Synoptic 1 Thessalonians & 2 Thessalonians

Synoptic 1 Thessalonians & 2 Thessalonians



There are at least four points of identical wording between the two letters addressed to the Thessalonians.

1 Thess 1.1
Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, to the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace.

2 Thess 1.1–2
Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, to the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father of us and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace

Παῦλος καὶ Σιλουανὸς καὶ Τιμόθεος τῇ ἐκκλησίᾳ Θεσσαλονικέων ἐν θεῷ πατρὶ καὶ κυρίῳ Ἰησοῦ Χριστῷ, χάρις ὑμῖν καὶ εἰρήνη.

Παῦλος καὶ Σιλουανὸς καὶ Τιμόθεος τῇ ἐκκλησίᾳ Θεσσαλονικέων ἐν θεῷ πατρὶ ἡμῶν καὶ κυρίῳ Ἰησοῦ Χριστῷ, χάρις ὑμῖν καὶ εἰρήνη

A verbatim nineteen-word string, plus one word.

1 Thess 1.2
We give thanks to God always for all you

2 Thess 1.3
We must give thanks to God always for you

Εὐχαριστοῦμεν τῷ θεῷ πάντοτε περὶ πάντων ὑμῶν

Εὐχαριστεῖν ὀφείλομεν τῷ θεῷ πάντοτε περὶ ὑμῶν

A close six-word string, with small changes for context.

1 Thess 2.9
our toil and labour; we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you

2 Thess 3.8
but with toil and labour we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you

τὸν κόπον ἡμῶν καὶ τὸν μόχθον νυκτὸς καὶ ἡμέρας ἐργαζόμενοι πρὸς τὸ μὴ ἐπιβαρῆσαί τινα ὑμῶν

ἀλλ’ ἐν κόπ καὶ μόχθ νυκτὸς καὶ ἡμέρας ἐργαζόμενοι πρὸς τὸ μὴ ἐπιβαρῆσαί τινα ὑμῶν

A verbatim ten-word string, with another three nearly identical words.

1 Thess 2.13
also we give thanks to God constantly

2 Thess 2.13
we however must give thanks to God always

καὶ ἡμεῖς εὐχαριστοῦμεν τῷ θεῷ ἀδιαλείπτως

ἡμεῖς δὲ ὀφείλομεν εὐχαριστεῖν τῷ θεῷ πάντοτε

A verbatim three-word string, with identical context and close synonyms.

These similar passages are too extensive to be accidental, and they do not come from recurring formulas. One text is directly dependent on the other. The double-thanksgivings in both letters is noteworthy in its own regard, as there is the strong possibility 1 Thess 2.13–16 is reflecting on 70 CE as a past event. This would make the second thanksgiving in 1 Thess a pseudo-Pauline interpolation, occasioned by revent events. Since the second thanksgiving in 2 Thess is built into the flow of the letter, it is far more likely 2 Thess is dependent on 1 Thess.

Differences in Style

In his letters addressed to churches (Rom, 1 Cor, 2 Cor, Gal, Php), Paul uses the word ‘Lord’ significantly less often than he uses the word ‘God’. Across the five letters, the word ‘God’ makes up an average of 1.2% of each letter’s word count, while the word ‘Lord’ makes up an average of just 0.5% of the word count. Proportionate to each other in these five letters, on average, ‘Lord’ is used only 39% as often as ‘God’.

First Thess is roughly proportionate to these averages. Both ‘God’ and ‘Lord’ make up an above-average amount of the word count (2.0% and 1.3% respectively), but their proportions to each other, where ‘Lord’ is used only 63% as often as ‘God’, are very similar to 1 Cor (64%) and so within the range of what we would expect from one of Paul’s letters to a church community.

The word count of 2 Thess is roughly 55% that of 1 Thess, but the word ‘Lord’ is used nearly as often (24 times in 1 Thess, 22 in 2 Thess), while the word ‘God’ is used much less often (38 times in 1 Thess, 17 in 2 Thess). ‘God’ is used only 77% as often as ‘Lord’ in 2 Thess. Although ‘God’ makes up 1.6% of the word count in 2 Thess (comparable to Rom), the word ‘Lord’ makes up 2.2% of the word count in 2 Thess, an increase of 440% from the average of the initial five undisputed letters addressed to churches.

This is a significant reversal of proportions. The only comparison to be made is Philemon, a very brief letter (430 words) addressed to an individual person, which uses ‘God’ just 2 times and ‘Lord’ 5 times. Though this proportion appears similar to 2 Thess, ‘Lord’ is used only half as often in Philemon as it is in 2 Thess (1.1% of the word count versus 2.2%). Even with Philemon accounted for as an outlier of Paul’s undisputed letters, 2 Thessalonians sits far outside Paul’s norm in how it uses ‘God’ and ‘Lord’.

Second Thess is also allegedly more ‘impersonal’ than 1 Thess. Relative to word count, 2 Thess uses first person plurals and singulars (both verbs and pronouns) proportional to 1 Thess (95 plurals and 4 singulars in 1 Thess, 43 plurals and 2 singulars in 2 Thess). To me, this is not indicative of authorship either way.

The main distinction that may indicate a more ‘impersonal’ style is that 1 Thess uses the verb ‘command’ just once, while 2 Thess uses the same verb four times. There is also a curious tension between 2 Thess 1.3–4 and 2.1–12, where the former statement applauds the Thessalonikans for faith, love, and endurance of persecution, while the latter criticizes the Thessalonikans for wavering and forgetting what was taught to them in-person (contrary to Paul indicating in 1 Thess that he only briefly visited them in-person once, and seems to have only taught them a barebones eschatology).

Eschatology Delayed

Scholars who see 2 Thess as pseudepigraphical often claim that it conveys an eschatology contrary to 1 Thess.

Second Thess claims that the Thessalonikans are fully aware—‘you know’—that a series of prerequisites must happen before the eschaton can begin. There must be a ‘rebellion’, the exaltation of a ‘lawless one’, a desecration of ‘the temple of God’, various satanic miracles, and finally the parousia of Jesus. The author criticizes the Thessalonikans, ‘Do you not remember that I told you these things when I was with you?’

First Thess was written in response to a letter Paul received from the Thessalonikan church: some of their comrades have since died, so did they miss out on the new creation? Paul must reply to teach his despairing students a point of theology he apparently failed to explain when he only briefly visited with them in-person: those dead companions have not missed out, because in fact Jesus will raise them back to life at the time of his parousia.

A historical reconstruction may go as follows: Paul arrived in Thessalonika and proclaimed the gospel. Some locals came to believe, so Paul laid out for them a scant framework of his theology—including the return of Jesus and a new creation—before leaving for another city. Soon after, some of their number died. They wrote a letter to Paul, worrying that their dead friends would never see the new world. The very premise of the 1 Thess correspondence is that, based on what Paul taught them, the Thessalonikans expected the end would occur in the immediate future, without warning, but these recent deaths threw a wrench in their faith. Paul’s response in 1 Thess was not to tell them they had misunderstood when the eschaton would occur; he doesn’t suggest it was later than they expected. Rather, he reiterates his belief that he and some of them (‘we’) would still be alive when Jesus returned, but that the dead would be rewarded before the living.

If the Thessalonikans were already informed in-person by Paul that the eschaton had a list of prerequisites, potentially delaying the eschaton by years, decades, or longer, why would the people have been so distressed by any of their members dying? They would have expected this to be a possibility because—as 2 Thess claims—Paul already taught them a rather elaborate eschatology. The intention of 2 Thess was to temper apocalyptic expectations, to dial back the notion that the parousia would happen ‘like a thief in the night’ in the near future.

Aside from the author of 2 Thess actively attempting to dissuade his readers from trusting at least some other letters claiming to be from Paul (2.1–2; 2.15; 3.17), the eschatological contradiction between 2 Thess and Paul’s undisputed letters is most clear in the use of a specific verb.

2 Thess 2.1–2
As to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we beg you, brothers and sisters, not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by spirit or by word or by letter, as though from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord is ἐνέστηκεν.

1 Cor 7.26, 29, 31
I think that, in view of the ἐνεστῶσαν crisis, it is well for you to remain as you are. … I mean, brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short … and let those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.

The verb ἐνίστημι means ‘to be at hand’, but its tense ενεστηκεν brings this imminent event into the ‘present’ time. In his undisputed letters, Paul repeatedly insists the eschaton is imminent, and the passage with the most similar usage of ἐνίστημι is a paragraph (1 Cor 7.26–31) where Paul relays his urgency three separate times (‘the impending crisis’; ‘the appointed time has grown short’; ‘the present form of this world is passing away’). First Cor 7.26 uses ἐνίστημι in the form ἐνεστῶσαν, giving it the meaning of ‘present’. Paul is not calling the crisis merely ‘impending’, but ‘present’; it is not coming over the horizon, it has arrived.

Second Thess 2.2 denies what Paul himself insists in his undisputed letters, that the end times were already underway. It is possible 2 Thess is a pseudepigraphical text attempting ‘damage control’ over a delayed eschaton.