FIRST AND SECOND THESSALONIANS
– PART I – INTRODUCTION AND THEMES
I. Thessalonica was an old and important governmental and trading center that St. Paul, along with Saints Silas (probably the same as Silvanus) and Timothy, evangelized during his second and third missionary journeys.
A. Founded in 315, Thessalonica was a prominent trading center with a rich cultural history.
1. Cassander, a general of Alexander
the Great founded the city, naming it after his wife, a half-sister
2. After the
Battle of Pydna in 168 B.C., the Romans secured control of all of Macedonia,
including Thessalonica. Under Roman influence, it became a trading
center and the capital of Macedonia. In 42 B.C., the city backed
Octavius and, when he prevailed to become Augustus Caesar, the city
won more prominence and it became a "free city," and thus largely
had an excellent harbor and was on the Egnatian Way, the central Roman
road across the Balkans. As a result, it was a prosperous trading
center and had a cosmopolitan atmosphere.
4. Religiously, there were numerous pagan temples there by the first century, A.D., reflecting the city's varied population, but also there was a large Jewish presence. Among the pagan temples, those of the Egyptian gods, especially Isis, Serapis, Osiris and Anubis, were prominent. The Egyptian religion had a particularly developed view of the afterlife, with rewards and punishments for behavior in this life.
- The populations
seemed to get along reasonably well when St. Paul began his evangelization
B. St. Paul, with his assistants, arrived in Thessalonica about 50 A.D. and began proclaiming the gospel with some success, but also substantial opposition. See Acts 17.
1. After leaving Phillipi at the request of that city's magistrates, St. Paul went to Thessalonica and preached in the synagogue on three successive Sabbaths, staying at the house of one Jason. Some Jews converted, as did numerous Greeks who sympathized with the Jews. The latter group included some prominent women.
- While in Thessalonica,
St. Paul worked with his hands, presumably as a tent maker, to support
himself, in order to give good example to the people. See
1 Thess. 2:9; 2 Thess. 3:7-10.
- It appears from
First Thessalonians that most of the early Christians had been idol-worshipers
of one sort or another, although many also presumably believed that
the Jews had special insights as well. See 1 Thess. 1:9.
2. The synagogue
leaders were jealous and hired a mob to attack St. Paul. They
found Jason and some Christians and dragged them to the magistrates,
who took a surety payment from Jason. Saint Paul quickly left
for the next town, Borea. Saints Silas Timothy apparently stayed
behind for a short time to help the new Christian community there before
rejoining St. Paul.
3. St. Paul apparently intended to come back soon to Thessalonica, but was hindered from doing so, presumably because he had to deal with opposition in Corinth.
- While St. Paul
was in Corinth, Saints Silas and Timothy rejoined him and presumably
gave him news about the progress of the new church in Thessalonica.
He then sent St. Timothy back to the Thessalonians; and St. Timothy
came back with what was evidently mostly good news about the faith there.
See 1 Thess. 3:1-3. This news was apparently the occasion for
the First Letter to the Thessalonians.
- The community
in Thessalonica was evidently undergoing some persecution, the first
recorded persecution of Christians in Gentile territory. See 1
Thess. 2:14, 3:3-4.
4. Although the
city is not directly mentioned, St. Paul visited Macedonia during his
third missionary journey and sent St. Timothy ahead of him. See
Acts 20:1-3. Being Macedonia's largest and most prominent city,
Thessalonica presumably would have been a part of this journey.
C. Thessalonica has
continued as a city to this day. It was controlled by the Byzantine
Empire until 1454, and then the Ottoman Empire until 1912, when Greece
gained control of the area. It was called Saloniki for a time,
but more recently its more common name has gone back to Thessalonika.
It is now the second largest city in Greece.
II. The First Letter to Thessalonians appears to have been written in about 51 A.D. shortly after Saints Silas and Timothy reported back to St. Paul about the progress of the church in Thessalonica.
A. There is general agreement that St. Paul wrote the letter while during his lengthy stay in Corinth, which would place it at about 51. It is thus probably (although not certainly) the first written book of the New Testament. See Acts 18.
1. The early
date of the letter would account for some of its unusual aspects, in
particular the somewhat rambling structure and the rather brief beginning
and end, with no description of St. Paul with a title such as "apostle"
or "slave of the Lord."
2. The letter
is also co-signed by Saints Timothy and Silas, presumably because St.
Paul was using their report for the letter. However, the letter
quickly makes it clear by its autobiographical references to St. Paul,
especially in chapters 2 and 3, the he is the main author. The
use of the first person plural, however, does indicate that the other
two figures co-wrote the letter.
B. Different commentators see slightly different structures to the letter, but the basic organization is as follows.
1. There is a rather brief opening and thanksgiving in the first 10 verses.
- The opening says
in verse 1 says little more than the authors and the audience.
- The very optimistic
thanksgiving has a Trinitarian structure to it, referring to "our
God and Father," "the Lord Jesus Christ," and the Holy Spirit.
2. Chapters 2 and 3 then give an account of St. Paul's ministry and the reports he has received about the Thessalonians.
- In the first
12 verses, St. Paul recounts how kind he and his fellow missionaries
were in their witness to the Gospel. The next four verses give
thanks for the Thessalonians' eager and courageous reception of the
message, with a note of judgment on the enemies of the gospel.
- Verses 17 to
20 of chapter 2 then describe St. Paul's frustration as not being
able to visit the Thessalonians.
- Verses 1 to 8
of chapter 3 comment on St. Timothy's mission to the Thessalonians
and the report he brought back of faithfulness in the midst of persecutions.
- Verses 9 to 13
then give a thanksgiving and prayer that God will lead the Thessalonians
to ever more advancement.
4. Chapter 4
moves on to a general moral exhortation, with special emphasis on sexual
morality, mutual love and dedicated labor. These exhortations
continue for 13 verses and reflect previous instructions.
5. The remainder of chapter 4 and the first 11 verses of chapter 5 build upon the moral exhortations and turn to eschatology to assure the people that the Lord Jesus will return and that all the dead will rise with Him.
- The end of chapter
4 was apparently written in response to some concerns about the prospects
of those who died before the return of Jesus.
- There is an emphasis
in chapter 5 on the possibility that Jesus may return at any time and
thus that one must always be ready.
6. Verses 12
to 21 of chapter 5 then contain another series of moral exhortations,
with a special emphasis on church unity.
7. The final
seven verses conclude the letter with a prayer and final greetings.
The prayer reiterates the importance of holiness in preparation for
the return of Jesus, and the fact that our good works are God working
C. This letter is important both for its historical portrait and for its description of early doctrinal development. Historically, it gives the image of a Christian community in its first enthusiastic growth. Doctrinally, there is a focus on the return of the Lord Jesus and the holiness we must live in preparation for that glorious event.
1. The letter reflects a community still experiencing the first spring of the faith. The letter reflects that optimism, especially in the repeated expressions of thanks and praise. See 1 Thess. 1:6-9, 2 :13-16, 3:9-13. The end of the letter indicates an active openness to the Holy Spirit and the gift of prophesy. See 1 Thess. 5:19-20. In the midst of this enthusiasm, there is a clear call to holiness and church unity, as well as a need to test new ideas and inspirations to be sure they are valid.
- St. Paul's
description of his own ministry in chapters 2 and 3 is also an example
for evangelization through patience, determination, and good example.
2. In this letter,
the clearest doctrinal issues at stake are the return of Jesus and the
resurrection from the dead, addressed in chapters 4 and 5. St.
Paul describes Jesus' return with the contrasting images of: (1) a
trumpet blast and glorious proclamation; (2) an approach suddenly like
a thief in the night; and (3) a great battle. Taking up
a Jewish metaphor, St. Paul describes the dead as like those asleep
who will be raised again and rejoined with those who are now alive.
St. Paul emphasizes the moral life needed to prepare for Jesus, in contrast
to those who would simply get along with the world.
III. The Second Letter to the Thessalonians is most probably a follow up to the first letter, although the relationship is rather debated.
A. The two general views are that the second letter was either: (1) written a few months or perhaps a year or so after the first letter to clear up some misunderstandings; or (2) written by an associate of St. Paul presumably shortly after his death designed to take the ideas of the first letter and re-apply them
1. In the early Church, it was virtually unanimously agreed that St. Paul wrote this letter as a follow up to the first one. There are many similar themes, and stylistic devices, although the emphasis is different.
- Most importantly,
both letters focus on the second coming of Christ, although the second
letter is more warning that it may not be imminent.
- Both letters
are ascribed to Saints Paul, Timothy and Silvanus and have a similar
introduction and conclusion, although the second one adds a special
emphasis on St. Paul.
- Both letters
give a thanksgiving for the Thessalonians' eager acceptance of the
faith, and an anticipation of judgment against those who reject it.
See 1 Thess. 1:2-10, 2:13-16, 3:9-13; 2 Thess. 1:3-10, 2:13-15.
- Both letters
give a summary of St. Paul's mission, with an emphasis on how St.
Paul worked with his own hands as an example to others. See 1
Thess. 2:1-9, 2 Thess. 3:6-9. The first letter describes the missionary
work more in terms of the background of thanksgiving, while the second
is more adamant on the point of people supporting themselves.
- Both letters reflect reports of persecution against the early Christians and assure the people that God will strengthen them. See 1 Thess. 2:13-16, 3:1-3; 2 Thess. 1:5-7.
2. Starting in the nineteenth century, some scholars argued that the letter was likely a later writing by an associate of St. Paul, meant to compliment the first letter, but deal with some new misunderstandings that arose later in the context of more intense persecutions.
- They argue that
there are some aspects of this letter not typical of St. Paul, such
as the: (1) absence of much reference to the death and resurrection
of Christ; (2) the absence of much reference to his (St. Paul's own
ministry); and (3) much more apocalyptic language that is typical of
St. Paul, especially I chapter 2. There is more a notion of God's
just judgment, rather than grace, as is more common with St. Paul.
See Fr. Charles Giblin, S.J., "The Second Letter to the Thessalonians",
chapter 53 in the New Jerome Biblical Commentary (1990); Fr.
Ivan Havenery, O.S.B., "2 Thessalonians", in the Collegeville
Biblical Commentary: The New Testament
- Those who defend
Pauline authorship point to the fact that, if this letter was meant
to be read in union with First Thessalonians, St. Paul would not need
to include elements already in the first letter. See The Navarre
Bible; The Letters of St. Paul (1999) at 502-503. The idea
is that the second letter works well as a continuation of the first
one. They also emphasize the fact that the end of the letter is
particularly adamant about its Pauline authorship.
3. Another possibility
is that Second Thessalonians was written as a draft for what would become
4. In either
case, the background of the letter comes from a controversy over whether
Jesus would return immediately. Based upon one or more alleged
messages or letters of St. Paul, some had been saying that the return
of Jesus was imminent and, as a result, focusing all attention on that,
and not actually progressing in their spiritual life or building the
church. See 1 Thess. 2:2, 3:6-16. The letter is responding
to that error.
B. The structure of the letter is similar to that of First Thessalonians, although shorter, and with greater emphasis on the judgment of God, contrasting the faith with false teachers.
1. There is a
short opening, followed by a thanks. As with the first letter,
St. Paul commends the Thessalonians for their eager acceptance of the
faith. Here, St. Paul quickly focuses on God's just judgment
and the emphasis on how He will punish those who oppose the Church by
excluding them from His presence.
2. Chapter 2
then focuses on the Day of the Lord. The letter emphasizes that
that day will not come immediately, but rather that a great lawlessness
will come to separate out the good from the evil.
3. Chapter 3
then turns to a call for prayer, especially for protection against evil,
and a call to work for the community in preparation for the Lord.
4. The last two
verses then conclude the letter with an insistence on Pauline authorship.
C. Like First Thessalonians, this letter gives some insight into an early Christian community, but here with more of an emphasis on maintaining the faith, with prayer and good works.
one gets the sense, as with the first letter, of an enthusiastic expansion
of the faith, and of a community mostly living in harmony. But
more so than in that letter, there is here a warning against problems,
here particularly those associated with the expectation of Jesus'
there is more of an emphasis on Jesus as the judge who is even now judging
all people and who will come with complete judgment on the end.
The letter leaves no room for a middle way between God and the world,
instead emphasizing that as time goes on one will need to make a clear
choice. There is also, as with the Gospels there is a clear warning
against trying to calculate the day of the return of Jesus. Cf.
Mk 13:3-8, 32-37. The call is to continued faithfulness and fidelity
to the constant teachings of the Church.