WAS IT FORGED: Second Epistle to the Thessalonians

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The Reading Culture of Early Christianity From Spoken Words to Sacred Texts 400,000 Textual Variants 02

NOTE: Nineteen articles will begin with these same two introductory paragraphs but will then speak specifically about the Bible book in question.

It has often been said [by whom?] that it was an accepted practice in antiquity for a writer to attribute his work to a well-known figure from the past or a teacher who has greatly influenced him. The practice would have been condemned as dishonest by all authorities in antiquity. The book Forged: Writing in the Name of God – Why the Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are by Agnostic New Testament Bible scholar Dr. Bart D. Ehrman contends that this is incorrect. Falsely attributed writings are often referred to as “pseudepigraphs,” but Ehrman maintains that the more honest term is “forgery.” The book suggests that 11 or more books out of the 27 books of the Christian New Testament canon were written as forgeries. This article and others will debunk this claim. In his book, Ehrman points out numerous inconsistencies which he finds within the New Testament which appear to support many of his claims, such as the fact that in Acts 4:13, the statement is made that both Peter and John were illiterate, yet in later years entire books of the Bible were then alleged to have been written by them. This last argument is quickly debunked on two grounds: (1) it was not years later that they wrote their books, it was over thirty years later, and in the case of John, it was over sixty years later; (2) the Greek means unlettered (YLT) that is, not educated in the rabbinic schools; not meaning illiterate. Nevertheless, below are three articles that destroy this argument of Ehrman.

Were Jesus, the Apostles, and the Early Christians Illiterate, Uneducated?

What Do We Know About Books, Reading, and Writing; Literacy In Early Christianity?

The Early Christian’s View of the Integrity of the Greek New Testament Books

False attributions

In addition to the eleven books of the New Testament, Ehrman identifies as forgeries, he discusses eight originally anonymous New Testament texts that had names of apostles ascribed to them later and are falsely attributed. These are not forgeries since the texts are anonymous but have had false authors ascribed to them by others.

The P52 PROJECT THE NEW TESTAMENT DOCUMENTS 4th ed. MISREPRESENTING JESUS

Dr. Norman L. Geisler writes,

Who Wrote It?

Paul the apostle wrote 2 Thessalonians.

Internal Evidence

This Epistle claims to be written by Paul along with Silvanus (Silas) and Timothy (1:1). Indeed, it ends with “the salutation of Paul” (3:17). The greeting of “grace to you and peace” is Pauline (1:2). Likewise, the character of the book is Pauline, with a typical commendation of the congregation at the beginning (v. 3). In addition, the contents reflect the thought of Paul with his emphasis on the coming of Christ (1:7–10; 2:1), as in his first epistle (see chapter 17), and the condition of the church to whom Paul is writing is like that of the recipient of his first epistle (see 2:1–17).

External Evidence

The earliest manuscripts of 2 Thessalonians bear the name of Paul. Indeed, they contain the apostle’s “trademark” salutation: “The salutation of Paul with my own hand, which is a sign in every epistle; so I write” (3:17). It is inconceivable that the early church would have accepted such a book if it were not Pauline. Likewise, the early Fathers accepted it as from the hand of the apostle, including Polycarp, Irenaeus, Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Origen, Cyril of Jerusalem, Eusebius, and St. Augustine. In addition, both the Muratorian canon and even Marcion’s truncated canon contain 2 Thessalonians.

Answering the Critics

Some modern critics argue for several reasons that Paul did not write 2 Thessalonians.

  1. They insist that Paul would not have written two letters so similar in such a short time. But the parallels are only about a third of the book and are easily explained by the repetition made for the sake of emphasis in this new context.
  2. Some critics claim also that there are two conflicting views of Christ’s coming. In 2 Thessalonians it is with signs, while in 1 Thessalonians it is without signs. However, this is not a contradiction, since these describe two different aspects of his coming; first for his saints (which is without signs) and later with his saints (which has signs).
  3. Nowhere else does Paul speak of “the lawless one” (2 Thess. 2:8), considered the Antichrist. But this only shows that Paul had no other occasion to speak of this evil personage of the last times. However, the apostle John did speak of him in 1 John 2:18 and Revelation 13:1–18.
  4. Some critics claim that the tone of 1 Thessalonians and 2 Thessalonians is too different to have the same author. But conditions can change quickly. In 2 Corinthians Paul has two different tones in one book (chaps. 1–9 and chaps. 10–13).

When Was It Written?

Second Thessalonians was written in AD 50, shortly after 1 Thessalonians (see chapter 17). There is the following evidence that the two Thessalonian Epistles were written close together: (1) Silvanus (Silas) and Timothy were still with Paul when he wrote the second letter (1:1); (2) 2 Thessalonians actually refers to 1 Thessalonians (2:15); (3) the condition of the church is similar, only more intense, when the second epistle is written; (4) the change that occasioned the second letter was the intervening development of a heresy (2:1–2; 3:6–15).

To Whom Was It Written?

The letter was written to a young church that was already undergoing suffering (1:4), was shaken by false reports (2:1–2), and had some believers who were slack saints (3:10).

Where Were the Readers Located?

The readers were located in Thessalonica, a city of Macedonia in Europe.

Why Was It Written?

At least three reasons are evident for the writing of this epistle: (1) Paul desired to comfort the afflicted saints (1:4); (2) he wished to correct the “alarmist” misunderstanding of Christ’s imminent coming (2:1–2); (3) he purposed to condemn the apathetic misapplication of Christ’s imminence (3:14).[1]

THE NEW TESTAMENT DOCUMENTS

A DEEPER DIVE INTO AUTHORSHIP

  1. Michael Martin writes,

The Authorship of 2 Thessalonians

As in the case of 1 Thessalonians, the prescript of 2 Thessalonians identifies the senders as Paul, Timothy, and Silas. The letter itself contemplates the possibility (if not the fact) of the circulation of a forged letter supposedly from Paul (2 Thess 2:2). Not surprisingly, the conclusion of 2 Thessalonians also contains Paul’s “signature” as an evidence of authenticity not only for this letter but also for any others the church might receive from him (3:17).

These things in themselves, however, have not prevented speculation regarding the authenticity of the letter. In fact, 2 Thessalonians is not nearly so widely affirmed as Pauline as is 1 Thessalonians. This is not, however, due to inferior external evidence for its authenticity. Both 1 and 2 Thessalonians were accepted by Marcion (a.d. 140) and occur in the Muratorian Canon (a.d. 180). The evidence from several early church fathers also indicates that 2 Thessalonians was known and used by the early church as a genuine Pauline letter. Objections to its authenticity rest primarily on the basis of internal evidence: material in the letter that some scholars argue is inconsistent with if not alien to Pauline vocabulary, style, and/or theology.

Several studies contain lengthy lists of words and phrases found in 2 Thessalonians but which do not occur in any other Pauline letter. At the same time, some observe that several elements typical of Pauline correspondence are missing from 2 Thessalonians. The absence of diatribe and rhetorical questions gives the letter a less personal feel. Imperatives are relatively infrequent in 2 Thessalonians, and a collection of paraenetic material (as in 1 Thess 5:12–24) is absent. The result is that the “tone” of 2 Thessalonians is inconsistent with that of 1 Thessalonians—the former sounding less personal. Where the letters are similar, it is argued that they are too similar, indicating a likeness born of imitation, not common authorship.

Even those who make these arguments, however, recognize that none of them is conclusive. Arguments from silence (such as citing the lack of rhetorical questions or paraenetic material in 2 Thessalonians) are notoriously weak. Likewise, the presence of unique vocabulary in 2 Thessalonians is not necessarily the result of non-Pauline authorship. Numerous other factors—for example, a change in amanuensis, a difference in subject matter, or the use of preformed tradition—also could explain variations in vocabulary from one letter to another by the same author. The supposed change in tone from 1 to 2 Thessalonians rests on such distinctions as we find in the thanksgivings of the two letters. In 1 Thessalonians Paul gave thanks for the Thessalonians (1:2; 2:13; 3:9). In 2 Thessalonians he was “bound” (RSV) or “obligated” to give thanks (1:3). Does the latter phrase imply emotional distance, a greater level of respect and appreciation, or are the two statements essentially synonymous? Because discerning the tone of the letters depends on interpretations of this sort of ambiguous phrasing, conclusions regarding authorship based on such speculations are simply not persuasive.

REASONABLE FAITH

Perhaps the most frequently cited variation between 1 and 2 Thessalonians has to do with their presentations of the parousia of the Lord. It is argued that 1 Thessalonians presents the reader with a parousia that could occur suddenly and unexpectedly at any moment (4:13–5:11). Second Thessalonians, in contrast, presents a series of recognizable events that must precede the parousia (2:1–12). It is considered inconceivable that the same author should write such incompatible accounts of the Lord’s parousia. This argument against Pauline authorship is weak at several points. First, it misrepresents the teachings of 1 Thessalonians that “the Lord will come like a thief in the night” (5:2). Those for whom the coming of the Lord will be as a thief (i.e., unexpected) are unbelievers, but believers “are not in darkness”; thus that day will not surprise them as a thief (v. 4). It is the very point of 5:1–11 that believers know the Lord is coming and must therefore persist in the faith as they await his arrival (vv. 8, 11).

Second, that Paul would write both of an imminent end of the world and at the same time of signs that will indicate that the end is at hand is not inconceivable. This was in fact a common feature of non-Christian apocalyptic literature of the day. Similarly, we also find the coming of the lord in judgment presented in the gospels using the image of the “thief.” The thief analogy occurs there (as it does in Paul) in conjunction with signs heralding the end. Such signs do not provide a concrete time frame; thus believers must be constantly faithful and vigilant. The timing of the signs relative to one another and to the climactic event of judgment is also left ambiguous. Thus believers can know with certainty that the Lord is coming and should be able to recognize the beginning of the event. But they do not know when it will occur nor the precise duration of the event from beginning to end. It is this combination of certainty regarding the event and ambiguity regarding its precise nature and timing that is reflected in both letters to the Thessalonian church.

Third, the fact that material was presented in 2 Thessalonians that was not mentioned in 1 Thessalonians does not require that the author of 1 Thessalonians was ignorant of or had rejected these teachings about the events preceding the end. First Thessalonians 5:1–11 presupposes some prior knowledge regarding the parousia (see 5:1). The fact that signs of the end are not listed or that the man of lawlessness is not discussed may simply indicate that Paul had already given the church this material verbally. These teachings then could easily have been presupposed in Paul’s presentation. And given the intent of 5:1–11 to encourage persistent faithfulness, the listing of signs is simply not a necessary part of Paul’s argument. Reminding the church of the signs of the end was, on the other hand, a necessary part of the argument of 2 Thess 2:1–12 since the intent in that instance was to convince believers not to succumb to the lie that the day of the Lord had already come. Thus the absence of signs of the end from 1 Thess 4:13–5:11 does not justify the rejection of the Pauline authorship of 2 Thessalonians. The difference in content, rather, can best be explained as the result of a difference in purpose in the two letters.

Second Thessalonians is Pauline. The external evidence is in favor of an early acceptance of it in the early church as Pauline. The content has not been shown to be incompatible with Paul’s other writings. The letter itself claims Pauline authorship, and rejecting that claim says more about the level of scepticism with which the interpreter approaches the text than it does about the text itself.[2]

[1] Norman L. Geisler, A Popular Survey of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2014), 206–208.

[2] D. Michael Martin, 1, 2 Thessalonians, vol. 33, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1995), 27–29.

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