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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

1 Thessalonians - Introduction

Paul probably wrote 1 Thessalonians from Corinth within a matter of months after his initial visit to Thessalonica, in about 50–51 CE (so Best 1972: 7–13; Barclay 1993: 515). It is widely agreed that 1 Thessalonians is the earliest extant Christian text, a precious document which brilliantly illuminates one segment of the Christ-movement less than twenty years after the death of Jesus.

It can hardly be without significance that the earliest document extant from the followers of Christ takes the form of a letter. Much research has been conducted recently which analyses the formal structures of Graeco-Roman epistolography (Stowers 1986 ), and their relation to early Christian letters, including those of Paul (Doty 1973 ), and 1 Thessalonians in particular (Boers 1976 ). But we should be careful not to miss the distinctiveness of 1 Thessalonians. While it does have many of the features seen in Graeco-Roman letters, there is no extant letter like this from the surrounding context, in that it combines personal features (such as the elaborate thanksgiving in 1:2–3:13 ) with instructions and end-time exhortation (Koester 1979 ). 1 Thessalonians, a carefully composed writing, ‘is an experiment in the composition of literature which signals the momentous entry of Christianity into the literary world of antiquity’ (ibid. 33).

An important insight of Robert Funk (1967 ) is that the letter substitutes for the personal presence of Paul. In this regard Funk accepts and develops the ideas of Koskenniemi (1956 ) that in the Greek world the letter was designed to extend the possibility of friendship between the parties after they had become separated—that is why parousia (‘presence’ or ‘arrival’), philophronēsis (‘affectionate kind treatment’, ‘friendship’), and homilia (‘being together’, ‘communion’, ‘conversing’) are basic to the conception of the Greek letter. ‘Absent in body, but present through this letter’ is a common Greek formula reflecting this phenomenon. Funk (1967: 265) suggests that Paul must have thought of his presence as the bearer of charismatic, even ‘eschatological’, power, even though he certainly does not equate his parousia with that of Christ and this theme is more clearly seen in 1 Cor 5:3–5 than in 1 Thessalonians.

It is uncertain if Paul is replying to a letter. Frame (1912: 157), Faw (1952: 220–2), and Malherbe (1990 ) think that he was, but most think that he was not. Paul could have learned of the situation in Thessalonica from Timothy (so Best 1972: 171 and Jewett 1986: 92).

Lastly, in this connection, it should be noted that most of the letters which survive from Graeco-Roman antiquity are from one individual to another and Paul is usually writing to a group or groups. We would expect this to make some difference. There is, indeed, some interest in group-oriented letters, especially those to a family (Stowers 1986: 71–6). Most of our evidence on family letters comes not from Greek epistolary theorists (preoccupied with the concerns of free adult males) but from Egyptian papyri. There is a letter from Cicero (in exile) to his family in Stowers (1986: 74–6).

Thessalonica, located at the head of the Thermaic Gulf, was founded by Cassander in c.316 BCE on the site of an older city. There is some archaeological and literary evidence for the usual assemblage of Hellenistic features and buildings, such as an agora, a Serapaeum, a gymnasium, and a stadium (Vickers 1972 ). In due course Thessalonica passed into Roman hands, where its situation on the Via Egnatia, the great Roman road running from the Adriatic to the Black Sea, gave it great strategic and commercial significance. It is not surprising that it became the capital of the province of Macedonia. From surviving inscriptions it seems to have had a vibrant religious life, with numerous cults (Edson 1948; Donfried 1985; 1989 ).

There is little doubt that Thessalonica would have contained the same sharp division between a small wealthy, aristocratic élite and a much larger non-élite characteristic of the Graeco-Roman cities of the East. Jewett (1993 ) has usefully pointed out that the dominant form of housing for the non-élite would have been tenements, not the more spacious villa type houses.

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