Authorship of 2 Thessalonians

Authorship of 2 Thessalonians December 8, 2014

Towards the end of the semester in my Paul class, we’ve focused on the disputed and inauthentic epistles attributed to Paul. One detail that never struck me quite as forcefully before about 2 Thessalonians is its ending: “ I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand. This is the mark in every letter of mine; it is the way I write.”

SinaiticusManuscriptImageI had noticed before that this – like the warning about “a letter as though from us” – could be an attempt by the forger to fly under the radar, as it were, by providing reassurances and warning about forgeries. Since letters would by that time have been read in copies, there would be no actual change of handwriting. It’s a clever trick.

I had also noticed the fact that, in letters that are considered authentic, we actually don’t find Paul writing something in his own hand in every instance.

But what struck me for the first time was the emphasis on “every letter of mine.” If 2 Thessalonian is authentic, it would need to be among the earliest of Paul’s letters. 1 Thessalonians is thought by most to be the earliest, and the strong similarity between the two letters would necessitate that they be close in time to one another.

And so it makes no sense for Paul, early in his letter-writing activity, to talk about “every letter of mine.” But to a later forger, reference to Paul’s many letters would have come naturally.

What do you think about the authorship of 2 Thessalonians? What evidence persuades you to draw the conclusion that you do?

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  • Shema Shekar Shalom

    “And so it makes no sense for Paul, early in his letter-writing activity, to talk about “every letter of mine.” But to a later forger, reference to Paul’s many letters would have come naturally.”

    Can we really speak with such confidence that Paul really only wrote 7 or so letters in 20-25 or so years? I don’t see how we can be confident that Paul didn’t write “many letters” prior to 1 Thessalonians.

    • It is possible, but we have no evidence for it, and it also remains the case that, in subsequent letters, Paul does not always take the pen and write something with his own hand. And so it may be that we should not be confident that Paul did not write many letters in an earlier period, none of which have survived. But we certainly should not be confident that he did so, and should recognize the relevance of this to the question of authorship of 2 Thessalonians.

      • Shema Shekar Shalom

        All valid points.
        I agree that we can acknowledge the relevance of the question of how many letters Paul wrote for the authorship of 2 Thessalonians, but it seems that as of right now answers are not exactly forthcoming.
        Thanks for this post, James.

      • Bethany

        But we know that Paul wrote letters that didn’t survive, and moreover that apparently Paul’s detractors claimed he was a better letter writer than a speaker which seems to suggest that writing letters was something he did fairly frequently — more than the, dunno, one letter every year or two that are all that have survived.

        It would seem awfully strange to me if Paul spent 15ish years spreading the gospel and wrote no letters at all, then the next 15 years with a reputation as a letter writer.

        • Well, you have a point to a certain extent, but on the other hand, (1) Paul seems to have preferred visiting churches to writing, and (2) until he founded churches (or others brought them into existence) there simply weren’t communities for him to write to.

          • Bethany

            Good point about there not being people to write to until after he had founded churches. 🙂

  • Gary

    I totally agree with Bart Ehrman, “Forged”. However, I got a chuckle over the following video. Funny use of “Night before Christmas”, and Dr Seuss.

  • “Since letters would by that time have been read in copies, there would be no actual change of handwriting. It’s a clever trick.”

    It would be a good trick from a later forger, but if coming from the hand of Paul, in the original manuscript it would simply serve the purpose it specifies. It seems circular logic to use something like this as evidence for forgery, as if “only a forger” would write it, you know?

    What in particular of 2 Thessalonian’s content causes us to suspect it’s a forgery? It’s not a letter I’ve studied as closely as others, but nothing immediately jumps to mind as inauthentic sounding.

    • The key substantive elements are the fact that it reproduces wording from 1 Thessalonians verbatim, but seems to emphasize an opposite view on eschatology. It is that, coupled with the difficulty of figuring out how the same authors could have written such a similar letter together at a later time, if one tries to explain the second letter as a corrective to the first. When those considerations are all brought into the picture, the warnings against listening to another letter supposedly from the same authors has even led some to think that it is a deliberate attempt to supplant 1 Thessalonians.

  • Dan

    Maybe he had written several letters before 2Thess. Perhaps he was under the influence of the Devil and these “satanic verses” were suppressed by his early followers (maybe even Paul himself). Perhaps his early writings were as a Pharisee before his conversion, and thus was not preserved. Perhaps his earlier epistles were more deferential and subservient to the super apostles in Jerusalem. Perhaps he was more conducive to female authority figures! Or he had believed in a purely heavenly Christ, as some mythicists insist.

    It is easy to speculate when one is arguing from silence. Unless there is another Nag Hammadi-type cache of hidden writings with early Pauline letters, we can only use the “undisputed” and “contested” letters of Paul. And thus the verse you highlight is intriguing.

  • GRobinson

    All good ideas here, perhaps another would be that some content from Paul’s letters, say a personal note in the bottom corner, might have gone unnoticed or simply not copied by an early scribe. Though several of these do occur, particularly in instances where Paul is using an amanuensis, whose to say that in transmitting a letter another community a scribe would have left out this personal greeting? I do tend to favor the point that Paul might have written multiple letters to the community at Thessalonica.

    Ultimately this ends up being a bit of an abductive argumentation as most ‘arguments from silence’ tend to go.