Forgeries Inspired: “Second Thessalonians”

Forgeries Inspired: “Second Thessalonians” November 8, 2019
Forgery Means Fake?
Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

Forgeries like Second Thessalonians are inspired even though Paul didn’t write them.

Forgeries being read at Mass!!?? On Sundays we have been going over the document called “Second Thessalonians” in the Liturgy of the Word. Last Sunday it was 2 Thessalonians 1:11—2:2. This Sunday we will read 2 Thessalonians 2:16—3:5. The following Sunday it will be 2 Thessalonians 3:7-12.

When the lector comes to the ambo to give the Second Reading, she or he will no doubt say, “A reading from the Second Letter of Saint Paul to the Thessalonians.” That’s fine and it’s true, if not a factual or historically accurate statement. It is true in the sense that we honor Paul and historically have honored him by associating this inspired document with his pen. But it’s very likely that the historical Paul never wrote it. Indeed, it is probably a forgery.

Forgeries and Pseudepigrapha

There are many such forgeries in the Bible. We have many First Testament documents written by an anonymous author yet attributed to the name of another, better-known figure. Such documents are called pseudepigrapha. A pseudepigraph is a kind of forgery, a writing bearing a false title or ascribed to someone other than the genuine author. As Biblical scholar Felix Just explains:

From the Greek 
pseudo = “false” 
epi = “over” 
graphē = “writing”
epi-graph = “superscript, title”

For nonfundamentalists, the Pentateuch or “five books of Moses” (the written Torah) are pseudepigrapha. Persian scribes wrote them, redacting, splicing, and recontextualizing earlier traditions. Under Persian authority, these were edited together for immigrants to the Persian colony, Yehud. Inspiration is messy, folks!

So pseudepigraphy means to falsely attribute authorship of a writing to someone different from the actual author. When it comes to biblical pseudepigraphic works, usually an anonymous figure forges the document, indicating within it that a famous figure from the past authored the text. This famous person could be a hero from long ago times or the actual author’s deceased teacher.

Forgeries Don’t Invalidate!

American and other Western believers should caution themselves here. Please don’t call these pseudepigraphic works and forgeries like “2 Thessalonians” false. It is true that there is something false about them. But that does not make their content false. What is false is the attributed authorship. In the ancient Mediterranean world, secrecy, lying, and deception are legitimate strategies for preserving honor. The Bible was not written for, by, or about Western 21st century people. Sorry!

Scholars know of many ancient Israelite writings that were falsely attributed to various biblical figures. These writings could never have been scribed by their purported authors. Evidence points to anonymous writers composing these forgeries centuries or even millennia after. Have a look here:

Ancient Forgeries
Fellow Dying Inmate / All rights reserved

We can define a forgery as any written document whose producer(s) intend it to purport to be something other than what it really is. All forgeries bear two essentials. The first is that the forged document’s genuine identity has been effaced or obfuscated. The second is that the forger intends deception.

Pauline Forgeries

Scholars can tell that the document known as “Second Thessalonians” could not have been written by the historical Paul. Its producers obfuscated the true author. Moreover, its producers intended to deceive. Together with other New Testament documents (Colossians, Ephesians, 1—2 Timothy, and Titus), scholars have dubbed this letter Deutero-Pauline (“Secondary Pauline”). Therefore “Second Thessalonians” and these other inspired New Testament writings are pseudepigraphic, and thus, are forgeries.

Was the document we call “Second Thessalonians” directed to the Jesus group(s) in Thessalonica? We aren’t certain. Perhaps. Perhaps not. It might have been sent to second generation Pauline Jesus groups dismayed and confounded by Paul’s unexpected demise sometime in the 60s.

Paul expected Israelite theocracy in his lifetime. He expected to be alive when Jesus returned. Indeed, Paul assured his Jesus group clients that he would be very much alive for the Parousia (1 Thessalonians 4:15; 1 Corinthians 15:51-52).

But by the 70s CE Paul was dead, the Temple City of Jerusalem had been destroyed, and yet Cosmic-Lord Messiah Jesus had not yet returned! Could “Second Thessalonians” have been a circulatory letter sent to a number of Jesus-groups? In life, the historical Paul got around, you know. Many Mediterranean Jesus groups would be in shock that Paul was dead but Theocracy could not be found. They could identify with Thessalonian Jesus group. One thing is almost certain: the letter writer intended to deceive his recipients into thinking Paul wrote it.

Forgeries and Authorizing Authority

Before you begin thinking that all this renders many New Testament texts as somehow uninspired or invalid, take courage. We need to go deeper with our tradition. There we find that validity has nothing to do with who actually wrote a Scripture. Rather our tradition considers validity in light of the authorizing authority.

For example, consider again the Pentateuch. In that case, a Persian-appointed high priest or court prophet was the authorizing authority. God works in the mess, folks.

Moving forward several centuries we come to consider all the New Testament literature attributed to Paul. Those Jesus groups finding agreement with the letters and retained them as special and to some extent normative became their authorizing authority.

The idea of something being authentic because it is genuine is a much later idea. The Pauline literature was not preserved because Jesus groups considered them actually authored by the historical Paul. Rather, these documents got preserved because they bore authority to address relevant crises and situations in these Jesus groups. In other words, they were authentic because they were authorized.

Forgeries Validate the Message

A forgery serves to validate its message. Forgers attempt to pattern their works after genuine documents. Scholars believe that “Second Thessalonians” was modeled on “First Thessalonians,” an authentic Pauline original. This is why they are the same literary form, that of a Hellenistic letter. And this could explain why both texts share nineteen verses—the forger of “Second Thessalonians” has replicated strings of words from “First Thessalonians.”

Sneaky Forgery
Fellow Dying Inmate / All rights reserved

Recipients in Paul’s world judged a document as being authentic in face-to-face communication. This was essential for validation. These letters were recited before the Jesus group, and this played the key authorizing role in assessing the document’s validity. Hellenistic documents were not authorized as valid following a scrutinizing for deception, fictionality, or false identity. Such features existed in many authentic documents!  Sniffing these out then wouldn’t be of much help!

In few instances, an ancient document might validate itself by the power of its composition. One striking example is the self-validating Qur’an, hailed as being so beautiful it could not have come from mere human literary skill. In this regard, the First and New Testaments do not compare. With the exception of “Luke-Acts,” much of the Greek New Testament is a crude, ugly, simple form. Therefore, for Biblical documents, we must search elsewhere for validation—the authorizing power of the Jesus groups.

Textualization via Forgeries

Forgeries textualize. Those who delivered them, and recited them, like the forger himself, made the message shine with honor. They claimed that the letter’s message originated from and was intended for renowned and honorable communities and personages (e.g., Paul, Timothy, Titus, Silvanus, etc.).

And consider that the first century Jesus groups lacked email, phone, texting, and all other 21st century immediate communication means. It could take years before the report came around of even a famous figure’s death. So, sometimes the audience of the forger presumes Paul is still alive! And if they had heard of his demise, perhaps the report of it had been greatly exaggerated.

To keep the work of Paul going, and adapt it for new situations and crises, the forger had to work hard to make the forgery sound very Pauline. Forgers have to take into account very seriously the expectations of their audience. Paul’s own authentic letters had to “textualize” with the forgery. Recepients upon hearing would have to go, “Yeah, that sounds like Paul and his team!”

Forgeries Help Analysis

Even in the case of Paul’s seven authentic letters, the “producer” was usually someone anonymous working under Paul. He was a corporate sender. So were the forgers of documents like “Second Thessalonians.” Such consistent writing impacted the Jesus groups. They focused on the texts. Because the texts addressed current worries and problems, the Jesus group treasured and needed them. Thus, forgeries prodded Jesus groups to analysis.

Not only does all of this apply to the Pauline forgeries, but also to the canonical Gospels. Originally these texts remained anonymous. But the Gospels eventually got ascribed to well-known Jesus group heroes now long dead. Hence, “Mark,” “Matthew,” “Luke,” and “John.” By linking these Gospels with well-known holy figures reminded Jesus groups far away from Jerusalem that God cannot forget or cease his concern over all Israel. This helps explain the diverse perspectives and recontextualized Jesus traditions that evolved in the many Jesus groups.

Paul the Big Shot

It’s a very Western notion to think of Paul or Peter or James or even Jesus as “the Big Shot” who ran the show of early Christianity. Paul was not an individualistic American. Paul, even though a key figure, was very much a collaborator. Please don’t forget about Timothy, Silvanus, Sosthenes, Titus, and others in his team.

The spuriously familiar idea that Jesus was the founder of Christianity, and Paul was its “second founder,” is highly addictive. One of the few things made very clear by the New Testament is that the God of Israel founded what would become Christianity under Constantine around 325 CE. Of paramount importance to the earliest Jesus groups was God raising crucified Jesus thereby validating his proclamation of theocracy. To switch the focus onto Jesus or Paul misses the thrust of all 27 New Testament documents.

 

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Forgeries Inspired: “Second Thessalonians”

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  • Ame

    Another theory is that Timothy dictated or co-authored the letter before their falling out. For the good of your readers, there are just as much research lending support to the letter’s authenticity as there is in support of theory that it is not. And of course, there’s a study drawing on the support for its authenticity at the Agape Bible Study website.

  • Fellow Dying Inmate

    By 1990, slightly over half of scholars held that Paul did not write “Second Thessalonians.” That number has increased in the past three decades. It’s a losing battle.

    But let’s assume that Paul did write it. What about 1-2 Peter, about which almost no scholar holds to have been written by the historical Peter? What about the Gospels about which scholars almost unanimously disagree with the idea that they were composed by the early heroes of which they have been traditionally associated? What scholar thinks John son of Zebedee wrote 1, 2, and 3 John? How many scholars believe Jude of Nazareth wrote “Jude”? And what about the Pentateuch?

    Does the authorship being different to the hero it has been attributed to affect its inspiration? What does inspiration mean anyway?

  • Ame

    Did the Thessalonians record any doubts that the letter was from Paul? If not by his hand then why not dictated by Timothy?

  • Robert H. Woodman

    I know a great many Christians who will find your analysis discouraging rather than encouraging.

    Also, what do you make of the claim by Professor Daniel Wallace that we have a manuscript fragment from Mark that has been reliably dated to 80-110 A.D.? For link, see: https://voice.dts.edu/article/wallace-new-testament-manscript-first-century/

  • WesleyD

    Even if 99.999% of scholars decided this letter wasn’t by Paul, that would still contradict Christian morality.

    There is no problem with some pseudepigraphal works being inspired Scripture. But 2 Thessalonians warns the Christians of Thessalonica to watch out for forged letters (2:1-2), and then conclues with a signature (“I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand”).

    By the standards of first-century Greco-Roman and Near Eastern culture, for someone who was not Paul to have written this way would be considered dishonest — in short, it would be a lie. The same applies to the personal details in 2 Timothy 4:9-13 and 5:23. If Paul had died, and someone wrote a letter “in his name” to address the current situation of the Pauline churches, why were these details included? They have only one purpose: to deceive the reader into believing the true author was Paul.

    The Pauline churches believed (correctly!) that Paul was an apostle who had received revelations directly from God. For someone after Paul’s death to write a letter in his name, with the intention of deceiving the reader into believing this letter was from Paul, would be a forgery by the standards of that time, in that culture.

    For details, see Lewis R. Donelson, Pseudepigraphy and Ethical Argument in the Pastoral Epistles (Tübingen: Mohr-Siebeck, 1986). It’s an extensive study of how pseudepigraphy was treated in Jewish culture, in the early Church, and in the Greco-Roman culture. Although he believes that the Pastorals were not by Paul, he demolishes the claim (usually advanced without any evidence) that the culture of that time didn’t care whether documents were by their purported authors, as long as they were the sort of letter that person would have approved of.

    This leaves us with two possibilities: These letters are by Paul, or they were created in a deceptive (and sinful) manner. And I simply don’t believe that the latter option is compatible with any Catholic understanding of inspiration by the Holy Spirit, who is the Spirit of Truth.

  • WesleyD

    No. True or false, this theory didn’t exist until 250 years ago.

    In the early Church, there was a debate about which books belonged in Scripture, and there was a debate about which books were really by Paul. These debates were virtually the same thing. There is no evidence that anyone in the early Church ever said “This epistle claims to be by X, but it’s not, and yet I believe it’s inspired.”

    The Muratorian Canon, written in the late second century, rejects the Epistle of Paul to the Laodiceans on the grounds that it isn’t really by Paul. Laodiceans was completely orthodox — there is no objectionable theology — but it was rejected on the grounds that it lied about its authorship.

    A second-century presybyter (priest) in Asia Minor wrote the Acts of Paul and Thecla — a “pious forgery”. It was an uplifting and book, containing orthodox speeches by Paul and by Thecla that are quite orthodox. When the presbyter admitted what he had done, he was deposed from his office.

    To be clear: The idea that Paul collaborated with someone to produce a letter would have been perfectly acceptable in that culture. If Paul had said, “Write a few paragraphs saying how much I hope they are being steadfast in the faith,” and the scribe composed these paragraphs, and then Paul approved them — this would be completely acceptable by the standards of the time. And of course, Paul frequently mentions co-authors (Sosthenes, Timothy, Silvanus). But that’s a very different thing than (1) someone sending a letter to the Thessalonians that wasn’t from Paul to deceive them, or (2) someone composing a letter long after Paul’s death that was never even sent to Thessalonica, and claiming that Paul sent this to Thessalonica before he died, or (3) someone composing a fake letter from Paul to Timothy after both men have already died, and passing it off as genuine.

  • Ame

    Thank you.

    The Acts of Paul and Thecla is my favourite forgery.

  • Mark Albrecht

    This letter is almost certainly written by Paul himself. The early church fathers unanimously accepted this epistle as genuine (when in doubt, go with the early fathers, they were closest to the events). Moreover, in 2:2 and 3:17 Paul makes the specific point that he is the author. 2:2 would seem to indicate that there had indeed been some spurious letters written in his name, and he is making a point of refuting these false letters – “…we beg you, brethren, not to be quickly shaken in mind or excited, either by spirit or by word, or by letter purporting to be from us,”

  • Fellow Dying Inmate

    “Even if 99.999% of scholars decided this letter wasn’t by Paul, that would still contradict Christian morality.”

    Our moral understandings are not static. They develop. Western people, especially Americans, focus on how to produce effects, know-how, pragmatism. Without inquiring about the “why?” or purpose, we tend towards future-oriented potential. Our orientation is achievement that normally disregards quality in favor of quantity. When encountering crises or problems, we tend to think that the morality of each consists in how good or bad are our strategies, techniques, and means. Our concerns are utilitarian.

    How different were our Mediterranean ancestors in the faith (as seen in the New Testament)! They focused on purposiveness, on knowing-why, on what the purpose was. Their orientation was the present, a selection of tasks with the purpose for pursuit. But they didn’t care about HOW these goals were realized. A good façade and good intention sufficed! So when they faced problems and crises—such as the death of Paul and the stability of the Jesus groups he founded or impacted—morality was all about INTENTIONS, that is, how good or how bad the principles concerning the goals were.

    “There is no problem with SOME pseudepigraphal works being inspired Scripture. But 2 Thessalonians warns the Christians of Thessalonica to watch out for forged letters (2:1-2), and then concludes with a signature (‘I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand’).”

    It is clear to the majority of 21st century scholars that a forger modeled his work on “1 Thessalonians” for various reasons as the model for this letter for reasons to be noted in the commentary that follows. Although it shares almost identically with the literary form of “1 Thessalonians,” dramatic difference lies in the content and ideas of both. For the authentic Paul (who thought Parousia and Theocracy to be immanent) in 1 Thessalonians 5:2, the end is a SURPRISE, whereas the forger presents a visible series of stages leading up the end to the Jesus groups can prepare and get ready (2 Thessalonians 2:1-12). So the forger disagrees with Paul about Parousia/Theocracy being immanent.

    Jesus comes soon accompanied by “all his saints,” says the authentic Paul in early 50s (1 Thessalonians 3:13). But sometime between 80—100 CE, the forger claims that Jesus will come sometime with “his mighty angels” (2 Thessalonians 1:7). Whenever the authentic Paul refers to angels these are usually dangerous beings and hostile (Romans 8:38; 1 Corinthians 4:9; 6:3; Galatians 1:8). The authentic Paul only associates Jesus with these dangerous sky powers as subjugating them (1 Corinthians 15:24-25). But by the 80s major developments had transpired.

    Addressing 2 Thessalonians 2:1-2, the forger directly addresses his letter’s recipients as “brothers.” This is a tell for scholars that we have just entered a new text-segment. This one again deals with the coming of Jesus and his reunion with believers. For the authentic Paul back in the 50s, he employed the word parousia (coming) to describe Jesus’ return as the judge of believers (1 Thessalonians 2:19; 3:13; 4:15; 5:23). Just like a gathering before a magistrate will the believers be gathered.

    In the NABRE and NRSV English versions of verse 2 the word “shaken” translates the aorist passive infinitive saleuthēnai. It describes a change in perspective that is one-time only, singular and everlasting. What is translated into English as “alarmed” or “troubled” is the present passive infinitive throeisthai which connotes a persistent anxiety agitation accompanying expectations of Theocracy.

    What caused this? Three possible sources are identified by the forger: “spirit,” a word, or a letter presumably from Paul. Let’s cover each.

    “Spirit” means spirit-inspired messages. These come by way of altered states of consciousness. In other words, trance-states, the customary way of God to communicate with human beings (1 Samuel 3:1). Therefore what COULD be intended here is a prophecy (1 Thessalonians 5:19-21). It could very well be that some Jesus group prophet has drawn a link between his own erroneous message and the authentic Paul. This needs correction.

    “Word” quite likely refers to preaching, specifically to certain enthusiasts fascinated by end of the age who have, perhaps, based their ideas on a grossly misunderstood or misreported sermon of the historical Paul. This “word” is not a message claimed to be received from God by trance.

    Finally “a letter,” is—ironically according to this forger—itself a forgery (“as though from us”). This other forgery, which we do not have, comes from some end-of-the-age enthusiasts who are wrongly convinced that “the day of the Lord is here already!” They have written the letter in Paul’s name to substantiate their conviction. The forger vehemently rejects and denies this.

    “By the standards of first-century Greco-Roman and Near Eastern culture, for someone who was NOT Paul to have written this way would be considered dishonest — in short, it would be a LIE. The same applies to the personal details in 2 Timothy 4:9-13 and 5:23. If Paul had died, and someone wrote a letter “in his name” to address the current situation of the Pauline churches, why were these details included? They have only one purpose: to deceive the reader into believing the true author was Paul.”

    As established in my original blog post, yes, the author of 2 Thessalonians was a forger who intended to deceive. The purpose was to protect a/the Jesus group/s from error believed inconsistent with Pauline thought. Yeah, that’s not up to our standards of honesty, but I refer you again to what I say above about morality. What were the goals?

    “The Pauline churches believed (correctly!) that Paul was an apostle who had received revelations directly from God.”

    Agreed.

    “For someone after Paul’s death to write a letter in his name, with the intention of deceiving the reader into believing this letter was from Paul, would be a forgery by the standards of that time, in that culture.”

    Agreed. And it happened all the time for various reasons. Indeed, it was going on by various parties, hence 2 Thessalonians 2:2.

    “For details, see Lewis R. Donelson, Pseudepigraphy and Ethical Argument in the Pastoral Epistles (Tübingen: Mohr-Siebeck, 1986). It’s an extensive study of how pseudepigraphy was treated in Jewish culture, in the early Church, and in the Greco-Roman culture. Donelson believes that the Pastorals were not by Paul. But he demolishes the claim (usually advanced without any evidence) that the culture of that time didn’t care whether documents were by their purported authors, as long as they were the sort of letter that person would have approved of.”

    I don’t find all of these arguments convincing. Definitely to be CAUGHT in a lie was shameful. But Biblical peoples believed truth was owed to one’s INGROUP. And INGROUP is realized in varying intensities. My brothers and I against the village. My village and brothers and I against the surround. My surround and brothers and I against my people. My people and surround and brothers and I against the world. That’s agonistic collectivistic culture, Middle Eastern style. Like the Bible. Go ask such a collectivist how to get to the Wailing Wall in Occupied Palestine. If the person you ask doesn’t know, he will lie to you to SAVE YOUR LIFE. To admit ignorance would shame his family and he would have to kill you.

    “This leaves us with two possibilities: These letters are by Paul, or they were created in a deceptive (and sinful) manner. And I simply don’t believe that the latter option is compatible with any Catholic understanding of inspiration by the Holy Spirit, who is the Spirit of Truth.”

    That word you use, sinful, has two thousand years of theological freight. You are anachronistically using it. In the Bible it means shaming God. The forger of 2 Thessalonians didn’t shame God. Neither did the Johannine Jesus when he deceived his brothers in John 7:3-4.

    https://youtu.be/KIAhGGy5YIo?t=308

    Neither did the Synoptic Jesus when he outright deceived the people in comparison with his ingroup in Mark 8 / Matthew 16 / Luke 9.

    https://youtu.be/PVQx64wc0LY?t=397

  • Fellow Dying Inmate

    Discouraging to fundamentalists? Or to Christians in general?

    The document called “Mark” was composed around 70 CE, no earlier than 65. So…

  • Robert H. Woodman

    I know a many Christians from many different faith walks (Catholic and various types of Protestant, including fundamentalist evangelicals and mainstream) who have a high view of Scripture and who would find your view of Scripture to be discouraging. For them, the idea that the letters of Paul or the gospels are pious forgeries is shocking. If you were to convince them of such a thing (a hard sell to be sure, as I speak from some experience), you would damage their faith. I know a few people who have left the Church altogether over the issue of whether Scripture is entirely reliable as we today define reliability.

    Even if you and other Scripture scholars are correct about the origins and authorship of Sacred Scripture (a point which I am willing to concede for the sake of argument), I’m not at all sure that pushing that view is helpful to many ordinary lay people in the pews. In some cases, I am sure that it is harmful to faith.

  • Fellow Dying Inmate

    Belief is an outcome of theology, itself an outcome of faith. Faith and belief are related but not the same. Theology (and beliefs) can neither create nor destroy faith. Faith saves; beliefs, while not at all irrelevant, do not, We have nothing to fear by challenges to immature belief.

    Creating or harming or killing faith are beyond my capabilities. I am flattered that some believe I have divine powers, but I assure you that I do not. But now that we are discussing it, I kinda do wish, at times, i DID have such powers to completely destroy and wipe away fundamentalist nonsensical beliefs so we could start fresh and build from CLEAN FOUNDATIONS. Alas, I have no such superpowers.

  • Fellow Dying Inmate

    Sometimes we leave to go on a journey. Real faith RISKS. Indeed, it is PASCHALLY risky

  • Raymond

    This whole discussion reeks of moral relativism.

  • WesleyD

    Thanks for your reply! I think we disagree on some deep principles here. Most of our differences logically follow from those.

  • WesleyD

    Robert, you make a very good point!

    I happen to disagree with FDI regarding many questions of authorship, and interpretation as well. But at the same time, I think that those who hold similar views to FDI can approach these matters in two different ways.

    To me, there’s a world of difference between, one the one hand, someone who says, “Jesus didn’t actually perform the Miracle of the Loaves — his audience shared the food they had brought. But what’s really important is his message of love,” and on the other hand, someone who says, “Jesus didn’t actually perform the Miracle of the Loaves — his audience shared the food they had brought. You fundamentalists and literalists are bunch of gullible idiots!” The first person is incorrect, but acting out of an honest belief in a loving manner. The second is enraged by the simple faith of Christian believers, and wants to crush it.

    I’m not accusing FDI of being in the latter camp; I believe it’s difficult (or impossible) to determine the motives of someone I have never met based on a few thousand words on a blog. But I have personally known people — even Catholic professors — who fall into each of these categories.

  • Robert H. Woodman

    It doesn’t take superpowers to sow seeds of doubts into fertile soil where it takes off and spreads invasively like weeds, choking out the flowers of faith that were growing there. You don’t have to be a superhero, just a gardener.

  • Robert H. Woodman

    Thanks, WesleyD. I don’t attribute any malice or bad motive to FDI. Nevertheless, great harm can come from actions done with the best of intentions. I’ve been the giver and receiver of well-intentioned harm in matters of faith in my life. ‘Nuf said.