The Pseudonymous or Genuine Pauline Authorship of 2 Thessalonians and Colossians

Scholars are divided on the authenticity or pseudonymity of 2 Thessalonians and Colossians, both letters traditionally attributed to the Apostle Paul.

2 Thessalonians 

First, the letter is close in language and structure to 1 Thessalonians, which suggests that both letters were written around the same time while the words were still fresh in the Apostle Paul’s mind or, alternately, that one served as the literary template for the other, indicating a different author (1).]

Second, significant theological differences exist between the two letters, especially concerning their eschatological views (2). The theology of 2 Thessalonians is not necessarily incompatible with the views found in the undisputed letters of Paul. Suggestive, however, is the presence of strikingly varied theological emphases in letters written to the same church at about the same time. 

For example, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 Paul encourages the community with the message of the nearness of the Lord’s return. But in 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12, Paul (or an unknown author writing in his name) argues against an imminent expectation.

1 Thessalonians anticipates the sudden arrival of the day of the Lord “like a thief in the night” with no warning signs (3). 2 Thessalonians differs in listing a series of events (signs) that will herald that day. In addition, there are differences in style (2 Thessalonians is more wooden) and tone (2 Thessalonians is more impersonal).

response against pseudonymous authorship is that the letters were penned concurrently but intended for different groups in the church, thus accounting for their different emphases and tones (4). Also suggested is that the canonical order is wrong and that 2 Thessalonians was written first. If this letter was was written first, then there is a more natural progression of circumstance, tone, and eschatology.

Although these views may have some details in their favor, several other arguments have persuaded a number of scholars of the pseudonymity of 2 Thessalonians (5). 

For instance, there is no indication that different groups are being addressed in these letters. The canonical order also appears correct as Paul’s careful rehearsal of his contact with the church in 1 Thessalonians 2:1-3:5 does not mention an earlier letter. The best explanation, many argue, is that 2 Thessalonians is pseudonymous and therefore written in Paul’s name to correct an eschatological error that had developed in that church. That noted, although the theological position of 2 Thessalonians is unusual for Paul, it is not necessary beyond his thought, especially if it was written in response to a theological crisis.

A further detail complicates the situation (6): 2 Thessalonians 2:2 warns against “a letter, as though from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord is already arrived”. If the letter is genuine, this means that early in Paul’s career, letters were being written and sent to groups in his name, but without his approval, although many scholars find this unlikely

On the other hand, if 2 Thessalonians was not written by Paul, it presents the irony of one pseudonymous letter warning against the danger of another.

In light of these factors, neither position regarding the authenticity or pseudonymity of 2 Thessalonians has acquired a general consensus.

Colossians

The pseudonymity of Colossians is arguably stronger (7).

First, the vocabulary differs somewhat from Paul’s undisputed letters (8). But, again, this could possibly be accounted for in terms of a new set of issues that Paul was confronting.

Colossians is also Pauline in its general structure and content, with greetings closely matching those of Philemon 23-24. The nature of the error that Colossians addresses (Col. 2:8, 16-23) is difficult to reconstruct with precision but it is not impossible to reconcile it with developments that were plausible in Paul’s lifetime.

The letter’s style appears unusual for Paul, with long, loose sentences and many repetitious phrases (9). Most apparent is the Greek, where 1:3-8 and 1:9-11 are single sentences. 1:12-20 is also notable in this regard.

Further, the letter’s theology is pertinent. Christ’s cosmic role and divine nature are emphasized in ways barely anticipated in the undisputed letters (1:15-20; 2:9-10; cf. 1 Cor. 8:6; Phil. 2:6 -11) (10). Colossians proclaims the present status of believers in terms usually reserved in the undisputed letters for their resurrection (2:9-14; cf. Rom. 6:5). The church is depicted as a cosmic entity (2:19; 4:15) instead of a local gathering of believers. 

Paul is described in the letter in striking ways such as the one who completes what is lacking in Christ’s affliction (1:24). Finally, the urging of wives (3:18) and slaves (3:22) to be subordinate appears to not sit well with the admonitions found in 1 Corinthians 7 and Philemon.

Although the theology between Colossians and the authentic Pauline letters differ, the question on which scholars are divided is whether or not it would have been possible, in certain circumstances, for Paul’s theology to have developed in this direction.

Neither position concerning the authenticity or lack thereof of Pauline authorship of Colossians has acquired general consensus.

References 

1. Bassler, Jouette M. 2010. “Paul and His Letters”. In Blackwell Companion to the New Testament, edited by David E. Aune, 373-398. Wiley-Blackwell. p. 388.

2. Bassler, Jouette M. 2010. Ibid. p. 388.

3. Bassler, Jouette M. 2010. Ibid. p. 388.

4. Bassler, Jouette M. 2010. Ibid. p. 389.

5. Bassler, Jouette M. 2010. Ibid. p. 389.

6. Bassler, Jouette M. 2010. Ibid. p. 389.

7. Barclay , J. M. G. 1997. Colossians and Philemon: New Testament Guides. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic.

8. Bassler, Jouette M. 2010. Ibid. p. 389.

9. Bassler, Jouette M. 2010. Ibid. p. 389.

10. Bassler, Jouette M. 2010. Ibid. p. 389.

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