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1 Thessalonians

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The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Books of the Bible What is This? Provides accessible, authoritative coverage for all major topics pertaining to the study of the Books of the Bible.

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1 Thessalonians

The name of this Pauline letter, Thessalonians, describes the intended geographical designation of the correspondence. The letter was written to a group of first-century C.E. believers in Jesus living in Thessalonica in northern Greece. Thessalonica, a populous Aegean port, was an important city strategically located on the Egnatian Way, a main land route for trade and military travel. Built by Cassander in 315 B.C.E. and named for his wife, Thessalonica, the city was the capital within the Roman province of Macedonia.

Canonical Status and Location.

First Thessalonians is generally considered to be Paul's first surviving letter and the oldest document in the New Testament canon. Written in the middle decades of the first century, this epistle appears to be the first in a volley of correspondence between the missionary Paul of Tarsus and recent believers in Thessalonica. (On the authorship of 2 Thessalonians, see “2 Thessalonians.”) Because of this chronology, the letter is important, revealing the beginning phase of Paul's missionary activity; the organizational structure of a nascent, believing congregation in Asia Minor; and the presentation of pertinent theological themes related to the early years of the developing churches in the Aegean world.

Authorship.

Paul's authorship of 1 Thessalonians is not contested. The literary style, vocabulary patterns, syntax, and thematic parallels unquestionably belong to Paul. The letter states that Paul is writing to the members of the congregation after receiving a report regarding their church in Thessalonica from Timothy (3:6).

Date of Composition and Historical Context.

Some scholars, such as Robert Jewett and E. Richard, suggest an early date for the writing of 1 Thessalonians—40 C.E. H. Koester and Abraham Malherbe, however, contend that Paul wrote this letter around 50 C.E. This lack of consensus results from lack of parallel information in the book of Acts and Paul's own account. A detailed chronological account of Paul's missionary journeys is impossible to reconstruct from Luke's story of Paul in Macedonia (Acts 17–18). Likewise, Paul does not seem interested in providing a detailed itinerary of his own missionary work. Paul's focus is on having an “epistolary conversation” with believers whom he calls friends. In this conversation, Paul responds to the specific concerns of the believers, as reported to him, and provides suitable counsel and admonition. The date of the writing of this letter follows Paul's first visit to Thessalonica, perhaps written while in Corinth with Timothy and Silas, after receiving a report from Timothy regarding the state of the Thessalonian community. This letter can be roughly dated between the late 40s or early 50s.

Literary History.

First Thessalonians is one of seven undisputed letters of Paul in the New Testament. Letters were the preferred mode of communication in Paul's Hellenistic world. Of the twenty-seven books in the New Testament, twenty-one are letters, or epistles. An epistle has a specific purpose—to serve as a surrogate for the absent author. This epistolary genre is not dogmatic, with exact, repetitive, catechetical intention, and is not governed by the same conventions as historical narrative. This literary genre is primarily used to mediate the presence of the absent author to the intended recipients. Paul cannot return to Thessalonica after his first visit; therefore he sends a letter that is intended to fill the void that his absence has created.

Upon receiving the Thessalonians letter, the believers would have had a member read the epistle aloud in a community meeting. Perhaps the letter would even be read again and again to eager listeners. Soon the letter was copied by hand, and circulated among other churches. In time all of Paul's letters, even though they were primarily written to individual groups noting their particular concerns, would be used in many different settings, some of them eventually achieving canonical status. First Thessalonians eventually circulated around Asia Minor, Macedonia, and Achaia with other Pauline letters creating a unified collection (see 2 Pet 3:16).

Structure and Contents.

Following the Hellenistic epistolary genre, Paul writes his first known letter using dramatic words of affection and encouragement. Rather than layers of dogma and doctrinal admonishments, terms of endearment and friendship fill the pages. Timothy's report to Paul may have included some of the group's particular problems. Paul, in an act of pastoral care, writes to address these particular issues. The believers appear concerned about the death of loved ones; may have exhibited a lackadaisical attitude toward their work, their craft; and may not have fully understood Paul's teachings from his previous visit. Paul writes to correct their attitudes, increase their knowledge, and encourage them in the faith. A simple reading outline follows:

  • Paul's Words of Beginning (salutation) 1:1–10
  • Paul's Words of Endearment 2:1–16
  • The Theme of Friendship 2:17—3:10
  • Paul's Words of Instruction 3:11—4:12
  • Paul's Closing Words: Code of Ethics 5:12–22
  • Paul's Final Words: A Prayer 5:23–28

Interpretation.

The book of Acts provides one of the earliest interpretations of 1 Thessalonians. (Another early interpreter may have written the letter called 2 Thessalonians, see “2 Thessalonians.”) While the letter lacks full details of Paul's ministry to the believers in Thessalonica, such as travel itinerary and missionary strategy, the book of Acts fills in the details as it tells the story of Paul, his congregations, and his missionary activity. After Paul was imprisoned in Philippi at the beginning of his mission to Europe (Acts 16:19–24), he traveled to Thessalonica, accompanied by Silas and Timothy (Acts 17:2). According to the author of Acts, when Paul arrived in this seaport city, he visited the synagogue, as was his custom. The synagogue was a place to worship and a beginning point of contact for his missionary activity. During Paul's stay, Jews and gentiles become believers of Paul's gospel message. An opposition party, perhaps Jewish believers from Jerusalem, began to rouse the crowds against Paul. Paul and his traveling party secretly left town during the night.

While Acts provides a narrative version of Paul's relationship to the believers of Thessalonica, this account is not fully consistent with 1 Thessalonians. Acts reports that Paul and Silas remain in Thessalonica for three weeks; Paul's version implies that he remains in town for a longer period of time, sufficient time to begin a workshop and establish a deep relationship with members of the fellowship. Acts 17 also follows a common pattern, showing Paul preaching in the synagogue at Thessalonica and raising the wrath of the local Jews. 1 Thessalonians makes reference only to the Jews/Judeans around Jerusalem and seems directed to an audience from a polytheistic background (1:9).

Traditional modern interpretations of 1 Thessalonians have focused primarily on the eschatological material in 4:13—5:11. This intense eschatological expectation is one of the reasons for the early dating of the letter. Many scholars have noted the high-powered, eschatological energy of this section, focusing primarily on Paul's apocalyptic language, seen in the call of an archangel, the shout of trumpets, and detailed heavenly ascensions. Scholars, such as Ernst Käsemann and J. C. Beker, have underlined the apocalyptic nature of Paul's letter to the Thessalonians. For many readers, this passage is the central focus of the writing: “For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, shall not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with archangel's call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first; then we who are alive, who are left, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air; and so we shall always be with the Lord” (RSV, 1 Thess 4:15–17).

For many interpreters, Paul's words about the end of time have overshadowed any other interpretive possibilities for the letter. Recent publications show the diversity of options. G. K. Beale (2003) and C. Nichol (2004) focus on the eschatological focus of this letter. Other scholars, however, read this letter with a different approach, using a Greco-Roman lens with socioeconomic and feminist interests—Abraham Malherbe (2000); Gene Greene (2002); and Linda McKinnish Bridges (2008).

Four basic assumptions guide these interpreters of 1 Thessalonians. First, this letter reveals something extraordinary about Paul and his style of leadership. This is the missionary, evangelist, teacher, artisan Paul in his early years of ministry. The way he approaches the people and problems in the congregation can be studied carefully. The words are filled with evidence of personal relationships, not rehearsed dogma. This letter can be read as a love letter—a letter that fills the recipient with the presence of the writer even in the midst of the writer's absence. Intimate dialogue takes place. Words of affection abound.

The second assumption used to guide the reading of 1 Thessalonians is that the genre of the letter responds to an ancient epistolary category of friendship letter. Ancient epistolary theorists suggested that all letters be classified by form and function (letter types or genres), such as letters of praise, introduction, reproach, consolation, apology, or friendship. First Thessalonians follows the genre of friendship letter.

The third assumption, extremely important and often unrecognized, is that the recipients (the Thessalonians) were skilled artisans who lived, worked, and worshipped in their workshop (tenement house) and belonged to their professional guild. They are manual laborers, seeking to hone their craft, provide for their families, and learn about this new way of life—all at the same time. The social structure of the community of believers in Thessalonians is different from Paul's other congregations. The believers in Corinth, for example, most likely worshipped in a home of a wealthy patron. They met in clandestine fashion and filled the house with their fellowship meals and Paul's teachings. The Thessalonians, however, met regularly for their daily work, taking breaks during the day for instruction and worship in their newly found faith. They follow the conventions of first-century voluntary associations with their concerns about death and life after death. Paul's words of comfort in grief are directed to their common concerns (4:13–18), concerns common for members of a professional guild in the first century. Likewise, Paul's admonishment to work quietly, to work with one's own hands, and to honor the senior craftsmen (1 Thess 4:11–12; 5:11–14) is directly related to the artisan workshop setting of this letter.

The fourth assumption that governs the reading of this letter is that the recipients, the members of the artisan community, are all male. Members of the professional guild would most likely be men. Women were not allowed. Paul's words are written from a male point of view. If women were present in this congregation, they were there only to provide domestic service, not as legitimate artisans with full membership in the workshop or church. Based on this assumption, the common reference to the recipients as “brothers” is understood; the masculine focus on sexual ethics can be fully interpreted in 4:1–9; and the consistent use of male pronouns is accepted. Women are not mentioned in this letter. While women may have been present in the community, they are bystanders, only looking into the life and community of the Thessalonian believers as outsiders. The interpretative challenge, not unlike that found in other places in the biblical canon and in the liturgy of the church, is to expand this androcentric point of view to a universal application that transcends gender and time.

Reception.

Paul's ancient images concerning the end of time have echoes in detailed descriptions found in the footnotes of the nineteenth-century Scofield Reference Bible and in heart-felt gospel songs placed in hymnals of mainline denominations in the early twentieth century, familiar songs such as: “When the Roll is Called Up Yonder,” “In the Sweet By and By,” and “The Meeting in the Air.” The images of archangels, trumpets, and airborne meetings have fascinated a large portion of the Christian population. Assurances that Christ would come again with signs and wonders brought comfort to those suffering in social and economic poverty. Images of Christ's return became a threat when groups like Heaven's Gate or Jonestown used them to instill a fear of the future.

One current cultural understanding of this book is presented by the popular writers Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, authors of the successful literary and cinematic series Left Behind. Paul's writings become the bulk of the dialogue when the character Pastor Billings describes what will take place at the Rapture of the church, when “the Christians who have already died and those that are still living receive their immortal bodies” (LaHaye and Jenkins, Left Behind: A Novel of the Earth's Last Days, Carol Stream, Ill., 1995, p. 210). A groundswell of interest in the study of the end times has spawned tedious charts, elaborate theories, and much anxiety regarding when the world might end as we know it, and Paul's letter to the Thessalonians is often at the heart of the debate.

The eschatological focus of this book cannot be denied. That Paul is dealing with members of the community who are concerned about the death of their loved ones cannot be ignored (1 Thess 4:13–14). The dominance of eschatological thought, however, has almost overshadowed any other possible interpretations. Attention needs to be given to the fact that Paul is also writing to refocus end-time predictions and provide assurances of Christ's presence to anxious first-century believers. Careful reading of 1 Thessalonians uncovers a balance between the reality of the end and the reality of the present. The Thessalonians are admonished not only to be concerned about what comes last but also to be mindful of that which is lasting.

[See also ACTS OF THE APOSTLES; APOCALYPSES; PAUL, LETTERS OF; and 2 THESSALONIANS.]

Bibliography

  • Ascough, Richard S, “The Thessalonian Christian Community as a Professional Voluntary Association.” Journal of Biblical Literature, 119, 2 (Summer 2000): 311–328.
  • Beale, G. K. 1–2 Thessalonians. Intervarsity Press New Testament Commentary. Downer's Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity Press, 2003.
  • Beker, J. C. Paul the Apostle: The Triumph of God in Life and Thought. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1980.
  • Bridges, Linda McKinnish. “First Thessalonians.” In Mercer Commentary on the Bible. Eds. Watson E. Mills and Richard F. Wilson. Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 1995, pp. 1241–46.
  • Bridges, Linda McKinnish. 1 & 2 Thessalonians. Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary, Vol. 26b. Macon, Ga.: Smyth & Helwys, 2008.
  • Bridges, Linda McKinnish. “Terms of Endearment: Paul's Words of Comfort in First Thessalonians.” Review and Expositor 96, 2 (Spring 1999): 211–232.
  • Donfried, Karl P and Johannes Butler, eds. The Thessalonians Debate: Methodological Discord or Methodological Synthesis. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2000.
  • Fatum, Lone. “I Thessalonians” In Searching the Scriptures: A Feminist Commentary. Volume 2. Ed. Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza. New York: Crossroads, 1994, pp. 250–262.
  • Gaventa, Beverly. “First and Second Thessalonians.” Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Louisville, Ky.: John Knox Press, 1998.
  • Greene, Gene. The Letters to the Thessalonians. The Pillar New Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Erdmans, 2002.
  • Jewett, Robert. The Thessalonian Correspondence: Pauline Rhetoric and Millenarian Piety. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1986.
  • Käsemann, Ernst. “Die Anfange christlicher Theologie.” Zeitschrift fur Theologie und Kirche 57 (1960): 162–185.
  • Käsemann, Ernst. “Zum Thema der urchristlicher Theologie,” Zeitschrift fur Theologie und Kirche 59 (1962): 267–284.
  • Koester, H. “From Paul's Eschatology to the Apocalyptic Schemata of 2 Thessalonians.” In The Thessalonian Correspondence, edited by Raymond E. Collins. Leuven, Belgium: Leuven University Press, 1990.
  • Koester, H. “Imperial Theology and Paul's Eschatology in 1 Thessalonians.” In Paul and Empire: Religion and Power in Roman Imperial Society, edited by Richard A Horsley, 158–166. Harrisonburg, Pa.: Trinity Press International, 1979.
  • Koester, H., and James M. Robinson. Trajectories Through Early Christianity. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1982.
  • Malherbe, A. J. “Gentle as a Nurse: The Cynic Background of 1 Thessalonians 2:7.” Novum Testamentum 12 (1970): 203–217.
  • Malherbe, A. J. The Letter to the Thessalonians. Anchor Bible Commentary. New York: Doubleday, 2000.
  • Malherbe, Abraham. Paul and the Thessalonians: The Philosophic Tradition of Pastoral Care. Philadephia: Fortress, 1987.
  • Nichol, C. From Hope to Despair in Thessalonica: Situating 1 and 2 Thessalonians. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
  • Richard, E. “Contemporary Research in 1 (&2) Thessalonians.” Biblical Theology Bulletin 20 (Fall 1990): 107–115.

Linda McKinnish Bridges

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