by Neil Godfrey
This post continues directly on from Ehrman Hides the Facts About Doherty’s Argument, Part 1. Here I show that Ehrman has suppressed the facts about what his own peers think in order to falsely accuse Doherty of arguing without scholarly merit.
First, the passage in question, 1 Thessalonians 2:13-16
13 For this reason we also thank God without ceasing, because when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you welcomed it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God, which also effectively works in you who believe.
14 For you, brethren, became imitators of the churches of God which are in Judea in Christ Jesus. For you also suffered the same things from your own countrymen, just as they did from the Judeans,
15 who killed both the Lord Jesus and their own prophets, and have persecuted us; and they do not please God and are contrary to all men,
16 forbidding us to speak to the Gentiles that they may be saved, so as always to fill up the measure of their sins; but wrath has come upon them to the uttermost. [NKJV]
Ehrman’s argument: “simply not true”
I concluded my last post with this paragraph:
But it gets worse. For Ehrman to sustain his accusation that mythicists such as Doherty and Wells are “driven by convenience” and “simply claim” these verses to be un-Pauline, he must hide from his readership what his own scholarly peers do in fact say about the authenticity of these same verses. He will therefore inform the readers only of his own idiosyncratic (I would be surprised if his argument as presented in Did Jesus Exist? has ever passed peer-review) reasons for believing the passages to be authentic.
Ehrman begins his case against interpolation by singling out the last words of verse 16:
It is this last sentence [i.e. "wrath has come upon them to the uttermost"] that has caused interpreters problems. What could Paul mean that the wrath of God has finally come upon the Jews (or Judeans)? That would seem to make sense if Paul were writing in the years after the destruction of the city of Jerusalem at the hands of the Romans, that is, after 70 CE. But it seems to make less sense when this letter was actually written, around 49 CE. For that reason a number of scholars have argued that this entire passage has been inserted into 1 Thessalonians and that Paul therefore did not write it. In this view some Christian scribe, copying the letter after the destruction of Jerusalem, added it. (my emphasis)
But Ehrman is sweeping the scholarly discussion under the carpet when he indicates to his readers that it is only “this last sentence” that has “caused interpreters problems”. That is, again to use Ehrman’s own words, “simply not true.”
(Note also that Ehrman will say Doherty “simply claims” for his own “convenience” that the verses are an interpolation, but that professional scholars who claim they are interpolations do so because of a certain “reason”. Ehrman’s hostile prejudice is showing here, especially when (as quoted in the previous post) Doherty cites those same “reasons” and appears to add another one himself. After reading and following up the links and articles in the following discussion perhaps some readers will conclude that it is Bart Ehrman who “simply claims” things that are simply not true “for his own convenience”.)
Doherty named modern scholars who believe the verses are an interpolation. But their arguments in one form or another go right back to the early nineteenth century and Ferdinand Christian Baur. Other nineteenth and early twentieth century scholars concurred: Albrecht Ritschl, Paul Wilhelm Schmiedel, James Moffat, John Bailey, H. J. Holtzmann, S. G. F. Brandon.
In the early twentieth century many scholars began to scoff at theories of interpolation in Paul’s letters and insisted that interpolation should only be considered as a last resort. This did not stop Karl Gottfried Eckart arguing the point in 1961. But it was a publication in The Harvard Theological Review in 1971 that has fanned the doubts more widely since. In this article Birger A. Pearson expressed agreement that one should only consider interpolation “as a last resort”, but that in the case of 1 Thessalonians 2
the historical and theological difficulties . . . are such that one must begin again to entertain such a hypothesis.
His arguments have been challenged, of course, but as we saw in the previous post, a significant number of scholars today have returned to the belief that this passage is problematic enough to justify treating it as un-Pauline. To that list William O. Walker (Interpolations in the Pauline Letters) would add Robert Jewett, John C. Hurd and Hendrikus Boers. We can also add our beloved Richard Carrier to this list: see his blog post, Pauline Interpolations.
Here are the reasons Birger Pearson’s argues the passage is an interpolation:
- The passage begins a second “thanksgiving section” in the letter — something that appears to be an anomaly in Paul’s letters
- This same passage begins with a repetition of the same words and phrases (or identical ones) as had been already written in 1:13ff.
- The passage intrudes into a ‘travelogue’ or ‘apostolic parousia’ section, something used by Paul to declare his travel plans and desire to be with the congregation, etc. — Paul nowhere else breaks up a ‘travelogue’ section
- The passage urges one church to follow another church as an example — while elsewhere (including in chapter one of this same letter) Paul commands his churches to follow him, or praises them for doing so, as he follows Christ
- This passage points to a period of persecution of Christians in Judea between 44 and 66 (when the Jewish War against Rome began) CE — there is no other evidence for such persecution
- The description of Jews as “hostile to all men” is found elsewhere among secular anti-semitic literature of the time — it contradicts Paul’s favourable views of Jews in other letters, not forgetting his own pride in being a Jew and his accomplishments in Judaism in the past
- This passage blames the Jews for the murder of Christ — Paul never blames them in other letters, but does accuse “the rulers of this age”, a phrase that is found in other literature to refer to archons or angels and demons. Pearson adds that even if one wanted to interpret this phrase as a reference to human agencies then we must conclude Paul is here blaming the Roman authorities, not the Jews, for the murder of Christ.
- The passage says that the Jews have filled up their sin quota, meaning that there is no longer any way for them to avoid condign punishment from God — something alien to Paul’s thought elsewhere about the Jews, and to the fact that Paul could boast about being a Jew himself
- The phrase for “to the utmost” means that the Jews have at last, finally, in the past, received their ultimate punishment without any more hope, and many commentators say that this could only refer to the event of the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE — while in Romans 11 Paul speaks of ongoing and future hope and promise of salvation for the Jews.
There are additional points. Among them are the syntactical arguments of Schmidt (1983: JBL). Daryl Schmidt went beyond the old method of using statistical frequencies of certain words and phrases to detect interpolation on the grounds that in this case the passage is too small for this sort of analysis to produce decisive results. Advances in linguistic studies now enable us to study “‘the syntactical pattern’ of a text or of an author’s style.”
Schmidt’s approach was accordingly to study the style and grammar of the passage within the context of the letter, focusing on the section from 1 Thess 1:2 to 3:10 (i.e. the pre-exhortation section of the letter between the opening greeting and the concluding benediction). His analysis concludes that interpolation is the best explanation for 2:13-16 because this passage:
- contains content that does not fit well in 1 Thessalonians
- has content that does not fit well into Pauline thought in general
- intrudes into the overall structure of the letter
- is built around an un-Pauline conflation of Paul’s genuine expressions
All of this would seem to be a formidable set of reasons for thinking the passage to be a forgery inserted into the letter by a copyist. These are the points debated in the scholarly literature. Jon A. Weatherly (“The Authenticity of 1 Thessalonians 2:13-16: Additional Evidence,” JSNT 42 (1991): 91-98) and J. W. Simpson (“The Problem Posed by 1 Thessalonians 2:15-16 and a Solution,” Horizons in Biblical Theology 12 (1990); 52-54) have led some of the counter-argument.
The virtue of the interpolation view, as it has been developed by Pearson and Schmidt, is, as we shall see, that it seeks to solve the broadest range of problems, that is, that it draws out in a valuable way the evidence which any view of 1 Thess 2:15f. must take into account.
Ehrman is not doing his lay readership any favours by leading them to think that the question is about nothing more than whether or not the last sentence is a reference to the destruction of Jerusalem after Paul’s death.
Weatherly himself conceded of the interpolation arguments are certainly respectable:
“are true as far as they go”
“is also correct as far as it goes”
“once more we must agree with Schmidt’s description of the data as far as it goes”
“though [Schmidt's] hypothesis would account for the phrase, it is not the only one that will do so”
Weatherly says that Paul himself could have deliberately combined some of his expressions he could use in other letters and conflated them himself to have written in an “exceptional” and “uncharacteristic” (out-of-character) way for a special context (pp. 96-97). I like that. counter-argument against interpolation. The author deliberately decided to write in an uncharaceristic style!
The reason I quote these leading opponents of the interpolation theory is to show that even they acknowledge that their own arguments against interpolation are far from being conclusive. Simpson writes of his own case:
This is not to say that any of these arguments do not point to real problems in regard to 1Thess 2:13-16, only that the interpolation view is not the best solution. (p.62)
After weighing the various arguments pro and con William O. Walker concludes of this passage:
On the basis primarily of contextual (including form-critical), linguistic, and ideational considerations, a strong case has been made for viewing 1 Thess. 2.13-16 as a non-Pauline interpolation. Moreover, the case has been buttressed by comparative, situational and motivational considerations. (p. 220, Interpolations.)
Back to Ehrman
I myself do not agree with this interpretation, for a number of reasons. To begin with, if the only part of the passage that seems truly odd on the pen of Paul is the last sentence, then it would make better sense simply to say that it is this sentence that was added by the hypothetical Christian scribe. There is no reason to doubt the entire passage, just the last few words. (my emphasis)
Ehrman, who has done so much to popularize scholarly arguments, is here saying that “there is no reason to doubt the entire passage” despite the fact that between 1971 and 2001 leading journals, The Harvard Theological Review, The Journal of Biblical Literature, The Journal for the Study of the New Testament, as well as a book published by the Sheffield Academic Press, have all published many reasons to doubt much more than just the last sentence.
Yet Ehrman wants his readers to think that Doherty is the one who has failed to engage with the scholarship.
If it’s not in the late manuscripts. . .
From this point on Ehrman starts to hop on one leg. He writes as if there are no contrary arguments that need addressing and all he has to do is pontificate his own opinion to his lay audience:
But I do not doubt even these. For one thing, what is the hard evidence that the words were not in the letter of 1 Thessalonians as Paul wrote it? There is none. We do not of course have the original of l Thessalonians; we have only later copies made by scribes. But in not a single one of these manuscripts is the line (let alone the paragraph) missing. Every surviving manuscript includes it. If the passage was added sometime after the fall of Jerusalem, say, near the end of the first Christian century or even in the second, when Christians started blaming the fall of Jerusalem on the fact that the Jews had killed Jesus, why is it that none of the manuscripts of l Thessalonians that were copied before the insertion was made left any trace on the manuscript record? Why were the older copies not copied at all? I think there needs to be better evidence of a scribal insertion before we are certain that it happened. And recall, we are not talking about the entire paragraph but only the last line.
Given that our earliest manuscript evidence does not appear until the third century (as Ehrman surely read by way of reminder in Doherty’s own book) it is entirely irrelevant for hypotheses that are addressing texts dated to the first and early second century. Robert M. Price summed up in a review of Walker’s work:
[Walker] shows how the uniformity of textual witnesses amounts to exactly nothing in view of the fact that we possess no copies dating from the relevant time frame (as well as raising the possibility that we lack such materials precisely because, as Caliph Uthman was said to have done with the Koran, earlier texts were destroyed so as not to undermine the authority of the official textus receptus).
Even J. W. Simpson, quoted above as an opponent of the interpolation theory, does not accept the relevance of the manuscript evidence in this instance:
An argument against interpolation must meet the arguments for interpolation head-on; we cannot begin an argument against interpolation simply by noting lack of textual evidence, . . . (Simpson p.43)
Walker reminds us that we must keep in mind that the literary culture of the day was rife with interpolations in all literature of interest. This is his compilation of ancient works that have clearly suffered interpolations despite in many cases lacking manuscript evidence to support this fact:
- Homer’s Iliad
- Homer’s Odyssey
- Letters of Plato
- Letters of Aristotle
- Letters of Epicurus
- Letters of Seneca
- The Testimonium Flavianum or at least part thereof;
- The Sibylline Oracles,
- The Synagogal Prayers and such literature
- The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs,
- The Martyrdom and Ascension of Isaiah
- 4 Ezra.
- The LXX
- Dionysius, Bishop of Corinth, claimed “heretics” had both added to and deleted from his letters.
- Irenaeus feared his writings would be interpolated.
- “Many Greek patristic writings” according to Rufinius
- Letters of Paul and gospel of Luke according to Marcion
- Pentateuch and gospels were likely built up layer by layer
- Epistles of Ignatius
- The adulterous woman episode in gospel of John
- The longer ending of Mark
- Perhaps final chapter of John
- The Western text of the Gospels and Acts
- And even the Western “non-interpolations”
We know from the above cases that the manuscript evidence is clearly often not critical at all! One might be excused for thinking that if we have such an abundance of evidence for a “culture of interpolations” that we may be being too cautious with our conservative reluctance to suspect interpolations in Paul’s letters.
Yet Ehrman will have his readers believe that we have sufficient grounds to deny interpolation simply because none of our earliest third century manuscripts provides material evidence for it.
(Even Dr McGrath who attempted to make the same sort of attack on Doherty quickly backtracked on his original assertion that it is invalid to argue for interpolations if manuscript evidence for them is lacking.)
Arguing to the utmost
The other point to stress is that Paul did think the wrath of God was already manifesting itself in this world. A key passage is Romans 1:18-32, where Paul states unequivocally, “For the wrath of God is being revealed from heaven on all human ungodliness and unrighteousness, among those who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.” When Paul says that God’s wrath is “being revealed,” he does not simply mean that it is there to be seen in some ethereal way. He means it is being manifested, powerfully made present. God’s wrath is even now being directed against all godless and unrighteous behavior. In this passage in Romans Paul is talking about God’s wrath now being directed against pagans who refuse to acknowledge him here at the end of time before Jesus returns from heaven. It would not be at all strange to think that he also thought that God’s wrath was being manifest against those Jewish people who also acted in such ungodly and unrighteous ways. And he has a full list of offenses against which God has responded.
With such a sweeping statement Ehrman can draw the curtain down upon the linguistic arguments of his peers that point out that the passage really speaks of a past, completed and final event.
This is also the argument of Eddy and Boyd (p. 213 in The Jesus Legend) but Ehrman does not acknowledge this. Yet even the “anti-interpolationist” J. W. Simpson can see that this argument does not stand:
It is accurate, therefore, to speak of God’s wrath being on “the Jews” as a part of the course of Romans 9-11. But Romans 9-11 does not end with “wrath”: there is its greatest difference from 1 Thess 2:15f. (p. 59)
What Simpson argues is that Paul eventually came to change his mind by the time he wrote 1 Thessalonians. I don’t recall at the moment what arguments Simpson uses for dating Thessalonians long after Romans, however.
Embarrassing for a scholar, Ehrman appears to be ignoring his Greek grammar here and relying entirely on the English translation. Birger Pearson pointed out long ago the the passage uses the aorist tense for say the wrath “has come” upon the Jews, indicating that the punishment has come upon them “finally, completely, utterly”:
All of these suggestions fail to do justice to the text as it stands. The aorist εφθασεν must be taken as referring to an event that is now past, and the phrase εις τελος [finally, completely, utterly] underscores the finality of the”wrath” that has occurred. It need only be inquired further what event in the first century was of such magnitude as to lend itself to such apocalyptic theologizing. The interpretation suggested by Baur and others is still valid: 1 Thessalonians 2:16c refers to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. (Pearson, pp. 82-83)
There is ample evidence that Christians post-70 interpreted the destruction of Jerusalem as a punishment inflicted by God upon the Jews for killing the Christ. Indeed, certain of the rabbis connected the destruction of the nation and the temple with the theme of the persecution of the prophets by the fathers. (p.84)
See also his point #9 above in his list of reasons for believing the passage to be an interpolation.
But the Lord’s wrath as come upon them finally (Testament of Levi 6, Lamp’s translation)
Here the parallel passage refers to the massacre of the inhabitants of Shechem (Genesis 34).
Selling his readers short
So having kept his readers ignorant of all such scholarly discussion and debate over these verses from 13 to 16, having presented his own personal view that takes none of these scholarly publications into account, Ehrman is satisfied to conclude for the benefit of his lay readership:
In short, I think that Paul originally wrote l Thessalonians 2:14-16. He certainly wrote everything up to verse 16.
Certainly? Ehrman fails his readers here.
He has suppressed the facts about what his own peers think in order to falsely accuse Doherty of arguing without scholarly merit.