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Why Paul Did Not Write 2 Thessalonians: A Final Post

This will be my last post on the question of whether Paul wrote 2 Thessalonians.  If you’ve been following all this, you know that my view is that he did not.  My sense is that a lot of people have trouble accepting that view simply because it’s not what they’ve always heard and thought.  It’s hard to change your mind about something that just seems sensible and right, even if you haven’t really given it much thought or attention.  We’re *all* inclined to think what we’ve always thought.

For most people, of course, the question doesn’t matter a twit.  Who CARES?   Well, some of us care.  And if you’re one who does, then I’d suggest being open to changing your mind if the evidence takes you in a different direction.  If you don’t want to change your mind, or are just on principle disinclined to do so, fair enough.  We all have to decide that to think and also what even not to bother thinking about. (But then why are you reading these posts?!?  J)

If you *are* open to changing your mind, and don’t find the evidence for this view (or for any other view, about any other thing – not just the NT or religion but about politics, social issues, morality, climate change, life choices, whatever) compelling, then I’d urge you to try to figure out what’s *wrong* with the evidence and how and why *other* evidence (rather than a gut feeling), is better (and not do so just because you *want* the other view to win out).

In any event, here’s the final bit of my case, where I discuss a couple of reasons that some scholars have continue dto insist that Paul did write 2 Thessalonians and show why, in my judgment, this view (which I used to hold!) is simply wrong.

 

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It is interesting that the many stylistic and vocabulary similarities of 2 Thesssalonians with 1 Thessalonians (which I discussed in an earlier post) have led most advocates for the authenticity of 2 Thessalonians (i.e., those who think Paul wrote it) to claim that it was written on the heels of the other letter.

I think that’s actually a huge problem, precisely because…

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Is the Book of James Attacking the Teachings of Paul?
Does Paul Think the End is Coming Soon? Does 2 Thessalonians?

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Comments

  1. Lev
    Lev  June 18, 2019

    I agree that this is probably a forgery, but I haven’t seen much evidence to place it post-70. As you’ve pointed out above, forgeries circulated within the lifetimes of the supposed authors, so isn’t it possible that this was also? Or even shortly after the death of Paul?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 19, 2019

      Yup, it’s possible. But I would say 70 itself is an arbitrary date. My sense is that it is best dated at a time when some people were realizing that the imminent end wasn’t coming. We do start seeing that view with Luke-Acts, which I date to the 80s at the earliest. So one plausible date would be around then?

  2. Avatar
    NancyGKnapp  June 18, 2019

    This is a strong case for the lack of authenticity of 2 Thessalonians. I will make a note in my Bible to stop reading it as authoritative. Side tracking a bit, your historical research on the beginnings of the Christian church and its development to around 325 CE seems to show that it is only loosely based on the historical Jesus and the NT. The orthodox doctrines were formulared over the years by the church fathers. Many of these doctrines don’t ring true today, yet there are smart people like your wife and professor and scholar friend Dale Martin who are committed Christians. How is that? Would Dale be willing to do a post or two?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 19, 2019

      I”ve asked him twenty times, and he’s just not interested. But I think I had Jeff Siker do some guest posts on this. Maybe I’ll hunt around and see if I can get someone else to do it. The basic answer is that while they think history is terrifically important (especially to get right), they don’t think that faith is the same as scholarship. Christ could be the revelation of God whether or not the Gospel of Matthew is accurate or whether the Nicene creed reflects the views of Paul, etc.

  3. Avatar
    fishician  June 18, 2019

    Are there any current scholars who think 2 Thess is the authentic letter and 1 Thess the fraud?

  4. Avatar
    Brittonp  June 18, 2019

    Thank you for the excellent series Dr. Ehrman.

  5. Avatar
    AstaKask  June 18, 2019

    Do you think the author had read the Olivet Discourse?

  6. Telling
    Telling  June 18, 2019

    As I understand, I think you explained the context differences between the two letters as whether the Kingdom is about to happen immediately or whether some things must first happen.

    Regarding the first letter it appears that Paul had earlier told the Flock that Jesus will be coming anytime, and so it is paramount that gentiles join the church and stay together and be saved. But, as in the letter, the Kingdom has not come as it was expected and the brethren are becoming restless, even leaving the church, and so Paul insists that it will indeed come soon at a time we don’t know when, so hold out, don’t leave the church, he is coming soon, very soon, Paul knows it, listen to him!

    Now by the time of the second letter Jesus STILL has not come and so Paul sees need to explain why the delay. Given that Jerusalem was in open revolt against the Romans and the temple was being desecrated or potentially desecrated by two different emperors (Caligula & Claudius my best recollection), Paul would have a made-to-order excuse for telling the flock why Jesus’ coming (as in first letter) is delayed (as explained in second letter) – the whole Temple episode with the Roman’s must first play out. Neat excuse whether he believes it or not.

    To see both 1 & 2 letters not as Paul’s deep-seated and well thought out views but rather a seat of his pants effort to keep the church from declining, I think, explains it adequately.

    I would like to hear your counter-argument.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 19, 2019

      Yes, it’s possible that Paul simply completely changed his mind. On the other hand, one of the arguments for 2 Thess having come from Paul is that it is *so* similar in phrasing and structure to 1 Thess, and this suggests to proponents of authenticity (that Paul wrote both) that they were written in very close temporal proximity to each other. If that’s the case, there wouldn’t be enough time for this kind of extreme about face.

      • Telling
        Telling  June 19, 2019

        He Bart,

        I was addressing only the “context” issue, where I don’t see there being an about-face. Christians today can hold such views, they might say “he’s coming at any time” in one day, and that “the anti-Christ must first take the throne”, on other day, both being in the Bible (largely courtesy of Paul I suppose). I don’t see why Paul couldn’t also hold both of these seeming contrary views, being he’s getting them from his interpretations of Jewish scripture and Jesus sayings. So I personally don’t see any problem with these two different warnings. Few people quoting scripture voice a completely consistent argument; they swing from one assertion to another, for proving whatever they’re trying to prove. My mother, a devout protestant, made such differing statements all the time. The idea of Jesus’ return bring about the day of apocalypse is an idea of which only superficial thought can be put into, and in such cases you typically see an “unrooted” swinging about in arguments.

        You brought up the “similar in phrasing” argument and connect it to my “context” argument. I think Paul could have wrote both letters within a short timeframe, maybe the first one didn’t work and so he followed it with a stronger one, maybe even thinking about the Temple desecration idea after sending the first one (or because of changed conditions in Jerusalem). I do this all the time when writing to you, sending off a comment and then thinking of a strong one in my mind just after. So I don’t see the context issue as anything more than an over-examining of Paul’s letter by trained scholars. The obvious, I think, was missed.

        This of course doesn’t prove it’s not a forgery, and I’m not claiming that the various problems (including context) taken as a whole might not make a reasonable case for it. But as to “similarity”, I’m wondering out loud if it might be possible that Paul wrote some notes down and was referring to them when constructing the second letter or perhaps even had a copy of his first letter in front of him? Any evidence or suggestions of that?

  7. Avatar
    Nichrob  June 18, 2019

    Great series. Thanks Bart….!!

  8. Avatar
    brenmcg  June 18, 2019

    Do you think evidence for it being a forgery has to weighed against the unlikelihood of any particular letter making it into the new testament? To make it in, letters had to be widely copied and used by eminent church figures.

    A letter written 40 years after the authentic Pauline letters would have a lot of catching up to do.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 19, 2019

      Yes indeed, that absolutely has to be taken into account. The problem is that we don’t have hard evidence for which letters were being copied for many decades after that.

      • Telling
        Telling  June 20, 2019

        It makes little to none difference (an historical study excepted) who actually wrote the second letter unless you take the second coming seriously and believe there is really any difference between Jesus coming immediately (which he never did) and Jesus coming only after desecration of the Temple (where he also never showed up). The only real question for seminary students should be that if both letters were wrong, what gain comes from believing Paul?

        • Bart
          Bart  June 21, 2019

          I don’t know about that. I’m mainly interested in understanding the history of early Christianity.

  9. Avatar
    Anticonflationist  June 18, 2019

    In your use of the word parousia, so commonly
    Interpreted as ” coming”. Have you any lexical
    Insight to offer on the strange practice of adventist
    Millenialist sects like jw’s and many others who
    Interpret parousia as an invisible spiritual presence
    Rather than the physical appearance of a king, as in a full blown state visit with all pomp and ceremony?
    Im no greek scholar, can read somewhat.
    Ive never found a usage of the word that refers to
    An unseen invisible presence.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 19, 2019

      The idea that it would be a “spiritual” coming started to appear only after the literal meaning of the words were seen not to be true. And so to make them “true” in another sense they had to be reinterpreted nad made “spiritual.” That kind of interpretive move seems to happen a lot among people who simply can’t admit they were wrong — as when modern Christians predict that Jesus is coming back on such and such a date, and he doesn’t, so they say that he really did come … into my heart!

      • Avatar
        Anticonflationist  June 19, 2019

        Thanks for the reply. The favorite foil of groups
        And individuals who cant stop speculating
        About the end of the age, world…all things.
        If disconfirmation is nipping at your heels like
        A pitbull, just spiritualize the whole prediction!
        Its amazing what lengths people will go to in
        Order to preserve a delusion. I also love the thought : we were expecting the wrong thing at
        The right time! Been a winner since miller and
        The great dissapointment of the early 1800’s

    • Avatar
      Hormiga  June 19, 2019

      As for parousia, I realize that it might be useful to understand how ousia was being used in the mid first century in the relevant community (whatever that was). This may relate to epiousia in the Paternoster.

      What the heck was ousia?

      • Bart
        Bart  June 21, 2019

        Ousia is derived from the verb “to go” or “to come”; Para means “beside.” And so Parousia means “to come beside” or “to arrive” or “to be present.” Epiousia is an interpreter’s nightmare. It’s not clear what it means precisely, and there are huge debates. It is never used prior to the New Testament (Lord’s Prayer)

  10. Avatar
    Stephen  June 18, 2019

    I realize there’s no way to ever know for sure but I can’t help but wonder how many early and authentic traditions were lost or even suppressed because the views of later Christians had changed with time?

  11. Avatar
    RICHWEN90  June 19, 2019

    I have noted a lot of what I will call “microtheology” going on, as individual pastors in their own congregations put a personal spin on end time speculations. I have heard one say, in effect, that the final act has been delayed, as an act of mercy, to give more time for people to be saved. And yet, just before the 2016 elections, the same pastor trotted out a series of sermons on Revelations, with a lot of dramatic multi-media effects. I think the intent was to scare people into voting for the “right” candidate, because the END TIMES are truly upon us, and you’d hate to get caught with your pants down, voting for the wrong party. After the elections all the scare tactics went away and it was back to God is merciful, and we have time to save more souls, etc. I’ve heard talk pro and con brexit based on end times signs, and on and on. Sometimes the bottom line appears to be the need to keep those collection plates filled. Tell ’em one thing one day and something else the next. Whatever keeps the money coming in. Perhaps I am a tad cynical.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 19, 2019

      A touch of cynicism is completely in order, I think. When people twist their *own* message to pursue their other agendas, you are every bit justified in doubting their sincerity, honesty, integrity, and/or intelligence!

  12. Avatar
    kennwrite  June 27, 2019

    I’ve read your statement about the unlikelihood of 2 Thessalonians being historical in one of your books. The delay of the second coming is by far the best argument for its falsehood, though the repetition in language to fabricate Paul’s authority serves as a good support when considered with the first argument in tandem.

    I love the argument that 2 Thessalonians warns the church a previous letter should not be trusted, and may actually be referring to the 1 Thessalonians. Though there is no absolute proof, it certainly contains excellent food for thought. I believe you referred to the person who presented this argument, though I can’t remember which of your books, or who the person was.

    This is what happens when you read one person’s many books, as I have read many of yours. I tend to trust a strong portion of what you say, since your logic is simply put and well-exemplified.

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