent to a husband's love for his wife as Christ loved the church, even though Paul quite specifically grounds the difference in I Corinthians in the very order of creation. I realize that his view is common among evangelicals, but it just seems to me to be grasping at straws and highly at odds with the careful exegesis that occurs throughout the rest of the commentary.
Ernest Best's ICC is also very good. If we had none of the above commentaries, Best's would be a very good detailed commentary on this epistle. Many other Bible books have only a few really good, recent commentaries, but Ephesians has a great many, and putting Best's commentary this far down doesn't minimize how good it is. In some ways it has more detail than any of the above commentaries. It's quite thorough. It's probably the most scholarly in the whole list. It's like Lincoln's in being hard to read if you don't have good Greek skills. Since Best has no inerrantist view at stake, he can feel free to be more honest about what the text says even when he disagrees with it, but that very denial of inerrantism will make many evangelicals wary. I do want to insist that there's much to be learned from Best's work, but I think some of the other options are a little more valuable except to those doing academic work. His denial of Pauline authorship leads him to contrast Paul's undisputed letters with Ephesians as if they contradict each other (with Paul usually coming out as superior). The strong history of interpreters who accept the book's self-attribution to Paul has shown that there is no real conflict between Ephesians and the rest of the Pauline corpus, and in many ways Ephesians is the height of Pauline thought, not some sub-par addendum by later followers. This commentary is excellent aside from such matters, however. Its biggest downside, and it really is a big one, is its price, which is over $100. If you want to use it,I suggest borrowing it ffrom a library, even inter-library loan, rather than catering to the evil publishers who would charge such a price.
The two Anchor Bible volumes by Markus Barth were the academic standard for years, really until Lincoln, and even he doesn't provide as much depth. Probably only Hoehner and Best rival Barth in that area. Interestingly, despite Barth's mainstream orientation on most issues, he accepts Pauline authorship and defends a more traditional view on gender issues. This commentary is highly in-depth but does not assume familiarity with the original language and can be read much more easily than Best, Hoehner, and Lincoln. It's a lot of information, though, and that makes it harder to sift through. Those who aren't scholars will want something more recent anyway. These volumes are important for serious study at the academic level. Some reviewers think Barth sounds more like his father than Paul, which lessens the value of the commentary theologically, but the massive amount of information here and Barth's often very good sense of sorting through lots of that information makes it worth using for serious study. Barth also displays an excellent sense of connecting what he's commenting on in Ephesians with other parts of the Bible, and his extended comments can sometimes be excellent models of biblical theology. He gives a much fuller sense of the history of interpretation than any of the other commentators I'm discussing.
Until O'Brien and Hoehner, F.F. Bruce's NICNT was the standard evangelical work. He's with Lincoln on the gender issue, but he gives a decent defense of Pauline authorship. On most issues he's great. Bruce tends to be less theologically-focused than I would want, but his expertise and helpfulness on most other issues is usually excellent. This commentary is bound together with his equally good commentaries on Colossians and Philemon. The Colossians one is older with some revisions in footnotes, but the Ephesians and Philemon ones are new with this volume, which came near the end of Bruce's life. There's a lot less depth here than most of the above commentaries. O'Brien and Lincoln are longer, and they just cover Ephesians, and Best, Barth, and Hoehner are even longer than those. This is a good mid-level commentary, however, as many of the older-stlye NICOT and NICNT volumes are, something along the lines of what most NAC and Pillar (O'Brien's is longer than usual) commentaries offer now. There's not a lot in Bruce that you can't get in Lincoln and O'Brien, but Bruce's commentary is a little shorter than either and certainly easier to read than Lincoln's.
I haven't spent much time with Francis Foulkes's TNTC, John Stott's BST, or Walter Liefeld's IVPNTC, but these should all be good alternatives or supplements at the popular level in addition to my favored popular commentary, Snodgrass above. Liefeld's is the most recent and thus most up-to-date (1997), and Stott's is the oldest of these (1979), and Foulkes isn't that recent (1989). Stott is always good, though the BST series probably provides the least information of these three. Liefeld may be the most scholarly and perhaps most mature of the three, having spent many years on this book, but any of the three would be a good popular exposition. In general, the IVPNTC and TNTC series tend to have a little more technical comment, mostly in footnotes, but Stott tends to do more of this than most BST contributors. All three of these are very short but fairly inexpensive.
These even more popular-level works by James Montgomery Boice and R. Kent Hughes are more sermons than commentaries, but they're so widely recognized as model expositions that I had to mention them. Calvin's commentaries are also a little more sermonic because they're his sermon notes, and they're hopelessly out of date on many issues, but they're always worth consulting, particularly for theological insight, and they're especially helpful for preachers. You can find Calvin's commentary on Galatians and Ephesians here if you want to read it online, but I have trouble figuring out how to view things easily at that site.
John Muddiman's BNTC aims between the scholarly and popular level, similar to the level of detail of Bruce. This commentary has a little more detail than some in this series but is still firmly in the mid-level range. He comes from a typical mainstream scholarly outlook and denies Pauline authorship, though his own position is a little more radical than most in that school. He doesn't even see the book as a unity the way Lincoln, Best, and others who deny Pauline authorship do. He thinks it was constantly modified, added to, and subtracted from over a period of 40 years, beginning with a letter by Paul that Muddiman identifies as the letter to Laodicea mentioned in Colossians. Of all NT books, Ephesians is one of the most implausible to posit such a theory of composition. At least Lincoln and Best conceive of one author who was influenced by Paul and used some of his works but had a single-minded purpose in constructing the letter.
Rudolf Schnackenburg represents mainstream European scholarship in terms of his critical positions and Roman Catholic theology. He is generally well-received by people not in either group, though I would prefer most of the other critical commentaries to his simply because I'm familiar with them and see people I expect to be familiar with this commentary more commonly giving favorable reviews to the others. As always, there are other commentaries that some will find important or helpful, but these are the ones I know most about and recommend as most important.
Two forthcoming commentaries are worth mentioning, because both should be excellent. Frank Thielman is working on the BECNT, and Max Turner is writing the NIGTC. Once those are done, it will be hard indeed to select favorites, given that O'Brien, Hoehner, Best, and Lincoln are already all good enough to be a favorite if it weren't for all the others. Thielman and Turner will probably have the same level of quality but more up-to-date scholarship. I know Thielman's work on the law and on Philippians have been very well received, and he will likely be up with O'Brien and Hoehner at the top of my list. I know less about Turner, except that he's done a lot of good work on the role of the Holy Spirit, but what I do know suggests that he will easily be among this group of very good commentaries. Update: Clinton Arnold is also working on the ZEC on Ephesians. I haven't looked much at Arnold's work, but judging by how much his work influenced O'Brien's commentary I have to expect this to be a great commentary. Few books will be as well covered as Ephesians by the time all these commentaries are done.