The First Letter of Paul to the Thessalonians Online Commentary (7)
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 seventh entry in the online commentary on 1 Thessalonians. In the first entryI began by looking at introductory matters, comprised of comments on the nature of a Greco-Roman letter and the background of Paul’s activity in Thessalonica, which 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 the fourth post, I started to discuss the Body of the Letter, particularly the parental affection Paul, Silvanus and Timothy have for the church in Thessalonica, which was continued in the fifth post in the series. The sixth entry in the online commentary examined the love Paul, Silvanus and Timothy have for the community, which is expressed to some degree as anxiety for the Thessalonian Christians they had to leave behind when they were forced to leave the city. In this, the seventh blog post, Paul and his co-workers exhort the Thessalonians to behave ethically in sexual matters, though we have had no previous information that there have been sexual indiscretions in the community. 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: Ethical Exhortation: “Control Your Own Body” (4:1-12):
1 Finally, brothers and sisters, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus that, as you learned from us how you ought to live and to please God (as, in fact, you are doing), you should do so more and more. 2 For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus. 3 For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from fornication; 4 that each one of you know how to control your own body in holiness and honor, 5 not with lustful passion, like the Gentiles who do not know God; 6 that no one wrong or exploit a brother or sister in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, just as we have already told you beforehand and solemnly warned you. 7 For God did not call us to impurity but in holiness. 8 Therefore whoever rejects this rejects not human authority but God, who also gives his Holy Spirit to you. 9 Now concerning love of the brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anyone write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another; 10 and indeed you do love all the brothers and sisters throughout Macedonia. But we urge you, beloved, to do so more and more, 11 to aspire to live quietly, to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we directed you, 12 so that you may behave properly toward outsiders and be dependent on no one. (NRSV)
As I mentioned in the last entry, some scholars see Paul, Silvanus and Timothy transitioning to the end of the letter in chapter three and that is a possibility. Perhaps the better way to put it would be that such a transition “was” a possibility, as I do not see this letter being composite in any way. Instead, it gives us a clue to the fact that Paul wrote actual letters, responding to information as it came in and as he and his companions felt it was necessary to reply to new situations. The fact that chapter four begins with “finally” (loipon) might mean that this was a new idea which had come to the authors or also, since loipon can mean “from now on,” “beyond that,” or “as for the rest,” that Paul and friends were simply moving on to the final topics. Since it is likely that letters were not written in one setting, there might have regularly been shifts in topics or themes. Whatever the case, the integrity of the letter seems beyond question.
As to why the discussion turns to sexuality, that is a more difficult question to answer on a specific level. Paul and his co-workers gave no sense in the first three chapters that anything was amiss in Thessalonica with respect to sexual behavior. In fact, this section of chapter four indicates that the behavior of the Thessalonians is rather exemplary, as they write “you learned from us how you ought to live and to please God (as, in fact, you are doing), you should do so more and more” (4:1). Here, then, they are not only encouraged to act morally, but acknowledged for acting morally. There is not necessarily a problem in the Thessalonian church with sexual behavior, but the stress is intended, as I mentioned at the end of entry 6, so that they might increase holiness. This is why “you should do so more and more” is important: Holiness is a matter of habit.
Paul, Silvanus and Timothy mention the oral tradition – “for you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus” (4:2) – and it is certain that they spoke to the Thessalonians in general about sexual behavior when they were with them. A major difference between Jews and Christians on the one hand and other Greco-Roman religions on the other was sexual morality. Most “pagan” religions accepted a double standard for men, allowing sexual behavior prior to marriage and outside of marriage, with men or women. The regulations were highly socially constructed. Adultery (moicheia) was forbidden and it is a broader category than just sex with a married woman, for it also included the unmarried women under the potestas or power of a male, not just his wife. The similar Latin term was stuprum and this included women and also boys. The issue was not who men had sex with, male or female, but to whom those people belonged. It was fine, for instance to have sexual relations with one’s male or female slaves, with prostitutes (who were often slaves), or with those who had the ability to freely make their own choices in these matters. As a result, sexual behavior was more acceptable outside of marriage for those who were not Christians (or Jews). This is not to say that pagans were all engaged in numerous sexual relationships, or that Christians were all free of them, only that the social standards were defined differently for different groups. Certainly, the Jews and Christians of antiquity were highly critical of Greco-Roman sexual behavior in general.
It is this general attitude, or suspicion, which probably informs this teaching in 1 Thessalonians. The Thessalonians are encouraged to avoid porneia, a notoriously difficult word to translate, broader than moicheia, but dependent upon what a culture or religion sees as “pornographic” or forbidden. For the early Christians, as for the Jews, this would include all sex outside of marriage. So Paul, Silvanus and Timothy state that
this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from fornication (porneia); that each one of you know how to control your own body in holiness and honor, not with lustful passion, like the Gentiles who do not know God; that no one wrong or exploit a brother or sister in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, just as we have already told you beforehand and solemnly warned you. For God did not call us to impurity but in holiness. (4:3-7)
We learn again in 4:6 that they had already instructed the Thessalonians in this matter and were stressing it again to promote their holiness (4:3: hagiasmos; 4:4: en hagiasmô; 4:7:en hagiasmô) and to discourage them from “lustful passion” (4:5: a good translation of epithymias) which “the Gentiles (ethnê) who do not know God” indulge in. It is not so much that they are aware that the Thessalonians Christians have engaged in such behavior, they are worried or suspect that they might do so. Whether this is fair to the Thessalonian church specifically is impossible to know since we were not there when Paul, Silvanus and Timothy arrived, but this attitude would mark Christian criticism of sexual practices outside the Church.
There is an important matter of translation in this passage, too, which must be discussed. The NAB translates 4:4 as “that each of you know how to acquire a wife for himself in holiness and honor,” while the NRSV, which I am using, translates the verse as “that each one of you know how to control your own body in holiness and honor.” The verse is fairly straightforward except for the use of the word skeuos, which generally means something like “vessel” or “utensil.” How does it become “wife” or “body”? The “wife” translation emerges from 1 Peter 3:7, where women are called the “weaker sex” and “sex” is a translation of skeuos. Translators, wondering how to make sense of skeuos in 1 Thessalonians have thought that perhaps Paul intended “vessel” to mean a wife. It is possible, but I opt for the meaning of “body,” which is more like an idiom for genitalia. Skeuos does have the metaphorical sense of an implement or utensil used for bad purposes. This is the sense I think is more likely and I believe Paul and the others are telling the Thessalonians, perhaps using slang, to keep “control of your own skeuos.”
Behind all of this exhortation is the pressing goal of holiness (4:3,4,7), which is contrasted with “impurity” (akatharsia). Paul, Silvanus and Timothy remind them that this directive is not from “human beings” but from “God,” which means that rejecting it is not a matter of personal preference, but a necessity for their holiness (4:8).
That this is an exhortation to “keep on keeping on,” as it were, and not a response to unbridled sexuality in the community is certified by the final verses of this passage. The Thessalonians are congratulated for their “love of the brothers and sisters” and told “you do not need to have anyone write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another; and indeed you do love all the brothers and sisters throughout Macedonia” (4:9-10). Once again, the issue is to grow in holiness. And when we reflect that Paul, Silvanus and Timothy consider the Thessalonians their spiritual children, it makes sense, as we saw in the fourth post and in the fifth post, that their focus is on continual spiritual growth.. Parents, including spiritual parents, want their children to continue on the proper path and to grow in the faith to maturity. So the issue is not that they have gone astray, but they have been developing properly and that they want them “to do so more and more” (4:10). The final advice is general advice to “aspire to live quietly, to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we directed you, so that you may behave properly toward outsiders and be dependent on no one” (4:11-12). We will consider this advice more fully when we examine chapter five, for it fits with some other instructions given there.
Next entry, Paul, Silvanus and Timothy teach the Thessalonians about the return of Jesus.
John W. Martens
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 Please see the excellent new book by Kyle Harper on these issues: From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity (Revealing Antiquity).