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Did Paul Really Write 2 Thessalonians?

I am out of the country must now, giving lectures for a tour of Greece and Turkey focused on “The Footsteps of Paul.”   For the past three days we’ve been in Thessaloniki, a terrific place; tomorrow we’re off to Samos, an island near the coast of Turkey, from which we’ll make expeditions to Ephesus and Patmos (not connected with Paul, but how can we pass it up?), etc.   Suffering for the cause.

In my talk to the group today, I was explaining why scholars have such difficulties knowing what Paul actually said and did.  For one thing, the accounts in Acts (which give a kind of biography of Paul) may be roughly accurate in their broad picture, but there are reasons for thinking the details are problematic.  That’s important because Acts is our only ancient source that claims Paul was from Tarsus, was a Roman citizen, and had three major missionary journeys.  And some of the things it says about Paul are highly significant, if true – for example, that he never, personally, stopped keeping the Jewish law while on the mission field.

The other problem, as many of you will know, is that some of the letters in the NT that claim to be written by Paul were probably not.   I thought this might give me an occasion for re-posting a series of blog posts from many years ago, dealing with a letter allegedly written to the Christians in the city I now find myself in, Thessalonica.

1 Thessalonians was almost certainly written by Paul (basic reason: it coheres in writing style, vocabulary, theological perspective, and presupposed historical situation with the other letters almost universally acknowledged as having been written by Paul).  2 Thessalonians?  Yeah, not so much.

Here is how I started broaching the problem when discussing it before, in an earlier era of the blog.   In this post I give the big and simple reason for thinking the letter is pseudonymous (written by someone claiming to be Paul who was actually someone else; modern term for that, of course, is “forgery”).  After this post I’ll go into more detail.

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Paul himself thought the end was coming in his lifetime.  Nowhere is this more clear than in one of the letters we are sure he wrote, 1 Thessalonians.   Paul wrote the Christians in Thessalonica because some of them had become disturbed over the death of a number of their fellow believers.  When he converted these people, Paul had taught them that the end of the age was imminent, that they were soon to enter the Kingdom when Jesus returned.  But members of the congregation had died before it happened.  Had they lost out on their heavenly reward?  Paul writes to assure the survivors that no, even those who have died will be brought into the kingdom.  In fact when Jesus returns in glory on the clouds of heaven, “the dead in Christ will rise first, then we who are alive, who remain, will be caught up together with them to meet the Lord in the air” (4:17).  Read the verse carefully: Paul expects to be one of the ones who will still be alive when it happens.

He goes on to say that…

The rest of this post is for blog members only.  If you haven’t joined yet, I suggest you do so soon.   The end will be coming like a thief in the night.   Don’t leave something left undone!

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2 Thessalonians: When Scholars Began To Doubt It Was Authentic
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Comments

  1. Avatar
    The Agnostic Christian  June 7, 2019

    Honestly, that is still a message that some Christians haven’t gotten yet and they neglect their lives in anticipation of the return of Jesus.

    • Avatar
      Robby  June 21, 2019

      It’s the old saying “They’re so heavenly minded that they are no earthly good.”

  2. Avatar
    fishician  June 7, 2019

    Jesus thought the end of the age was imminent, at least as his words were recorded. Paul thought the end was at hand, in his lifetime. But when that proved to be untrue the true believers had to regroup and change the doctrine. We see the same thing in recent times, like the 7th Day Adventists and other groups who said the end was imminent, but it was not! I have to laugh at the apocalyptic pronouncements of these various groups!

  3. Avatar
    Sisu  June 7, 2019

    Dr. Eherman,

    For those biblical historians (like yourself) who feel 2 Thessalonians is a forgery, would it make sense for the dating of the letter to be before the destruction of the Temple in 70CE (and presumably after Paul’s death a few years earlier)? I ask because if it were written in say 90CE, wouldn’t Paul’s followers be tempted to read it and say “Well, that can’t be right. The all that happened 20 years ago and Jesus never reappeared.” Or is the description in 2 Thes. vague enough that Paul’s followers may not have associated it with the Jewish Revolt and the Temple destruction, but rather anticipated something even bigger yet to come after the Temple was rebuilt some day?

    Enjoy your Greek adventure. I’ll get there some day!

    • Bart
      Bart  June 9, 2019

      They would have had bigger problems with 1 Thessalonians, since it’s the one that says the end is coming suddenly. 2 Thess gives a lot more wiggle room.

  4. Avatar
    Pegill7  June 7, 2019

    Somewhat off the topic, but what is your opinion of Paula Fredericksen’ s “Paul:The Pagan Apostle”?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 9, 2019

      I think she’s a top-rate scholar, massively learned and very insightful. I don’t agree with everything, but then again, it would be boring if I did.

    • Avatar
      AndrewJenkins  June 9, 2019

      There’s quite a difference between ‘The Pagan Apostle’ and ‘The Pagans’ Apostle’…..I thought you had discovered a whole new side to Paul…..

  5. NulliusInVerba
    NulliusInVerba  June 7, 2019

    Do your consider Paul to be a zealot (lower case “z” or otherwise)?

  6. Avatar
    ksgm34  June 7, 2019

    I must be missing something really obvious here but wouldn’t Christians have been aware of Paul’s death? How is that letters purporting to be authored by Paul could emerge after his death and yet their provenance not be questioned?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 9, 2019

      Because no one said “This letter was written last month.” They said: “I’ve seen another letter that Paul wrote!” Circulation of literature was very, very spotty and Christian churches often didn’t have access to important Christian literature for decades — and they knew it.

  7. Avatar
    Duke12  June 7, 2019

    Have a safe and fruitful trip! If you have never ever attended a Greek Orthodox worship service in a church or monastery, I highly recommend doing so at least once, especially while you’re in Greece (Patmos has a nice monastery and there are plenty of Churches to choose from in Thessaloniki). I think you may find it fruitful, even from a scholarly research perspective, to experience a form of non-Reformation/non-Counter-Reformation Christianity — in Greek, no less! (if not Koine) — organically connected to the original Christian communities and infused with layers and layers of traditions accumulated over many centuries: kind of like those old Greek and Roman cities themselves: a vibrant, living, mix of ancient, medieval, and modern. I really do think it would add extra insight to your work. If you have already done so over the years, then never mind. And regardless, I promise not to bring this up again :-).

  8. Avatar
    jrussel18@aol.com  June 7, 2019

    It seems like a good idea that II Thessalonians was written otherwise Jesus’ followers would be living on the edge, so to speak, “eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we may die.” There would be a complete lifestyle disruption and the nascent church might never have gotten off the ground. Pseudepigrapha it may be, but it played a significant role.

  9. Avatar
    Todd  June 7, 2019

    Thanks for the heads-up on 2nd T !!! Have a great trip and wonderful summer.

  10. Avatar
    wostraub  June 7, 2019

    Bart, the glaring discrepancy regarding the imminent return of Jesus in 1 Thess and 2 Thess must have been noticed by the early church fathers. So how did it get into the New Testament?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 9, 2019

      They reconciled it. Just as almost all readers still do! Almost no one one notices it until it is pointed out.

      • Avatar
        dankoh  June 9, 2019

        The Harper-Collins study version of the NRSV is almost certain 2 Thess was written by someone else, using much the same argument you’ve posted (in less detail).

        There are a couple of genuine Pauline letters where he adds that he is writing in his own hand (1 Cor. 16.21, Gal. 6:11, Philem. 19) – in Philemon the phrase is interesting because he was in prison and I have to wonder how the Romans would have let him dictate it. I see that the same phrasing is used in Colossians, which he didn’t write. I think you are right that the author added the extra emphasis here in 2 Thess. because it was so in conflict with 1 Thess.

  11. Avatar
    mikezamjara  June 7, 2019

    1. Whan reference would you recommend me (beside Forged, i have read it hehe) to learn more of the studies done to the paulien letters to determine the differences between the undisputed letters and disputed.

    2. How reliable is to infer that different writting style means different author. Doesn´t writting style could change during one’s live?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 9, 2019

      1. You might try the book by Calvin Roetzel on Paul’s letters, for starters.
      2. It’s sometimes highly problematic, depending how it’s used. That’s why it’s used in connection with *other* criteria, almost never on its own. Even so, if you read Mark Twain and then James Joyce, there’s something to be said for differences of style leading to conclusions about identity of authorship.

  12. Avatar
    brenmcg  June 8, 2019

    If 1st Thess is early and 2nd Thess is late, shouldnt we expect his views on the immediacy of the end-times to become more nuanced?

    Also isnt the greeting just “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all” same as 1st Thess, maybe that too was written in his own hand – Paul just trying to show some way they can tell the letter is genuine as a response to other forged letters being sent?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 9, 2019

      1. They are more nuanced. That’s one of the points.
      2. Wait for a future post. For now: Paul never does that in any other letter. If it’s his way, why doesn’t he use it elsewhere? But that’s not really meant to be a probative argument. I’ll be giving that anon.

      • Avatar
        brenmcg  June 9, 2019

        ok thanks.

        Been to Ephesus before, amazing place, but it was before I knew anything about it.

        I’m sure its an even better experience when you know the history. Enjoy!

  13. Avatar
    RICHWEN90  June 8, 2019

    Something that emerges fairly consistently: true believers are perfectly willing to lie when it suits them. Much is made of “the truth”. And yet, when truth becomes inconvenient, when it clashes with doctrine, truth gets thrown on the trash heap. That is very bizarre. The unavoidable conclusion is that there is something very much wrong about the way our brains process information. There’s some sort of assumption about what is real, and then information is accepted or rejected or distorted in order to to preserve what has been assumed to be real. Christians, obviously, are not immune. But it must be the case that some people are more susceptible than others. Some people are less rigid in their thinking than others. I wonder what determines the difference. Nature vs nurture again.

    • Avatar
      jrblack  June 9, 2019

      Upton Sinclair once said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” This is a special case of a broader principle which applies to much more than just jobs and salaries. For most people, being safe and comfortable and accepted by their in-group is vastly more important than any abstract notion of truth. For such people “truth” is whatever they need it to be in order to protect their peace of mind and/or their social standing. Consequently, if they change churches or religions or political parties or even football teams, they generally do so not because they have been convinced that their new commitment is objectively more in accord with the truth than the old one, but rather because they find their association with the new group to be more satisfying for other reasons. In other words, for most people commitment does not arise out of belief; belief arises out of commitment. In general, it is only a tiny minority who truly attempt to discern the truth and “follow the facts wherever they lead”–and they often pay a very high price for doing so.

      • Avatar
        RICHWEN90  June 11, 2019

        I guess we need to remember that the human brain EVOLVED, and it didn’t EVOLVE in order to become a fact-finding and truth-seeking instrument. Whatever it became, it became by default. It seems to have been beneficial in terms of species survival so far. Whether it has what it takes to survive it’s own lethal by-products (and Christianity might be one of those by-products, as well as nuclear weapons and plastic garbage) remains to be seen.

  14. Avatar
    Bwana  June 8, 2019

    Wow, talk about fake news !! Fooling people for close to 2 millennia already. Compared to this 2 Thess. dude, Fox News are just a bunch of amateurs.

    By the way, it’s not the queen, but rather “the lady doth protest too much”. Methinks …

    • Bart
      Bart  June 9, 2019

      Ha, you’re right! And my wife’s a Shakespeare scholar!

  15. Avatar
    rivercrowman  June 8, 2019

    Enjoy the weather! It’s a dry heat, right?

  16. Avatar
    JoeWallack  June 8, 2019

    Professor Ehrman:

    1 Thessalonians, generally thought to be the earliest Pauline Epistle, is interesting in that in never mentions the supposed crucifixion of Jesus. The key belief in it is the supposed resurrection of Jesus. I think you would agree that orthodox belief in Jesus significantly started with a belief in a resurrected Jesus and then worked backwards:

    1) Resurrection.

    2) Crucifixion.

    3) Passion.

    4) Teaching & Healing Ministry.

    5) Birth.

    6) Pre-existence.

    Do you think this is why 1 Thessalonians does not mention crucifixion? Because it represents an early orthodox belief that only/primarily emphasized the resurrection?

    http://skepticaltextualcriticism.blogspot.com/

    • Bart
      Bart  June 9, 2019

      I think that some of Paul’s letters don’t mention the crucifixion simply because everyone he was writing to knew about it and didn’t have to be reminded — since he was writing about *other* things. (Just as most of my letters don’t mention the crucifixion, though I think it happened)

  17. Avatar
    anthonygale  June 8, 2019

    If writing in Paul’s name was common, and the vast majority of letters written by Paul (and his forgers) were lost, how confident can you be that the “undisputed” letters were written by him and not a forger? What if the “undisputed” letters are coherent because they are from the same forger and the letters of Paul are either lost completely or amongst the disputed epistles? I might simply ask that as a devil’s advocate question. But then again: if Paul wrote lots of letters, and there were a lot of forgers, and Paul addressed forgery in his letters and the vast majority of letters were lost…how do you know which ones we have?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 9, 2019

      Yes, it’s possible. The argument is a bit complicated though for why these books are thought to be authentic; it’s not just that they cohere. Part of it is that hte theological and historical situations they presuppose fit in well with what almost certainly was going on in the 50s. Forgeries tend to sneak in later ideas, views, and issues.

  18. Avatar
    anthonygale  June 8, 2019

    After recently re-reading the gospel of Mark, something occurred to me. In chapter 13, Jesus talks of the “signs of the times” but also says “no one knows the day or the hour.” Might this seem like a similar contradiction that casts doubt that the same author wrote 1 and 2 Thessalonians? I realize there are other reasons to doubt the authorship of 2 Thessalonians. But is it an absolute contradiction to say certain things will happen first, but the end is still imminent?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 9, 2019

      Paul agrees he doesn’t know the day and the hour. He just knows it’s soon. And 2 Thessalonians doesn’t know the day or the hour either — it just indicates that when it’s close, it’ll be clear (or rather that since these things have not happened, it’s not close: not the same as saying that we know exactly *when* it will be clear.)

  19. Telling
    Telling  June 9, 2019

    I’m a little off subject but related:
    Wondering, when Acts ends in Rome, if Paul was released and traveled again and was again taken to Rome and executed the second time there, this final journey not appearing in Acts, where and when do you think Romans was written?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 9, 2019

      I don’t think Acts is accurate on that. I don’t think he was released from Roman prison and then came back again.

  20. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  June 9, 2019

    This concise and clear distinction between First and Second Thessalonians is quite helpful. How do apologists usually explain these differences?

    Have a great trip!

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