COMPANION TO THE NEW TESTAMENT - The New English Bible. By A E Harvey. - © The Delegates of the Oxford University Press, The Syndics of the Cambridge University Press. 1970. - Prepared for katapi by Paul Ingram 2014.


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Thessalonica was the capital of the Roman province of Macedonia. It stood, like Philippi, on the Via Egnatia—the great road across northern Greece which linked Rome with the East—and its population, though predominantly Greek, included a Jewish community (Acts 17.1).

Chapter 1.

Since much of the letter is taken up with Paul's personal recollections of his visit to Thessalonica, it is possible to reconstruct most of the circumstances from his own words. The account in Acts (17-18) adds little to our knowledge, and is not always consistent with what Paul says himself; but it does help us to decide the place and (within certain limits) the date of writing. If Acts can be trusted, the only time when Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy (1) were all together was during Paul's 18-month stay in Corinth (Acts 18.5); ← In Acts, Silvanus is called by the Semitic form of his name, Silas. and this period, since it followed soon after Paul's visit to Thessalonica, seems an appropriate one for the writing of a letter which is so full of vivid reminiscences. If this is correct, and the letter was written while Paul was in Corinth (say in the year 50 or 51), then it has some claim to being the earliest of Paul's surviving letters, indeed the earliest writing in the New Testament.

Hope and discipline

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The first three chapters consist, in effect, of the usual thanksgiving leading into prayer, though the sequence is broken by a long section of personal reminiscence and self-vindication, and the prayer itself is not reached until 3.11. The thanksgiving is, first, for the evident fruits of Paul's preaching among the Thessalonians, who had already exhibited the characteristic Christian triad of faith, hope and love (1 Corinthians 13.13; Colossians 1.4-5). Such results proved that the preaching was not just an exhibition of one individual's powers of persuasion, but was in the power of the Holy Spirit; and to have produced them, the preachers must have had a more than human authority: that is the kind of men we were at Thessalonica (5). And secondly: the Thessalonians' subsequent loyalty to their new faith, which was worthy of Paul himself (or rather, he hastens to add, worthy of the Lord), had achieved widespread fame. The news was in many mouths. As a gentile community, they had taken the decisive step (as seen from the Jewish-Christian point of view) of turning from idols (9); and in the phrases which follow (9-10) we may perhaps be reading a more or less stereotyped summary of the main tenets of their new faith.

Chapter 2.

After the violent end to his stay in Philippi (Acts 16), Paul, to continue his missionary work, had travelled on to Thessalonica (17.1-4). This information from Acts is confirmed by Paul's own words to the Thessalonians: after all the injury and outrage which to your knowledge we had suffered at Philippi, we declared the gospel of God to you (2). But Paul adds to our knowledge when he goes on to remind the Thessalonians of the conditions under which he had worked among them—a hard struggle it was. The language indeed becomes so pointed that one suspects he was anxious to scotch some insinuation that had come to his ears about his conduct at Thessalonica; or it may just be that he is contrasting his own methods with those of travelling philosophical teachers who were proverbially suspect of working for a base motive (3). At any rate, he makes it clear that at Thessalonica he had adhered strictly to his normal practice, which (as we know from frequent references to the matter in the Corinthian correspondence) was to make himself self-supporting, either by working for a living (9), or else by securing contributions from existing churches. But it seems that this policy, by comparison with that of other apostles, tended to arouse criticism. It was suggested, on more than one occasion, that Paul must be lacking in confidence and authority if he did not claim the financial support due to him as an apostle. Paul was evidently sensitive on this subject, and devoted a surprising amount of space to it in his letters; and it may have been the same anxiety which made him say here: as Christ's own envoys we might have made our weight felt (6). In this case he defended his practice on the grounds of the particularly intimate relationship—that of nurse (7), or father (11), towards children—which had grown up between himself and the Thessalonians, and to which indeed the tone of the whole letter bears witness.

However, the real proof of the authenticity of the preaching was to be seen, as always, in its results: you received it, not as the word of men, but as what it truly is (13); and in consequence the Thessalonian church had already had its taste of persecution. There is some discrepancy here from the account in Acts (17.5-9), where it is clearly stated that the opposition came from the Jewish colony in Thessalonica. Possibly this was so in the early stages, or possibly the writer of Acts deliberately made his account conform to the pattern which he regarded as characteristic for the foundation of Paul's churches—immediate opposition from the Jewish community, followed by a rapid spread of the gospel in the gentile population. However this may be, the opposition the Thessalonians had to meet when this letter was written came from their countrymen (14), who were following the example set by the Jews in Palestine. And in terms which may owe something to the age-old is language of anti-semitism (enemies of their fellow-men (15)), Paul breaks off to deliver a prophetic denunciation of his own people—in marked contrast to his more reflective treatment of the matter in Romans 9-11.

Chapter 3.

According to Acts, Paul was forced by the Jews to leave Thessalonica by night and take refuge in the neighbouring city of Beroea. From there he went, first to Athens, and then to Corinth, while Timothy and Silvanus (Silas) remained behind at Beroea until they received Paul's command to join him in Corinth (17.15; 18.5). Paul's own evidence shows this to be not quite accurate. Timothy did not stay in Beroea, but accompanied Paul to Athens; but such was Paul's anxiety that by this time he could bear it no longer (1). He had been forced to leave Thessalonica at a few hours' notice. He had had no news about the church there, how far it had taken root or withstood the troubles it was involved in when he left. He had not been able to take any of the opportunities which presented themselves to return (Satan thwarted us (2.18)—the phrase could mean anything from missing a boat to encountering malicious obstruction), and had finally sent Timothy instead. Moreover, his anxiety was not just that of any man for his friends: it had a still more serious aspect, in that Paul knew himself to be accountable to God for the churches he had founded, and any neglect on his part would be severely judged by the Lord at his coming (2.19). The good news which Timothy brought on his return caused him correspondingly intense joy (9), and prompted him to write the present letter.

After this long digression (11-13), the prayer for the church is at last resumed, and rounded off with another glance into the future—when our Lord Jesus comes (13). This "coming" would of course entail judgement. In the Old Testament (as in Zechariah 14.5, to which this verse doubtless alludes) God was sometimes thought of as coming to pass judgement, not alone, but in company with beings who were already (as it were) on the right side of judgement and could take a part in it. Who these creatures were—whether righteous men or supernatural spirits—remained an open question among interpreters of the Old Testament. But the idea fitted well into the Christians' expectation of the Lord Jesus coming with all those who are his own—for Christians were promised a place on the tribunal at the last great assize (1 Corinthians 6.3).

Chapter 4.

A short section is now devoted to the tradition of the way we must live to please God (1). It is clear from the New Testament that a tradition of this kind was developed in the early years of the church in order to clarify and where necessary supplement the moral demands of Jesus. This was particularly necessary in view of the traditional Jewish prejudice that the Gentiles, having no "law" in the Jewish sense, had nothing to prevent them from leading immoral lives. Christians had to show that they lived by a moral standard at least as exacting as that of the Jews. One of the commonest of Jewish charges against gentile morals was that of sexual impurity: and this Paul takes up here, warning the church to avoid fornication, not giving way to lust like the pagans who are ignorant of God (5) (the last phrase is scriptural, as in Psalm 79.6; Jeremiah 10.25). The reason he gives here (though there were many others he might have given, compare 1 Corinthians 7) is that the holiness (7) attributed to and demanded of Christians necessarily implies mastery over the body (4). ← The word translated body means literally "vessel", or "utensil". There are grounds for thinking that this was an idiomatic way of talking about the human body, as opposed to the soul which the body "contains"; but it is also possible that the phrase here translated his body originally stemmed from a Jewish phrase which was a euphemism for " intercourse with a woman". Impurity has of course social consequences which would be intolerable in a Christian community, ← There is doubt about the meaning of verse 6. The Greek word translated (in the main text) this matter could also bear the meanings indicated in the footnote, in which case we should have in understand Paul as wishing to allude in a wider range of offences than merely sexual ones. but the real objection is not social but religious: anyone therefore who flouts these rules is flouting, not man, but God (8).

Another danger about which Paul has to sound a warning is one which seems to have arisen from the Christians' earnest expectation of an early return of Christ. More will be said about this in the following paragraphs. Meanwhile, the danger referred to is that of reacting to the prospect of the imminent end of the world by giving up normal work and social obligations, as things belonging to a world order that is passing away. There are signs that the churches found themselves having to support a number of such people. Paul's advice is: let it be your ambition to keep calm and look u after your own business (11).

The question now to be discussed is not the general and perennial one of the destiny of those who sleep in death (13), but a particular and urgent one precipitated by the unexpected death of some members of the church at Thessalonica. The first generation of Christians believed that the Lord's coming would take place in their lifetime, and that they would then be given a place beside him in judging the world. The premature death of some of their number was not allowed for in this scheme. When it happened, it could sometimes be explained as the result of some sin or blasphemy which the dead man had committed—this explanation was apparently accepted in the church at Corinth (1 Corinthians 11.30). But at Thessalonica evidently no such explanation offered itself, and the Thessalonians must have conveyed to Paul their unhappy question: could they be sure that those of the faithful who had already died would still share their own glorious destiny?

Paul's answer is, first, quite general. You should not grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope. This, of course, was an overstatement. The majority of Jews believed in a future life; and a number of popular Greek religious and philosophical schools taught some kind of life after death. But it was certainly true—and to this the gravestones of the period bear eloquent witness—that in any Greco-Roman city such as Thessalonica most ordinary people shared the traditional Greek view of a dark and formless underworld in which the dead enjoyed at best a bleak and shadowy existence; and very few would have had any belief in an after-life comparable in intensity with that of the Christians. By contrast, the Christian faith was centred upon the resurrection of Jesus, as a result of which those who believed in him were assured of sharing a glorious life after death. We believe that Jesus died and rose again; and so it will be for those who died as Christians. It followed, not from any particular scheme of the last things, but from the fundamental doctrine of Christianity—Christ's resurrection— that Christians who had died would themselves rise to a new and glorious life.

But although this was certainly true in principle, it was still far from clear just how the future was to be envisaged. The majority of Christians (it was then believed) would be left alive until the Lord comes (15). What about the minority who had prematurely died? How would they too be able to take their rightful place in the final drama?

The answer still moves within the somewhat naive (as it seems to us) framework of the Thessalonians' question, which was in fact a legacy from Jewish religion (archangel's voice and God's trumpet-call (16) were conventional features of Jewish expectation, and are taken for granted by Paul: compare 1 Corinthians 15.52). It also goes back, in some sense, to the Lord's word—though we cannot be sure whether Paul is referring specifically to the promise which Jesus was understood to have made that some Christians would certainly be left alive until the Lord comes (Mark 9.1), or else to some more general teaching of Jesus about the end. At any rate, the basic scheme was certainly endorsed by Jesus: the Lord would shortly come to hold his judgement of the whole world, and Christians, instead of being among the multitude of those who were to be judged, would take their places as a kind of tribunal at the side of the judge. It would make no difference that some had already died. In the words of the Old Testament prophecy alluded to in 3.13, the Lord would come 'with all those who are his own'. Christians already dead and Christians still alive would alike be caught up to take part in judging the world where that judgement was most naturally thought of as taking place: in the air (17). ← A further Old Testament idea which may play its part here is that of the Son of Man who, when he comes to the last judgement, will gather his chosen to be with him (Daniel 7; Mark 13.27). This would give point to the alternative rendering of verse 14 (as given in the footnote) which is in any case much the more natural translation of the Greek.

Chapter 5.

Given that Christians expected the end so soon, it is not surprising that there should have been speculation about exactly when it would happen— about dates and times (1). Such speculation existed even among the Jews, and was strongly discouraged by responsible thinkers. Jesus, too, recognized the force of this temptation, and warned against it (Luke 17.20). It was true that the Day would be preceded by certain signs and portents; but not in the sense that anyone could use them to calculate the date and make plans accordingly. On the contrary, it was destined to be sudden. It would come, as Jesus had said himself (which is what Paul may mean by a phrase which in the Greek has a slightly technical sound, you know perfectly well), like a thief in the night (2)—and Paul adds two other descriptions of its suddenness which, whatever their origin, were probably equally familiar to his readers: first, that when there is talk of peace and security (3) (which were almost official slogans of the Roman empire), all at once calamity is upon them; and secondly, the simile of birth-pangs. And the proper response to this threatened suddenness is expressed, as so often, in terms of light, wakefulness and sobriety, with a brief allusion to the metaphor of heavenly armour which is so brilliantly developed in the last chapter of Ephesians.

Among the miscellaneous injunctions with which, as so often, the letter closes, it is notable that Paul, as in 1 Corinthians 16, makes an appeal for proper respect to be paid to the leaders of the local church; and these leaders are described in two terms which belong inseparably, if paradoxically, together in the concept of Christian ministry—service (here appearing as working so hard (12)) and leading. There is also a reference to another topic to which Paul had to pay attention in Corinth (and we have seen that there is reason to believe this letter was written from Corinth)—the proper management of inspiration (19) and prophetic utterances (20). 1 Corinthians 12. If the alternative rendering (given in the footnote) is correct, it may possibly (in view of certain verbal similarities) be an allusion to a saying of Jesus which is not recorded in the gospels, but which seems to have been known to some early Christian writers: "Be good bankers, rejecting some things but retaining what is good".

On the kiss of peace (26), and on the general character of the ending, see above on Romans 16.16.