The First Letter of Paul to the Thessalonians Online Commentary (5)
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 continued(2:13-20):
13 We also constantly give thanks to God for this, that when you received the word of God that you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word but as what it really is, God's word, which is also at work in you believers. 14 For you, brothers and sisters, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea, for you suffered the same things from your own compatriots as they did from the Jews, 15 who killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out; they displease God and oppose everyone 16 by hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved. Thus they have constantly been filling up the measure of their sins; but God's wrath has overtaken them at last. 17 As for us, brothers and sisters, when, for a short time, we were made orphans by being separated from you—in person, not in heart—we longed with great eagerness to see you face to face. 18 For we wanted to come to you—certainly I, Paul, wanted to again and again—but Satan blocked our way. 19 For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? 20 Yes, you are our glory and joy! (NRSV)
Paul, Silvanus and Timothy described themselves in vv.11-12 as fathers to the Thessalonians, which means the Thessalonians are no longer infants in the faith, as ancient fathers did little child care of babies. The word used to designate them in 2:11, tekna, also indicates children of any age group.In 2:13, then, they define what this indicates in spiritual terms, and “constantly give thanks to God for this” - a sort of second Thanksgiving within the body of the letter - “that when you received the word of God that you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word but as what it really is, God's word, which is also at work in you believers.” These Christian children have heard the word, accepted it as God’s word, and allowed it to work in them, which makes them “believers.”
A clear sign of the Gospel working in them is that they have become “imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea, for you suffered the same things from your own compatriots as they did from the Jews” (2:14). I will return to 2:14-16 as a whole shortly, but want to note immediately that “imitators” (mimêtai) occurs in 1:6 (see entry 3) and is there, too, connected to persecution as the mode of imitation. The note of persecution here indicates a localized persecution of the Thessalonians carried out by members of their city (“from your own compatriots;” hypo tôn idion symphyletôn). In this case, Paul, Silvanus and Timothy do not use themselves as models of imitation, as in 1:6, but the Judean churches which also suffered persecution.
Some scholars have seen in this whole passage, 2:14-16, an interpolation, or non-Pauline insertion into the letter, due to the negative portrayal of the Jews. According to 2:15-16, the Jews
killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out; they displease God and oppose everyone by hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved. Thus they have constantly been filling up the measure of their sins; but God's wrath has overtaken them at last.
It is a harsh text, but I see no evidence of interpolation. The use of “imitators” binds this passage thematically to the Thanksgiving (1:6) and the fact that Paul and his co-workers had to leave Thessalonica due to persecution (Acts 17:1-14) gives us context for an angry denunciation. It is true that Acts presents the persecution in Thessalonica as emerging mainly from the Jewish community while 1 Thessalonians pins the blame on “your own compatriots,” but Acts 17:5 has the trouble emerging from some members of the Jewish community “with the help of some ruffians in the marketplaces.” It is always difficult to know how hard to lean on the historical data in Acts, especially with respect to Paul’s own letters, but I trust Paul’s information here and suggest that 17:5 gives us the basic make-up of the mob, namely local “ruffians” (andras tinas ponêrous, “some evil men”) who were riled up by a few Jewish members of the city.
So, the comparison is between the Thessalonians experiencing persecution from local mobs and the churches in Judea experiencing trouble from local mobs. Is this too harsh for Paul, who we know from Romans 9:1-5 loved his people? The context of Thessalonian persecution, and Paul and his co-workers’ subsequent absence from the Thessalonians, raised their ire and allowed a comparison to previous persecution of Christians in Judea, of which Paul himself, frankly, had been a part. The inability to continue to minister to their “children,” and the fact that opposition to the early Christian message was always read in an apocalyptic context, would have made the mob’s actions ripe for comparison to other acts of persecution.
And Paul did see Jewish opposition to the Christian message especially as a sign of eschatological disobedience. Paul’s task was to bring as many Gentiles to salvation as possible and anything that hindered that task would naturally be seen by him as a sign of the end and of their disobedience to God’s will. As a result, when Paul and the others write, “they have constantly been filling up the measure of their sins; but God's wrath has overtaken them at last,” the notion of “filling up one’s sins” is a Jewish apocalyptic concept found, for instance in Daniel 8:23 (“when the transgressions have reached their full measure”) at which time God will act decisively. While Daniel 8 might discuss a Gentile ruler, the theme still stands and Daniel 9 speaks to the heart of 2:16 – “God's wrath has overtaken them at last” – especially 9:13, “just as it is written in the law of Moses, all this calamity has come upon us. We did not entreat the favor of the Lord our God, turning from our iniquities and reflecting on his fidelity.”
It is true that we do not know the nature of “God’s wrath” of which Paul, Silvanus and Timothy speak, some scholars have suggested Claudius exiling the Jews from Rome in 49 CE, but the whole trope is not particularly anti-Jewish for Paul and his friends who consider themselves still Jews; it is simply a part of Jewish apocalyptic theological teaching. There are dangers, naturally, in reading these verses out of context: they apply to a 1st century setting in which the authors are all self-consciously Jews who follow Jesus, but it is our task to read them well and consider them in the milieu of the 1st century and of the letter itself. People who hold apocalyptic beliefs and who are persecuted will often see their persecutors as particpants in a cosmic play and that in itself is not unusual for Jews or Christians in the 1st century.
Following this short aside, Paul and his co-workers return to the basic theme of chapter 2, which is the spiritual parent-child relationship. The NRSV translation has Paul and the others say “for a short time, we were made orphans by being separated from you—in person, not in heart—we longed with great eagerness to see you face to face” (2:17). The word for “we were made orphans” is the verb aporphanizô and one can see the word “orphan” in it. The word can mean to be bereaved of parents, though it has the more general sense of “taken away from” or “separated from.” Since Paul, Silvanus and Timothy are the parents in this scenario, however, they are not made orphans, the Thessalonians are made orphans. To my mind, the best rendering of the verb here is “we were taken away from our children,” or “we were separated from you, our children.” We have no specific word for this in English, but the verb here means that Paul and friends are parents bereft of their children and longing to see them again. The Thessalonians are orphaned in their absence.
The end of the chapter is a passionate appeal for the Thessalonians to know that they wanted to come back to Thessalonica, and here Paul makes his first personal claim – “certainly I, Paul, wanted to again and again” (2:18). Why did they not? Again there is a note of apocalyptic thought in the reason: “Satan blocked our way.” Since the ministry has cosmic implications, so too do the forces arrayed against it. It is essential for them to overcome these spiritual obstacles, manifested as mobs and persecution, because for Paul, Timothy and Silvanus, the converts to the faith are “our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming” (2:19). Note that the hope of Paul and his co-workers is also apocalyptic! Having been given a task to bring people into the faith, the ministers find their vocation fulfilled in their converts remaining faithful to the message. Simply put, “you are our glory and joy!” (2:20).
Next entry, we continue with the passionate desire of Paul, Silvanus and Timothy to be with the Thessalonians again.
John W. Martens
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