You may or may not be aware that there is some disagreement among New Testament scholars about how many of the letters Paul actually wrote. The “authentic” letters, that is the letters that they are most confident in are Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians and Philemon. The rest of the letters are doubted to various degrees by certain scholars.
While I think there is good reason to accept Pauline authorship for all of the letters, I want to speak specifically to 2 Thessalonians. This letter probably has more confidence by scholars than some of the other letters, such as the pastorals.
Why do some scholars question that Paul wrote 2 Thessalonians?
It basically comes down to eschatology. Both letters have something to do with end times. In 1 Thessalonians, Paul is dealing with Christians who are anxious about the fate of those followers of Jesus who died before the second coming. Paul encourages them with teaching about the resurrection that will take place at Jesus’ return. Paul then makes this statement:
About the times and the seasons: Brothers, you do not need anything to be written to you. For you yourselves know very well that the Day of the Lord will come just like a thief in the night. (1 Thessalonians 5:1-2, HCSB)
This looks like Jesus could return at any time, completely unexpectedly and without warning.
In 2 Thessalonians, Paul is once again dealing with end times confusion. There are some that now fear they have missed the second coming. Paul corrects them by saying:
Now concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to Him: We ask you, brothers, not to be easily upset in mind or troubled, either by a spirit or by a message or by a letter as if from us, alleging that the Day of the Lord has come. Don’t let anyone deceive you in any way. For that day will not come unless the apostasy comes first and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction. He opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he sits in God’s sanctuary, publicizing that he himself is God. (2 Thessalonians 2:1-4, HCSB)
This looks like Paul is saying that Jesus will not return until the appearance of the great apostasy and the man of lawlessness. In other words, something has to happen first before Jesus returns.
This leads some critics to conclude that Paul could not have written both letters. Either Jesus returns without warning or he returns after certain events take place. You can’t have both.
I find this line of reasoning less than convincing. When Paul claims that Jesus will come like a thief in the night, he is not arguing that there are no preliminary events. At the same time, when Paul teaches that the man of lawlessness appears, he is not saying that the timing of Jesus’ arrival will be predictable. Paul’s statements in these two letters are not contradictory.
I may be accused of trying to force a harmonization, but I have one more piece of evidence. Another important passage to understand the subject of Jesus’ return is Matthew 24. In fact, Matthew records a statement very similar to what Paul says in 1 Thessalonians:
Therefore be alert, since you don’t know what day your Lord is coming. But know this: If the homeowner had known what time the thief was coming, he would have stayed alert and not let his house be broken into. (Matthew 24:42-43, HCSB)
We are being told here basically that Jesus will appear unexpectedly, as a thief in the night. However, read the rest of Matthew 24 and what do you find? We are provided with lists of events that will take place first. In the same chapter, Matthew is sharing with us this tension of Jesus appearing both suddenly and after certain events. If that is the case, why is it unacceptable that Paul could do the same thing?