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2 Thessalonians

  Date: 50-51 AD

Of all the New Testament documents, maybe even the entire Bible, to be seriously suspected of forgery, 2 Thessalonians offers the least evidence for inauthenticity.

Language and Style

The style is Pauline. The language is Pauline. However, because the letter looks somewhat too similar to 1 Thessalonians in format and style/word structure it has been alleged that it is an imitation of it. But this phenomena is perfectly understandable if Paul wrote 2 Thessalonians very soon after 1 Thessalonians, about a few weeks after, and this is in any case implied by the letter. As Kümmel says,
The language and style of II Thessalonians are, apart from particular words, thoroughly Pauline...The literary connection of II Thessalonians with I Thessalonians is doubtless very close...But against Wrede's contention, the parallels are not in the same sequence and extend to only about a third of the Epistle, so that nothing compels us to suppose a literary dependence of II upon I. And the change of tone (cf. II 1:3; 2:13 eucharistein ophelomen with I 1:2; 2:13 eucharistoumen) is understandable in vew of the censure which Paul has to express in II Thessalonians and, besides that, corresponds to liturgical style (I Clem. 38:4; Barn. 5:3).
Every one of Paul's letters has some peculiar words of its own. And it is true that writing about pretty much the same subject in the same sense (true II Thess. has a few differences in subject from I Thess, but none very wide ones), very close to a previous writing, especially to the same audience as in this case, will make two pieces of writing sound very close, nearly identical, as can be seen from even personal experience, or for example military commanders who have repeated their order in person, having written it in memoranda earlier. The very fact that the parallels are not in order, combined with Kümmel's overall assessment that no literary dependence needs to be posited means that the questions over language and style fall out.

On the other hand, there are indicators that favor authenticity. II Thessalonians 2:4 was clearly written while the Temple was still standing. There is no way a post-Pauline writer, after 70 AD would write a prophecy which clearly cannot be completed, at least from reading the letter the way it is phrased. A forgery before 70 is extremely unlikely, especially to a congregation that already had a genuine Pauline letter and since most of its members would have known Paul personally.

Second, Kümmel says that meth' eimon ("and for us") in 2 Thess. 1:7 is good Pauline style. I can't agree with Kümmel that an imitator couldn't have included this, but it does seem somewhat improbable since an imitator would be sympathizing with non-existent recipients, but on the other hand fits in with the apostolic status and hardships Paul endured, known from other letters (2 Corinthians).

It's therefore correct to conclude with Kümmel: "II Thessalonians remains best understood if Paul himself wrote II [Thess] a few weeks after I [Thess], when I [Thess] was still fresh in his memory."

Theology: The Apocalypse

The oldest and original criticism of the authenticity of 2 Thess is the difference between the apocalyptic description in 1 Thess 4:13-5:11 and 2 Thess 2:1-12. These are two:

1. The parousia in 1 Thessalonians is immediate, but in 2 Thessalonians it is delayed, and not expected specifically to happen in Paul's lifetime.

2. The parousia in 1 Thessalonians occurs immediately, whereas in the second letter there are events that lead up to it.

1. Reading 1 Thess 4:13-5:11 certainly might give the impression that Paul is expecting and is saying that the parousia would come in his lifetime. But the language is typical Jewish expression for the coming of an event that has been long awaited and the audience is expecting it. We can see the same phenomenon in Daniel 10:20 where it is stated that Alexander the Great comes soon even though from the presumed time period of Daniel, around 530 BC, he wouldn't come for another 200 years! In any case, this issue is dealt with more in depth at THE PAROUSIA BEFORE 70 AD. It is therefore entirely possible that Paul, using the language and expressions of Judea (similarly in Josephus), was explaining and clarifying that he did not mean the Second Coming would necessarily come in the next 10, 20 years or so. This can be further seen in 2 Thessalonians 2:7, which says, "The mystery of lawlessness is already at work"; in spite of the reference to the delayed events,...the eschatological drama, whose goal is the parousia of Christ, has already begun, although 2 Thessalonians 2:7 also says that this is delayed for some time ("the one who now holds it back will continue to do so till he is taken out of the way."), this nevertheless contributes to the overall picture of an immediate Second Coming being a Jewish expression: "the mystery of lawlessness is already at work".

2. The sudden coming in 1 Thessalonians versus the events that lead up to the end in 2 Thess. certainly aren't mutually exclusive. As Kümmel notes,
The reasons against authenticity based upon the difference between the expectation of the end in I and II cannot be considered valid. The illustrative material in II 2:3 ff. does not originate from the history of the time but is traditional apocalyptic material. Both "the man of lawlessness" (II 2:3) and the katechun (II 2:7) are traditional apocalyptic figures..., and the events, which II 2:3 ff. presuppose, are no better and no worse than I 4:13 ff. with I Cor. 15:51 ff. The contradiction between I and II, that the parousia according to I 5:2 comes suddenly like a thief in the night, whereas according to II 2:3 ff. not until after the appearance of various signs (rebellion, revelation of the man of lawlessness, who takes his seat in the temple in a blasphemous arrogance and proclaims himself to be God, removal of the restraining power), does not appear strange, so long as we keep in mind that both conceptions - the end comes suddenly, and it is historically prepared for - go together and are viewed together in the apocalypticism of Judaism and primitive Christianity.
Both a and b can be seen as Pauline by the difference in I Corinthians 15:23ff. and 15:51ff. It's entirely conceivable that the events that lead up to the end themselves arrive quickly and irreversibly. After all, how else could a catastrophic termination to human existence happen without some such events about which II Thess. now goes into detail? This is why Paul goes more in-depth, to allay the thessalonians' fears. All of this makes sense for a forger but it also makes sense for Paul seeing I Cor. 15.

Minor Points

• J.E. Christian Schmidt's, Vermutungen über die beiden Briefe an die Thessalonicher (1801), maintains that Paul would have referred to 1 Thess. if he wanted to give an example of a genuine letter of his where the imminent parousia was maintained, since the false letter maintained the parousia had already occurred, whereas the thessalonians would have known what Paul maintained by 1 Thess. But this supposition fails on the fact that the thessalonians in no way could have known whether Paul couldn't have said the parousia had already happened, especially given the "soon" motif, and "we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep", (I Thess. 4:15), "After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air." (I Thess. 4:17). If anything the absense of references to the apocalypse of 1 Thess in 2 Thess points toward authenticity since a forgerer would have wanted to call to mind the portions of 1 Thessalonians 4:13-5:11 that say (from his point of view) that the parousia is coming soon in order to "explain" them, but the Thessalonians would have known to what Paul was referring to (2 Thess 2:5, also 1 Thess would be fresh in their memory) without his need to point out specifics.

• Some say that the characteristic of all Pauline letters in 2 Thess. 3:17 is a clear attempt by the forgerer to secure authenticity for the letter. This is especially confusing, since Paul was writing after supposing someone made a false letter/prophecy in his name (2 Thess. 2:2). Wrede maintained that if Paul believed his name was falsely used in a letter he would have "pursued" the matter but does not do that. But it has to be wondered what Paul could have done, or written in the letter, to "pursue" the matter, or why he would need to if he had an authenticity marker, used in 3:7 (cf. Galatians 6:11). Maybe Paul did pursue it, but when he came to Thessalonica, or maybe he didn't feel the need to. Weighing against inauthenticity is the fact that 1 Thessalonians does not have Paul's mark, and other letters don't imply this as an authenticity marker of any sort, so this would seem a somewhat awkward invention of a forger with an awkward argument (simply the insertion of the name "Paul" makes the letter authentic? How absurd it must have seemed. Plus, the forgerer himself being a forgerer knew that wasn't the case!). Furthermore, the issue of false letters is addressed in chapter 2, and it would be very awkward for the imitator to reintroduce and remind the reader of this dubious-seeming for a forgerer situation at the close of the letter. The statement by Kümmel that Paul "once for all states the characteristic of his genuine epistles (3:17), without finding it necessary to go further into the question of an unauthentic epistle" is more or less right.

• Some see a "moralizing" development in 2 Thessalonians. According to them, 2 Thess. 1:5-10, 2:12 are un-Pauline in character, pronouncing judgments on persecutors. But this is nothing different from Philippians 1:28 or Romans 9:22.

• Some see developments in theology where Christ performs divine actions as well as and along-side God, but such aren't developments and can be seen in the other letters of Paul. In any case, God does the punishing and judging in 2 Thess. 1:5-10 and this speaks decisively against a later christology being in 2 Thessalonians.

• Sturdy sees a general persecution by the Roman state in 1:5-10. But there's no evidence of anything but the local, spurrious persecutions Christians endured in Paul's life (1 Cor. 4:12, 2 Cor. 4:9. 11:16-29, 12:10, etc.).

On the other hand, there are no signs of the post-Pauline period; there is no advanced ecclesiology such as in 1 Clement (as we might expect for a problem concerning the delayed parousia) and no christology or theology beyond Paul, especially with statements like 2:15 (its appeal to tradition doesn't emphasize any church teachings, and nothing is stated of this tradition), which certainly might induce a forgerer, coming from the late 1st century to appeal to the authority of elders and bishops. The situation in 3:6-14 could hardly have existed in 80-120, and is pointless to have, or at least such a length, if the forgerer's purpose was to explain the delay of the parousia, seeing the brief sections on moral behavior (2:13-17).

Time of composition and audience

Naturally the similarity of content and closeness of chronology between I Thess. and II Thess. has raised theories regarding both the order and audience of II Thess. Various theories have been proposed, that the epistle wasn't originally for Thessalonica, or that it was designated for a Jewish minority in Thessalonica. Against a different church, Kümmel rightly points out that it can't be understood why the address would be changed to read to the church of Thessalonica. Against a Jewish minority, the epistle clearly presupposes the same congregation, not only because of the address (1:1) but because of the dispute that it presumes is going on in the same congregation that Paul knew (as a whole). Therefore, the letter was written a few weeks after I Thess., in 50-51.


  1. Kümmel, W.G., Introduction to the New Testament, 14th ed., pp.201-202; compare this with Sturdy's loaded statement, "2 Thessalonians contains many un-Pauline phrases and stylistic peculiarities." - Sturdy, J.V.M., Redrawing the Boundaries: The Date of Early Christian Literature, p.59
  2. Kümmel, ibid., p.189
  3. Kümmel, ibid., p.188
  4. Kümmel, ibid., p.190
  5. Kümmel, Op. cit.
  6. Kümmel, ibid.
  7. Sturdy, J.V.M., Redrawing the Boundaries, p.59
  8. Braun, H., Zur nichtpaulinischen Herkunft des zweiten Thessalonicherbriefes," Zeitschrift für die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft und die Kunde der älteren Kirche 44, 1952-53, 152ff.
  9. It's true that the section with moral exhortation (2:13-17) is very brief and correct conduct is the most important point in Pauline letters, and Christian letters in general, but this doesn't really point to inauthenticity since the church apparently didn't need any reproval, and it would be speculation to say that Paul would have written a longer section than 2:13-17 even if the Thessalonians didn't need moral instructions.