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Is 2 Thessalonians a Forgery Based on 1 Thessalonians?

In a previous post I began giving the scholarly version of why 2 Thessalonians is often considered to be non-Pauline – that is, to be forged in the name of Paul by someone wanting you to think he was Paul even though he was someone else.   That  discussion was taken from my book Forged, written for a broader audience   Now that I have given a (very) brief sketch of the history of the scholarship on this problem (the previous post) I can begin to discuss the actual evidence, taken from my deeper analysis in Forgery and Counterforgery.

This is where the discussion gets down to business with more serious argumentation.  As you’ll see, it’s not that the ideas themselves are hopelessly complex (we’re not talking astro-physics here….) but that to write at the scholarly level requires assuming lots of background not usually known to normal people, — only to abnormal biblical scholars — and, correspondingly that it requires the use of Greek. That’s the only kind of approach that will convince.    (Not that scholars with established opinions are usually convinced to think they’ve always been wrong — they are human after all.  But for scholars with an open mind, evidence and argument do matter).

To make it all a bit simpler for the blog, I’ve translated most of the Greek words/phrases here.  Feel free to skip all that bit and move to the later paragraphs.   But realize it won’t be as convincing then!

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2 Thessalonians as a Forgery

One reason the case for the inauthenticity of 2 Thessalonians has occasionally seemed wanting, even to some very fine scholars, is that critics have often resorted to a shotgun approach, citing every possible argument, good or bad, in support of their position. It is all too easy to dismiss bad arguments, leaving an appearance of evidence in balance, pro and con. And so, for example, the letter is often said to lack Paul’s customary “warmth” (are all of Paul’s writings necessarily warm? Even to the same congregation? Think of the different fragments of correspondence with the Corinthians – including 2 Corinthians 10-13); the focus is on Christ as Kurios [= Lord] rather than on his cross (does Paul have to focus on the cross, in everything he says?); the letter does not employ the diatribe style (as if Paul was obliged to do so?); the letter is lacking in justification language (do we need to read every Pauline letter with Lutheran blinders?). A scholar like Malherbe can easily dismiss such claims, making the other arguments seem weak by association.

A better tack is to drive hard the compelling arguments. The two most striking involve:  (a) the impressive parallels to…

 

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2 Thessalonians as a Forgery? Does the Author “Write” Like Paul?
2 Thessalonians: When Scholars Began To Doubt It Was Authentic

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    Maciej Owczarzak  June 14, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman, I just wanna use the opportunity to ask about the genre of the Gospels. You have a blog post saying that they are ancient biographies, but Dr. Dale Martin in his Yale course (lecture nr. 6) repededly states that Gospels are not biographies of Jezus and authors are not really concerned about getting they facts about Jesus right, but they rather focus on getting their own theological message across. I wonder, is there any consensus on that matter?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 16, 2019

      Yes, he and I actually agree on this point. When I say they are “biographies” I mean they are ancient bioi — i.e. biographies in the way *ancient* biographers (Plutarch, e.g.) wrote them. When Martin says that are *not* “biographies” he means they are not like *modern* biographies written with modern conventions and approaches and assumptions (biographies of Lincoln or Jefferson, e.g.). We agree on both points. to understand the Gospels you first have to understand how ancient (as opposed to modern) biographers went about writing their accounts.

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  2. Avatar
    joncopeland  June 14, 2019

    Is it the case that 2 Thess is trying to pass itself off as 1 Thess? Or is it trying to present itself as a second piece of correspondence? My thought is that 2 Thess attempts to pass itself off as the original Letter to Thessalonica. Later, when both texts were being circulated, the tradition formed that 2 Thessalonians is a follow-up to account for there being two letters. Do any of the early church fathers express suspicions about it?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 16, 2019

      Yes, some have thought it was meant to “replace” 1 Thessalonians as “the” letter to the Thessalonians. The problem is that the author refers *back* to the previous letter, affirming it (2 Thess. 2:15) (a number of scholars have not noticed this!)

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  3. Avatar
    fishician  June 14, 2019

    Fascinating, I never before thought about how exact repetitions in these letters would actually be evidence for forgery rather than authenticity. Clearly, the forger of 2 Thess not only had 1 Thess, but must have believed it was really written by Paul since he went to such efforts to imitate it. Which is really ironic since in 2 Thess 2:2 he seems to disparage the very letter he is trying to imitate! Any opinion on whether the author might have been one of Paul’s opponents, that Paul often mentions, or actually a follower of Paul who was just trying to adapt to changing times after the apparently delayed return of the Christ?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 16, 2019

      My sense is that he was living somewhat after the days of Paul, early in the next generation.

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  4. Avatar
    rborges  June 14, 2019

    I am almost finished reading your New Testament textbook. Coincidently, I am in the part of the book which discusses the deuteropauline and pastoral epistles. I have a question: one of the evidences against some of the epistles being authentic is that their author(s) tends to use very long sentences, while the real Paul’s style was more direct and concise. An example given is that Ephesians 1:3-14 consists of a single sentence in Greek. Question: how does one know how long a sentence originally was, given that there were no punctuations in the originals?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 16, 2019

      Ah, see today’s post! Ancients knew how long a sentence was — they just didn’t punctuate them. Actually if you have some practice, you can take periods out of English sentences and figure them out pretty accurately as well. Subjects and verbs, e.g.!

  5. fefferdan
    fefferdan  June 14, 2019

    Bart, you are making headway at convincing me. At this point I am like Agrippa: “thou almost maketh me a skeptic!” Will you be producing additional arguments?

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  6. Avatar
    Stephen  June 15, 2019

    A but tangential but a question – Given the nature of the controversies about the resurrection detectable in both 1 Thess and 1 Cor, isn’t it likely that some of Paul’s early Gentile converts, with their Greco-Roman cultural baggage, were having a difficult time internalizing the Jewish apocalyptic idea of a bodily resurrection and a Kingdom of God here on Earth?

    Thanks

    1
    • Bart
      Bart  June 16, 2019

      I should think so. Eventually, of course, the Christians began to deemphasize the teaching, to the point where most Christians throughout history have not believed it.

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  7. Avatar
    Hngerhman  June 15, 2019

    Dr Ehrman –

    Re: the items in 1 Thess that are peculiar to it (and 2 Thess…) relative to the undisputed Pauline epistles, clearly these differences do not rise to the level of the scholarly consensus rejecting 1 Thess as inauthentic, but is there any decent (subjective term) work you’ve seen that attempts to make the case that 1 Thess is also a forgery? Thanks!

    • Bart
      Bart  June 16, 2019

      None that has stuck. There have occasionally been scholars who have argued that *none* of Paul’s letters is a letter by Paul. This was most famously argued in the early 19th century by Bruno Bauer.

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  8. Avatar
    brenmcg  June 15, 2019

    Yes guess its hard to argue against the writer of 2nd Thess having a copy of 1st Thess in front of him when composing. But when 1 Thess opens with “Paul, Silas and Timothy … ” can we take it that all three are in agreement with what’s contained in the letter – in which case if Silas or Timothy wrote 2nd Thess using the 1st as a guide it wouldn’t strictly be a forgery?

    Also do you think 2 Thess 2:2 should be read as arguing against the teaching that the day of the lord is here already? In which case it wouldn’t be arguing against 1st Thess?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 16, 2019

      It’s usually assumed that Silas and Timothy agreed with what Paul wrote in the letter, though, of course, we have no independent evidence that they did! But if they did agree, then the argument that Paul did not write 2 Thessalonians because its theology differs from that of 1 Thessalonians (as I’ll argue in tomorrow’s post) would apply to *them* as well. And yes, I think 2 Thess is indeed arguing against 1 Thess.

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  9. Lev
    Lev  June 15, 2019

    May I ask a completely off-topic and off-genre question?

    Have you an opinion on space exploration? Do you think humanity should reach for the stars and colonize other worlds? Do you think it’s worth our effort to be a multi-planetary species that extend ourselves beyond our planet and our solar system?

    The reason I ask is, I get the hunch that you’re a pretty progressive guy, and given the recent efforts in recent years from American agents (particularly SpaceX), that maybe you share the value of humanity to reach beyond itself into unknown territory.

    Perhaps, maybe, you a Star Trek fan?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 16, 2019

      I was, but only with the original series! And what period pieces they are. (No longer a fan: too dumb….) But yes, I’m in favor of developing space exploration, mainly because I think if we don’t come up with some alternatives, the race will not last (when we either blow ourselves off the planet or make the place uninhabitable). What happens when the sun blows up, I don’t know. On the other hand, I don’ tthink the desire for humans to last forever is particularly rational. (We didn’t exist for *most* of the 13.8 billion years the universe has been around; why should we exist for most of the years when it won’t be?) On the other hand, it’ll be sad when it all goes….

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      • Lev
        Lev  June 16, 2019

        Awesome! I’m glad you see the logic in reaching for the stars. I agree we may not last forever (what does?) but I think there’s something within humanity, curiosity and sense of adventure perhaps, that drives us to explore the unknown and reach beyond our own frontiers.

        You may be interested to learn today is not just Fathers day, but also international Captain Picard Day! He was the Captain of the Enterprise D, shown in Star Trek The Next Generation (TNG) set about 85 years after the original series. Many of us fans adore TNG as much, if not more than the original series.

        By the way – did you check out the youtube video I linked in my original question? It’s a compilation of the most inspirational speeches in Star Trek.

  10. Avatar
    Tempo1936  June 15, 2019

    Could you give a few examples as to the Differences in the theology of the second letter from those of the first?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 16, 2019

      I did in my first post on the topic a couple of weeks ago; and I’ll be giving th emore sustained argument in tomorrow’s post.

  11. Avatar
    bwarstler  June 15, 2019

    Hi Dr. Ehrman,

    OT, and sorry if this has been asked. Is there any historical evidence for the Romans whipping people before crucifying them, or putting a crown of thorns on them?

    Thanks,
    Brian

    • Bart
      Bart  June 16, 2019

      1. I think so, but I’m not sure off hand and don’t have any reference books handy to look it up. Maybe someone else can tell us?

      2. Definitely not. That’s a Christian idea — to show the mockery of Jesus as a king, when in fact (as crowned with suffering) he really was a king (though a different kind of king from the one expected)

  12. Avatar
    darren  June 16, 2019

    I’m really enjoying the deeper level of explanation. Love it!

  13. Avatar
    crt112@gmail.com  June 17, 2019

    Bart – this is very interesting. I recenlty bought a few of your books and found you some times repeat similar arguments in multiple books – like Jesus the quiet suffering servant (in Jerusalem) in Mark versus the in-control Jesus in other gospels. But details like this Thessalonians comparison are just as interesting, and convincing. Keep them coming 🙂

    • Bart
      Bart  June 17, 2019

      Yeah, I won’t be repeating *these* arguments in a trade book!

  14. Avatar
    bAnn  June 17, 2019

    Bart,
    It seems unusual that Paul would (in 2 Thes.3:17) speak about needing to prove the letter is from him. “Here is my greeting in my own handwriting – Paul. I do this in all my letters to prove they are from me.” I notice that ending in Colossians, and Galatians, but not in all letters supposedly written by Paul. Is there any significance to that? bAnn

    • Bart
      Bart  June 18, 2019

      Galatians is almost certainly Pauline. The others are typical ploys used by forgers to make the reader think they are who they say they are….

  15. Avatar
    bAnn  June 17, 2019

    Bart,
    Another question. Did the Jewish idea of the Messiah ever see him as God? I have your Great Courses HOW JESUS BECAME GOD, but don’t recall any mention of the above question. bAnn

  16. Avatar
    Thespologian  June 17, 2019

    Why is 1 Thess’ authenticity any more certain to be a Pauline letter to begin with?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 18, 2019

      Because it agrees in writing style, vocabulary, substance, theology, and presupposed historical situaation with the other letters that appear to be written by Paul (unlike 2 Thess.)

  17. Avatar
    Hngerhman  June 17, 2019

    Dr Ehrman –

    Is there a scholarly consensus as to (a) why Paul didn’t have apostle as title for himself in 1 Thess and (b) whether 1 Thess was penned before or after Paul’s encounters with “the pillars” of the Jerusalem church? Your thoughts on these?

    Thanks!

    • Bart
      Bart  June 18, 2019

      1. He does indicate he is an apostle in 1 Thess. 2:7; 2. Probably before

      • Avatar
        Hngerhman  June 18, 2019

        Awesome, thanks!

      • Avatar
        Hngerhman  June 20, 2019

        Dr Ehrman –

        Circling back. Thanks again for sorting me on this one – I misunderstood the specificity of what you meant in the post (it was the conjunction of (a) lack of apostle/slave/prisoner, plus (b) the same used as an explicit epithet, plus (c) in the greeting (not the whole work of 1 Thess. I glossed over the small circumscribed area of point (c) when I read the post).

        Sharpening my initial question a bit, do you or does the scholarly consensus make anything of import out of Paul’s lack of epithet in the greeting, other than style (or that he simply just didn’t do it in the case)?

        Thanks a ton!

        • Bart
          Bart  June 23, 2019

          Yes, just the style. He begins his letters in a variety of ways. Also in Philippians, e.g., he doesn’t start by calling himself an apostle.

          • Avatar
            Hngerhman  June 24, 2019

            Thanks a ton!

  18. Avatar
    Actual_Wolfman  June 18, 2019

    Hello Dr. Ehrman,

    Apologies if you’ve addressed this in your books or here on the blog, but who were these forgers? In reading the many posts discussing them I have the sense they must’ve been persons of standing within the Christian community at the time. If their identities were exposed, would the average believer (at that time) know who X person was?

    Thanks!

    • Bart
      Bart  June 18, 2019

      No, we wouldn’t know who they were almost certainly — since we don’t know the names of over 99% of the Christians from the time!

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