An Introduction to the New Testament

By Adolf Jülicher


Chapter 1 - Section 5


§ 5. The Second Epistle to the Thessalonians

[Cf. works mentioned in preceding §; also A. Klöpperʼs ʽDer 2te Brief an die Thess.ʼ in ʽTheologische Studien und Skizzen aus Ostpreussenʼ (ii. 73-140, 1889), a clever but somewhat discursive defence of the Pauline authorship of the Epistle; and F. Spitta, ʽDer 2te Brief an die Thess.ʼ in ʽZur Geschichte u. Literatur d. Urchristentums,ʼ vol. i. pp. 109-154, 1893 (Timothy the author, or rather the re-caster, of a Jewish Apocalypse of the time of Caligula). For ii. 1-12 cf. Bousset, ʽDer Antichrist,ʼ 1895.]

1. Upon the opening address and greeting, there follows, in the rest of the first chapter, a thanksgiving for the faithfulness of the community, especially under afflictions, the recompense for which would not be wanting on the Last Day. This prepares the way for the leading passage of the Epistle (ii, 1-12), which continues and completes teaching already given by word of mouth concerning the Parusia, a subject in regard to which Paulʼs readers had been much disquieted. The Day of the Lord, Paul argues, cannot yet have appeared, for even Antichrist (so, at least, following 1. John, we are accustomed to sum up the various terms used by Paul in his description of this mysterious caricature of the returning Christ), who must first have brought the worldʼs sin to its climax, had not yet been revealed; he was still only working in secret, being restrained for the present by another power, of whom the Thessalonians knew. Next come—still with the idea of the future in view—personal wishes, hopes, and requests of the Apostle for himself and for the Thessalonians,1 followed by a few earnest warnings against restless idleness and an excitement that led to neglect of duty.2 Lastly we have the farewell greeting, specially emphasised as written by Paulʼs own hand.

2. If the Epistle is Pauline it must have been written after 1. Thessalonians, in which case the words of i. 15 may be readily taken as a reference to that Epistle; any correspondence between Paul and the community before the First Epistle, is excluded by what is told us there in vv. ii. 17-11. 6. Moreover, it should be placed very soon after the latter, probably in the same year, for the relations between writer and receivers have not substantially altered between the two dates. Paul is still accompanied by Silvanus and Timothy,3 and the complaint in iii. 2 about the ʽunreasonable and wicked menʼ reminds us forcibly of the mood in which he wrote verse ii. 15 of the First Epistle. The Apostleʼs opinion of the community, too, is very similar both in praise and blame to what it had formerly been, except that the evils created among a certain section of its members by false expectations of the future, and the general restlessness and excitability, seem to have increased, so that he desires to have disciplinary measures adopted in restraint of such dangerous elements. These erring spirits, it appears, appealed on the one hand to visions seen by them (μήτε διὰ πνεύματος) and on the other to the word and writing of Paul. This rouses him to an emphatic denial of the latter in ii. 2, while in iii. 17 he points expressly to his handwriting, in which the final greeting was always written, as the sign by which all genuine epistles from him might be recognised. From what source Paul had derived his information we are not told, and from the indefinite ʽwe hearʼ of iii. 11 it may be concluded that the bearer of it did not wish to be named; at any rate it cannot have been one of Paulʼs travelling-companions. The necessity—-on which his informant must have laid great stress—for the Apostle to assume once more a decided attitude towards these fanatics must have been the occasion for the Second Epistle.

3. The authenticity of 2. Thessalonians has, however, been disputed by the great majority of investigators, not merely of the Tübingen school, from Baur onwards. The Epistle, they argue, shows remarkably little connection with its predecessor of the same name; vv. il. 1-12 excepted, it is in fact nothing but a paraphrase of the First Epistle, with characteristic departures from the Pauline phraseology. Chap. il., again, the section peculiar to the Epistle, is full of ideas quite alien to Paul, while the warning against spurious epistles, of which there can hardly have been a thought during Paulʼs lifetime, sounds as though the later author wished to ward off such suspicions from himself. The great prominence given to Apostolic authority and power4 would also seem to point to a later time, when the Church gladly represented her laws of discipline as derived from Paul himself.

The least important of these arguments are those referring to the phraseology, for on the whole the style is so thoroughly Pauline that one might indeed admire the forger who could imitate it so ingeniously. For the rest, every Epistle contains some peculiarities; other features again we need not recognise as such: there is no necessity, for instance, to apply the title ʽLord,ʼ which Paul always reserves elsewhere for Jesus Christ, to God at any point in this Epistle, not even in iii. 8,5; and the designation of Jesus as ʽour Lordʼ5 is the term most familiar to the author. It would certainly be very suspicious if 2. Thess. designated Christ as God, a usage unknown in Paul; but if we turn to i. 12 we find that ʽour Godʼ means something quite different from ʽthe Lord Jesus Christ,ʼ although it is but one grace that both bestow. The numerous points of affinity with 1. Thess. are explained, on the one hand, by the similarity in the circumstances under which both were written, for in the interval Paul can have had very little news from the community, and that little perhaps in writing; on the other, by the fact that when certain Thessalonians justified their errors by appealing to his Epistle (and his spoken words), Paul did not carefully go through the draft of his previous Epistle, but called to mind as accurately as he could what he had already said on the subject to the community by word of mouth and by letter. He lays stress on his authority, for pedagogic reasons, as in 1. Corinthians6; on the other hand, he bestows such unlimited praise7 upon each individual in the community as no later defender of official authority would have thought of putting into the mouth of the Apostle. And if, in opposition to certain other statements of his, he declares in iii. 9 that his motive in labouring so diligently was to give the Thessalonians a good example, there is no need to point to the preceding verse, where he states as his motive ʽthat we might not be chargeable to any of you;ʼ for this shifting of his point of view for purposes of exhortation is a very common characteristic of Paul, and is in this connection specially adroit. ʽYou pious idlers,ʼ he seems to say, ʽyou appeal to me; why, then, do you entirely neglect to follow the example of unceasing toil that I have set you?ʼ Moreover if—much to Paulʼs astonishment—they had appealed to an Epistle of his, they may very well have meant 1. Thessalonians; they were pointing to vv. v. 1-11 in it8 as their justification, since they found that continual watchfulness and sobriety were not compatible with the old rules of life. Moreover, by the aid of an interpretation the like of which is still common at the present day, they managed to employ vv. 2, 3, 4, 5 in support of their thesis, ʽthe day of light is already here.ʼ

Paul, naturally, was not conscious of having written them a syllable in this sense, and so he concluded from the tidings that had just reached him from Thessalonica that a forged letter was circulating there under his name. This mistaken idea of his would be amply sufficient to explain ii. 2 as well as iii. 17. But whoever credits one of the Macedonian fanatics, not only with the unexampled audacity, but with the unexampled stupidity of composing a letter in the name of the Apostle while he still remained in the neighbourhood, has a still easier explanation of ii. 2. Only he must needs confess that the mania for forgery must have been uncommonly strong not to have been restrained by the most unpromising circumstances, nay not even by the Parusia itself.9 It cannot be disputed that Paul had by now adopted certain fixed habits in his correspondence; and we are certainly not justified in referring the words ἐν πάσῃ ἐπιστολῇ to 1. and 2. Corinthians and Galatians, which were of course not written in the year 538-54. Paul must have written countless epistles both before and after 2. Thessalonians, of which all traces have disappeared.

The chief difficulty, however, seems to me to lie in ii. 1-12, the passage which so evidently forms the kernel of the Epistle that any hypothesis which inclines to treat it, together with a few other inconvenient verses, as a later interpolation inserted into a genuine Pauline Epistle, should be avoided from the very outset. It seems a very plausible supposition, however, that a later unknown writer might have composed the Epistle, with as close a resemblance as possible to 1. Thessalonians in its minor details, simply in order to make the ideas of ii. 1-12 appear genuinely Apostolic, or even in order to substitute for the First Epistle, whose prophecies presented difficulties to a generation more reserved in their eschatological beliefs, one similar in all other respects but avoiding that danger. According to their different interpretations of this passage, 2. Thessalonians has been variously assigned by those who deny its authenticity, either to some date before 70 A.D., or to the reign of Trajan, about 110.

In the passage beginning at ii. 1 the idea that the day of the Lord had already come is contradicted, since before the coming of Christ, the falling away, the coming of the Man of Sin, must take place. This Abomination was indeed already moving through the existing world in secret, but the community knew what power it was that held him back, and until this was withdrawn, the time of the Gainsayer κατ̕ ἐξοχήν was not at hand, much less the hour for the return of Christ, which would instantly bring about the annihilation of the Lawless One.

This is a complete eschatological system, and there are some who like to call the passage a miniature Apocalypse; it does indeed remind us often enough of the Apocalypse of John, although the literary dependence of the one on the other ought never to have been asserted. And in truth Paulʼs writings nowhere else present any trace of such ideas; in 1. Thess. v. he says that the day of the Second Coming is not to be determined, but will come as ʽa thief in the night,ʼ when it is least expected; here, on the contrary, he calculates minutely what events must separate the present from the Day of the Lord. Nor can the passage be taken as a further development of the ideas set forth in 1. Thess., any more than as a foreshadowing of the eschatological views of the later Epistles, since according to ii. 5 Paul had already communicated to his readers by word of mouth all that he here announced to them. The references to contemporary history which some have thought it necessary to discern in the two chief ideas—of the Man of Sin, and of the power restraining him—in the first to Caligula, Nero, or a pseudo-Nero, to a false Messiah, or to an upholder of heretical doctrines; in the second, to Agrippa, Claudius, Vespasian or Trajan—would, if proved, scarcely admit the possibility of Pauline authorship for this apocalypse. But they are unnecessary, especially the suggested connection with Caligulaʼs impious design of desecrating the Temple: sufficient historical background is supplied by the events in the time of Antiochus Epiphanes.

My own opinion is that the undeniable difficulties which this chapter presents can, after all, be most easily solved by assuming its Pauline authorship. There is no actual contradiction between 1. Thess. iv. and v. and this Epistle; Paul may very well have given utterance to both views verbally in Thessalonica, as he himself tells us in vv. v. 2 of the First Epistle and il. 5 of the Second; and here, too, it may be observed that, as the matter contained in ii. 6-10 of the Second Epistle is partially new to his readers, so also to the image in vv. 3 and 4a few touches are now added for the first time, for the ταῦτα of verse 5 does not pretend to cover every syllable. Perhaps it covers even less in reality than in the thought of the writer. But as to the Parusia, the union of the faithful with the Lord Jesus and the terrible destruction of the rest, the teachings of the Second Epistle are exactly the same as those of the First. In 1. Thess. v. the Day of the Lord only comes ʽas a thief in the nightʼ and ʽas travail upon a woman with childʼ for those who are the children of night, and what we learn in 2. Thess. ii. 8 fol. is not in the least inconsistent with this. In 1. v. 1 Paul had imagined that there was no need that he should instruct the community as to the times and seasons of what was to come, because they knew the main point, viz. that the Lord would come bringing salvation and eternal life to all believers. In the Second Epistle he recognises that instruction of this sort was wanted after all, and the direction which it was to take was shown him by the abuses that had already arisen. It now behoved a wise pastor to insist on and occasionally to supplement the calming and sobering influences contained in the verbal discourse on the Last Things mentioned in 1. Thess. i.10. That he should have bestowed much thought on the reasons for the postponement of the Lordʼs coming is of course quite natural— it caused him partly joy and partly sorrow—but he never doubted that the Lord was at hand; and that confidence of his remains unshaken even through 2. Thessalonians.10 The question of what was yet to come to pass before the Parusia was not a fundamental part of the faith; he was here instructing the Catechumens upon it, and as it was not to them that he addressed himself in his later Epistles there was no need to touch upon the subject there.

Nor, in my opinion, is there anything inconsistent with Paulʼs ideas in the details of the ʽApocalypse.ʼ They bear a strong Jewish stamp (the word ʽfalling awayʼ is an instance of this), for of course the ʽMan of Sinʼ who carries his wickedness to the point of ʽsitting in the Temple of Godʼ was not conceived of as the representative of faithless Israel, still less as the head of backsliding Christianity, but as the personification of a godless heathendom, or more accurately, of the rulers of the world, who strive with God for the possession. of mankind. Paul had received this idea from the Rabbinical schools, and had not discarded it on his conversion, for he probably felt now, as before, that the definitive and final revelation of the Majesty of God must be preceded by the complete and seemingly final triumph of the powers of evil, these latter being personified in Antichrist as the former in the Lord Jesus after the manner of Semitic thought, influenced by the ideas of the Messiah and the Devil. Expectations of this sort had been cherished among the Jews ever since the time of the Maccabees, and since, with very natural pessimism, they had sometimes imagined themselves to have gone through the most shameful outbreaks of sin conceivable—and yet the end had not appeared—the further conception of a restraining power (κατέχον), which now also began to take personal shape, became indispensable. Whatever Paul may have thought of the existing government,11 it is quite possible that he regarded the organised strength of Rome, which still stood in some degree for order and right, as this power ʽwhich restrainethʼ; at any rate we are no longer in a position to put forward any more plausible hypothesis. It is true that the hopes of Rom. xi. 25-32 correspond ill with this picture, for there the future is painted in the opposite colours, the shining hues of peace; but 1. Thess. v. 3, 6 and 1. Cor. xv. 24—26 rank with this passage, and in vv. ii. 11 and 12 of the Second Epistle we can discern all the boldness of the author of Romans ix., who could represent the Prince of Darkness, the Antichrist, as sent to the unbelievers by God himself, in order that they might all be condemned. 2. Thess. ii. 1-12 is not a Jewish Apocalypse recast by a Christian hand and immortalised under the name of Paul, but rather we may learn from it, as from so many other passages, that Paul had brought much with him from his Jewish past, into the period of the ʽnew man,ʼ and was skilful in using it, tolerably assimilated, for the edification of Christian communities.

If the occurrences in the community presupposed by 2. Thess. are by no means extraordinary, the Epistle also corresponds perfectly with Paulʼs method of dealing with such eccentric conduct. I am also inclined to think that the writer himself hoped to witness all that he here describes. If an imitator composed this brief Epistle, in order to counteract eschatological extravagance in the Church by destroying its fundamental presuppositions, he set about his task very badly. As a matter of fact he only substitutes for one exciting theory of the last things another equally exciting.

It may be admitted that 2. Thess. is in no sense a great work. The Epistle is limited in range and proportionately poor in original thoughts: but in Paulʼs case, as in others, it was more important to find the right word at the right time than to utter sublime mysteries which did not profit those who could not understand them (see 1. Cor. xiv. 6). Assuredly, by this short letter he both gave the Thessalonians food for their imagination, and strengthened their power of comprehension.



1) ii. 13-iii. 5.

2) iii, 6-16.

3) i. 1.

4) ii. 15, iii. 4, 6 9 fol. and 14.

5) Cf. iii. 4, πεποίθαμεν ὲν κυρίῳ.

6) iv. 21 and v. 3-5.

7) i. 3 and ii. 13.

8) Cf. ii. 16.

9) . . . ʽby epistle as from us, as that the day of the Lord is now present.ʼ

10) cf. i. 5 10.

11) Rom. xiii. 1 fol.