The First Letter of Paul to the Thessalonians Online Commentary (4)
The study of 1 Thessalonians offered here is in the form of a traditional commentary, although secondary scholarship is engaged more intermittently than would be the case in a commentary published in a regular print series. This is the fourth entry in the online commentary on 1 Thessalonians. In the first entryI began by looking at introductory matters, which are comprised of comments on the nature of a Greco-Roman letter and the background of Paul’s activity in Thessalonica, that we know primarily from Acts of the Apostles and partially from Paul’s letters. In the second entry, I gave a basic overview of the content found in the whole letter and then discussed the very short salutation. In the third entry, I discussed the Thanksgiving for the letter. In this, the fourth post, I will begin to discuss the Body of the Letter. Please do follow the links above to see my definition of a Greco-Roman letter, how I have divided this letter in particular and to catch up on the previous entries in general.
3. Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians:
c) Body of the Letter: Paul’s Affection for the Community(2:1-12):
1 You yourselves know, brothers and sisters, that our coming to you was not in vain, 2 but though we had already suffered and been shamefully mistreated at Philippi, as you know, we had courage in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in spite of great opposition. 3 For our appeal does not spring from deceit or impure motives or trickery, 4 but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the message of the gospel, even so we speak, not to please mortals, but to please God who tests our hearts. 5 As you know and as God is our witness, we never came with words of flattery or with a pretext for greed; 6 nor did we seek praise from mortals, whether from you or from others, 7 though we might have made demands as apostles of Christ. But we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children. 8 So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us. 9 You remember our labor and toil, brothers and sisters; we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God. 10 You are witnesses, and God also, how pure, upright, and blameless our conduct was toward you believers. 11 As you know, we dealt with each one of you like a father with his children, 12 urging and encouraging you and pleading that you lead a life worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory. (NRSV)
The body of an ancient letter, just as a letter today, could take on numerous forms, depending on the issues which were to be discussed. It is, therefore, impossible to generalize about the form of the body of one of Paul’s letters, beyond the fact that one will find teaching on theological themes and various sorts of ethical exhortation. The body of 1 Thessalonians begins with an outpouring of Paul’s affection for the Church in Thessalonica and a focus on the relationships between Paul, Silvanus and Timothy and the people of the Church. Embedded in this warm relationship, though, is Paul’s defense of their behavior while in Thessalonica. Why does Paul feel it necessary to defend himself and his co-workers?
As we know from Acts of the Apostles 17:1-0, and as will be confirmed later in this section of the body and elsewhere in the letter (2:14-20; 3:1-10), Paul and his companions had to leave Thessalonica quickly due to localized persecution. Paul stresses, though, that their coming to the city was “not in vain” (2:1) and though they had “already suffered and been shamefully mistreated at Philippi,” they still “had courage in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in spite of great opposition” (2:2). The word which is translated as “opposition” here is agôn, from which we derive the word “agony.” Its original meaning, however, relates to athletic contests, in the first order literally and in the second order figuratively as a great struggle or battle.Paul uses the word figuratively, of course, and it is these events, these battles and struggles, which are the background for Paul’s defense of their behavior in the city and in leaving Thessalonica.
Yet, the broader context for the defense of the Christian ministers is a social reality found in the Roman Empire in general. In 2:3, Paul argues that “our appeal (paraklêsis) does not spring from deceit or impure motives or trickery.” The word paraklêsis here could mean “request, exhortation, encouragement, consolation,” as well as “appeal,” so it is best to keep this range of meanings in mind when considering this verse, but also the fact that paraklêsis could refer to the Christian message itself. Their appeal, or message, did not depend upon “deceit or impure motives or trickery.” Had someone accused them of deceit or trickery? The context for this defense is not just the behavior of Paul, Silvanus and Timothy, though, but the fact that at this period of history there were rhetorical teachers and speakers known together as the Second Sophistic, who would attend cities in order to praise them with glowing oratory and rhetoric, for a fee, only to leave the city shortly after.Paul’s claim is either a response to an actual charge, or a potential charge, that they have behaved no better than Sophists in coming to a city, winning over an audience and then abandoning them to leave for another city and opportunity.
Paul, Silvanus and Timothy write that their activity in Thessalonica was not intended to “please mortals, but to please God who tests our hearts” (2:4). That is, they reject the premise that their preaching was rhetoric intended to flatter humans, but instead it was a task “approved by God” who “entrusted” them “with the message of the gospel” (2:4). More than that, they offer evidence that ought to separate them from Sophists since they “never came with words of flattery or with a pretext for greed; nor did we seek praise from mortals, whether from you or from others, though we might have made demands as apostles of Christ” (2:5-7a). All of the things which mark itinerant speakers as Sophists do not define their ministry. They argue, in fact, that as apostles they could have demanded support from the Church, but that they never did, something that will define Paul’s ministry elsewhere too (1 Corinthians 9).
It is at this point that the ministers of the Gospel turn to describe positively and with genuine emotion how they did in fact behave among the Thessalonians. The language Paul turns to is familial, what scholars today often call “fictive kinship” language, but I would argue that the spiritual family described by Paul, Silvanus and Timothy is not considered by them as “fictive” simply not according to physical ties of kinship. Paul believes that the family of God is the family that transcends all others, making all of us brothers and sisters in Christ. At the same time, those with authority in the community, such as Paul and other apostles and ministers, have roles of guidance which are parental. This is why, earlier in the letter, they could ask the Thessalonians to imitate them, as a child would imitate a father or mother.
In 2:7b, the first image they offer is that they “were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children.” The nurse here, trophos, is a wet nurse, whose task of course is to breastfeed the infants in her care. Since many children in ancient Rome were breastfed by women who were not their mothers, either slave women or hired women, the claim that Paul, Silvanus and Timothy nursed them like their own children gives us a sense of the emotional ties and the love they feel for the Thessalonians. It also gives us a sense of the genuine depth of familial relationships experienced by the earliest Christians. These first Thessalonians Christians were babies in the faith, so they had to be mothered by Paul and his co-workers. The love they feel for the Church has lead them to share not just the Gospel, but “also our own selves, because you have become very dear (agapêtoi) to us” (2:8).
This call to remember the maternal relationship among them leads them also to call on the Thessalonians to “remember our labor and toil, brothers and sisters; we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God” (2:9), as noted also earlier in 2:5-7a. Their defense continues by stating that they were “pure, upright, and blameless” amongst the Thessalonian believers (2:10). It is at this point that they define themselves as “a father with his children, urging and encouraging you and pleading that you lead a life worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory” (2:11-12). In presenting themselves as fathers to the Thessalonians, they not only call upon the authority of the ancient father to his household, but the responsibility for their care and upbringing. Mothers tended to care for children up until about seven years of age and then fathers would step in to guide the education and development of the children, specifically the boys. What this means in this image also, however, and what is often overlooked, is that this indicates that even in the short time Paul, Silvanus and Timothy were in Thessalonica there was genuine spiritual development among the Thessalonians. They were children now, urged on by their fathers, not babies being fed milk by their loving mothers.
Next entry, we continue to study the body of the letter.
John W. Martens
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 Some manuscripts have nêpioi, “infants,” here instead of êpioi, “gentle,” that is, “we were like infants among you.” I prefer “gentle” here as I think this best explains the next clause, but it is possible that amid all this imagery of childhood, they have placed a word which describes their innocence and lack of guile.