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Paul and Thessalonica (2)

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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 below).15

  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. 

bulletThe 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 
bulletWith the continuing delay of the Parousia, the Thessalonians were eager for some clue as to times and seasons.18
bulletWhether 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.
bulletTimothy may also have reported that since Paul’s departure the Thessalonians had suffered further persecution (1 Thessalonians 3:3-4; cp. 2:14 [?]).
bulletTimothy may also have encountered the presence and influence of enthusiasts (1 Thessalonians 5:19-22).19 
bulletLeaders 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 
bulletThough 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 Note A).

  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 Note B.

  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.”

Travel Plans

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 exigency. 

  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:

bulletTravel to Jerusalem for the conference;
bulletHis founding work in Ephesus;
bulletThe time he spent in prison; and
bulletHis 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 Corinthians 7:5).

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