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The Catholic Encyclopedia
Epistles to the Thessalonians
Two of the canonical Epistles of St. Paul. This article will treat the Church of Thessalonica, the authenticity, canonicity, time and place of writing, occasion, and contents of the two Epistles to that Church.
The Church of Thessalonica
After Paul and Silas had, during the Apostle's second missionary journey, left Philippi, they proceeded to Thessalonica (Thessalonike, the modern Saloniki), perhaps because there was in the city a synagogue of the Jews (Acts 17:2). Thessalonica was the capital of the Roman Province of Macedonia; it was a free city, ruled by a popular assembly (cf. Acts 17:5, eis ton demon) and magistrates (cf. verse 6, epi tous politarchas). St. Paul at once began to preach the Gospel to the Jews and proselytes. For three successive sabbaths he explained the Scriptures in the synagogue, opening up the way and gradually leading his hearers to the tremendous truth that there was need the Christ should die and rise again from the dead, and that Jesus whom Paul preached was in very truth this Christ. Some of the Jews believed and took sides with Paul and Silas.
It would seem that Paul stayed in the city some time thereafter, for, according to the reading of Codex Bezæ (fifth century), and the Vulgate and Coptic Versions (Acts 17:4), he converted a large number not only of proselytes (ton te sebomenon) but of Gentile Greeks (kai Hellenon). In the first place, it is unlikely that a large number of these latter were won over to the Faith during the three weeks devoted to the synagogues; for Paul did manual labour night and day, so as not to be burdensome to his converts (1 Thessalonians 2:9). Secondly, these converts from idolatry (1 Thessalonians 1:9) would scarcely have become, after so brief an apostolate, a "pattern to all that believe in Macedonia and in Achaia" (1 Thessalonians 1:7). Thirdly, the Church of Philippi sent alms twice to Paul at Thessalonica (Philippians 4:16), a fact which seems to indicate that his sojourn there was longer than three weeks.
Be this as it may, the signal success of Paul's apostolate among Jews, proselytes, and Hellenes together with the conversion of "not a few noble ladies" (Acts 17:4), aroused the Jews to a fury of envy; they gathered together a mob of idlers from the agora and set the whole city in tumult; they beset the home of Jason, found the Apostle away, dragged his host to the tribunal of the politarchs and charged him with harbouring traitors, men who set Jesus up as king in place of Cæsar. That night the brethren made good the escape of their teacher to Berea. There the Gospel of Paul met with a much more enthusiastic reception than that accorded to it by the synagogue of Thessalonica. The Jews of that city drove Paul to Berea and there, too, stirred up the mob against him. He left Silas and Timothy to complete his work and went to Athens (Acts 17:1-15).
(1) External Evidence
(a) II Thessalonians. The strongest external evidence in favour of the authenticity of I Thessalonians is II Thessalonians which, whatsoever be its date of composition, is the very earliest document that clearly presupposes I Thessalonians to have been written by Paul.
(b) Manuscripts. The evidence of manuscripts alone is such as to set the authenticity of this letter beyond all doubt; it is in the Greek text of the Codex Sinaiticus (fourth century), Codex Vaticanus (fourth century), and Codex Alexandrinus (fifth century); it is in the Old Latin and Syriac Versions, which trace its authenticity down to the middle of the second century.
(c) The Apostolic Fathers give evidence of very early use of the Epistle as Sacred Scripture. St. Ignatius of Antioch (d. A.D. 110-17, according to the chronology of Harnack which we shall follow in this article), in "Eph.", X, i, probably uses the adialeiptos proseuchesthai, "pray without ceasing", of 1 Thessalonians 5:17; and undoubtedly had in mind 1 Thessalonians 2:4, when writing to the Romans (2:1) the distinctly Pauline thought of ou thelo hymas anthropareskein alla theo, "I will that ye please not man but God". Because St. Ignatius, as the other Apostolic Fathers, cites from memory, without the exactness of later Fathers and without ever mentioning the name of the sacred writer quoted, Dr. Inge, the Lady Margaret professor of divinity in the University of Cambridge, says: "The evidence that Ignatius knew I Thessalonians is almost nil" (cf. "The New Testament in the Apostolic Fathers", Oxford, 1905, p. 74). Against such scepticism, the clear use of St. Paul by the Apostolic Fathers is of no avail. Harnack, who cannot be accused of overmuch credulity, thinks that St. Ignatius of Antioch possessed a collection of the Pauline Epistles; and that by the year 117, St. Polycarp of Smyrna had a complete collection (eine ganze Sammlung) thereof before him and veritably lived therein (cf. Chronologie der altchristlichen Litteratur, I, 249, note 2). In the "Pastor" of Hermas (A.D. 140), we find the phrase of 1 Thessalonians 5:13, "Be at peace among yourselves" (eireneuete en heautois) several times, used almost as it occurs in the Alexandrian and Vatican Codices (cf. Hermas, "Simil.", VIII, vii, 2; "Vis.", III, vi, 3; III, ix, 2, 10; III, xii, 3).
The Apologetic Fathers are clear and to the point. St Irenæus (A.D. 181-9) cites 1 Thessalonians 5:23, expressly attributing the words to the Apostle's First Epistle to the Thessalonians ("Contra hæreses", V, vi, 1 in P.G., VIII, 1138), and 1 Thessalonians 5:3, as the saying of the Apostle (ibid., V, xxx, 2 in P.G., VII, 1205). Tertullian quotes at length passages from each of the five chapters of I Thess. to prove his thesis of the resurrection of the body ("Liber de resurrectione carnis", xxiv, in P.L., II, 874) and uses the Epistle against Marcion ("Adv. Marcionem", V, xv in P.L., II, 541). St Clement of Alexandria (A.D. 190-210) very often cites this brief letter cf. "Pædagogus", I, v, 19 (Stählin's ed., I, 101) and Stromata I.1.6 (Stählin's ed., II, 5) for 1 Thessalonians 2:5-7; Stromata II.11.4 and IV.12 (Stählin's ed., II, 138 and 286), for an allusion to 1 Thessalonians 4:3, and an accurate citation of six verses (3-8) of the same chapter; "Pædagogus", II, ix, III, xii, IV, xxii (Stählin's ed., I, 206 and 288, and P.G., VIII, 1352) for the appeal to almost every verse of 1 Thessalonians 5, i.e. verses 5, 8, 13, 15, 19, 22; Stromata I.11 (Stählin's ed., II, 34) for a quotation from the same chapter. So strong is the external evidence in favour of the authenticity of I Thess. as to convince all scholars save only those who, on account of internal evidence, deny to Paul the authenticity of all his Epistles.
(2) Internal Evidence
In I Thessalonians all the main Pauline doctrines are taught the Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ (i, 10; iv, 14; v, 10); His Divinity and Sonship of the living God (i, 9, 10); the resurrection of our bodies (iv, 15-18), the mediatorship of Christ (v, 10); the call of the nations to the Kingdom of Christ, which is the Church (ii, 12), sanctification by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit (iv, 8). The plain and direct style, the writer's affectionate concern for his spiritual children, his impatience of Judaizers, the preponderance of personal over doctrinal statements, the frank and honest self-revelation of the writer all these distinctly Pauline characteristics argue strongly for the authenticity of this letter.
Baur, the prime mover of neo-Tübingen ideas, was the first to wave aside recklessly all external evidence and seriously to attack the authenticity of I Thess. from internal evidence (cf. "Der Apostel Paulus", ed. 2, II, 94). He was followed by Nowack, "Der Ursprung des Christentums" (Leipzig, 1857), II, 313; Volkmar, "Mose, Prophezie und Himmelfahrt" (Leipzig, 1867), 114; and Van der Vries, "De beiden brieven aan de Thessalonicensen" (Leyden, 1865). The reasons which impel Baur and his followers are trivial.
- The lack of doctrine makes the letter unworthy of Paul. We have noted that the main heads of Paul's teaching are included in this short letter. Moreover, the letter is a most touching revelation of the great heart of St. Paul and as such alone is befitting the outspoken Apostle.
- The Epistle is a clumsy forgery. The author has worked up his story from Acts. Paul could not have written ii, 14-16. It is far-fetched to compare the woes inflicted by the Jews upon the Church of Thessalonica with the ills they wrought upon the Church of Judea. It is un-Pauline to set Jewish Christians up as an example to Gentile converts (Baur, op. cit., 482). These purely subjective objections are worthless. The Apostle was too broadminded to be tied down to the narrow ideas of Baur. True, in his later letters to the Romans end Corinthians and Galatians, for instance we might not look for the juxtaposition of Jewish with Gentile Christians; but the Judaizers were not so troublesome to Paul when he wrote to the Thessalonians as when he wrote to the Romans.
- The expression ephthase de ep autous he orge eis telos, "the wrath hath come upon them unto the end" (ii, 16), naturally refers to the destruction of Jerusalem (A.D. 70) as an accomplished punishment of the Jews for killing the Lord Jesus. This is an unwarranted assumption. The phrase eis telos is indefinite; it has no definite article nor any defining qualificative; it modifies ephthase and refers to no definite end either accomplished or to be accomplished. St. Paul indefinitely but surely sees the oncoming end, reads the easily legible writing on the wall, and interprets that writing: "The wrath [of God] hath come upon them even unto making an end of them". (iv) Baur (op. cit., 485) finds the eschatology of the Epistle un-Pauline. In the Epistles to the Corinthians, Romans, and Galatians, for instance, there is no diving into the future, nothing said of the Parousia, or second coming of Jesus. But the reason is clear those to whom Paul wrote his great and later Epistles had not the eschatological difficulties of the Thessalonians to meet. He adapted his letters to the wants of those to whom he wrote. The very fact that the apprehension of an immediate Parousia us not mentioned in the later letters would have prevented a forger from palming off as Pauline such an unusual topic.
The two Epistles to the Thessalonians are included among the canonical books accepted by the Councils of the Vatican, of Trent, and of Florence, and are among the homologoumena of all early lists of canonical New-Testament Scriptures; for instance, to mention only such early lists as accord with the received canon of Trent, these two Epistles are listed in the Muratorian Fragment (A.D. 195-205), in the canons of St. Athanasius of Alexandria (A.D. 373), of the Third Council of Carthage (A.D. 397), in which Saint Augustine took part, of St. Epiphanius (A.D. 403), of Innocent I (A.D. 405), and of Gelasius (A.D. 492). In fact there can be no reason whatsoever to doubt the canonicity of either letter.
Time and place
The textus receptus, at the end of the two Epistles, gives a subscription stating that they were written from Athens (egraphe apo Athenon); and this same subscription is contained in the great uncial codices A, B2, K2, L2 that is, Alexandrinus (fourth century), Vaticanus (fifth century corrector), Mosquensis, and Angelicus (both of the ninth century); it is likewise translated in important Latin, Syriac and Coptic manuscripts. None the less, there can be no doubt but that the letters were written during Paul's first stay in Corinth. Timothy had been sent to Thessalonica by Paul from Athens (1 Thessalonians 3:2). Hence some Fathers inferred that, on this mission, Timothy brought along I Thess. The inference is wrong. As Rendel Harris says in "The Expositor" (1898), 174, Paul may have sent another letter from Athens by Timothy to the Thessalonians. He cannot have sent I Thessalonians from there by him. Paul clearly states that Timothy had returned from Thessalonica before the writing of I Thessalonians. (cf. iii, 6). Whither did he return? I Thessalonians does not state. Acts 18:5 supplies answer. When Timothy returned from Macedonia with Silas to Paul, the Apostle was at Corinth. The news brought him by Timothy was the occasion of I Thessalonians. Moreover, in the greeting with which each letter begins, the names of Paul, Silvanus (i.e. Silas), and Timothy are grouped together; and we know that the three were together at Corinth (Acts 18:5) during Paul's first visit to that city (cf. also 2 Corinthians 1:19). We have no proof that they were ever elsewhere together. First Thessalonians, then, was written during the eighteen months Paul stayed at Corinth, i.e. in the year 48 or 49, according to the chronology of Harnack, "Chronologie der altchristlichen Litteratur" (Leipzig, 1897), I, 717; in the year 53 or 54 according to the commonly received scheme of Pauline chronology. Both letters are generally considered to be the earliest extant writings of St. Paul. Some few now deem it proved that Paul wrote to the South Galatians even before he wrote to the Thessalonians, cf. Zahn, "Einleitung in das Neue Testament" Leipzig, 1897), I, 138.
Having arrived at Athens, Paul at once set himself to convert the Jews, proselytes and Gentiles of that city. Among the latter he met with unusually small success. The Epicureans and Stoics for the most part rated him as a talkative lounger in the agora and either berated him with ridicule upon the Hill of Ares or waved him aside (Acts 17:16-32). Meanwhile he trembled for the Church of Thessalonica. So long as he had been there, only the Jews strove to set his work at naught; now in his absence, the Gentiles joined the Jews (1 Thessalonians 2:14), and made a vigorous onslaught upon the faith of his children. Paul yearned mightily to see their face once more. In his intense affection and concern, he breaks away from his wonted first plural: "We willed to have come to you, even I, Paul, and that once and again; but Satan hindered us" (ii, 18). The hindrance wrought by Satan was probably a security against his return given by Jason and some friends (Acts 17:9). Being unable to follow the yearnings of his heart, Paul sent Timothy to save the flock from the ravening wolves (1 Thessalonians 2:2). The Acts make no mention of this legation of Timothy from Athens to Thessalonica. Not long after, Paul left for Corinth (Acts 18:1). Thither Timothy, who returned from Thessalonica, brought back an eyewitness's testimony as to the conditions of the faithful of that city. Rendel Harris, in "The Expositor" (1898), 167, thinks that the Thessalonians sent Paul a letter by Timothy and, to make good his theory, appeals to 1 Thessalonians 1:2-5, 2:1, 5, 9-13; 3:3-6. There may be some ground for such conjecture in "We also" (kai hemeis) of I, ii, 13; "Also I" (kago) of I, iii, 5, and in "you have a good remembrance of us always" (echete mneian hemon agaphen) of I, iii, 6. Be this as it may, whether by letter or by word of mouth, Timothy fully informed Paul of the needs of the Christian community at Thessalonica; and these needs were the occasion of the first Epistle to that community.
No other letter of Paul to a Church is so free and easy and epistolary as is this letter; it defies strict doctrinal analysis, and is far more personal than doctrinal. Merely for the sake of some division, we may consider chapters i and iii as personal, chapters iv and v as doctrinal.
- Personal part a missionary's free outpouring of a noble heart's yearnings. He is filled with joy at hearing how they stand fast by the faith which he preached to them (i, 2, 8); fondly talks about his labours and about his stay with them (I, 9-ii, 12); thanks God for the way they received from him the word of God (ii, 13 - 16); delicately hints at his apprehensions for them, by telling how at Athens he yearned to see them, how he sent Timothy in his stead, how relieved he now is as Timothy's message has brought him peace of mind (ii, 17-iii, 10). Then follows a brief and beautiful prayer which sums up the yearnings of the great soul of the Apostle (iii, 11-13).
- Doctrinal part. With this prayer ends what is meant to be free and epistolary. Now follows as little phrase of transition "For the rest, therefore, brethren" and a thoroughly Pauline and direct exhortation upon how they "ought to walk and to please God" by purity (iv, 1-8), brotherly love (iv, 9-10), and peaceful toil (verse 11). The peace of everyday toil had been disturbed by a fanatical lethargy due to the supposed oncoming Parousia. Hence the eschatological passage that follows. The brethren who have died will have part in the Second Coming just as they that are now alive (verses 12-17); the time of the Parousia is uncertain, so that watch-fullness and not lethargy are needed (v, 1-11). The letter ends with a series of pithy and pointed exhortations to respect for their religious teachers, and to the other virtues that make up the glory of Christian life (v, 12-22); the Apostolic benediction and salutation, a request for prayers and the charge that the letter be read in public (verses 23-28).
(1) External Evidence
Manuscript evidence is the same for II Thessalonians as for I Thessalonians; so, too, the evidence of the ancient versions. The Apostolic and Apologetic Fathers are more clearly in favour of II Thess. than of I Thess. St. Ignatius, in Romans 10.3, cites a phrase of 2 Thessalonians 3:5, eis ten hypomonen tou Christou, "in the patience of Christ". St. Polycarp (XI, 3) refers the letter expressly to Paul, although, by a slip of the memory, he takes it that the Apostle glories (2 Thessalonians 1:4) in another Macedonian Church, that of the Philippians; elsewhere (XI, 1) Polycarp uses 2 Thessalonians 3:15. St. Justin (about A.D. 150), in "Dialog.", xxxii (P.G., VI, 544), seems to have in mind the eschatological language of this letter. Besides it is set down as Pauline in the Canon of Marcion (about A.D. 140).
(2) Internal Evidence
The literary dependence of II Thessalonians on I Thessalonians cannot be gainsaid. The writer of the former must have written the latter, and that too not very long thereafter. 2 Thessalonians 2:15 and 3:6 are to be explained by 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8 and 11. The style of the two letters is admittedly identical; the prayers (I, iii 11, v, 23; II, ii, 16, iii, 16), greetings (I, i, 1; II, i, 1, 2) thanks (I, i, 2; II, i, 3), and transitions (I, iv, 1; II, iii, 1) are remarkably alike in form. Two-thirds of II Thess. is like to I Thess. in vocabulary and style. Moreover, the structure of the Epistle, its subject-matter, and its affectionate outbursts of prayer for the recipients and of exhortation are all decidedly Pauline characteristics. The argument from internal evidence is so strong as to have won over such critics as Harnack (Chronologie, I, 238) and Jülicher (Einleitung, 40). Schmiedel, Holtzmann, Weizacker, and others deny the force of this argument from internal evidence. Its very similarity to I Thess. in vocabulary and style is made to militate against the authenticity of II Thess.; the letter is too Pauline; the author was a clever forger, who, some sixty years later, took up I Thess. and worked it over. There has been no motive assigned for such a forgery; no proof given that any post-Apostolic writer was so cunning as to palm off thus letter as a Pauline imitation.
Eschatology of Paul. The chief objection is that the eschatology of II Thess. contradicts that of I Thess.: the letter is in this un-Pauline. In 1 Thessalonians 4:14-5:3, the writer says the Parousia is imminent; in 2 Thessalonians 2:2-12 and 3:11, the writer sets the Parousia a long time off. Non-Catholics who hold the Pauline authorship of the two letters generally admit that Paul predicted the second coming would be within his own lifetime and deem that the signs narrated in 2 Thessalonians 2, as preludes to that coming do not imply a long interval nor that Paul expected to die before these signs occurred. Catholics insist that Paul cannot have said the Parousia would be during his lifetime. Had he said so he would have erred; the inspired word of God would err; the error would be that of the Holy Spirit more than of Paul. True, the Douay Version seems to imply that the Parousia is at hand: "Then we who are alive, who are left, shall be taken up together with them in the clouds to meet Christ, into the air, and so shall we always be with the Lord" (1 Thessalonians 4:16). The Vulgate is no clearer: "Nos, qui vivimus, qui residui sumus" etc. (iv, 15-17). The original text solves the difficulty: hemeis oi zontes oi paraleipomenoi, ama syn autois arpagesometha. Here the Hellenistic syntax parallels the Attic. The sentence is conditional. The two participles present stand for two futures preceded by ei; the participles have the place of a protasis. The translation is: "We, if we be alive if we be left [on earth], shall be taken up" etc. A similar construction is used by Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:29 (cf. Moulton "Grammar of New Testament Greek", Edinburgh, 1906, I, 230). St. Paul is here no more definite about the time of the Parousia than he was in 1 Thessalonians 5:2, when he wrote "that the day of the Lord shall so come, as a thief in the night." There is in St. Paul's eschatology the very same indefiniteness about the lime of the Parousia that there is in the eschatological sayings of Jesus as related in the Synoptics (Matthew 24:5-45; Mark 13:7-37; Luke 21:20-36). "Of that day or hour no man knoweth, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but the Father" (Mark 13:32). In the deposit of faith given by the Father to the Son, to be given by the Son to the Church, the time of the Parousia was not contained. We readily admit that St. Paul did not know the time of the Parousia; we cannot admit that he knew it wrong and wrote it wrong as the inspired Word of God and a part of the deposit of faith.
As for the further objection that the apocalyptic character of ii, 2-12, is post-Pauline and dependent upon so late a composition as the Apocalypse of John (A.D. 93-96) or, worse still upon the Nero redivivus story (Tacitus "Hist.", II, viii), we answer that this assertion is entirely gratuitous. St. Paul got his apocalyptic ideas from the very same source as John, that is either from revelation to himself or from the Old Testament or from tradition. Most of the details of his apocalyptic description of the Parousia are given in other apocalypses (1 John 2:18; Matthew 24:24; Luke 21:8; Mark 13:22; Deuteronomy 13:1-5; Ezekiel 38 and 39; Daniel 7, 8, 9, 11, 12 etc.). The man of sin, Antichrist, Belial, the well-nigh complete triumph of evil just before the end of time, the almost general apostasy, the portents, and other items are features familiar to Old-Testament and New-Testament apocalyptic writings.
The canonicity of 2 Thessalonians has been treated together with that of 1 Thessalonians.
Time and place
II Thessalonians was written at Corinth not long after I Thessalonians, for both Timothy and Silas are still with Paul (i, 1), and the silence of the Acts shows that, once Paul left Corinth, Silas was not again his companion in the ministry. There seem to be allusions in iii, 2, to the troublous stay of a year and a half at Corinth (Acts 18); in ii, 14, to the letter quite recently written to the Thessalonians; and in iii, 7-9, to the ministry of Paul among them as not long passed.
The eschatology of I Thessalonians had been misunderstood by the Thessalonians; they took it, the day of the Lord was at hand (2:2); they were overwrought by the exaggerations of some meddlers and perhaps by a forged letter which purported to have come from Paul (2:2; 3:17). Moreover the disorderly conduct of some (3:6, 11) gave the Apostle no little concern; this concern he showed by the letter.
The three chapters into which the letter is now divided, aptly analyze the thought. In the first chapter are a greeting, thanksgiving for the faith and love of the Thessalonians, and an assurance of Divine recompense to them and to their persecutors. In the second chapter is the main thought of the letter the eschatology. Certain signs are detailed which must precede the Parousia. Until these signs appear, there is no reason for terror or taking leave of their senses. The third chapter is the usual Pauline request for prayers, a charge to avoid the disorderly, a truly Pauline allusion to the example he set them, and the final identification of the letter by a greeting written with his own hand.
Of the Greek Fathers whose commentaries on I and II Thess. have come down to us, ST. JOHN CHRYSOSTOM is by far the most scholarly; THEODORET is pithy and to the point. THEODORE OF MOPSUESTLA (about A.D. 415) forces the Apostle to his ideas. EUTHALIUS THE DEACON depends on THEODORE; ST. JOHN DAMASCENE on ST. JOHN CHRYSOSTOM. Among the Latin Fathers AMBROSIASTER (about 730) at times errs in matters of faith; PRIMASIUS (about 556) collated the expositions of AMBROSIASTER, PELAGIUS, ST. AUGUSTINE, and ST. JEROME. The great Catholic commentators of more recent time are: JUSTINIANI (Lyons, 1612), A LAPIDE (Antwerp, 1614), CAJETAN (Rome, 1529), SALMERÓN (Madrid, 1602), KISTEMAKER (Münster, 1822), McEVILLY (Dublin, 1875), BISPING (Münster, 1873), MAUNOURY (Paris, 1878), ROEHM (Passau, 1885), JOHANNES (Dillingen, 1898), PANEK (Ratisbon, 1886), PRAT, La théologie de Saint Paul (Paris, 1908), PICONIO (Pans, 1837), PERONNE (Paris, 1881), TOUSSAINT (Paris, 1910). The chief Protestant commentaries are those of LIGHTFOOT (Notes, 1895), DRUMMOND (1899), FINDLAY (1904), MILLIGAN (1908), SCHMIEDEL (1892), B. WEISS (1896).
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Obstat, Nihil. Lafort, Remy, Censor. Entry for 'Epistles to the Thessalonians'. The Catholic Encyclopedia. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/tce/e/epistles-to-the-thessalonians.html. Robert Appleton Company. New York. 1914.
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