Second Thessalonians does not have nearly as widespread acceptance as does 1 Thessalonians. After the pastoral epistles and Ephesians, in fact, 2 Thessalonians is the most doubted book in the corpus Paulinum.1 The reasons for this doubt, as well as the reasons why many NT scholars accept the authenticity of 2 Thessalonians need to be examined.
Not only is 2 Thessalonians found in Marcion’s canon and the Muratorian canon, but it is also quoted by name by Irenaeus, and was apparently known to Ignatius, Justin Martyr, and Polycarp. Further, it is found in the most ancient MSS (including the old Latin, old Syriac, and 46), suggesting its full acceptance from a very early period. Although not as strong as the evidence for the Hauptbriefe (in terms of frequency of citation), 2 Thessalonians has nevertheless enjoyed universal acceptance. In fact, the external testimony for 2 Thessalonians is equally as strong as, if not stronger than, that of 1 Thessalonians.
There are essentially five arguments that are often used against authenticity—arguments which, proponents say, overturn the external testimony.
1) Eschatology. In a nutshell, the Lord’s return seems less imminent in the second letter as opposed to the first. This is seen in two ways: (1) certain signs seem to precede the Lord’s return here, while none did in 1 Thessalonians; (2) Paul does not include himself in the group of living saints who anticipate the Lord’s return, while he did in the first letter.
2) Linguistic Features. Some would argue that the linguistic features of this letter show too much deviation from Paul’s normal style. In particular, a few years back Daryl D. Schmidt of Texas Christian University read a paper on the linguistic features of 2 Thessalonians at a Society of Biblical Literature meeting, arguing this very point. His conclusion was that this letter was not genuine.
4) Readers. The readers of this letter are assumed to have a greater knowledge of the OT than what would be expected of Gentiles, and clearly more than what is expected of the audience in the first letter.
5) Similarities. There are so many similarities with the first letter (e.g., eschatological theme, linguistic features, and probable date) that the question presents itself: Why would Paul write twice to the same audience within a short span of time about the same topic?
In sum, these arguments may impress some minds more than others. In our view, they are not very convincing. In our case for authenticity we will attempt to show their weaknesses.
Our approach here will simply be to answer the five charges made against Pauline authorship.
1) Eschatology. If the Lord’s return does not seem as imminent in the second letter as it does in the first, there is good reason: the enemies of Paul had turned the hope of the Thessalonians into dread (cf. 2:1-3). Paul now wanted to calm their fears and help them to focus on other aspects related to the eschaton. Nevertheless, a careful distinction needs to be made between the imminence of the day of the Lord with reference to unbelievers in 1 Thess 5 and its imminence with reference to believers in 2 Thess 2. With reference to unbelievers, it will come “suddenly,” without warning. With reference to believers, there is strong basis for arguing that the rapture will take place first. The language of 2 Thess 2:1-12 suggests that (1) the day of the Lord will not come until the man of lawlessness is first revealed (2:3); and (2) he will not be revealed until “the restrainer”is first removed. The language is necessarily cryptic because Paul wants to remind his audience of things he taught them when in Thessalonica without his enemies being privy to the contents of that teaching (cf. “you know” in 2:6; “do you not remember” in 2:5).2 But if the “restrainer” is a reference to the Holy Spirit, then this cryptic language may well mean, simply, the day of the Lord will not begin until the rapture first takes place. That Paul did not come out and say this explicitly is understandable given the circumstances of why he had to write this letter.3
Further, it is not altogether true that Paul does not place himself with those “who are alive and remain at the Lord’s coming” for he does mention that God will “grant rest to you with us” (2 Thess 1:7), and he does mention “our gathering together with him” (2:1). Although these are not major emphases, there is nothing here which suggests that Paul would not be among the living at the time of the rapture. This was still his hope.
2) Linguistic Features. Although Schmidt has recently argued for linguistic dissimilarity, most NT scholars see almost too much similarity with 1 Thessalonians! In the least, this criterion should be called into question on four grounds: (1) the amount of material (three short chapters) is not sufficient to make dogmatic statements about linguistic patterns;4 (2) the altered tone certainly has an impact on writing style; (3) the cryptic nature of the “little apocalypse”(2:1-12; cf. also 1:3-12)—necessary due to the occasion of the letter—has a tremendous impact on vocabulary stock and the like; and (4) all such linguistic conclusions are largely irrelevant if the amanuensis for 2 Thessalonians were either different than the one for the first letter or had greater freedom than he did in the first letter.
3) Change of Tone. The change of tone is certainly due to (1) the shock on Paul’s part that his audience had become “so quickly shaken” from their joyous position concerning the Lord’s return; and (2) the necessarily cryptic nature of the letter in which the enemies could be kept at arm’s length. In short, the circumstances for writing are different and Paul’s mood is different. Further, the detection of tonal alterations is overly pedestrian and hardly worth mentioning in the first place.
4) Readers. Although the readers of this letter are assumed to have a better acquaintance with the OT (i.e., especially with its eschatological portions), (1) there are no allusions which Gentiles who had frequented the synagogue (cf. Acts 17:1-10) could not appreciate; (2) Paul must now use eschatological terms and imagery both because he had taught them these things (cf. 2:5, 6) and because he wanted to keep his enemies at bay (see discussion above); and (3) it must be remembered that even the OT allusions could be grasped by the leaders of this congregation since they were, most likely, Jews themselves.5
5) Similarities. That there are similarities in content and date is hardly an argument against authenticity (linguistic similarity, in fact, supports authenticity). This can be seen by the simple fact that a particular occasion arose in which Paul needed to address the Thessalonians very soon after his first letter—on the very topic which his enemies had distorted. Further, similarities in date and content are seen in other Pauline letters, though not all are extant. For example, between 1 and 2 Corinthians there was another letter written—one which deals with roughly the same content as is found in the canonical letters (viz., the basis of Paul’s authority and his relation to the audience).6 That 2 Thessalonians—as a letter so soon written after 1 Thessalonians—has been preserved for us is a fortuitous and unique situation; but that Paul might write something to the same audience on the same topic within a very short period of time (although no longer extant) is hardly out of character.
In sum, on all counts 2 Thessalonians must be regarded as genuine: it has good external credentials, and the internal arguments against its authenticity carry little conviction.
The date of this letter is related to its occasion. It must certainly be dated very shortly after 1 Thessalonians, for the content and style are so similar. Further, there is some urgency in the writing (cf. 2:1-3). If our historical reconstruction is correct (see below), we believe that Paul periodically sent friends to Thessalonica to check on their progress in the faith (he would need to do this for the Thessalonians more than for other churches since he spent such little time with them). But this letter could not have been written until an intermediate letter (between 1-2 Thessalonians) had been written—a letter alleging to be from Paul. Since Paul was likely in Corinth when 1 Thessalonians was written (in fact, he had just come to Corinth), it is probable that 2 Thessalonians was written within the first six months of his stay in Corinth. We suggest, therefore, a date of spring-summer of 50 CE.
In 1 Thess 3:1-6, Paul tells his audience that the sending of Timothy was what prompted a letter to the Thessalonians. When Timothy returned to Paul, the apostle’s heart was warmed and he penned his first letter to the believers at Thessalonica.
The second letter was occasioned by an entirely different set of circumstances. In 2 Thess 2:2 Paul states, “Do not be quickly shaken from your settled state, nor be disturbed by a spirit, nor by a message, nor by a letter as though from us.” This verse seems to indicate the occasion for the writing of this letter. It would be unusual for Paul to mention a forged letter as a possibility unless it really had happened. Hence, in light of this verse (as well as data gleaned from Acts and 1 Thessalonians), we would like to propose the following historical reconstruction.
(1) Timothy, unknown to the Thessalonian believers by sight, is sent by Paul to confirm their faith.7
(2) Paul then sends 1 Thessalonians to the young flock—probably by way of another messenger (note that Timothy’s name is mentioned in the salutation, indicating that he was probably not the letter-bearer)—so as not to raise the suspicions too much of Paul’s enemies in Thessalonica. He would want to send unknown people to the believers because of the sensitive political situation at Thessalonica—a situation which could cause Jason incredible financial loss.
(3) The enemies of Paul, probably from the synagogue in Thessalonica, infiltrate the church and take note of Paul’s modus operandi—viz., sending someone unknown to check on the church periodically. They take note of the contents of the letter.
(4) Perhaps these enemies report this activity to the local government officials. If so, communication from Paul would be harmless enough. Or perhaps a messenger from Paul would not be enough to incite another riot. The enemies needed to have a different plan if they were to squash the popularity of Christianity in their midst.
(5) They forge a letter as though from Paul which includes a message which subtly discredits Paul’s eschatology, hoping to dislodge the faith of the Thessalonians (and thus, perhaps, bring them back to the synagogue).
(6) They send the letter by someone unknown by sight to the believers.
(7) Paul sends someone8 to check up on the Thessalonians and he finds out the present despair.
(8) Paul writes the second letter.9
Primarily, (1) the purpose was to correct the doctrinal error that the forgery had created about the day of the Lord. But since Paul’s ambassador had gone to Thessalonica originally just to check up on them, the letter reveals two other purposes as well.
(2) Positive: To commend them and encourage them in their perseverance in the faith;
(3) Negative: To rebuke those who, because of their eschatological self-deception (viz., they believed that since the day of the Lord had come the Lord’s return must take place soon), had abused this doctrine to their own gain and were sponging off the whole church.
The theme of 2 Thessalonians is the coming of the Lord and our gathering together with him.
Paul, Silas and Timothy greet the church at Thessalonica (1:1-2). Paul continues with his customary thanksgiving for the believers (1:3-4), though the thanksgiving is mixed with a note of comfort as well as a concluding prayer. In rapid succession Paul gives three substantive reasons as to why he can offer comfort: (1) God is perfecting these believers as seen in their perseverance through persecutions (1:3-4); (2) God will vindicate these believers by repaying the enemies of Christ with eternal destruction (1:5-10); and (3) God is preparing these believers for the kingdom, making them worthy of his calling (1:11-12).
After the comfort has been offered, Paul now gets to the heart of the letter, viz., eschatological correction (2:1-12). The purpose of this correction is to strengthen their faith in the Pauline kerygma and in the sovereign grace and justice of God. The need for it arises, most likely, from a letter written by Paul’s opponents, though purportedly written by Paul, to the effect that the day of the Lord had dawned and these believers had missed the rapture (2:1-2). Paul then gives two reasons why the Thessalonians should not be anxious about their share in eschatological glory: (1) the signs of the arrival of the day of the Lord had not appeared yet (2:3-5) (hence, the rapture was still future), (2) the antichrist (“man of lawlessness”) had not been unveiled yet (2:6-12). Paul then discusses some details about this man of lawlessness: (1) he is presently being restrained (2:6-7); (2) his career will be brief, cut off by Christ himself (2:8-9); and (3) those who follow him will face judgment (2:10-12).
Having repeated the refrain of the destiny of the wicked (1:5-12; 2:10-12), Paul now repeats the refrain of the destiny of the righteous (1:11-12; 2:13-17). His letter thus involves an inclusio contrasting the destinies of the wicked to the righteous (and is thus similar to 1 Thessalonians in this respect—a point which argues for authenticity). This reminder is in the form of a prayer and a benediction: a prayer that they stand firm in light of their destiny (2:13-15), and a benediction invoking God to encourage their hearts to so stand firm (2:16-17).
Paul concludes the body of the letter with exhortations related to evangelism and eschatology (3:1-15). First, he requests that they pray for the spread of the gospel through the agency of Paul (3:1-5). Then, he rebukes the idle (3:6-15), expanding on a rebuke he initiated in 1 Thess 5:14a. The expansion of the warning is due to Timothy’s report that the problem was increasing (3:11). The reason for the increased idleness seems to be an improper attitude toward eschatology: if the rapture will happen soon, why work? Paul takes this to its logical conclusion: if there is no need to work, then there is no need to eat (3:10)! Finally, Paul concludes the exhortation with a note on church discipline: ostracize the disobedient so that they will be ashamed and repent (3:14-15).
The apostle concludes the letter with a final greeting in which he reminds the Thessalonians of a built-in safeguard: he writes a note in all his letters (3:17; cf. 2:1-3). This note is bracketed by two benedictions, both of which invoke the Lord’s presence for the believers as a further comfort to them (3:16, 18).
I. Salutation (1:1-2)
II. Comfort in Affliction (1:3-12)
A. Perseverance in the Midst of Persecutions (1:3-10)
1. The Perseverance of the Saints (1:3-4)
2. The Vindication of God’s Righteousness (1:5-10)
B. Preparation of the Saints for the Kingdom (1:11-12)
III. Correction Concerning the Day of the Lord (2:1-12)
A. Summary: Doctrinal Correction (2:1-2)
B. Day of the Lord Yet Future (2:3-5)
C. The Unveiling of the Antichrist (2:6-12)
IV. Reminder Concerning their Destiny (2:13-17)
A. Standing Firm in Light of this Destiny (2:13-15)
B. Benediction: Encouraged Hearts (2:16-17)
V. Exhortations Concerning Practical Matters (3:1-15)
A. Request for Prayer (3:1-5)
B. Rebuke of the Idle (3:6-15)
VI. Final Greetings (3:16-18)
10 = accepted by all
9 = accepted by virtually all
7 = accepted by most
5 = doubted by many (or most)
3 = rejected by most
1 = rejected by almost all
On this scale the Pauline corpus looks like this:
10 = Romans, 1-2 Corinthians, Galatians (the Hauptbriefe)
9 = Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, Philemon
7 = Colossians
5 = 2 Thessalonians
3 = Ephesians
1 = 1-2 Timothy, Titus
2 This is analogous to a guarded press release on a not-yet-apprehended criminal by a police department: they often hold back some information from the public to weed out the counterfeit criminals and to ensnare the real one. In the same way, Paul is apparently sharing some “inside” information with the Thessalonians—information which, although baffling to interpreters, was designed primarily to arm the Thessalonians against further impostors, who claimed to be from Paul.
3 Although posttribulationists often criticize pretribulationists for seeing the Holy Spirit as the restrainer (a view not all pretribulationists hold, but probably the most popular view in such circles), their counter-exegesis lacks conviction and seems to involve too many biblico-theological contradictions. One of their arguments is simply, If Paul meant to say that the rapture would come first, why did he not just come out and say it? In response, it should be noted that Paul did not just come out and speak clearly about eschatology in 2:1-12 at all! As William Neil has pointed out, “This section, dealing with the indications which may be expected to herald the end of the world, provides us with the weirdest piece of writing in all the epistles and that has never been satisfactorily explained” (“St. Paul’s Epistles to the Thessalonians,” Torch Bible Commentary, 132). This pericope is “weird” for two reasons: (1) it is apocalyptic in genre, and (2) it is cryptic language because Paul wants to guard against the Thessalonians’ acceptance of another forgery.
At the same time, all must concede that this text is difficult. Our views must be held humbly and tentatively, regardless of which side of the fence we are on.
4 If one were to pick several other two-to-four chapter sections of the undisputed Paul (e.g., Rom 1-2, 2 Cor 10–13) there would most certainly be wider linguistic deviations than what are found in 2 Thessalonians.
5 This is based on three considerations: (1) Paul had established leaders in the church (cf. 1 Thess 5:12ff.); (2) Acts 17:1-10 reveals that some Jews from the synagogue believed; and (3) certainly if new converts are, on occasion, going to be chosen to lead the church (contra 1 Tim 3:6), they must be the kind of men who have demonstrated some faithfulness to God already. Only those who had embraced the God of the OT would qualify.
9 One confirmation of this general scenario is 2 Thess 3:17 in which Paul makes a point of his own handwriting as a means of detecting authenticity. Would such a point be necessary if Paul sent his letters via known messengers?
We might add further that the essential problem of the Thessalonians was their gullibility toward prophetic utterances—that is, they believed too much. This is seen in (1) Acts 17:11, where Luke is apparently showing a contrast between the attitude of the Thessalonians and that of the Bereans; (2) 1 Thess 5:18-22 is an admonition toward critical receptiveness of the truth (“do not despise prophetic utterances, but test everything”), which most likely related to the gullibility of the Thessalonians; and (3) 2 Thess 2:1-3 shows that they did not “test everything” but instead believed the forgery.