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Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible

Thessalonians, First Epistle to the

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THESSALONIANS, FIRST EPISTLE TO THE

1.Occasion and date . According to the narrative of Acts 17:1-34 , St. Paul, in the course of his second missionary journey, went from Philippi to Thessalonica, and reasoned there in the synagogue for three Sabbaths, with the result that ‘some of them were persuaded, and consorted with Paul and Silas; and of the devout Greeks a great multitude, and of the chief women not a few’ ( Acts 17:4 ) There follows a tumult of the Jews, and accusation against Jason, St. Paul’s host, who is bound over to keep the peace. St. Paul is sent away by the brethren to Berœa, and thence again to Athens, leaving Silas and Timothy in Berœa. From Athens he sent for them, waiting till they should arrive ( Acts 17:15-16 ), but apparently they did not rejoin him till he had passed on to Corinth ( Acts 18:5 ). At the time of his writing 1 Th. they are with him ( 1 Thessalonians 1:1 ), Timothy having just arrived ( 1 Thessalonians 3:6 ), not, however, from Berœa, but from Thessalonica, whither he had been despatched by St. Paul from Athens ( 1 Thessalonians 3:1-2 ). It is clear, then, that the Epistle was written from Corinth, but in the compressed narrative of Acts, St. Luke has overlooked the fact that Timothy at least did join St. Paul in Athens, and was sent back to Thessalonica under impulse of the Apostle’s deep concern for his converts, whom he could not re-visit personally, for ‘Satan hindered us’ ( 1 Thessalonians 3:1-2 ; 1 Thessalonians 2:17-18 ). (Very possibly Jason’s bond involved a pledge that St. Paul should not re-enter the city, an absolute barrier, described as hindrance by Satan.) Further, the impression is conveyed by Acts that St. Paul’s expulsion from Thessalonica followed immediately upon a three weeks’ ministry in the synagogue, and a doubt naturally arises whether the church as described in 1 Th. could have been established in so short a time. Apart, however, from indications in the Epistle itself of a longer stay ( e.g. 1 Thessalonians 2:7-12 ), there are others: (1) While in Thessalonica St. Paul received gifts more than once from his converts at Philippi ( Philippians 4:16 ). (2) The synagogue ministry does not account for his astonishing success among the Gentiles ( Acts 17:4 , 1 Thessalonians 1:9 ). It is probable, therefore, that the Acts narrative is to be interpreted as implying a brief and almost fruitless appeal to the Jews, followed by a longer and more successful ministry to the Gentile population (cf. Acts 13:44-46 ). It may be added that at Acts 17:4 there is considerable ‘Western’ authority for inserting ‘and of’ before ‘Greeks,’ thus giving three classes of converts besides the women Jews, devout persons ( i.e. proselytes), and Greeks ( i.e. heathen). See also Ramsay, who constructs an ‘eclectic’ text ( St. Paul the Traveller , pp. 226 note, 235 note 2).

The occasion of the letter, then, was the return of Timothy from his mission: its date falls within the eighteen months’ sojourn in Corinth, as late as possible, to allow time for the history of the church as sketched in the Ep., and yet early enough to leave room for the circumstances of 2 Th., also written from Corinth. The varying schemes of Pauline chronology assign for the departure from Corinth the spring of some year between 50 and 54; perhaps 52 is the most probable date for 1 Thessalonians. With the possible exception of Galatians (which, if addressed to the churches of South Galatia, may have been written earlier), it is the earliest of extant Pauline writings.

2. Contents . The Epistle does not lend itself to formal analysis. The least doctrinal and most personal of all St. Paul’s letters to the churches, it is simply prompted by affectionate concern for the ‘faith and love’ of his recent converts, and for their ‘good remembrance’ of himself.

The tidings brought by Timothy that they ‘stand fast’ (1 Thessalonians 3:5-8 ) leads the Apostle to begin with an outburst of thankful memories of his mission, in which every reminder of his ministry among the Thessalonians and of their enthusiastic response is both an appeal and an admonition. This, together with reference to his intense longing to see them and to the visit and return of Timothy, forms the first and main section of the Epistle (chs. 1 3), the final words gathering up all its desires into a prayer ( 1 Thessalonians 3:11-13 ). Very simple yet profound expression is given to the Christian faith and hope ( 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10 ); there is reference to Jewish hostility ( 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16 ), but no controversial insistence on an anti-Judaic Christianity a confirmation of early date. In ch. 4 there is warning against the besetting impurity of the Gentile world ( 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8 ), and against a fanatical detachment from the ordinary duties and responsibilities of life ( 1 Thessalonians 4:9-12 ). This is followed by a comforting assurance, rendered necessary by the belief in the speedy ‘coming of the Lord’ which St. Paul shared with his converts ( 1 Thessalonians 4:15 ), that those of the brethren who have already died will have part in that event equally with those who are yet alive ( 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 ). This theme is carried on to a warning to be watchful against the sudden coming of ‘the day of the Lord,’ as beseems ‘sons of light and sons of the day’ ( 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 ). A general admonition to the church to respect its leaders and to cultivate peace ( 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13 ) leads out into a beautiful series of short exhortations, like a ‘string of glittering diamonds’ ( 1 Thessalonians 5:14-22 ), prayer and salutation ( 1 Thessalonians 5:23-26 ), an injunction that the letter be read to all the brethren ( 1 Thessalonians 5:27 ), and final benediction ( 1 Thessalonians 5:28 ).

3. Authenticity

(1) External testimony . Echoes of 1 Th. have been traced in Barnabas, Clement of Rome, Ignatius, and Polycarp, none of them, however, certain. It is contained in the Syriac and Old Latin Versions, and named in the Muratorian Fragment. The earliest quotation is in Irenæus, who attributes the Ep. to St. Paul, and specifies it as the ‘First’ to the Thessalonians: it is quoted by Clement of Alexandria, and frequently by Tertullian. If regard be had to the personal and non-theological character of the letter, this testimony is ample.

(2) Internal evidence . The simplicity of the letter, the prevalence of the personal note over the doctrinal, its accord with the history in Acts (apart from the slight discrepancies already noted, which a ‘forgery’ would surely have avoided), and the agreement with Philipp. and 2 Cor., in the writer’s attitude of affectionate confidence towards these Macedonian Christians, all make strongly for genuineness, and the Ep. is, in fact, generally accepted by critics of all schools.

The assertion of an un-Pauline doctrinal standpoint (by Baur) takes for the standard of comparison the later Epp. Gal., Cor., and Rom. and ignores the gradual shaping of Pauline Christianity under stress of problems and controversies as yet hardly in sight. The Jewish opposition is not to St. Paul’s distinctive teaching, but to his whole mission (1 Thessalonians 2:14-16 ): the declaration that because of persistent rejection of Christ ‘the wrath is come upon them to the uttermost’ ( 1 Thessalonians 2:16 ), by no means implies that Jerusalem is already destroyed (a.d. 70). The rapid progress of the Church at Thessalonica reflects the first enthusiasm of the new faith, and such primitive organization as it exhibits ( 1 Thessalonians 5:12 ) is consistent with the still earlier date of Acts 14:23 . It is true, and in no way remarkable, that the expectation of an imminent Parousia ( Acts 4:15-17 ) is not repeated m St. Paul’s later letters ( 2 Corinthians 5:1 , Philippians 1:21-24 ; Philippians 3:11 ; Philippians 3:20-21 ; Philippians 4:5 , Colossians 1:5 ; Colossians 1:12-13 ). Would, then, a ‘forger’ of a later generation have attributed this to St. Paul?

There is really no reason to doubt that the Epistle gives a genuine and invaluable self-revelation of St. Paul the man . All the great Christian truths appear the Divinity of Christ, His death for men, and resurrection, the Christian’s union with Him, the gift of the Holy Spirit, but less as doctrines than as vital elements of personal religion, the moving forces of St. Paul’s own life and ministry.

S. W. Green.


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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Thessalonians, First Epistle to the'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdb/t/thessalonians-first-epistle-to-the.html. 1909.

Lectionary Calendar
Wednesday, October 16th, 2019
the Week of Proper 23 / Ordinary 28
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