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Paul and Thessalonica (3)

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The Authenticity of 2 Thessalonians

By now it will have become evident that a careful reconstruction of the pre-history of 1 Thessalonians has implications for the question of the authenticity of 2 Thessalonians. Telling arguments against authenticity include the following:

bulletThere is a pronounced disparity between the eschatological views of 1 and 2 Thessalonians.
bulletThere are remarkable similarities, but also puzzling differences, in the thought and wording of the two letters.
bulletIf 2 Thessalonians was written soon after 1 Thessalonians, how do we explain the sudden shift in eschatology from a Parousia coming unannounced as a thief in the night (1 Thessalonians 5:1-11) to an elaborate scenario of events leading up to a predictable end (2 Thessalonians 2:5-12)?27

The authenticity of the letter still has its defenders, who argue:

bulletThe situation in Thessalonica changed and therefore required different eschatological teaching.28
bulletThose who oppose authenticity (notably W. Wrede) have not succeeded in explaining the origin of the letter by a pseudonymous author, if it comes from one later period or another.

  27It does not seem a realistic option to reverse the order of the letters, as Grotius and others have done, inasmuch as 1 Thessalonians sounds much like the first letter to have been written since the founding visit, and 2 Thessalonians most emphatically does not.
  28Alternatively, some defenders of authenticity argue that there are sufficient instances of such disparate views of the End occurring together in apocalyptic works for us to conceive of this having happened in Paul’s letters.

At two points the present study may be able to contribute something to the discussion.

  1. I have called attention earlier in this paper to the fact that the disparity in eschatological teaching exists not only between 1 and 2 Thessalonians but applies also—and especially—to the prior teaching of Paul during the founding visit; see Founding Mission, above.29 If during his initial stay with the Thessalonians Paul had taught them about the man of lawlessness, about the force or person presently restraining him, and about the revelation of the lawless one and his consequent destruction at the Parousia of the Lord, it is difficult to understand how Paul at the same time could have told them that the Parousia would come unexpectedly.
  2. The present study brings to light another point which affects negatively the authenticity of 2 Thessalonians. Whereas Paul in 1 Thessalonians projects a visit to the congregation, and takes considerable pains to explain why he has not returned to see them, 2 Thessalonians ignores the intended visit, as we have already noted, without explanation or apology.30 Where we have a sequence of letters, as in 1 and 2 Corinthians, Paul is sensitive to any change in his relations with his readers, particularly to changes in travel plans (see 2 Corinthians 1:15-23). Thus the lack of any travel plans in 2 Thessalonians is not merely silence but (on the hypothesis of its authenticity) an actual change in his intentions: in one letter he hopes and prays to see them; in the other, the intention has lapsed, without explanation.31 This lapse is even more curious when, also without explanation, the plan to visit Thessalonica is renewed (1 Corinthians 16:5). I would not go so far as to call such a change inconceivable; I would prefer to say that the phenomenon becomes more intelligible on the hypothesis that a pseudonymous author in 2 Thessalonians has failed, for all of his skill, to maintain the trajectory of 1 Thessalonians in a convincing way.32 Admittedly these two points are not by themselves decisive, but together with the other arguments they may well tip the scales against authenticity.33 Click for discussion of pseudonymous writings in the early church.

  29Cp. John A. Bailey, “Who Wrote II Thessalonians?” NTS 25 (1978/79) 134.
  30Andreas Lindemann claims that the pseudonymous author of 2 Thessalonians has no interest in relating Paul concretely to the Thessalonian congregation (contrast 1 Thessalonians 2–3), because 2 Thessalonians is really addressed to the later situation of the church, at the end of the first century; see Lindemann’s “Zum Abfassungszweck des Zweiten Thessalonicherbriefes,” ZNW 68 (1977) 44-5. H. J. Holtzmann had already drawn attention to the lack in 2 Thessalonians of recollections of the founding period, of all personal references, of all expressions of affection and expectations of making a visit soon; see Holtzmann’s “Zum zweiten Thessalonicherbrief,” ZNW 2 (1901) 105. E. von Dobschuetz notes that the apostle speaks no more in 2 Thessalonians of his longing to return to Thessalonica, but he does not observe the implications of this fact for the possibly pseudonymous character of the letter. For W. Wrede, in Die Echtheit des zweiten Thessalonicherbriefs, Texte und Untersuchungen, Neue Folge, IX Band, 2. Heft (Leipzig: J. C. Hinrichs’sche Buchhandlung, 1903) 34-5, the silence of 2 Thessalonians on the intended visit, together with the lack of personal discussions, weighs heavily against the letter’s authenticity. Note also Wrede’s acute comment (78) on how the Greek phrase of 1 Thessalonians 3:11, kateuthunai tên hodon hêmôn pros humas, “. . . direct our way to you,” becomes in 2 Thessalonians 3:5 a colorless kateuthunai hêmôn tas kardias, “. . . direct your hearts.” Funk, in Language 268, 274, recognizes the absence of a travelogue in 2 Thessalonians as significant for the question of authenticity.
31The absence of travel plans becomes intelligible if W. Trilling is correct in characterizing 2 Thessalonians from the form-critical point of view not as a “letter” but as a general “apostolic” writing, by a pseudonymous author, offering exhortation and instruction; see his Untersuchungen zum Zweiten Thessalonicherbrief (Leipzig: St. Benno-Verlag GMBH, 1972) 108, 157; cp. 67-108.
  32W. Schmithals, in “Die Thessalonicherbriefe als Briefkompositionen,” in Zeit und Geschichte: Dankesgabe an Rudolf Bultmann zum 80. Geburtstag, hrg. Erich Dinkler (Tuebingen: Mohr[Siebeck], 1964) 295-315, tries to save the authenticity of 2 Thessalonians by dividing the canonical 1 and 2 Thessalonians into four letters. Schmithals’ hypothesis has been met with little enthusiasm. Demke, in “Theologie und Literarkritik im 1. Thessalonicherbrief,” 104-7, for one, attacks Schmithals’ radical dismemberment of the letters on literary-critical grounds. W. Trilling considers his Untersuchungen zum Zweiten Thessalonicherbrief as an indirect critique of Schmithals’ partition hypothesis (41).
  33Daryl Schmidt, using transformational-generative grammar, has made a convincing case against authenticity in “The Authenticity of 2 Thess: Linguistic Arguments,” printed in SBL Seminar Papers (Chico, CA: Scholars Press, 1983) 289-296; cp. his Hellenistic Greek Grammar and Noam Chomsky, SBLDS 62 (Chico, CA: Scholars Press, 1981); and “1 Thess 2:13-16: Linguistic Evidence for an Interpolation,” JBL 102 (1983) 269-79. Also worthy of mention is Edgar Krentz’s magisterial survey, “A Stone That Will Not Fit: The Non-Pauline Authorship of II Thessalonians” (a paper circulated among members of the SBL Seminar on the Thessalonian Correspondence, Dallas, December 1983).


Quite independently from Acts, and at a number of points correcting Acts, the present study of 1 Thessalonians, based exclusively upon the letters, offers more information than we might expect about Paul’s relationships with the Thessalonian Christians. This material supplies useful information for the interpretation of the letter, but also provides some crucial links in the assembling of a letters based chronology. Our study has also brought to light certain grave questions about the authenticity of 2 Thessalonians.

Detached Note [A]: Opponents in Thessalonica?

Did Timothy report attacks against Paul’s good name by unscrupulous opponents (the Jews are mentioned by some commentators)? Are we obliged to take account of gnostic errorists, as Schmithals argues?34 How else are we to explain the apologetic character not only of 1 Thessalonians 2:1-12, but also in an anticipatory way of 1:5 and 1:9a?

Several points may be offered in response:

     (a) The occasion for the apology is more likely to be internal (Paul’s view of his apostolate which he desires to communicate to the Thessalonians in the context of the joyful news brought by Timothy)35 than external (some agitation in the Thessalonian situation which Timothy reported).

     (b) Though parts of the letter give the impression of being apologetic, it lacks the harsh defensiveness which characterizes intensely controversial letters like Galatians and 2 Corinthians 10–13.

     (c) Marxsen may well be correct when he characterizes 1 Thessalonians 2:1-12 as an apology, not for Paul, but on behalf of the gospel.36

     (d) Paul does feel the need to explain (not so much defend) his continued absence from Thessalonica (1 Thessalonians 2:17–3:13),37 but this may be nothing more than one friend explaining to another why she or he has not written!

  34Paul and the Gnostics 123-218, esp. 139-40, 155-60, 164, 167-9, 212. The case of Schmithals would be more convincing if he were able to demonstrate the presence of specifically gnostic traits in the teaching of those whom Paul is supposed to be refuting in 1 Thessalonians. Further, if gnostics had been a substantial threat in Thessalonica, then the remedy which Paul applied would hardly have been sufficient to meet the crisis; cf. G. Friedrich, “1. Thessalonicher 5,1-11, der apologetische Einschub eines Spaeteren,” ZTK 70 (1973) 289. Instead, Paul is more likely differentiating his methods from those of “the wandering philosopher-preachers, exponents of strange faiths, advocates of the mystery religions and practisers of magic” (Best, 1-2 Thess 94; cp. 99). A. J. Malherbe argues convincingly from the analogy of Cynic discourses that Paul is not necessarily making a personal apology; see his “‘Gentle as a Nurse’: The Cynic Background to I Thess ii,” NovT 12 (1970) 203-17.
  35Cp. von Dobschuetz (Thess-Br 107) for the view that the occasion for the apology is not to be sought in objective relationships with his readers but in the state of mind of the letter writer. I would not, however, follow von Dobschuetz completely in his description of Paul’s state of mind. Collins views 2:1-12 as a personal confession (Studies on 1 Thess 184-5).
  36Marxsen, “Auslegung von 1 Thess 4,13-18,” 24.
  37On this point see Malherbe, “Gentle as a Nurse,” 209. For Dio Chrysostom, the genuine philosopher never deserts his post of duty.

Detached Note [B]: The Interval Between Paul’s Departure from Thessalonica and the Writing of 1 Thessalonians

We here attempt to summarize the evidence which might have a bearing on the length of time between Paul’s departure from Thessalonica and his composition of 1 Thessalonians. It will be seen in what follows that there is a considerable variation suggested in the durations of time from quite short to quite lengthy.

     (a) Paul says that he has been separated from the Thessalonians pros kairon hôras (“for a short time” [literally, “for an hour’s time”], 1 Thessalonians 2:17), a phrase which suggests considerable brevity, even if it is not taken literally.38

     (b) His attempts repeatedly, or more than once, to visit Thessalonica (kai hapax kai dis, 1 Thessalonians 2:18) imply a somewhat lengthier interval.39

     (c) The death of some of the Thessalonian believers (1 Thessalonians 4:13) implies a yet more extended interval, even though death can come suddenly from a variety of causes, including disease or persecution.

     (d) That the Thessalonians had demonstrated their brotherly love for all the brethren in the whole of Macedonia (1 Thessalonians 4:9-10) could be taken as evidence of opportunities for hospitality over a considerable period of time.

     (e) At the outermost time limit we have the passage in 1 Thessalonians 1:7-8, where Paul congratulates the Thessalonians that they are a model for all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia, and that their faith in God is known not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but in every place.

Thus we are confronted with a considerable range of possible timespans, which do not invite precise reconstructions. Paul allows himself to speak in hyperbole,40 particularly at the extreme ends of the range. Advocates of a very brief or a quite lengthy interval should be cautioned against laying excessive weight on only part of the evidence. Four to twelve months is as close as one would want to come in estimating the interval between Paul’s departure from Thessalonica and his composition of 1 Thessalonians.41 

  38As von Dobschuetz notes (Thess-Br 120), pros kairon hôras does not tell us about the factual duration of the separation and thus can be used only indirectly for the dating of the letter. The focus of the verse is on Paul’s reunion with the Thessalonians. The combination of pros kairon, “for a limited time,” or perhaps “for the present moment,” with pros hôran, for a while, for a moment” (BAGD 395b, 904b), tends to emphasize the brevity or momentary character of the separation and hence to heighten the hope of a speedy reunion. If Paul were writing some two to three years after his departure from Thessalonica, a phrase like pros kairon hôras would seem inappropriate. [BAGD: Bauer, W., Arndt, W. F., Gingrich, F. W., Danker, F. W., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 2nd ed. (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1979).] 
  39Some commentators have found here a rather brief time reference, to the effect that he tried to return to Thessalonica at Beroea, and again at Athens. Others have seen in the phrase the suggestion of a more extended time period, with emphasis on the repeated attempts. The latter view is more likely correct.
  40Also the view of Holtz (1 Thess 12; esp. n. 17).
  41After a judicious assessment of the evidence, Holtz (1 Thess 12-13) decides on a relatively brief interval between the founding of the church and the writing of the letter; he considers an interval of several years to be excessive.


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