Day 1: 1 Thessalonians 1–3

In a nutshell: Anxious, embattled leader responds to a report he received while on the road that his community is still backing him.

When I could not stand to worry any longer, I sent Timothy to check on your faithfulness, for fear that you had been so shaken by these threats that our work had come to nothing. But now Timothy has returned to us with a glowing report of your confidence in God and your love for us. … We can cope if you remain committed to the Lord’s service.
—1 Thess 3:5–6a, 8 SV

Our opening reading, 1 Thessalonians 1–3, is sweet with an undercurrent of ominous. Here I was, thinking this first reading would be pretty easy. Not so. Right from the start we’re confronted by talk of “condemnation that is sure to come” (1:10). We’ve already hit one of those awkward future-of-Christianity moments, and we’ve only just begun.

Deep breath. I’m not reading this to prove the rightness or wrongness of Christianity today. I’m reading in Harvey Cox’s three layers: story, history, spirituality.

I retreat into history to rescue the moment. Paul is 100 percent pre-Christianity. As far as Paul is concerned, in his own words, his world-transforming message is not “we have a new religion,” but “the messiah now has a name, Jesus, and he came not only for the people of Israel but for all the nations of the world” (1:10, 2:16).

Paul still identifies with Israel: in future letters, as we’ll see, he uses the stories of Israel to define what he feels is an enormously important cosmic situation. He called upon the experiences of Israel’s renowned prophets to define his own role in it, decades before any movement formally known as “Christianity” emerged as a separate religion from Temple, rabbinic, or any other sort of Judaism.

Plan for central Thessaloniki by Ernest Hébrard. Much of the plan can be seen in today's city center.
Plan for central Thessaloniki by Ernest Hébrard. Much of the plan can be seen in today’s city center. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Paul’s emotions stand out. His total enthusiasm for the Thessalonians exudes from this letter. As Gerd Lüdemann observed in The Earliest Christian Text, we get to see Paul’s pastoral approach in this letter, a rare glimpse of his personal relations. “The letter is somewhat gossipy,” Brandon Scott said of it in The Trouble with Resurrection. Here we see a Paul who is warm and embracing, but he’s also anxious to keep his people loyal. As his letter to the Galatians will make clear, Paul is a man capable of putting outrage to paper.

His anxiety has a clear source: he’s embattled, facing ridicule and threats. Not to put too fine a point on it, it sucks to be alone in situations like that. He’s relieved to find out the Thessalonians are still backing him.

That’s the historical, but what about the spiritual? What inner demons are stirred up by this letter to the Thessalonians? I’m imagining Paul and his communities as living at levels of tension somewhat like Ferguson and Baltimore this past year. Whatever is troubling Paul’s community, it goes beyond everyday harassment: someone has died, several someones (2:15, 3:3). Paul and his communities are facing intense pressure to sink back into the status quo, pretend nothing bad ever happened. Indeed they are able to sink back into the status quo to some extent, but only until the next blow wakes up their sense of injustice.

Paul urges exactly the sort of caution one would expect under such circumstances: “Live a quiet life, mind your own business, and support yourselves so that outsiders might respect you and you might be self-sufficient” (3:11–12). How often have I heard that same caution voiced by people who’ve been in that place? I remember a classmate at Yale Divinity School who, in explaining to a large group of (mostly white) friends what it was like for her to live as a black woman, put her hand on my arm and said, “It’s like this: I may be the only black woman Cassandra ever meets up close. I need to make a good impression, not for myself but for all black people.” She had learned that making a good impression protects not only herself in the moment but contributes to the protection of all black people. If I as a white woman have even one positive impression of a black person, it may prevent the sort of conscience-numbing fear that would lead me to lash out later. What enormous pressure to be facing as a member of a minority group!

Do I have the power to hurt a black man or black woman? Whether I like it or not, the answer is yes. All it takes is a complaint registered in a certain “sensible” tone of voice at the right time to the right official. I know exactly what that looks like. I hate that power, but I know people who don’t. They cling to it.

Another anecdote, this one from Harvey Cox on reading Jesus’ Last Supper with a community in a favela (slum) near Săo Paulo:

Suddenly a man with a weather-beaten face shook his head. “Why in the world,” he asked, “did the Lord talk so openly, when he suspected there was an informer at the table?” He added that he had had experience with police spies and he certainly would never have done that. (How to Read the Bible, 11)

These two modern stories both came from people trying to live their lives without the unpredictable intrusions of brutality from people who have more power than they do. Anyone who takes action to improve or overthrow the current state of affairs faces elevated threats and persecution. Is Paul’s group truly comparable?

If I just read this as a straight-out story without accounting for context, the bad guys appear to be fellow people of Israel (Jews?) who Paul tells us are harassing the Jesus crowd in far-off Judea. Even Paul isn’t all the way over there. He’s only in Athens. When I draw on the larger horizon of empire studies, though, there’s an argument to be made that Rome is the true enemy—and it would have been obvious to first-century readers.

Jesus, to the extent that his intentions can be known, chafed against the randomized brutality of Roman rule. Can his Empire of God be any more obviously in competition with the Empire of Rome? But what about Paul’s own words? I think yes, anti-imperial language threads through them. Look at his Jesus, “God’s Anointed”—think of David and other kings of Israel, anointed with oil by prophets to usher them toward an illustrious if occasionally torturous reign. And here comes Paul, actively campaigning far beyond Judea for others to see Jesus as a divinely resurrected king.

I circle back to that phrase, “condemnation to come.” What makes the Thessalonians special and loved and protected is not their inherent worth as human beings but rather their allegiance to the specific God in the precise way Paul has laid out the situation for them. Their worthiness is conditional on loyalty to God. The question is, what does it mean to be loyal to God? Who or what precisely are we loyal to when we are loyal to God? Because Paul is speaking to people who have already heard his message, he doesn’t explain, but future readings will shed more light on this question.

Questions for the Road

  • Have you ever felt concerned that coworkers or a community group are abandoning an important message or mission of yours? Did you, or would you, handle it as Paul does in this letter?
  • Is it a deal-breaker to read a person who believes the end of the world is coming? What if, as in environmental circles today, we understood Paul to believe the world is ending in a thoroughly “real-world” sense, and we have to get ready for it?

Letters of Paul small squareThanks for reading this entry from the #30DaysofPaul reading challenge. We’re reading the seven undisputed letters of Paul in 30 days: 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Philemon, Philippians, Romans. Why not join us? Download the reading plan, which is based on the work of the Westar Paul Seminar as published in The Authentic Letters of Paul.

Cassandra FarrinCassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as the Marketing & Outreach Director. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University. She is passionate about books and projects that in some way address the intersection of ethics and early Christian history.

9 thoughts on “Day 1: 1 Thessalonians 1–3

  1. Per persecution/great stress: In “The Authentic Letters of Paul,” whether 1 Thess. 3:13-16 is a possible interpolation (on p. 25) is discussed. Quoting FC Baur on Paul, the authors note that, according to Baur there are no opponents identified, that Paul didn’t participate in persecution of Jewish Christians, that Jews were “misanthropic” and that the situation suggests that Jerusalem had been destroyed. That seems selective, since FC Baur considered the whole of 1 Thessalonians to be a later composition. The Paul Seminar points out that these verses leave a piece of a “typical” form of a Pauline letter out, but this is a moot point. (I’m not using the SV, because it tends to soften the language. For instance, affliction/persecution becomes “great stress,” which today could just reflect worries over paying bills or a migraine. )

    The first hint one might not have been a middle first century production is found here. “You became imitators of us and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit so that you became an example to all believers in Macedonia and in Achaia” (1.6-7). This implies that there was systematic persecution through the whole area. In essence it says the same thing as 2.14 . Then there is the curious statement, “though we had already suffered and been shamefully mistreated at Philippi…” (2.2a), which is unattested in the rest of the Pauline canon but finds its way into Acts (16.19-24). Θλιψις, “affliction” or persecution is found as a problem for groups in all of the “authentic” Paulines except for Philippians, though this systematic persecution can’t be documented. (See Moss, “The Myth of Persecution.”) So, working our way up along the Aegean, a wide swatch of the ancient world, from Achaia across all of Macedonia to Philippi EVERYONE is being persecuted for believing according to those who see the letter as authentic and in any way a historical “situation.” Quite frankly, there is no situation around 49 ce. There is, however, a clue. Timothy, a supposed letter writer, has turned third person and is heading up to Thessalonica “to strengthen and encourage… so that no one would be shaken by these persecutions. Indeed, you yourselves know that this is what we are destined for.” Aha! We are looking at a time when persecution & martyrdom were a way of life. That is, quite frankly, enough to look at a different date, probably around the time of the Pastorals and Acts, when Timmy was hitting his stride in the literature and when martyrdom and the love of persecution – brought to you in color by Justin, Ignatius and Polycarp – was flowering all over the place. More later. (Need to address “imitators of us,” which seems to point to a time when Paul and buddies had become legendary.)
    See Doughty, “1 Thessalonians as Deutero-Pauline,” “Forum,” New Series 5.2

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  2. Thessalonians 1-3, a paraphrase: You are a speical people. You recognized the great value of the messenger and message when we were in your midst, and your trust. love, and hope is a testament to your imitation of us. Just like the Annointed’s Judean communities, your trust in God in spite of persecution is encouragement to others wherever we go. We see from their reports how powerful our presence was in turning you away from worshipping images to wait for God’s son to rescue us from condemnation. God gave us the courage to speak his world-transforming message. Not using flowery words or seeking popular acclaim we spoke only to please God. We worked night and day, shared our lives, and those who were persuaded we cared for as our own children with respect and fairness, coaxing you to live in a manner pleasing to God. Our attempts to visit you were thwarted until Timothy was recently able to make the trip. We didn’t want your confidence to be shaken because of our danger. Timothy wonderfully reports that your faithfulness has not been shaken; there can be no offering greater than the joy we now feel. Still we long to see you again to supply anything that is lacking in your understanding of what it means to trust in God. We look to the triumphant arrival of Jesus our Lord with all who belong to him.

    I guess those with evangel missions have to be a little full of themselves.

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  3. I like what Doughty wrote about the role of Timothy in this one. “Timothy appears as the link between the apostolic and post-apostolic situation.” His task in 1 Thess. is to be the “interim apostle,” although the Thessalonians are famous for their “faith” (which has to do more with conduct, less about faith in this). Of course Paul (or ‘we’) had only been gone for a short time, and though they were “imitators” of him they still needed someone to come and wipe their noses for them. The basic role of Tim in the “letter” is to show how “apostolic succession” works, which of course is a matter for the post-apostolic days of the Pastorals and Acts of the Apostles.

    This is also true when it comes with the concepts of “faith,” (now a work), “gospel,” (moral exhortation), and, for the author of 1 Thess., unlike the author of other Paulines and a basis of his “creedal formula,” has (4.14) Jesus rising from the dead instead of being risen by God for his faithfulness. It’s a fascinating writing, but related to the other Paulines not by the same author.

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  4. Here is a summary of some lengthy notes I have been accumulating since ’04.

    After only perhaps eight years (Ludemann) there is a new religion which proclaims: God is creator and benefactor, father of us all (in contradiction to the claims of the empire). Jesus died for us and was raised from the dead. Jesus is in heaven, securing a place with God for those who have faith in or the faith of Jesus. Jesus is the Lord and Christ, the source of grace. We are beloved in the lord, children of light. We are called or chosen for salvation by God through Christ. [I have several pages of detail.]

    The only use of the word kingdom in the letter is in 1:14, one of a very few possible references to the teachings of the historical Jesus.

    It seems highly improbable to me that the kerygma about Jesus could have been so fully developed in such a short time. There is so much here that if it were all that was available to a Christian preacher today, it would be enough for a year’s worth of sermons, repeated with variation forever (as has been the case for two millennia).

    Is it any wonder that a contemporary Christian assumes that “the faith” has everywhere and always been proclaimed and believed? It is quite easy to see in this one short letter a simple rationale for harmonizing the gospels and Paul’s letters.

    Some of my questions were addressed by Bernard Brandon Scott in The Trouble with Resurrection. A few years ago Dom Crossan told me that all of it is easily explained by the existence of all these titles and categories of thinking and behaving which were present in Roman religion.

    I am not satisfied, and would like to see one or more Westar fellows address the problem of the early presence of what would be so many foundational doctrines of orthodox Christianity, all present in I Thessalonians.

    Is it possible that a full description of and argument for the origin and early corruption of the Jesus movement can be made from I Thessalonians alone?

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    1. Dennis M., welcome to the blog and thanks for these detailed thoughts! I don’t know how helpful this is for your overall point, but the first question that pops into my mind as I read your comment was, “How much of this is us reading through tinted glasses, through an overlay of years of theology layered onto Paul’s own words? What would happen if we take a step back from all that?”

      As I re-read the letters, I’m really struck by the fact that Paul was, on some important level, a student of Jesus. I have never, ever “heard Jesus” all that much in Paul, yet this time through I’m really starting to notice the references to non-retaliation, loving one’s enemies, etc.

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    1. Gary, I was referring there to Paul’s belief, expressed in those two verses, that Jesus is a rescuer of nations (not just Israel, but all nations). Depending on your translation, that may or may not be as blatant. I’m working with the Scholars Version.

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