For almost 1800 years, there was solid consensus on the authorship of 2 Thessalonians. It made its way into Marcion’s canon around AD 140 and secured a place in the Muratorian Canon between 180 and 200. Esteemed figures like Polycarp, Ignatius, Justin Martyr alluded to it, and even Irenaeus directly referred to it. But, in today’s scholarly arena, doubts surface. Some scholars, like Bart Ehrman, vehemently contest Paul’s authorship, presenting a multitude of rather peculiar reasons.
Ehrman writes: “What seems relatively certain is that someone after the time of Paul decided that he had to intervene in a situation where people were so eagerly anticipating the end, so eagerly, he suggests, that they were neglecting the duties of daily life (3:6-12); he did so by penning a letter in Paul’s name, knowing full well that he was someone else living later. Second Thessalonians, then, appears to be another instance of Pauline forgery.” (Forged, p. 125)
Why, oh why, were those Thessalonian believers sitting on their blessed assurance, idly waiting for Jesus to return after Paul’s initial letter?
Ehrman’s take? Well, he seems to attribute it to Paul’s earlier letter, penned around 50 AD. Ehrman says: “Paul wrote the Christians in Thessalonica, because some of them had become disturbed over the death of a number of their fellow believers… Paul had taught them that the end of the age was imminent… Paul writes to assure the survivors that, no, even those who have died will be brought into the kingdom… [Referring to 1 Thessalonians 4:17] Read the verse carefully: Paul expects to be one of the ones who will still be alive when it happens… That day will come ‘like a thief in the night,’ and when people think that all is well, ‘sudden destruction will come upon them.’” (1 Thess 5:2-3)
So, over time, the Thessalonian Christians are all in a fuss about Jesus’ ‘now-not-so imminent return’, just hanging around, waiting. According to Ehrman, there’s this local Christian wondering, “How do I get these folks back to work?!” They could’ve simply explained the whole “apostasy and anti-Christ theory,” adding details about some mysterious force holding everything back. It’s kind of reminiscent of elements from the prophet Daniel’s book… or so it seems, even if it contradicts Paul’s earlier teachings. This Christian could’ve even labeled themselves a prophet, claiming a divine revelation. They could’ve even said, ‘Hey guys, Jesus appeared to me and said…’ But nope.
Ehrman continues: ….“the Thessalonians can rest assured they are not yet at the final moment of history when Jesus reappears. They will know when it is almost here by the events that transpire in fulfillment of Scripture. But can this be by the same author who wrote the other letter, 1 Thessalonians? Compare the scenario of Jesus’s appearance in 2 Thessalonians, according to which it will be a while yet and preceded by recognizable events, with that of 1 Thessalonians, when the end will come like a “thief in the night,” who appears when people least expect it. There seems to be a fundamental disparity between the teachings of 1 and 2 Thessalonians, which is why so many scholars think that 2 Thessalonians is not by Paul.”
So, here’s the thing Ehrman is driving at: 1 Thessalonians hints at an imminent yet unpredictable end, while 2 Thessalonians throws caution to the wind, signaling obvious signs before it all goes down.
This mix of ‘the end is near’ vibes coupled with warnings isn’t anything new. It pops up in various Jewish texts about the end and even in the teachings of the Gospels. Take Matthew 24:33 for instance, saying, “When you see all these things, you know that it is near, right at the door.” But then, Matthew 24:44b adds a twist with, “The Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.”
So, it makes perfect sense that Paul addresses the proximity of the end in 1 Thessalonians and the events preceding it in 2 Thessalonians because he’s dealing with different concerns in each letter.
Ehrman and his scholar buddies argue that Paul couldn’t have preached what’s in 2 Thessalonians because it doesn’t match the idea that early Christians, including Paul, expected Jesus to return any minute, within a few years. But, here’s the thing: that idea isn’t crystal clear at all. It seems they’ve exaggerated how quickly people thought Jesus would return in the early church and missed its importance in later apocalyptic Christian writings.
Honestly, there isn’t a solid reason why Paul couldn’t have taught what’s in 2 Thessalonians around AD 50. It actually lines up pretty well with what Jesus said in the Olivet Discourse.
But those pesky facts won’t get in Bart’s way. So what’s the next twist in Ehrman’s theory? He says: “It is particularly interesting that the author of 2 Thessalonians indicates that he taught his converts all these things already, when he was with them (2:5). If that’s the case, then how can one explain 1 Thessalonians? The problem there is that people think the end is supposed to come any day now, based on what Paul told them. But according to 2 Thessalonians Paul never taught any such thing. He taught that a whole sequence of events had to transpire before the end came. Moreover, if that is what he taught them, as 2 Thessalonians insists, then it is passing strange that he never reminds them of this teaching in 1 Thessalonians, where they obviously think that they were taught something else.”
Alright, let’s break this down a bit. So, Fake-Paul is thinking, “Hmm, they won’t buy my end-time theories without some divine authority behind them! And just saying it’s a personal revelation from God won’t cut it.” Then, out of the blue, a light bulb goes off! “Eureka! I’ve got it!” they exclaim. They grab their pen and start penning a letter in Paul’s name. Then, the audacious fibbing starts, “Remember when I told you this stuff while hanging out? Because I totally did.” To seal the deal, they sign it as Paul, boldly claiming, “This is my signature in all my letters. I’m the real deal, Paul. No imposters here!”
But wait a minute. That passage about Paul’s earlier teachings seems more like evidence for authenticity rather than the other way around. Consider that part about the force holding back the man of lawlessness—it’s genuinely cryptic. Theologians still debate what it refers to today. Imagine a forger slipping in such a puzzling passage and insisting that readers would get it because of a past conversation.
However, Ehrman is thoroughly convinced that this “Hey, it was definitely me, Paul, who shared all this when we hung out, you guys clearly forgot, check out my hand-written signature” approach will completely fleece everyone.
Earlier in the book, Ehrman writes: “Is 2 Thessalonians itself a forgery in Paul’s name? If so, why would it warn against a forgery in Paul’s name? There can be little doubt about the answer: one of the ‘tricks’ used by ancient forgers to assure readers that their own writings were authentic was to warn against writings that were not authentic. Readers naturally assume that the author is not doing precisely what he condemns.” (pg. 25)
This is utterly comical. It’s akin to someone saying, “I swear I’m innocent!” and then Ehrman jumps in with, “Ha! Classic guilty person line!”
Regarding the signature, Ehrman continues, saying ““At the end of the letter, the author insists that he is Paul and gives a kind of proof: “I, Paul write this greeting with my own hand. This is the mark in every letter of mine; it is the way I write” (3:17)… What is peculiar is that the author claims that this is his invariant practice. But it is not how most of the undisputed letters of Paul end, including 1 Thessalonians. The words are hard to account for as Paul’s, but they make sense if a forger is trying to convince his readers that he really was Paul. But perhaps the queen doth protest too much.”
But hold on a second. What letters could this forger be talking about? Besides the mention in 2 Thessalonians 3:17, Paul signs 1 Corinthians and Colossians (and Ehrman argues Colossians is also a fake). In Philemon, he signs a letter, but it’s just about being willing to pay a debt (Philemon 1:19). Then in Galatians, he showcases his messy handwriting to humble himself (Galatians 6:11). But neither Romans nor 2 Corinthians have Paul’s signature. Even 1 Thessalonians lacks the Paul signature treatment. Wouldn’t a forger familiar with Paul’s letters know this? The verbal similarities are closest to 1 Corinthians 16:21. Is that all they had, along with 1 Thessalonians? But even if they did possess all of Paul’s letters or several, did they think to themselves, “How else can I make this look official to pass it off as Paul’s?” Ehrman seems to think so.
And then think about this: How on earth does this clever trickster ensure the discovery of their forged letter? Do they send it via a carrier pigeon, who goes, “Oops, stumbled upon this… sorry for the late delivery.” Or maybe they stash it away and say, “Whoa, look what I unearthed… must’ve been lost in the shuffle! Golly, this conveniently answers so many questions!”
I’m not denying the presence of forged letters in the early church; even 2 Thessalonians addresses this very issue (2:2). But this particular letter appears to address a specific problem within a particular group, attempting to sort out the mess supposedly caused by another letter forged in Paul’s name. If that’s the case, adding his signature would indeed make sense. Wouldn’t it be more logical for Paul to clear up any confusion himself shortly after writing his initial letter to them?
And could there genuinely be idle people in Thessalonica, still waiting for Jesus to return 20-40 years after Paul’s passing, all because of a letter he sent decades ago? Ehrman’s scenario seems bizarre on the surface, yet somehow, it’s taken seriously as scholarly work. If you’re wondering why I’m critical of modern biblical criticism, it’s due to nonsensical theories like this.
Erik is the creative force behind the YouTube channel Testify, which is an educational channel built to help inspire people’s confidence in the text of the New Testament and the truth of the Christian faith.