THE FIRST LETTER
TO THE THESSALONIANS

 

1. Who wrote the First Letter to the Thessalonians?

1.1. Whom does 1 Thess 1:1 identify as the authors of 1 Thessalonians?

1 Thess 1:1 identifies Paul, Silvanus and Timothy as the authors of 1 Thessalonians.

1.2. The man identified as Silvanus (Greek = Silouanos) in 1 Thess 1:1 as one of the authors of the letter is the same man known as Silas (Silas) in the Book of Acts. This is obvious from the fact that the movements of "Silvanus" in Paul's letters (1 Thess 1:1; 2 Thess 1:1; 2 Cor 1:19; see 1 Pet 5:12) coincide with those of "Silas" in the Book of Acts (Acts 15:22, 27, 32 (34), 40; 16:19, 25, 29; 17:4, 10, 14, 15; 18:5). This man's given name was Silas, which was a Jewish name (see Josephus, War 2.520; 3.11, 20; Ant. 14.40; 18.204; Life 89-90, 272; t. Ber. 2.10); he took a similar sounding Roman name, Silvanus, presumably in order to facilitate his evangelistic work. (The name Silas is the Greek version of the Aramaic Sh'yl', which is the name Saul [Sh'wl]; this is confirmed by Palmyrene inscriptions.) After Acts 18:5, Silvanus (Silas) is no longer associated with Paul. According to Acts 15:22, 32, Silvanus (Silas) was a "leader" (hêgoumenos) in the church and a prophet.

1.3. The use of the first person plural (verb forms and pronouns) is ubiquitous in the letter, signifying that it is a joint composition of Paul, Silvanus (Silas) and Timothy (1 Thess 1:2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8; 2:1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 12, 13, 15, 17, 18, 19, 3:1, 2, 4, 6, 7, 8, 9, 11, 12; 4:1, 6, 10, 11, 13, 14, 15; 5:12, 14, 25). Nevertheless, on two occasions the first person singular occurs: "I sent to find out about your faith" (3:5) and "I adjure you, by the Lord, to have this letter read among the brothers" (5:27). In addition, the following parenthetically remark occurs: "I, Paul, more than once" (2:18). What do you conclude from these data about the authorship of the letter?

The use of the first person singular in 1 Thess 3:5 and 5:27 seems to indicate that one of the three names authors is the principal author. That this person is Paul, the first named of the three authors, is proven by the fact that Paul discloses his identity as the principal author in 1 Thess 2:18.


2. To whom was the First Letter to the Thessalonians written?

2.1. Whom does 1 Thess 1:1 identify as the intended readers of 1 Thessalonians?

1 Thess 1:1 identifies the members of "the church of the Thessalonians" as the intended readers of the First Letter to the Thessalonians.

2.2. In 1 Thess 5:27, what does Paul say that he wants the Thessalonians to do with the letter?

Paul wants the letter to be read aloud "to all the brothers," by which he means all the believers in Thessalonica.

2.3. From 1 Thess 1:9; 2:14; Acts 17:4 what do you conclude about the ethnic composition of the church at Thessalonica? Is it largely composed of Jews or gentiles?

The church at Thessalonica was almost entirely gentile. In 1 Thess 1:9, Paul refers to the Thessalonians as having turned from idols, which is an indicator that they were gentiles. Similarly, in 1 Thess 2:14, he refers to the Thessalonians' own "countrymen," in contrast to the Jews who are persecuting the churches in Judea.  Also Luke describes how a large number of God-fearing Greeks believed Paul's message (Acts 17:4), as opposed to the relatively few Jews in the city who believed.

2.4. How does 1 Thess 4:3-4 confirm the conclusion that the church at Thessalonica was composed mostly of gentile believers? Of Jews or gentiles, who would more likely be the group addressed in Paul's admonition?

Paul admonishes the Thessalonians to keep themselves from sexual immorality. This probably means that his readers were gentiles, because, unlike Jews, gentiles in the Roman world were notorious for being sexually immoral.

2.5. From Acts 17:1-9, what can you ascertain about the founding of the Thessalonian church?

After leaving Philippi Paul and company traveled to Amphipolis, to Apollonia and then to Thessalonica in the Roman province of Macedonia. For three Sabbaths, Paul preached to the Thessalonian Jews in the synagogue there. Some of the Jews were persuaded, along with a number of "worshipping Greeks," i.e., gentiles who had abandoned paganism and had attached themselves to the synagogue. But the rest of the Jews in the city resisted Paul, created a disturbance and sought to drag Paul and Silas before the city authorities. They accused them offlouting the laws of the emperor and saying that there was another king, Jesus. When they could not find Paul and Silas, they accused Jason, in whose house Paul and Silas were staying, before the city authorities.

2.6. Thessalonica was an important city in the Roman province of Macedonia, the chief seaport of the province and its administrative capital. It was ruled by a popular assembly (see Acts 17:5 eis ton dêmon) and magistrates (see Acts 17:6 epi tous politarchas). According to Strabo, the city was founded by Cassander c. 315 BCE and named after his wife, Thessalonica, the sister of Alexander the Great (Geog. 7, fr. 21). The inhabitants supported Marcus Antonius and Octavius in the battle of Philippi and as a result were rewarded by having their city declared a “free city” (civitas libera). Strabo says that in his day Thessalonica was the most populous city in Macedonia (Geog. 7.7.1). Paul and his associates arrived in Thessalonica traveling from Philippi along the Egnatian Way, a 850 kilometer military highway stretching across Macedonia and Thrace, from the coast of the Adriatic Sea eastward to Byzantium. The highway served to connect Rome with its eastern provinces.


3. When was the First Letter to the Thessalonians written?

3.1. Paul and his associates stayed in Thessalonica for longer than one might think based on the Book of Acts. According to Acts 17:2, Paul spoke on three Sabbaths at the synagogue in Thessalonica, after which he was forced to leave the city. Based on this, one might think that Paul spent only three weeks in the city. It is probable, however, that Paul stayed longer than three weeks or so in the city, which means that Luke's account in Acts 17:1-9 is abbreviated. Exactly how long Paul, Silvanus (Silas) and Timothy remained in Thessalonica is impossible to determine from the available sources. The following data from 1 Thessalonians support the hypothesis of a longer sojourn in Thessalonica.

3.1.1. The statement in 1 Thess 2:8-11 that Silvanus, Timothy and he "worked day and night in order not to be a burden to anyone" does not seem to be something that someone who stayed only three weeks or so in a city could say. Rather, such a statement presupposes a longer period of time.

3.1.2. In 1 Thess 1:7-8, Paul says that, because of their steadfast endurance of persecution, the Thessalonian believers became an example for other believers in Macedonia and Achaia and even the whole world: "You received the word in much affliction with the joy of the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example for all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia. From you the word of the Lord has sounded forth, not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but in every place your faith in God has gone." The implication of the passage may be that the Thessalonians had gained such a reputation while Paul, Silvanus and Timothy were still in the city. But even if Paul's statement should be interpreted to mean that what he describes occurred after his departure from the city still more time is required than the Book of Acts appears to allow, because, as will be seen, Paul writes his letter only shortly after he left Thessalonica. The three weeks or so that Silvanus (Silas), Timothy and he were supposed to be in the city added to the time between their departure and the writing of the letter not long afterwards seems inadequate for the spread of the report about the Thessalonians.

3.1.3. In 1 Thess 1:9-10, Paul describes how the Thessalonian believers turned from idols to the worship of the living God. This implies naturally that most of the Thessalonian believers were gentile converts. Luke's account of Paul's time in Thessalonica only describes how Paul preached in the synagogue for three Sabbaths and says nothing about Paul's work among gentiles in the city, presumably after these three weeks (Acts 17:2). It seems probable that Luke has chosen to omit the account of Paul's evangelistic work among gentiles after his expulsion from the synagogue. How long this period was is not known.

3.1.4. In Phil 4:16, Paul commends the Philippians for the fact that at least once they sent a donation of money to him while he was in Thessalonica. (Paul's statement could be translated as "Even in Thessalonica you sent me help once and again" or "Even in Thessalonica you sent me help more than once.") This seems to presuppose a longer stay in the city than merely three weeks or so, especially as Philippi is about 160 km away from Thessalonica.

3.2. Paul wrote 1 Thessalonians to the church that he founded in the city after he left the city for the first time having been there for an unspecified period of time. What can you infer from 1 Thess 2:17-3:6 about when, relative to events of his second missionary journey, Paul, Silvanus (Silas) and Timothy wrote the letter?

Paul, Silvanus (Silas) and Timothy left Thessalonica unwillingly, and moved on to Athens (2:17); they intended to return to the city, but were prevented (2:18-20). Finally, Paul and Silas sent Timothy from Athens to check on the situation of the Thessalonian Christians (3:1-5). Timothy returned, and reported that they were doing well (3:6), in response to which Paul wrote 1 Thessalonians.

3.3. Luke provides another account of the movements of Paul, Silvanus (Silas) and Timothy after leaving Thessalonica for the first time. Can what Luke describes in Acts 17:5-10, 13-16; 18:5 be correlated satisfactorily with 1 Thess 2:17-3:6? What does Paul's version in 1 Thess 2:17-3:6 include that is absent from the parallel account in the Book of Acts and what does Luke's version include that is absent from Paul's?

These sources can be correlated satisfactorily, but only with the recognition that neither is a complete account. According to Acts 17:5-10, Paul and Silvanus (Silas) were forced to leave Thessalonica because of legal action taken against them by Jews hostile to him and his message (The whereabouts of Timothy, however, at this point is not indicated) (see 1 Thess 2:17). They went to Beroea, but soon Jews from Thessalonica came to the city and caused trouble for them (Acts 17:13). In Acts 17:14-15, Luke says that Paul was accompanied by Beroean believers from Beroea to Athens, while Silas and Timothy stayed behind in Beroea. When he arrived in Athens, Paul then sent instructions with the Beroean believers who accompanied him for Silas and Timothy to join him in Athens as soon as possible (Acts 17:15). It seems that Silas and Timothy did join up with Paul in Athens, from where Paul says that he and Silas sent Timothy back to Thessalonica, for, according to 1 Thess 3:1-2, Paul and Silas sent Timothy from Athens back to Thessalonica to check on the progress of the church there. This fact is omitted from Luke's account in Acts (see Acts 17:15; 18:5). It seems also that Silas also left Athens and went to Macedonia, perhaps to Thessalonica, because Luke reports that both Timothy and Silas rejoined Paul from Macedonia. At this point, however, Paul is no longer in Athens, but in Corinth (Acts 18:1, 5); this change of location, however, is not disclosed in 1 Thess 3:6.

3.4. What do you conclude about the date of composition of 1 Thessalonians from 1 Thess 2:17-3:6, Acts 18:5 and knowledge of Pauline chronology? (Remember that Paul's first visit to Corinth can be dated to c. 50-53.) How long has it been since Paul and his associates were in Thessalonica?

Silas and Timothy's coming to Corinth from Macedonia in Acts 18:5 seems to be the return of Timothy described in 1 Thess 3:6. If so, Paul was writing from Corinth. He was in Corinth for eighteen months between the years of 50-53, but 1 Thessalonians was probably written shortly after Paul's arrival in Corinth, since it seems from what Paul writes in 1 Thess 2:17-3:6 that not much time has passed since the departure of Paul and his associates from Thessalonica and the composition of 1 Thessalonians; it seems that Timothy and Silas join up with Paul in Corinth not too long after his arrival in the city. Thus the date would be c. 50-52. It is impossible to know how long exactly it had been since Paul was in Thessalonica, but probably at least a few months.

3.5. Some argue for a later date for the composition of 1 Thessalonians because it is assumed that the reference in 1 Thess 2:16b to "the wrath that came upon them [Jews] finally" (see T. Levi 6:11), as a result of their opposition to God's salvific purposes culminating in their attempts to hinder Paul's preaching of the good news, could only be to the destruction of the Temple in 70. Obviously, Paul would have to be writing after this event. (Others claim that 1 Thess 2:13-16 or just 2:16b is an interpolation from the post-destruction period.) Such an argument for post-70 date for the composition of the letter is weak, because it is unlikely that Paul's general description refers to this catastrophic event; if it did, one would expect more historical detail (see Barn. 512; Justin, Apol. 1. 47; Tertulian, Adv. jud. 13; Apol. 25; Origen, Contra. Celsum, 1.48; 4.23). Rather, Paul's meaning was that unbelieving Jews had entered a state of being under the wrath of God, for which there would be corresponding consequences in the near future; in other words, a temporal gap existed between entering into a state of wrath and experiencing its effects. On this interpretation the meaning of the previous clause—"in this way they [Jews] have been constantly filling up their sins"—is that God set a limit to the sins of the Jews and with Paul's generation that limit was reached, so that the Jews as a people were now finally in a state of wrath and could expect certain consequences soon to follow. It is conceivable, nevertheless, that Paul had a foreboding of the war that would soon erupt between the Jews and Romans.


4. Where was the First Letter to the Thessalonians written?

Assuming that 1 Thess 3:6 and Acts 18:5 describe the same event, what can you conclude about the place of the composition of 1 Thessalonians?

Paul wrote 1 Thessalonians in Corinth.


5. What is the First Letter to the Thessalonians?

Outline of the First Letter to the Thessalonians

A. 1:1-10

This represents the introduction of the letter.

1. 1:1

This represents the salutation of the letter.

2. 1:2-10

In 1:2-3 Paul gives thanks to God for the Thessalonians, and in 1:4-10 he relates some the circumstances in which the Thessalonians believed: they turned from idolatry and believed Paul's message in spite of suffering persecution. He commends them for their faithful suffering.


B. 2:1-5:22

This represents the main body of the letter.

1. 2:1-16

Paul speaks about his mission and work in Thessalonica. Defending himself against his critics, he says that he did not use flattery, nor was he motivated by greed. He was gentle with the Thessalonians, and worked hard among them. He thanks God that they received Paul's proclamation as the word of God and not as the word of men. He reminds them that, as a result of their faith, they suffered at the hands of their own countrymen, as the churches in Judea did at the hands of the Jews, on whom the wrath of God came.

2. 2:17-3:13

Paul explains that he and his associates intended to return to the city, but were prevented. He describes how eventually he sent Timothy to them and received good news from Timothy about the strength of their faith in spite of persecution.

3. 4:1-12

Paul gives exhortations to sexual purity (4:1-8), loving one another (4:9-10) and leading a quiet life, working hard, in order to win the respect of outsiders (4:11-12).

4. 4:13-5:11

As encouragement to bereaved Thessalonians, Paul explains that those who died among them will be raised from the dead at the second coming of Christ (4:13-18). They should be ready for this, because the day will come unexpectedly, like a thief in the night. Since they are "of the day," Paul exhorts them to be self-controlled, putting on the faith and love as a breastplate and the hope of salvation as a helmet.  He explains that God did not appoint them to suffer wrath, but to receive salvation (5:1-11).

5. 5:12-22

Paul gives a series of further practical exhortations.
 

C. 5:23-28

This represents the conclusion of the letter, including a benediction, request for prayer and greetings.
 

6. Why was the First Letter to the Thessalonians written?

Assuming that he wrote what he did for a purpose, what can you determine to have been Paul's reasons for writing 1 Thessalonians from the contents of the following passages?

6.1. 1 Thess 3:6-9

Paul wrote to express his satisfaction with the progress of the community, in spite of their suffering persecution, as reported to him by Timothy.

6.2. 1 Thess 2:1-12

Paul wrote to answers charges of self-seeking and cowardice brought against him by some Jews in Thessalonica, perhaps reported to him by Timothy.

6.3. 1 Thess 4:1-8

Paul warns the Thessalonians against sexual immorality. Presumably, he thinks that this is a genuine danger for these gentile converts.

6.4. 1 Thess 4:13-14

Paul wrote to instruct the Thessalonians about the fate of those who had died; perhaps Timothy brought their question to Paul.

 

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