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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

The Character of the Letter: Theology and Identity.

1. Established Suggestions as to the Character of the Letter

There has been much interest among critics in seeking some broad description with which to characterize the nature of 1 Thessalonians. The two most popular sources for an overarching description are popular Hellenistic philosophy and rhetoric and Jewish biblical and extra-biblical traditions, since both areas, individually or jointly, have influenced what Paul has to say to his audience (Perkins 1989: 325–7). The numerous attempts to categorize 1 Thessalonians as a whole using the conceptual frameworks available to first-century Mediterranean persons can be referred as ‘emic’, a useful social-scientific term (derived from ‘phonemic’) referring to insider, native, or indigenous points of view, as opposed to ‘etic’ (derived from ‘phonetic’), meaning the perspective of an outsider trained in contemporary social-scientific ideas and approaches (see Headland, Pike, and Harris 1990 ). One of the fundamental insights of the social sciences is the fundamental importance of the distinction between these two perspectives. Yet modern persons trained in twentieth-century ideas who seek to understand—however incompletely—a pre-industrial culture removed from them in space or time will usually find it necessary to employ both emic and etic perspectives in order to translate the experience of that culture into a framework they can understand (Esler 1995: 4–8). So, we will first consider some existing solutions to the nature of the letter from an emic point of view, and then briefly propose some etic perspectives which will be employed in the Commentary.


The first emic perspective consists of those derived from the Hellenistic setting. Donfried (1989 ) and Smith (1989: 170) regard the letter as one of consolation, having as its main purpose to console (paramuthein) the Thessalonians at a time when they were suffering the effects of persecution. While 1 Thessalonians contains several consolatory elements (see Commentary), the existence of other dimensions, however, raises some doubt as to whether ‘consolation’ is appropriate as a general designation for the letter (Chapa 1994 ). One other dimension to the letter, most prominently advocated by Malherbe (1989c ), is that of exhortation. Malherbe (1987: 68–78; 1989c ) has argued that Paul's aim in the letter is closely in tune with elements of Graeco-Roman moral philosophy dealing with how, in a context of friendship between persons, one of them exhorted the others to maintain existing forms of behaviour, even though Paul modifies these traditions to accord with his own theology and interests. Malherbe (1987: 74) recognizes that hortatory themes are explicitly prominent only in 1 Thess 4–5 , but argues that his self-description in chs. 1–3 serves a hortatory function by reminding them of his example.


The second prominent emic perspective involves Jewish traditions, expressed in biblical and extra-biblical literature, which speak of a decisive change in the cosmos which God is going to bring about. The fact that such ideas, especially expressed in the notions of the coming parousia of Christ and the salvation and deliverance from wrath for his followers that will result ( 1:6–10; 4:13–18 ), should figure so prominently in a letter addressed largely if not exclusively to former idolaters constitutes one of the most remarkable features of 1 Thessalonians. This is especially surprising when one considers that other areas of Jewish tradition play a fairly small part in Paul's message, since although some of his statements bear marks of having originated in Israelite Scripture (as noted in the Commentary), there is, as de Vos (1999: 146–7) notes, no explicit quotation from the OT and no reference to any OT figure (such as Abraham, for example) or to cultic language. Moreover, nowhere else in Paul's letters is the theme of dramatic future redemption so pronounced (Jewett 1986: 168). At a more general level, however, it has been reasonably argued, by Perkins (1989 ) for example, that Paul's desire to install Jewish categories and images in the hearts and minds of his converts in Thessalonica—with its profusion of pagan cults also competing for adherents (Donfried 1985; 1989 )—is a more prominent theme in the letter than moral education of the sort advocated by Malherbe and others. This proposal seems to be more in tune with the markedly non-élite status of the recipients of the letter.

4. A Social Identity Approach to 1 Thessalonians

Alternative ways of characterizing 1 Thessalonians, which are capable of comprehending possibly a broader range of issues and of facilitating useful contemporary applications, can be derived from the etic perspectives developed by modern social scientists.


One promising approach is that offered by social identity theory, a flourishing area of social psychology developed by Henri Tajfel and others in the 1970s and 1980s (see Tajfel 1978; 1981; Tajfel and Turner 1979; 1986; Brown 1988; Robinson 1996 ) and utilized in a recent monograph on Galatians (Esler 1998 , esp. at 40–57) and in Esler (2000 ) dealing with Galatians and 1 Thessalonians. This theory explores the extent to which persons acquire and maintain a valued social identity, that is, that part of their sense of self which derives from belonging to one group rather than another, a process which is likely to be the focus of stereotypification and denigration. Social identity is more significant in group-oriented cultures (such as those present in the first-century Mediterranean world) than in modern individualistic cultures (such as those of northern Europe and North America). Social identity theory always insists on the primacy of the question ‘Who do we say we are?’—which was expressed in the first-century Mediterranean world most directly in discourses of group-belonging derived from kinship or fictive kinship). Nevertheless, this theory also finds a place for ethical norms (as helping members maintain their sense of identity in new and ambiguous situations) and narratives of the past and future (as telling them who they are in relation both to where they have come from and whither they are proceeding). Even a conceptual apparatus usually (and reasonably) designated as ‘theological’ (and for 1 Thessalonians, see Marshall 1982 ) can serve a vital role in the processes of group differentiation and categorization which lie at the heart of this theory. Modern illustrations of the (often violent) dynamics of social identity lie to hand in the ethnic differentiation evident in Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Kosovo, Rwanda, and Israel/Palestine.


As will be noted in detail in the Commentary, 1 Thessalonians can be interpreted as an attempt by Paul to establish and maintain a desirable social identity for his Thessalonian converts in the face of the allure and threats posed by rival groups, and in relation to past, present, and future (Esler 2000 ). It is noteworthy, however, that in spite of Paul's seeking to nourish their group identity in a manner which includes pronounced outgroup stereotypification, he does not recommend ill-treatment of outsiders (which is an all too common concomitant of such an attitude) but, on the contrary, actually advocates doing good to outsiders ( 3:12; 4:12 ). There is a strong countercultural dimension to Paul's position here.


It is worth noting that proposing social identity as an overall framework for interpreting the letter, with issues traditionally referred to as ethical or theological here seen as contributing to Paul's overall task of strengthening the Thessalonians' sense of who they were, in no way forecloses on any claims his ethics and theology have to a privileged ontological status. To suggest that resituating biblical data within frameworks originating in the social sciences in some way prejudices Christian truth-claims is an unfortunate misconception of the social-scientific approach to interpretation which is still entertained in some quarters where the fact that every word in the New Testament is socially embodied does not seem to be taken with sufficient seriousness.


While social identity theory exists at a fairly high level of abstraction, within its broad reach other areas of social-scientific research can be used in relation to particular parts of 1 Thessalonians. Chief among them are the bedrock realities of Mediterranean culture (as compellingly modelled by Malina (1993 ) on the basis of the work of social anthropologists in the last few decades) and millennialism, the study of how certain contemporary pre-industrial peoples in Africa, the Americas, and the South Pacific have responded to the disruption or destruction of their traditional life styles by European colonization by generating myths of future deliverance which describe the coming destruction of the Europeans and the restoration of traditional lifestyles, the return of the ancestors, the provision of cargo, and so on (Esler 1994: 96–104; Duling 1996). Jewett (1986 ) has applied such insights to both 1 and 2 Thessalonians.

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