The Epistle to the Thessalonians
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The Epistle to the Thessalonians

Charles A. Wanamaker

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The Epistle to the Thessalonians

Charles A. Wanamaker

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The letters of Paul to the newly founded Christian community at Thessalonica hold a special place within the Christian tradition as possibly the earliest extant Christian writings. They are also of special interest not only for their theological value but for their sociological context. Among the communities established by Paul, the church at Thessalonica appears to have been the only one to have suffered serious external oppression. These two important epistles, then, speak uniquely to contemporary Christians living in a society often ideologically, if not politically, opposed to Christian faith.In this innovative commentary Charles A. Wanamaker incorporates what may be called a social science approach to the study of 1 and 2 Thessalonians, taking into full account the social context that gave rise to Paul's correspondence. While Wanamaker in no way ignores traditional historical-critical, linguistic, literary, and theological approaches to writing a commentary -- in fact, at several points he makes a significant contribution to the questions raised by traditional exegesis -- at the same time he goes beyond previous commentaries on the Thessalonian correspondence by taking seriously the social dimensions both of Christianity at Thessalonica and of the texts of 1 and 2 Thessalonians themselves. In blending traditional exegetical methods with this newer approach, Wanamaker seeks to understand Pauline Christianity at Thessalonica as a socio-religious movement in the first-century Greco-Roman world and attempts to grasp the social character and functions of Paul's letters within this context.A significant and original addition to the literature on 1 and 2 Thessalonians, this commentary will be valuable to scholars, pastors, and students alike.

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Letters in the Greco-Roman world, like modern letters, followed a standard format that included a prescript or salutation, body, and conclusion. The salutation in Greek letters almost always included three elements: the sender’s name, the addressee, and a pro forma greeting: A to B: greetings (with a verb like “sends” being understood). This could be extended to include additional greetings and a wish for good health. For example: Θέων ʿΗραϰλείδῃ τῷ ἀδελφῷ πλεῖστα χαίρειν ϰαὶ ὑγιαίνειν (“Theon to his brother Herakleides many greetings and good health”; see White, Light, 118 for this and other examples; cf. Est. 8:13 [12a, LXX]; 1 Macc. 10:18; 2 Macc. 10:22). 1 Thessalonians begins with the shortest and simplest prescript of any of the extant Pauline letters and conforms closely to the unelaborated salutations of contemporary Greek letters, with one significant modification, as we shall see.
1:1 1 Thessalonians, like 1 and 2 Corinthians, Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, and 2 Thessalonians, purports to have been sent by Paul and one or more of his coworkers. The senders of 1 Thessalonians, as in the case of 2 Thessalonians, identify themselves as Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy. To what extent Silvanus and Timothy actively participated in the composition of the letter is impossible to say, but in conformity with the prescript, the first person plural is used throughout the letter with very few exceptions.
Three passages in particular, however, suggest that the letter should be read primarily as an embodiment of Paul’s thought. In 2:18 the first person plural is replaced by the first person singular in the second part of the verse where Paul specifically identifies himself: διότι ἠθελήσαμεν ἐλθεῖν πρὸς ὑμᾶς, ἐγὼ μὲν Παῦλος χαὶ ἅπαξ ϰαὶ δίς (“wherefore we wished to come to you, I Paul, once and again”). A few verses later, in 3:5, the first person singular occurs again. Given Paul’s self-assertion in 2:18, we must assume that ϰἀγὼ … ἔπεμψα (“and I … sent”) in 3:5 also refers to Paul himself. This impression is further confirmed by the fact that the passage in question concerns an occasion when Timothy was sent as a substitute for the person who stands behind the “I.” From other letters of Paul we know that this is precisely how Paul employed Timothy (cf. 1 Cor. 4:17; 16:10; Phil. 2:19). The other text in which the first person singular occurs is 5:27, where the author of the letter “adjures” his readers to ensure that the letter is read to “all the brothers.” The sheer authoritativeness of this injunction implies an author of the stature of Paul who could impose such a demand on his readers (see R. F. Collins, “Paul,” 351-353 for further discussion of the “I” passages).
If in fact Paul is the real author of 1 Thessalonians, why has he included the names of his fellow workers Silvanus and Timothy in the salutation? Two answers may be given. In the first place, Silvanus and Timothy shared in the missionary work at Thessalonica, and therefore as Paul’s colleagues they had a stake in the development of the church there. Their inclusion as co-senders of the letter thus strengthens the authority of the document by implying unanimity among Paul and his coworkers regarding the situation of the Thessalonians. Doty (Letters, 30) has suggested a second reason. In Hellenistic letters the carrier who was to deliver the letter was often mentioned in order to link him with the writer and thereby “guarantee that what he had to say in interpreting the letter was authorized by the writer.” Since Paul used various colleagues in this way, including Timothy, this may help explain the inclusion of Silvanus and Timothy in the prescript if one or both of them was to deliver the letter (see 3:1-5 on the use of Timothy as an emissary and substitute for Paul’s apostolic parousia or presence).
In most of his letters Paul begins by identifying himself as an apostle (Rom. 1:1; 1 Cor. 1:1; 2 Cor. 1:1; Gal. 1:1) or as the slave or prisoner of Christ (Phil. 1:1; Phm. 1). The absence of such a self-identification in 1 Thessalonians (and 2 Thessalonians) is therefore noticeable but can perhaps be explained in terms of the situation. In the case of Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, and Galatians, Paul’s status and authority were to some degree in question. In the case of Philippians and Philemon the self-description was intended to evoke respect and possibly sympathy from the recipients. Nothing in 1 Thessalonians indicates that Paul’s authority or status was in doubt among his readers, and Paul’s personal situation was certainly not as precarious at the time of writing as it was when Philippians and Philemon were written.
Details of Paul’s life and apostleship are known well enough not to require elaboration here. The same is not true, however, of Silvanus and Timothy. Σιλουανός is almost certainly the person whom Acts refers to as Σιλᾶς (Acts 15:22, 27, 32 and nine times in 15:40-18:5). Σιλουανός is probably the Latinized form of his name while Σιλᾶς is the Grecized version, both perhaps derived from Aramaic Še’îla’ (BDF §125.2; see Bruce, 6 for an alternative possibility). Paul mentions Silvanus in the prescript of both 1 and 2 Thessalonians and in 2 Cor. 1:19, where he states that Silvanus shared in the mission work at Corinth. Acts 17:1-9 indicates that he did so at Thessalonica as well.
Acts tells us several other things about Silas that may help explain his role with Paul. After the Jerusalem conference recorded in Acts 15, Silas and a man named Barsabbas, both “leading men among the brothers” at Jerusalem (v. 22), were sent with a letter to the Gentile converts in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia specifying certain moral and ritual purity practices that the Gentile Christians were to adhere to (vv. 22-34). According to 15:36-41, when Paul and Barnabas fell out over whether John Mark should accompany them on a second missionary journey, Paul took Silas with him. While we are unable to confirm these details from Paul’s own letters, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that Paul took Silvanus along precisely because he was a representative of the mother church in Jerusalem. By doing so he perhaps hoped to ensure the support of Jerusalem for his missionary activity and to emphasize the unity of his work with the mother church.
Nickle (Collection, 18-22) has argued that one of the “apostles of the churches” referred to in 2 Cor. 8:23 was Silvanus. Whether his identification of Silvanus can be maintained or not, 2 Cor. 8:17-24 does indicate that Paul on some occasions was accompanied by representatives of Jerusalem. That Silvanus was an apostle seems likely. As Holmberg (Paul and Power, 65) has observed, if Paul intended plural ἀπόοτολοι in 1 Thes. 2:7 to be taken seriously, then he acknowledged Silvanus as an apostle. From Paul’s perspective this meant that Silvanus was a witness to the resurrected Jesus, and therefore his status was comparable to that of James the brother of Jesus and of Paul himself (1 Cor. 15:3-8). This fits well with the impression created by Acts, which claims that Silas was a prominent member of the Jerusalem church. Thus we should think of Silvanus, not as an underling of Paul like Timothy, but as “a respected colleague almost the equal of Paul himself” (Holmberg, 65).
The name Τιμόθεος occurs in all the letters of the Pauline corpus except Galatians and Ephesians. In six letters Timothy is named as Paul’s co-writer (1 Cor. 1:1; Phil. 1:1; Col. 1:1; 1 Thes. 1:1; 2 Thes. 1:1; Phm. 1). 1 Cor. 4:17 and 16:10; Phil. 2:19-23; and 1 Thes. 3:1-6 make it clear that Timothy served as Paul’s special assistant and emissary to the churches when Paul was unable to be present. As Funk (“Apostolic Parousia,” 255-258) has shown, Timothy exercised Paul’s apostolic parousia, that is, he embodied Paul’s apostolic authority and power to the churches in Paul’s absence (see 1 Thes. 3:2). Phil. 2:19-22 indicates that Paul considered him his most trusted assistant and confidant, while 1 Cor. 4:17 reveals a strong sense of warmth on Paul’s part toward Timothy, whom he calls his “faithful and beloved child in the Lord.”
According to Acts 16:1-3, Timothy was a disciple from Lystra whose mother was a Jewish Christian and whose father was a Gentile and very possibly a nonbeliever as well. When Paul selected Timothy to accompany him on his second missionary journey, he had him circumcised because it was known in the local Jewish community that his father was a Gentile. Acts 20:4 indicates that he traveled with Paul on his last journey to Jerusalem, and the prescripts of both Philippians and Philemon show that he was with Paul in his imprisonment, presumably at Rome. Elsewhere in the NT he is mentioned as the recipient of two letters, 1 and 2 Timothy, that claim to have been written by Paul. He is also named in Heb. 13:23, which may have given rise to the ascription of Hebrews to Paul in the ancient Church.
The prescript of 1 Thessalonians specifies that the letter was addressed ἐϰϰλησίᾳ Θεσσαλονιϰέων (“to the church of the Thessalonians”). “Church” probably has more meaning for us than ἐϰϰλησία had for the Thessalonians. The Greek word was used of a summoned assembly, for example, a regularly summoned political body (cf. Josephus, Ant. 12.164) or a public gathering of a more general sort (cf. Acts 19:32). The word was also used in the LXX for the solemn gathering of the people of Israel as a religious assembly (cf. Dt. 31:30; 1 Kgdms. [1 Sa.] 17:47). Because the Christian community constituted the new people of God who assembled regularly for worship and fellowship, the word was taken over by Paul and others as a designation for any local Christian community (cf. 1 Cor. 4:17; Gal. 1:22), for the wider Christian community (cf. 1 Cor. 12:28), and even for house churches (Rom. 16:5). Use of ἐϰϰλησία for the assembly of the Christian community may also reflect the desire for a distinctively “Christian” identity in the face of Jewish use of συναγωγή for local Jewish congregations (cf. Acts 6:9).
ἐν θεῷ πατρί ϰαὶϰυρίφ ʾIησοῦ Χριστῷ (“in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ”) specifies which assembly is being addressed, as in about twenty percent of the other occurrences of ἐϰϰλησία in Paul’s letters (cf. 1 Cor. 1:2; 15:1; Gal. 1:13). What is unusual, however, is the idea that the church is somehow “in God.” Paul characteristically uses “in Christ” to indicate the incorporation of the Christian into Christ’s life in all its dimensions (cf. Rom. 6:11; see Best, One Body; Bouttier, En Christ; Moule, Origin of Christology, 47-96 on the use of “in Christ” in Paul’s letters), but he does not use “in God” in a similar spatial sense, except, as here, with ἐϰϰλησία. For this reason Best (Commentary, 62) suggests that “in God” should be understood instrumentally and that the whole phrase should be rendered “the Christian community brought into being by God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.” Bruce (7) on the other hand argues that if “in … the Lord Jesus Christ” has its customary meaning here, then “in God the Father” should be understood in the same fashion. No definitive solution to this question can be offered on grammatical grounds. It is certain, however, that whether the instrumental or the spatial sense of ἐν was intended, Paul sought to link the Christian community in Thessalonica to both God and Christ because it had its origin in divine activity, its existence was to be determined by God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, and its members were to live out their lives in the presence of the divine.
The theological importance of the name and nature of the church at Thessalonica should not cause us to lose sight of the fact that the Christian ἐϰϰλησία was first and foremost a community, a social institution, without which Christianity would never have succeeded in becoming the dominant religion of the Roman Empire. This was the cardinal advantage that it enjoyed over its religious competitors in the Roman world, which, with the exception of Judaism, did not generally organize adherents into religious communities (see Gager, Kingdom and Community, 140). The communal character of Christianity provided the context in which converts were resocialized from the pagan or exclusively Jewish worlds to the new Christian world with its distinctive sets of beliefs and values. (See the Introduction, pp. 14f. above, for a further discussion of religious conversion as a socialization process.) It was also the basis for separating those who professed faith in the one God and Father and in the one Lord Jesus Christ (cf. 1 Cor. 8:6) from the rest of humanity by reinforcing the new Christian social identity. In other words the Christian community or church helped to establish group boundaries between saved and unsaved humanity. This was essential for sustaining its identity and that of its members in a hostile world (see Meeks, “ ‘Since then …,’ ” 4-29; First Urban Christians, 84-106 on group boundaries in Pauline Christianity).
χάρις ὑμῖν ϰαὶ εἰρήνη (“grace to you and peace”) concludes the prescript of the letter by offering a somewhat abbreviated form of the standard Pauline greeting. It differs markedly from the greeting in the normal Greek letter, where some form of χαίρειν (“greetings” or “rejoice”) is used, but it has some correspondence to the normal Jewish greeting, “peace.” In 2 Macc. 1:1 we find a combination of the typical Greek greeting, χαίρειν, with the traditional Jewish greeting, εἰρήνη. What is interesting about this example is that “peace” is part of a formulaic prayer for the well-being of the recipients that occurs after the formal greeting. 2 Bar. 78:2 employs “mercy and peace” in a similar fashion, and Doty (Letters, 29f.) notes that this was typical of Jewish letters.
Thus Paul’s “grace and peace,” which in all of his other undisputed letters is qualified by some variant of the words “from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ,” constitute a formulaic prayer for the addressees of his letters. For this reason Lohmeyer (“Probleme,” 159) may be correct when he says that the formula was primarily liturgical in character. While there is always a danger of reading too much into isolated occurrences of words, Paul undoubtedly intended “grace and peace” to evoke in his readers a sense of divine blessing upon their lives characterized by God’s freely given favor and the sense of completeness or wholeness (the root idea of the Hebrew word šālôm) that results from reconciliation with God through Christ’s death. In this way Paul shows his grounding in the OT understanding of God’s dealings with the people of Israel.

EXORDIUM: 1:2-10

Since the early form-critical work of Paul Schubert (Form and Function), it has become common to speak of the thanksgiving period of the Pauline letters as a specific structural component in the apostle’s letters. With the exception of Galatians, all of the Pauline letters addressed to churches have a thanksgiving section immediately following the prescript (cf. Rom. 1:8-15; 1 Cor. 1:4-9; Phil. 1:3-11; Col. 1:3-8; 2 Thes. 1:3-12). 2 Cor. 1:3-7 and Eph. 1:3-14 are not exceptions to this rule even though neither εὐχαριστῶ nor any of its cognates occurs. In those two letters “blessed (εὐλογητός) be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” clearly serves to introduce a section having the same function as the other opening thanksgiving sections in the letters of Paul. This has led Doty (Letters, 32) to suggest that we should speak of “thanksgiving and/or blessing segments” in the Pauline letters. Paul’s opening thanksgivings seem to function as substitutes for the common wish for well-being or mention of supplication on behalf of the recipient(s) that occur in Hellenistic letters (cf. White, Light, 219; Stowers, Letter Writing, 73).
The case of 1 Thessalonians is peculiar, however, because of the further expressions of thanksgiving in 2:13 and in 3:9f., on the basis of which Schubert (17-27) claims that the introductory thanksgiving stretches as far as 3:13. In 2:13 Paul returns to the theme of thanksgiving by offering thanks for his readers’ conversion immediately after his description in vv. 1-12 of the nature of his ministry among them that led to their conversion. In 3:9f. the apostle summarizes the theme of his continuing concern for his converts (2:17-3:8) by means of a thanksgiving statement. O’Brien (Introductory Thanksgivings, 144), following the lead of Schubert, explains the diffuse character of the thanksgiving in 1 Thessalonians by claiming that Paul includes “personal and official details in and around his thanksgiving or petitionary prayer reports.” Though Schubert and O’Brien have both struggled to explain the atypical form and function of the thanksgiving section in 1 Thessalonians, they have clearly not succeeded because they have not offered a satisfactory explanation for the large sections of material that occur between the three thanksgiving statements.
Several other scholars have recognized the structural unity of 1:2-3:13 implied in the work of Schubert and O’Brien (cf. Frame, 12-17; Rigaux, 33-37; Lyons, Pauline Autobiography, 175-221; Jewett, Thessalonian Correspondence, 68-78). Lyons and Jewett (see also Kennedy, New Testament Interpretation), in particular, have offered a new way forward by their application of rhetorical analysis to the letter. Jewett describes 1:1-5 as the exordium or introduction to the letter. According to rhetorical theory the exordium or prooemium was intended to make the audience “well-disposed, attentive, and tractable” toward the communicator (Kennedy, Art of Persuasion, 121; cf. idem, New Testament Interpretation, 23f.). According to Jewett the exordium of 1 Thessalonians announces thanksgiving as the principal theme of the letter. The narratio section of 1:6-3:10 then narrates the reasons for Paul’s thanksgiving to God.
While Jewett is essentially correct, it is more appropriate to speak of 1:2-10 as the exordium of the letter. Good reason exists for doing so. The exordium, in addition to evoking a sympathetic response from its readers, was intended to announce the main themes of the letter. The theme of thanksgiving is clearly set forth in vv. 2f. But a variety of subthemes are also introduced in vv. 4-10.
Beginning in v. 4 and continuing to v. 10 Paul takes up the conversion of his readers. This theme is elaborated upon in the narration in 2:1-12, which is followed by Paul’s thanksgiving for his readers’ conversion in 2:13. In v. 6 Paul mentions the persecution experienced by the Thessalonians at the time of their conversion and how it led to their becoming imitators of himself and the Lord. This provides the theme of the digression in 2:14-16 as well as the underlying motif in the continuation of the narration found in 2:17-3:5. The second part of the narration furnishes the basis for the third thanksgiving in 3:6-10. Similarly, the subject of eschatological expectation, of central importance in 4:13-5:11, is first announced in 1:9f. At first sight parenesis, an important theme of the letter in 2:1-12, where it is implicit, and 4:1-5:22, where it is explicit, appears to be missing from the exordium. This initial perception is ...

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