Supervision, after Departure from Thessalonica
Paul in Athens
In the interval between his departure from Thessalonica and the sending
of Timothy back to Thessalonica, Paul had gone to Athens, probably with
both Silvanus and Timothy. The movement of Silvanus and Timothy during
this period are uncertain, and we probably have to leave open the question
whether in the case of Silvanus he was with Paul in Athens at all, and
whether in the case of Timothy he accompanied Paul to Athens or joined him
later.13 At least we can say that Paul and Timothy were in
Athens and that after repeated attempts to return to Thessalonica Paul
sent Timothy back to Thessalonica to see how the congregation was faring,
while Paul was left behind in Athens (1 Thessalonians 3:1).
How long a period of time elapsed between Paul’s departure from
Thessalonica and his sending of Timothy can only be roughly estimated at
several months. This would give adequate space for Paul to make his
repeated efforts to revisit Thessalonica (1 Thessalonians 2:17-18, kai
hapax kai dis [“again and again”]); and sufficient time during
which deaths of Thessalonian Christians might have taken place
(1 Thessalonians 4:13).14 Meanwhile, Paul’s mission in
Athens, such as it was, did not lead to the making of converts, a
conclusion based on the fact that the Corinthian household of Stephanas
was the first fruits of Achaia (1 Corinthians 16:15; see the discussion
13The problem is complicated
by two factors: (a) the meaning of the first person plural in 1
Thessalonians 3:1-3 is uncertain; shall we emphasize Paul’s being left alone,
or shall we emphasize the plural word monoi [alone]? and (b)
Acts is apparently unaware that Paul sent Timothy back to Thessalonica,
whence the swarm of “solutions” for harmonizing Acts and
1 Thessalonians. Leaving Acts to one side, I favor the view that
Silvanus and Timothy both accompanied Paul to Athens—though, as I have
already indicated, uncertainty will remain.
14It is true that some interpreters attempt to compress
all of this within several weeks, and one cannot insist that it is
impossible to do so. Nevertheless, I suspect that such a view of the
evidence arises from the requirements of an Acts-oriented system of
chronology and is not the most natural reconstruction.
15The author of Acts, not being informed of these
circumstances, refers to certain converts in Athens following the
Areopagus speech (Acts 17:34).
Timothy’s Visit to Thessalonica
With his return to Thessalonica, Timothy surely found encouraging signs
of a reasonably well established mission. The congregation had survived,
and their relationship to Paul was cordial. Any shortcomings of faith
which Timothy may have encountered (1 Thessalonians 3:10) would not have
blunted the edge of a positive report.16
Timothy had other things to report which in part at least constituted
the agenda for 1 Thessalonians.
|The death of some Thessalonian Christians was creating anxieties
(1 Thessalonians 4:13-18), probably out of fear that the dead
would miss the Parousia.17 |
|With the continuing delay of the Parousia, the Thessalonians were
eager for some clue as to times and seasons.18|
|Whether Timothy encountered actual problems of moral behavior we
cannot say. No one at Thessalonica was saying, “All things are
lawful” (cp. 1 Corinthians 6:12). Paul’s paraenetic teaching
may therefore be dealing with potential rather than existing
immorality and disorderliness.|
|Timothy may also have reported that since Paul’s departure the
Thessalonians had suffered further persecution (1 Thessalonians 3:3-4;
cp. 2:14 [?]).|
|Timothy may also have encountered the presence and influence of
enthusiasts (1 Thessalonians 5:19-22).19 |
|Leaders had emerged at Thessalonica (1 Thessalonians 5:12-13),
but it is difficult for us to know what problems, if any, existed in
connection with their authority or status.20 |
|Though it is sometimes proposed that Paul was obliged to respond to
opponents or false teachers in Thessalonica, the evidence for such
opposition is not very weighty (see Detached
16Paul would indeed hear of
their faith apart from what he was to learn from Timothy
(1 Thessalonians 1:7-9).
17So Best, 1-2 Thess 181.
18Eschatological excitement, generated initially
by Paul’s proclamation of the coming wrath (1 Thessalonians 1:10),
was no doubt continuing in the community, but the delay of the Day of the
Lord was puzzling if not troublesome. Were some attempting to predict the
end-of-time? Were others showing signs of complacency?
19In that case, we would have to suppose that the
enthusiasts had given rise to a group opposed to spiritual manifestations,
and especially to prophecy.
20Leaders may already have been appointed by Paul prior
to his departure, though Holtz (1 Thess 11) doubts that
he did so. Perhaps, on the analogy of 1 Corinthians 16:15-18, they
were the “first converts” (aparchê, literally, the first
fruits) of Thessalonica; one may consult H. Conzelmann, 1 Corinthians
(Philadelphia: Fortress, 1975) 298.
Paul’s Founding Visit to Corinth, and the
Composition of 1 Thessalonians
Along somewhat these lines, then, Timothy
brought his report back to Paul, the report which was the immediate
occasion for 1 Thessalonians. Regrettably, Paul does not say where he
was when Timothy rejoined him. But we may with good reason conclude that
he had left Athens and had proceeded to Corinth,21 and that the
letter was written there.22 Four to twelve months had probably
passed in the interval between Paul’s departure from Thessalonica and
his composition of 1 Thessalonians. For the details, one may consult Detached
21If Silvanus is to be
included in the “we” with Paul in 1 Thessalonians 3:1, and was left
behind with Paul in Athens when Timothy set off for Thessalonica, then it
is reasonable to assume that Silvanus accompanied Paul to Corinth.
22The reasoning would be as follows: (a) According to
1 Thessalonians 1:7, news of the Thessalonians has reached all the
believers in Macedonia and Achaia; (b) but according to 1 Corinthians
16:15 the Corinthian household of Stephanas were the first converts (aparchê,
first fruits) of Achaia; hence (c) Paul must already have reached Corinth
when he wrote 1 Thessalonians. A related issue, however, needs to be
addressed: was Corinth part of Achaia? The answer is probably affirmative.
By Achaia Paul probably understands the central and sourthern parts of
Greece, including Athens and Corinth, even though these and other cities
enjoyed certain privileges as free cities; see Th. Mommsen, The History
of Rome: The Provinces from Caesar to Diocletian, Vol. I (London: R.
Bentley & Son, 1886) 254-79; cp. von Dobschuetz, Thess-Br 74;
Conzelmann, 1 Cor 298. Indirect confirmation of Corinth as the
place of composition is provided by 2 Corinthians 1:19, which attests
the participation of Silvanus and Timothy with Paul in the mission at
Corinth and which seems to refer back to the founding stage of the work
there. We also learn (1 Thessalonians 3:7) that the report of Timothy
reached him “during all our distress and persecution (anangkê kai
thlipsei),” but the letters provide little explanation of what these
troubles were— unless 1 Corinthians 2:3 provides a suggestion:
“And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling.”
Of Paul’s six other letters which are assuredly authentic, all
contain some kind of travel plans—or, at least, the wish to visit his
readers.23 1 Thessalonians is no exception. We have
already noted Paul’s repeated attempts to pay a second visit to
Thessalonica (2:17-18), and the frustration of his intentions. Did he then
abandon hopes of an early visit to this congregation? In one sense the
letter itself is an acknowledgement that he would not soon pay them a
visit. The letter functions as a kind of surrogate for the apostolic
parousia (or presence).24 Indeed, this function of the letter
may explain the otherwise puzzlingly solemn admonition for it to be read
to all the brethren (1 Thessalonians 5:27). If he foresaw an indefinite
delay in his plans to revisit the church, he undoubtedly felt it
justifiable on the basis of what we might call eschatological
231 Corinthians 4:17-21;
16:2-12; Galatians 4:20; 2 Corinthians 1:15-16; 1:23–2:1; 8:16-24;
9:3-5; 12:20–13:2; 13:10; Philippians 1:26-27; 2:19-24; Philemon 22;
Romans 1:9-13; 15:22-32.
24See R. W. Funk’s essay, “The Apostolic Parousia:
Form and Significance,” in Christian History and Interpretation:
Studies Presented to John Knox, ed. W. R. Farmer, C. F. D. Moule, R.
R. Niebuhr (Cambridge: University Press, 1967), 249-68, esp. 266.
On the other hand, we can not mistake the
intensity of his desire to see the Thessalonians: he prays night and day
“superabundantly” (huperekperissou) that he may see their face
(1 Thessalonians 3:10; cp. 3:6); then the prayer is framed in the
most solemn manner that God may make straight Paul’s way to them (3:11).
This prayer is not a travelogue,25 in the sense that Paul is
announcing the time and route of a visit, as in 1 Corinthians 16:3-9; it
is, one might say, the wish that God would work out a travel plan that
would bring him to Thessalonica. We may conclude that Paul has it in mind
to visit the congregation, even though definite plans have not been worked
out.26 This wish wish is a demonstration of his continuing
concern for his friends there.
[It may also be observed that, on the hypothesis
of the authenticity of 2 Thessalonians, the desire to revisit them
unaccountably fades, and the “plan” is abandoned, since the letter
makes no reference to a forthcoming visit. But subsequently the intention
to revisit them unaccountably returns, for at the time of writing 1 Corinthians he is planning not only a return
visit to Corinth, but also, on the way toward Corinth, a visit to Macedonia
—including, of course, Thessalonica: “I will visit you after passing
through Macedonia—for I intend to pass through Macedonia—” (16:5).
See further, below.]
25The phrase is R. W.
Funk’s, in Language, Hermeneutic, and Word of God (New York:
Harper & Row, 1966) 264-74.
26Paul almost certainly realized his plan to visit
Thessalonica during the collection visit to Macedonia: 2 Corinthians
7:5; 8:1-5; 9:1-4. Whether he reached Thessalonica earlier, e.g., on the
way to the Jerusalem conference, we do not know.
The Interval Extending to the Final Visit
It was at least three to four years from the composition of 1
Thessalonians before he realized his wish and prayer to be reunited with the
Thessalonian congregation. Travel plans were delayed, but not forgotten. The reasons for the delay were various:
|Travel to Jerusalem for the conference;|
|His founding work in Ephesus;|
|The time he spent in prison; and|
|His preoccupation with problems in Corinth, including the painful visit
he made, a visit which was originally intended to be followed by
a visit to Macedonia.|
When Paul made his final visit to Macedonia, he almost certainly stayed
in Thessalonica, as well as Philippi. His attention was directed to work on the collection (2 Corinthians 8–9),
and apparently also to problems of disorder in the congregations (2