I have made the following post available to all readers, whether they belong to the blog or not.  Rarely on the blog do I show how scholars make arguments to other experts in the field of biblical studies (as opposed to scholars who simply summarize the results for non-scholars); even more rarely do I make such posts available to anyone who wants to see.  But here is an example — just in case you’re interested and would like to know.   (You’ll notice that once you get into the meat of the discussion, about half-way through, it’s not the sort of thing that would occur to regular-ole readers of the Bible, even if they’ve been reading it their entire lives.) 

This is a “re-post” of a post I made some five years ago.

If you were a member of the blog, you could read five posts a week, nearly always written at a popular level for non-scholars, but always based on scholarship “behind the scenes” (like this).   So think about joining!


In my previous two posts I started giving the scholarly argument against the authenticity of 2 Thessalonians – that is the argument that even though the letter claims to be written by Paul, it was in fact written by someone else who wanted you, the reader, to think it was written by Paul.   In this post I continue that discussion, turning now to the question of the writing style of the letter.   Once again, this is taken from my scholarly study, Forgery and Counterforgery.

I ended my previous post by pointing out that 2 Thessalonians has taken words and phrases from 1 Thessalonians in order to make it sound authentic, and even borrowed the structure of that earlier letter.  I concluded with these words:

This is not how Paul wrote any of his other letters, by replicating the structure (to this degree) and taking over the vocabulary and even sentences of an earlier letter he wrote. But it is no stretch to imagine that this is how a forger would operate, to provide a Pauline feel to the letter. The evidence is clinched when seen in relation to the style and theology of the second letter, which differ from those of the first.


Issues of Style

It is altogether simple for a forger to take over the words and phrases of an author’s other writing. It is a different matter to be able to imitate the author’s style when engaging in free composition. Jewett sensibly objected to the stylistic arguments mounted by Trilling, because – as often happens in discussions of style in the Deutero-Paulines – Trilling offered no bases of comparison with the established Pauline writings.379 It is one thing to say that an author uses excessively long, complex sentences; it is another thing to show that this is somehow different from how Paul himself was known to write.

Two points should be kept in view at the outset of any discussion of Pauline style. The first is that the question is never whether Paul was capable of writing in one style or another. He was an educated author, and like all educated authors, he could vary his style, to some degree at least, as he saw fit. But everyone does in fact typically write in a certain style, often without putting a great deal of thought into questions such as how to effect subordination, whether to prefer subordination to coordination, how to choose which conjunctions to prefer over others, how to construct participial clauses, how to employ the infinitive, and so on. Most authors , unless they are overwhelmingly conscious of being involved in a rhetorical exercise (for example, trained rhetoricians working on an oratorical production), simply write the way they write. No one can plausibly claim that Paul could not have written in the style of, say, Luke or the author of Hebrews, if he had really wanted to. At the same time, no one can plausibly claim that Paul did write that way.

The second point will require more extended discussion, and so I leave it to a short Interlude to come at the conclusion of the next chapter. It is often claimed by scholars of the New Testament that differences of writing style among, say, the Pauline or Petrine letters can be accounted for by the use of secretaries. This secretary hypothesis has become a panacea for all things authorially dubious, as even a quick survey of the commentaries makes abundantly clear. It nonetheless rests on an extremely thin, virtually non-existent, evidentiary basis. All this I will try to show anon; I mention it here simply to forestall the anticipated objection that stylistic differences within the Pauline corpus derive from secretarial input.

The most directed study of the style of 2 Thessalonians was undertaken by Darryl Schmidt, who showed on the basis of several unrelated but significant grounds that the letter differs, stylistically, from the undisputed Pauline letters.381 Schmidt’s essay does not engage in bland generalities about long sentences and strange style, but provides a detailed demonstration that 2 Thessalonians (and Colossians and Ephesians) are not written in Paul’s typical style. Among his criteria three are especially striking. First, he considers sentences as measured by the numbers of embedded clauses and levels of  embedding. 2 Thessalonians 1:3-12 is often pointed to as a long and complex sentence. It is true, as Schmidt points out, that there are other sentences in the undisputed letters that are nearly as long (2 Cor. 6:3-10; 11:24-31). But these letters do not match the complexity of the sentences in 2 Thessalonians. Specifically, Schmidt takes the longest sentence in the opening thanksgiving section of each of the Pauline letters and measures how many embedded clauses there are and how many layers of embeddedness. The results are quite telling: in Romans there are five embedded clauses at four layers of embeddedness; 1 Corinthians: six clauses at four layers; 2 Corinthians: five clauses at three levels; Philippians six clauses at one level; 1 Thessalonians ten clauses at five levels. Contrast these figures with the Deutero-Paulines: Colossians twelve clauses at eight levels; Ephesians eighteen clauses at thirteen levels; and most striking, 2 Thessalonians: a whopping twenty-two clauses at fifteen levels of embeddedness. The point, again, is not that this is an impossibly more complex style (it is not nearly as complex as that found in numerous other authors); the point is that it is an uncharacteristically Pauline style.

Schmidt then considers a different stylistic feature, the patterns of genitive constructions in non-phrase strings, of which there are three kinds (a) article + noun + article + noun (genitive); (b) a genitive pronoun added to a string; (c) anarthrous nouns in the same kind of string. When calculated for every 1000 words in the text, one finds the following frequencies of these kinds of strings (Appendix 2): Romans 12.8 strings per one thousand words; 1 Cor. 8.8 strings; 2 Cor. 13.1 strings; Gal. 15.2 strings; Phil. 7.4 strings; 1 Thes 10.8 strings; Phlm. 11.9 strings. Again, the contrast with the Deutero-Paulines, and especially 2 Thessalonians is stark. Colossians 29.7 strings; Ephesians 31.7 strings; and 2 Thessalonians 26.7 strings.

Third, Schmidt considers the frequency with which a writing uses coordinating and subordinating constructions. Leaving out the ubiquitous καί, he finds the relative frequency of coordination versus subordination (per hundred words) to work out as follows: Romans 68:34; 1 Corinthians 77:47; 2 Corinthians 59:42; Galatians 65:44; 1 Thessalonians 49:38; Philippians 53:36; Philemon 50:38. Once again there is a contrast with the Deutero-Paulines, where subordination is far more relatively common: Colossians 18:25; Ephesians 27:26; 2 Thessalonians 41:37.

The ultimate pay-off of these three measurements is that the general sense that scholars have had for many decades that 2 Thessalonians (and the other two Deutero-Paulines) contains a more complex style than the undisputed letters – including the author’s model, 1 Thessalonians – is in fact borne out. It is indeed a more complex style. In isolation this kind of stylistic demonstration can carry little weight. Authors can and do vary their style, and statistical models are constantly challenged on grounds related both to the statistics and the models. But when taken in tandem with the earlier consideration, that the author of 2 Thessalonians has followed the structure and borrowed the words, phrases, and even sentences of 1 Thessalonians, the fact that the non-borrowed materials appear in a non-Pauline style appears far more formidable. Remaining doubts can be removed by the most complex of the three main arguments against Pauline authorship, the theology of the letter.