2 Thess 2:3-4 and Early Christian Eschatology

As previously noted in the studies on the eschatology of 1 and 2 Thessalonians, Paul appears to have shared, with other first-century believers, a traditional outlook on the end times. In his letters he does not go much beyond this, and only offers a presentation of this eschatology in any real detail in 1 and 2 Thessalonians. In my view, Paul held to an eschatological framework similar to that of the Synoptic “Eschatological Discourse” (cf. my earlier 4-part study on the Discourse). Even though the Eschatological Discourse likely represents an early Christian (traditional-literary) arrangement of Jesus’ teaching, this does not mean that the basic framework was not shared by Jesus himself. In fact, there is every reason to think that it was, in general, shared by many Jews and Christians of the time.

The simplest form of the Synoptic Discourse is the Markan version (chap. 13), which has the following framework:

    • A single period of “distress” which precedes the coming of the end, presented from three different points of view:
      (1) The world and humankind generally (vv. 5-8)
      (2) The disciples of Jesus (vv. 9-13)
      (3) The people of Judea specifically (vv. 14-22)
      [Probably the destruction of the Temple signifies the end/climax of this period]
    • The end of the current Age, marked by the appearance of the Son of Man and the gathering/deliverance of the Elect [i.e. the final Judgment] (vv. 24-27)

The Matthean and Lukan versions develop and expand this somewhat. It is worth noting that Paul, in 1 and 2 Thessalonians (assuming the latter is genuinely Pauline), was writing c. 50 A.D., only 20 or so years after Jesus’ own teaching, and well before any of the Synoptic Gospels were written. The points of correspondence between the eschatology of 1-2 Thessalonians and the underlying traditions of the Discourse are:

    • He seems to believe (and affirm) that the suffering and persecution believers are experiencing at the time is part of the end-time period of distress (1 Thess 1:6ff; 2:14ff; 2 Thess 1:4-12). This corresponds with Jesus’ teaching in Mk 13:9-13 par. Paul uses the key term qli/yi$ (“distress”) in 2 Thess 1:4, 6 (also 1 Thess 1:6; cf. Mk 13:19, 24 par; Rev 7:14 etc.
    • Paul’s controversial words in 1 Thess 2:14-16, regarding the judgment facing Jewish opponents of the Gospel, likely reflects the idea of specific suffering that is to come upon the people of Judea (and Jerusalem) as part of the end-time period of distress (Mk 13:14-22 par). I discussed this in an earlier note.
    • The teaching in 1 Thess 4:13-17 (cf. the discussion in Part 2) is said to derive from Jesus’ own words (“word/account of the Lord”, v. 15), that is, transmitted through early Gospel tradition. It is essentially an expanded form of Mk 13:26-27 par, naturally identifying the coming of the “Son of Man” with the return of Jesus (cf. also 1 Thess 1:10; 2:19; 3:13; 2 Thess 1:7; 2:1).
    • The instruction in 1 Thess 5:1-3ff also echoes Jesus’ proverbial teaching in Mk 13:32-37 par, esp. Matt 24:42-44).
    • 2 Thess 2:1-12 contains much detail in common with Jesus’ description of the end-time period of distress (Mk 13:5ff, 14, 19-22 par).

It is the last point, in particular, that I wish to discuss here. Having already examined 2 Thess 2:1-12 in Part 3 of the article on 1-2 Thessalonians, it is necessary to look at verses 3-4 in a bit more detail, and in light of the framework of the Eschatological Discourse.

2 Thessalonians 2:3-4

One of the events which, according to Paul, must occur before the final Judgment of God (against the wicked) arrives, is the appearance of a person called “the man of lawlessness” (o( a&nqrwpo$ th=$ a)nomi/a$, v. 3) or “the lawless (one)” (o( a&nomo$, v. 8). While this descriptive title could be understood in a general sense, Paul’s exposition in vv. 3-10 strongly suggests that it refers to a political leader of some sort. At the time of writing (c. 50 A.D., assuming Pauline authorship), this likely would have meant a Roman emperor. We would have a clearer sense of what Paul had in mind, and the passage would be easier to interpret, were it not for two factors: (1) the difficult language/syntax in vv. 6-7, and (2) the role of the Temple in verse 4. I discuss the meaning of the Greek of vv. 6-7 in Part 3 and earlier notes (cf. also below). Here it is necessary to look specifically at the role of the Temple, since it marks a defining act by the “man of lawlessness”. Verse 4:

“…the (one) stretching himself out against, and lifting himself over, all (thing)s being counted as God or reverenced, even as to his sitting in the shrine [nao/$] of God, showing himself from (this) that he is God.”

Most commentators are in agreement that Paul here is drawing upon an early Christian use of the prophecies in the book of Daniel, of a wicked foreign ruler who would come and desecrate the Temple (9:26-27; 11:31-39; 12:11). The original context of these prophecies is as a reference to the Seleucid ruler Antiochus IV Epiphanes and the events of 167-164 B.C., in which the sacrificial ritual in the Jerusalem Temple was halted/abolished, being replaced by a form of pagan worship. This act of desecration was specifically identified with the difficult Hebrew wording of 9:27 — “and upon the wing [[nk] of despicable (thing)s he lays waste”, or, perhaps: “and upon the wing of despicable (thing)s (the one) laying waste (comes)”. In Greek, this phrase was translated as “and upon the Temple there will be a stinking (thing) of desolations [bde/lugma tw=n e)rhmw/sewn]”. The earliest interpretation is found in 1 Maccabees 1:54, following the Greek rendering—the “stinking thing of desolations” [bde/lugma tw=n e)rhmw/sewn] is identified with a pagan altar that Antiochus IV had set upon the altar in the Temple (v. 59, also 4:43), and upon which, it would seem, unlawful/unclean pagan sacrifices were offered (cf. 2 Macc 6:5). In his Commentary on Daniel (11:31), Jerome states that Antiochus IV had set up an image of Jupiter (Zeus) Olympius in the Jerusalem Temple; however, the source and basis for this tradition is unclear.

Both Jews and Christians in the 1st century B.C./A.D. had cause to re-interpret the Daniel prophecy, applying it to their own time (a century or two later). Since no definitive judgment/defeat of the wicked occurred in the years immediately following 164 B.C., his meant that the prophecy still had to be fulfilled in some manner. The Dan 9:27 tradition, with a variation of the same Greek expression “stinking thing of desolation” (bde/lugma th=$ e)rhmw/sew$), is used in the Synoptic Eschatological Discourse (Mark 13:14):

“But when you should see the stinking thing of desolation having stood where it is necessary (that it should) not [i.e. where it ought not to be]…”

The aside which follows, coming either from the Gospel writer or an earlier traditional notice, suggests an interpretation, unstated in the text, that is presumed to be understood by Christians of the time (c. 60 A.D.?). Matthew’s version preserves the same cryptic notice but otherwise makes the Daniel reference (24:15) more clear (differences/additions in italics):

Therefore when you should see ‘the stinking thing of desolation’ that was uttered through Danîyel the Foreteller (now) having stood in the holy place…”

Jesus’ disciples, along with other Christians of the time, c. 35-60 A.D., are warned that the appearance of “the stinking thing of desolation” standing in the Temple sanctuary marks the beginning of a time of terrible distress for the people of Judea. While the original reference in the Synoptic Discourse (Mark/Matthew) may have been well-understood by the first readers, its precise interpretation is unclear for us today. However, the idea of something standing in the Temple suggests perhaps a statue or similar (pagan) construction. The tradition preserved in Jerome’s commentary on Daniel (cf. above) indicated that Antiochus IV had set up an image of Jupiter (Zeus) Olympius in the Temple. This was echoed c. 40 A.D. by the emperor Gaius’ (Caligula), as part of his establishment of the imperial cult, intending that his statue was to be placed in the Jerusalem Temple, transforming it into an imperial shrine (Josephus, Antiquities 18.256-307). Jesus’ use of Dan 9:27 indicates that he is predicting something similar to happen at the end-time, and it could conceivably relate to the historical actions/intentions of the emperor (c. 40 A.D.).

However, in Luke’s version of the Discourse, the Dan 9:27 reference has been completely recast as a reference to the (Roman) invasion of Jerusalem, in which the presence of a pagan army would both desecrate and destroy the Temple:

“And when you shall see Jerusalem encircled by foot-soldiers, then you should know that her desolation [e)rh/mwsi$] has come near.” (Lk 21:20; cf. also 19:41-44)

This of course was accurately fulfilled in 70 A.D. The Lukan version of the Discourse expands the chronological scope somewhat, allowing for a period during which Jerusalem (and the Temple) would be “trampled under (the feet of) the nations”. The length of time involved is not clear, though from the author’s standpoint (probably writing c. 70-80) it would have to be at least a number of years (though scarcely the 1,900+ years looked at from our vantage point today).

Returning to 2 Thessalonians 2:4, Paul seems to accept a rather different interpretation of the Dan 9:27 / Mk 13:14 tradition—what stands in the Temple sanctuary is not a statue, but a person; it is not a pagan army, rather, it is a wicked pagan ruler. Almost certainly, Paul would have understood this as Roman emperor, perhaps one fulfilling the pattern of the wicked Gaius (Caligula) who had intended his own image to be set up in the Temple (cf. above). This would have occurred just ten years or so (c. 40 A.D.) before 2 Thessalonians was written. It would not have been difficult to see it as a foreshadowing of something that would be done by an even more wicked ruler.

There are actually a number of foreign (Greco-Roman) figures whose lives and actions fed into the idea of a wicked end-time ruler along the lines of this “man of lawlessness”. In addition to Antiochus IV and Gaius (Caligula), we may note the Roman general Pompey (106-48 B.C.). It was he who first subjugated Judea to Roman rule (64/63 B.C.), placing it as a tributary under the governorship of Syria. According to many scholars, the so-called “Psalms of Solomon” were written not long after Pompey’s conquest, and that he is the pattern for the wicked/foreign ruler of the end-time envisioned in several of the Psalms. There are some interesting parallels between 17:11-22 and 2 Thess 2:3-4, both conceptually and in the Greek wording used. The Pompey figure is also called “the lawless one” (o( a&nomo$) and his rule is characterized as an especially wicked time of sin and turning of the people away from God. The book of Revelation, written some time after 2 Thessalonians, appears to contain similar allusions to Nero, and, perhaps, other emperors as well (Vespasian?, Domitian?).

In summary, we may note the following points:

    • Paul predicts the rise of a wicked ruler who would stand/sit in the Temple sanctuary, as a fulfillment of the Dan 9:26-27 prophecy (as understood through the Eschatological Discourse [Mk 13:14 par], etc).
    • This wicked ruler would appear toward the end of the period of distress (qli/yi$) in which Paul and his readers were already living (c. 50 A.D.). This may correspond with the conjunction of the time of persecution of believers (13:9-13) and suffering in Judea (13:14-22) outlined in the framework of the Discourse.
    • The reign of this wicked ruler, though relatively brief, would be one of intense wickedness and evil, with supernatural signs and miracles that would deceive people and lead them astray. This also echoes the description of the end-time distress for Judea in Mk 13:14-22, though Paul does not seem to limit the geographic extent so narrowly (in spite of the Temple reference).
    • The destruction of this wicked ruler is described in traditional Messianic language (allusion to Isa 11:4, etc), transferred to the Christian idea of Jesus’ return.
    • From a chronological standpoint, Paul is speaking of something he expects to happen soon, i.e. not long after 50 A.D., when the letter was written. This would generally fit the time frame (of approx. 20 years) before the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D. In this regard, Paul is fully in accord with the earliest Christian eschatology as expressed in the New Testament—i.e. of the “last days” as a period more or less corresponding to the first generation of believers (30-40 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection).

The fundamental problem with this Pauline chronology is the same as that which we have seen already with the Synoptic Eschatological Discourse and the eschatology of the New Testament as a whole. While many of the expected/predicted events and details were accurately fulfilled in the 1st century A.D., the end—i.e. the return of Jesus and final Judgment—did not occur at that time. Paul’s apparent predictions in 2 Thess 2:3ff involve the Jerusalem Temple, as do those of Jesus in the Eschatological Discourse. The Temple was destroyed in 70 A.D. which makes it impossible for the event described in 2:4 to be fulfilled—at least not in a concrete historical sense. This has led many traditional-conservative (and Evangelical) commentators to interpret and apply the passage in a more figurative or symbolic sense; this may be done several different ways:

    • as a conflict with the “antichristian” forces of evil, etc, without any specific eschatological significance for the believer today; while this may be a valid application, it effectively negates the clear eschatological context of the passage.
    • as a similar conflict, but an eschatological setting (of sorts) is preserved by viewing the “last days” broadly as the entire period (of nearly 2,000 years) from the time of the apostles to the present day.
    • the specific Temple setting, etc, is figurative but the passage does refer to an actual person who will appear at some point yet in the future (i.e. after 2020 A.D.); as predicted, this ruler will stand in direct opposition to God and Christ and will deceive the world (part of the wider Antichrist tradition).
    • [Some Christians would preserve a literal fulfillment by relying upon the idea that the actual Jerusalem Temple will be rebuilt in the future. While a rebuilding of the Temple does feature in Jewish eschatology to some extent, the idea is almost entirely absent from the New Testament; there is no suggestion, either in 2 Thess 2:3ff or in the Eschatological Discourse, that a rebuilt Temple is in view.]

Only the third approach does justice to the eschatology of the passage, but it founders in the general disregard (admittedly out of practical necessity) for the imminence of Paul’s eschatology clearly expressed throughout 1-2 Thessalonians. As discussed at many points in this series, the basic conflict between the imminent eschatology of the New Testament and the 1,900+ years (and counting) that have since passed, is a problem for which there is no easy solution. It will be addressed more extensively as the series draws to a close.

For more on the Temple in Jewish and early Christian eschatology, see my earlier article on the subject. On the prophecy of Daniel 9:25-27, in particular, consult my note in the series “Yeshua the Anointed”, as well as the article here on the Eschatological Discourse.

The “man of lawlessness” of 2 Thess 2:3-11 will be discussed further in an upcoming special article in this series on the “Antichrist” tradition.

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