1 Thessalonians: Introduction

1-thessaloniansSo I thought I’d work through 1 & 2 Thessalonians. For a couple of reasons.

First, I’ve never studied these books. Ever. And yet they’re not long. They’re even about the right length for a 13-week Bible class. So is someone hiding something? Why don’t we ever cover these books?

Second, 1 Thessalonians may be the oldest NT book. There’s a good case for 1 Cor, which we cover all the time, but for some reason, 1 Thes never gets any attention. Why not? Why is this a step-child of our adult Bible class curricula?

Third, some scholars question the Pauline authorship of 2 Thes — which seems surprising. What’s the deal?

Fourth, 2 Thes has this passage on “the lawless one,” sometimes tied to the Anti-Christ or one of the monsters in the Revelation — and yet we never preach or teach about this passage. That just has to be interesting — and may be the reason we never cover these epistles in Bible class. I don’t know …

Fifth, there’s the whole Rapture thing based on 1 Thes 4:17. So there are some truly interesting passages in these two short letters.

If I could decide how to abbreviate it. I mean, I’m not about to type “Thessalonians” 500 times. It’s got to be 1 The or 1 Thes or 1 Thess, and they all look wrong to my eye. So I’m going with 1 Thes because, well, it looks best to my eye. Or just because.

So let’s get going. Not only do I know nothing about the books, I nothing about the city except that it’s in Greece and still an inhabited city. Google images shows it to be a photogenic town with some beautiful ancient ruins.

thess-bay 9abd5119fd4161595d5bb8972b8582cd thessalonica2 arch-of-galerius Saloni02                                                                                                                         The city was in ancient Macedonia, the northern neighbor of Greece and the home country of Alexander the Great. Macedonia never realized quite the prestige of Greece, but the two were closely tied.

That is, Macedonia was Canada to Greece’s United States. But Greece came to be ruled by Alexander, and Alexander used Greece as a base from which to conquer the Ancient Near East, building his empire on the ruins of the Medo-Persian Empire. All this happened during the 450 or so years between the two testaments.

When the city, named for Alexander’s half-sister Thessaloniki, was founded in 316 BCE, one of Alexander’s generals (Cassander) was its first benefactor. Due to the squabbles of Alexander’s successors, however, Thessalonica eventually received Rome as its new patron in 167 BCE.

Abraham Smith, “The First Letter to the Thessalonians,” in 2 Corinthians-Philemon (vol. 11 of NIB, Accordance electronic ed. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000), 675.

“Patron” is, of course, a euphemism for becoming a vassal city-state to Rome. The city was caught between Rome’s expansionism and the remnants of Alexander’s empire. They wisely chose to be ruled by Rome, leading to a culture that strongly supported the Roman emperors, especially Augustus, to whom the city built a prominent statue.

Rome built a highway from Rome into the eastern part of the Empire, to make it easier to control lands to their east. This was called the Via Egnatia, and it ran through Thessalonica. Just as Eisenhower built the interstate system to facilitate military transport (inspired by Hitler’s autobahns) only to find the real value to be in trade and travel, the Via Egnatia made Thessalonica a wealthy city by routing most east-west land-based travel through the city.

Unlike many Roman cities, Thessalonica loved being Roman, and the Romans appreciated the loyalty of a such a strategically placed city.

By the time Paul visited Thessalonica, sometime during the imperial reign of Claudius (41–54 CE), the Thessalonians had already erected a statue of Augustus as one of several honors to the Romans. Moreover, all of the Macedonians (in Thessalonica and beyond) had honored Augustus “by inaugurating an ‘Augustan era.’”

Abraham Smith, “The First Letter to the Thessalonians,” in 2 Corinthians-Philemon (vol. 11 of NIB, Accordance electronic ed. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000), 677.

Recent studies have found evidence in the epistles that Paul was deliberately calling on his readers to see Jesus as their true benefactor, not Caesar, and this was creating some problems with the locals, who both revered and feared Rome.

It is likely that the Christians’ glorification of Christ precipitated the conflict with the communities favorably disposed to the Roman government. If so, terms found in 1 Thessalonians, such as παρουσία (parousia, “coming” or “presence,” 1 Thess 2:19; 3:13; 4:15; 5:23); ἀπάντησις (apantēsis, “meeting,” 1 Thess 4:17) and ἀσφάλεια (asphaleia, “security,” 1 Thess 5:3) are not politically innocuous. Rather, as Helmut Koester asserts, these terms present Paul’s view of Jesus’ “coming” or “return” as that of a king being greeted by a delegation that has come out to meet him.

Koester notes, moreover, that Paul’s view of “peace and security” “points to the coming of the Lord as an event that will shatter the false peace and security of the Roman establishment.” Other terms in 1 and 2 Thessalonians could also be reread in the light of this possible political conflict. The attribution of the appellation “Father” to God may have been used in opposition to the imperial establishment, for the term figured in the ideology of Augustus Caesar as he sought to construe his empire as one large family. Even such terms as “gospel” (εὐαγγέλιον euangelion) and “savior” (σωτήρ sōtēr) in 1 and 2 Thessalonians or any of the other letters attributed to Paul could well have suggested “opposition to the imperial religion of the pax Romana [Roman peace].”

Abraham Smith, “The First Letter to the Thessalonians,” in 2 Corinthians-Philemon (vol. 11 of NIB, Accordance electronic ed. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000), 677.

Paul left Thessalonica to travel to Athens and then Corinth. Not being able to immediately return, he sent Timothy to strengthen the church. He apparently wrote 1 Thes largely to encourage a young church struggling against an unwelcoming culture.

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About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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10 Responses to 1 Thessalonians: Introduction

  1. John F says:

    From just east dated about 9 B.C.E. comes the following: “It seemed good to the Greeks of Asia, in the opinion of the high priest Apollonius of Menophilus Azanitus: ‘Since Providence, which has ordered all things and is deeply interested in our life, has set in most perfect order by giving us Augustus, whom she filled with virtue that he might benefit humankind, sending him as a savior [sôtêr], both for us and for our descendants, that he might end war and arrange all things, and since he, Caesar, by his appearance [phanein] (excelled even our anticipations), surpassing all previous benefactors, and not even leaving to posterity any hope of surpassing what he has done, and since the birthday of the god Augustus was the beginning of the good tidings for the world that came by reason of him [êrxen de tôi kosmôi tôn di auton euangeliôn hê genethlios tou theou],’ which Asia resolved in Smyrna…”

    Great sermon material here … and not just for Christmas time.

  2. Mark says:

    John F. This would mean a sermon would potentially discuss the Greek gods and explain why the letters were written. This would explain the timing of the birth of Christ and the glad tidings of joy. I never in 30+ years heard these 3 topics mentioned in a cofC pulpit.

  3. Alabama John says:

    Ancient history is facinating.

    As we study 1Thes, keep in mind that Paul was a Roman JEW and that influenced his thinking of Romans and all others he wrote about and to. Jews were Gods people and should of been 1st in all things that really mattered, not Rome or any other. That was Jews belief and is still that today.

  4. Price Futrell says:

    Interesting !!

  5. Dwight says:

    Although Paul was a Roman Jew, having been trained by Gamaliel, he was a Jew’s Jew and chances are he wasn’t a Hellenistic Jew and he is never called that even by himself who made it known that he was a Pharisee, etc.
    Most Jews had a hate-hate relationship with Rome as they hated Rome control, and hated the Roman after all they were the inferior un-Godly gentile.
    Most Romans also hated the Jews, because they were not Roman and thus classified as barbarians who thought themselves superior to the Romans.
    Romans and Jews had much in common in some ways.

  6. John F. says:

    Mark: if you wish I will send you my sermon notes that begin with the Priene inscription. I would really prefer a 6 BCE dating to the 9 BCE most scholars give (the Christ likely born in 6 BCE) but I can deal with it.

    BTW: I prefer BCE not to mean “Before the Common Era” but to “Before Christ’s Emergence”!

  7. Jim H says:

    Glad to see a pivot to a specific focus on a portion of the biblical text.

  8. Gary says:

    The late Abraham Malherbe, a CoC professor at Abilene Christian University and Yale Divinity School, was probably the leading 1 Thessalonians scholar of our lifetimes. He published a book on I Thessalonians sometime in the last two decades but I can’t remember the title. Malherbe was a South African and one of the founding group of Restoration Quarterly.

    It’s fine to discuss and even debate for fun the authorship of NT letters like 2 Thessalonians. But I was convinced decades ago of the wisdom of what has been called the Canonical Approach or the Canonical Theory. It was associated with longtime Yale Divinity School professor Brevard Childs. I’ve heard Walter Brueggeman argue in favor of it. Basically it holds that the NT canon is the canon and has been accepted as authoritative for going on two millennia by the Church. As such, questions about authorship, dating and historicity are ultimately irrelevant. Brueggeman said (rhetorically) that the only other option would be to persuade the worldwide Church to propose a new canon. Since that will in all likelihood never happen that leaves us with the Canon of Scripture that we already have. Whenever I hear someone try to downplay the teaching of a specific text by arguing that it is not really authentic Scripture I automatically dismiss their argument. No individual or group can change now the parameters of what the church has accepted as authoritative Scripture at least since the fourth century and in many cases much earlier.

  9. David says:

    Good point, Gary. And, even if some portions of Scripture, such as Mark 16:9-20, were not written by Mark, but added later, it makes little difference. Whoever added these portions probably knew what they were talking about. They passed the test for Scripture when the canon was formed, and there is no going back,

  10. John F. says:

    the “canon” as we have is largely a “formal” recognition by the established church in the West (Rome). But there is no consensus among other groups (Ethiopian, Syriac, Coptic, Eastern Orthodox, etc.).Numerous groups include some of what we what we call the “Apocrypha”. A quick review would indicate diverse variety. I believe the Spirit has guided the preservation of the Word. Bruce Metzger, Neil Lightfoot (my Greek professor) have written much.

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