When Christians read Paul’s letters, they don’t treat them like any old letter. Paul’s epistles are part of God’s inspired word. But out of the 13 letters of Paul, skeptical critics like Bart Ehrman say that only 7 of them were truly written by the apostle. That would be 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, 1+2 Corinthians, Philippians, Philemon, and Romans, in case you were wondering. The rest are forgeries. If true, this is corrosive for the believer’s trust in the Bible. Ehrman lays down some unwelcome practical application for the faithful regarding forgery in the Bible:
“…the authors of these lies were no doubt like nearly everyone else in the world, ancient and modern; they too probably did not want to be lied to and deceived. But for reasons of their own they felt compelled to lie to and deceive others. To this extent they did not live up to one of the fundamental principles in the Christian tradition, taught by Jesus himself, that you should “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”.— Forged, p. 294
This is tough but fair. If the Bible contains flat-out lies, it can’t be God’s Word, because God can’t lie. And it’s not acceptable for people to lie in God’s name. Paul said as much. (Romans 3:7-8) If Bart’s right, Christians should either restructure the canon, redefine inspiration, or abandon trust in the Bible altogether. Those aren’t very palatable options.
One of these alleged forgeries includes 2 Thessalonians. 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)
In 2 Thessalonians, Paul’s addressing a situation in Thessalonica where believers were worried they’d missed Jesus’ return and had lost hope. Some were duped by false teachers that were forging letters to make them look as if they had come from Paul (2 Thessalonians 2:2). So Paul took time to clarify his view of what the end times would look like. To calm them down, he even attached his signature so they’d know his letter was genuine.
That’s the traditional understanding, but this came into question around the 1800s when historical criticism came into its heyday.
Why do critics think 2 Thessalonians is a forgery?
Ehrman does a good job of popularizing the consensus of critical scholarship. So what are some of the criticisms of the letter that he finds persuasive? For starters, he argues that the views concerning the Second Advent expressed in 2 Thessalonians differ remarkably from those found in 1 Thessalonians so that they can’t be written by the same person. Here’s Ehrman:
“The author of 2 Thessalonians, claiming to be Paul, argues that the end is not, in fact, coming right away. Certain things have to happen first. There will be some kind of political or religious uprising and rebellion, and an Antichrist-like figure will appear who will take his seat in the Temple of Jerusalem and declare himself to be God. Only then will the “Lord Jesus” come to “destroy him with the breath of his mouth” (2:3-8)… 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.”— Forged, pp. 121-122
But is that so? After going through the famous “rapture” passages in the previous chapter, (1 Thess. 4:16-18) Paul addresses the timing of Jesus’ coming. Paul writes: “Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers, you have no need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While people are saying, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. But you are not in darkness, brothers, for that day to surprise you like a thief. For you are all children of light, children of the day. We are not of the night or of the darkness.” (1 Thess. 5:1-6)
Ehrman seems to misconstrue Paul’s words. Quoting Paul, he says the end will come “like a thief in the night” but v.4 says that day won’t surprise believers like a thief. That’s for those who are in darkness. This presupposes signs that they should’ve been aware of. This is why Paul gets down to brass tacks in his second letter compared to the warmth of his first letter. They were being thickheaded, so he had to remind them of things he told them in person. (2 Thess 2:5)
So when Paul says that Jesus will come like a thief in the night, he’s not saying there is nothing leading up to that. Because they’re of the day, and therefore should be aware of exactly what is leading up to his second coming. At the same time, when Paul teaches about when the ‘man of lawlessness’ comes, he’s not saying the timing of Jesus’ coming is exactly predictable, either.
Does Jesus come like a thief in the night, or are there obvious signs?
Consider Jesus’ admonition in Matthew 24:42-43: “Therefore, stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But know this, that if the master of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into.”
Just like in 1 Thessalonians, we read that Jesus’ coming will be like a thief in the night. But reading the rest of the chapter, there’s a laundry list of events that have to happen first, including the apostasy that Paul mentions in 2 Thessalonians. (Matt 24:10-12) So in the same chapter, Matthew tells us that Jesus will both appear suddenly and also after observable events. If Matthew didn’t see the tension as a contradiction, why would Paul?
Some might object here and say, “Exactly! The Pseudo-Paul who wrote 2 Thessalonians was dependent on Matthew (or Mark) and combined some imagery from Daniel and added the ‘man of lawlessness’. We know Matthew and Mark were written at least two decades after Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians.”
But the dating of the gospels isn’t that cut-and-dried. Even skeptical scholars like James Crossley have offered arguments for dating Mark in the 40s or 50s. And there are also compelling reasons to think Matthew was written before the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD. I could get into several, but here are three I find convincing:
- Jesus approves of the Temple Tax. Robert Gundry tells why this is so significant: “The distinctive passage [of Matthew 17:24–27] teaches that Jewish Christians should not contribute to their fellow Jews rejection of the gospel by refusing to pay the Temple tax. This exhortation not only shows Matthew’s concern to win Jews. It specifically favors a date of writing before AD 70; for after the destruction of God’s temple in Jerusalem the Romans shifted the tax to the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus in Rome (Josephus J.W. 7.6.6 §218; Dio Cassius 65.7; Suetonius Dom. 12), and m. Šeqal. 8.8 says that the laws concerning “the Shekel dues…apply only such time as the Temple stands.” Surely Matthew does not include this passage to support the upkeep of a pagan temple, for then the argument implies that the disciples are sons of the pagan god! Nor can we suppose that Matthew is urging Jewish Christians to support the school of pharisaical rabbis that formed in jam yet during the aftermath of the Jewish rebellion, for he excoriates the Pharisees throughout his Gospel. The argument from 17:24 – 27 for an early date gains further cogency from the evidence that Matthew himself composed the passage.“
- Swearing by the Temple. In Matthew 23:16-22, Jesus is excoriating the scribes and Pharisees. He says “Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.’ You blind fools! For which is greater, the gold or the temple that has made the gold sacred? And you say, ‘If anyone swears by the altar, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gift that is on the altar, he is bound by his oath.’ You blind men! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that makes the gift sacred? So whoever swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it. And whoever swears by the temple swears by it and by Him who dwells in it. And whoever swears by heaven swears by the throne of God and by Him who sits upon it. If this text was written after 70 AD, it makes as much sense as me talking to a Gen Z audience about slide projectors. Unless the temple still stood, all of these practices would be antiquated.
- Gift at the Altar. In Matthew 5:23-24 we read “So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First, be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” As with the previous passage, this Jesus-saying is only found in Matthew. It could be the case that Matthew was faithfully passing on a saying of Jesus, but it doesn’t make as much sense for Matthew to relay it for the very important reason that no one could obey it if the temple was no longer standing!
This excursus into Matthew reinforces that there was an early Christian belief that there would be events that lead up to Jesus’ Second Advent, but it wasn’t so predictable that they’d know the day or the hour. Paul echoes these early Jesus traditions in his second letter. There’s no reason to think that there are contradictory theologies here. This is a pastoral correction.
Bart’s second objection to 2 Thessalonians – Paul’s “signature”
So much for the eschatological objection. But Bart has another argument:
“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.”— Forged, pg. 122-123
Is Bart right in suggesting that the writer of 2 Thessalonians is overcompensating? In his paper Who Wrote 2 Thessalonians?: A Fresh Look at an Old Problem, biblical scholar Paul Foster absolutely demolishes this cheeky objection. It’s a bit of a technical paper, so brace yourself for some Greek and fancy words, but Foster’s worth quoting at length here:
“For the sake of argument, the implications of reading this signature as stemming from a non-Pauline author without any form of oversight from Paul will be considered. The formula is presented in the following form: ὁ ἀσπασμὸς τῇ ἐμῇ χειρὶ Παύλου, ὅ ἐστιν σημεῖον ἐν πάσῃ ἐπιστολῇ, οὕτως γράφω (2 Thess 3.17) The opening clause, ὁ ἀσπασμὸς τῇ ἐμῇ χειρὶ Παύλου, is an exact parallel to 1 Cor 16.21 and Col 4.18.
By contrast, the signature in Phlm 1.19 acts as a surety guaranteeing repayment if claimed, and the formula in Gal 6.11 may be an intentional contrast with those described in the following verse as ‘desiring to make a good show in the flesh’. As there are no obvious identifiable strong parallels between 2 Thessalonians and Colossians or Philemon, and only one verbally similar parallel with Galatians (Gal 6.9/2 Thess 3.13), it would appear that if a supposed non-Pauline author has derived knowledge of this expression from any other epistle it must be from 1 Corinthians.
Given the lack of other parallels, a direct literary relationship between 1 Corinthians and 2 Thessalonians may not be likely. Furthermore, if one were persuaded of a literary relationship the direction of that dependence would also need to be established. However, again for the sake of argument, assuming that 2 Thessalonians did in fact know 1 Corinthians, then the author of 2 Thessalonians would appear to be aware of only a single case where Paul greeted his recipients in his own hand.
Furthermore, unless that author was consulting the autograph of 1 Corinthians, that particular feature might not stand out from the continuous script of what would be the uniform hand of a subsequent copyist. In fact, for the author of 2 Thessalonians to claim that a handwritten signature was Paul’s uniform practice in all his letters would require him to be familiar with a significant collection of Pauline epistles.
[But]…it is not until the mid-second century with Marcion’s ten-letter collection that one begins to be able to identify a sizeable corpus of Pauline letters. While this collection process may have begun earlier in the second century, it would appear that a pseudonymous author would not have had access to the resources of a Pauline letter collection until the second century on which to base the claim that Paul wrote a greeting in his hand in all his letters. So one would be forced to postulate a very late date for 2 Thessalonians, if it were non-Pauline.
However, such a position quickly falls apart on other grounds. If the putative pseudonymous author were consulting a Pauline letter collection around the beginning of the second century (if such a collection even existed at that point) this presumably would not have been formed from the autographs. Reading many of Paul’s epistles, such as Romans, 2 Corinthians, Philippians, Ephesians, and 1 Thessalonians, it would not appear to be the case that Paul did make a sign in his own handwriting in every letter.
Again, also self-defeating for this hypothesis is the fact noted by both defenders and opponents of Pauline authorship of 2 Thessalonians, that the only Pauline epistle that appears to be known by 2 Thessalonians is in fact 1 Thessalonians, where there is no reference to Paul making a sign in his own hand.”
Sorry again for the long quote, but it’s worth every sentence. Queue the sad trombone for Bart and whoever else makes this argument. Too much ink spilled over this objection, lame pun intended. Plausibly, Paul fixed his signature to the letter so that the Thessalonican church would quit acting like Chicken Littles over missing Christ’s return.
Paul wrote 2 Thessalonians
Here’s the bottom line: The church father Polycarp quoted the letter in around 110 AD. Polycarp reportedly knew the apostle John and was familiar with Paul’s martyrdom. Irenaeus not only quoted the letter but refers to it by name in 180 AD. The heretic Marcion included it in his canon in around 150. Clement of Alexandria [Miscellanies, 1.5, p. 554; The Instructor, 1.17], and Tertullian made use of the epistle in the early third-century.
Every piece of external evidence we have says Paul wrote it. It wasn’t until the 19th-century did this come into question, and as we’ve seen here, those reasons are dubious. Critics haven’t provided persuasive enough reasons for us to think that 2 Thessalonians is a forgery. The letter contains Paul’s words, and they’re still relevant today.
Erik is a Reasonable Faith Chapter Director located in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He’s a former freelance baseball writer and the co-owner of a vintage and handmade decor business with his wife, Dawn. He is passionate about the intersection of apologetics and evangelism.