The Authenticity of 2 Thessalonians

Although Paul is named as the author, just as he is in 1 Thessalonians, and in association as before with Silas and Timothy, scholars are less likely to agree that 2 Thessalonians came from Paul’s hand.

Those doubting that Paul wrote it claim that the eschatology of 2 Thessalonians differs from that of 1 Thessalonians to the point of contradiction. In the first letter, Paul regards Jesus’ coming as imminent; in the second that sense of imminence is absent, and instead the emphasis is on what will precede the Parousia. This is a fair observation. But it is a difference of emphasis only, not evidence of a contradictory eschatology. Each letter addresses a particular issue, and until the question was raised of when the coming would be—the question addressed in 2 Thessalonians—there was no call for Paul to discuss it in the earlier letter, where the quite different issue was being addressed of what the fate of the dead would be.

Furthermore, it is asserted that the language of the first letter implies that its readers were Gentiles: “You turned to God from idols ...” (1:9; see above on The Founding of the Church), whereas 2 Thessalonians, with its numerous allusions to the OT, implies that they were Jews (see esp. 2 Thess. 1:5–10; 2:1–12). But the fact that 2 Thessalonians draws so much on the OT may say more about its author than the readers, while the fact that the OT is more in evidence here than in the first letter is because of its subject matter. Its theme is the day of the Lord, concerning which the OT says much (see disc. on 2 Thess. 1:3–12 for the author’s possible use of an earlier source for many of the OT allusions).

Moreover, the two letters are said to be different in tone, the first warm and friendly, the second formal and cold. But this is too sweeping a generalization. Much of the warmth of the first is generated by Paul’s self-defense, which he no longer needed to make, as it seems, in the second. Take these passages out and the difference in tone between the two letters would be imperceptible. Conversely, the alleged coldness of the second letter rests on only a few passages in which a more formal tone is adopted, as in 1:3, “We ought always to thank God ...” (cf. 1 Thess. 1:2, “We always thank God ...”) and in which the author asserts his authority. “We command ...” (3:4, 6, 10, 12; but cf. 1 Thess. 4:11). But alongside these expressions are others, such as his calling his readers “brothers” (1:3; 2:1, 13, 15; 3:1, 6, 13, 15; see disc. on 1 Thess. 1:4) and his enthusiastic references to their progress (e.g., “your faith is growing more and more,” 1:3); these reflect a warmth of affection no less than that in 1 Thessalonians (see disc. on 2 Thess. 1:3–12 for the possible influence of liturgical language on the alleged formality of the epistle).

This mixture of affection and authority is typically Pauline. Moreover, the likeness of 2 Thessalonians to Paul’s other letters does not end here; it is also reflected in its ideas and language. Pauline words, phrases, and constructions abound (see, e.g., disc. on 2 Thess. 1:2; 2:1, 17; 3:5). In this matter of language and thought, the likeness of 2 Thessalonians to 1 Thessalonians is especially noticeable. This similarity, however, is something of a two-edged sword. It has been enlisted as an argument against the authenticity of 2 Thessalonians on the grounds that a man of Paul’s ability, in writing to the same church within a short space of time, would not have repeated himself to the extent that he does but would have found other forms of expression. But the similarity argues even more forcibly for a common authorship of the two letters than it does against Paul’s authorship of the second. Surely no forger would have imitated Paul so successfully. As Leon Morris observes, “the imitator (if there was one) must have thought with the very mind of Paul.” In defense of the traditional authorship, William Neil accounts for the similarity between the two letters by suggesting that Paul had read through “the customary draft copy of his first letter before writing the second” and that its language and ideas were, therefore, still fresh in his mind. This is not an unlikely scenario, since it may have been a misunderstanding of what he had written in 1 Thessalonians that he was correcting in 2 Thessalonians. (On the other hand, the problem addressed in the second letter may have been due to another letter which was not his; see below and the disc. on 2 Thess. 2:2).

Besides all this, the external evidence for Paul’s authorship of the second letter is strong. Polycarp, Ignatius, Justin, and the Didache, all in the first half of the second century, appear to have known it. Both the Marcionite canon and the Muratorian Fragment include 1 Thessalonians, and it is quoted by Irenaeus and later writers as Pauline (e.g., Ireneaus, Against Heresies 26.4).

The Sequence of the Letters

The idea is sometimes canvassed that 2 Thessalonians was written before 1 Thessalonians. According to this view, the shorter letter is filled out and enriched by the other. Advocates of this theory find support for their view in the recurring phrase, “now about” in 1 Thessalonians 4:9, 13; 5:1. The same phrase recurs in 1 Corinthians, marking Paul’s answers to the Corinthians’ questions. From this, the inference is drawn that Paul wrote 2 Thessalonians first; it precipitated a number of questions to which Paul responded with 1 Thessalonians. But the comparison with 1 Corinthians will not stand, for the context confirms that Paul is not answering the Thessalonians’ questions but is using this formula to introduce a discussion of what they already knew.

That 2 Thessalonians is the earlier letter is argued also on other grounds. Paul’s statement in 1 Thessalonians 5:1 that he had no need to write to them “about times and dates” makes the best sense, it is argued, if he had already written 2 Thessalonians 2:1–12. Again, at the end of 2 Thessalonians, Paul draws attention to his signature. That he should do so seems more appropriate in his first than his second letter. Also in the letter that is called the first, he refers to the leadership of the church, to a persecution that the church had already suffered (cf. 2 Thess. 1:4 where the church is still suffering), and to the death of some of its members. All of this, it is said, demands a longer span of time between the founding of the church and the writing of 1 Thessalonians than the traditional date and order of the letters allow. Finally, there is a problem within the church that Paul refers to in 2 Thessalonians 3:11 as though learning of it for the first time (“We hear that some among you are idle ...”). In 1 Thessalonians 5:14, however, he speaks of the same problem as a matter of common knowledge and as something that the church must take in hand.

Taking these arguments in order, (1) there is no need to postulate 2 Thessalonians 2:1–12 as the background to the “times and dates” of the other letter. On any showing, Paul’s ministry in Thessalonica included preaching about the Parousia; this sufficiently accounts for the reference of 1 Thessalonians 5:1. (2) The reference to his signature in 2 Thessalonians 3:17 may be better explained by the possibility that in 2:2 he is responding to a spurious letter that was circulating in his name (see above on The Writing of 2 Thessalonians and the disc. on 2 Thess. 2:2). For their future reference, should the question of authenticity ever come up again, they should know that his letters could be clearly identified. This is “the distinguishing mark in all my letters,” he explains. “This is how I write.” (3) Our reconstruction of the events of Paul’s ministry in Thessalonica, and of what followed until the missionaries were reunited in Corinth, allows ample time for the situation reflected in 1 Thessalonians to have developed (see above on The Founding of the Church). (4) As for the references to persecution, “despite the aorist epathēte in 1 Thessalonians 2:14, it is not clear,” says Bruce, “that the afflictions of 1 Thessalonians belong to the (recent) past in contrast to the present afflictions of 2 Thessalonians.” Perhaps the most that can be said about these references in both the epistles is that they point to what was an ongoing fact of life for this church. (5) Finally, with regard to the problem of idleness, when Paul says in 2 Thessalonians 3:11 that he and his colleagues had heard of the matter, this does not necessarily mean that they had heard of it only then or only once. The reference may be to a later report which confirmed what Timothy had already told them (such a report may also have mentioned the Thessalonians’ mistaken ideas about the Parousia; see disc. on 2 Thess. 2:1–12).

In short, none of the arguments for reversing the traditional order of the two letters is convincing, while there are solid reasons for retaining that order. Paul’s explanation in 1 Thessalonians 2:17–3:5 of his state of mind—his “intense longing” to see the Thessalonians—and of the measures that he had taken because of it presupposes that this was his first letter. The same holds true for the note of relief now that he has an encouraging report of the church. If indeed 2 Thessalonians is more formal in tone than the other (see above on The Authenticity of 2 Thessalonians), this might reflect a more settled state of mind now that he knew how matters stood. It might also reflect that he was having to deal with a recalcitrant group who had disregarded his earlier warnings. The problem with the idle is, in fact, only one of several areas in which a progression can be seen from 1 Thessalonians to 2 Thessalonians. Another is in the references to persecution. The church had already suffered, as we have seen, in 1 Thessalonians, but there is reason to think that part of Paul’s purpose in writing was to encourage the church in the face of what inevitably lay ahead: “You know quite well,” he wrote, “that we were destined for (trials)” (1 Thess. 3:3). And by the time he wrote 2 Thessalonians, the inevitable had happened, and the church was suffering persecution again. A third area in which a progression can be traced is in the teaching about the Parousia. In 1 Thessalonians 4:17, Paul gives what seems to be a new piece of instruction (as far as this church is concerned) about believers being “caught up ... to meet the Lord in the air.” But this teaching appears to be presupposed in 2 Thessalonians 2:1 in the reference to “our being gathered to him,” thus Paul is building in the second letter on the instruction given in the first. We conclude, then, that Paul wrote the two letters and that he wrote them in their canonical order.

The Letters Today

When the dust of these questions settles, what really matters is what these letters say to Christians today. Some of the issues in the letters may not be those we face, but even so, we can learn from how they are discussed. Paul had no doubt about his authority. He believed himself to be a man “approved by God,” appointed by Christ (1 Thess. 2:4, 6) and called “to proclaim ... the whole will of God” (Acts 20:27). On that basis he said “anything that would be helpful” (Acts 20:20), whether what he said was a “comfortable” or an “uncomfortable” word in the ear of his hearers. His only criteria were the helpfulness of the word and the wholeness of the ministry of the word; they certainly did not include the comfort of his hearers. He would put a “flea in their ear” if need be (see disc. on 1 Thess. 2:4). But his proclamation of “the whole will of God” was tempered always with love. He was like a “mother caring for her little children” or a father “encouraging, comforting, and urging” them on (1 Thess. 2:7, 11f.). In discussing often difficult issues, Paul was both gentle and authoritative, faithful to God’s word, but “fatherly” (in the best sense) in applying it (see, e.g., disc. on 2 Thess. 3:15).

These letters still speak to us today. Some of the issues may not be those that we face, but, for the most part, their teaching is timeless and often timely for today’s church. These letters were addressed to a small church in a large and overwhelmingly pagan society, a church under constant pressure to conform to the norms of that society. Many today can identify with the Thessalonians in this situation and can learn from Paul’s sustained call to holiness that overcoming the pressure to conform demands consecration, not complacency.

But, then it might be asked, Why be holy? The answer to that question and, at the same time, the best incentive to live consecrated lives, is the truth that Jesus will return. Nowhere is that truth more vividly declared than in the Thessalonian letters. “With this in mind,” says Paul speaking of that return, “we pray ... that ... Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Thess. 1:11f.). In this, he sums up what the letters say to Christians today: Be ready, be holy; to which we can only add our own Amen.

1 Thessalonians

1 Address and Greeting (1 Thess. 1:1)

1:1 / Paul frequently associates himself with others in the prescripts of his letters (cf. 1 Cor. 1:1; 2 Cor. 1:1; Gal. 1:1f.; Phil. 1:1; Col. 1:1; 2 Thess. 1:1; Philem. 1). In most cases it must be doubted that the others made any material contribution to the letters, being named simply out of courtesy, and so in this case. The letter bears all the hallmarks of a Pauline epistle (see Introduction on The Authenticity of 1 Thessalonians and disc. on 3:1), such that it is difficult to believe that Silas and Timothy had any hand in what was written apart from giving Paul an up-to-date report on the situation in Thessalonica and some counsel as to what should be said to the church of the Thessalonians. Silas and Timothy had, of course, shared with Paul in the establishment of that church, and Timothy had only recently returned (as we suppose) from revisiting the scene of their former labors. It is understandable, therefore, that they should be named in the address.

The address follows the normal pattern of letters of that time, naming the writer(s) first, then the recipient(s), and finally giving a word of greeting. Sometimes this structure became for Paul the vehicle of an extended theological statement, as in Romans 1:1–7. Here it remains relatively simple. Because the letter is written to the church (no matter that it was addressed in the first instance to a particular group of Christians at a particular time), we may read it as Paul’s letter (and God’s word) to us (see Introduction on The Letters Today).

The greeting of peace was, and still is, the usual greeting among Jews. Properly, it signified far more than peace does with us. Our concept of peace is largely negative: the absence of war; theirs signified well-being in the widest sense, and here, in the spiritual sense in particular (cf. 5:23; 2 Thess. 1:2; 3:16). The usual Greek greeting was “Rejoice” and the similarity of that word (chairō) with grace (charis) has led some to think that Paul was making a play on the two words. But this could equally as well be a variant of the greeting, “Mercy and peace,” that was current in some Jewish circles (cf. 2 Bar. 78:2). At all events, we are carried by the greeting to the heart of the Christian gospel, for we have been saved by the grace of God (“the extravagant goodness” of God, cf. 1 Thess. 5:28; 2 Thess. 1:2, 12; 2:16; 3:18) that we might have peace with God. One wonders (although this is the first evidence of it) whether the greeting, Grace and peace, had become a liturgical formula (see disc. on 5:28 for the association of grace with the Lord Jesus Christ, and cf. 2 Thess. 1:2).

Elsewhere Paul adds to this greeting the phrase, “from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (cf. Rom. 1:7; 1 Cor. 1:3; 2 Cor. 1:2; Gal. 1:3; Eph. 1:2; Phil. 1:2; 2 Thess. 1:2; 1 Tim. 1:2; 2 Tim. 1:2; Titus 1:4; Philem. 3) or simply, “from God our Father” (Col. 1:2). Thus we might ask whether we should add the phrase in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ to the greeting. The Greek would allow it, and it would thereby indicate the place (en, “in”) in which grace and peace are to be found rather than the source (apo, as in the formulae above) from which they come. But NIV adopts the consensus view that the phrase belongs rather with the church of the Thessalonians, expressing the idea that the church was at rest in God. In the world it had no rest. It was a persecuted church. However, the promise was that no one could snatch followers of Christ out of the Father’s hand, and they rested secure in that (cf. John 10:29 and see disc. and note on 2 Thess. 1:4 for the church as God’s possession). But notice, to be in God is also to be in ... the Lord Jesus Christ. The one preposition (in the Greek) governs both persons, thus drawing the Father and Jesus together whom, by implication, we know either together or not at all (cf. 3:11; John 10:28–30). The fact that the Father and the Son are thus linked in this the earliest of Paul’s letters implies that it was already the practice (stemming from the first disciples’ experience of Jesus) to afford the Son divine status (see further disc. on 3:11). As Morris observes, “It is not easy to see how any created being, anyone less than God, could be linked with God the Father in such a way. How can the Thessalonian church be ‘in’ the Lord Jesus Christ if he is no more than a first century Jew?” (Morris, Themes, p. 31).

The description of God as Father adds the dimension of love to the thought of God’s care for the church, while the title Lord bears further witness to Paul’s estimate of Jesus. The use of this title comes out of the early church’s belief in the resurrection of Jesus, which, more than anything else, convinced them that God had made him both Lord and Christ (Acts 2:36).

Additional Notes

1:1 / In God ... and the Lord Jesus Christ: Not only is this phrase with the preposition in (en) unusual in a greeting, as noted above, but insofar as it speaks of the church as being “in God,” it is unusual in any Pauline context. He might speak of boasting “in God” (Rom. 2:17; 5:11) or even of being hidden “in God” (Eph. 3:9; Col. 3:3), but he never speaks of the church or an individual being “in God” as he speaks of their being “in Christ.” Acts 17:28 is no exception. That text refers to the life we have in him by virtue of creation, not of redemption; and in any case, the line is not Paul’s but probably from Epimenides of Crete. Best takes the preposition as instrumental, “the Christian community brought into being by God.”

There are a number of references in the OT to God as Father (e.g., Exod. 4:22; Deut. 32:6; Hos. 1:10; 11:1), but in most cases these describe the relationship between God and his people as a whole, or between God and the king. Evidence that individuals thought of God as their Father is sparse. The same can be said of intertestamental Judaism, and in the whole of the Qumran literature there is just one passage where the epithet, Father, is applied to God (1QH 9.35f.). Judaism of the first century A.D. and later did call God by this name but not often, and generally with stress on the idea of obedience to the Father. Few thought of God as the Father of the individual. “There is no instance,” for example, “of the use of Abba (Father) as an address to God in all the extensive prayer literature of Judaism, whether in liturgical or in private prayers” (J. Jeremias, New Testament Theology [New York: Scribners, 1971], p. 65). If anything, first-century Judaism tended increasingly to think of God as remote from the individual, to which the teaching of Jesus provides a unique and radical corrective. The scribes put God in the seventh heaven; Jesus taught that he is near and cares for each of us. This teaching is reflected, for example, in the prayers of these two letters (1 Thess. 3:11–13; 2 Thess. 2:16f.; 3:5), where God is portrayed as “not remote and uncaring. He is deeply concerned about his people. He is active in bringing about their growth in Christian qualities, and his concern and his activity will persist to the end” (Morris, Themes, p. 13).

The Lord Jesus Christ (cf. 1:3; 2:15, 19; 3:11, 13; 4:1, 2; 5:9, 23, 28; 2 Thess. 1:1, 2, 7, 8, 12; 2:1, 8, 14, 16; 3:6, 12, 18). Lord (kyrios) is not a name but a title. It is used in a variety of ways but, with reference to ordinary people, most commonly as a polite form of address, much like our “sir” (e.g., John 12:21). More importantly, however, it forms part of the religious vocabulary of the day. Pagan gods receive the title “lord,” and sometimes, in that connection, it is applied to the Roman emperors to express their divinity. Paul would have been aware of this and mindful that in using the title of Jesus he was putting Jesus in the highest place in pagan terms. But, without question, the immediate background to his use (in common with that of the church generally) is the LXX, where “Lord” frequently renders the Hebrew Yahweh, the name of God. The application of the title to Jesus stems from his resurrection whereby he “was declared ... to be Son of God” (Rom. 1:4). Paul employs this title ambiguously at times; whether he means God the Father or God the Son is not clear. In most cases, however, the reference appears to be to the Son. “There is but one God, the Father ... and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 8:6; for Father, see disc. on 1:8; 2 Thess. 3:1, 3, 4, 5; for Son see disc. on 1 Thess. 1:10; 3:8, 12; 4:6; 4:15–17; 5:2, 12, 27; 2 Thess. 1:9; 2:2, 13; 3:16).

Similarly Christ is a title, but, due in large measure to Paul, it soon came to used as a proper name. “Christ” comes directly from the Greek word Christos, which translates the Hebrew mešiaḥ (messiah), meaning “anointed one.” In the OT, various people are anointed with oil and thereby set apart for a particular office in the service of God, such as priests (Lev. 4:3; 6:22) and kings and perhaps prophets (1 Kings 19:16). The kings especially are called “the Lord’s anointed” (e.g., 1 Sam. 24:10; 2 Sam. 19:21; 23:1; Ps. 2:2; Lam. 4:20). In some instances a person or persons might be called mešiaḥ who had not been literally anointed but who, nevertheless, served God’s purpose in some way (the patriarchs, Ps. 105:15; Cyrus the Persian, Isa. 45:1; the nation Israel, Hab. 3:13). Thus there were many “anointed ones,” but over the years the expectation grew that in due course God would send not just an anointed one, but the anointed one who would inaugurate God’s kingdom in the final and fullest sense (see note on 2:12). This expectation can be traced in the OT, although the title Messiah is hardly, if at all, applied there to the coming one. In that connection, the title belongs to a later period, including the period of the NT. At this time, according to A. Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1890), vol. 2, pp. 710–41, the rabbis understood 456 OT passages to refer to the Messiah. Thus, when Paul called Jesus by this title, he was using a term that would arouse significant associations in the minds of all those in touch with rabbinic teaching. He uses the title ten times in each of the Thessalonian letters (1 Thess. 1:1, 3; 2:6, 14; 3:2; 4:16; 5:9, 18, 23, 28; 2 Thess. 1:1, 2, 12; 2:1, 14, 16; 3:5, 6, 12, 18).

2 Thanksgiving for the Thessalonians’ Faith (1 Thess. 1:2–10)

Paul’s letters typically follow the address and greeting with Paul’s thanksgiving for his readers. It is the celebration of their new life in the context of which he can deal with their mistakes and misunderstandings. This letter follows that pattern (the only exception is Galatians). Indeed, here the note of thanksgiving sounds well beyond this section, being heard again in 2:13–16, 3:9–10, and in 3:11–13, where its sound mingles with that of prayer (Paul Schubert, Form and Function of the Pauline Thanksgiving [Berlin: Töpelmann, 1939], pp. 17–27, suggests, indeed, that the thanksgiving begun in 1:2 extends for the next forty-three verses!). In the passage before us, it is also mingled with prayer, or at least a report of prayer for the Thessalonians (vv. 2b–3). The grounds of the thanksgiving in vv. 4–10 provide an interesting supplement to the story of the church’s foundation in Acts 17.

1:2–3 / We ... thank God. The plural We reflects the association of Silas and Timothy with Paul in the address and suggests that they have some part in what is written, if only in providing Paul with more recent news about the Thessalonians. This should be compared, for example, with 1 Corinthians and Philippians, where Paul links other names to his own in the address but follows with the singular, “I thank God.” The addition of the words always (adialeiptōs, cf. 2:13; 5:17) and for all of you (despite the fact that there were some problem people in the church) is some measure of Paul’s love for the Thessalonians. Out of this love his thanksgiving flows. The phrase for all of you could be read with either we ... thank God, as NIV, or mentioning ... in our prayers.

In the Greek, three participial phrases follow, qualifying Paul’s opening statement. Thus we learn that the thanksgiving is made in the context of prayer, literally, by “making a remembrance of you (but in the sense of mentioning, cf. Rom. 1:9; Eph. 1:16; Philem. 4) “in the time of our prayers” (epi tōn proseuchōn hēmōn). That is, whenever they pray they include thanksgiving for the Thessalonian church.

The second participial phrase expresses the grounds of the thanksgiving in their remembering three things in particular about the Thessalonians. These three things correspond with the familiar triad of graces occurring elsewhere in Paul and other NT writers (cf. 5:8; Rom. 5:1–5; 1 Cor. 13:13; Gal. 5:5; Col. 1:4f.; Heb. 10:22–24; 1 Pet. 1:21f.).

1. Their work produced by faith (the three nouns, work, labor, endurance, ergon, kopos, hypomonēs, of this passage recur in Rev. 2:2). This short phrase sums up what must be our response to the gospel. We are saved by grace through faith—all that is necessary has been done for us by grace (the work of God in Christ), and we take hold of it through faith (our trust in Christ as the Savior; for “faith,” see further disc. on 3:2, and for “salvation,” see disc. on 5:8). Thus we are not saved by works—our works—but we are saved for works, specifically the “good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Eph. 2:8–10). These are expressed in his commands and summed up in the two great commands to love God and neighbor (Mark 12:29–31; Rom. 13:8–10). Paul could not conceive of a merely intellectual religion. Faith must be demonstrated in practice; evidently, this was happening in the Thessalonian church.

2. Their labor prompted by love. This phrase makes the same point as the other: namely, that the Thessalonians are making their Christian profession visible. The practice of their belief is evident for all to see. But, whereas the work produced by faith focuses on the word faith, i.e., on the means of entering into relationship with God, this phrase draws attention to the nature of that relationship with God. It is one of love. “We love because he first loved us.” But “he has given us this command: Whoever loves God must also love his brother” (1 John 4:19–21)—another form of the two great commands, obedience to which is the labor prompted by love. Labor (kopos, cf. 2:9; 3:5; 2 Thess. 3:8 and 1 Thess. 5:12 for the corresponding verb) is a stronger word than ergon, work, but no difference is intended here. Obedience is always hard work!