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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.


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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  1. Avatar
    RVBlake  June 9, 2019

    It is interesting that the author of 2 Thessalonians is worried that people are ignoring their daily responsibilities. Is this not the proper approach to daily worries as instructed in the Sermon on the Mount?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 9, 2019

      I think the difference is that Jesus never tells people it’s OK to quit their day jobs….

  2. Lev
    Lev  June 9, 2019

    Would this be an example of an exceptionally early forged letter, given the reference to the Jerusalem Temple in 2:4?

    If the temple had already been destroyed when the letter was written, then it would have been a little odd for the forger to claim the anti-Christ had yet to take his seat at a Temple that no longer existed.

    If the letter does pre-date 70, is it possible this was written while Paul was still alive, or is it more probable that it was written shortly after he met his end c67?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 9, 2019

      Lots of Jewish writings after 70 presuppose the standing of the Temple (even in the Talmud); so that can’t be used to date writings.

      • Avatar
        Iskander Robertson  June 11, 2019

        when it says “temple” does it imagine a building or can a location where the temple stood still referred to as temple?
        so even if the temple was destroyed, could the location of that place still be called “temple” ?

        • Bart
          Bart  June 12, 2019

          These writings actually refer to priests offering sacrifices inthe temple. So they are imagining the temple is still up and functioningn in Jerusalem, even though they know it’s not, in order to make their point.

  3. Avatar
    jhague  June 10, 2019

    “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”

    Is Paul the only person we know of who made a statement like this?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 11, 2019

      Only Paul and those familiar with Paul I suppose. But no, it’s not in the other writings of the NT (including Revelation!)

      • Avatar
        jhague  June 11, 2019

        Does that lead us to believe that Paul created this idea?

        • Bart
          Bart  June 12, 2019

          Sorry — I lost track of the flow of this conversation, and I can’t remember what idea we’re referring to. I tried to find it in the comments on the post, but to no avail. So remind me: which idea are we wanting to know if Paul created?

          • Avatar
            jhague  June 12, 2019

            The idea that 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.
            Was Paul the creator of this idea or he inherit it from others?

          • Bart
            Bart  June 14, 2019

            Ah, we don’t know. I suspect he’s the one who came up with it.

  4. fefferdan
    fefferdan  June 10, 2019

    I agree that many of “Paul’s” letters were not written by him. But in this case I’m not convinced. Seems to me Paul changed his mind about the timing and even importance of the Second Coming, seeing as how it is not such a big deal in his other letters, which must have mentioned it if he still considered it imminent. If so, then what is to prevent him from having written an update? I think of him as rather inconsistent and evolving in his theology. I recognize there are still problems with this view, but I also wonder how many of his letters are lost, and whether he would accurately remember what he wrote earlier. Open to be convinced otherwise.

  5. Avatar
    Joel Smith  June 11, 2019

    IMHO… in 1 Thess 4 Paul says that he wants you to understand what happens when you die. He said that Jesus comes down from heaven and takes you back to heaven with him. None of this is physical & this is not about a second coming.
    Jesus promised Thomas that he was going to go to God’s house in heaven and prepare a place for him. Jesus then promised to then come back & take Thomas there to live with him in heaven forever. Again, as Paul said, flesh & bone bodies can’t go to heaven.

  6. Pattycake1974
    Pattycake1974  June 15, 2019

    “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.”

    It seems that he did keep the law but did minor things that made some Jews think he wasn’t. When he said he became a Gentile in order to win one of them to Christ, it’s not necessarily saying he didn’t keep the law. However, I think he caused a lot of confusion about it.

  7. Avatar
    mikezamjara  June 17, 2019

    Part of the problem to understand the Bible comes from the fact that it is not ordered in a more chronological order. These kiind of observations could be more visible to the normal people if a versión of the new testament could begin with the Paul’s letters
    in the order un which they we’re written instead of beginning with the gospels . Don’t you think it could be an useful idea for scholarly work?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 18, 2019

      Yes, it would be highly useful. But impossible to pull off. We can’t establish an absolute chronology of all the writings of the NT. But yes, it’s very important indeed to realize that Paul was writing first. the problem is that he presupposes things about Jesus, and to know something about Jesus you have first to read the Gospels. Complicated! The later books have to be read to make some sense of the earlier…. I talk about this at the beginning of my textbook on the NT.

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