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Thessalonians, The Letters of Paul to the

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The Oxford Companion to the Bible What is This? Provides authoritative interpretive entries on Biblical people, places, beliefs, events, and secular influences.

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    Thessalonians, The Letters of Paul to the

    The New Testament includes two letters ascribed to Paul and addressed to the church at Thessalonica in Macedonia (Map 14:D2).

    The first follows the normal pattern of Pauline letters in beginning with a formal greeting (1.1), followed by a report of how Paul remembers the church in his prayers; he thanks God for the positive response of its members to his initial preaching of the gospel (1.2–10). He then discusses this work in the town, claiming that he and his companions acted uprightly and lovingly (2.1–12). He returns to the topic of the church's warm response despite disincentives caused by those opposed to the spread of the gospel (2.13–16); his defense of his own conduct may be a reply to slanders current in the town. The continuation of opposition to the church since his departure had worried him so much that he had wished to go back to see how things were; finding this impossible for reasons that he does not divulge, beyond saying that “Satan blocked our way” (2.18), he sent Timothy as his representative, and the latter has now returned full of enthusiasm for the healthy state of the church (2.17–3.13). In the remainder of the letter, Paul gives the church the kind of teaching and practical advice that he would have liked to share with them in person. He encourages the believers to live holy lives—with special reference to the avoidance of sexual immorality—and to continue to grow in love (4.1–12). He gives instruction to comfort Christians who are fearful about the fate of those of their number who had died and assures them that, when the Lord returns, the resurrection of the dead will take place, so that those who “fell asleep” (NRSV: “died”) will come with Christ and be united with those still alive. Believers need not worry when this will take place; if they are truly “awake,” they will not be taken by surprise (4.13–5.11). Finally, Paul commends brotherly love and encourages the use of spiritual gifts (5.12–24), closing the letter with personal greetings (5.25–28).

    The second letter follows the same pattern. The opening greeting (1.1–2) is followed by a prayer report, which also functions as encouragement and teaching: the church is still suffering from opposition, but is bearing it steadfastly, and Paul assures the believers that God will judge those who oppose them and will prepare the church to share in his glory when Christ comes (1.3–12). The center of the letter is teaching about the return of Christ, directed against people who were claiming Paul's authority for asserting that the day of the Lord had begun and that the return of Christ could be expected immediately. Paul replies by stating that a period of Satanic opposition to God on an unparalleled scale must first happen, and then Christ will come to bring it to an end; meanwhile, the church must hold firm (2.1–17). The final part of the letter is exhortation: the church is asked to pray for Paul, and attention is drawn to some Christians who had abandoned their daily work and were living off the generosity of their good‐natured friends. Paul condemns this idleness and the consequent nuisance of the idlers strongly (3.1–16). There is a brief closing greeting (3.17–18).

    Thessalonica was one of the towns in Macedonia that was visited by Paul, Silas, and Timothy during the second of the missionary tours described by Luke in Acts 16–18. It was in fact the capital of the Roman province, an important commercial center situated on the major highway, the Via Egnatia. Not surprisingly, its population included Jews (Acts 17.1, 5). Paul and his companions spent a brief time here after leaving Philippi, but sufficiently long to gain a number of converts from Jewish and Greek attenders at the synagogue and so to establish a church. According to Luke, Jewish opposition forced the missionaries to leave precipitately. They moved into Achaia and worked briefly at Athens and then for a longer period at Corinth. It was during this period that Timothy paid the visit mentioned in 1 Thessalonians 3.1–6, and that Paul wrote the first letter, doubtless from Corinth.

    The history of the church between its foundation and the composition of the letter is known only from allusions in the letter. The picture that emerges is of a church free from groups opposed to Paul, and developing in faith and love. Certainly, Paul was worried about whether the church could stand up to attacks from outside, but this concern arose more from the recent foundation of the congregation than because of any inherent defects.

    The major point where Paul felt the need to give instructions was the future advent (or parousia) of the Lord Jesus. It is unlikely that there were any false teachings; it appears rather that the Thessalonian Christians had not fully understood Paul's teaching about the parousia and the resurrection of the dead. The second coming of the Lord played a prominent part in Paul's preaching, for he refers to it with remarkable frequency in the letter (1.10; 2.19; 3.13; 4.13–5.11; 5.23). Otherwise, the letter reflects the typical characteristics of Paul's thought, including the distinctive use of the phrase “in Christ” to characterize the nature of the Christian life.

    There is no doubt that Paul was the author of this letter. Theories that it is a forgery need not be taken seriously. Some scholars have argued that the letter has a peculiar shape, and attempt to explain it as a combination of two or more documents or as a document that had been subjected to interpolations, but these theories are more ingenious than convincing.

    The second letter raises problems to which there are no generally agreed answers. Its language and content are sufficiently similar to those of 1 Thessalonians to indicate that, if authentic, it was probably written not long after the first letter. Yet it lacks concrete references to the situation of the readers or of the writer. From chap. 1, it appears that attack from outside must have worsened. The pungency of Paul's language may also suggest that he himself was the object of particular attack from people outside the church (see 3.2).

    The situation behind chap. 2 is difficult to reconstruct. There must have been a group in the church who believed that they were living in the very last days. They appear to have been encouraged in this view by some statement that was alleged to have come from Paul himself. Paul, however, stopped short of affirming that the end had actually arrived, and he referred to other events that must happen before the return of the Lord. There is no unanimity as to what Paul envisaged by the apostasy and the man of lawlessness, or what he meant by the force that was at present restraining the lawless one from appearing (2 Thess. 2.9; See Antichrist). The language used has a mythological character and may reflect apocalyptic literature in which a heavenly force restrains the powers of evil. But whether Paul used this language to refer to specific persons or beings is not certain. One view is that Paul saw the Roman emperor and/or empire as embodying the forces of law and order that restrained the forces of chaos from taking over. Another view, perhaps more persuasive, sees God himself or the preaching of the gospel as the force holding back the full impact of the forces of evil. Paul wrote allusively, even for his first readers, and therefore it is not surprising that we are at a loss to know precisely what he had in mind.

    In the final part of the letter we find evidence that some members of the church were living in idleness at others' expense. Although no explicit connection is made, it is hard not to believe that the apocalyptic excitement reflected in chap. 2 contributed to this situation. It called forth strong censure from Paul, who firmly believed that Christians should work for their living. Apparently, discipline in the church consisted of exclusion from the privileges of fellowship.

    These comments on 2 Thessalonians have been made in terms of the ostensible historical context of the document as a genuine letter from Paul to the church at Thessalonica. In this view, we must assume that in the period after the writing of 1 Thessalonians a kind of apocalyptic fervor, whose origins can be detected in the earlier letter, developed in the church. Paul does not deal with it in terms of castigating a group of opponents, as in other letters; rather, he writes to believers who may have been misled by a misinterpretation of his teaching.

    Such a situation appears to be quite plausible. Yet it does not appear so to some commentators, for whom there is sharp contrast between the nearness of the parousia in 1 Thessalonians and its delay in 2 Thessalonians. This alerts them to other odd features in the latter, such as the lack of personal, concrete allusions, the peculiar repetition of phraseology from 1 Thessalonians, and some differences in language and thought. In the judgment of numerous scholars these differences are incompatible with the traditional understanding of the letter as authentically Pauline. Attempts to solve the problem by arguing that the letters were written in reverse chronological order or that they are compositions of fragments originally written in a different order have not commanded assent. So it is argued that 2 Thessalonians is a later composition by another writer who wished to use Paul's name to correct his teaching or false inferences from it, perhaps even to claim that this letter alone was authentic (cf. 3.17) and that 1 Thessalonians was to be rejected. A solution of this kind can be defended by concentrating on the unusual features of 2 Thessalonians. Its major weakness, however, is the lack of a convincing and plausible reconstruction of the circumstances in which such a letter could have been composed—and directed to Thessalonica in particular. The letter, for example, appears to assume that the Temple in Jerusalem is still standing (2.4). The language refuting the claim that the day of the Lord had already arrived is so cryptic that it is hard to envisage a later writer expressing himself in this fashion if he wanted to persuade his readers. The brazenness of the hypothetical author in writing 2 Thessalonians 3.17 is also remarkable. Although it must be granted that there are some oddities in the language, structure, and thought of the letter, the difficulties in considering it pseudonymous are greater.

    I. Howard Marshall

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