Second Thessalonians is a letter to a community under severe persecution. The author seeks to comfort these afflicted believers by assuring them of God's ultimate vindication and God's sure retribution upon their persecutors. He also warns them against believing a fraudulent message that the Day of the Lord had already arrived. In contrast, that day will not appear before a complex apocalyptic scenario plays itself out. Finally, the author admonishes those who are idle to go back to work or else face communal wrath. Ironically, the clarity of its message has raised numerous interpretive questions about the apostolic authenticity of 2 Thessalonians as a letter from Paul and its relationship to 1 Thessalonians.
Content and Structure.
Recent analyses of the nature and purpose of 2 Thessalonians identify its rhetorical function as that of deliberative discourse. The purpose of such discourse is to propose “policy changes, affecting both belief and especially behavior, in terms of what was expedient or harmful, advantageous or not, honorable or shameful” (Witherington 2006, p. 33).
Robert Jewett (1986, p. 225) suggests the following rhetorical structure of the letter (for other possibilities see Jewett, p. 225; Witherington, p. 31.) Jewett's outline shall serve as the guide for the following summary of 2 Thessalonians.
a. epistolary presecript (1:1–2)
b. thanksgiving (1:3–10)
c. intercessory prayer (1:11–12)
1st proof (2:3–12)
2nd proof (2:13—3:5)
a. discipline (3:6)
b. ethical grounding (3:7–10)
c. on the disorderly (3:11–13)
d. on exclusion (3:14–15)
a. homiletic benediction (3:16)
b. postscript (3:17)
c. final greeting (3:18)
The letter opens with greetings to the Thessalonians from Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy (cf. 1 Thess 1:1). In the first thanksgiving passage (1:3–10), the author acknowledges the persecution as evidence that those suffering are worthy of the kingdom of God. This section may reflect Leidenstheologie (theology of suffering), indicating to the faithful that their present suffering will alleviate the penalty for sins at the end times (Bassler 1984, pp. 506–509). Conversely, God will execute divine retribution upon their oppressors at the future revelation of the Lord Jesus from heaven. Those who do not know Christ or obey the gospel of the Lord Jesus will suffer exclusion from the divine presence. This section concludes with a prayer that the Thessalonians are worthy of their calling so that they may fulfill by God's power every good resolve and work of faith, resulting in the mutual glorification of Jesus and the faithful.
Here the author presents the topics for discussion: the (future) coming of the Day of the Lord and the eschatological gathering of believers (2:1). He cautions the believers not to be shaken by a fraudulent report pronounced by (prophetic?) spirit or word or letter that the Day of the Lord had already arrived (2:2).
This section first refutes the fraudulent report by disclosing an elaborate, and somewhat novel, scenario about the events preceding the last days. Before that time begins, an unidentified “man of lawlessness” (2:3, 8) will appear. At present, a force is restraining him (2:6); the restrainer will continue to hold the lawless one in check until the restrainer departs. Nevertheless, the mystery of lawlessness is already at work (2:7). The lawless one will appear by the work of Satan and falsely exhibit signs and wonders. Those taken in by these demonic deceptions will perish. Indeed, God will send on them a delusion so that they continue to believe what is false; thus God insures their condemnation (2:8–12).
The author then addresses the second topic by assuring the Thessalonians of their own share in the Parousia (the Second Coming of Christ). God chose them as the first fruits of salvation; they are to stand firm in the traditions they were taught by word or by letter (2:13–15). Then the author prays that God will comfort the Thessalonians and requests that the Thessalonians, in turn, will pray that the author and his supporters also be saved from evil and wicked people. This section ends with the expression of confidence that the Thessalonians continue to obey the apostles' commandments (2:16–3:5).
Here the author turns to a new topic: idlers are disrupting the life of the church (cf. 1 Thess 5:12–22). These idlers refuse to labor for their daily bread and waste time in needless gossip. Such lollygaggers do not deserve to eat; the community should shun them. However, in contrast to the divine punishment inflicted on their persecutors (2:11–12), this punishment is designed to bring about a change of heart and behavior (3:14–15).
This section contains the author's closing statements. In vv. 16 and 18, he expresses his benedictory wishes for God's peace and grace. In between, in V. 15, he affixes his “mark,” noting that such is his practice in every letter (cf. Gal 6:11; 1 Cor 16:11).
Literary Relationship between 1 and 2 Thessalonians.
Scholars have long noted a close literary relationship between 1 and 2 Thessalonians as illustrated by the following table prepared by Krentz (1992, p. 518, slightly modified):
In addition to this structural similarity, there are other connections between the two letters: verbal parallels, non-Pauline stylistic elements, and the lack of concrete personal data (Krodel, 1978 pp. 77–78).
The most striking literary connection is the appearance of two thanksgiving sections in each letter, a significant deviation from the usual Pauline pattern. This connection may be even more striking if the second thanksgiving in 1 Thessalonians 2:13–16
|1 Thessalonians||2 Thessalonians|
|Thanksgiving in the middle||2:13–16||2:13|
|Benediction at the end||3:11–13||2:16|
is an interpolation. If so, then the edition of 1 Thessalonians after which 2 Thessalonians may be modeled could be the result of post-Pauline redaction, lending credence to the hypothesis that 2 Thessalonians is a pseudonymous letter (see below).
Other literary factors distinguish the two epistles to the Thessalonians: variance in vocabulary, literary style, lack of personal warmth, eschatological variations, Christology, theology, and tradition and life (Krodel, pp. 77–83; Krentz, p. 4:520).
The close connection between 1 and 2 Thessalonians and the significant differences have generated a lively scholarly debate over the authorship of 2 Thessalonians and, correspondingly, its date of composition.
Authorship and Date of Composition.
The questions of authorship and date of composition are interrelated. If the historical Paul is the author of 2 Thessalonians, then it was written shortly after the writing of 1 Thessalonians, around 52 C.E., and it presumably attempts to refute false teachings about the advent of the last days recently introduced to the church. If 2 Thessalonians is a pseudonymous letter, then it may be a product of a second generation disciple of Paul addressing the persecuted community, using 1 Thessalonians as a model of Pauline correspondence. Since 2 Thessalonians is quoted by Polycarp (Pol. Phil. 11:3) early in the second century, that serves as the terminus ad quem (latest possible time) for dating purposes.
Contemporary scholars have lined up on both side of this debate. J. E. C. Schmidt in 1798 may have been the first to propose pseudonymous authorship. During the twentieth century this theory attracted many subscribers (e.g., R. F. Collins, G. Krodel, E. Krentz, H. Koester, W. Marxsen, E. J. Richard, W. Trilling). In response, a number of highly respected scholars have defended authorship by Paul himself (E. Best, F. F. Bruce, M. Dibelius, R. Jewett, L. Morris, C. Wanamaker, B. Witherington).
Arguments for Pseudonymity.
Jewett identified four principle reasons scholars argue that 2 Thessalonians is a pseudonymous writing: (1) the literary dependence between 1 and 2 Thessalonians; (2) the contradictory eschatological discourses in 1 Thessalonians 5:1–11 and 2 Thessalonians 2:1–12; (3) the lack of personal references in 2 Thessalonians; and (4) the references to forgery in 2 Thessalonians 2:2 and 3:17 (Jewett, p. 7).
1. Literary Dependence.
Given the literary dependence between 1 and 2 Thessalonians, some scholars argue that the author of 2 Thessalonians had access to a copy of 1 Thessalonians, using it as a model. This is a weak argument, since, if Paul wrote the epistle shortly after completing 1 Thessalonians, that letter could still be fresh in his mind.
2. Contradictory Eschatological Discourses.
In 1 Thessalonians 5:1–11 Paul clearly admonishes the Thessalonians to remain faithful because the end will appear suddenly and without warning like a “thief in the night” (1 Thess 5:2). In 2 Thessalonians 2:3–12 the author refutes the teaching from a fraudulent letter that the Day of the Lord has already arrived (2 Thess 2:2—and, by implication, the sufferings of the faithful could be the “birth pangs” of that terrible day). In contrast, the author sets out an elaborate, and somewhat distinctive, eschatological scenario of events which must precede the last times: the rebellion, the appearance of the man of lawlessness who will replace God by taking his seat in the temple (the Jerusalem Temple?), the force restraining the lawless one and the departure of the restrainer, and, finally, the defeat of the lawless one by the Lord (2 Thess 2:3–8). This certainly sounds like the “thief” of 1 Thessalonians 5:2 would be sending a calling card to serve notice of his arrival. This scenario does not appear elsewhere in Paul's letters and has vexed scholars about its apocalyptic symbolism. Some have argued that the man of lawlessness is modeled after the depiction of Pompey in Psalms of Solomon 17:11–21 or Nero redivivus. This figure could also allude to the characterization of Antiochus IV Epiphanes in Daniel 11:36–37. Moreover, this figure has a close affinity to the figure of the Antichrist in the Johannine epistles (1 John 2:18, 22;4:3; 2 John 1:7). During the Reformation period the term was applied to the papacy, often identified with the Antichrist.
There is also a curious parallelism between the “man of lawlessness” and Jesus in 2 Thessalonians. Both are revealed at their separate parousias (2 Thess 2:1, 9) and both are subordinate to supernatural figures (God—2 Thess 1:11–12; Satan—2 Thess 2:9) (Witherington, p. 217).
Similar proposals surfaced about identity of “the restrainer.” This figure was associated with the Roman Emperor, the archangel Michael, the angel of the bottomless pit (Rev 20:1–4), or the Holy Spirit. Similarly, the restraining force is thought to be the Roman Empire and its laws or even the gospel itself. Since no consensus emerged, it is likely that the true referent to both the man of lawlessness and the restrainer will remain obscure.
It may be significant that the author identifies the Lord's opponent as the “man of lawlessness” (2 Thess 2:3, 8). This epithet suggests that the author supports the view alluded to throughout the epistle that those destined for salvation are obliged to make themselves worthy by obedience to the commands of the Lord as mediated by the apostles (i.e., lawfulness—2 Thess 1:8, 11; 2:14–15, 16–17; 3:4, 9, 17). One must question whether Paul, who proclaims grace as a free gift, not as something to be earned (Rom 3:23; 4:4; 5:15–17; 6:23; cf. Gal 2:15–21; 3:15–18; Phil 3:2–11), would emphasize obedience to commands as a criterion for eschatological vindication or omit any reference to death or resurrection of Jesus. Moreover, since Paul or his followers may have been accused of promoting lawlessness (cf. Matt 7:21–23; 13:28, 41), it seems unlikely that he would associate the eschatological enemy with lawlessness, especially since this is not a characterization of the Lord's opponent found elsewhere.
Reconciling the view of God in 2 Thessalonians with that depicted in other Pauline letters is also difficult. To be sure, God brings comfort and support to the faithful in the midst of severe persecution. The author assures the Thessalonians that God will visit retribution on their oppressors (2 Thess 1:5–11) and delude them to believe what is false, thereby insuring their condemnation (2 Thess 2:11–12). In contrast, elsewhere in his letters Paul depicts God as one who confronts a world in which all are under the power of sin (Rom 3:9–20) and sent his son to justify the ungodly (Rom 4:5; 5:6). This gospel message is addressed to all people, not just a predetermined few (Gal 3:28–29; 6:15; 1 Cor 7:19; 9:19–23; Rom 4:9–25; 11:11–32).
3. The Lack of Personal References.
Compared to 1 Thessalonians, where Paul inserts some personal comments (1:6, 8; 2:17–18; 3:1–2, 7–10), 2 Thessalonians seems impersonal (Krentz, pp. 4:520–521). This change in tone, however, could be explained by considering 2 Thessalonians a quick note written in haste after the reception of news that a fraudulent Pauline message had infected the Thessalonian congregation.
4. The References to Forgery in 2 Thess 2:2 and 3:17.
The curious ending of the epistle includes an assurance by the author that his “mark” authenticates the letter, as is his practice in every letter (2 Thess 3:17). (Since there are no extant autographs of any of Paul's epistles, this assertion is impossible to verify.) Krodel argues that such a mark would be appropriate in the first letter to a church, but not in subsequent letters. The readers could compare this mark with that presumably in 1 Thessalonians, but there is no reference to a mark in that first epistle (1 Thess 5:23–28). Therefore, Krodel concludes that the letter is likely a forgery, modeled after a copy of 1 Thessalonians. The author of 2 Thessalonians is trying to convince his audience of the letter's authenticity by emphasizing this fraudulent mark (Krodel, p. 86).
Arguments for Authenticity.
We have already noted some of the weakness in the arguments against authenticity. Many scholars believe that these arguments are equivocal at best and see no reason to reject Paul as the author of 2 Thessalonians. For example, Jewett argues that, given the literary affinities between 1 and 2 Thessalonians, it is improbable that an pseudonymous author would affix Paul's mark to the letter, attack another letter as fraudulent (2 Thess 2:2) and cite a third letter as containing genuine apostolic guidance (2 Thess 2:15) (Jewett, p. 17). Witherington argues that it would be hypocritical of one who denounces a fraudulent letter (2 Thess 2:2) to produce one himself (Witherington, p. 13). Witherington also contends that it would be difficult for a second-generation Paulinist to obtain a copy of 1 Thessalonians, given the difficulty and expense of producing such copies (Witherington, p. 261). “The difficulties that plague the forgery hypothesis would disappear if the same author wrote 2 Thessalonians who wrote 1 Thessalonians” (Jewett, p. 18).
Some scholars resolve interpretive difficulties of 2 Thessalonians by contending that the Thessalonian epistles were (1) written for different recipients (Best 1972; Dibelius 1937) or (2) were actually written in reverse order (Wanamaker). Neither of these positions has gained significant scholarly support.
From the forgoing discussion it is evident that there is no scholarly consensus about the authorship and, hence, the date of 2 Thessalonians. If it comes from the pen of Paul, then it likely was written around 52 C.E., shortly after the apostle left Thessalonica. If from the pen of a pseudonymous Paulinist, it could come from the latter third of the first century. However one resolves the questions of authorship and date, it is clear that 2 Thessalonians is intended to bring a message of comfort and hope to those under severe affliction. God will not abandon them in their suffering and will assure their vindication at the eschaton.
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Christian D. von Dehsen