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2 Thessalonians as a Forgery? Does the Author “Write” Like Paul?

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.


Does Paul Think the End is Coming Soon? Does 2 Thessalonians?
Is 2 Thessalonians a Forgery Based on 1 Thessalonians?



  1. Avatar
    UCCLMrh  June 16, 2019

    Wow! An obvious example of a single author writing in different styles is your writing in trade books vs. your writing in academic tomes. For example, I’m sure you fully intended to use the word “anon” in this passage. I’ll bet a nickel that you never were tempted to say “anon” a single time in a trade book. I won’t actually count subordination levels and embeddedness and such, but one expects there are differences.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 17, 2019

      Ha! That’s absolutely right. And the reason is quite clear: different audiences. That’s the problem with Paul: it would have been precisely the *same* audience.

  2. Avatar
    darren  June 16, 2019

    Amazing post!

  3. Avatar
    RICHWEN90  June 16, 2019

    This sort of analysis is entirely convincing, to me, at least. It seems dishonest for various preachers to use these texts as though such analyses had never been performed, and as though these texts were not in any way problematic. Deceptive and perhaps willfully ignorant. Certainly not candid. I have heard of AI programs used to search for inconsistencies in textual material and to perform other analyses, and I have been hoping someone would run both the Old and New Testaments through an AI engine. Interesting results might emerge!

    • Bart
      Bart  June 17, 2019

      Yes, that’s partially why I wanted to do these more heavy-hitting posts, to show that it isn’t simply some kind of liberal bias at work, but actual detailed analysis. (But I do have to say that computer analyses have always proved a bit disappointing, for methodological reasons)

  4. Avatar
    AstaKask  June 16, 2019

    How about the Timothies and Titus? Are they forgeries too? Do we know it the same way?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 17, 2019

      Yup, in those cases it’s even more obvious. I provide a far more extensive analysis of them in my book Forgery and Counterforgery.

  5. Avatar
    Stephen  June 16, 2019

    So if 1 Thes had been suppressed and lost and we had only 2 Thes with it’s reference to a previous letter but without Paul’s letter as a reference, could scholars detect the forgery?


  6. Robert
    Robert  June 17, 2019

    I agree that the multiplication of poor arguments against Pauline authorship is counter productive and offers a very low bar to proponents of the genuineness of a specific letter. Other than countering poor arguments, has anyone offered good arguments in favor of the authenticity of any of the disputed letters? For example, does Robert Jewett have any good arguments about the authenticity of 2 Thessalonians? I would expect him to be a very good critical scholar and not merely defending apologetic positions.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 18, 2019

      Yeah, I was expecting good arguments because he is indeed a good scholar. But no, he doesn’t really come up with much. IN fact, I thought his defense was uncharacteristically weak (e.g., claiming that no one could get away with a forgery just 30 years or so after Paul’s death. Uh… If Paul wrote 2 Thessalonians he acknowledges that there was a letter floating around in his name that he didn’t write during his *lifetime*! And of course there are lots of instances in antiquity where living authors make the same complaint. Jewett, like so many other NT scholars talking about NT pseudepigrapha, simply was not aware of the ancient discussions of forgery! weird but true.)

  7. galah
    galah  June 17, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman, do scholars ever view the forgeries and redactions by later scribes as a form of censorship?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 18, 2019

      I’m not sure what you mean. Censorship usually involves hiding writings from view.

      • galah
        galah  June 19, 2019

        Isn’t that what the author of Thessalonians 2 was trying to do, convince his recipients that he was Paul in order to disprove Thessalonians 1? If he had succeeded in swaying the peoples’ opinion about the letter’s authenticity, he well could have brought about its demise, therefore, hiding it from view.

        • Bart
          Bart  June 21, 2019

          Not to disprove, I would say, but to provide a different way of reading it, a nuance. In 2:7 he refers back to it favorably, so he’s not openly trying to trash it anyway.

          • galah
            galah  June 21, 2019

            NRS 2 Thessalonians 2:2 not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by spirit or by word or by letter, as though from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord is already here.

            Dr. Ehrman, Isn’t this verse saying that a previous letter was a fake? When he tells them not to be shaken “by letter, as though from us,” doesn’t (ὡς δι’ ἡμῶν) “as though from us” indicate that it was from someone else? Is this talking about yet another letter? How many letters did they receive? Is there any way to know for certain which letter in particular the author is speaking about? Perhaps this was an original letter that was written by Paul that is no longer extant, thanks to this well written fake. I’m rambling now.

          • Bart
            Bart  June 23, 2019

            Yes, “a” previous letter was. The question is: *what* letter? It’s important to note: if a forger claims that part of the reason they are forging a letter is to correct the impression left by an allegedly *earlier* letter, that does not necessarily mean that there really *was* an earlier letter. It could simply be the ploy to explain the forgery. I have a long discussion of this in my book Forgery and Counterforgery.

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