Posted by: chuckbumgardner | March 24, 2008

2 Thessalonians 3: “Idle” or “Disorderly”?

In discussing the church discipline scenario of 2 Thessalonians 3 (and its implications for ecclesiastical separation), a debated point is how Paul is describing the members of the Thessalonian church from whom he is commanding the obedient Thessalonians to separate.  In particular, some desire to limit Paul’s description of these people in 3:6 (“keep away from every brother who is living _____”) to “lazily” or “idly,” while others prefer to maintain the usual meaning of the underlying Greek term and translate with “unruly” or “disorderly” or the like.

At least one implication of this choice is that understanding the underlying Greek term to mean “disorderly” makes it much more general in scope, and therefore potentially more broadly applicable.  The application of the term to the larger area of ecclesiastical separation is a topic for another day, but I will here voice my opinion that “disorderly” is clearly the correct choice. I do not deny that the Thessalonians in question were idle in the sense that they were choosing not to work, but I do deny that the term Paul uses to describe them in 3:6 has the specific meaning of “idle” or “lazy.”

At the risk of sliding into esoterica, I’ll support that opinion below with a clip from my thesis. (Note that all Greek words have been transliterated and italicized. The w should be pronounced as a long o, and the h as a long a.)  The footnotes are quite condensed, and in the unusual event that someone would actually want to follow up with a particular resource, a posted comment will let me know I need to provide fuller bibliographic info, and I’ll be glad to do so.


The adverb ataktws is used in 2 Thessalonians 3:6 to describe the persistent behavior of those from whom the Thessalonians were to withdraw. The word is derived from the verb tassw, “to order,” and was used in military contexts to describe that which was out of order: “negligent officers . . . an army in disarray, undisciplined or insubordinate soldiers.” It came to mean anything that was disorderly, and when applied to behavior, generally implied an unruliness, disruptiveness, and lack of submission to the established order.2 This meaning is clearly seen in the usage of ataktws and its cognates during the time period around the New Testament era, both in classical and non-classical sources.3

Although the general meaning of the ataktos word group seems clear, its rendering in Thessalonians has been a matter of extended discussion. The papyri excavated around the turn of the twentieth century shed new light on the New Testament by demonstrating that its Greek was the language of common life, a simplified form of classical Greek. Certain uses of the ataktos word group in the papyri led some, while not denying the classical meaning, to posit a meaning in the New Testament which was somewhat different and more specific than usual – one involving idleness or laziness.4 To add support to this suggestion, it has been noted that the adverb ataktws is contrasted with ergazomenous (“working”) in 3:11 and that behaving ataktws  is described as not living according to the apostolic tradition of working for one’s living.5 Since the early 20th century, the alternate nuance of “idleness” has been widely accepted.6

However, while it is true that the contexts of the ataktos word group in Thessalonians and certain papyri involve idleness, it seems both linguistically preferable and contextually acceptable to accept the common meaning of the word, “disorderly” or “unruly,” in those contexts.7 This meaning seems to fit well contextually in the four occurrences of ataktws and cognates in Thessalonians, making a narrower definition unnecessary.8 Further, ataktws is not only contrasted in 3:11 with the idea of working, but also with that of being a busybody.9 The fact that some were not working seems to have been less a concern to Paul than the fact that they were not submitting to the instruction and example of their spiritual authorities.10

While in popular works the ataktos word group often still is limited to the concept of idleness, the scholarly consensus over time has settled on the concept of disorderliness, which in the case of some Thessalonians included idleness.11 This shift in consensus is reflected in Bauer: the second edition (1979), referring to ataktws in the present passage, gives “fig. a. peripatein, live in idleness“, while the third edition (2000) gives “ataktws peripatein, behave irresponsibly . . . the specific manner in which the irresponsible behavior manifests itself is described in the context: freeloading, sponging.”12

In sum, the linguistic evidence clearly demonstrates that the ataktos word group in Paul’s time normally communicated the concept of “disorderliness,” and few would argue against this typical understanding. That meaning fits well in the contexts in which the word group is used in Thessalonians. Proponents of the specialized, atypical nuance of “idleness” have not made a sufficient case for their proposal. It is best, therefore, to understand Paul here describing those from whom the Thessalonians were to separate as “disorderly.”

1 C. Spicq, “ataktew, ataktos, ataktws,” TLNT 1:223-24. Cf. Appian, Bell. civ., 3.8.56; 3.9.69; Josephus, Ant. 15.150, 152; 17.296; J.W. 1.101, 382; 2.517, 649; 3.113; 6.255; Pausanias, Descr. 10.21.4; Plutarch, Arist. 17.1; Nic. 18.2; 21.7.

2 BDAG 148c (BDAG 148b, under “ataktew” also rightly suggests “out of line” as a contemporary equivalent); EDNT 1:177; G. Delling, “tassw, ktl.,TDNT 8:47-48; Richard, Thessalonians 379, 389-90. Re Paul’s reference to those “living disorderly” (ataktws peripatountos), Isocrates (4th cent. B.C.) contrasted kings who might “live in a disorderly manner” (zhn . . . ataktws) with all others who should live “in a well-ordered manner” (kosmiws) (Ad Nic. 31).

3 Cf. P. Eleph. 2.10-13; T. Naph. 2.9; 3 Macc. 1.19; Philo, Plant. 3; Spec. Laws 1.48; Josephus, J.W. 4.231; Ag. Ap. 2.151; 1 Clem. 40.2; Diogn. 9.1.

4 George Milligan (St Paul’s Epistles to the Thessalonians [London: Macmillan, 1908], 152-54) lays out the papyrological evidence. In the same year, W. G. Rutherford’s translation Saint Paul’s Epistles to the Thessalonians and to the Corinthians (London: Macmillan, 1908) was published posthumously, using the translation “loafer” in 2 Thess 3:6-7. Milligan was followed by James Everett Frame, “‘Oi Ataktoi (1 Thess. 5.14),” in Essays in Modern Theology and Related Subjects (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1911); idem, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistles of St. Paul to the Thessalonians, ICC (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1912), 299; MM 89 (the portion with the ataktos word group was originally published in 1914); Plummer (A Commentary on Paul’s Second Epistle to the Thessalonians [London: Robert Scott, 1918], 96-97) sees the nuance of “loafing” as “not inappropriate” but retains “disorderly.” More recently, the nuance of “idleness” is defended in Best, Thessalonians, 229-30 (1972).

5 Frame, ” ‘Oi Ataktoi,” 204-05; Thessalonians, 299.

6 E.g., NIV, ESV, NLT, RSV consistently use words related to idleness and laziness to render the ataktos word group in 1 Thess 5:14; 2 Thess 3:6-7, 11. L&N (§88.246-47) gloss ataktew with “be lazy” and ataktws with “lazily.” Of course, before the papyri discoveries, commentators consistently defined the ataktos word group with its classical meaning. Charles John Ellicott, Commentary on the Epistles of St. Paul to the Thessalonians (Andover: Warren F. Draper, 1864; reprint, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1957), 76-77; John Eadie, A Commentary on the Greek Text of the Epistle of Paul to the Thessalonians (London: MacMillan, 1877), 201-02; Gottlieb Lünemann, Critical and Exegetical Hand-Book to the Epistles to the Thessalonians, trans. Paton J. Gloag (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1883; reprint, Winona Lake, Ind.: Alpha, 1979), 552; J. B. Lightfoot, Notes on Epistles of St. Paul (London: Macmillan, 1895), 129; F. J. A. Hort, The Christian Ecclesia: A Course of Lectures on the Early History and Early Conceptions of the Ecclesia and One Sermon (London: Macmillan and Co., 1897; reprint, 1914 [published posthumously; Hort died in 1892]), 124.

7 Frame, “‘Oi Ataktoi,” references uses of the ataktos word group in P.Oxy. 275 (A.D. 66) and P.Oxy. 725 (A.D. 183) as evidence for the nuance of “loafing.” Full texts are found in A. S. Hunt and C. C. Edgar, trans., Select Papyri, vol. 1, Private Affairs, LCL 266 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1934), 38-45. Justification for retaining the classical meaning in these texts is found in Forkman, Limits, 134-35.

8 Spicq is unyielding on this point: “the usage of the verb, the adjective, and the adverb in the Koine, notably in the first century AD, confirms that the word covers any breach of obligation or convention, disorders of life in general; and the usage is decisive.” TLNT 1:223.

9 See Forkman, Limits, 134-35; Walter Schmithals, “The Historical Situation of the Thessalonian Epistles,” in Paul and the Gnostics (Nashville: Abington, 1972), 197. Even if ataktws were opposed only to the idea of working, other things can stand in contrast to working besides idleness. Holmes, Thessalonians, 272.

10 It is difficult to understand the suggestion of Wanamaker (Thessalonians, 281-82) that the disorderly were not intentionally resisting authority or acting in disobedience, but merely acting irresponsibly. This line of thinking is also seen in Colin Nicholl (From Hope to Despair in Thessalonica: Situating 1 and 2 Thessalonians, SNTSMS 126 [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004], 168): “the view that ‘Paul’ is confronting active rebellion on the part of the ataktoi is irreconcilable with the sentiment expressed in verse 15.” Note also Jerry L. Sumney, “Studying Paul’s Opponents: Advances and Challenges,” in Paul and His Opponents, ed. Stanley E. Porter (Leiden: Brill, 2005), 38; John Cassian, Inst. 10.7. But the view that he is not confronting active rebellion is irreconcilable with the previous apostolic instruction, both personal (1 Thess 4:11; 2 Thess 3:10), and written (1 Thess 4:10-11). Contra Wanamaker and Nicholl, see Robert Jewett, The Thessalonian Correspondence (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1986), 104-05.

11 This growing scholarly consensus includes the following: C. Spicq, “Les Thessaloniciens ‘inquiets’ étaient-ils des paresseux?,” ST 10 (1956): 1-13; Delling, TDNT 8:48 (1972); Forkman, Limits, 134-35 (1972); Bruce, Thessalonians, 203-05 (1982); Jewett, The Thessalonian Correspondence, 104-05 (1986); Raymond F. Collins, Birth, 94 (1993); Karl P. Donfried, “2 Thessalonians and the Church of Thessalonica,” in Origins and Method, ed. Bradley H. McLean (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1993), 140-41; R. Russell, “The Idle in 2 Thess 3.6-12: An Eschatological or a Social Problem?,” NTS 34 (1988), 107-08; Martin, Thessalonians, 273-74 (1995); Richard, Thessalonians, 379, 382, 388-90 (1995); Gaventa, Thessalonians, 81-82, 128-29 (1998); Holmes, Thessalonians, 271-72 (1998); Légasse, Thessaloniciens, 429; BDAG 148bc (2000); Green, Thessalonians, 343-44 (2002); Beale, Thessalonians, 249; Nicholl, Hope to Despair, 167-68 (2004); Witherington, Thessalonians, 162 (2006); Victor Paul Furnish, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, ANTC (Nashville: Abingdon, 2007).

12 BAGD 119d; BDAG 148c. The shift is even more explicit in defining the verb ataktew: BAGD (119c) gives “in our lit. only 2 Th 3:7, where the context demands the mng. be idle, lazy“, while BDAG (148b) gives “to violate prescribed or recognized order, behave inappropriately” and notes that “the trans. be idle, lazy does not take adequate account of Gr-Rom. social history.”



  1. […] to Morris’s NICNT Thessalonians volume of 50-year vintage.   I have posted before regarding the translation of the ἄτακτος (ataktos) word group in Thessalonians, and so I was quite amused to read Fee acknowledge his complete inability to understand just why in […]

  2. As I piece together my own exegetical paper on the ataktoi in 2 Thessalonians, I noticed this clip from your thesis in a google search – I’m trying to track down a biblical translation that uses the term “loafers.” Any idea which one(s) that would be? I’m coming up empty-handed on this one. Jewett suggests that the RSV uses this translation, but my search of the RSV pulls up the word “idlers” instead. (Just as poor of a translation, in my opinion. I actually think that Spicq’s “insubordinate” is the most interesting translation.)

    Is there a chance that I could cite your thesis as a resource for my own work? Do you have a readable/sendable version of it? I’d be interested in reading what you have done with this passage. Have you made any connections between 2 Thessalonians and the Roman system of patronage? That’s what has me fascinated…

    Thanks for any help…

    • Hi, Megan,

      Could you email me at chuckbumgardner (see end of paragraph)? I’d be glad to interact, but blog comments are not the most efficient way to do so. Thanks. … at

      For short answers, to your questions, though…

      “loafer” is not common in translations these days. You should look, however, at W. G. Rutherford, Saint Paul’s Epistles to the Thessalonians and to the Corinthians (London: Macmillan, 1908) (Online:,+thessalonians). Also, if you haven’t read Frame’s article, “‘Oi Ataktoi” (referenced above, fn 4; online:, you ought to do so. His ICC volume on Thessalonians summarizes the article.

      I have my ataktoi research summarized in an appendix to my thesis, and will be glad to send you a pdf of the appendix once I hear from you.

      I have considered the patron-client connection in light of 2 Thess 3, and think that it probably has something to do with the problem of the ataktoi. In my opinion, we can’t know precisely what the Sitz im Leben of the passage was from the available data — witness the plethora of opinions available in the literature! — but (also IMO!) the most plausible reconstruction sees the disorderly as laborers having left pagan trade guilds and taking advantage of newly-formed (though informal) client-patron relationships within the church, which provided easy—and from the patron’s perspective, obligatory—support for a sedentary lifestyle. I have a thesis appendix on the Sitz im Leben which I would be glad to send you as well.

      I’d enjoy interacting with you on your research and look forward to hearing from you.

  3. Personally, I would label Plutarch and Josephus as Literary Koine rather then Classical since they avoided the spell of Atticism(The Shakespeareans of their day).

  4. Works for me; you obviously know more about the subject than I do! My larger point, though, is that the ataktos family had a pretty consistent meaning wherever it was used, and the meaning was fairly general, specified by the context.

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