Thessalonians, Epistles to the
THESSALONIANS, EPISTLES TO THE
First Thessalonians . The New Testament canon includes two epistles of Paul to the Thessalonians. The order of the two in published editions of the New Testament is due to their respective lengths. The compilers of the New Testament codices placed the longer letters before their shorter counterparts. There is no textual evidence to support the theory of some scholars that 1 Thessalonians is a composite of fragments of Paul's earlier letters. Written before 2 Thessalonians, 1 Thessalonians is the oldest written document in the New Testament (ca. 50 a.d.). The letter was written shortly after the first visit of Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy to the Macedonian capital. Having heard good things about the life of the Thessalonians after their conversion to God (1.8–10) Paul wanted to return to Thessalonica but was prevented from doing so (2.17–18). In his stead he sent Timothy who returned with a glowing report, but also indicated that there was something missing in the faith of the community (3.5–6, 10). The first letter was written to compensate for this lack. Notwithstanding its theological content, the letter generally follows the accepted Hellenistic style of the personal letter, opening with the name of the author, those to whom it is written, and greetings (1.1), and closing with a series of greetings and a final farewell (5.26–28). The general outline of the letter is:
- 1.1 Epistolary Opening
- 1.2–2.12 First Thanksgiving
- 2.13–16 Second Thanksgiving
- 2.17–3.10 Timothy's Mission
- 3.11–13 First Wish Prayer
- 4.1–12 Exhortation on Sanctification and Love for Siblings
- 4.13–18 First Apocalyptic Period
- 5.1–11 Second Apocalyptic Period
- 5.12–22 Final Exhortations
- 5.23–24 (25) Second Wish Prayer
- 5.26–28 Epistolary Closing
The issue that concerned Paul and that prompted him to write was the grief that the Thessalonians were experiencing as a result of the loss of some of their numbers through death, possibly as a result of violence against Christians (2.14–15). Apparently they thought that the Parousia was to occur in the immediate future (4.15), but that had not happened. Paul responds (4.13–18) by citing an old credal formula (v. 14) and affirming his belief that as God had raised Jesus from the dead, so God will raise Christians from the dead so that they can enjoy life together with Jesus. Paul then uses images drawn from Jewish apocalyptic language and from the solemn entry of a king or conquering general into a city. Paul's short response is very important in the history of the development of Christian thought. Just 20 years after the death of Jesus, it 1) incorporates a pre-Pauline credal formula, 2) speaks of the life to come as "life with Christ," and3) uses apocalyptic language imaginatively to describe the possibility of the action of God.
The second apocalyptic period counterpoints the first by emphasizing that while awaiting God's future action Christians must continue to live a life of faith, love, and hope despite the difficulties of doing so (5.1–11).
The first thanksgiving period is unusually long for a Hellenistic letter. It's first part consists of a reminder of Paul's prayer of thanksgiving for the success of his preaching of the gospel among the Thessalonians (1.1–10). Their conversion and their life of faith, love, and hope were well known in the provinces of Macedonia and Achaia. The second part of the thanksgiving offers a fond reminiscence of Paul's visit to Thessalonica (2.1–12). The short second thanksgiving presents the synergy of God's action in the preaching of the gospel (2.13–16).
The first exhortation (4.1–2) encourages the Thessalonians to respond to the gift of the Holy Spirit by living holiness in marriage (reading 4.4 as "to take a wife," RSV) and an expansive love for their fellow Christians (Philadelphia, sibling love). A series of parting instructions (5.12–22), to respect their leaders, help one another, and have a critical openness to the gift of prophecy, concludes the body of the letter whose wish prayers express Paul's profound concern for the present life (3.10–13) and future salvation (5.23–24) of his beloved brothers and sisters at Thessalonica.
Second Thessalonians . During the last quarter of the 20th century a majority of biblical scholars came to support the view that 2 Thessalonians is a pseudonymous composition. A substantial minority of biblical scholars continue to hold the traditional view that 2 Thessalonians was an actual letter written by the apostle Paul to a gathering of Christians at Thessalonica.
The view that the epistle was written in the name of Paul by one of his disciples gradually emerged during the course of two centuries of historical-critical scholarship. During this period some scholars held that 2 Thessalonians was a composite letter, woven together by scribes from fragments of Paul's early correspondence with the community. Many of these scholars held similar views about 1 Thessalonians. Close analysis of the structure of both letters brought new questions to light. The structure of 2 Thessalonians is:
- 1.1–2 Epistolary Opening
- 1.3–10 An Apocalyptic First Thanksgiving
- 1.11–12 First Prayer
- 2.1–12 Apocalyptic Period
- 2.13–15 Second Thanksgiving
- 2.16–17 A Wish Prayer
- 3.1–5 Request for Prayer and a Wish Prayer
- 3.6–15 Exhortation
- 3.16a Final Wish Prayer
- 3.16b–18 Signature and Final Greetings
This basic structure appears to follow almost slavishly the structure of 1 Thessalonians. A striking example of the similarity of the two structures is the presence of two thanksgiving periods in each text. This feature of 1 Thessalonians is quite unusual in Hellenistic correspondence. Consideration of this is one of the reasons that many scholars consider 2 Thessalonians to have been written on the basis of 1 Thessalonians rather than by the author of 1 Thessalonians.
Another reason to believe that 2 Thessalonians is pseudonymous derives from its use of apocalyptic language, especially in 2.1–12. The scenario of this passage is so different from the apocalyptic view of 1 Thess4.13–18 that many scholars think that the two passages could not have come from the same author. 1 Thess4.13–18 presents a view of the saving Lord, whose appearance (Parousia ) is to be expected in the immediate future. 2 Thess 2.1–12 updates this view or responds to it by affirming that the Parousia will take place in some unknown future. Before the Parousia takes place, God's plan for human history must be realized.
The notion of a divine plan for history, with human history divided into neatly delineated periods, is a feature of apocalyptic thought. Thus, 2 Thessalonians affirms that before the Parousia there will be rebellion, perhaps the apostasy of some Christians, and a massive outbreak of evil, clearly the work of Satan (2.9). Then there will occur the appearance (apokalypsis ) of "The Lawless One." His conduct is described in images taken from Roman Emperor worship (2.4). Some kind of mysterious staying power is involved in the entire scenario (2.6–7). It is unclear whether this "staying power" refers to the perduring influence of evil forces, or to a power that restrains (stays) those forces. A tradition going back to the time of Tertullian interpreted this staying power of the Roman Empire and the Roman Emperor who restrained the effects of Satan's evil. Many scholars in the latter part of the 20th century interpreted this staying power in terms of the proclamation of the Gospel for which Paul was significantly responsible. Other scholars think of the staying power, not as the power to restrain, but as a power that maintains. These scholars interpret 2.6–7 of evil's power to sustain itself by means of those who are opposed to God.
The Lawless One is to be destroyed by the Lord Jesus at his coming (Parousia, 2.8). Rather than being salvific as in 1 Thess 4.14–17, his appearance is punitive. He is to destroy the Lawless One by the breath of his mouth. The epistle's first thanksgiving period (1.3–10) included a section written with apocalyptic imagery that described God's righteousness being realized in the revelation of his vengeance (1.7b–10). Together with his angels the Lord Jesus will be revealed in flaming fire. He will inflict vengeance on those who do not accept the gospel, banishing them from the divine presence and condemning them to eternal destruction. The christology that emerges from these two imaginative apocalyptic units centers on a future appearance of Jesus as Lord which presents him as the ultimate agent of divine vengeance.
The principal paraenetic unit is the exhortation of 3.6–15 which urges the members of the community, not so much to avoid idleness as to avoid unruliness so as to build up the community as a self-sustaining group of people (cf. 1 Thess 4.10b–12). Paul's "signature" (3.17) is truly unusual. It supposes that letters erroneously or falsely attributed to Paul were already in circulation. This would have been impossible were 2 Thessalonians to have been written by Paul just a few weeks after the sending of 1 Thessalonians.
[r. f. collins]