Second Epistle to the Thessalonians
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The Second Epistle to the Thessalonians, often referred to as Second Thessalonians (US) or Two Thessalonians (UK) (and written 2 Thessalonians) is a book from the New Testament of the Christian Bible. It is traditionally attributed to Paul the Apostle, as it begins, "Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians" and ends, "I, Paul, write this greeting in my own hand, which is the distinguishing mark in all my letters." Modern biblical scholarship is divided on whether Paul was the author or not; many scholars question its authenticity based on what they see as differences in style and theology between this and the First Epistle to the Thessalonians.
The authenticity of this epistle is still in widespread dispute. As Professor Ernest Best, New Testament scholar, explains the problem;
- if we only possessed Second Thessalonians few scholars would doubt that Paul wrote it; but when Second Thessalonians is put alongside First Thessalonians then doubts appear. There is a great dissimilarity between the two; this is not only one of words, small phrases and concepts but extends to the total structure of the two letters which is in addition different from what is taken to be the standard Pauline form. At the same time the second letter is alleged to be less intimate and personal in tone than the first, and in some of its teaching, particularly in relation to eschatology, to conflict with the first.
The structures of the two letters (to which Best refers) include opening greetings (1 Thess. 1:1, 2 Thess. 1:1–2) and closing benedictions (1 Thess. 5:28, 2 Thess. 3:16d–18) which frame two, balancing, sections (AA'). In 2 Thessalonians these begin with similar successions of nine Greek words, at 1:3 and 2:13. The opening letter section (1:3–2:12) itself comprises two halves, 1:3–12 (where the introductory piece, A, is 1:3–5; the first development, B, is 1:6–10; and the paralleling and concluding development, B', is 1:11–12) and 2:1–12 (with pieces: A 2:1–4, B 2:5–7, B' 2:8–12).
The second, balancing, letter section (2:13–3:16c) also comprises two halves: 2:13–3:5 (with pieces: A 2:13–14, B 2:15–17, B' 3:1–5) and 3:6–16c (with pieces: A 3:6–9, B 3:10–12, B' 3:13-16c). Of the twelve pieces in 2 Thessalonians seven begin with 'brother' introductions. Of the eighteen pieces in 1 Thessalonians fourteen begin with 'brother' introductions. In both letters, the sections balance in size and focus, and in many details. In 2 Thessalonians, in 2:5 and 3:10, for example, there is a structural balance of the use of 'when I was with you...' and 'when we were with you...'.
Support for Authenticity
Of the books in the New Testament suspected of pseudepigraphy, 2 Thessalonians has the most evidence to support its authenticity. While Paul's authorship of Second Thessalonians has been questioned more often than his authorship of 1 Thess., there is more evidence from early Christian writers for his authorship of Second Thessalonians than for First Thessalonians. The epistle was included in Marcion's canon and the Muratorian fragment; it was mentioned by name by Irenaeus, and quoted by Ignatius, Justin, and Polycarp.
G. Milligan observed that a church which possessed an authentic letter of Paul would be unlikely to accept a fake addressed to them. So also Colin Nicholl who has put forward a substantial argument for the authenticity of Second Thessalonians. He points out that 'the pseudonymous view is ... more vulnerable than most of its advocates conceded. ... The lack of consensus regarding a date and destination ... reflects a dilemma for this position: on the one hand, the date needs to be early enough for the letter to be have been accepted as Pauline ... [on] the other hand, the date and destination need to be such that the author could be confident that no contemporary of 1 Thessalonians ... could have exposed 2 Thessalonians as a ... forgery.'. pp. 5–6
Another scholar who argues for the authenticity of this letter is Jerome Murphy-O'Connor. Admitting that there are stylistic problems between Second Thessalonians and First Thessalonians, he argues that part of the problem is due to the composite nature of First Thessalonians (Murphy-O'Connor is only one of many scholars who argue that the current text of Second Thessalonians is the product of merging two or more authentic letters of Paul). Once the text of this interpolated letter is removed and the two letters compared, Murphy-O'Connor asserts that this objection is "drastically weakened", and concludes, "The arguments against the authenticity of 2 Thessalonians are so weak that it is preferable to accept the traditional ascription of the letter to Paul."
Those who believe Paul was the author of Second Thessalonians also note how Paul drew attention to the authenticity of the letter by signing it himself: "I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand, which is how I write in every letter.". Bruce Metzger writes, "Paul calls attention to his signature, which was added by his own hand as a token of genuineness to every letter of his (3:17)."
Opposed to Authenticity
At least as early as 1798, when J.E.C. Schmidt published his opinion, Paul's authorship of this epistle was questioned. More recent challenges to this traditional belief came from scholars such as William Wrede in 1903 and Alfred Loisy in 1933, who challenged the traditional view of the authorship.
Many today believe that it was not written by Paul but by an associate or disciple after his death, representing what they believed was his message. See, for example, Ehrman, Gaventa, Smiles, Schnelle, Boring, and Kelly. Norman Perrin observes, "The best understanding of 2 Thessalonians ... is to see it as a deliberate imitation of 1 Thessalonians, updating the apostle's thought.". Perrin bases this claim on his hypothesis that prayer at the time usually treated God the Father as ultimate judge, rather than Jesus.
Thessalonica was the second city in Europe where Paul helped to create an organized Christian community. At some point after the first letter was sent, probably soon, some of the Thessalonicans grew concerned over whether those who had died would share in the parousia. This letter was written in response to this concern. The problem then arises, as Raymond Brown points out, whether this letter is an authentic writing of Paul written by one of his followers in his name.
If this letter is authentic, then it might have been written soon after Paul's first letter to this community—or possibly years later. Brown notes that Paul "most likely visited Thessalonica several times in his journeys to Macedonia". However, if the letter is not authentic, Brown notes that "in some ways interpretation becomes more complex." Brown believes that the majority of scholars who advocate pseudonymity would place it towards the end of the first century, the same time that Revelation was written. These scholars emphasize the appearance of "man of sin" in the second chapter of this letter, whether this personage is identified with the Antichrist of 1 John and Revelation, or with a historical person like Caligula.
The traditional view is that the second epistle to the Thessalonians was probably written from Corinth not many months after the first.
Biblical commentator and pastor John Macarthur writes, "The emphasis is on how to maintain a church with an effective testimony in proper response to sound eschatology and obedience to the truth."
Paul opens the letter praising this church for their faithfulness and perseverance in the face of persecution:
"We ought always to give thanks to God for you, brethren, as is only fitting, because your faith is greatly enlarged, and the love of each one of you toward one another grows ever greater; therefore, we ourselves speak proudly of you among the churches of God for your perseverance and faith in the midst of all your persecutions and afflictions which you endure" (2 Thess 1:3–5 [NASB]).
The letter contains a whole chapter regarding the second advent of Christ, among other themes and instructions.
From the inference of 2:1–2, the Thessalonians were faced with a false teaching, saying that Christ had already returned. This error is corrected in chapter 2 (2:1–12), where Paul tells the Thessalonians that a great tribulation must occur before Christ's return. Seeing as how this series of events has not yet happened, his argument reads, Christ cannot have returned yet. He then expresses thanks that his readers were the elect of God, chosen for salvation and saved by His grace through faith, and thus not susceptible to the deception of the "Great Apostasy," (2 Thess 2:13–14) first mentioned here as is the "Katechon" (2 Thess 2:6–7).
In 2 Thess 2:15, Paul instructs his readers to "[h]old fast to the traditions (Greek: παραδόσεις, Latin: traditiones) which you were taught, whether by word of mouth or by our letter." Quoting this verse, in his On the Holy Spirit, Basil the Great writes, "These [traditions] have been passed on by word of mouth from Paul or from the other apostles, without necessarily being written down," and mentions the Trinitarian confession of faith as an example of "unwritten tradition". Cyril of Jerusalem shares a similar view in his Catechetical Lectures, argues that the traditions stated by Paul should be preserved and memorized, at a minimum in the form of the Creed. In his homily on this verse, John Chrysostom differentiates oral tradition from written tradition. At that time, the oral tradition has been defined as the "tradition" and the written tradition as "Scripture", united together in "the authenticity of their apostolic origin". Everett Ferguson says Paul's reference to tradition implicates that "what was delivered was from the Lord", and John Stott calls the tradition (Greek: παράδοσις, paradosis) "apostolic 'tradition'".
The letter continues by encouraging the Thessalonian church to stand firm in their faith, and to "keep away from every brother who leads an unruly life and not according to the tradition which you received from us... do not associate with him, so that he will be put to shame. Yet do not regard him as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother" (2 Thess 3:6–7, 14–15).
Paul ends this letter by saying, "I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand, and this is a distinguishing mark in every letter; this is the way I write. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all" (2 Thess 3:17–18). Macarthur writes, "Paul added an identifying signature (cf. 1 Cor. 16:21; Col. 4:18) so his readers could be sure he was truly the author."
A passage from this book reading "For even when we were with you, this we commanded you, that if any would not work, neither should he eat", (2 Thess. 3:10), was later adapted by Vladimir Lenin as an adage of the Soviet Union, He who does not work, neither shall he eat.
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- Ernest Best, The First and Second Epistles to the Thessalonians (New York: Harper and Row, 1972), p. 37
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- G. Milligan, Saint Paul's Epistles to the Thessalonians (1908) vi, ix, p. 448.
- Nicholl, CR, (2004), From Hope to Despair in Thessalonica, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 978-0-521-83142-0
- "All Thessalonians scholars will need to engage with the arguments of this contribution to the study of the letters." Oakes, P, Review of Nicholl in Journal for the Study of the New Testament 2005; 27; pp. 113–14
- Murphy-O'Connor, Paul: A critical life (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), p. 111
- 2 Thess.3:17, See similar indications in 1 Cor 16:21; Gal 6:11; and Col 4:18. NETBible
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- Alfred Loisy, The Birth of the Christian Religion, University Books, New York 1962, pp. 20–21 (Originally published as La Naissance du Christianisme, 1933)
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- Beverly Roberts Gaventa, First and Second Thessalonians, Westminster John Knox Press, 1998, p. 93
- Vincent M. Smiles, First Thessalonians, Philippians, Second Thessalonians, Colossians, Ephesians, Liturgical Press, 2005, p. 53
- Udo Schnelle, translated by M. Eugene Boring, The History and Theology of the New Testament Writings (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998), pp. 315–25
- M. Eugene Boring, Fred B. Craddock, The People's New Testament Commentary, Westminster John Knox Press, 2004 p. 652
- Joseph Francis Kelly, An Introduction to the New Testament for Catholics, Liturgical Press, 2006 p. 32
- Norman Perrin, The New Testament: An Introduction: Proclamation and Parenesis, Myth and History, (Harcourt College Publishers, 1974)
- Raymond Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament (New York: Doubleday, 1997), pp. 594–96
- Brown, Introduction, p. 595
- See the discussion on this chapter in Best, Thessalonians, pp. 273–310
- Macarthur, John (2009), The MacArthur Bible Commentary (Kindle ed.), Smyrna, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson, Kindle Location 59337
- Rombs (2010), p. 8
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- Rombs (2010), p. 27
- Rombs (2010), p. 28
- Walker, Andrew; Bretherton, Luke, eds. (2013). Remembering Our Future: Explorations in Deep Church. Wipf and Stock Publishers. pp. 67–68. ISBN 9781620328354.
- Stott, John R. W. (1991). The Gospel & the End of Time: The Message of 1 & 2 Thessalonians. InterVarsity Press. p. 77. ISBN 9780830817498.
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