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Does Paul Think the End is Coming Soon? Does 2 Thessalonians?

I now come to the crux of the matter, the argument that for me seems the most convincing that Paul probably did not write 2 Thessalonians.  I already stated the argument in its simple form last week, here: https://ehrmanblog.org/did-paul-really-write-2-thessalonians/   Now I want to show how the argument gets grounded in a much deeper exploration of the text itself; in part this is to show that it’s not a particularly simple matter and in part it’s to illustrate, again, how scholars make argument like this to other scholars (as opposed to summarizing the results more broadly).  That may not be your cup of tea – but if so, then be assured, another pot is brewing.

Once more, this comes from the blog (five years ago), and can be found with footnotes (if you’re a real glutton for punishment) in my monograph Forgery and Counterforgery.  I have translated most of the Greek here.   For further guidance, among the technical terms I use, “realized eschatology” refers to the idea that believers are *already* enjoying the full benefits of salvation, with nothing more to be hoped for or expected; “imminent eschatology” is an opposing view, which says that a major climax of history is soon to occur when salvation will be complete.

As you probably know, I maintain strongly in my writings that both Jesus and Paul held to a view of imminent eschatology.  But does the author of 2 Thessalonians?  It’s a tricky question, but it’s the one I try to resolve here.

It will take two posts to cover the water front.  Then we’ll be done with 2 Thessalonians for now.hhhh

 

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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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Why Paul Did Not Write 2 Thessalonians: A Final Post
2 Thessalonians as a Forgery? Does the Author “Write” Like Paul?

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Comments

  1. fefferdan
    fefferdan  June 17, 2019

    Bart, what date would you assign to 2 Thess? And why? I’m particularly interested in the “man of lawlessness” concept as a harbinger of the end. Do you think the author knew the Book of Revelation? At what point did Christians start thinking in terms of an individual Antichrist [as opposed to heretics in general playing that role] as anticipating the Second Coming?

    1
    • Bart
      Bart  June 18, 2019

      I don’t think we know, other than that it was after 1 Thessalonians and, in my view, probalby after Paul’s life. I’d suggest late first century. The eschatology does not align particularly well with Revelation, so I don’t know if he had read it or not, but I doubt it.

      3
      • fefferdan
        fefferdan  June 18, 2019

        Well, at least we can probably agree they both knew the Book of Daniel.

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    Apocryphile  June 17, 2019

    I think if I were a Thessalonian, I would have gotten the hell out of there – if not to avoid the coming apocalypse, at least to avoid all the coming theological and scholarly analysis!

    3
  3. Avatar
    brenmcg  June 17, 2019

    Isn’t the point of saying ‘the Day of Lord could come at any time’ to get people to act righteously, as if they could be judged at any time. Which is what is said in Romans 13.
    And the point of telling people ‘the Day is not immediately upon us’ is to stop them giving up on a normal working life, as if the future doesn’t matter – warning against idleness is the point of 2nd Thess.
    So it would make sense that the same preacher could espouse both.

    Neither 1st or 2nd Thess know when the end will come. 1 Thess thinks destruction will come suddenly when people think there’s peace, 2 Thess thinks it will come when the lawless one is revealed, but that he is already secretly at work.

    • Avatar
      brenmcg  June 17, 2019

      Separately, for a letter like Romans say, which Paul would presumably have spent a long time composing and have been quite proud of the finished product, isn’t it unlikely he’d just send it off to Rome without making a copy?
      Mightn’t he have thought it useful to rehash some of the material for use in letters to other churches – letters which might have subsequently been lost?

      • Bart
        Bart  June 18, 2019

        It’s hard to know if Paul ade copies of his letters. One interesting question is if he made one, did he make it himself or did a scribe? In either case, were there any accidental mistakes made in copying it? Wish we knew.

        • Avatar
          brenmcg  June 18, 2019

          Yes related to the question of whether it means anything to talk about the “original” versions of the NT books.

          • Bart
            Bart  June 19, 2019

            Yup, closely related. Suppose Paul made a copy of his letter, and inadvertently changed a few things. And suppose it was the *copy* of the letter that was the only one copied. Then what is the “original.” If it’s the one from which he made a slightly errant copy, we would have no access to it, since all surviving copies would go back to the slightly errant copy. ANd so it goes….

    • Bart
      Bart  June 18, 2019

      Are you saying that in Paul’s preaching to the Thessalonians and in 1 Thessalonians Paul was saying things that he didn’t actually believe were true in order to get people to behave properly? That would seem to be a bit of a problem, I should think.

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      • Avatar
        brenmcg  June 18, 2019

        Not so much lying as emphasizing different points at different times – get right with the Lord because you could be judged at any time, but also don’t sit idle because it probably wont happen for a while. All things to all men!

        • Bart
          Bart  June 19, 2019

          Ah, that’s a very different argument from the one you gave earlier!

      • Avatar
        Iskander Robertson  June 23, 2019

        When the text says “day of lord come at anytime” what convinces you that this does not mean “will come 2000+ years later” ?

        is paul talking about “judgement anytime” or the actual day of judgement ?

        • Bart
          Bart  June 23, 2019

          If I tell my daughter to get ready because I’m going to see here any day now, what I really mean is that I’ll show up in thirty years, I think we would all imagine there was something strange. If I meant 2000 years, even stranger!

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  4. Avatar
    AstaKask  June 18, 2019

    What does Luke mean when he has Jesus say “The Kingdom of Heaven is within you”? I’ve heard that “among you” is a better translation.

    1
    • Bart
      Bart  June 18, 2019

      Yes, it’s a better transltion. “Within” makes no sense given the context: he’s talking to his enemies the Pharisees, precisely the people that he thought would be *excluded* from the kingdom. The word here means “in your midst” not “inside of you.”

      3
      • fefferdan
        fefferdan  June 18, 2019

        Is this also the case in the Gospel of Thomas, where the “within you” idea makes perfect sense?

        • Bart
          Bart  June 19, 2019

          Yes, I’d say Thomas’s theology is very different indeed, and internality is something he (unlike Luke) wants to stress.

  5. Avatar
    wannes  June 18, 2019

    “In arguing in this way, the author is indeed following an established Pauline approach, easily available to him from the other Pauline letters.”

    Do we have any indication that the author had any other of Pauline letters available? Do we have any indication when 2 Thessalonians could have been written, and how widely spread the Pauline letters were by then?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 19, 2019

      No, there’s no clear evidence of him knowing any of the others. It looks like 2 Thessalonians would have been written when some Christians came to realize that Jesus would not after all be returning within the generation of the first Chrsitains. We see this view in Luke and Acts — so possibly around then? 80 CE or so? We don’t know how widely known Paul’s letters were at that point.

  6. Avatar
    Neurotheologian  June 18, 2019

    Dear Bart, I’ve not had time to read all these posst on the authorship of 2 Thes, so please forgive me for jumping in because I saw it was about apocalyptic views. You’ve put a lot of store by contradictions, even by the same author eg Luke – even in the same book. Yet here, you seem to be suggesting that because contradictory views are expressed by this epistle compared to the better-established Pauline works, that this is good evidence for forgery. Haven’t you changed your mind over the years? Are you not still changing your mind? In the context of a perceived delay in the return of Christ, intially expected immanently, is it not possible that Paul had a re-think later in his life?. OK, maybe you will argue Romans is later than 2 Thes,… but even then, people vascillate in their ideas. Surely NT Christians’ eschatology evolved, just as their Christology did. I wouldn’t be surprised if Jesus’s eschatology evolved during his lifetime. Being human is about changing and about learning new things as the are revealed, either by the progress of time, the advances of sceince and archaeology, or by direct divine revelation, if one beleives in the latter (which I do). However, I also believe that all revelation of truth is ultimately divine. As for eschatology and apocalyptic prophets, don’t you think events in the world are starting to look strangely premonitory of some of the apocalyptic predictions by Jesus and John of Patmos? Are you willing to allow such events to change your views? This video even shook me and I’ve always been a bit of a secret prophecy buff (shhh – don’t tell anyone 🙂 ) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OHzokIq8oh8&feature=youtu.be&fbclid=IwAR1WXtr9SQ1Yxo-Uj-stCwYCUARRlQKMVkdPj0_kk4mALtQOsTlLHIaZJRI
    Best wishes

    • Bart
      Bart  June 19, 2019

      Yes, you’re right — every case has to be looked at individually and assessed carefully. The reason Luke has variant Christologies is that he is incorporating words from earlier sources which did not all have the same views. That is not what’s happening with 2 Thessalonians vs. 1 Thessalonians. Very different kinds of writing. And not, the Apocalypse is not coming true in our own day. Every generation of Christians has argued that they were coming true in *their* day (and they all had substnatial “proof” of it). And every one has been wrong (whether the Montanists in the 2nd Century, the followers of Joiachim of Fiore in the 12th century, the Millerites in the 19th century, the followers of Hal Lindsay in teh 1970s, etc. etc. etc.) That should definitely give you pause. My next book will be about this.

      • Avatar
        Neurotheologian  June 19, 2019

        Thanks Bart. As an amateur, I do feel ever so slighlty guilty about taking your time, but I’ll be honest that I also get a buzz out of having a conversation with one of the foremost biblical scholars in the world. So thank you for your patience and grace. In my ignorance, of course, I am very willing to accept your point about 2Thes being a different style and type of writing and, as you will have gathered, my main interest here is the apocalyptic angle. I totally accept your point about every generation of Christians arguing that they were in the time of the end etc and that the return of the Son of Man was immanent in their day. As you have eloquently written about, it was so in the very first generation of Christians as it is today – all have thought the end of the age was immanent and, as you have argued, maybe Jesus himself did too. However, to put it in an English way, there ‘maybe method in this madness’. In other words, if there is a God who is interested in the affairs of man and if such a God is ‘Judaeo-Christian’ (in the sense of the Jews really being his suffering servant people and Jesus really being his suffering servant messiah), then maybe that’s the way he wanted his representative people to live – with a sense of immanency of the end of the age and the return of the Son of Man. Having said all that, we are no longer in an age where just religious fundamentalists are telliing us ‘the end is nigh’ – it’s now the Elon Musks, the Obamas, the Soroses and the Stephen Hawkings of our age who are talking about multiple ‘existential threats’ – everything from pollution & global warming, to food shortages, nuclear anhiliation and the AI singularity. And what’s even more shocking, is that they are all calling for a world goverment as the best solution. Hello!? Is there anybody listening to all this? Did you watch the video I Iinked to on implantable RFID tenchnology replacing passports, cash and bank cards? These days you don’t have to be Hal Lindsey, a John the Baptist, a Jesus or a lunatic to be thinking and talking about the end being ‘nigh’. I say ‘look up, for your redemption draweth ‘nigh’.

  7. Avatar
    dannawid  June 19, 2019

    On the subject of Paul, what would his reason be in going to Arabia after his conversion? and how long did he stay there before returning to Damascus. Is the Arabia he is referring to present day Saudi Arabia?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 19, 2019

      He says he went for three years, but he doesn’t say what he was doing. But no, it’s not Saudi Arabia, into the desert (as we were always taught when I was young). He is referring to the Nabatean Kingdom. Presumably he was in cities there (Petra?). Possibly preaching his new Gospel?

      • Avatar
        Neurotheologian  June 20, 2019

        On what basis do you rule out Saudi Arabia (including the Northern region of Midian or Median, where moses met Ziporah and Paul also says Sinai is)? If I were Paul, going on a bit of a pilgramage, I’d be off to the place it all started – Sinai – the real deal! I wouldn’t be interested in the Nabateans? I mean, what significance did they (or their predessors) hold? And Petra??….. No way! It sounds far too much like Cephas! 🙂

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    Hogie2  June 19, 2019

    Have you completely forgotten your fundamentalist, eschatology? 1 Thessalonians is referring to the pre-trib Rapture, and 2 Thessalonians to his return to the Mt of Olives to establish his millennial reign. Problem solved. Lol. Hey, worked for me at point in my life. Thanks for all you do!

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