Statement of Biases
I see two major motivations at work in those who want to say this passage is an interpolation. That they are very much on opposite sides of the “spectrum” is curious.
- There are those Christians who out of moral and theological motivations want to say that this passage is an interpolation because of Paul’s seemingly anti-semitic language.
- There are those Jesus Mythicists who want to say that this is an interpolation because if this passage is authentic, it would damn their entire enterprise.
I am of course not saying that either of them are wrong because of their motivations, only that we should keep these in mind. And to be sure, there are those who fall on either side of the debate who have “no dog in the fight.”
I of course have my own biases. I am a staunch supporter of the historical Jesus and would love for this passage to be authentic. That being said, I don’t need this passage to be authentic in order to make my case. I think Paul very clearly evidences his belief in a historical Jesus on multiple occasions elsewhere.
I also believe that their are obvious interpolations elsewhere in the Scriptures and root for them to be removed from the accepted text. In other words, my theological convictions do not prevent me from accepting interpolations. In fact, I strongly want to know where interpolations in the text lie so that we can remove them from the accepted text of Scripture.
Nonetheless, I do enter the conversation with my own set of biases.
Silence of the Manuscripts
The most glaring fact hovering above the discussion about whether or not 1 Thessalonians 2:13-16 is an interpolation is that this passage is not missing in any of the extant manuscripts. It appears in every manuscript we have. This doesn’t guarantee that the passage is original, but it is strong evidence in support of the originality of the passage. We would need a significant reason to overcome the conclusion of originality.
The friend of interpolation would have to argue that there exists (or existed) a manuscript in which this passage does not appear, even though we have no knowledge of such a manuscript. Again, this does not guarantee that the passage is original, but we cannot say much with 100% accuracy concerning most things. What we can say is that this fact sets the initial scales of probability highly in favor of originality such that an objector would need significant evidence to overcome the conclusion of originality.
The Flow of the Text
One common argument is that verses 13 thru 16 don’t “flow” naturally with the text. If you remove them, there would be a smooth transition from verse 12 to verse 17.
First, we should note that you could do this with just about any body of letter, or literature. It certainly, in and of itself, doesn’t prove an interpolation. So even if we grant that this was true, it doesn’t get you anywhere.
Furthermore, it is not true that verses 13 thru 16 do not fit in the context. In the preceding verses, Paul has reminded the Thessalonians of his (and his companion’s) character amongst them when he brought them the “gospel of God.” In verse 13 he continues to praise them for their reception of “God’s word.” There is quite the smooth transition from the description of Paul’s bringing them the gospel to Paul’s praise of how the Thessalonians received Paul’s gospel.
Verse 14 then explains why (Hence the “For”) Paul is praising them for their reception, namely because they were imitating the church in Judea. The transition to the church in Judea “flows” smoothly and also creates a geographical, not an ethnic, distinction.
Paul then makes a further comparison between the church in Judea and the church in Thessalonica, namely that they both received the gospel despite persecution. Paul makes the digressive statement about “the Jews” that they killed Jesus, the Prophets, and persecuted Paul himself. He names their motivation for doing so: to prevent the early church from proselytizing Gentiles. Paul reassures that those who do such things will receive God’s just wrath, or have already.
How does this passage not “flow” naturally? Paul makes a comparison between the persecution of the Thessalonians by the Jews (which is attested in Acts 17) and the Jewish persecution of the church in Judea. He is praising them for responding just as the church in Judea did. He seeks to make the point that the persecutors are deserving of God’s wrath and to emphasize the point he reminds the reader that they also killed Jesus, the prophets, and persecuted Paul himself. They clearly are deserving of the condemnation Paul pours out upon them.
All of this flows naturally, consistently, or however you would like to put it. To be sure, there is nothing in the flow of the text that demands an interpolation.
One of the main objections to the authenticity of this passage is Paul’s apparent anti-semitism and change of views about the fate of the Jewish people.
Before setting out to answer these two objections directly, let’s make the introductory note that it is anything but certain that when Paul refers to “the Jews” here that he means “all Jews everywhere.”
To begin, Paul himself, as well as (some of) the Thessalonians he is addressing are Jews in this sense. It should be perfectly obvious that he doesn’t mean “all Jews.”
Does he mean “all Jews that are not followers of Jesus?” Well, did “all Jews that are not followers of Jesus” kill Jesus, the prophets, and persecute Paul? Obviously, not.
Given Paul’s specificity that those he has in mind killed Jesus, the prophets, and persecuted Paul himself, it seems the best interpretation to say that Paul means something like “Jewish leaders” when he says “the Jews.” Those Jewish leaders of old who killed the prophets are just like the current Jewish persecutors of Paul, the Thessalonian believers, the Judean believers, and the murderers of Jesus. They hold in common that they persecuted righteous men of God.
Secondly, Paul does not say that they deserve God’s wrath “because they are Jews.” Again, that would be to damn himself and his audience. Nor does Paul say they deserve God’s wrath because they haven’t accepted Jesus as the Messiah. Paul says that they deserve God’s wrath because of murder and persecution.
With these qualifications in mind, the interpretation of “But wrath has come upon them to the end” is no longer so important. Whatever it means, it is clear that it only applies to those Jewish leaders who have participated in murder, persecution, and attempted to thwart the proselytization of the Gentiles.
Likewise, there is nothing in the text that demands us interpret this passage as a reference to the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE.
Paul can hardly be accused of anti-semitism.
This interpretation also disposes with the objection “If this passage is authentic, then Paul radically changes his mind, possibly even contradicts himself, between here and Romans 11:25-32.”
Even if Paul did have in mind the salvation of “all Jews” in Romans 11, he clearly does not have in mind “all Jews” in the present passage.
Also, that Romans 11 refers to the salvation of all the Jewish people is highly debated and anything but a certainty.
Lastly, is it impossible that Paul, a human being, changed his mind? Even if these passages were in contradiction (which I don’t believe them to be), I fail to see the point. They are separated by years. 1 Thessalonians was written before Romans according to every scholarly opinion I have read on the matter. Why should we hold the Romans passage in higher regard? Again, even if we should, it doesn’t show an interpolation. At most, it would show that Paul had changed his mind.
Most likely, as already noted, these passages are not in conflict because (1) Paul isn’t referencing “all Jews” in 1 Thess 2:13-16 and (2) It isn’t clear that Paul has in mind the salvation of “every single ethnic Jew” in Romans 11.
Much more has been written on the subject by much more qualified authors. I encourage the reader to do their homework and form their own opinion.
For me, given the fact that (1) this passage appears in every single one of our extant manuscripts and (2) there is no good reason that demands an interpolation, I find it much more probable than not that this passage is original to Paul.
This would mean that Paul unequivocally attests to Jesus being killed by the Jews which would bring down the house of cards known as Jesus Mythicism. Jesus was not some celestial being crucified in outer-space, he was killed, at least in part, by the Jewish leaders of his day in an analogous way that the Jewish leaders of old killed the prophets.