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2 Thessalonians: When Scholars Began To Doubt It Was Authentic

Since I am in Greece (starting out in Thessaloniki) I have begun reposting some blogs from five years ago connected with the Second Letter to the Thessalonians, which claims to be written by Paul but appears to have been written instead by someone else who wanted his readers to *think* he was Paul.  My last post gave the heart of the matter from my trade book for a general audience, Forged: Writing in the Name of God – Why The Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are.

In the next several posts I will show how I address the same question for scholars, in my scholarly monograph, Forgery and Counterforgery: The Use of Literary Deceit in Early Christian Polemics.   I thought this would be worth doing for two reasons.  First, I’d like you to know – if you’re interested – what the full reasoning behind the common critical view of 2 Thessalonians is, that is, what the really persuasive arguments are.   Some of these are long and complex and not easily simplified for a lay audience.  And so I didn’t try in my popular book!    Second, I thought it would be interesting to show, by way of example, how a scholarly approach to a question like this differs from a popular approach.  I’ve already shown the latter and now I’ll show the former.

This will take a few posts.  I hope you don’t find them at all offputting.  This first one is not overly technical and should be accessible, I think.   The others are reasonably so (we’re not talking nuclear physics here), but they’re not the sort of thing you’re gonna find in Barnes & Noble.  In my scholarly discussion, I do at the outset what scholars tend to do: give a brief account of the history of scholarship on the question.  This is what I say there (Note:  for the sake of convenience, I have not included the footnotes – which, among other things, provide the German quotations of the original sources; if you want the really full monty, just get the book!):

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History of the Question

Problems connected to the authenticity of 2 Thessalonians were first recognized by J. C. Chr. Schmidt in 1801.  Schmidt pointed out that 1 Thessalonians is a letter allegedly by Paul that maintains that the end is imminent, whereas 2 Thessalonians warns against a letter allegedly by Paul that maintained that the end is imminent (2:2). How could one explain this situation? If 1 Thessalonians were written first, did Paul not remember what he had written by the time he wrote 2 Thessalonians? If, conversely, 2 Thessalonians were written first, did Paul not remember that he warned his readers against precisely the views that he now embraced in the second letter? “In any case, it remains puzzling why he described in one letter the appearance of Christ as near, and in the other warned not to expect it as being near.”

Schmidt considers the obvious possibilities that…

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Is 2 Thessalonians a Forgery Based on 1 Thessalonians?
Did Paul Really Write 2 Thessalonians?

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    anthonygale  June 9, 2019

    Is it necessarily a contradiction to say the end is imminent but things must happen first? What if those things happen a week from now and the end comes three days after that?

    I already mentioned in another question (just yesterday and you haven’t had a chance to answer yet), there is a similar apparent contradiction in Mark. Jesus says there are people who won’t see death until the kingdom comes, the gospel must first be preached to the nations and suggests that servants not be found sleeping by the master if he comes home suddenly. That sounds like, or at least it could be reasonably interpreted, that the kingdom is soon coming but there will be signs first. That also sounds like, superficially at least (I’m sure more can be said looking deeper), these two letters and Mark are in agreement on the issue.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 10, 2019

      It’s not *necessarily* contradictory, for the reason you cite. But if one book says it will come unexpectedly and the other says that there will be signs showing you when it will come, yes, that seems to me to be at odds. Mark never says it will come unexpectedly. He says it will happen in his generation ,and that the gospel will first be spread. People like Paul thought both were true at once. That’s why he was urgent to spread the gospel.

      • Avatar
        anthonygale  June 10, 2019

        What about Mark 13:35-37? Jesus doesn’t explicitly state the end is imminent, but it gives the impression that it could happen at any time. Perhaps my thought that early Christians believed the end to be imminent influences my reading, but I do think it gives that impression.

        Does the Greek text use a word that is the equivalent of imminent? How exactly do you define imminent versus soon? And where do you draw the line?

        • Bart
          Bart  June 11, 2019

          I’m not sure which word you’re asking about. Jesus says it will come within his own generation, before the disciples all die. That’s as specific as he gets. Paul indicates it’ll happen unexpectedly, at any time, before he himself dies. Again he gets no more specific. 2 Thessalonians doesn’t say if it will come in the authors generation, but he does say it won’t happen unexpectedly and suddenly. That’s the difference.

          • Avatar
            anthonygale  June 18, 2019

            Unless something is lost in the translation I’m reading (or I am just misreading), 2 Thessalonians doesn’t seem to be addressing the belief the end won’t come soon. Rather, it seems to address the belief the end has already come. Is it fair to say that the requirement for events to happen precludes the possibility the end has already come, but still allows a sudden arrival after the events happen? That is, since the lawless one hasn’t come, the end can’t have come yet but it will come at any time once he arrives?

            Perhaps that is a bit too much apologizing. The other thing I am getting at is Mark seems to portray a similar (although not as explicit) contradiction. He talks of “signs of the times” similar to the ideas in 2 Thessalonians that things must happen first. Yet the metaphor of the slaves being caught suddenly by the master still suggests it will come unexpectedly (at least to those not paying attention), similar to 1 Thessalonians. If there is a similar contradiction within Mark, and Mark is believed to be written by one person, why doubt the authorship of 2 Thessalonians based on this (apparent) contradiction?

            Despite me asking these questions I will say I am inclined to agree with you. The comment about “don’t you remember me telling you this” and signing his name seems a bit fishy. I just don’t think the contradiction is absolute.

          • Bart
            Bart  June 19, 2019

            You might want to read my posts more closely: that’s the option I deal with here: https://ehrmanblog.org/does-paul-think-the-end-is-coming-soon-does-2-thessalonians/ I explain why that interpretation doesn’t work, even though, you’re right, it has influenced translators who do not want anyone to think there is a discrepancy with 1 Thess.

  2. Avatar
    doug  June 9, 2019

    There should be another word than “scholar” for people who mainly start with their conclusion and then bend and cherry-pick evidence and ignore contrary evidence in order to support their desired conclusion.

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  3. Avatar
    Matt2239  June 9, 2019

    How frequently did people use signatures to identify themselves in antiquity? I can’t quite see if the author is teaching the Thessalonians something new or just something that’s new to them.

    And did Paul himself know that the standard for sharing books and letters was to copy them over from another source? If so, he would have known the limited value of a letter that references a signature for its authenticity.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 10, 2019

      Oh yes, that was the only way to do it and everyone knew it. He never signed his letters per se, but at the end of one of his letters he idicsates he wrote the last sentence or so by himself, so they could identify his writing. You’re right, that wouldn’t help someone reading a copy, but maybe he didn’t realize anyone would see a point in making a copy? (He didn’t know he was writing for *others*)

  4. Avatar
    gavriel  June 9, 2019

    I once asked you how it could be that Jesus on the one side taught people to turn the other cheek and at the same time shovel invective against his opponents , like the woes of the pharisees.
    Couldn’t we allow Paul to be a bit inconsistent as well, or to change his mind?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 10, 2019

      Absolutely! I think he definitely did about some things. But not a month or so later with taking precisely the opposite position on one of his major beliefs.

  5. Avatar
    dawaddy  June 9, 2019

    In 1 Thessalonians 3:12, a letter supposedly authored by Paul, did Paul suggests to its recipients Jesus would return in their lifetime?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 10, 2019

      Is that the right verse? No, it doesn’t seem to say anything about when Jesus would return.h

  6. Avatar
    AstaKask  June 10, 2019

    So how many ways are there to reach Heaven in the New Testament?
    1) Mark says* the Kingdom will reach man rather than the other way around.
    2) Matthew says* you have to follow the Law, even better than the Pharisees. In fact, you have to sell all you have and follow Jesus. Presumably this hasn’t gotten through to your televangelists. Also you must feed the hungry, visit the sick, etc. Be a good person.
    3) Paul says you don’t need to follow the Law (I think? He seems to be very down on things like adultery), but that faith alone will save you. You cannot be good enough for God,
    4) James says you need faith and be a good person.

    How many more are there? For such an important question, God seems distinctly ambiguous, if one can be such a thing.
    * has Jesus say

    • Bart
      Bart  June 11, 2019

      First thing I’d say is that none of these authors is talking about going to heaven when you die; they are talking about entering the kingdom of heaven that is arriving on earth. How many different ways? Not sure! Depends how you count. But I would say that the four you name have some differences between then (at least I think Matthew and Paul disagree; Paul and Jesus disagree; and Paul and James disagree; probably Matthew and James disagree).

      • Avatar
        Iskander Robertson  June 11, 2019

        how do you follow the law better than the pharisees when you have to do and obey everything they say ?

        2“The scribes and Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. 3So practice and observe everything they tell you.

        my understanding : “when they tell you about moses or what moses commanded, do and practice everything they tell you.”

        they are in position of interpreting moses’ commands.

  7. Avatar
    NTDeist  June 10, 2019

    Is there any evidence in the authentic writings of Paul that suggest or support the claim in Acts that Paul was a Roman citizen?

  8. Avatar
    Steefen  June 10, 2019

    Hi Professor.
    In your course From Jesus to Constantine, in a survey you used on “Who was the greatest person in Western Civilization,” Alexander the Great placed first and Jesus and Paul tied for fifth. Who placed second, third, and fourth?
    Thank you.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 11, 2019

      I wish I remembered! It was a poll I saw in the mid-1980s, and I never wrote it all down!

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