An Interpolation in 1 Thessalonians?

An Interpolation in 1 Thessalonians? September 18, 2014

When we moved from introductory matters to diving into one of the epistles in my Paul class, we started with 1 Thessalonians, usually thought to be the earliest of Paul’s letters.

This gave me the opportunity to revisit the question of whether 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16 is a post-Pauline interpolation.

It is worth noting that there is no manuscript evidence that this passage is an addition. It is also worth noting that its interruption of the train of thought is not in and of itself grounds for deeming it an interpolation: Paul’s penchant for interrupting himself and returning to his earlier train of thought is well known, and it is scarcely a trait unique to Paul for that matter. It is also worth noting that some have had clear motives for wanting the text to be post-Pauline – either in order to clear Paul of charges of anti-Semitism, or in order to fit their view that Paul never mentions Jesus’ historicity. The last standpoint clearly involves a circular approach, since Paul mentions a number of things that indicate Jesus’ historicity, and excising such things as supposed exceptions is nothing more than the disposing of  inconvenient counter-evidence.

In this case, however, there are other considerations, related to content and also linguistics, which also suggest that the passage is an interpolation. And were I to defend its authenticity, it could be pointed out that, on some level, I might wish the passage to be authentic, just because of what it would mean in discussions of mythicism. And so I cannot pretend to be unbiased any more than other interpreters can.

The most interesting detail I came across in reading up on the topic was the fact that the final phrase, which is the one that seems to have in view the events of 70 CE, has a close echo in T. Levi 6:11 (in Greek, and not just in English – see F. F. Bruce’s Word Biblical Commentary, p.48): “But the wrath of the Lord came upon them to the uttermost.” Since that is a Jewish text that has undergone Christian redaction, it is impossible to tell which came first. But it is a neglected consideration when 1 Thessalonians 2:16 is discussed. 

There certainly are events in the time period that might seem to be expressions of divine wrath. But even if the events of 70 CE need not be seen in the text, we must also ask whether Paul could complain about the persecution of churches in Judaea, without any mention of the fact that he had previously been involved in the persecution.

And so perhaps this is one of those instances in which the best course is an acknowledgement of uncertainty, even if one thinks that one conclusion or the other is warranted.

Of related interest, also in this epistle, and relevant to discussions of mythicism, we find Paul says in 2:13, “you received the word of God, which you heard from us.” And so, while Paul emphatically insists in Galatians that his core Gospel was not something he derived from other human beings, clearly we cannot read that (presumably dishonest) attempt to claim total independence from other human authorities into other places where Paul speaks of receiving something, even if that something is said to be the “word of God” or “from the Lord.” Clearly Paul uses such language even when a human mediator is involved.

Do you think that the 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16 is an original part of the letter, or an interpolation?

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  • SocraticGadfly

    If it’s post-Pauline, it shows that “Luke’s” papering over of the divisions that the Council of Jerusalem didn’t/couldn’t fully fix was seen by Paul’s followers as thin paper.

    • Jonathan Bernier

      I’ve never been quite convinced that Luke is papering over anything. In fact, he provides our best evidence for linguistic and cultural diversity in the pre-Pauline period (cf. the schematic account of the first Pentecost, the equally schematic distinctions between the Hebraioi and the Hellenistai). He shows, in addition, continuing tensions over Paul’s Torah-observance even after the Council. Luke’s account is precisely one of a diverse early Christianity. Where is the papering?

  • Jeff Martin

    After reading the Testament of Levi it seems the judgment was addressed to the Shechemites not the sons of Israel.

  • Nick

    “Since that is a Jewish text that has
    undergone Christian redaction, it is impossible to tell which came
    first. But it is a neglected consideration when 1 Thessalonians 2:16 is

    It’s not a Jewish text, it’s a forgery created by heretical Christians who hated the Church (most likely the Gnostics, since they liked to claim their writings were written by popular figures). It’s so obviously a forgery, too: the attempt to fabricate the biblical authors’ penmanship (St. John’s use of calling people “children”, for example), splicing in text from the Bible and other ancient writings (such as the one you cited), no mention of the Church (whereas the Apostles and Church Fathers mention the Church in the New Testament and Patristic books), no mention of Israel (whereas the Rabbis and Sages mention Israel in the rabbinic and other Jewish writings), and lastly the false claim that it was written by ancient Jewish people.

    • Nick

      no mention of the House of Israel*

      On that note, why would you assume a 3rd century text (Testament) could come before a 1st century text (Epistle)? You do know how to tell when texts are historical, right? The Pauline Epistles drip with 1st century historicity: the way Paul addresses him, the issues he mentions, the specific phrases he uses for Jesus and for the Church, etc.

      • Nick

        addresses himself*

    • Jonathan Bernier

      Prof. McGrath: The material in question could come from Christians post-70.
      Nick: No! The material in question could have come from Christians post-70.

      Very enlightening rejoinder.

  • It sounds like an interpolation if we leap to the conclusion “the wrath of the Lord came upon them to the uttermost” (my translation: “comes upon them in the end”) automatically refers to 70 CE. We don’t know whether the aorist tense refers to past tense or prophetic tense—as used in 4.15 to describe who gets resurrected before whom.

    We also can’t jump to the conclusion that Paul is the only one speaking in this letter. We tend to; kinda like a Christmas letter which was obviously written by the mom yet has everyone else’s names on it as co-authors. I don’t presume Paul was the only one dictating to the amanuensis. Though Paul could’ve cut in to give his personal viewpoint (as in 2.18), he didn’t choose that time to cut in and remind the Thessalonians of his prosecutorial past. Didn’t need to either.

  • I congratulate McGrath here for being more honest in his treatment of this passage than Ehrman was in his argument with mythicism. For those who seriously want to make an informed assessment of the authenticity of this passage I have posted the historical trail of the scholarship on this verse in modern times – both the for arguments [in depth] and the against arguments [also in depth] – more comprehensively than covered here. See the three Eddy and Boyd posts at

    • Mark Erickson

      Pretty amazing that of all 8,794 blog posts the good doctor has written since 2007, this is his first tagged 1 Thessalonians. (Poor 2 Thessalonians doesn’t even have a category). I would be surprised to see if there was any category that Neil hasn’t covered more comprehensively.

      • Thank you for illustrating the combination of meanness and misrepresentation that characterizes proponents of mythicism. I am not under any obligation to blog about topics that I am not interested in, professionally or personally. But in this case, it is easy to see that none of the posts from before my blog moved to Patheos have categories of this sort, unless I went in and added one manually after the move. But if you search for posts which mention Thessalonians, you will find that there have been a number of them:

        • Mark Erickson

          Thank you for illustrating how victimized you feel when challenged. And how you don’t expect anyone to check your links. Of the 12 posts (out of 8,794) that contain the word “Thessalonians” you’ve written since 2007:

          1 (this one) is about 1 Thessalonians.
          4 mention Thessalonians or 1 Thessalonians.
          2 quote 1 Thessalonians.
          4 mention 2 Thessalonians. (Yeah for 2 Thessalonians!)
          1 is quoting someone else who mentions 1 Thessalonians.

          The mentions are in passing and two of the posts are novelties. I know you have no obligation to blog about Thessalonians. It is simply a good illustration of the relative depths of your and Neil’s writing. Like I said, I bet the same could be said about any topic.

          Take Neil’s posts on Eddy & Boyd, The Jesus Legend. (Note, first is by Tim) More than 10 posts and thousands of words.

          You linked to two reviews of it.

          • I think this has gone on long enough. You seem to only turn up here to misrepresent what others say, and when falsehoods are pointed out, you say that doing so is a sign of “feeling victimized.”

            This is a blog where what matters is not the quantity of words on a subject, but the quality not so much of my posts, but of those who read and comment.

            I work hard to maintain a comments section where no one is made to feel victimized, and while I don’t feel that way, apparently that is what you are here trying to accomplish. And so it seems that it is time for you to move on to other venues more suited to your approach to things. There are plenty of them on the internet, but this isn’t one of them. Goodbye.

          • I’ve just noticed something strange. This Mark Erickson is insulting James while supporting the mythicism of Neil Doherty.

            Meanwhile, a (seemingly) different Mark Erickson is denying the evidence for evolution over on another of James’ recent posts:


            Clicking on their handles, one Mark Erickson seems to be an avid mythicist, while the other Mark Erickson is an ultra conservative critic of all things “liberal”.

            Will the real Mark Erickson please stand up!

          • Jonathan Bernier

            I noted that too. I’m pretty sure they’re different guys, but not sure.

          • Perhaps it’s the internet equivalent of matter and anti-matter?

            If mythicist Mark Erickson ever clicks “reply” to a comment by creationist Mark Erickson, the entire internet will annihilate itself.

          • MattB

            Yeah, or kind of like being in a parallel universe.

          • Speaking of parallel universes, is “Matt Browwwn” the same commenter as “Matt Brown”?

          • MattB

            Yep, that’s me:)

          • MattB

            Will the real Mark Erickson please stand up, please stand up, please stand up.

          • Jonathan Bernier

            I’m not sure what your point is. Is it that quantity equals quantity?

            Edit: I posted this before I saw Prof. McGrath’s request that you kindly move on from his blog. Therefore, in accordance with his request, which as moderator he is fully in his rights to make, please do not respond. If you do, do not anticipate a response in return.

          • MattB

            Guys come on… least give the good Dr. some respect on his own turf. Don’t be unsportsmanlike.

  • Gary

    Seems like Chap 2 and 3 are parallel but inconsistent. Especially if Thessalonica contained any x-Jews as Christians.

    2:15-16 “and please not God, and are CONTRARY TO ALL MEN;”
    “the wrath is come upon them to the uttermost.”

    3:12-13 “ABOUND IN LOVE one toward another, and TOWARD ALL MEN,” (Paul is not following his own guidance in 2)
    “unblamable in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.”

    My unprofessional opinion:
    Obviously 2:15-16 added at a later date. Similar to 2 Thess added to account for Jesus not showing up yet. The later the date, the more blame placed upon Jews, and the more antsy they get about Jesus not coming, so they modify Paul’s texts to fit their current times, including anti-Jewish zingers. Consistency among inconsistent texts. Same for anti-women bias. Paul’s letters seem to have been an easy target to modify at later dates. Junia, anyone? And saved by faith, not works (Jewish Laws), with works getting changed to “doing good deeds for your fellow man”.

  • Jonathan Bernier

    In order to argue for interpolation I think that one of two conditions must be demonstrably the case. One, that the text circulated at some relatively early point without these verses (this is the reason that we rightly judge that the first part of John 8 and the tail end of Mark 16 are secondary to their respective texts); or, two, that the passage as it stands is demonstrably anachronistic. I actually don’t think that the argument from ill-fitting content or form works, due to the text-critical principle that the most difficult possible reading is most likely the original–and this really is a text-critical problem. The reasoning here is simple: editors are more likely to smooth over than introduce problems into a text. Given this principle, the more strenuously one argues that the content or form are out of the place the more one presents reason to accept it as genuine. This in fact is a fly in the ointment of any argument that says “But it just doesn’t seem to fit!”

    So, since there is no manuscript evidence and since ill-fitting content and form are, if probative at all, at least as likely to demonstrate originality as aboriginality, then the question becomes the possibility of anachronism. Here I think that the argument is shipwreck. Paul might be referring to the events of 70, or he might not. Look at Rom. 1:18: here he says that wrath is being poured out on all people, yet there is no reason to point at particular events. Why should 1 Thess. be any different? And if it as likely that he might not as he might, and if the balance of the text makes sense pre-70, if 2:14-16 appears in all extant manuscript evidence, then there seems little warrant to think it an interpolation.

    • Gary

      Maybe…”In order to argue for interpolation”….

      “One, that the text circulated at some relatively early point without these verses”
      But would a copy of it survive, given the short duration, and proto-orthodox stance moving toward an anti-Jewish position?
      Gospel of John (from Bart Ehrman’s Forged), “And then John says that Pilate “handed Jesus over to them to be crucified” (19:16). In this distortion of historical reality, it is the Jews themselves who actually kill Jesus”. Assuming the Gospel of John was written around 90 AD, and Paul’s writings were around 60 AD, that only gives 30 years to allow for an original text of Paul to survive, until the proto-orthodox Christians moved toward an anti-Jewish position. Once that happened, Paul’s writings would likely be open to modification. The question is, what are the chances of an original Paul text, or a non-modified copy, generated pre-90 AD, to have survived. Next to zero.

      “editors are more likely to smooth over than introduce problems into a text.”

      Not if the pre-orthodox establishment wanted to adopt an anti-Jewish position, which they apparently did…along with an anti-women position.
      It is easier to add a few lines to 1 Thess, to satisfy a theology shift (anti-Jew), than it is to generate an entire letter, 2 Thess, which also shifts theology (no Jesus return).

      • Jonathan Bernier

        Regarding whether it is possible that there might a non-extant version of 1 Thess. that lacks these verses: of course, that is possible. And obviously if such a version is found then we would need to take it into account. It might represent a better exemplar on this matter, or it might be an idiosyncratic variant in the textual tradition. But until that data exists speculating about its significance is in the realm of science fiction. What I’m stating above are simply the evidentiary conditions that must be satisfied to make affirmation of interpolation anything other than such sci-fi speculation. When I state that there is little warrant to affirm interpolation I am not stating that it is impossible that these are interpolated, merely that given the current state of the data one has no reason to think that they are. If the current state of the data changes then that judgment might require revision. That’s no different than is the case in any field of empirical inquiry.

        Now, you posit that before our earliest copies of the New Testament documents were produced there was a widespread conspiracy to alter said documents. Where is your evidence for this? The problem is that on your own terms you cannot have any. If you allow that the textual tradition underwent potentially infinite change during that period, such that we have no evidentiary controls for what is and is not interpolation, what is and is not original, what is and is not secondary, then we actually cannot know what comes from that period. But if we cannot know what comes from that period then we certainly cannot know about shifts in Christian thinking during that period. And thus your entire edifice of shifts from pro- to anti- Jewish and women positions rests on absolutely nothing. You cannot cut off the branch upon which you sit without suffering the consequences.

        • Gary

          “before our earliest copies of the New Testament documents were produced there was a widespread conspiracy to alter said documents.”…
          Two points.
          1. “Before our earliest copies”, the point being our earliest copies are copies of copies of copies. OK, I am being influenced by Ehrman. But so far I haven’t seen him to lack common sense. Is there readable copies of Paul that were actually dated to before 90 AD. I don’t think so. Widespread conspiracy? I would not call it conspiracy, but on the Jewish issue, there certainly was a trend. Again from Forged, although this particular Thess text is not discussed in detail, trend = Gospel of Peter, Gospel of Nicodemus, Letter of Herod to Pilate, Letter of Pilate to Herod, Letter of Pilate to Claudius, Report of Pontius Pilate, The Handing Over of Pilate. Of course, all false writings. But so is 2Thess. So clearly a trend.
          2. OK, maybe a poor analogy, but evolution, fossils, and transition fossils. Finding a fossil is rare (like finding an unmodified original text from pre-90 AD is rare, or impossible). But clearly a trend is set by the existing fossils we have. So we prove evolution. Clearly a trend is set by the existing texts we do have. You cannot JUST use texts that were hand-selected by a bunch of Bishops in 400 AD as canon, since this skews the data. After all, they picked 2 Thess as valid data, when it is a forgery, not written by Paul.

          • Gary

            Forgot Epistle of Barnabas, ~130 AD.

          • Jonathan Bernier

            You are missing the crucial point here: precisely to the extent that you emphasize the malleability of the data, to that extent you cannot talk about trajectories or tendencies. And it is quite unclear to me why, if we can so unclear as to the text of 1 Thess. how it is that we can be so clear as to the text of Gospel of Peter, etc. So, I’m wondering, if the data are so ambiguous, how can we know that the earlier decades of Christianity were more pro-Jewish than the later decades? Couldn’t all the apparently pro-Jewish texts be interpolations? By your reasoning that is as likely as the opposite, because by your reasoning we have no way of knowing. But that means that we cannot know, which means that we have to be agnostic. That allows for no historical narrative. Yet you give a historical narrative. Which means that really you don’t think the data so ambiguous, and if that is the case then you must confront the sparsity of data indicative of interpolation in the specific case of 1 Thess. 2:14-16.

          • Gary

            “by your reasoning we have no way of knowing. But that means that we cannot know, which means that…”
            Wow, you have exceeded my mental capacity! Donald Rumsfeld did the same thing to me in international affairs. I raise the white flag.

          • Jonathan Bernier

            Hey, if you don’t want to deal with the substantive argument, which is a properly epistemological one that you keep dodging, no skin off my nose. It merely confirms my initial suspicion that you speak not of what you know.

          • Gary

            Yeah, no problem. Just said all I had to say. As I said, I’m no expert. But if you insist, you said
            “malleability of the data, to that extent you cannot talk about trajectories or tendencies.”
            The whole point is there is a trend. Ehrman also talked about the level of blame toward Jews increasing from earlier texts, Mark (Romans did it), to later texts, Matthew, Luke, then John (Jews to blame). Clearly a trend. If you don’t believe it, fine with me. We are not dealing with certainties, but probabilities. Of course, except in the case of Rumsfeld. No WMD! But can’t definitively prove anything in ancient texts. Just probabilities.

          • Jonathan Bernier

            I didn’t say anything about what I think about the trends in question. What I said is that “precisely to the extent that you emphasize the malleability of the data, to that extent you cannot talk about trajectories or tendencies.” I am pointing out that *you* are doing two things simultaneously. On the one hand you are arguing that the data has been doctored; on the other hand you are saying that the data is reliable. What I’m observing is that these points stands at cross-purposes.

          • Andrew Dowling

            A trend towards something increasing over time doesn’t equate to that idea being absent in any early periods. To the contrary, an idea that gains greater and greater acceptance over time started somewhere; it didn’t emerge out of a vacuum.

          • Jonathan Bernier

            Well put, Andrew. And that’s actually the core problem with mythicism, I think: from whence did Christ-belief emerge?

          • Gary

            The trend has to do with the higher probability of an earlier text being modified at a later date, not a zero probability of Paul placing no blame on Jews for Jesus’ death. Although I suspect a zero probability of Paul blaming Jews for Jesus’s death. If anything, he would thank them, or the Romans for Jesus’ death, because without his death on the cross, there would be no redemptive resurrection (from Paul’s standpoint). He seemed to like to hang around with both Jews and Romans. Funny response for someone who was a blame-meister.

          • Jonathan Bernier

            But how do you know that he likes to hang around with Jews and Romans? Is it not possible that 1 Thess. 2:14-16 is an authentic Pauline composition and the passages that suggest that he interacts with Jews and Romans are interpolations? If the texts potentially went through so many changes between being written and our earliest copies that we cannot reasonably conclude that any given passage is other than an interpolation, then we can’t know that these passages aren’t added. But if we can be confident that our earliest manuscripts are sufficiently faithful to know that these passages weren’t additions then why should 1 Thess. 2:14-16 be any different? If 1 Thess. 2:14-16 is at variance with these other passages such that all cannot be original to Paul what is the reason for thinking 1 Thess. 2:14-16 the secondary text rather than that with which is incompatible. In short, you’ll operating on thin ice, still.

            This sort of discussion also misses two possibilities. One, that what seem like mutually exclusive statements to us might not be so for Paul, and in fact perhaps we need to do more work to figure out why that would be the case. Two, related, that Paul might not have been an entirely consistent thinker who was immune to self-contradiction over the course of his writing career or even in a single work. I mean, really, who is thus immune?

          • Gary

            You said “Two, related, that Paul might not have been an entirely consistent thinker”…
            Actually, this is what I originally thought, when I was young and naive.
            Personally, I think anyone who responses to this issue, ought to also state their position on 2 Thessalonians. Especially since some people think 2 Thessalonians is an attempt to correct the false theology in 1 Thessalonians (they think).
            So, there seems to be three camps for most people.
            1. myth for both 1 and 2 Thess
            2. 1 Thess by Paul with redaction, 2 Thess by a follower at a later date
            3. 1 and 2 Thess both by Paul, no redaction
            I am in #2.
            Where are you? Your position on 2 Thess? Just curious. If you are in #3, we are worlds apart. No further discussion necessary.

          • Jonathan Bernier

            The interesting thing is that this discussion has never been about what I think on this particular interpolation, but rather about the proper procedure for determining whether a given passage is an interpolation. And I really have no idea how the authorship of 2 Thess. factors making such a judgment in this case, other than to muddy the waters. The question, quite simply, is how one goes about judging a passage to be an interpolation absent manuscript evidence (such as one has with the first bit of John 8, which is clearly secondary).

          • Gary

            Ohhh, simple question, simple answer. Thanks for being so straightforward with your answers.
            I do believe, in my poor simple minded world, that they are indeed linked. You have answered my question, without answering my question.

          • Jonathan Bernier

            Note that I didn’t say they weren’t linked. I said that I have no idea how they are linked. That’s an invitation for you to explain to me why you think that they are. I am not quite sure why you have not taken that invitation.

          • Gary

            Because I sleep at night. It is morning here now. Again, since you insist, the link between 1 & 2 Thess is not based upon the direct evidence, but on how people view the evidence. 2 Thess is a litmus test for 1 Thess. If you believe 2 Thess is written by Paul, then it is highly unlikely you would accept any evidence that 1 Thess is changed in any way. To put it bluntly, 2 Thess is a litmus test that separates the apologetics from the critical thinkers. I add the caveat, just my opinion, and I am not an expert.

          • Jonathan Bernier

            I have no idea what those two first lines have to do with anything. But you still have explained anything. All you’ve done is repeat your initial statement, that the two are related. You have rephrased your initial statement, telling me that it’s a litmus test, but you haven’t explained why.

          • Gary

            “not quite sure why you have not taken that invitation.”…
            “Because I sleep at night.”…
            “I have no idea what those two first lines have to do with”…
            “but you haven’t explained why.”…
            Man, and you’ve got a PhD? I’ve explained the link.
            This conversation is going nowhere. Enjoy yourself!

  • Kris Rhodes

    //The last standpoint clearly involves a circular approach, since Paul mentions a number of things that indicate Jesus’ historicity, and excising such things as supposed exceptions is nothing more than the disposing of inconvenient counter-evidence.//

    Which mythicist argues from a premise that Paul was talking about a mythical Jesus to a conclusion that this passage is an interpolation? I admit I don’t know of even one! But if a mythicist doesn’t argue in this way, then that mythicist isn’t taking a circular approach.

  • Andrew Dowling

    I don’t think the arguments for it being an interpolation are strong enough to carry it ultimately. For starters, to see some of the issues you have to be reading back in hindsight that its referring to issues/events that one wouldn’t be thinking about without that prior knowledge. Paul often uses highly hyperbolic and apocalyptic language as both present and future. It often doesn’t make complete logical sense because religious prophets like Paul often don’t make complete logical sense.

    We also, for some odd reason, always expect Paul to be highly consistent in all of his viewpoints over a period of at least 10 years (in letters to highly different audiences, to boot), which would make him more consistent and static than perhaps any other thinker in history (this is where David Price really jumps the shark). Particularly regarding Judaism . . .I don’t think Paul himself was ever sure about Israel’s place subsequent his Christ revelation, hence his often conflicting remarks on the subject. Given that throughout his travels he was met with both acceptance and great scorn, it’s incredibly easy to imagine Paul writing the Jews as cursed one day and still inheriting God’s favor the next.