AN INTRODUCTION TO THE STUDY OF THE NEW TESTAMENT by A H McNeile. Copyright A H McNeile - first published at the University Press, Oxford 1927. 2nd Edition revised by C S C Williams 1953. - This Edition prepared for Katapi in Arial Unicode MS by Paul Ingram 2003.

Chapter VI - Part 1

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A. First Group of Epistles (pages124-132]

1 Thessalonians | 2 Thessalonians


even including Philemon, which deals with the private matters of an individual, all St. Paul's writings that have come down to us are addressed to Christian communities, and intended to be read aloud (i Thess.v.27; Col.iv.16).
Most of them are real 'letters', dealing with the particular circumstances and needs of particular Churches, but the Apostle made them the vehicle of a large amount of doctrinal and homiletic instruction.
The evolution of didactic epistles, or epistolary homilies, and the adoption of them by Christians, is described by Moffatt [Introd. Lit. ff. T., pp. 44-50.], and the ordinary form and method of ancient Greek letter-writing by G. Milligan. [Thessalonians, 1908, pp. 121-30.]

The exact dates of St. Paul's life are not yet determined.
For those, which are here given for the epistles an alternative of a year earlier throughout is possible.
The chronological position of Galatians and Philippians is disputed, and also of certain portions, e.g. the two parts of 2 Corinthians (chs.i-ix and x-i), and within the former part vi.14-vii.1; also Rom.xvi, and Phil.iii.2-iv.1.
But the following is the order in which they are usually studied:



1and 2 Thessalonians


1 Corinthians

55 or 56

2 Corinthians



56 (49?)



Colossians, Philemon, Ephesians

c. 61


c. 62 (? 54-56)

These dates are determined by working backwards and forwards, according to indications in the Acts and Epistles, from the midsummer of 52 or 51, at which time we learn from an inscription found at Delphi that Gallio (see Acts xviii.12) entered upon office as proconsul of Achaia.
[See Deissmann, St. Paul, Appendix I, and A. H. McNeile's St. Paul, pp. xv-xviii, cf. W. L. Knox, St. Paul and the Church a/Jerusalem, 1925, p. 278, n. 36. Knox gives reasons for thinking that Gallio's term of office ran from July ad 51 to July ad 52.]




Throughout his life St. Paul cherished the warmest affection for his converts in Macedonia, which he first visited in the course of his second missionary tour.
The spiritual guidance which had led him to Troas (Acts xvi.6-8), and the vision which he had there of the man of Macedonia (v. 9), caused him to take the important step of enlarging his labours beyond the areas of Syria and Asia Minor.
In the towns of Macedonia he found audiences more simple-minded, less sophisticated, than those in Asia Minor, who were beginning to fall under the influence of the rising tide of theosophical syncretism from the East and Egypt.
His converts at Philippi and Thessalonica became attached to him in the closest friendship; and those in the latter town, as he says himself (1 Thess.i.7 f.), became very widely known for their Christian devotion.
He must have stayed with them for some time, because he settled down to his hand labour (cf. Acts xviii.3, xx.34) in order to maintain himself and not be burdensome to them as a guest (1 Thess.ii.9; 2 Thess.iii.8), and because during his stay his devoted converts at Philippi sent him supplies at least twice (Phil.iv.16).
But at last the Jews of the place, enraged at his success, incited the populace against him and Silas, who accompanied him.
They fortunately were not able to lay hands on them, but Jason, in whose house they seem to have lodged, and some other Christians, were brought up before the politarchs, the local magistrates, on a charge of sedition against Caesar.
Jason was bound over to keep the peace, and St. Paul and Silas (with their young companion Timothy, whom St. Luke does not mention) were hurried away by their friends (Acts xvii.5-10).
But his converts continued to suffer at the hands of the Jews (1 Thess.ii.14 f.).
After he had arrived, via Beroea and Athens, at Corinth, Silas and Timothy rejoined him (Acts xviii.5; see p. 114), and Timothy, whom he had sent back to them from Athens, brought him a report of their spiritual and temporal position which relieved his mind of great anxiety and drew from him this letter.

Writing, as he always did, out of the fullness of his heart, he made no attempt at literary or artistic arrangement.
But the letter falls naturally into two parts:
A.    Personal matter;
B.     Instruction.

In A he utters a thanksgiving for their zeal and endurance (i.2-10), which was itself a proof of what his work for them had been, and gave him the opportunity of defending himself against false charges which had been made against his preaching and manner of life among them (ii.1-12).
He thanks God again for their endurance under Jewish persecution (ii.13-16), and recalls his relations with them since his banishment, the mission of Timothy, and his report (ii.17-iii.10), concluding with a prayer (iii.11-13).

In B he warns them against immorality, which was all too easy for newly converted Christians, especially Gentiles, surrounded by pagan life (iv.1-8), and exhorts them to increase in mutual love, to keep quietly to themselves instead of mixing themselves up with the pagan society of the city, and to work with their hands, which would create a good impression among non-Christians and make them independent of charity (iv.9-12).
He had learnt from Timothy's report that because Christ's Advent, which they were momentarily expecting, had not yet occurred, and some of their number had died, they were in doubt and distress as to whether the dead would share in it.
He assures them that they will, foretelling the Lord's descent from heaven, the rising of the Christian dead, and then the rapture of the risen and the living together 'in clouds to meet the Lord in the air; and so shall we ever be with the Lord' (iv.13-18).
He adds that sober watchfulness is needed because the Advent will be sudden (v.1-11). And after some miscellaneous injunctions as to their manner of life as Christians (v.12-22), a short conclusion brings the letter to an end.

Apart from some difficulties of language, which are discussed in commentaries, there is little that calls for special attention except the apostle's teaching on the Advent, for which reference should be made to R. H. Charles's work. [Eschatology, Hebrew, Jewish and Christian, 1913, pp. 437-75.]
Its delay had begun to cause heart burnings, and St. Paul found himself constrained, as the years went on, to lay continually less stress on its immediate imminence and more on mystical union with Christ.
And at the end of his life the thought of the Parousia, in the Jewish sense of a catastrophic event at a future moment of time, had practically faded from his mind.
[But cf. Phil. i.6, 10; ii.16; iii.20 f.; iv.5, Col.i.5, iii.4.]



Place of writing | Relation to 1 Thessalonians | top      

This epistle, apart from the autographic conclusion (iii.l7 f.), falls into three parts, each concluding with a prayer (i.11 f.; ii.16 f.; iii.16):


A thanksgiving for the zeal and endurance of the readers, leads to



the thought of their recompense at the Advent of the Lord Jesus with His angels, when sinners will be destroyed.



The final End has not yet begun; the Advent must be preceded by the Lawless One, who is at present checked by a hindering power, but whom Jesus will destroy when He comes.



This leads to a thanksgiving for the spiritual privileges of the readers, and an exhortation to hold fast the Christian tradition.



A request for their prayers, and expressions of confidence.



Injunctions to work quietly for their own living, and to avoid and admonish those Christians who do not.


place of writing.

The opening salutation includes the names of Silvanus (= Silas) and Timothy.
Since they had both rejoined St. Paul at Corinth (see above), and both are referred to as preaching with him there (2 Cor.i.19), it is a natural conclusion that Corinth was the place where this epistle, as well as the preceding, was written.
But the conclusion is uncertain.
Silvanus at this point disappears from history altogether, and Timothy disappears for some time. St. Paul, after staying more than eighteen months at Corinth, returned to Syria via Ephesus, visited Jerusalem, spent some time at Antioch, passed through cities he had evangelized in Asia Minor ('the Galatic region and Phrygia'), and returned to Ephesus, where, after more than two years of the apostle's work, Timothy reappears in St. Luke's narrative (Acts xix.22).
Timothy, therefore, may have been left at Ephesus when St. Paul sailed thither from Corinth.
But it is equally possible that he and Silvanus remained with the apostle throughout, in which case, so far as the inclusion of their names in the salutation is concerned, the epistle might have been written at any time in the four years or so between Timothy's arrival at Corinth and the mention of him at Ephesus. Moffatt cites iii.2 as indicating Corinth: 'Pray, brethren, for us, ... that we may be delivered from wicked and evil men'; but 'wicked and evil men' might point equally well to Ephesus.

relation to 1 thessalonians.

The epistle is somewhat of an enigma.
The difficulties that it raises are mainly three:

  1. In a large part of it there is a marked similarity of language and subject matter to those of the First Epistle.
    [See Milligan, Thessalonians, pp. lxxxi f.]
    This would be natural if St. Paul were writing soon afterwards to another Church.
    But why should he write two letters to the same Church in terms so similar,
    and at an interval of time so short, that one was an echo of the other?
    If, on the other hand, the interval was longsay three years or morethe similarity requires us to suppose that he re-read his copy of the first letter and imitated its language, which is very improbable.
  2. But with the similarity there is a difference in tone that can be felt rather than described.
    The epistle is less frankly warm and affectionate than the first, more formal, more 'official and severe' (Milligan); and greater emphasis is laid on the apostle's teaching and example (ii.15; iii.6-14).
    If there was a considerable interval between the two writings, the news that the apostle received (cf. iii.11) of the Thessalonians could well account for the change.
    But if they were written almost at the same time, the difficulty is greater.
  3. While eschatology is a feature in both, St. Paul not only devotes a larger space to it in the second epistle (i.7-10; ii.1-12), but treats the subject very differently. In the First Epistle the Thessalonians, as said above, were troubled as to whether Christians who had died would share in Christ's Parousia.
    In the Second, the difficulty that has to be met is described in the words (ii.1,2), 'But I ask you, brethren, concerning the Parousia of our Lord Jesus Christ and our gathering together unto Him, that ye be not hastily shaken from your mind nor frightened either by spirit [i.e. a communication delivered by one in a spiritual ecstasy] or by word or by letter as purporting to be by us [It is very likely that the words 'as purporting to be by us' refer to all three ecstatic utterance, preaching, and a letter.] as that the day of the Lord is [already] present'.
    The last word ἐνέστηκεν - (enesteken) must not be rendered 'is imminent', cf. Kittel, Theologisches Worterbuch, ii, p. 540 (Oepke); of the imminence of the Parousia St. Paul was himself deeply convinced at this period of his life.
    But the readers had, from some cause, begun to think that the eschatological world-crisis had actually begun, perhaps because they misunderstood the 'realized eschatology' according to which the Kingdom had already come in some sense with Jesus' first advent.
    And the apostle was obliged to repeat, perhaps in different and clearer language, what he had taught them orally when he was with them (ii. 5), and to beg them (v.15) to adhere to that teaching given by word of mouth (διὰ λόγου - (dia logou)), and also to what he had told them in his previous letter (δι᾽ πιστολῆςἡ μῶν - (di' epistoles hemon)).
    It would not take long for some in Thessalonica, who had misunderstood his teaching, to rouse an unhealthy nervous excitement in the community by fostering the idea that the events of the final Drama had begun.
    And it is perhaps natural that a touch of sharpness and frigidness should enter into St. Paul's repetition of his teaching, of which a mistakenpossibly with some "a malicioususe had been made.

'Paul may well have received a second messenger saying that a number of Thessalonians believed that the day of the Lord had already dawned and that those who were unwilling to work had become more troublesome' (A. D. Nock [St. Paul (1938), p. 160.]). 'A sufficient explanation would be that the evils of which St. Paul complains in 1 Thess.iv.10 seemed so serious that after sending the first letter, he decided to follow it up with another more severe in tone to make certain of suppressing them.
But the data for a full explanation are lacking' (W. L. Knox [St. Paul and the Church of Jerusalem, p. 281.]).

Other explanations have been suggested,

  1. J. G. West (j.t.s.xv,1913, pp. 66-74.], following Ewald and others, argues that the Second epistle preceded the First, and places the writing of it at Beroea.
    He says, 'No misunderstanding on the part of the Thessalonians of anything in 1 Thessalonians can be discovered which will fit the case'.
    But according to the above explanation, following St. Paul's own words, what they had misunderstood was not his first letter but his oral teaching given when he was with them.
    West holds that the eschatological teaching in 1 Thessalonians represents 'a wider and more Gentile outlook', while in 2 Thessalonians it is 'crude and Judaistic', and that the latter must have preceded the former.
    But is it possible to suppose that St. Paul's ideas developed so quickly in the brief interval between leaving Beroea and arriving at Corinth?
    In any case his oral teaching preceded any epistle, and it is that which he expressly claims to be repeating.
    It is true that the Jewish scenic descriptions of terror and retribution, and the Jewish tradition, in a Christianized form, of the Man of Lawlessness, the devilish counterpart to the Messiah, are to be seen in the Second Epistle.
    But the need, as said above, was different. In 1 Thessalonians his converts required comforting concerning the dead; in 2 Thessalonians his teaching on the Parousia in general, which they had begun to misrepresent, had to be reinforced.
    Two further considerations favour the priority of 1 Thessalonians: firstly, the fact that St. Paul's references in 1 Thess.ii.17-iii.6 to events which had occurred since he left are more natural in the first letter that he wrote after his departure than in a second; secondly, the mention of 'the token in every epistle' (2 Thess. iii. 17), to warn the readers against a letter, or letters, purporting to be by him, is rather more suitable in a second letter than in a first.
  2. Burkitt [Christian Beginnings, pp. 128-32; cf. E. G. Selwyn, The First Epistle of St. Peter, 1946, pp. 14-17.)
     thinks that both letters were drafted by Silvanus (Silas), and that St. Paul approved them and added 1 Thess.ii.18 and 2 Thess.iii.17 with his own hand.
  3. Harnack suggests that the Gentile and the Jewish Christians at Thessalonica formed distinct groups, to which the two epistles were written respectively.
    This is attractive, and would explain some of the difficulties, and the Judaic language of the Second Epistle.
    But it is a conjecture without evidence.
    The salutation in each case is 'To the Church of the Thessalonians', with no hint of distinct groups; and the injunction in 1 Thess.v.27 is to read the epistle to all the Christians.
  4. Many writers have denied the genuineness of 2 Thessalonians.
    It is thought to be a later work by a Paulinist (possibly Silvanus), partly on account of the difficulties mentioned above the similarities and differencesand partly on the ground of style and language.
    But this raises difficulties as great as those that it solves. The Thessalonians possessed, and no doubt knew almost by heart, the First Epistle.
    And we have to suppose that after St. Paul's death someone wrote an epistle addressed to the same Church, consisting partly of a cento of phrases from the First Epistle, and partly of some new and startling eschatology, which he represented St. Paul as having taught by word of mouth in Thessalonica.
    And the boldness, or worse, of adding iii.17 is greater than we can admit to be possible, even in an age when pseudonymity was a recognized literary artifice.

Some have gone so far as to reject the First Epistle on such grounds as the suspicious similarity of its language to that of 1, 2 Corinthians, the discrepancies between its historical notices and those in the Acts, the presence of words not used elsewhere by St. Paul, and the absence of distinctively Pauline ideas about the Law and the Cross.
Moffatt (Intr. Lit N.T., pp. 70 ff.]. refers the reader to the discussion on these points.
The similarity to 1, 2 Corinthians in language, in the apostle's attitude of self-defence, and in some of the difficulties felt by the readers is undoubted, and constitutes an argument for the genuineness of 1 Thessalonians.
It leads W. Hadorn (Zeitschr.f. d. mutest. Wiss., xx, 1919, pp. 67-71.] to date it in the long stay at Ephesus in close conjunction with 1, 2 Corinthians.
He thinks, however, that 2 Thessalonians preceded it, and can belong to the first stay at Corinth.
But the general situation of the two epistles is too similar to make this interval and difference of place probable.
This late date for the First Epistle, or both, is 'forbidden by the fact that in 1 Thessalonians the impressions of the first contact are still so fresh, much fresher than in 1 Corinthians or Philippians ... and it is wholly improbable that Paul should have sent no letter to the Thessalonians during his eighteen months in Corinth'.
(Windisch [Harvard Theol. Rev. xv, 1922, pp. 173 f. The whole number is a very useful summary of German work on the New Testament, 1914-20.])

  1. It is suggested that the Second Epistle is composite.
    A pre-Christian or Jewish-Christian apocalypse has been incorporated by a Paulinist, or, conversely, an epistle has been built up round the Pauline fragment ii. 1-12, or a letter by St. Paul has been edited and partly rewritten.
    Moffatt (op. cit., p. 81) rightly says that 'little is really gained by postulating such a restricted activity on the part of the editor.
    For his purpose it would have been as simple and more effective to compose an entire epistle, and the section ii. 1-12 is so cardinal a feature of the canonical writing that the latter may be said to stand or fall with it.'
  2. M. Goguel [Op. cit., pp. 335-7.] adopts a theory suggested but discarded by Harnack that 2 Thessalonians was written to the Church at Beroea.
    Christians there seem to have been mainly converted Jews, 'more noble' than those in Thessalonica, who examined the Scriptures daily for Testimonies (Acts xvii.11).
    Eschatological teaching to them needed a different emphasis.
    Though the Lord is at hand, certain Signs must first be seen, cf. Mk.i.
    The literary relationship between i Thessalonians and 2 Thessalonians would be explained if both letters were penned one after the other.