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Paul and Thessalonica (1)

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In this paper,* I intend to set out Paul’s relationships with the Christians at Thessalonica with as much clarity as possible, not only to facilitate the exegesis of 1 Thessalonians, but also to supply an important component in a general sequence of the apostle’s work and to make a modest contribution to the discussion of the authenticity of 2 Thessalonians. I shall focus particularly on the founding stage of the mission in Thessalonica, without neglecting the later supervisory stage from which 1 Thessalonians itself comes. This study will proceed as rigorously as possible from the evidence of the letters alone, without recourse to Acts; see Letters Based Chronology (1).1 

  *This is a revision of “Paul and Thessalonica,” Proceedings: Eastern Great Lakes and Midwest Biblical Societies 10 (1990) 123-135.
  1Over a hundred years ago, W. Bornemann was opposing harmonizing solutions where contradictions between Acts and 1 Thessalonians appear. He concedes that Acts is probably incorrect, and pleads to let each source speak for itself (Die Thessalonicherbriefe, MeyerK10, 6th ed. [Goettingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1894] 32-37).

The chart below summarizes this letters evidence.

Paul’s Work Previous to the Founding Mission at Thessalonica

First Jerusalem Visit (Galatians 1:18) 

Travel to the regions of Syria and Cilicia (Galatians 1:21)

(Probable) Founding visit to GALATIA 

Founding visit to PHILIPPI (1 Thessalonians 2:2)

Founding Mission at THESSALONICA

Personal details:

» Probably accompanied by Silvanus and Timothy (cp. 1 Thessalonians 1:1)
» Self-supporting (1 Thessalonians 2:9)
» Nevertheless, he received aid from Philippi, more than once (Philippians 4:15-16)     

The gentile makeup of the congregation (1 Thessalonians 1:9)     

His message:

» The gospel which he proclaimed: worship of the one true God; the death and resurrection of his son, and his return (1 Thessalonians 1:9-10; cp. 5:9-10)
» Eschatological [end-of-time] teaching: the imminence and unexpectedness of the Lord’s coming (1 Thessalonians 1:10; 4:13–5:11)
» Moral instruction: sexual purity; (perhaps, right dealings with a brother;) diligence; brotherly love (1 Thessalonians 4:1, 2, 6, 9, 11) 

[On the hypothesis of the authenticity of 2 Thessalonians:
» Announcement of an apocalyptic scenario on the “man of lawlessness,” his restraint, and his revelation, preceding the Lord’s coming (2 Thessalonians 2:1-12)
» Deliverance of unspecified traditions (2 Thessalonians 2:15; cp. 3:6)
» The dictum, “no work, no food” (2 Thessalonians 3:10)]

The congregation endures tribulation (1 Thessalonians 1:6; 2:14[?]) and is warned of tribulation to come (1 Thessalonians 3:3-4)     

Paul’s departure, after perhaps 3-6 months, or longer.

Supervision, after Departure from Thessalonica

(Possible) visit to Illyricum     

Paul visits ATHENS

» With Timothy, and probably Silvanus
» Makes repeated attempts to re-visit Thessalonica (1 Thessalonians 2:17-18)
» His mission in Athens is probably unsuccessful; see 1 Corinthians 16:15
» After an absence of perhaps several months, Paul sends Timothy to Thessalonica from Athens (1 Thessalonians 3:1-2, 5)     

What Timothy learns about the situation in Thessalonica:

» They have endured tribulation (1 Thessalonians 2:14[?]; 3:3-4)
» Concern about the death of some Thessalonian believers (1 Thessalonians 4:13)
» Uncertainty about the time of the Lord’s coming (1 Thessalonians 5:1-11)
» The emergence of leaders in the congregation (1 Thessalonians 5:12)
» The presence of “enthusiasts,” giving rise to “counter-enthusiasts” (1 Thessalonians 5:19-22)          

Founding visit to CORINTH (1 Corinthians 1:14, 16; 2:1-5; 2 Corinthians 1:19)

» First converts in Achaia: the household of Stephanas (1 Corinthians 16:15)
» Timothy rejoins Paul (and Silvanus) with news from Thessalonica (1 Thessalonians 3:6): the success of the Thessalonian mission, and some problems which need to be addressed. This information comes back to Paul, “in all our distress and affliction” (1 Thessalonians 3:7)
» Paul’s fellow-workers at Corinth during this period: Silvanus and Timothy (2 Corinthians 1:19)     

Paul writes 1 Thessalonians, with Silvanus and Timothy (1 Thessalonians 1:1)

The Interval Extending to the Final Visit

Paul’s travel plans: to re-visit Thessalonica (1 Thessalonians 3:10-11; cp. 1 Corinthians 16:5; 2 Corinthians 1:15-16)     

Travel plans: delayed, but not forgotten; the reasons for the delay—for details, click on Closing Months (5):

» The second Jerusalem visit (conference)
» Founding work in Ephesus
» The time he spent in prison
» The painful visit to Corinth, which was originally to have been followed by a visit to Macedonia     

Continuing supervision of the Thessalonian congregation, in whatever way was possible     

The final visit to Macedonia, Thessalonica probably included. There he would:

» Give attention to possible problems of disorder in the congregations (2 Corinthians 7:5)
» Work on the collection (2 Corinthians 8–9)    

Paul’s Work Previous to the Founding Mission at Thessalonica

Paul’s work prior to the founding mission in Thessalonica may be briefly summarized. When Paul visited Thessalonica for the first time, he had recently come from Philippi, where he had “already suffered and been shamefully mistreated” (1 Thessalonians 2:2; see Philippians 1:30). Indeed, we may reasonably assume that he had reached Macedonia by way of a journey through Galatia, during which he would have founded the churches there.2

  2We have a possible reference to the earlier founding of the Galatian churches when, in Philippians 4:15, Paul writes, “. . . No church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you alone.” See J. Murphy-O’Connor, “Pauline Missions Before the Jerusalem Conference,” RB 89 (1982) 82.

Founding Mission at Thessalonica

We come to the founding mission in Thessalonica. Paul’s companions were evidently Silvanus and Timothy, if we may give an inclusive meaning to the “we” in 1 Thessalonians 1–3.Paul’s preaching appears to have met with good success (1 Thessalonians 1:6-10; 2:1, 13). His message was received in spite of persecution (1 Thessalonians 1:6). The gentile makeup of the congregation is made evident by Paul’s recollection that they had turned from idols to serve the living and true God (1 Thessalonians 1:9).4  

  3The meaning of the first person plural in 1 Thessalonians is problematical and is sometimes equivalent to “I,” so I would not wish to make too much of this point. The complimentary words about Timothy (1 Thessalonians 3:2) do not indicate the absence of Timothy at the founding visit, against W. Schmithals, Paul and the Gnostics (Nashville/NY: Abingdon, 1972) 181; Paul tends to be commendatory in his references to Timothy: 1 Corinthians 4:17; 16:10; Philippians 2:20-22. Acts does not seem to be well informed about the movements of Silvanus and Timothy during the period which we are considering; one may consult E. Best, A Commentary on the First and Second Epistles to the Thessalonians (NY: Harper & Row, 1972) 131.
  4E. von Dobschuetz, Die Thessalonicher-Briefe, MeyerK10  7. Auflage (Goettingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1909) 11, thinks that Jason was a Jew (Acts 17:5-9); this view would be convincing only if we identified him with the Jason of Romans 16:21, an identification questioned by A. Oepke, Die Briefe an die Thessalonicher, NTD 89 155. Scholars who accept the evidence of Acts (19:29; 20:4; 27:2) and Colossians (4:10-11) would designate Aristarchus as a Jew. Aristarchus could have come into the church later (Traugott Holtz, Der erste Brief an die Thessalonicher EKKNT13 10, n. 13). The claim that some of the Thessalonians had been God-fearers (Best, 1-2 Thess 181; cp. Holtz 10) seems to be contradicted by 1 Thessalonians 1:9.

From what may be plausibly be regarded as kerygmatic fragments [i.e. his early gospel proclamation] in the letter, we may suppose that Paul’s original preaching emphasized monotheism, the death and resurrection of Christ, and his imminent Parousia [or coming again]. Paul presupposes in the letter their knowledge that salvation will come “through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us . . . ” (1 Thessalonians 5:9-10; cp. 4:14). Paul had probably informed them not only of the imminence of the Parousia but also of its unexpectedness (1 Thessalonians 5:2).5 

[At the same time, on the hypothesis of the authenticity of 2 Thessalonians, Paul would also have instructed them concerning the rebellion and the revelation of the man of lawlessness, and concerning the restraint presently placed upon the son of perdition; that is to say, instruction about the elaborate apocalyptic scenario leading up to the Parousia of the Lord Jesus (2 Thessalonians 2:1-12).]

As for Paul’s teaching about the resurrection of believers, he probably discussed this with them at the founding visit, though neglected to explain the connection between resurrection and Parousia.6

  5E. von Dobschuetz (Thess-Br 204) is probably correct on this point. See also E. Bammel, “Judenverfolgung und Naherwartung: zur Eschatologie des Ersten Thessalonicherbriefs,” ZTK 56 (1959) 310; and G. Milligan, St Paul’s Epistles to the Thessalonians (London: Macmillan, 1908) 63-4.
  6I have no difficulty believing that, in the excitement of their expectation of the end-of-time, Paul may have neglected to teach them about the general resurrection. But in this case, it is difficult to understand why he should have introduced the resurrection of believers in such a casual way in 1 Thessalonians (4:16; perhaps, 4:14). For a fuller discussion, see W. Marxsen, Eschatologische Existenz: Ein exegetischer Beitrag zum Sachanliegen von 1. Thessalonicher 4,13–5,11 FRLANT 110 (Goettingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1973). Holtz (1 Thess 187, n. 219) doubts that Paul is introducing the resurrection of believers for the first time.

Among the various kinds of instruction which Paul gave the Thessalonians during the founding visit, we may note his warning about the likelihood of suffering persecution (the first person plural in 3:4 may be inclusive of the Thessalonians). Even more prominent is the importance of living according to certain moral standards. These standards reflected for the most part ordinary Christian paraenesis [i.e. moral instruction], which by this time was at least in part traditionally formulated.7 In no fewer than four places (1 Thessalonians 4:1, 2, 6, 11), Paul makes it clear that he has already delivered this teaching to them during his original stay. Paul had instructed them to be monogamous (as well as monotheistic!) and to abstain from sexual immorality (4:1-6).8 He had also charged them to be diligent in their work and to be a model of conduct to outsiders (4:11-12).9 

[Once again, on the hypothesis of the authenticity of 2 Thessalonians, Paul had already laid down the dictum, “Anyone unwilling to work should not eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10; cp. 3:6).]10 

  7See M. Dibelius, HNT 112 (1925), Exkurs on 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12; cp. Best, 1-2 Thess 156.
  8Interpreters have of course disagreed on what to make of the difficult skeuos [vessel] in 1 Thessalonians 4:4. Milligan, in Thess 48-9, and D. E. H. Whiteley, in Thessalonians in the Revised Standard Version (Oxford: University Press, 1969) 60-1, prefer to render skeuos “his own body;” while J. E. Frame, in A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistles of St. Paul to the Thessalonians (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1912) 149, von Dobschuetz, in Thess-Br 163, and Best, in 1-2 Thess 161-3, find “wife” more intelligible. R. F. Collins makes a good case for the latter interpretation, in Studies on the First Letter to the Thessalonians (Leuven: University Press, 1984) 331-3. As for the difficult  pleonektein en tô pragmati in 1 Thessalonians 4:6 [“that no one wrong or exploit a brother or sister in this matter”], von Dobschuetz (Thess-Br 168) proposed that it referred to financial rather than sexual cheating, but Milligan (Thess 50), Best (1-2 Thess 165-6) and Collins (Studies 333-5) are probably correct in preferring the sexual interpretation.
  9What lies behind the advice to be diligent: the ferment of eschatological expectation? a false over-excitement through the Spirit, as found later in gnostic circles? the rabbinic obligation to follow a trade? Paul’s familiarity with the moral traditions of the Greco-Roman philosophers? I find none of these proposals to be entirely satisfactory. See Best, 1-2 Thess 175-6; Schmithals, Paul and the Gnostics 158-60; Holtz, 1 Thess 176-81, esp. n. 190; and R. F. Hock, The Social Context of Paul’s Ministry: Tentmaking and Apostleship (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1980) 34-6, 42-7.
  102 Thessalonians 2:15 refers to unspecified traditions which had been orally transmitted by Paul, presumably during the founding visit.

Paul had worked to support himself while he was in Thessalonica (1 Thessalonians 2:9), but this had not been enough; need outran resources, and he had been obliged to depend on help from the community at Philippi on at least two occasions (Philippians 4:15-16).11 These indications suggest a settled ministry of some months’ duration.12 A period of three to six months (or even longer) in Thessalonica seems to fit the situation which we have attempted to reconstruct on the basis of the letters.

  11Leon Morris, “KAI HAPAX KAI DIS,” NovT  1 (1956) 205-8, takes Philippians 4:16 to mean, “Both (when I was) in Thessalonica and more than once (in other places);” cp. B. Rigaux, Saint Paul: Les Épîtres aux Thessaloniciens (Paris: J. Gabalda, 1956) 461. This view is possible, if on the analogy of the LXX [i.e. Septuagint] one takes hapax kai dis as the idiomatic expression, without the preceding kai. Thus Paul would have received only one gift from Philippi in Thessalonica (and the letters source would be harmonized to Acts, the secondary source!). On the other hand, it is doubtful whether the preceding kai is correlative in Philippians 4:16, as Morris argues (108), since in that case we would expect something like, “Both (kai) when I was in Thessalonica and (kai) when I was in Corinth.” As the text stands, the place (en Thessalonikê) and the repetition of the gift (hapax kai dis) do not seem to correlate. Hence the idiomatic expression will be kai hapax kai dis, on the analogy of kai dis kai tris, Plato, Phaed. 63D, 63E, Gorg. 498E; Sophocles, Ajax, 432; references in Morris (205) and Rigaux (461). Holtz (1 Thess 12, 116-7; n. 554) favors the rendering “more than once.”
  12No one would guess from Acts 17:1-10 alone that the mission in Thessalonica lasted more than three weeks. Holtz (1 Thess 12) proposes a stay of months, not weeks.


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