Arranged in the NT as the eighth and ninth of the epistles. From Philippi, Paul came to Thessalonica with Timothy and Silas and spent about a month there (Acts 17: 1–9) before disturbances obliged them to make an unscheduled departure for Beroea, and thence to Athens, without Timothy and Silas. There Paul waited for them to catch him up (Acts 17: 16), as Timothy, at any rate, did (1 Thess. 3: 1–3), having been previously dispatched from Athens to Thessalonica to support the Church there. Paul wrote 1 Thess. after Timothy had returned to him—but by this time Paul had moved on from a rather indifferent reception at Athens to the volatile city of Corinth (Acts 18: 5). Here, in 51 CE, Paul wrote 1 Thess. and (unless Galatians can claim precedence) it was the first of all his epistles; it is also rather special in having no dramatic, controversial theme.
The Church at Thessalonica comprised mostly urban artisans, both Jews and Gentiles, and the latter were probably perplexed by the apocalyptic teaching concerning the parousia and the Judgement. Paul’s Christian belief was that Christ’s resurrection was the first stage in an eschatological series of events, whereas the Thessalonian Gentiles may once have been initiates in the cult of Serapis with the promise of an agreeable afterlife, and so were now as Christians expecting very soon to enjoy a painless share in a general resurrection.
Because of Paul’s hasty exit from Thessalonica, he now could say he was grateful for the warmth of those who did accept him. His motives were entirely honourable. Their response was one of joy (1: 6). Yet he was anxious about the state of the young Church there (1 Thess. 3: 5) and urged the Christians to have hope. True, some of the members had already died, but they would not be at a disadvantage when Christ returned: Christians in this life already shared in the new life in Christ, which created a strong and cohesive social unit, able to withstand popular hostility. For the Church had suffered (1 Thess. 2: 14): possibly converts from the pagan temples led to butchers’ loss of trade and so to the disturbance. Political stability was linked by the dominant class in the city with the pagan rites. Nevertheless Paul did counsel kindness towards all their neighbours (1 Thess. 4: 12).
Much of the message of 1 Thess. is repeated in 2 Thess. which creates a problem of authorship. Could Paul have written so similar a letter to the same Church so soon? And yet with the similarity go some differences: a word like ‘calling’ (2 Thess. 1: 11) does not bear its normal Pauline meaning (1 Thess. 2: 12), and imitation (2: 14) is used differently in 2 Thess. (3: 9). The same Greek word is indeed translated differently in each place by REB. The eschatology of 2 Thess. 2 urges the recipient to look out for the signs of the End, whereas 1 Thess. 5: 4–5 warns them that the End will come quite unexpectedly. It would also seem possible that the reference to ‘the man of lawlessness’ occupying the Temple (2 Thess. 2: 3–4) depends on Mark 13: 14–17, which is later than anything Paul could have written. The language does not refer to an historical event, such as Caligula’s intention to erect a statue of himself in the Temple in 40 CE.
The transparent effort of 2 Thess. to gain credibility as a Pauline letter is apparent in 2: 1–2, where there is mention of a letter purporting to come from Paul, teaching that the Day of the Lord had already come. And 3: 17 rather overdoes the appeal to his own handwriting, for if the Thessalonians had just read 1 Thess. it is odd that they should need to have the letter authenticated in this way. It is better to assume that a letter had gone round in Paul’s name asserting that the Day had already come, and that a disciple of Paul wrote 2 Thess. in about 80 CE, explaining that the events to precede that day had not yet taken place. The letter is an encouragement to the Christians in Thessalonica to be firm in the faith. The expected return of Christ is no excuse for refusing to work now for a living (2 Thess. 3: 11–12).