Friday, April 29, 2011

The Books of 1 & 2 Thessalonians, according to Bart Ehrman

While Ehrman acknowledges that Paul was the author of 1 Thessalonians, he claims that the second letter is a later forgery. Why?

• Paul himself thought the end was coming in his lifetime. Nowhere is this more clear than in one of the letters we are sure he wrote, 1 Thessalonians…”the dead in Christ will rise first; then WE who are alive, who remain, will be caught up together with them to meet the Lord in the air” (4:17)
. (106)

Ehrman insists that Paul claimed that he would be among “we who are alive.” He then correctly points out that the author of 2 Thessalonians “argues that the end is not, in fact, coming right away” (107). Does this reflect a contradiction in eschatology reflecting different authors?

There is no reason to believe that the “we who are alive” proves that Paul thought he’d be alive at Christ’s return. Instead, it can be interpreted as “we [Christians] who are alive,” possibly excluding himself. The following two verses would support this conclusion:

• Now, brothers, about times and dates we do not need to write to you, for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. (1 Thes. 5:1-2)

Here, Paul confesses that he can’t provide any dates. If this is the case, then Paul wouldn’t have been able to claim that he’d be alive at Christ’s return. Therefore, the “contradiction” disappears along with Ehrman’s case that 2 Thessalonians had to have been written by another. He then offers another “argument” against a Pauline 2 Thessalonians:

• At the end of the letter, the author insists that he is Paul and gives a kind of proof: “I Paul write this greeting with my own hand. This is the mark in every letter of mine; it is the way I write” (3:17). This means that “Paul” had been dictating his letter to a scribe who had written it down, until the end, when Paul signed off with his own hand. Readers of the letter could see the change of handwriting and recognize Paul’s, authenticating this letter as really his…What is peculiar is that the author claims that this is his invariant practice. But it is not how most of the undisputed letters of Paul end.

Even if Ehrman is correct that this is not “how most of the undisputed letters of Paul end,” it’s irrelevant to the question of the authorship of 2 Thessalonians. Besides, Ehrman has no way of knowing whether the original Pauline letters didn’t contain his signature. We do not have the originals and it is almost certain that when they were copied and distributed, no one would have tried to copy/forge Paul’s signature. This would have undermined Paul’s very rationale for signing his name – to prove that these letters were genuine! If the church could have forged his signature, then the signature wouldn’t have meant much in terms of evidence. If the church could forge, why not also a forger? Therefore, if the church tried to copy Paul’s signature, it would have been counterproductive.

If anything, “Paul’s” signature would present an additional problem for a would-be forger. There might have been people still alive who could identify Paul’s signature, thereby exposing the forgery. Besides, the forger would have no way of knowing whether or not some of Paul’s originals containing his signature still remained, which could also have been used to disqualify the forgery. Nor would this much-later-on would-be forger have any idea what Paul’s signature even looked like if the elders of the church also didn’t know.

Ehrman fails to mention the fact that 2 Thessalonians received early 2nd century attestation from Ignatius (110 AD), Polycarp (110-150 AD) and Justin Martyr (150 AD). It was also named as authentic by Irenaeus, Cyril, Eusebius, Jerome, and Augustine and cited by Clement, Tertullian, and Origen. As with the other 12 Pauline letters, the early church never raised a hint of controversy regarding the Pauline authorship of 2 Thessalonians. We are left to wonder why Ehrman does.

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