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Brief arguments in favor of the possible authenticity of 2 Thessalonians

Brief arguments in favor of the possible authenticity of 2 Thessalonians

I generally hold to the common academic perspectives—or something adjacent enough—regarding the authorships of the various biblical and parabiblical texts. The Torah was not written by Moses. Less than one-third of Isaiah can be said to trace back to the historical prophet. The gospels were not written by their traditional authors. The Revelation of John did not come from the hand of the apostle.

Of the thirteen letters of Paul in the New Testament, only seven are considered ‘indisputably’ authentic. The three pastoral letters are widely rejected as late forgeries (1 Tim, 2 Tim, Titus). The authenticity of the remaining three (Col, Eph, 2 Thess) are still debated. For many years, I have considered them pseudepigraphical alongside the pastorals, though perhaps with less distance between them and the authentic letters.

I have found myself doubting the strength of the arguments against 2 Thessalonians. Here are the chief objections I have run into over the years, and why I am now skeptical toward them.


Differences in tone

I do not often run into the complaint that the writing style and vocabulary of 2 Thessalonians is much different than the seven undisputed letters. However, a recurring argument is that the tone of 2 Thessalonians is too far from that of 1 Thessalonians. Where 1 Thess is considered warm and compassionate, 2 Thess is regarded as cold and demanding. How could Paul write such tonally inconsistent letters to the same recipients?

We need only look at 1 and 2 Corinthians to see how little weight this objection carries. Those two letters are radically different in tone despite being addressed to the same recipients. Second Corinthians in particular is internally inconsistent. It begins with a conciliatory tone, but swings into defensiveness, then concludes angry, even sardonic. Why? Second Corinthians is a composite of up to five letter fragments, arranged out of chronological sequence.

How much time passed between 1 Corinthians, the Defensive Letter, the Angry Letter, and the Conciliatory Letter? (Not to mention any missing letters to or from Paul in-between.) Months? Years? Does it even matter? Any perceived tonal differences between 1 and 2 Thessalonians are irrelevant to the question of authenticity; it is not reasonable to expect consistency of emotional tone from a writer regardless of mood or situation.


Purpose in writing

Forgeries were a common enough problem in the ancient world that an author might call it out when it affected them. But, in the arms race to prove authenticity, a forger might do the same to throw suspicion off their forgery. A forger belaboring their protestation against other forgeries can backfire.

For example, the writing style and thought process between 1 Peter and 2 Peter differs sharply enough they cannot have come from the same person. Yet, 2 Peter mentions 1 Peter, claiming to be from the same author. Likewise, the Letter of Judah is reproduced almost in its entirety in 2 Peter. Perhaps aware of the suspicion that will arise for this ‘lost’ letter of Peter suddenly emerging, the author of 2 Peter stresses his identity as the apostle to an unnecessary degree. In copying from Judah, 2 Peter says that readers must ‘remember … the command of the Lord and savior spoken through your apostles’ (3.2). He then echoes this earlier in the letter, telling readers he has set out to help them ‘remember’ what he has told them (1.12–15). In the same passage, the author refers to two of the most well-known points of Peter’s life: that Jesus predicted Peter’s death (1.14), and that he saw Jesus transfigured on a mountain (1.16–18). The author is bending over backwards to assert his identity as Peter, and it comes across as forced. The reference to the transfiguration in particular is unnatural in context, and the blunt wording suggests the author may have been copying from one of the synoptic gospels (specifically Matthew), not pulling from his own memory. Both 1 Peter and Judah are widely thought to be forgeries, which has led to the near-universal conclusion that 2 Peter definitely is one, not just for showing its knowledge of them (and probably also the Gospels of John and Matthew), but for trying too hard to convince the reader of the author’s alleged identity.

The author of 2 Thessalonians is argued to have similarly tipped his hand in 2.1–2. The letter appears to have been written to correct a case of mistaken theology, which the author attributes to a forged letter. Those who argue for forgery see this as the author deliberately accusing another letter of doing what he, in fact, is guilty of. What other letter does he have in mind? Maybe 1 Thessalonians, an authentic letter. However, 2 Thess 2.1–2 doesn’t actually confirm there even was a forged letter. The author instructs readers to be wary of a seemingly contrary teaching ‘either by spirit or by word or by letter, as though from us’. He seems unsure where the source of theological confusion came from, and offers only a general warning about accepting information without clear provenance. The implication is that a forged letter may have been the source, but it is by no means singled out here.

Coming off the above, it is said the author stressing the importance of his signature in 3.17 is a forger trying too hard to convince the reader he really is Paul. We have three examples of Paul mentioning his signature in undisputed letters. In Galatians, Paul points out how large his handwriting is. That letter is filled with Paul’s agitation, so near the end, perhaps overcome by his annoyance, he takes the pen from his amanuensis to write a salutation critical of his rivals and stressing he is so committed to his mission he has physically suffered for it (Gal 6.11). In Philemon, he mentions that he is writing personally. The entire letter is meant to guilt Philemon into receiving his runaway slave Onesimus without punishing him, and Paul, though not wishing to abuse his authority as an apostle (8–9), personally signs off that he will pay back whatever Onesimus owes Philemon (19). In 1 Corinthians, Paul spends the letter discussing love, Jesus’ authority, and the second coming. When he wraps up, he takes the pen to write the salutation, with those three topics converging into a warning: love Jesus or be cursed (1 Cor 16.21). In each occasion when Paul was motivated to highlight his signature, he tied it into some other part of the letter.

Second Thessalonians is often accused of showing knowledge of 1 Thessalonians, but not so much the other Pauline letters. Yet 1 Thess has no mention of a signature. Where did the author of 2 Thess get the idea, then? And while we can criticize the lack of Paul’s handwriting for the signature portions of his letters now (i.e. reading printed copies of his letters based on a centuries-long chain of scribal copies), we cannot dismiss the situation itself as lacking historical plausibility. If the real Paul were concerned a possible forged letter was a source of confusion for a church he had authority over, how else might he have demonstrated his own ‘stamp of authenticity’? Drawing attention to his signature would be natural in this context, not forced.


Contradictions in eschatology

Both letters to the Thessalonians address concerns about the eschaton. In 1 Thess, Paul sets out to alleviate worries that people who have died since his last correspondence have permanently missed the return of Jesus and entry into God’s eternal kingdom. They have not missed out, but will be the first to join Jesus; however, the arrival of the eschaton cannot be predicted, ‘like a thief in the night’ (4.13–5.11). In 2 Thess, the author responds to confusion that the eschaton has already happened; this cannot be, because there first must be the arrival of a satan-empowered ‘man of lawlessness’, whom Jesus will destroy at his return. The eschaton cannot yet have happened because this ‘man of lawlessness’ has not been revealed yet (2.1–12).

The two letters are frequently claimed to contradict. How can 2 Thess claim the eschaton’s arrival may be predicted by the prerequisite reign of the man of lawlessness, if 1 Thess claims the eschaton’s arrival cannot be predicted? This tension seems, to me, quite superficial. We have other texts which contain both types of claims. I have argued that Mark 13 is a composite text, combining apocalyptic traditions from inside the Jesus Movement with a short midrash on Daniel. The result is a prophecy attributed to Jesus which both mentions the unpredictability of the eschaton (13.32–37), and describes signs showing the eschaton is near (13.5–31). As far as the author of Mark was concerned, these two ideas were not incompatible. We see a similar paradox in the Revelation of John (e.g., 3.3; 16.15, versus 1.1–3; 2.16; 3.11; 22.6, 10, 12, 20). Even within 1 Thess, Paul apparently expects he and his contemporaries will be among the living when Jesus returns (i.e., ‘we’ in 4.15, 17).

A book of particular interest here is the Didache. Many scholars think the Didache is a composition containing multiple layers of tradition, coming from different eras throughout the first and early second centuries CE. The key passage is Did 16, which lays out the eschatological framework Christians are supposed to believe. I have noted that Matt 24 may have used Did 16 as a source. The strongest verbal overlaps between those two chapters are points where Did 16 has no parallels in Mark 13, the other source used by Matt 24. If correct, this would require, of course, that some version of the Didache existed before Matthew, the latter typically dated to the range of 80–100 CE. This would make the Didache contemporary with Mark, possibly even older as some argue.

Did 16 contains the same paradoxical ideas that the eschaton’s arrival cannot be predicted (16.1) and that the eschaton’s arrival can be anticipated by watching for specific events beforehand (16.3–6). Yet, it also shares an uncanny resemblance with both 1 and 2 Thessalonians, but only if the latter two texts are taken together.

Item

Didache

1 and 2 Thessalonians

Eschaton unpredictable

you do not know the hour at which our Lord is coming (16.1)

you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night (1 Thess 5.1–3)

Rebellion/apostasy

your faith will be of no profit to you unless you are perfected at the final hour. In the last days shall be multiplied false prophets and corruption (16.2–3)

Let no one deceive you in any way, for that day will not come unless the rebellion comes first (2 Thess 2.3)

Lawlessness

with the increase of lawlessness (ανομιας) they shall hate one another (16.4)

the man of lawlessness (ανομιας) … For the mystery of lawlessness (ανομιας) is already at work, but only until the one who now restrains it is removed. And then the lawless one (ανομος) will be revealed (2 Thess 2.3, 7)

Deceiver claims to be (son of) God

And then shall appear the world-deceiver as a son of God (16.4)

He opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, declaring himself to be God. (2 Thess 2.3–8)

False signs and wonders

and he shall do signs and wonders (σημεια και τερατα) and the earth shall be betrayed into his hands (16.4)

His coming is apparent in the working of Satan, who uses all power and signs and wonders (σημειοις και τερασιν) of falsehood (2 Thess 2.9–12)

Trumpet

next the sign of the trumpet call (16.6)

and with the sound of God’s trumpet (1 Thess 4.16)

Resurrection of the dead

and third the resurrection of the dead (16.6)

the dead in the Messiah will rise first (1 Thess 4.16)

Return of Jesus on the clouds / from heaven

Then the world shall see the Lord coming upon the clouds of heaven (16.8)

For the Lord himself … will descend from heaven (1 Thess 4.16);
the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven (2 Thess 1.7)

Return accompanied by angels / holy ones

and all his holy ones with him (16.8)

with the archangel’s call (1 Thess 4.16);
with his mighty angels in flaming fire (2 Thess 1.7)

Deceiver defeated by Jesus

on his royal throne, to judge the world-deceiver (16.8, reconstructed)

the lawless one … whom the Lord Jesus will destroy with the breath of his mouth, annihilating him by the manifestation of his coming (2 Thess 2.8)

Evil punished eternally

Then shall go away the evil into eternal punishment (16.9, reconstructed)

These will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction (2 Thess 1.9)

It seems plausible to me that both letters drew from the same eschatological framework, in which case they cannot be said to contradict on this point.


Copied greetings

Noted here, there are four main points of textual overlap between 1 and 2 Thessalonians: the opening address, the closing salutation, and two points between. This has been taken as evidence the author of the second letter borrowed directly from the first.

Paul’s opening greetings are almost identical between all seven of the seven undisputed letters, as well as two letters commonly treated as pseudepigraphical.

Colossians 1.1–2

παυλος
αποστολος χριστου ιησου δια θεληματος θεου
και τιμοθεος ο αδελφος
τοις εν κολοσσαις αγιοις και πιστοις αδελφοις εν χριστω
χαρις υμιν και ειρηνη απο θεου πατρος ημων

1 Corinthians 1.1–3

παυλος
κλητος αποστολος χριστου ιησου δια θεληματος θεου
και σωσθενης ο αδελφος
τη εκκλησια του θεου τη ουση εν κορινθω
ηγιασμενοις εν χριστω ιησου κλητοις αγιοις συν πασιν τοις επικαλουμενοις το ονομα του κυριου ημων ιησου χριστου εν παντι τοπω αυτων και ημων
χαρις υμιν και ειρηνη απο θεου πατρος ημων και κυριου ιησου χριστου

2 Corinthians 1.1–2

παυλος
αποστολος χριστου ιησου δια θεληματος θεου
και τιμοθεος ο αδελφος
τη εκκλησια του θεου τη ουση εν κορινθω
συν τοις αγιοις πασιν τοις ουσιν εν ολη τη αχαια
χαρις υμιν και ειρηνη απο θεου πατρος ημων και κυριου ιησου χριστου

Ephesians 1.1–2

παυλος
αποστολος χριστου ιησου δια θεληματος θεου
τοις αγιοις τοις ουσιν και πιστοις εν χριστω ιησου
χαρις υμιν και ειρηνη απο θεου πατρος ημων και κυριου ιησου χριστου

Galatians 1.1–3

παυλος
αποστολος ουκ απ ανθρωπων ουδε δι ανθρωπου αλλα δια ιησου χριστου και θεου πατρος του εγειραντος αυτον εκ νεκρων
και οι συν εμοι παντες αδελφοι
ταις εκκλησιαις της γαλατιας
χαρις υμιν και ειρηνη απο θεου πατρος ημων και κυριου ιησου χριστου

Philemon 1–3

παυλος
δεσμιος χριστου ιησου
και τιμοθεος ο αδελφος
φιλημονι τω αγαπητω και συνεργω ημων και απφια τη αδελφη και αρχιππω τω συστρατιωτη ημων και τη κατ οικον σου εκκλησια
χαρις υμιν και ειρηνη απο θεου πατρος ημων και κυριου ιησου χριστου

Philippians 1.1–2

παυλος
και τιμοθεος
δουλοι χριστου ιησου
πασιν τοις αγιοις εν χριστω ιησου τοις ουσιν εν φιλιπποις συν επισκοποις και διακονοις
χαρις υμιν και ειρηνη απο θεου πατρος ημων και κυριου ιησου χριστου

Romans 1.1, 7

παυλος
δουλος χριστου ιησου κλητος αποστολος …
πασιν τοις ουσιν εν ρωμη αγαπητοις θεου κλητοις αγιοις
χαρις υμιν και ειρηνη απο θεου πατρος ημων και κυριου ιησου χριστου

1 Thessalonians 1.1

παυλος
και σιλουανος
και τιμοθεος
τη εκκλησια θεσσαλονικεων εν θεω πατρι και κυριω ιησου χριστω
χαρις υμιν και ειρηνη

2 Thessalonians 1.1–2

παυλος
και σιλουανος
και τιμοθεος
τη εκκλησια θεσσαλονικεων εν θεω πατρι ημων και κυριω ιησου χριστω
χαρις υμιν και ειρηνη απο θεου πατρος και κυριου ιησου χριστου

The opening greetings for 1 Thess and 2 Thess do indeed overlap almost exactly, but I question the force of this observation. There are common elements throughout all the greetings, and, in my opinion, it would be unsurprising that two letters written by the same three men to the same recipients for the same purpose—possibly without much time between them—might be introduced in the same way. After all, among the ten passages shown above, the greeting closest to that in 1 Corinthians is the greeting in 2 Corinthians.

1 Corinthians 1.1–3

παυλος
κλητος αποστολος χριστου ιησου δια θεληματος θεου
και σωσθενης ο αδελφος
τη εκκλησια του θεου τη ουση εν κορινθω
ηγιασμενοις εν χριστω ιησου κλητοις αγιοις συν πασιν τοις επικαλουμενοις το ονομα του κυριου ημων ιησου χριστου εν παντι τοπω αυτων και ημων
χαρις υμιν και ειρηνη απο θεου πατρος ημων και κυριου ιησου χριστου

2 Corinthians 1.1–2

παυλος
αποστολος χριστου ιησου δια θεληματος θεου
και τιμοθεος ο αδελφος
τη εκκλησια του θεου τη ουση εν κορινθω
συν τοις αγιοις πασιν τοις ουσιν εν ολη τη αχαια
χαρις υμιν και ειρηνη απο θεου πατρος ημων και κυριου ιησου χριστου

Only in the flourish describing the members of the Corinthian church is there a significant difference, and even then they share four words. Everything else is nearly identical. I am not aware of anyone who suspects 2 Corinthians is a forgery dependent on 1 Corinthians, or vice versa.

Similar observations could be said for the closing salutations.

Colossians 4.18

η χαρις μεθ υμων

1 Corinthians 16.23–24

η χαρις του κυριου ιησου μεθ υμων η αγαπη μου μετα παντων υμων εν χριστω ιησου

2 Corinthians 13.13

η χαρις του κυριου ιησου χριστου και η αγαπη του θεου και η κοινωνια του αγιου πνευματος μετα παντων υμων

Ephesians 6.24

η χαρις μετα παντων των αγαπωντων τον κυριον ημων ιησουν χριστον εν αφθαρσια

Galatians 6.18

η χαρις του κυριου ημων ιησου χριστου μετα του πνευματος υμων αδελφοι αμην

Philemon 25

η χαρις του κυριου ιησου χριστου μετα του πνευματος υμων

Philippians 4.23

η χαρις του κυριου ιησου χριστου μετα του πνευματος υμων

Romans 16.20

η χαρις του κυριου ημων ιησου μεθ υμων

1 Thessalonians 5.28

η χαρις του κυριου ημων ιησου χριστου μεθ υμων

2 Thessalonians 3.18

η χαρις του κυριου ημων ιησου χριστου μετα παντων υμων

The salutations of the two Corinthian letters uniquely mention ‘love’ (η αγαπη), and the conclusions to Philemon and Philippians are identical. Are these signs of literary dependence? The version of the Colossians salutation is the shortest. Is primitivity evidence it is the oldest letter? Of course, extensive verbal overlap may be a sign of the author of one text having used another. Yet one place we should most expect to find an author falling back on formulaic verbiage, adjusted for the occasion, would be the opening greetings and closing salutations of their personal correspondences.

Additional overlap is found in the benediction following the greeting, but several other letters share similarities here as well.

Colossians 1.3

ευχαριστουμεν τω θεω πατρι του κυριου ημων ιησου χριστου παντοτε περι υμων προσευχομενοι

1 Corinthians 1.4

ευχαριστω τω θεω μου παντοτε περι υμων επι τη χαριτι του θεου τη δοθειση υμιν εν χριστω ιησου

Philemon 4

ευχαριστω τω θεω μου παντοτε μνειαν σου ποιουμενος επι των προσευχων μου

Philippians 1.3–4

ευχαριστω τω θεω μου επι παση τη μνεια υμων παντοτε εν παση δεησει μου υπερ παντων υμων μετα χαρας την δεησιν ποιουμενος

Romans 1.8

πρωτον μεν ευχαριστω τω θεω μου δια ιησου χριστου περι παντων υμων οτι η πιστις υμων καταγγελλεται εν ολω τω κοσμω

1 Thessalonians 1.2

ευχαριστουμεν τω θεω παντοτε περι παντων υμων

2 Thessalonians 1.3

ευχαριστειν οφειλομεν τω θεω παντοτε περι υμων

The overlap here is minimal. As far as textual copying goes, this leaves one serious case to look at.

1 Thessalonians 2.9

τον κοπον ημων και τον μοχθον νυκτος και ημερας εργαζομενοι προς το μη επιβαρησαι τινα υμων

2 Thessalonians 3.8

αλλ εν κοπω και μοχθω νυκτος και ημερας εργαζομενοι προς το μη επιβαρησαι τινα υμων

While not identical, these are extremely close. The point with the most variation (τον κοπον ημων και τον μοχθον / κοπω και μοχθω) has a direct parallel with 2 Cor 11.27 (κοπω και μοχθω). Another point (εργαζομενοι προς …) has a similar construction with Gal 6.10 (εργαζωμεθα … προς …). Verbatim, or near-verbatim, reproductions of text are often a hint at dependence between two texts. That is not up for debate. I do also think it is within the realm of possibility for a prolific author to use phrases they have practiced or employed on more than one occasion, overlooking their own repetition. I am certain someone could comb through the articles and posts on my website and find occasions where I have repeated myself at length without intending to.


Conclusion

Except for that final case of verbal overlap, I no longer consider the other arguments against 2 Thessalonians strong enough, whether individually or cumulatively, to challenge its authenticity. I do still consider the authorship of 2 Thessalonians a few shades more uncertain than the primary seven letters, but I think it would be worthwhile to consult the text when surveying what Paul himself thought about such-and-such topic, rather than excluding it alongside Colossians, Ephesians, and the three pastoral letters.

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