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2 Thessalonians as a Forgery: The Theological Argument

I have decided, you may be glad to learn, that this will be my last post giving the reasons that scholars widely consider 2 Thessalonians not to be written by Paul, even though it claims to be written by Paul.   In order to make this the last post, I have had to make it unusually long.   Again, the point is both to show why scholars think what they do and to show the level at which they have to make their arguments, as opposed to the simple summary that I provide in my trade book Forged.   This is the same argument that I make there (the only one I make!) only it is given in the length and depth that I have directed it to scholars.  This is, once more, taken from my monograph Forgery and Counterforgery.  In it, by the way, I answer many of the objections readers have been raising to my view that 2 Thessalonians is forged.


The Theology of 2 Thessalonians

As recognized already by J. E. Chr. Schmidt over two centuries ago, the theological problem of 2 Thessalonians involves the divergent eschatological outlook of 2:1-12. There are two issues involved: is the author addressing a problem of a realized or an imminent eschatology? And does his resolution of the problem contradict the views of 1 Thessalonians 4:13-5:11?

The first issue hinges to a great extent on the exegesis of 2 Thess. 2:2, and especially the key term ἐνέστηκεν (“has come upon” or “is here”).  The readers are urged, with respect to the “parousia” of Christ and “our gathering together with him” not to be “quickly shaken or disturbed – whether “by spirit, by a word, or by a letter as if from us” to the effect that ἐνέστηκεν ἡ ἡμέρα τοῦ κυρίου. (“The day of the Lord has come” or “is here”).  In this context, does the perfect of ἐνίστημι mean that the day of the Lord “has already come and is now present,” an eschatology  analogous to what Paul disparages in 1 Corinthians, or that “it is virtually here and is soon to be realized,” comparable, say, to the proclamation of Jesus in Mark 1:15, “the Kingdom of God is at hand” (ἤγγικεν ἡ βασιλεία τοῦ θεοῦ)?

The use of the term ἐνίστημι in other Christian literature of the period ….


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My Forgery Seminar (Syllabus)
The Writing Style of 2 Thessalonians



  1. Avatar
    toejam  December 23, 2014

    More off-topic questions for you!!

    I’m interested in the relationship between the Gospel of Peter and Justin Martyr’s writing.

    In an earlier post you said: “There’s one passage in Justin Martyr that suggests he may have used the Gospel of Peter but it is disputed”

    I think I found this passage, from ‘Dialogue with Trypho’, chapter 106:
    “… and when it is said that [Jesus] changed the name of one of the apostles to Peter, and when it is written in the memoirs of him that this so happened…”

    Also, in my copy of ‘Early Christian Fathers’ (C.Richardson, ed.), a footnote led me to this parallel between the Gospel of Peter and Justin’s ‘1st Apology’, chapter 35:
    Justin: “… and as the prophet spoke, they tormented [Jesus], and set him on the judgment-seat, and said, “Judge us” …”
    Gospel of Peter: “… and they clothed him with purple and sat him on a chair of judgment, saying “Judge justly, King of Israel.”… ”

    Now, I swear I remember listening to one of your Great Courses lectures once and you talked about a particular Jesus saying in Justin Martyr that could well be from the Gospel of Peter. From memory, it was an apocalyptic-like saying… I’m hoping you can remember what on Earth I’m talking about! Can you think of any other parallels that might suggest that Justin used the Gospel of Peter or other non-canonical gospel sources?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 24, 2014

      Yes, the ch. 106 passage is the one. Well done. It’s hotly debated though. When he says “his” memoir, what does he mean? The memoir of Peter? The memoir about Jesus? The memoir of Mark who was giving Peter’s views? Many sscholars have opted for the second or third options, and I think they’re completely wrong. I’ve *thought* about posting on this, because it’s interestng. But it’s complicated and much debated. (But off hand I’m not sure which saying I would have been talking about; it would not have been an apocalyptic one, though, I’m pretty sure).

      • Avatar
        toejam  December 24, 2014

        Thanks. I must be getting confused with something else. I would love to see you dedicate a post to this!! Have a good Christmas.

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    simonelli  December 23, 2014

    Bart, you must realise that Paul and the gospel was under attack from all sides: You also know that the written word of the gospel has been adulterated, in view of that we must have the knowledge of what is true from what is not. Here is what I mean.
    In Matthew 27:52-53 we trustfully read: “And the tombs were opened; and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; and coming out of the tombs after His resurrection they entered the holy city and appeared to many.”
    I believe that the above two verses report something which never took place and therefore those lies are used to divert our attention from the Lord, because it is impossible for it to have occurred before or after the resurrection of the Lord, for we read in 2Timothy 2:18 about: “Men who have gone astray from the truth saying that the resurrection has already taken place, and thus they upset the faith of some.”
    In Acts 2:29, Peter says, “Brethren, I may confidently say to you regarding the patriarch David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day.” So Peter effectively says some time after the day of Pentecost that the body of David is still in his tomb (Confirmed by Acts 2:30-36) It is reasonable for us to assume that if the body of King David did not qualify for that alleged resurrection we can be certain that it never took place.
    In addition to that, the numbers of anomalies that those two verses contain are also an indication that our Lord never dictated them because:
    1) The resurrection of the body will take place on the last day (Read John 11:24, 1Corinthians 15:52, and all of chapter 20 of Revelation.)
    2) It should be obvious to anyone that even if those verses in Matthew were true, they are written in the wrong place and therefore are not in harmony with what was actually taking place. Jesus had just died and the alleged resurrection supposedly took place after His resurrection, so why write it there?
    3) If the alleged resurrection was after the Lord’s resurrection, why is it conveniently connected with the strange natural things that were happening in relation with the Son of God’s death? (Earthquake etc.)
    4) Also if those verses were true, the resurrection of our Lord with His heavenly body would become one of many and no longer one of a kind.
    5) Any Christian writer would have known that Jerusalem was no longer the “Holy City” because the presence of God was no longer in the temple (read Matthew 23:38) and the city’s destruction had been foretold (read Mark 13:2).
    6) We should also consider that the above verses do nothing to advance the knowledge of God but they are used extensively by the untaught to promote their own useless fantasies. Those who do not understand the Word preach best through their fleshly imagination by abandoning themselves to colourfully speculate what Jesus supposedly did while He was dead in the tomb.
    2 Corinthians 10:4-5 says it all: “For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but divinely powerful for the destruction of fortresses. We are destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the Knowledge of God, and we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ.”
    In other words, speculations are to be treated with the contempt they deserve, but the truth is supported by a variety of thought (or Scriptures) which are relevant to our every day lives and behaviour pleasing to Christ.
    Bart, the object of the enemy of Christianity was to disrupt the gospel in any way they could. Look around you, there are as many opinions on the scriptures as there are people. The enemy of Christianity were very successful, there is written somewhere ” and the devil deceived the whole world.”

    • Avatar
      Steefen  December 24, 2014

      Simonelli, the resurrection of the saints who walked in Jerusalem is not the same thing as the resurrection for Judgement. The former is like residue resurrection power that affected a few other dead people while most of the power resurrected Jesus. That’s how that is supposed to be read. That doesn’t upset my faith or my comprehension of the story.

      • Avatar
        simonelli  December 29, 2014

        Steefen, You need to read my post again. “residue resurrection power” What………..?

        • Avatar
          Steefen  December 30, 2014

          Simonelli: In Matthew 27:52-53 we trustfully read: “And the tombs were opened; and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; and coming out of the tombs after His resurrection they entered the holy city and appeared to many.”
          Steefen: This is a local event whereas the Resurrection of Paul is supposed to be a global event. This is background miracle to the miracle of Jesus’ resurrection. Why do you want Jesus to resurrect alone? You think this is the Resurrection of Paul’s “gospel”? What are we then, born after the Paul’s Resurrection Promise? Paul made up a lot things that people are putting stock in.
          Simonelli: I think Matthew 27: 52-53 is a lie.
          Steefen: Why not take it as another miraculous Act of God? God is declaring, I can raise the dead.
          Simonelli: At 2nd Timothy, some were declaring that the resurrection has already taken place.
          Steefen: Simonelli, who promised us a resurrection in the New Testament? Paul not Jesus. In both cases of the resurrection in the Gospels, Lazarus and Jesus hung around for a little bit and didn’t live well for long after their resurrections. Who wants that? Paul leaves us floating in the air–“caught up.”
          Simonelli: King David should qualify for Paul’s Resurrection event. Since David is still in his grave, the Resurrection of the Body did not happen.
          Steefen: David without vowels would be D-V-D. When you study, you will find David also as D-U-A-D. The monarch of Tanis, Egypt at that time had a throne name with “seba” as a component. Seba was a synonym of “djuad” which meant “star.” David’s 23rd Psalm really references an Egyptian amduat and rod and staff comforting one in the valley of the shadow of death is flail and crook over an Egyptian sarcophagus. Egyptian David would not rise for Paul’s Resurrection event.
          Simonelli: The resurrection will take place on the last day.
          Steefen: Meanwhile, reincarnations are happening over and over before the extinction of humans or the end of the earth. Let us know if you want to copy your post to the Reader Forums. Your post is long and I do not want to write a longer post here. Basically, when the people who came out of their tombs, they did so not on the day of human extinction or on the day Earth ended.

          • Avatar
            simonelli  January 1, 2015

            This is Bart’s blog and we should respect that, if you like to continue this interesting conversation get my book “the way god told it” from amazon or let me know and I will send one to you free.

  3. Avatar
    rjbase89  December 23, 2014

    Dr Ehrman:
    I have really enjoyed your recent posts on this subject. As I mentioned in a previous post, I first learned of the contradictions between these two books in your “Teaching Company” lectures. This very subject was the final impetus for me to start learning Koine Greek. I decided then that I had to be able to read the “original texts” myself in order to make up my own mind on these matters. So, I really enjoyed your use of the Greek in your argument. It was fun to put to use what I have learned on that subject. And you make a very good argument.
    Yet, as I mentioned in my last post, the question that I can’t help but have is how these two books could be included in the same canon? The contradictions between these two books seem to be both the most obvious and the most significant contradictions in the New Testament. If these two books were more or less in their present forms when they were deciding what books to include in the canon, it would seem likely that there would be disputes about these two books in the historical record. If either or both of these two books were significantly changed after they were included in the canon, would we not have other manuscripts that show that this was the case? Is there currently an answer to this question?
    I recently picked up a copy of your Text Book, “The Bible” and I am getting a lot from it. I recommend it to your other readers. Thx… BC

    • Bart
      Bart  December 24, 2014

      My view is that most people — both today and in antiquity — simply don’t see these contradictions unless someone points it out to them. They just don’t seem to be there! It’s only when you dig really deep that they start to become more apparent.

      • Avatar
        rjbase89  December 24, 2014

        Dr. Ehrman:
        You are saying that not even the people who were responsible for selecting the books that became part of the canon would have not seen these contradictions? These were generally learned persons for their times were they not? I am not questioning your authority on this subject, yet I find it hard to believe that this could have gone unnoticed.
        Starting from another angle, is there any way to establish the chronology of these two books. Can we say with certainty which book was written first? I think we know the answer to that but can we prove it? Can you suggest any sources that might shed light on these questions? Thx BC

        • Bart
          Bart  December 27, 2014

          Yes, that’s what I’m saying. Just like most highly educated people today do not see these discrepancies. As probably you yourself did not until I pointed them out to you!

      • Avatar
        Scott  December 25, 2014

        I would think as well that if Paul’s name had already been attached to them widely then it would be very difficult to oppose them or even dare dig deep enough to see the contradictions

      • Avatar
        Rosekeister  December 26, 2014

        Everyone’s mind is compartmentalized and few realize the contradictions. What Christian has not read “Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world, because I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat. I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger, and you welcomed me. I was naked, and you clothed me. I was sick, and you took care of me. I was in prison, and you visited me.’

        Here a first century church presents Jesus as saying a person is judged by how s/he treats the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and the prisoner. Yet millions of sincere Christians then vote for politicians whose stated positions were originally to keep the poor from having healthcare and now whose stated position is to take healthcare away from the poor and sick. These politicians have voted literally dozens of time to take healthcare from the poor and to reduce programs to help the needy yet sincere dedicated Christians still vote for them. A very clear case of listening to the voice of God through Jesus himself on the one hand and listening to Rush Limbaugh on the other…and deciding to go with Rush Limbaugh.

  4. Avatar
    Wilusa  December 23, 2014

    I thought of another possible argument…but then, immediately thought of an objection to it!

    The argument: Since Paul was the kind of person whose entire reason for believing in Christianity was a “vision” he supposedly had, his beliefs about the “End Times” might have been changed, quickly and drastically, by *another* “vision.”

    The objection: If that was the case, and even if we were to assume some letters of his in which he mentioned the second “vision” have been lost, he almost certainly would have mentioned it in a follow-up letter to the Thessalonians, to whom he’d – only recently? – spelled out his earlier beliefs.

  5. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  December 23, 2014

    A little complicated, but the main point about the two letters having theological differences about the “coming of the end times” is clear.

    Could you post sometime about why scholars think the author of Matthew used the Gospel of Mark rather than vice versa?

  6. Avatar
    Matt7  December 23, 2014

    Maybe what Paul and not-Paul meant to say is that since a day is like a thousand years to God, it’s safe to say that Jesus is coming back any day now.

  7. Avatar
    simonelli  December 23, 2014

    Bart, we should not throw away the baby with the bath water as you ask us to do; yes there are questionable things in there, but in the main it is ok. Let me show you what a real lie looks like: In Galatians 3:13 we read, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us, for it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.’”
    I am fully convinced that the original was written in the following way “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, having fulfilled the law for us.”
    We would certainly and clearly see the lie if we read Deuteronomy 21:23 in context with verse 22. We will then discover that part of verse 23 doesn’t apply to our Lord, for we read in Deuteronomy 21: 22-23: “And if a man has committed a sin worthy of death, and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, (23) his corpse shall not hang all night on the tree, but you shall surely bury him on the same day (for he who is hanged is accursed of God), so that you do not defile your land which the Lord your God gives you as an inheritance.” We can all sorely see that the above verse 23 doesn’t apply to our Lord, because our Lord was not guilty of having “committed a sin worthy of death,” required in the previous verse. In fact He was sinless, regardless of how He appeared to those who witnessed, or condemned Him to death. Yes, He was made sin but never committed sin; so by dying sinless Jesus stripped sin of the power of the law. (In other words, He has taken the authority of the law, from the law enforcer)
    Furthermore the testimony of 1Corinthians 12:3 confirms that He didn’t become accursed for it is written: “That no one speaking by the spirit of God says, Jesus is accursed.” With those undisputable proofs in hand we should only come to one obvious conclusion: that the Scriptures suggesting that our blessed Lord become a curse for us is nothing but a “blasphemous diversion” working against the knowledge of the accomplished works of our Lord.
    Bart, it is no joke to misinform the would be believer, hither maliciously or in good faith, however, the later in more dangerous for he will appear sincere.

  8. Avatar
    Hon Wai  December 23, 2014

    Assuming inauthenticity, what might be the dating of the letter? What might have been the socio-historical context that motivated the delayed parousia message? In the 2nd and 3rd centuries, do we find any non-canonical writings arguing against imminent parousia?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 24, 2014

      It could be anywhere from the end of the first to the beginning of the second century. Yes — later Christians did change the view of when the end would come — or *if* it would come. Maybe I’ll post on this.

      • Avatar
        doug  December 24, 2014

        I’d like to hear your thoughts on when or if later Christians thought the end would come. Since the imminent coming of the Kingdom of God on Earth was the central message of Jesus (IMO), it would be interesting to see how Christians tried to make that message compatible with the fact that the Kingdom of God did not come.

        • Bart
          Bart  December 27, 2014

          My sense is that the earliest Christians, including Paul, thought it was coming within their lifetimes. With the passage of time, they had to change the message.

  9. Avatar
    Steefen  December 24, 2014

    Bart: to be alert and awake, lest they be caught off guard when the Lord arrives (1 Thess 5:6-8)

    Steefen: What is this about? When the Lord arrives, are we his backup or something?

    #1 Are we about to go to war with him?

    #2 These warnings are not for a glorious kingdom but for taking up arms? Or is this the party parable where everyone has to be on time?

    #3 Do we have to bring people to him for judgement, as if we were his police?

    • Avatar
      Steefen  December 26, 2014

      Maybe this is another example of Jesus’ violent/militant tendencies. Maybe the parousia would have gotten a lot of Christians over their head into combat against those who don’t want the Son of Man as their king. Jesus did a parable about that: bring them and slay them before me.

      Dr. Ehrman, you mentioned you changed your mind (from when you were discussing Zealot) about Jesus being totally or mostly nonviolent; and, you said you were going to post about it.

      • Bart
        Bart  December 27, 2014

        I think I said that I was thinking about my mind. I thought about it, and decided that I was probably right after all, in the view that I laid out when dealing with Reza Aslan’s book on the blog….

  10. Avatar
    Mohit Kalburge  December 24, 2014

    good one !

  11. Avatar
    JoeWallack  December 24, 2014

    Not sure what’s more remarkable:

    1) That neither 1 Thessalonians or 2 Thessalonians mention Jesus being crucified.

    2) That you do not mention 1)

  12. Avatar
    wesperber  December 24, 2014

    Thanks, Dr. Ehrman. I recently finished reading Forged and very much enjoyed this thread as a follow up. Looking forward to another year of good stuff on your blog. Have a wonderful holiday!

  13. Avatar
    Rosekeister  December 26, 2014

    Do 1st and 2nd Thessalonians undermine the undisputed letters of Paul and other NT texts? 2nd Thessalonians appears to be a clear cut case of one letter “correcting” another. This suggests that a practice of the early copyists was to change the texts to correspond with the latest beliefs. In turn there is the realization that NT texts may contain any number of changes that will never be detected because the changes are just a few words here and there. You wrote the book on it in fact. So does having both 1st and 2nd Thessalonians accepted as NT texts more or less prove that today we can never know what the originals, whether letters or gospels, said since in just a few years people were correcting them to reflect current theological positions?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 27, 2014

      I’m not quite sure what you’re asking. My sense is that we have a pretty good idea of what was originally in 1 and 2 Thessalonians (or at least that we can proceed as if we did), and that their contents were at odds with one another.

      • Avatar
        Rosekeister  December 29, 2014

        I rarely express myself clearly. 1st and 2nd Thessalonians, both within the NT, seem to be one letter “correcting” another and the second letter was perhaps meant to replace the first letter. You wrote a book on corruption of scripture where changes are made to make scripture more clearly orthodox. These two practices must have been fairly common since they are found even within the NT canon. Doesn’t this undermine the idea that we can know what the originals said since corrections were apparently a common practice very early?

        • Bart
          Bart  December 30, 2014

          My view is that even though we can not know with certainty what the original texts said in any case, we still have to proceed on the grounds of probability — and all things being equal, it’s not *highly*probable that the texts of 1 and 2 Thessalonians were radically different from what we have now.

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