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The Epistles to the Thessalonians

Updated on January 29, 2010

The account of Paul's Second Missionary Journey given in Acts 15:36 to 18:22 includes a description of the founding of the church in Thessalonica (modern Salonika). In response to Paul's vision of an appeal to him from a Macedonian, Paul and his companions sailed across the northern Aegean Sea from Troas to Philippi. They eventually arrived at Thessalonica, where for three sabbaths Paul argued with the Jews in their synagogue that Jesus was the promised Messiah. He met with such success that the Jews who were opposed to him stirred up a mob, forcing Paul and Silas to flee to Beroea. Again the Jews of Thessalonica made trouble, and Paul fled south to Athens by sea, leaving Silas and Timothy behind.

After an unsuccessful mission in Athens, Paul went to Corinth, where Silas and Timothy rejoined him. I Thessalonians 3:6 and Acts 18:5 imply that I Thessalonians was written at this point and that it was followed closely by II Thessalonians.

Modern critical study has accepted the general outline of the story told in Acts. The description of the foundation of the Thessalonian church in I Thessalonians 1 to 2 suggests that Paul is speaking of recent events. There can be little doubt that the letters should be read against the account in Acts 17:1 to 18:17. In that case the reference to Gallio in Acts 18 and other evidence date the Thessalonian correspondence between 50 and 52 A.D,, probably in the spring of 51. Most modern critics agree that the letters, assuming their authenticity, were written from Corinth about 51 A.D.

At the same time, certain details in the story of Acts must be corrected by evidence in the letters themselves. For example, it seems unlikely that "three Sabbaths" would be enough to establish a church that could later remain unshaken by persecution. More importantly, the persecution suffered by the Thessalonians was at the hands of Gentiles, not Jews.

Authenticity and Relationship of the Letters

The two letters have met differing fates in modern discussions of whether or not Paul wrote both. There is universal agreement that I Thessalonians was written by Paul. It is also generally agreed to be the oldest of Paul's letters that has been preserved. The problem of authenticity has attached almost exclusively to II Thessalonians, and it has been raised largely because of the difficulty involved in relating the two letters to each other.

Despite the fact that II Thessalonians is not universally accepted, most modern critics regard it as genuine. The stylistic resemblance of the two letters can most simply be explained by assuming they were written by Paul in the same brief period. Some scholars have held that the contrast between the views taken of the last things in the two letters argues for two separate authors. However, this contrast need not be presented as a contradiction. In I Thessalonians Paul wishes to assure his readers that their dead will share in the general resurrection (4:13), while in II Thessalonians he must deny that the Day of the Lord has already come (2:2). These two different aims require a difference of emphasis, but need not imply any change in Paul's teaching.

Content

In order to understand the letters, it is necessary to remember that they were addressed to specific situations. In the case of I Thessalonians the occasion was provided by Timothy's return from Thessalonica (3:6). His report that the church was standing firm despite persecution evoked from Paul a letter of thanksgiving and encouragement. It is more difficult to describe the particular occasion that prompted the writing of II Thessalonians. It is reasonable to suppose, however, that Paul received fresh reports from Thessalonica- for example, in 3:11, the phrase "we hear." He learned that some had given up working and become idle (3:11; and compare I Thessalonians 4:11). In addition he discovered that his own authority had been invoked as warrant for the notion that the Day of the Lord had already come (2:2). If I Thessalonians is a letter of thanksgiving, II Thessalonians is a letter of instruction designed to deal with what Paul heard about events in Thessalonica.

Except for the discussions of the Day of the Lord, there is no extended theological argumentation in the letters. Nevertheless, the thanksgivings and exhortations quite clearly reflect and, in fact, appeal to the Christian tradition Paul delivered to the Thessalonians (I Thessalonians 2:4; 4:1; II Thessalonians 2:15; 3:6). God has elected and called the Thessalonians from idolatry to Himself (I Thessalonians 1:4, 9; 2:12; 4:7; 5:24; II Thessalonians 1:11; 2:14). They, in turn, have responded to the Christian preaching with faith in Christ, who died and was raised (I Thessalonians 1:7-10; 4:14; 5:10). Their life as Christians is characterized by a new living with Christ (I Thessalonians 5:10), by faith, hope, and love (I Thessalonians 1:3; 5:8; II Thessalonians 1:3), and by the reception of the Holy Spirit (I Thessalonians l:5f.; 4:8; II Thessalonians 2:13). The moral consequences of this life are described by the metaphor of walking (I Thessalonians 2:12; 4:1, 12; II Thessalonians 3:6, 11). Its consequence will be the possession of salvation (I Thessalonians 5:9; II Thessalonians 2:13). This partial list of theological themes reveals nothing that is specifically Pauline. In the same way the most striking aspect of the eschatological teaching—that is, teaching about the last things and the Second Coming of Christ—found in the letters is its traditional character. The Second Coming of Christ will be accompanied by a command, the voice of the archangel, and the trumpet of God. That Day will come "like a thief in the night" (I Thessalonians 5:2, with which compare Matthew 24:43). II Thessalonians 2:1-12 describes what will happen before the Day of the Lord. The "mystery of lawlessness," though already at work, is now held back by the power or the person "who restrains it." Once he, or it, is removed, the man of lawlessness, or Antichrist, will be revealed, to be slain by Christ at His coming. The restraining power has commonly been identified as the Roman Empire. Others have seen the figure as Paul himself. But regardless of the puzzling problems of identification, all these details suit the general picture of the eschatological drama found in the apocalyptic writings and in the Qumran literature.

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