Young People's Bible Dictionary
by Barbara Smith (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1965)
Thessalonians, The First and Second Letters to the. Two N.T. books, letters from Paul to the church at Thessalonica, which he had started. The first letter was written about A.D. 50, when Paul received a report about the church from Timothy, who had visted Thessalonica. The letter was intended to encourage the Thessalonians in their faith and to tell them about the expected return of Christ. The second letter is also about the expected return of Christ, which some Christians were misunderstanding. The date of this letter is uncertain.
Harper’s Bible Dictionary
edited by Paul J. Achtemier (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985)
You are strongly recommended to add to your library the excellent revised edition of Harper's Bible Dictionary titled, The Harper Collins Bible Dictionary, Revised Edition, edited by Paul J. Achtemeier, with the Society of Biblical Literature (NY: Harper Collins, 1996). It is currently the best one-volume Bible dictionary in English, and it is available at Border's Books, Christian Science Reading Rooms, http://www.borders.com, or http://www.christianbook.com.
Thessalonians, the First Letter of Paul to the, the thirteenth book of the nt. Most scholars are agreed that 1 Thessalonians is the first Pauline Letter, written about a.d. 50, and therefore the oldest extant nt writing. While the literary unity and integrity of the letter have been questioned from time to time, these proposals have not found scholarly consensus.
OUTLINE OF CONTENTS
The First Letter of Paul to the Thessalonians
Paul, Timothy, and Silvanus are co-authors of this letter to the Christian community at Thessalonica, a fact supported by the predominant use of the first person plural (‘we’). Paul and his co-workers arrived there after having experienced much conflict in Philippi (Acts 16:11-40; 1 Thess. 2:2). Thessalonica, so named by Cassander (one of Alexander’s generals) after his wife who was the daughter of Philip and the sister of Alexander the Great, was founded about 316 b.c. When Macedonia became a Roman province in 148 b.c., Thessalonica became the most important city of the province and the center of Roman administration.
Background: Both 1 Thessalonians (1:9-10) and Acts (17:4) suggest that the Thessalonian church was composed of Jews and Gentiles. Further, according to the account in Acts, Paul and his co-workers (Timothy and Silvanus), encountered sharp opposition instigated by the Jews and were eventually forced to leave Thessalonica because of this conflict. This polemical situation between the Jews and Paul appears to be reflected in the pointed comments found in 1 Thess. 2:13-16.
In addition to a strong Jewish presence in Thessalonica, we know that several religious cults of the Greco-Roman world were active in this leading city of the province and seat of Roman administration, including the cult of Serapis and the cult of the Cabiri. Paul’s description of his apostolic practice in 2:1-12, his ethical advice in 4:1-8, as well as his teaching about the return of Christ (Gk. parousia) in 4:13-5:11 may be better understood with this background in mind, a background in which Paul’s missionary style and teaching would have differed enormously from that of his competitors, with their ecstatic orgies and their varied expectations of the afterlife.
Content: Paul’s affectionate letter to the church of the Thessalonians begins with his remembering their ‘work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ’ (1:3). This same trilogy occurs again in 5:8: ‘…put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation.’ In chap. 3 we learn that Paul, who is probably writing this letter from Corinth, is anxious about the current status of the Thessalonian church. He hopes that they are not ‘moved by these afflictions’ (3:3) and is apprehensive lest ‘somehow the tempter had tempted you and that our labor would be in vain’ (3:5). As a result he sent Timothy from Corinth both to inquire and to encourage. Upon his return to Paul he brought the ‘good news of your faith and love’ (3:6). This section concludes with the apostle’s prayer ‘that we may see you face to face and supply what is lacking in your faith’ (3:10). The overall context of the Letter, as well as this specific section, suggests that hope is precisely the element that is deficient and needs to be strengthened. When this is recognized, then the sustained eschatological emphasis of the Letter, especially at key transition points, makes sense. One should note especially 1:10; 2:19; 3:13; 4:13-18; and 5:1-10, 23.
Despite Paul’s affection and high regard for these Christians whose faith served as ‘an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia’ (1:7), he must correct and clarify one major area of misunderstanding: the status of those who have already died in Christ since the end has not yet come. In 4:13 Paul shifts from the repetitious ‘you know’ language (1:5; 2:1, 2, 5, 9, 10, 11; 3:3b-4; 4:1, 2, 6, 10, 11; 5:2) to the phrase ‘we would not have you ignorant….’ These ‘you know’ phrases are not superfluous rehearsals, but Paul’s method of reminding this Christian church that they are already now sharing in the new life in Christ, which has hope as an essential ingredient. Thus their past and present participation in hope, as well as the integrity of the apostolic office of Paul and his co-workers over against those spurious claims of Paul’s competitors, allows him to deal with the key issue in 4:13-18, namely, that the Thessalonian Christian should not grieve as others do who have no hope ‘concerning those who are asleep.’ This problem surfaced when some in the community died prior to the eagerly expected imminent Parousia and this anxiety may well have been fueled by those outside the church who mocked what seemed to them the absurdity of Christian eschatological claims. Paul assures his audience that the dead in Christ will not suffer disadvantage, they will not be overlooked, and that they ‘will rise first’ (4:16) on the last day. Paul then reiterates the imminence of the Parousia (5:1-3) and then only in 5:10 does he give his final answer concerning the dead in Christ: ‘our Lord Jesus Christ…died for us so that whether we wake or sleep we might live with him.’
Two final observations: first, it is noteworthy that ‘justification language,’ used predominately in Galatians and Romans, is absent in 1 Thessalonians, although Paul does use here, as in Romans, the terms ‘sanctification’ and ‘salvation.’ In 1 Thess. 4:3, 4, 7 and 5:23, sanctification refers to the quality of new life in Christ, which will culminate in salvation (5:8, 9). This observation may support those scholars who suggest that justification language only appears at a later stage in Paul’s thought, provoked originally by an intense battle with judaizing opponents, as in Galatia. At any rate what is constant from 1 Thessalonians through Romans, with different nuances, of course, is Paul’s apocalyptic interpretation of the death and resurrection of Jesus in view of God’s impending triumph. Second, it is significant for the study of the development of the ecclesiastical structure in the nt that already in 1 Thessalonians there is a reference to an organizational pattern: ‘But we beseech you, brethren, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work’ (5:12-13).
Edited for BibleTexts.com by Robert Nguyen Cramer