Silvanus to the church of the Thessalonians: Salvaging Paul’s eschatological legacy

Paul infamously includes himself among those who would still be alive when the Lord returned from Heaven to judge the idolatrous nations and rescue his churches spread across the empire: “We who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep… Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with [the resurrected dead] in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air” (1 Thessalonians 4:15-17, cf. 1 Corinthians 15:52). Here and in many other texts we are confronted with Paul’s decidedly nearsighted eschatological expectations. The first Thessalonian epistle is a particularly acute testament to this conundrum.

Yet recognition of Paul’s apocalytpic vantage has also led some scholars to question the authorship of the other Thessalonian epistle included in the canon of Christian scripture—Second Thessalonians—a letter in which the Apostle assures his readers that the day of the Lord cannot arrive until two conditions are met: 1) a great rebellion must materialize and 2) a “man of lawlessness” must arise to violate the Jerusalem Temple (2 Thessalonians 2:3-12). Then and only then, so we are told, will God’s son come to annihilate his final earthly opponent—probably a diabolical Roman emperor.

Comparison of the two letters comes down to this: Whereas in the first Thessalonian letter the day of the Lord is said to come “like a thief in the night” so as to dispel an atmosphere of “peace and security” (1 Thessalonians 5:11-13), in the second letter the day of the Lord will be telegraphed by major imperial convulsions—signs that can be observed.

While these two competing eschatological scenarios are difficult to reconcile on their face, these inconsistencies are not wholly intolerable for a second temple Jew of an intensely messianic flavor. Signs, visions, scriptures, and historical outcomes constantly entice the apocalyptic mind to shift projections this way or that. The Apostle Paul, now anticipating the ascendency of a blasphemous pagan ruler, outlines his own “desolation of abomination” scene that will set the stage for Christ’s parousia. The many critical interpreters who have reached this traditional conclusion on the question of authorship cannot be faulted.

Paul’s death and the War with Rome

A perhaps more plausible sitz im leben for the writing of Second Thessalonians, however, might follow this line, constructed atop two present crises.

  1. Paul’s death—presumably around 63 0r 64 AD in a Neronian persecution—rattled the Thessalonian community. The anointed apostle who was supposed to greet the Lord’s day alongside the Thessalonians had perished at the hands of a vicious king. What did this mean for Paul’s claims about Christ’s resurrection and imminent return? Why had the Son of God not yet appeared?
  2. Animosity between the Jews and Nero’s empire erupted into war in the last half of the 60s. Apparent messiahs proliferated as the fate of Israel and God’s temple hung in the balance (2 Thessalonians 2:1-2, cf. Matthew 24:4-8, 23-28).

In the wake of these crises questions arose to challenge Paul’s legacy: Why did Paul make it seem that the end was so close (cf. Romans 13:11)? Why did Paul not warn his followers of these major political developments? Are the churches going to be crushed like Israel is being crushed?

With the Christian enterprise now threatened by flagging confidence in Paul’s gospel of a mighty savior, an associate of the late Apostle rises to face these challenges head-on. Taking up the signature of his teacher (cf. 2 Thessalonians 3:17), he writes the second Thessalonian letter to tie up loose ends.1 He is, no doubt, a Hellenistic Jew with great interest in the apocalyptic tradition and likely a prophet in his own right. Equipped with a copy of First Thessalonians, Solomon’s seventeenth (messianic) psalm, an oral tradition akin to the Matthean Olivet Discourse,2 and a mastery of Pauline rhetoric and style, he sets out to resolve these emergent issues.

Entrenched in Jewish apocalyptic thought, he achieves this not by pushing off the apocalypse of Christ into the indefinite future but rather by persuading his readers that the present conditions were, indeed, anticipated by Paul—being themselves signs of the closure of the age.

He explains well the situation. The great apostle to the nations was, in fact, destined to suffer death under the megalomaniac “man of lawlessness” before the day of vengeance could manifest (cf. Matthew 24:9). Likewise, a great “rebellion” of the nations against God, a great “apostasy” of the false brethren, was foreordained for these last days (cf. Jude 1:17-19, 2 Peter 2:1-3). Surely these cosmic disturbances would come to a head in Jerusalem as the prophets foretold. Surely a presumptuously-deified pagan emperor, a “man of lawlessness,” would defile God’s sanctuary as others had done before and as Daniel had seen in his vision. Then, most assuredly, David’s son would appear to obliterate this great foe—as Solomon long ago predicted.3 At last, but just in time, the kingdom of God would arrive to bring repayment and relief (2 Thessalonians 1:5-12).

Paul had been privy all of this: “Do you not remember that when I was still with you I told you these things?” (2 Thessalonians 2:5).

A plausible author

If pressed to put a name to this letter, Silvanus (Silas in Acts) seems appropriate. He is listed as the second sender along with Paul and Timothy at the letter’s salutation and was known to be a scribe of sorts (1 Peter 5:12). He was a “leader among the [Jerusalem] believers” (Acts 15:22), likely a Greek-speaking Jew (Acts 15:23-29), a prophet (Acts 15:32), a Roman citizen (Acts 16:38), and viewed as an enemy of Caesar in Thessalonika because he preached of “another king named Jesus” (Acts 17:5-9).

Having outlived his most-excellent co-worker, Silvanus would have possessed the necessary qualifications to write powerfully in the πρόσωπον of Paul so as to steer the churches through the disheartening turmoil of the late 60s and early 70s. Encouraged by the letter to maintain faith in the imminent overthrow of the pagan world order by their crucified Lord, the churches would not only survive the tragic dissolution of the Jewish nation, but also prevail through various crises of their own—eventually stealing the crown from atop the head of the man of lawlessness.

1—Catholic New Testament scholar Raymond Brown does not address 2 Thessalonians specifically in his book The Churches the Apostles Left Behind but he takes a similar approach to other New Testament works penned/ascribed pseudonymously. The Gospels of John and Matthew, the Pastoral Epistles, and the Pauline letters to Ephesus and Colossae each reconfigure apostolic teachings in a unique way so as to meet the needs of the second and third Christian generations.

2—The key features present in both the second Thessalonian letter and in Matthew’s Olivet Discourse are as follows:

  • False messiahs and false sign-prophets will deceive the faithful concerning the arrival of the Lord (Matthew 24:4-8, 23-28, 2 Thessalonians 2:1-2, 9-11).
  • Wars, rumors of wars, earthquakes, and famines will punctuate the international landscape as the world inaugurates its final rebellion (Matthew 24:6-8, 2 Thessalonians 2:3).
  • General “lawlessness” will culminate in the rise of a “lawless one” (Matthew 24:12, 2 Thessalonians 2:3-12).
  • God will take action to mitigate the tribulations of his people; either by holding back catastrophe by means of “the one who restrains [the man of lawlessness]” (i.e. Emperor Claudius, Κλαύδιος=Claudens) or by “cutting short” the days of suffering (2 Thessalonians 2:6-7, Matthew 24:21-22).
  • The Temple will be violated by pagan arrogance as the prophet Daniel proclaimed (Matthew 24:15, 2 Thessalonians 2:4).
  • Christ will appear from Heaven and send his angels to “gather” the faithful and punish evildoers with fire (Matthew 13:41-43, 24:29-31, 2 Thessalonians 1:5-12, 2:1).

Matthew, of course, knows of the Temple’s ultimate destruction (24:1-2). The scenario relating to the Temple in 2 Thessalonians 2, however, makes no mention of its demise, only its pollution. Matthew (c. 70-80)is therefore perhaps the later compilation of the two but both are deeply concerned with (and eschatologically invested in) the Jewish war with Rome (and its immediate aftermath).

3—”The lawless one laid waste to our land so that none inhabited it, they destroyed young and old and their children together… Being an alien, the enemy (ὁ ἐχθρὸς) acted proudly, and his heart was alien from our God. Whatever was done in the nations, so also was done in Jerusalem… Behold, O Lord, and raise up for them their king, the son of David… that he may purge Jerusalem from the nations that trample her down to destruction… He shall destroy the godless nations with the word of his mouth” (Psalms of Solomon 17:13-27, cf. 2 Thessalonians 2:8).

6 thoughts on “Silvanus to the church of the Thessalonians: Salvaging Paul’s eschatological legacy

  1. Possibly, and something we will never know who authored 2 Thessalonians. It is one of those books that we can see “fixing” going on made necessary by the delay of the kingdom and what became over time failed prophecies of Paul, JBap, Jesus, and the early church. Very good run down of what appears to be at work. Greatest mystery of all is why Luke left out any details whatever of the death of Paul and his demise. At Rome, he said that no one stood with him. Where is the great church? All those in Asia had “left” him.

    J Pyle

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for the article on Paul’s apocalyptic expectations and 2nd Thessalonians. I have, however, a question on one or your minor points. Why, I wonder, do historians of all stripes so casually assert that Paul (and Peter) was martyred during Nero’s brief Christian persecution in 64CE? I am unaware of any early data supporting such a claim(s). Even the author of Acts, who has every reason to give Paul a heroic sendoff, say’s nothing about the great Apostles death. As for Peter, we have no early info ever placing him in Rome at All. Would appreciate your thoughts on the topic. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m not sure. One observation I have is that maybe Paul’s death appears to be a failure of Paul’s mission in Acts (to have a positive audience with Caesar in Rome). It is for this reason he is preserved through shipwreck and trial.


  3. It seems to me the writer of Mark as well as the writer of 2 Thessalonians, envisioned God using the pagan Romans to mete out wrath on the Jews, after which he would pour out wrath on them. That being said, isn’t it possible 2 Thessalonians was written shortly before 64 AD and reflects a view that has evolved since 1 Thessalonians? Perhaps Paul can see that the Romans are going to destroy Jerusalem so he’s developing the tribulation he alludes to in Romans 2:9?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think that works. The relation to Matthew’s/Mark’s apocalyptic work is suggestive of a later date to me.

      Interestingly nothing in 2 Thessalonians is framed as judgment upon the Jew and there is no destruction of the Temple.


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