Epistles to the Thessalonians - Encyclopedia

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EPISTLES TO THE THESSALONIANS, two books of the New Testament. The Christian community in Thessalonica (mod. Salonica) was founded by Paul, Silvanus and Timothy, shortly before the visit to Athens and Corinth. The Gospel preached covered not only the general Christian convictions as to monotheism, belief in Jesus as Messiah Lord, and the impending judgment, but also the specifically Pauline doctrine of the indwelling Christ or Spirit, the earnest of acquittal at the Day of the Lord and of life with Christ for ever. It is the same Gospel as that preached in Galatia, in spite of the fact that the word "justification" does not appear in the Thessalonian letters (cf. 2 Thess. i. 11 f.). The converts, mainly Gentiles and chiefly manual labourers (many of whom, according to the episodical narrative of Acts xvii., had been already attached more or less loosely to Judaism), suffered persecution from the beginning at the hands of their fellow-countrymen. Some of them, moreover, owing partly to this persecution, but mainly to the belief that the Lord was soon to return, gave up work, thus creating most of the difficulties with which Paul, in these letters, has to cope. Forced to leave Thessalonica after a brief sojourn (how long is uncertain), Paul hastened to Athens, from which place he sent Timothy back to Thessalonica, being himself unable to go, much as he longed to see his converts. From Athens, Paul went on to Corinth, where Timothy joined him, bringing good news about the Thessalonian converts, especially about their endurance under affliction, and bringing likewise, as Rendel Harris has suggested, a letter from the leaders of the church. The report was, however, not wholly favourable. The sudden departure of Paul, and his failure to return, had been misinterpreted. Some were insinuating that Paul had preached with intent to deceive and as a pretext to cover impure designs (1 Thess. ii. 5); some, perhaps the same people, disregarding Paul's injunction (2 Thess. iii. 10), had remained idle, had fallen into drunken habits (1 Thess. v. 7), had been tempted to revert to the impure worship of the heathen gods (r Thess. iv. 3 ff.), and, in their lack of funds, had demanded, speaking in the spirit (cf. Didache xi. 12), money from the church officers, thus disturbing the peace of the church, and causing the soberer minds to question the validity of spiritual gifts (1 Thess. iv. 11 ff., v. 12 ff.).

Paul's reply, the First Epistle to the Thessalonians, written from Corinth in A.D. 53 or 48, is as tactful as Philemon and as First personal as Galatians. In the first three chapters, he reviews his relation to the church from the beginning, commending highly the reception accorded to the Gospel and its messengers, and meeting the insinuations already alluded to by reminding the readers that, although as an apostle he was entitled not only to special respect but to an honorarium, yet he earned his own living and loved them as a father. As to his failure to return, he explained that it was not his own fault. He wanted to go back but Satan hindered him. Even x xv1.27 a now, as he writes, he is praying that he may soon see them face to face. After the prayer, he takes up the points in which they had shown want of faith. To those who are tempted by the heathen worship, he points out that Christian consecration is something ethical, to be won only in the power of the consecrating Spirit. Respect for one's wife is an antidote to this enticement, and marriage with pure motives a safeguard against adultery. Passing on to other points, he urges that there would be no schism in love of the brethren, if the idlers would work and mind their own business (1 Thess. iv. 1-12). There is no advantage at the Parousia of the living over the dead, for both simultaneously will meet the Lord. The desire for more accurate information about times and seasons is unnecessary, for their present knowledge is accurate enough, viz. that the day is to come suddenly and it is a day of destruction for the wicked. The main thing for them is to be prepared for that day (1 Thess. iv. 13 - v. 11). With the specific situation still in mind, he adds his final injunctions. Respect your presiding office's, purposely called "the labourers," and let there be peace. Warn the idlers, encourage those who are impatient of the Parousia, and cling to those tempted by the heathen worship. In spite of the temptation to avenge your persecutors, be patient with them, return good for evil, exemplifying to all what is the Christian good. In spite of affliction, let there be joy, prayer and thanksgiving (1 Thess. v. 14-18). The charismata are to be respected, and at the same time tested (ibid. 19-22). A prayer for complete consecration, a charge that all should hear the letter read (apparently the leaders were tempted to neglect the idlers and the idlers had threatened not to listen to any epistolary communication from Paul), and a benediction bring the letter to an end (ibid. 23-28).

Such a letter, dominated as it is by the spirit of the Paul we know and fitting nicely the recoverable situation, is unquestionably genuine, and few there be who deny it.

What effect this letter had, it is impossible fully to say. Apparently, it did not quell the excitement for which the idlers were largely responsible. Paul's discussion of the relation of dead and living at the Parousia seemed insufficient. His refusal to go further into times and seasons than the statement "the day comes as a thief in the night," is made the point of departure for the idlers to assert, on the basis of alleged spiritual utterances, corroborated, to the dismay of the leaders, by a reference to an anonymous letter reckoned to the account of Paul, that "the day is present." The troubled leaders send post-haste a letter to Corinth stating the situation and asking definite opinions as to the Parousia and the assembling of the saints. Paul is grievously disturbed, both because the first letter, in his judgment, was clear, and because of the association of his authority with the anonymous letter. Only a short interval has elapsed, to be reckoned in weeks, when Paul, with the first letter distinctly in mind and with a vivid recollection of his oral teaching on mooted points, hastens with Silvanus and Timothy to write the Second Epistle.

In one long sentence of prayer and thanksgiving (2 Thess. i. 3-12), he insists tactfully that their religious-ethical growth makes it his bounden duty to thank God, in spite of their written demurrer, compels him indeed of his own motion to boast of their faith and endurance, qualities which are evidence of the Divine purpose to account them worthy of the kingdom for which they, as they wrote, as well as he, are suffering. Suddenly remembering a Pharisaic Psalm, not unlike in purport to one of the Psalms of Solomon, and admirably adapted to his present purpose, namely, of contrasting the fate of the wicked with that of the righteous at the Parousia, he quotes it, making a few Christian touches in his own style (2 Thess. i. 6-10). Whereupon he prays, as they too prayed in their letter, that God would deem them worthy of the calling, and ensure them of the acquittal at the last day, by giving them in the power of the Spirit that present life in the Spirit which guarantees the future life in Christ. Then, disregarding the request for more information about the assembling, of which, he thinks, he had spoken sufficiently in his first letter, he addresses himself to the other question of the "when" of the Parousia, supplementing what was said in the first letter, but adding nothing to what he had already said orally in their presence, and stoutly disclaiming all authority whatever for the statement "the day is present." Briefly and allusively, in language which has nothing specifically Christian in it and in style similar to the first chapter (verses 6-10), he recalls the familiar story. The day does not come until the final revolt in heaven and until the lawless one (the man of lawlessness, the son of Perdition) is revealed, which revelation cannot happen, until the controlling or restraining thing or person is removed. Then, however, the tool of Satan will appear, but the Lord will destroy him with the breath of his mouth and annihilate him with the majesty of his presence (2 Thess. ii. 1-12). Following the formal order of the First Epistle, he again thanks God that his converts are chosen to salvation and prays that they may have strength and obey his orders oral or written. Even with a "finally," as in the first letter, he is not quite through, for the second point of the letter remains to be treated - the idlers. These, he says, must remember both his example (he was never guilty of begging) and his precept ("if any man will not work let him not eat"). They must work quietly and eat their own food. Those who refuse to heed his written orders are to be noted. The test of the genuineness of his letters is his autograph greeting (2 Thess. ii. 13-iii. 18).

The letter meets the known situation excellently. The new material, compared with the First Epistle, is the supplementary discussion of the time of the Parousia (2 Thess. ii. i ff.) and the fuller treatment of the idlers (2 Thess. iii. i ff.), the points about which the leaders sought advice. The style is Pauline even in the adaptation of Jewish apocalyptic material to Christian purposes. Indeed, the outline of the letter is strikingly similar to that of the First Epistle, and many phrases hold over. At the same time there is a freedom of style suggesting not the imitator but the same author. And above all, especially in the treatment of the idlers, the letter reveals a knowledge of the situation which is even more explicit than that of the First Epistle. On such grounds, together with the excellent external attestation, it is probable, as recent writers hold (e.g. Zahn, Wohlenberg, Harnack, Julicher, Findlay, Askwith, Charles, Bacon, McGiffert, Moffatt, Milligan, et al.), that the letter is Paul's.

The objection to the Pauline authorship felt by the Tubingen school may, for brevity's sake, be here disregarded. The modern difficulties, expressed mainly by recent German scholars (e.g. Wrede and Holtzmann and others), centre not in the unPauline language or in the lack of the personal element, but in the eschatology and the over-Pauline character of the language. As to the first objection, the eschatology, it is replied that the section ii. 1-12 is scarcely an interpolation, since it is one of the two main reasons for the letter; that the material of the section is a distinct allusion to, if not a direct quotation of, a definite bit of Jewish apocalyptic, even if we do not connect it, as Bousset does, with a so-called Antichrist legend; that the alleged inconsistency between the eschatology of the First and the Second Epistle does not exist, for in the first letter Paul says not that the day is present, but that the day, when it comes, comes suddenly "as a thief in the night," while in the second letter he expressly denies the statement attributed to him, namely, that "the day is present." Wrede, in his brilliant argument against the genuineness of the letter (Die Echtheit des zweiten Thessalonicherbriefes, 1903), inclines to admit that the argument from eschatology is secondary.

As to the second objection, the over-Pauline character of the letter, an objection used with rigour by McGiffert (whose article on these letters in the Ency. Biblica is the most satisfactory discussion known to the present writer), and renewed independently by Wrede, it is to be admitted that the similarity of the second to the first letter is striking, particularly in the formal arrangement of the material. At the same time, the differences, both in arrangement and in the content of the reminiscences, are not to be overlooked, as McGiffert and after him Wernle (Gott. gel. Anz., 1905, pp. 347-5 2) have both rightly maintained. Again there should be no disparagement of the new material such as is to be found in Holtzmann's acute discussion (Z. N. T. W., 1901, pp. 97-108). On the whole, the perplexing situation seems to be met on the assumption that Paul writes the Second Epistle either with a letter from Thessalonica before him, which itself suggested the main points of his own epistle, or with a copy or a summary of that epistle before him (cf. Zahn and McGiffert).

The alternative is forgery, as Holtzmann, Wrede and Hollmann (Z. N. T. W., 1904, pp. 28-38) actually hold. The difficulty with this hypothesis is that it does not explain so many facts as the hypothesis of Pauline authorship. As it is improbable that the forger would write during the lifetime of Paul, the date has to be put either shortly after his death, or with Wrede at the end of the century. But this late date creates the insuperable difficulty that iii. i ff. gives a more explicit account of the original situation in Thessalonica touching the idlers than does the First Epistle. The purpose moreover of the forgery could not be to discredit the First Epistle as un-Pauline, for the alleged trouble is that the Second Epistle is too Pauline. Hence the purpose is to correct the statements of the First Epistle. If, however, there is no inconsistency between the two letters on the score of eschatology, what is the forger's purpose? The teaching about premonitory signs is not new to Thessalonica, but is assumed as known, hence the allusive character of the second chapter. The statements in ii. 2 and iii. 17 are easily explicable on the hypothesis that the idlers found an anonymous letter and attributed it to Paul, especially when they thought, perhaps in good faith, that the Spirit had indicated that the day is present. Finally, the forger handles Paul's style with miraculous knowledge, not only reproducing phrases from the first letter, but knowing how to amend them to present purposes with singular naturalness. When it comes to putting Christian touches to a Jewish fragment, the touches turn out to be uniquely Pauline, although they are not obviously Pauline (e.g. i. 6-10 "Ezirep," "obey the Gospel," "was believed"). And even with the thought of Paul, he is curiously at home. So certain is he of the substance of Paul's thought, that he can reproduce it in a concise sentence without recourse to the word "justification" (e.g. i. II). On the whole, then, the situation created by the literary relation of the two letters is best met by the hypothesis that Paul is the author of the Second Epistle.

In addition to the literature mentioned under Colossians, Epistle To The, and the special literature already named in this article, reference should be made to the commentaries on these letters by Ellicott (1858), Jowett (1859), Eadie (1877), Hutchinson (1883), Lightfoot (Notes, 1895), Drummond (1899), Findlay (1892 and 1904), Milligan (1908), and Moffatt (1908); and by Schmidt (1885), Zimmer (1885-93), Schmiedel (1892), Zockler (1894), Bornemann (1894), B. Weiss (1896) and Wohlenberg (1903).

(J. E. F.)

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