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Paul’s Letter to the Thessalonians

In my two previous posts I discussed a textual variant that could be explained either as a scribal accident or as an intentional change.   I thought it might be interesting to point out a few other variants that also could go either way.   These are all intriguing problems in and of themselves, and by talking about them I can illustrate a bit further the kinds of quandaries textual critics find themselves in when trying to decide what an author wrote when we have different versions of his words in different manuscripts.   My plan right now is to look at three variants in three different mini-threads (all of them subsumed under the larger thread of why I wrote The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture).   Today is one of my favorites, a particularly thorny issue found in 1 Thessalonians 2:7.

I can’t get to a discussion of that issue without providing some important background; just the very basics of the background will take me two posts, before I can even start to explain the textual problem.

First Thessalonians was, more or less obviously, the first letter Paul wrote to the church in Thessalonica.   We don’t know how many other letters he wrote to the church there.  In the New Testament we also have 2 Thessalonians, but scholars have had long and protracted debates for well over a century over whether that book was originally written by Paul or was written by someone *claiming* to be Paul who wanted you to *think* he was Paul.   The latter is my rather strongly held personal view.   I talk about it a bit in my book Forged, and at substantial length, in case anyone is interested, in my book Forgery and Counterforgery.

But that’s of no moment here.  My point right now is…

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The Return of Jesus (Rapture?) in 1 Thessalonians
Mark 1:1 as an Intentional Alteration of the Text



  1. Avatar
    shakespeare66  August 5, 2015

    I was told by my brother sometime in the 1980’s that the end was coming. He was/is still a Jehovah’s Witness. When the end never came, I said nothing to him, and he nothing to me. Miscalculation. Imagine the number of people over the years who have waited for that time and expected it to come. You document 4 or 5 situations in your Great Course ( last lecture) on the Historical Jesus ( which I just finished–loved it!!). Aren’t all Christians basically apocalyptic? That is, are they not still waiting for the end of the age and the return of Christ ( aka The Second Coming)?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 6, 2015

      No, in fact a lot of Christians don’t think that at all. Most of my Christian friends are highly sophisticated academics and intellectuals who are fully on board with science and history and a modern understanding of the world.

      • Avatar
        shakespeare66  August 6, 2015

        Well, you do hang out with a different crowd. The Christians I know do believe in “the rapture” or “Armageddon” or the Second Coming. There are different levels of intelligence in the Christian community as you know. I am sure many of these fundamentalist will claim such an event is pending.

      • Avatar
        jhague  August 7, 2015

        Do Christian intellectuals who are fully on board with science and history and a modern understanding of the world believe that they are going to a place called heaven when they die? (without a rapture or second coming)

        • Bart
          Bart  August 8, 2015

          Some do. Some think that the idea of a personal afterlife is all part of a more complex Christian myth that is not literally true.

          • Avatar
            jhague  August 8, 2015

            So with that thinking, they are Christians because they think it’s a fulfilling life style to live?

          • Bart
            Bart  August 9, 2015

            I’d say it’s not only that, by a pretty long stretch. It would take a book to explain, but the short story is that the CHristian view of the world makes sense of the deeper realities we face and the moral lives we should live, and is a profound understanding of the meaning of our being.

          • Avatar
            jhague  August 9, 2015

            Right. And that’s also what all main world religions say. Plus we don’t need religion to gain this understanding or live moral lives. It would seem that intellectuals would not want to always be hearing about the Christian myths. I cannot find a Christian church even among the progressive and contemporary ones that do not hold to the myths and expect the members to believe the myths. Do your Christian friends attend church services?

          • Bart
            Bart  August 10, 2015

            Absolutely. There are a *lot* of churches that do not promote a literal understanding of the second coming.

          • Avatar
            jhague  August 11, 2015

            I wasn’t speaking only of the second coming. The progressive contemporary churches have softened their stances on the second coming but still state that eternal existence with God is heaven and external separation from God is hell. Christian churches also view the Bible in some way as God’s word, believe in the trinity, believe in baptism, believe in the lord’s supper being commanded by Jesus and the list goes on and on. How do your Christian intellectuals deal with these beliefs at the churches they attend?

          • Bart
            Bart  August 13, 2015

            My friends don’t believe such things, and either do the churches they are in. There really are lots of liberal churches out there.

          • Avatar
            jhague  August 13, 2015

            Not in Ohio!! 🙂

          • Avatar
            jhague  August 13, 2015

            I just did a search. Looks like the United Church of Christ has formed some community churches that are as you describe. Even in Ohio! 😉

          • Bart
            Bart  August 14, 2015

            Yes, many UCC churches like that. And others.

  2. gmatthews
    gmatthews  August 5, 2015

    I suppose there’s no probably no answer to this, but I had never thought about the precedent of Paul writing back to the Thessalonians about the dead in Christ rising. Was there precedent for him telling the Thessalonians that those who died before the return of Jesus would be reunited with Christ even though they had died? I don’t recall anything from the gospels. By 50AD we’re approaching nearly a full generation after the crucifixion so this topic must have been weighing on the mind of not just Paul, but also the leaders of the church in Jerusalem. I suppose Paul could have rationalized to himself that the dead must rise over a period of time. Amazing how much tradition in the church doesn’t come from what we have of Jesus’ own words (whether or not he actually said what is ascribed to him).

    • Bart
      Bart  August 6, 2015

      Since his letters are the earliest writings we have, we really can’t tell very easily what was a precedent for him….

      • gmatthews
        gmatthews  August 6, 2015

        Right, that’s my point. The gospels, which were written later, don’t mention it do they? For we know he rationalized the whole thing himself.

        • Bart
          Bart  August 8, 2015

          I suppose that’s true of almost everything Paul says.

  3. SBrudney091941
    SBrudney091941  August 5, 2015

    The Thessalonians had waited “over the weeks, and months, following Paul’s departure, nothing happened. Jesus didn’t come back.” Perhaps they were not familiar, as we are familiar, with John’s call that the end was at hand or with Jesus’ words that the end time events shall come to pass before the generation he was speaking to passed away. If Paul hadn’t worked with the Thessalonians to establish a church until almost 20 years after Jesus’ death, and if they had been taught about John’s and Jesus’ words about the imminence of the end, it seems likely that they would not have taken Paul that seriously to begin with. I mean he wouldn’t seem that credible preaching its imminence if John and Jesus had said 20 years earlier that it was imminent and it still had not come. It makes one wonder if Paul was aware of John and Jesus’ forecasts or, if he was, if he purposely withheld such information from the Thessalonians in order to–to put it crudely–sell his product.

  4. Avatar
    BarabasQuiznos  August 5, 2015

    Somewhat off topic.
    Do you think the “kick against the goads” comment in acts came from Luke quoting The Bacchae by Euripides, or was it still a common, if old, saying when Luke wrote it?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 6, 2015

      I assume it was a common saying — but don’t really know off hand!

  5. Avatar
    jhague  August 5, 2015

    Does it sometimes appear that Paul needed to adjust his message on the fly when he was asked a question such as this one regarding people who have passed away? He obviously did not cover this issue when he was with them. Plus his message was always that Christ’s return could be any time now.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 6, 2015

      I’m sure that was the case. It is for most of us!

      • Avatar
        jhague  August 7, 2015

        My thought is that Paul stated that his message was not from any man. He said he received his message from Christ/God. Obviously he received his message from the person/group who converted him. And then Paul added to and adjusted the message as he thought it needed to be. Plus he had a message of the end coming any time which was not happening. It’s no wonder that he was constantly defending himself.

  6. Avatar
    Airick  August 5, 2015

    Although this may not add anything of great importance to the issue at hand, I’d like to briefly share some of my thoughts on Thessalonians. I hope no one minds the extra unsolicited reading material, and I certainly don’t expect anyone to necessarily engage with my ideas at any length. I am just an avid fan of biblical scholarship and don’t really have a community to interact with, so who better than the people of this blog. If nothing else it is a way for me to flush out my own ideas, cement my knowledge, and get slapped down where I am mistaken 🙂

    That said, one of the major ways I think of Thessalonians is as an insight into Paul’s earliest interactions with one of his earliest Churches. How does Paul relate to the people in the churches he establishes? Certainly there are valuable theological implications in the letter, but I think the insights into the more general interactions and the role Paul served for this community are arguably just as interesting.

    Paul seems to find a community he has established in some distress, upset with some of the ways they are being treated by their non-believing neighbors, and troubled by concerns over the place in the Kingdom of God of recently deceased loved ones. Paul perhaps sees this community as being depressed. The way that he chooses to respond to this is striking. He uses praise rhetoric to lift them up and comforts them with familial language. They are people who are perhaps feeling isolated and confused, and Paul uses every tool at his disposal to anchor the community and give them confidence. Thessalonians certainly provides valuable insight into how Paul went about building and supporting his communities and why he proved to be so successful at it.

  7. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  August 6, 2015


  8. Robert
    Robert  August 6, 2015

    “There are not particularly heated debates over its date (at least that I’m aware of) (and you’d be amazed at things I’m not aware of). It is usually dated to 49 or 50 CE – so about 20 years after Jesus’ death and about 15 before Paul’s.”

    I’ve previously asked you about your assessment of Gerd Lüdemann’s dating of 1 Thessalonians to 41 CE, following John Knox. It would be very interesting if you would engage Gerd or his writings on this this issue. The earlier date makes sense of a non-interpolated 1 Thess 2,16 as reflecting the recent controversy over Caligula’s statue to be erected in the Temple in Jerusalem. I don’t think Gerd himself focuses much attention on the Caligula statue incident as part of the Sitz im Leben of 1 Thess 2,16; maybe John Knox did. But if we consider 2,16 authentic (and I know you do) it does offer a reasonable understanding of Paul’s attitude toward his ‘Judean’ opponents rather than a condemnation of all Jews.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 8, 2015

      I have to admit, I have never been passionately interested in the exact dates of all of Paul’s chronology. BUt it seems like the issue of Caligula’s statue could have still been very much alive some years later

      • Robert
        Robert  August 11, 2015

        Anything’s possible, I suppose, but I think the date is important. If we are talking 40-41 CE, as opposed to 49-50 CE, ten years earlier, that would better explain the development of Paul’s theology over time. We have 10 additional years to account for his changing views. I would also expect that such a basic question as someone dying would arise before sooner rather than later but that depends on the size of the Thessalonian community and their relations, if any, with other communities.

  9. cheito
    cheito  August 9, 2015


    Your Comment:

    This was the core of Paul’s message when he preached his Gospel: the end of the age has come; Christ who died has been exalted to heaven and is soon to return; people need to prepare for this imminent in breaking of the Kingdom of God; it could happen any time now.

    My Comment:

    This is how I understand Paul’s words.

    Paul is stating that the persons that remain alive UNTIL the coming of the Lord would not
    precede those who have died in Christ.

    Yes Paul does say, WE WHO ARE ALIVE, he includes Himself because He’s a believer.

    However, Paul does not say that the end of the age has come.
    He does not say that Christ is coming soon, as you assert.
    Paul is not urging the Thessalonians to prepare for the imminent return of Christ.

    He makes a general statement, declaring that believers who REMAIN ALIVE, including himself,
    will not be resurrected before those who have died in Christ.

    It’s like if I’m telling a group of believers that WE, including myself, who are alive UNTIL the coming of the Lord will not be resurrected and be with the Lord before THOSE who have died in Christ. I’m not claiming by this statement that Christ is coming in my lifetime.
    I’m saying that those who remain ALIVE UNTIL the coming of the Lord will not meet the Lord before those who have died in the Lord. I’m not teaching that Christ is returning before I die.
    So I respectfully disagree with your interpretation of Paul’s words in Thessalonians 4:13-17

    Paul’s Words:

    1 Thessalonians 4:15-17

    15-For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep.

    16-For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first.

    17-Then we who are alive and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we shall always be with the Lord.

    18-Therefore comfort one another with these words.

  10. SBrudney091941
    SBrudney091941  August 12, 2015

    1 Thess 4:13-18 “….we who are alive, who re left until the coming of the Lord….”
    “….the dead in Christ will rise first; then WE WHO ARE ALIVE,….shall be caught up TOGETHER WITH THEM IN THE CLOUDS TO MEET THE LORD IN THE AIR….”
    “He expects to witness the Parousia himself (“we who are alive”).” Paula Fredricksen, Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews: A Jewish Life and the Emergence of Christianity, p. 80
    Even in his final letter, in Romans 13:11-12, “The night is far gone; the day is at hand.”
    Even though he qualifies his view and says we can’t say exactly when (it will come like a thief in the night), he still clearly means that it will come while we are alive but we can’t say exactly when.

  11. Avatar
    swede  August 23, 2015

    John the Baptist, Jesus, the 12, and Paul, all of them expected the arrival of the Kingdom of God “soon”, whatever they each one ment by it. That’s all.

  12. Avatar
    Hngerhman  July 15, 2019

    Dr Ehrman –

    I’ve seen arguments made that 1 Thess 2:13-16 was a later Deutero-Pauline interpolation. Curious your thoughts?

    Thanks much!

    • Bart
      Bart  July 16, 2019

      I’m open to the idea in principle, but I don’t see any compelling reasons for it. My sense is that scholars can’t figure out what he can possibly mean and so have decided he must not have said it. I’m not sure that’s the best way to approach interpretation.

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