We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more
Select Bible Use this Lookup to open a specific Bible and passage. Start here to select a Bible.
Make selected Bible the default for Lookup tool.
Book: Ch.V. Select book from A-Z list, enter chapter and verse number, and click "Go."
:
OR
  • Previous Result
  • Results
  • Look It Up Highlight any word or phrase, then click the button to begin a new search.
  • Highlight On / Off
  • Next Result

The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

2 Thessalonians - Introduction

The dominant preliminary issue in the interpretation of 2 Thessalonians is the controversy as to whether Paul wrote this letter or not. The answer greatly affects how the letter is to be understood. It should be noted at once that there is virtually no support for reversing the traditional order of 1 and 2 Thessalonians (for reasons well explained by Jewett (1986: 24–30); contra Trudinger (1995 ), revisiting the views of J. Weiss and T. W. Manson). Doubts as to the authenticity of 2 Thessalonians are stimulated primarily by its close literary relationship to 1 Thessalonians. Many critics, but especially William Wrede (1903 ), have noted that the topics in the two letters are covered in the same sequence and the themes of the first letter are reflected with minor variations in the second, even if there are few examples with exactly the same wording. Thus, the renewed thanksgiving of 1 Thess 2:12 is repeated at 2 Thess 2:12 , prayers in the optative mood introduced by ‘the Lord (God) himself’ appear at similar points (cf. 1 Thess 3:11–13 and 5:23 with 2 Thess 2:16–17 and 3:16 ), and there are many verbal parallels (see Menken 1994: 36–9 for the comparative data and Best 1972: 50–1). Only 2 Thess 2:1–12 has no parallel in 1 Thessalonians. On the other hand, both letters are very different in these respects from the other Pauline letters. These literary similarities occur in spite of some major differences in the contents of the two letters, especially in relation to views on the parousia (with 1 Thessalonians saying that Christ is expected to come soon and suddenly while 2 Thessalonians argues that his coming will be preceded by other events) and the lack of personal details about Paul and the Thessalonians of the type found in 1 Thess 2:1–12; 13–16; and 3:1–13 . The tone of 2 Thessalonians is also generally agreed to be rather cold in comparison with that of 1 Thessalonians.

Many critics consider that the best explanation for such features is that 2 Thessalonians is an imitation of the other letter written later to Thessalonica or to some other community of Christ-followers which draws upon the earlier letter to enhance its authority. While those who consider 2 Thessalonians inauthentic usually seek to reconstruct a situation which would render its creation plausible, given our incomplete knowledge of the Christ-movement in the first century their failure to come up with a convincing particular audience and setting does not, as sometimes suggested (Jewett 1986: 3–18; Barclay 1993: 526), itself invalidate their arguments, although it will mean they are less than compelling. Supporters of authenticity, on the other hand, need to explain what had happened that induced Paul to write a second letter to Thessalonica using language and structure so similar to that in 1 Thessalonians; and to the present writer the difficulties with this hypothesis are greater than those raised by the view that the letter is not by Paul (see Bailey 1978–9). As Menken (1994: 27–43) argues, while no one argument is capable of sustaining a case for inauthenticity, overall this seems the preferable solution, in spite of very respectable views to the contrary. Possible explanations for 2 Thessalonians on either hypothesis will now be addressed. Particular issues relating to this debate will come up in the comments below.

Best ( 1972: 59) suggests that 2 Thessalonians was written by Paul from Corinth shortly after 1 Thessalonians ‘to meet a new situation in respect of eschatology and a deteriorating situation in respect of idleness’, although he notes that ‘we do not know from where Paul received his information’. He proposes that Paul probably wrote with much of 1 Thessalonians in his memory rather than that he worked from a copy of 1 Thessalonians.

Jewett (1986: 176–8, 191–2) has a much more particular explanation. It is that ‘for some reason’ Paul's first letter, impacting on a community alive with millenarian excitement, actually provoked the radical members at Thessalonica, who misunderstood Paul to such an extent as to conclude that the day of the Lord had arrived and to behave in accordance with this belief (e.g. by curtailing certain everyday activities such as work). Paul responds by writing 2 Thessalonians, a refutation of this false doctrine written in a very different tone.

Barclay (1993 ) has proposed an interesting new answer to the relationship between the eschatologies in 1 and 2 Thessalonians which offers a more specific explanation for how the Thessalonians misunderstood Paul's first letter. After noting Wrede's (1903: 526) difficulty in suggesting a convincing setting for the letter, Barclay argues that the references to fierce persecution ( 1:4–9 ), the problem of people not working ( 3:6–13 ), and the claim by some that the day of the Lord is here ( 2:2 ) suggest a specific situation. Having examined and rejected existing answers as to what ‘the day of the Lord’ means at 2 Thess 2:2 (see commentary), he proposes a new alternative, namely, that in 1 Thessalonians it is possible to draw a distinction which Paul did not himself draw between parousia ( 4:13–18 ) and the day of the Lord ( 5:1–11 ) and the latter is associated with the sudden destruction of unbelievers. So, maybe some Christians in Thessalonica reacted to a local (or perhaps widespread) disaster by claiming that it manifested the wrath of God, thereby creating turmoil and encouraging some to give up their jobs and and continue urgent, full-time evangelism. Thus Paul is compelled to write another letter perhaps only a matter of weeks after the first wherein the friendly encouragement gives way to a more frigid and authoritarian tone.

A major question hanging over proposals like those of Jewett and Barclay is that if Paul's first letter had been misunderstood why would he not try to persuade them with a completely new approach, rather than risking a letter which stylistically aped the earlier one, and also strongly protest about their egregious misinterpretation of the earlier letter. 2 Thess 2:2 certainly does not fulfil the latter function, in contrast with 1 Cor 5:9–13 , which clearly indicates how Paul went about correcting a misimpression drawn from an earlier letter.

Proponents of the inauthenticity of 2 Thessalonians have come up with a variety of dates and situations for the letter. Wrede himself dated it to about 100 CE and suggested it was written not for Thessalonica (for Thessalonians would ask where it had lain all these years) but for another church which knew of the existence of other Thessalonian correspondence. Masson (1957 ) proposed that it was written about 100 CE to counter the belief that the day of the Lord had come. On the other hand, Marxsen (1968: 37–44; 1982 ) favoured an earlier date, around 70 CE, arguing that the letter was intended to counter Gnostics, especially their (false) claim that the day of the Lord had come. If Paul's letters had been collected, as generally supposed, by about 100 CE, an earlier date for the composition of 2 Thessalonians would be preferable (see 2 THESS 3:17 ).

2 Thessalonians has been understood as a response to millennialism in a Mediterranean context. The three substantive issues of local context recognized in the letter are the existence of some form of oppression being suffered by the addressees ( 1:4–6 ), the disturbance caused by the message that ‘the day of the Lord has come’ ( 2:1–12 ), and the disorderly conduct of certain Christ-followers who are refusing to work for a living. On the (preferable) assumption that these issues derive from an actual situation somewhere in the ancient Mediterranean world, and do not just comprise a national setting aimed at allowing someone to draft a letter in Pauline style, we are faced with what modern social scientists refer to as an outbreak of millennialism. Across the world, we know of many instances of groups, generally (although not always) suffering from some form of oppression or disturbance of traditional social patterns, who generate or revive narratives of a coming transformation of the world which will radically restore them to their proper place and, often, destroy those who oppress them (Duling 1996; Esler 1993; 1994: 93–109). Examples, discussed elsewhere (Esler 1993: 187–8; 1994: 101–4), include the ghost dance among North American Indians in the late nineteenth century and the cargo cults of twentieth-century Melanesia. Jewett (1986: 161–78) has usefully applied millenarian ideas to 2 Thessalonians, although his treatment is affected by his view that the letter is authentic. The view adopted here is that millennailism provides the best framework for contextualizing the letter in a general way, even though we cannot be sure for which troubled community of first-century Christ-followers it was written. Although biblical critics generally use the now rather tired and overworked word ‘eschatological’, which derives from a theological agenda, to refer to end-time speculation in such texts as Dan 7–12 and 1 Enoch, the framework of ‘millennialism’ allows a fresh set of questions originating in real social experience to be posed to texts such as 2 Thessalonians. Attempts, such as that of Menken (1994 ), to discuss this dimension to 2 Thessalonians almost solely in relation to (the undoubtedly important) framework of end-time speculation in Israelite biblical and extra-biblical literature, have an unnecessarily limited focus.

It is always worth remembering that the social context of the ancient Mediterranean world in which this example of millennialism occurred was radically different from modern, individualistic cultures of Europe and North America. The ancient Mediterranean world was one where, at an appropriate level of abstraction and without in any way denying local variations, people found meaning by belonging to groups (especially the family), honour was the principal social value, all goods (material and immaterial) were regarded as existing in finite quantities, and relationships between patrons and clients (sometimes mediated by other individuals referred to as ‘brokers’; see Moxnes 1991 ) were common as a way of dealing with access to limited material and social goods. These are the most important of an ensemble of cultural features originally identified and applied to the NT by Bruce Malina in 1981 (now see Malina 1993 ).

The fact that Paul probably did not write 2 Thessalonians does not entail taking a condemnatory attitude to whoever—pseudonymously—claimed he had. Pseudonymity is a common feature in the Bible (Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Isa 40–55 and 55–66 ), let alone in the profuse writings of the Pseudepigrapha themselves (see Bailey 1978–9:143–5). Meade (1986 ) has plausibly argued that the phenomenon occurred when it was felt necessary to make traditions capable of application to new situations, so that it becomes an assertion of authoritative tradition, not literary origin. The closeness of the style of this pseudepigraphic document to 1 Thessalonians is perhaps explicable out of the high respect in which its author held Paul. It is reasonable, therefore, that some time in the first century, probably after Paul's death in Rome in the later 60s, someone faced with a situation having the three broad features mentioned above sought faithfully to reinterpret Pauline tradition in a way which would benefit those addressed. The (non-Pauline) authors of Ephesians, Titus, and 1 and 2 Timothy adopted the same strategy, although faced with very different situations.

In what follows I will refer to the author of this letter as ‘Paul’ (with inverted commas) or ‘the author’ because of the view taken here that the historical Paul was not its author.

  • Previous Result
  • Results
  • Look It Up Highlight any word or phrase, then click the button to begin a new search.
  • Highlight On / Off
  • Next Result
Oxford University Press

© 2019. All Rights Reserved. Cookie Policy | Privacy Policy | Legal Notice