Paul's Authorship

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Categories: Paul, Paul


Was Paul the author of II Thessalonians?


The answer is never a simple “yes or no.” Of the 13 books in the New Testament that are attributed to Paul, most modern scholars agree that he wrote the books known as Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians and Philemon for a grand total of 7. That leaves the books of Ephesians, Colossians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy, and Titus. Scholars are simply divided on authorship of these remaining 6 books. The reasons vary for each book.

In the case of 2 Thessalonians, it was initially attributed to Paul. No one really questioned that until the beginning of the 19th century. As biblical scholarship evolved, people began asking different questions of the text. Several issues arose with 2 Thessalonians. If Paul were the author, the books would have had to be written just a few months apart.

Though only three chapters in length, almost 1/3 of the book repeats what is said in 1 Thessalonians. The books are very different in tone and style. 1 Thessalonians is warm and gracious. 2 Thessalonians is commanding and cold. It is very different from any of Paul’s other books.

In the first book, Paul speaks of the Day of the Lord as being imminent, coming as a thief in the night. In the second book he says, “Let no one deceive you in any way; for that day will not come unless the rebellion comes first and the lawless one is revealed, the one destined for destruction.” (2:3) In other words, these things need to happen first, and then people will know that the Day of the Lord is upon them. It will no longer be a surprise.

Some of the people in 1 Thessalonians are distressed that members have died before the Day of the Lord. Paul reassures them by saying, “God will most certainly bring back to life those who died in Jesus…. those of us who are still alive will not get a jump on the dead and leave them behind. In actual fact, they’ll be ahead of us.” (4:14ff) If Paul truly believed the Day of the Lord was a long way off, he might have handled this differently by acknowledging that many might die before it comes.

Paul ends this letter by saying, “… [I] bid you good-bye in my own handwriting. I do this in all my letters, so examine my signature as proof that the letter is genuine.” (3:17) Ironically, that is not the way Paul ends his other letters. And scholars don’t know of anyone forging or copying his letters this early in his ministry. On the other hand, this is exactly the tactic a forger would use in his attempt to authenticate his letter. And since the format of the two letters is similar -- two thanksgivings (1:2; 2:13) and two benedictions (3:11–13; 5:23), it suggests that someone might have used 1 Thessalonians as a prototype for the second letter.

Needless to say, those who argue for Pauline authorship are not persuaded by any of these arguments. If Paul sent them the first letter and things didn’t change, he might have been more commanding with his second letter. And maybe he needed to repeat a few things as well. Maybe he thought about the Day of the Lord differently with the passing of time (even though it might have only been a few months). Jesus said a few contradictory statements about the end of times as well.

Moreover, it is unlikely that his disciples would have ended the letter by reiterating that they were Paul. So if Paul didn’t write it, and his disciples didn’t write it either, who did? The author would have to be a true forger – someone who used Paul’s name and reputation to further his own ideas. That sounds horrible to modern day people, but it was actually quite common in the early years. Indeed, it was considered to be a high form of flattery to the person whose name was used to get another’s work recognized.

Scholars do know the letter is included in the Marcion canon (ca 140 CE) and the Muratorian fragment (ca 170 CE). The Church Fathers of the late second century quoted from it. So it had to be well known and fully accepted by that time.

Other scholars arguing for Pauline authorship have also suggested different scenarios. Maybe there were two church communities in Thessalonica, requiring two different letters. Maybe the first letter is a composite letter. Maybe the second letter was actually written first. And the list goes on.

The bottom line is that no one knows for sure. The arguments continue on both sides. Perhaps the default position is that authorship of the letter is less important than its overall message.

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