Is Bart Ehrman Right When He Says Half of Paul’s Letters are Forgeries?

Out of the 13 letters of Paul found in the New Testament, skeptical critics like Bart Ehrman will only grant that 7 of them are genuine. (Romans, 1&2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon, in case you were wondering) That leaves Christians in a precarious situation — either throw out six books in their Bible or acknowledge that the New Testament contains some pious lies. Whoever wrote these letters passed themselves off as Paul.  

But if Ehrman’s arguments turn out to be weak and there’s good evidence that Paul wrote all of the letters, then it’s Bart who loses credibility, not the New Testament. 

I’ll start with the Pastoral epistles since they have a higher scholarly consensus of being non-Pauline. 

1&2 Timothy

The witness of the early church fathers

If there was anyone in a position to know who wrote 1st and 2nd Timothy, it would have been the church father Polycarp. In his letter to the Philippian church written in about 110-120 AD, Polycarp quoted 1 Timothy 3:8, 6:7, 6:10 and 2 Timothy 2:12. He also mentions Paul by name four times in his letter, including some indications that he was familiar with the apostle’s martyrdom.

On the significance of these early patristic quotes, here’s Biblical scholar Kenneth Berding. He makes two main observations in regards to Polycarp’s use of 1 and 2 Timothy:

“Observation #1: The first is that Polycarp clusters allusions to Paul’s writings around each of the three times that he mentions Paul’s name explicitly (in chapters 3, 9, and 11). You see, Polycarp is like some elderly Christians you may have met in your life who are so immersed in the Bible that they almost talk like the Bible. Polycarp had huge sections of the Old and New Testaments committed to memory. His letter could almost be described as a pastiche of allusions to various writings, about half of which are originally Paul’s. (His connection to Paul in this letter makes sense, of course, since he is writing his letter to a Pauline congregation….the Philippians!) Polycarp pretty randomly mixes allusions to Paul’s writings (half of his total allusions) with allusions to other writings (e.g., Psalms, Matthew, 1 Peter, 1 John). But there is one significant exception: when he mentions “Paul,” he clusters allusions to Paul right after the mention of his name. He does this all three times he mentions Paul, showing that this is a pattern.

Observation #2: In the first “cluster” of Pauline allusions are two clear allusions to 1 Timothy (1 Tim. 6:10 and 6:7 found in Pol. Phil. 4.1) and in the second “cluster” is one clear allusion to 2 Timothy (2 Tim. 4:10 found in Pol. Phil. 9.2). There are none from the Pastoral Letters in the third cluster.

The implication of the first observation is that Polycarp considers the phrases in each cluster to be Pauline. The implication of the second observation is that Polycarp considers the phrases which he quotes from 1 and 2 Timothy also to be from Paul.

This, of course, doesn’t prove that Polycarp is correct in his assessment. But… Polycarp was doubtlessly the most significant ecclesiastical leader of the first half of II C. E.”

Critics say that the writer of the Pastorals was addressing Gnostic heresies of the late first and early second-century, so they were written around 110. But Polycarp was writing around the same time and seems convinced Paul wrote the letters. Irenaeus of Lyons tells us that Polycarp knew some of the apostles, in particular, John, whom Paul met. (Galatians 2:9). And he was familiar with Paul’s death, so this theory that the pastorals were written in the early 2nd-century is rather strained.

Writing some 40-50 years later, Irenaeus explicitly mentions that Paul is the author of the Pastoral Letters. In his work Against Heresies, Irenaeus writes regarding heretics and says: “Paul commands us, ‘after a first and second admonition, to avoid” (Titus 3:10). Irenaeus also writes that Paul says to avoid those who use “novelties of words of false knowledge” (1 Tim 6:20).

Furthermore, the author of the Didache (a very early Christian writing dated to the late 1st-century) clearly quotes 1 Timothy 3:4. The Pastorals are also quoted by Clement of Alexandria (180 AD), Tertullian (220 AD) and Origen (230 AD). The witness of the early church is pretty clear. They quoted the pastorals as authoritative, and they believed the letters genuinely be from the Apostle Paul.

Undesigned Coincidences

If you’re forging a letter from someone and you want to make it believable, you’re going to color it with some overt connections with their previous letters and life-details. Some critics say this exists when the writer of Timothy talks about Paul’s former life as a church persecutor. (1 Tim. 1:13-16) But there are some less obvious interconnections in the pastorals that seem very unlikely to be intentional. These point to Paul being the genuine author of the letters.

These come in the form of undesigned coincidences. What’s an undesigned coincidence anyway? An undesigned coincidence (named by J.J. Blunt and first popularized by William Paley) happens when one account of an event leaves out a piece of info which is incidentally filled in by a different account, which helps to answer some natural questions raised by the first. You can read more about them here.

Lydia McGrew has recently revived and updated this older argument in her fantastic book Hidden in Plain View. It’s a must-read for anyone interested in defending the reliability of the New Testament. For our purposes, we’ll look at two undesigned coincidences where Acts and 1 and 2 Timothy seem to incidentally interlock.

Timothy’s Upbringing

The first is about Timothy himself. 2 Timothy 1:5 says “I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that dwelt first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, dwells in you as well.” 2 Timothy 3:15 gives us some more details about Timothy’s upbringing: “and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.”

So Timothy was steeped in the Jewish scriptures and in the faith. These details fit well together with what we read in Acts 16:1-3: “Paul came also to Derbe and to Lystra. A disciple was there, named Timothy, the son of a Jewish woman who was a believer, but his father was a Greek. He was well spoken of by the brothers at Lystra and Iconium. Paul wanted Timothy to accompany him, and he took him and circumcised him because of the Jews who were in those places, for they all knew that his father was a Greek.”

In Acts, we learned Timothy’s father was Greek and apparently drew the line at circumcision, but his mother was a Jewish convert to Christianity. That’s why he would’ve been familiar with the scriptures since he was a child. 2 Timothy mentions his grandmother but not his father. Neither group of details seems to be in connection with the other. McGrew concludes that “this undesigned coincidence has the ring of truth. Timothy’s father was a Greek and his mother was Jewish, he was raised from childhood in the knowledge of the Old Testament Scriptures, and both the author of 2 Timothy and the author of Acts knew about him and described him accurately.” –(Hidden in Plain View, pp. 200)

Timothy’s familiarity with Paul’s Trials

2 Timothy 3:10-11 says: “You, however, have followed my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my love, my steadfastness, my persecutions and sufferings that happened to me at Antioch, at Iconium, and at Lystra—which persecutions I endured; yet from them all the Lord rescued me.” This raises an interesting question. Paul went through a lot of persecutions, so why mention Antioch, Iconium, and Lystra as ones that Timothy would be familiar with?

In Acts 16:1 we read that Timothy was known as a believer when Paul came to Derbe and Lystra. Both cities are near Iconium, so Timothy must have been from one of them.

In the run-up to these verses, Acts gives us the rundown on the persecution of Paul experienced during his first missionary journey in Antioch (13:44–52), Iconium (14:5), and then Lystra (14:19). Paul was stoned and thought dead in Lystra in particular, so surely word got around about this event. It must’ve made quite an impression on a young believer like Timothy. Furthermore, Paul calls Timothy his “beloved child” (2 Timothy 1:2), suggesting he played a role in him becoming a Christian.

McGrew sums up this undesigned coincidence as follows: “Notice how indirect all of this is. One infers from II Timothy that Paul had some special reason to mention those persecutions to Timothy and to say that they were known to Timothy. One notes the point in Acts 13–14 where the narrative describes persecutions in those towns. One then infers from Acts 16 that Timothy was already a disciple from that region and had been converted during Paul’s previous visit to the region, described in Acts 13–14, during which the persecutions took place.” (HIPV, 203)

Ehrman’s Objections to Pauline Authorship of the Pastorals

Un-Pauline Vocabulary? 

One of the more popular objections to Pauline authorship is the difference in vocabulary between the undisputed letters of Paul and the Pastorals. Here’s Ehrman:

“There are 848 different words used in the pastoral letters. Of that number 306-over one-third of them!-do not occur in any of the other Pauline letters of the New Testament. That’s an inordinately high number; especially given the fact that about two-thirds of these 306 words are used by Christian authors living in the second century. This suggests the author is using a vocabulary that was becoming more common after the days of Paul, and that he too, therefore, lived after Paul.” — Forged: Writing In The Name Of God – Why The Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are. Pg 112

If you don’t find this too persuasive of an argument, I can’t say that I blame you. We all know that we use a different range of vocabulary based upon our audience. Paul’s letter to Timothy was a personal letter written to one of his spiritual sons and a fellow minister of the gospel, unlike his letter to the Romans, a large church body whom he hadn’t met yet. It’s not hard to see why his vocabulary is different.

Allow me to give an example from everyday life. I’ve been a manager before. I’m going to write an email differently writing to an individual under me who I’ve built some rapport with than an email that I’d address the whole company with. Moreover, even in my own blogs, I’ve written about professional baseball and apologetics. My vocabulary changes quite a bit depending on my audience. I don’t write about baseball the way I write about apologetics. And I certainly don’t text my wife the way I blog for an audience! (I can’t see myself using the word “moreover” in a text to my wife!)

Even Ehrman himself suggests that this isn’t all that strong of an objection to Pauline authorship. Quoting Bart: “Probably not too much stock should be placed in mere numbers. Everyone, after all, uses different words on different occasions, and most of us have a much richer stock of vocabulary than shows up in any given set of letters we write.”

Does ‘faith’ Mean Something Different in the Pastorals Than It Does in Paul’s Other Writings?

Ehrman moves his focus from the word-statistics to how the way the words are used in the Pastorals. Here’s Bart again:

“In books such as Romans and Galatians faith refers to the trust a person has in Christ to bring about salvation through his death. In other words, the term describes a relationship with another; faith is a trust “in” Christ. The author of the Pastorals also uses the term “faith.” But here it is not about a relationship with Christ; faith now means the body of teaching that makes up the Christian religion. That is “the faith” (see Titus 1:13) Same word, different meaning.” –Forged, pp. 113

But hang on a second! That just isn’t true. Paul mostly does use the word ‘faith’ in the manner that Bart says, but he also does use it to refer to a body of doctrine at times in his undisputed letters. Here are some examples:

  • 1 Corinthians 16:13 (ESV) “Be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong.”
  • 2 Cor 13:5 “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith
  • Gal 1:23 “They only were hearing it said, “He who used to persecute us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.”
  • Phil 1:27 “Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel”

Ehrman’s just wrong here to suggest that Paul doesn’t use different shades of meaning when he’s using the word ‘faith’. He doesn’t use it in a wooden manner that has only one definition.

Is the Idea of Bishops and Church Hierarchy Foreign to Paul?

Bart’s final objection has to do with the church hierarchy. He says that this “probably the biggest problem with accepting the Pastorals as coming from Paul”

“The one thing Paul does not do is write to the leaders at the church of Corinth and tell them to get their parishioners in order. Why is that? Because there were no leaders at the church of Corinth. There were no bishops and deacons. There were no pastors. There was a group of individuals, each of whom had a gift of the Spirit, in this brief time before the end came. Contrast that with what you have in the Pastorals. Here you do not have individuals endowed by the Spirit working together to form the community. Here you have the pastors Timothy and Titus. You have the church leaders: bishops and deacons. You have hierarchy, structure, organization. That is to say, you have a different historical situation than you had in the days of Paul.” –-Forged: Writing In The Name Of God – Why The Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are. Pg 116

This strikes me as blatantly false. In Paul’s undisputed letters, there are offices of overseers and deacons. Paul opens his letter to the Philippians with “Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons”. (Phil 1:1) Here the word overseer and bishop are interchangeable.

While not as explicit, Paul also does mention that the Thessalonians had church leaders: “We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you” (1 Thess 5:12). He also states in Romans that some are gifted to lead (Rom 12:7) and mentions specific church leaders in other places. (Romans 16:1, 1 Cor 16:15-17) If this is the strongest objection against the genuineness of the Pastoral epistles, then color me unimpressed.

I spent more time on the pastorals than the other epistles just to show that if the most disputed epistles are in doubt over weak arguments, then that should bolster our confidence going forward. Let’s move on to Ephesians and Colossians. 

Ephesians and Colossians 

External Evidence for Ephesians and Colossians

First of all, as we saw in the pastorals, Ephesians and Colossians are cited approvingly in the writings of the early church. Ephesians is approvingly cited by Clement of Rome, Polycarp, Ignatius, The Didache, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, the Muratorian Canon, and Origen. Colossians enjoys the same attestation minus Polycarp and Clement of Rome.

Even the heretic Marcion included them in his canon. These two epistles were copiously quoted by the early fathers and it wasn’t until the late 18th-century did anyone begin to doubt their authorship.

Undesigned Coincidences: an Ambassador in a Chain

There’s also some interesting internal evidence against these letters being a forgery. In Ephesians 6:20 Paul calls himself an ambassador in chains (ESV), but the Greek literally says “a chain”. This is how it’s quoted in several translations, including Young’s Literal Translation. Compare that with Acts 28:20, where Paul says that “because of the hope of Israel that I am wearing this chain.” The Greek word is ἁλύσει, which means a light chain or bond.

These are the only two places where this term is used, and it refers to the single-chain that bound him to a Roman soldier. This is interesting because church tradition tells us Ephesians was written from prison. Now oddly enough, in the parallel passage of Colossians 4:3, Paul uses a different word. He says: “And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains.” (Greek: δέδεμαι, which means to bind, tie, fasten.)

Hmm…that’s a bit odd. Wouldn’t a forger be a little more careful to reproduce the same word? This might seem like a minor detail but it’s important. The eminent 18th-century scholar William Paley, writing on this undesigned coincidence, remarks:

“If it can be suspected that the writer of the present epistle, who in no other particular appears to have availed himself of the information concerning St. Paul delivered in the Acts (writer’s comment: because the author of Ephesians makes no reference to the events in Acts 19-20), had, in this verse, borrowed the word which he read in that book, and had adapted his expression to what he found there recorded of St. Paul’s treatment at Rome, in short, that the coincidence here noted was effected by craft and design, I think it a strong reply to remark that, in the parallel passage of the Epistle to the Colossians(iv. 3.), the same allusion is not preserved: the words there are, “praying also for us, that God would open unto us a door of utterance to speak the mystery of Christ, for which I am also in bonds,” Gr. di ho kai dedemai.

… there can be little doubt but that these two epistles were written by the same person. If the writer, therefore, sought for, and fraudulently inserted the correspondency into one epistle, why did he not do it in the other? A real prisoner might use either general words which comprehended this amongst many other modes of custody; or might use appropriate words which specified this, and distinguished it from any other mode. It would be accidental which form of expression he fell upon. But an impostor, who had the art in one place, to employ the appropriate term for the purpose of fraud, would have used it in both places.” — Horae Paulinae, pp. 110

The Archippus/Onesimus Connection

There are some other interesting interlocking bits of evidence found between Philemon (a universally uncontested letter) and Colossians. Col 4:9 reads “and with him Onesimus, our faithful and beloved brother, who is one of you.”

We know that in Philemon that Onesimus was Philemon’s slave. We don’t know from Philemon what city he was from. All we know is that whichever city it was, it included a fellow by the name of Archippus. (Philemon 1:1) Now turn back to Colossians and you’ll see Archippus was called out by name as a Colossian church member. Colossians 4:17 reads: “Tell Archippus: “See to it that you complete the ministry you have received in the Lord.”

Paley again here connects the dots:

“The necessary result is, that Onesimus also was of the same city, agreeably to what is said of him, “he is one of you.” And this result is the effect either of truth which produces consistency without the writer’s thought or care, or of a contexture of forgeries confirming and falling in with one another by a species of fortuity of which I know no example.

The supposition of design, I think, is excluded, not only because the purpose to which the design must have been directed, that is to say, the verification of the passage in our epistle, in which it is said concerning Onesimus, “he is one of you,” is a purpose, which would be lost upon ninety-nine readers out of a hundred; but because the means made use of are too circuitous to have been the subject of affectation and contrivance.

Would a forger who had this purpose in view, have left his readers to hunt it out, by going forward and backward from one epistle to another, in order to connect Onesimus with Philemon, Philemon with Archippus, and Archippus with Colosse? all which he must do before he arrives at his discovery, that it was truly said of Onesimus, “he is one of you.” — Horae Paulinae pp. 111

It’s these undesigned coincidences that fly under the radar by most readers but cut against the forgery hypothesis.

Bart’s Pro-forgery Arguments Against Ephesians and Colossians

There’s a number of different arguments Bart uses to argue against the genuineness of these two letters, but I’ll focus on the two that he believes are the strongest.

Did the “Real Paul” Believe He Was Blameless? 

“…the main reason for thinking Paul didn’t write Ephesians is that what the author says in places does not jibe with what Paul says in his own letters. Ephesians 2.1-10, for example, certainly looks like Paul’s writing, but just on the surface.

Here, as in Paul’s authentic letters, we learn that believers were separated from God because of sin, but have been made right with God exclusively through God’s grace, not the result of “works.” But here, oddly, Paul includes himself as someone who, before coming to Christ, was carried away by the “passions of our flesh, doing the will of the flesh and the senses.” This doesn’t sound like Paul of the undisputed letters, who say she had been “blameless” with respect to the “righteousness of the law (Phil 3.4).” — Forged, pp 125

I have to say, this argument is so underwhelming. Bart has no doubts that Paul wrote Romans and 1 Corinthians. Paul says that in 1 Corinthians 15:9 that he didn’t deserve to be called an apostle because he formerly persecuted the church. You don’t think that would qualify as being carried away by the passions of the flesh?

Worse still is it seems like Bart simply forgets Romans 7, where Paul talks about his struggles with sin while he lived under the Law. Here’s just a sampling:

“Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. For apart from the law, sin lies dead. I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died. The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me….

For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing…

For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?”

Using Bart’s logic, we could say that Philippians proves that Romans isn’t a genuine letter of Paul! But I doubt he wants to go there. This just isn’t a very impressive argument. But let’s give Bart one more shot.

Realized Eschatology in Ephesians/Colossians? 

“Most significantly, Paul was emphatic in his own writings that Christians who had been baptized “died” to the powers of the world that were aligned with the enemies of God. They had “died with Christ”. But they had not been “raised” with Christ. That would happen at the end of time when Jesus returned and all people, living and dead, would be raised up to face judgment. That’s why in Romans 6.1-4 Paul is emphatic; those who are baptized “have died” with Christ, and they “will be raised” with him, at Jesus coming. Paul was extremely insistent on this point, that the resurrection of believers was a future, physical event, not something that had already happened.

One of the reasons he wrote 1 Corinthians was precisely because some of the Christians in that community took an opposing point of view and maintained that they were already enjoying a resurrected existence with Christ now, that they were already enjoying the benefits of salvation. Paul devotes 1 Corinthians 15 to show that is not something that has happened yet. It is a future physical event yet to occur. Christians have not been raised with Christ. But contrast this with the statement with what Ephesians says: “Even when we were dead through our trespasses, God made us alive together with Christ…and raised us up with him and seated us with him in heavenly places” (2.5-6.) Here believers have experienced a spiritual resurrection and are enjoying heavenly existence in the here and now. This is precisely the view Paul argued against in his letters to the Corinthians!“ — Forged, pp. 126

So does the writer of Ephesians too much of a ‘realized eschatology’ in comparison with Paul’s other letters like Bart suggests? I think not.

First of all, 1 Corinthians 6:17 says that believers have union with Christ. If Christ is seated in heavenly places, so also are those who are ‘one spirit’ with Him. Secondly, Ephesians 1:22-23 is a continuation of the thought in Ephesians 2:6. He’s talking about the glorious inheritance of the saints, which is that they are members of Christ’s body. Logically speaking, where the body of Christ is, so also is the head. Even as I type this article, my head is still very much attached to my body as I sit at my desk!

In 1 Cor. 12:12-31, Paul goes to great lengths to show the Corinthian believers that they’re members of the Body of Christ. So where does that spiritually locate the Corinthian believers? Ephesians simply examines another facet of the same truth.

Moreover, what Paul writes in Romans 8:30 could equally cause him to be accused of having too much of a realized eschatology. For it says that believers now, presently, are glorified in Christ. But I thought 1 Corinthians 15 teaches that only after the resurrection are believers glorified? (See 1 Cor. 15:43) Finally, Paul would seem to teach that believers are not just “dead to sin” but “made alive” unto God. (Roman 6:9-11, 13) This means that because of their spiritual resurrection, they can walk in newness of life and not be bound to sin.

In nearly all of Paul’s letters, there is an already/not yet tension that describes the life of the believer. While believers are “blessed with every spiritual blessing” right now, Ephesians 1:13-14 and 4:30 say that the Holy Spirit is down-payment that guarantees future glorification and redemption. In this life, we still need to “put off the old man” and “put on the new man.” (Eph. 4:22-24) We still have to “put on the full armor of God” and stand our ground as we wrestle against evil spiritual forces. (Eph. 6:10-17)

The believer is seen both victoriously seated with Christ and yet has a great battle to fight. There’s no conflict here. Elsewhere in the uncontested letters of Paul, he uses triumphant language to describe the believer’s position in spite of the struggle they still have in this earthly life. (Rom 8:37, 2 Cor. 2:14)

Bart says what can be argued against Ephesians can be said about Colossians, so I’ll stop here. Here’s the bottom line: The external evidence for both of these letters is strong, as is the internal evidence. After examination, Bart’s arguments regarding conflicting theologies in Paul’s other letters turn out to be quite weak. So far that’s strike two. Let’s move on to 2 Thessalonians. 

2 Thessalonians

External Evidence for 2 Thessalonians

As was the case with 1&2 Timothy, 2 Thessalonians has a long chain of early external attestation and evidence that points squarely to Pauline authorship. 2 Thessalonians is referenced by Polycarp, The Didache, Irenaeus, Clement, Tertullian, the Muratorian Canon, and Origen. 

While there is some internal evidence for Pauline authorship, I’ll discuss them as we discuss Bart’s objections. 

Bart’s Objections Against Pauline Authorship of 2 Thessalonians

Conflicting Eschatology in 2 Thessalonians? 

For starters, Ehrman 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.

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?

And here’s where things get interesting. Small wars have been fought over the meaning of the man of lawlessness. (And I might add, some bad fictional series have been written). Let’s be honest, the meaning of the man of lawlessness is not all that obvious to us living 2000 years after Paul. But obscurity may be an argument for authenticity, being only explicable by the genuineness of the writing. 2:5-6-“The mystery of iniquity; “When I was with you, I told you these things.” To the Thessalonians, they were clear, though mysterious to us. So a letter picked up maybe unintelligible to anyone but the original person addressed. 

The unpack this incidental allusion, here is William Paley again:

“Now the observation I have to offer is founded upon this, that the passage expressly refers to a conversation which the author had previously holden with the Thessalonians upon the same subject: “Remember ye not, that when I was yet with you I told you these things? And now ye know what withholdeth.” (v. 5, 6.) If such conversation actually passed; if, whilst “he was yet with them, he told them those things,” then it follows that the epistle is authentic. And of the reality of this conversation it appears to be a proof, that what is said in the epistle might be understood by those who had been present to such conversation, and yet be incapable of being explained by any other. 

No man writes unintelligibly on purpose. But it may easily happen that a part of a letter which relates to a subject, upon which the parties had conversed together before, which refers to what had been before said, which is in truth a portion or continuation of a former discourse, may be utterly without meaning to a stranger who should pick up the letter upon the road, and yet be perfectly clear to the person to whom it is directed, and with whom the previous communication had passed. And if, in a letter which thus accidentally fell into my hands, I found a passage expressly referring to a former conversation, and difficult to be explained without knowing that conversation, I should consider this very difficulty as a proof that the conversation had actually passed, and consequently that the letter contained the real correspondence of real persons.” —Horae Paulinae pp 118

So this actually turns into evidence in favor of the genuineness of the letter rather than the other way around. So much for the eschatological objection. But Bart has another argument.

Bart’s Second Objection to 2 Thessalonians – Paul’s “signature”

“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 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, 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.

Conclusion: Paul Wrote All the Letters Traditionally Attributed To Him

Here’s the bottom line: The external evidence for both of these letters is strong, as is the internal evidence. After examination, Bart’s arguments regarding conflicting theologies in Paul’s other letters turn out to be quite weak.

There are good reasons to think Paul wrote all the letters the early church attributed to him, and there are not strong enough reasons to think they’re forged. Our New Testament contains 13 genuine letters from Paul.

This post was originally published on December 4th, 2019 at CapturingChristianity.com.

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