A paper read at the 2012 Conference of the Evangelical Theological Society, and published in JETS 63.4 (2020): 703–20. Click here for the full pdf copy.
WERE THE THESSALONIANS “MEDDLING IN DIVINE MATTERS”? A REREADING OF 2 THESSALONIANS 3:11
Second Thessalonians 3:11 contains a play on words: some Thessalonians were not “working” (from ἐργάζομαι/ergazomai) but “meddling” (from its compound περιεργάζομαι/periergazomai). While meddling is usually taken to mean “meddling in other people’s business,” there is evidence that it might mean “meddling in divine matters” and therefore is a reference to calculating the time of the Day of the Lord.
I. EPISTOLARY CONTEXT
Μηδὲν ἐργαζομένους ἀλλὰ περιεργαζομένους is a figura etymologica, wherein two words with the same root are employed adjacently for effect. Despite claims to the contrary, the specific pairing “not working but meddling” does not seem to have been common—I could locate only two pre-Christian examples [in pseudo Demosthenes, in Testament of Gad]—and thus it was not a conventional wordplay which the Thessalonians would have recognized. No explanation is proffered for the Thessalonians’ behavior; we are merely informed that their praxis lands them in the category of those who “disorderly” (ἀτάκτως/ataktos).
With no dissenting voices, so far as I can determine, commentators take περιεργάζομαι/periergazomai as meddling in other people’s business. They can certainly invoke the lexicons for support….
There is clear contemporary attestation of the verb περιεργάζομαι as “meddling in the divine realm.” We have suggested, based in part on fresh TLG searches, that such a “vertical” meaning of περιεργάζομαι is possible in 2 Thess 3:11, and may express the author’s judgment that some Thessalonians were busying themselves in God’s domain, where they did not belong. Since the author does not explicitly root the action to joblessness or social meddling, the text leaves open this other possibility of their inquiring in the apocalyptic mysteries, perhaps to the point of setting dates for the Day of the Lord in 2:1–2.
Hence a possible meaning:
For we hear that some are living disorderly among you. These people are not busy at work; they are busy prying into God’s own matters. They should get back to their daily work and earn their own bread.
I invite you to read my commentary on 1-2 Thessalonians, available in English from Zondervan, and in Spanish from Andamio; both on Logos.