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

Commentary on 1 Thessalonians

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The Prescript and Thanksgiving ( 1:1–10 )

( 1:1 ) The Prescript

Paul follows the form of opening current in Graeco-Roman letters consisting of sender(s), recipient(s), a greeting, and sometimes a prayer for health or prosperity, in that order. Here the senders are himself, Silvanus, and Timothy, with Timothy being mentioned again later ( 3:1–10 ). Paul does not describe himself in v. 1 as an apostle, although he does use that term of himself (and perhaps Silvanus and Timothy) at 2:7 . The recipients are ‘the congregation’ (ekklēsia; ‘church’ in NRSV seems a little anachronistic here) ‘of the Thessalonians (which is) in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ'. With this expression, in the very first verse, Paul inaugurates the issues of identity through group-belonging which will fill this letter. Social identity embraces the mere fact of belonging to a group (the ‘cognitive’ aspect) and its ‘evaluative’ and ‘emotional’ dimensions, that is, the positive or negative connotations members have about belonging and how they feel toward insiders and outsiders (Esler 1998: 42). Here the Thessalonians are invited to assess their membership of the congregation as extremely valuable through its close (though unexplored) relationship with their divine Father, an expression that constitutes the first of many instances of kinship language in the letter (Esler 2000 ), and the Lord Jesus. Although other groups are not yet mentioned, theirs is one plainly worth belonging to.

( 1:2–10 ) The Thanksgiving

This section, consisting of one long sentence, comprises the thanksgiving that Paul includes in all his letters except Galatians, after the address and greeting. For Pauline thanksgivings, see Schubert 1939 . Some see this section as ending as late as 3:13 , but this suggestion probably strains the notion of thanks beyond its breaking-point. v. 2 , Paul notes that he constantly thanks God for the Thessalonians and mentions them in his prayers. He is obviously happy with them. v. 3 , one reason for his positive regard now emerges: his memory of their work of faith (pistis), labour of love (agapē) and steadfastness of hope (elpis) in ‘our Lord Jesus Christ’ before our God and Father. The triad of faith, love, and hope, which is common in the Pauline corpus (1 Thess 5:8; Rom 5:1–5; 1 Cor 13:13; Gal 5:5–6 ) and later NT documents (Eph 4:2–5; Col 1:4–5; Heb 6:10–12; 10:22–4; 1 Pet 1:3–8 ), may well be an invention of Paul himself (Best 1972: 67). These three characteristics of becoming a follower of Christ are not just theological virtues but constitute distinctive badges of group identity. The Thessalonians, pushed to say who they were, could have given the distinctive answer, ‘People characterized by faith (in Christ), love and hope’.

v. 4 , Paul, describing them as ‘brothers’ (adelphoi; NRSV has ‘brothers and sisters’), says he knows of their election (eklogē). The notion of election, with its long history antecedent to Paul of describing God's choice of Israel as his own people, is now redirected to designate the ex-idolatrous Thessalonians as a group with an extraordinary status and destiny as specially chosen by God. Here Paul both amplifies (or reiterates) their understanding of themselves and also enhances the positive connotations of belonging to such a group. The use of adelphoi, the first of seventeen instances in the letter, continues the kinship discourse already begun with the two references to the Father. The word may include women (so Koester 1979: 36 and NRSV), as it must do in Galatians in the light of Gal 3:28 , but it is possible that here it does not, even though some women may have been converted by Paul (see Fatum 1997 ). v. 5 , this verse, in which Paul states how his gospel came among them not only in word, but in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction, outlines either the occasion and manner of their election or the grounds by which Paul inferred the fact of their election. It is essential to give Paul's reference to power and the Holy Spirit its full force and meaning. He is reminding the Thessalonians of the miracles and other charismatic phenomena (probably prophesying, glossolalia, visions, and auditions) which accompanied their reception of his preaching. Such ecstatic phenomena, although rare, if not unheard of, in domestic settings in first-century cities of the Graeco-Roman East, were characteristic of Paul's mission (Esler 1994: 40–51), as he also later reminded the Galatians (Gal 3:1–5 ). Charismatic phenomena created an exciting zone of Spirit-filled experience unique to his congregations. Once again, the group-differentiating element to this language should not be missed—another way of describing their identity was as a group actually filled by God. v. 6 , they became his and the Lord's imitators in the way they received the word in spite of persecution (thlipsis) in the joy of the Holy Spirit. The difficulties experienced by the Thessalonians, already implied by the reference to their endurance in 1:3 , now surface openly in relation to their initial conversion. Possible reasons for external opposition to the Thessalonians turning to Christ, especially through neglect of cults considered vital to civic well-being, were considered above (cf. 1 THESS B 4). One insight of social identity theory is that external opposition and persecution will often encourage members to act in terms of their group membership, so that such past suffering, now brought again to mind by Paul, probably strengthened their involvement with, and commitment to, the congregation. The ‘joy inspired by the Holy Spirit’ probably extends to the euphoria enjoyed by those who experience powerful dissociative states caused by divine possession (Esler 1994: 42).

vv. 7–9 , they ‘became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia’. In other words, they provided an admirable ensemble of attributes of belonging to a Christ-believing group which was recognized as applicable to other such groups in neighbouring areas. Paul focuses on their faith (pistis) as the key feature (it was mentioned first in v. 3 ), knowledge of which has now spread so far that he has no need to say anything about them, because others tell him what success he had among the Thessalonians, how they turned from idols ‘to serve a living and true God’ (cf. 1 THESS B.1). Archaeological, epigraphic, numismatic, and literary evidence shows that a number of pagan cults were present in Thessalonica in Paul's time, including those of the Egyptian goddesses Serapis and Isis (who offered salvation and eternal life), Dionysus, Zeus, Asclepius, Demeter, and, most importantly, Cabirus (Edson 1948; Donfried 1985; Jewett 1986; Kloppenborg 1993 ). This was not unusual in the empire which exhibited a pullulation of beliefs (MacMullen 1981: 1). The pagan cults of Thessalonica represent some of the outgroups against whom the Thessalonians must now seek to distinguish themselves so as to build and maintain a positive social identity. v. 10 , Paul concludes by mentioning that now they are waiting for his (i.e. God's) son from heaven, ‘whom he raised from the dead—Jesus who rescues us from the wrath that is coming’. Here we see that Paul has managed to persuade his Gentile converts to accept deeply Jewish tradition relating to the Day of Anger when the wicked will be condemned and the good saved. The notion of ‘the day (of judgement)’ is a common feature of Israelite end-time speculation (see Joel 2:1–2; Zech 9:16; Mal 3:1–2 ; for the last judgement, see 1 Enoch 1:1–9; 2 Esd 7.33–44 ; Apoc. Abr. 29.14–29). At the same time, this brief reference to what the future holds for them, although greatly developed later in the letter, further contributes to differentiating the Thessalonians as a positively valued in-group from negatively valued outsiders (Esler 2000 ). Myths of the future developed by millennial movements in modern pre-industrial settings virtually always serve this function.

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