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1 & 2 Thessalonians

Richard S. Ascough
Professor of Religion, Queen's University

Erin K. Vearncombe
Lecturer, Princeton University

Course: Paul and His Letters
Related Courses: Introduction to the New Testament
Intended Audience: Undergraduate
Syllabus Section: 1 & 2 Thessalonians

Objectives

After completing this lesson, students should:

  1. demonstrate familiarity with the content and context of 1 and 2 Thessalonians;
  2. summarize the core arguments made in each of the letters;
  3. articulate literary, rhetorical, and sociocultural features of 1 and 2 Thessalonians and how such factors affect one's reading of the letters; and
  4. apply exegetical skills to the interpretation of a text.

Outline of Lesson Plan

  • I. Pre-class Student Reading
  • II. Background Orientation

    • 1. Authorship and Authenticity
    • 2. Letter Structure and Rhetorical Divisions
    • 3. Founding the Christ Group at Thessalonike
    • 4. Content Summary
  • III. In-class Student Learning Activities

    • 1. Comparing 1 and 2 Thessalonians
    • 2. Identifying Core Arguments
    • 3. Articulating the Thessalonian Community Structure
    • 4. Summarizing Key Theology
  • IV. Student Learning Outputs (Assignments)

    • 1. Argumentative Paper: Paul's Eschatology
    • 2. Exegetical Paper
  • Further Reading

I. Pre-class Student Reading


  1. New Oxford Annotated Bible: 1 Thessalonians
  2. New Oxford Annotated Bible: 2 Thessalonians
  3. Oxford Encyclopedia of the Books of the Bible: 1 Thessalonians
  4. Oxford Encyclopedia of the Books of the Bible: 2 Thessalonians

II. Background Orientation


1. Authorship and Authenticity

1 Thessalonians was likely composed by Paul and his companions shortly after their departure from the city. It is largely considered to be the earliest surviving letter written by Paul, and thus can provide a baseline for understanding at least some of his organizational strategies and theological ideas. Despite a few challenges to its authenticity, the letter is almost universally seen as a single composition, with perhaps one exception: the second "thanksgiving" section at 2:13–16. Not only is a second thanksgiving unusual both for Paul and in Greco-Roman letters generally, the largely negative view of the Judeans in this text is not consistent with what Paul writes elsewhere (i.e., Rom 9‒11) and thus the text is viewed by many (albeit not all) as an interpolation.

In contrast, while 2 Thessalonians is viewed to have structural integrity, its very authorship is called into question by many (again, but not all) commentators. Although many linguistic and stylistic arguments have been offered from both sides of the debate, the key argument lies in one's ability (or not) to reconcile the eschatological scenario of 1 Thess 4:13‒5:11 with 2 Thess 2:1‒12, particularly around the timing of Jesus' return and whether or not there will be any preceding signs.

2. Letter Structure and Rhetorical Divisions

There is almost universal agreement that Paul's letters evidence ancient epistolary features—that is, they look and sound, in general, like other letters that an ancient reader might receive. Whether or not the letters also evidence features of ancient rhetoric is, however, a matter of debate. On the one hand, there are clearly some standard rhetorical moves evident in the progression of Paul's letters. On the other hand, that there is little agreement among commentators as to where one rhetorical division ends and the next begins calls into question just how deliberately, and how obviously, Paul was using rhetorical structures that were typical of ancient speeches.

While commentators largely agree upon the rhetorical divisions of 1 Thessalonians, the overall rhetorical species of the letter is subject to much debate. Some commentators view the letter as deliberative with Paul attempting to persuade the audience of the expediency of his actions in departing Thessalonike quickly and staying away for longer than might be expected (1 Thess 2:1‒3:10). Others take the letter to be epideictic, serving to praise the Thessalonians Christ adherents for the strength of their faith and their devotion to Paul.

There is much debate and dissension among commentators around the rhetorical divisions of 2 Thessalonians, yet agreement that the overall rhetorical purpose of 2 Thessalonians is somewhat deliberative in nature, aimed at persuading the audience to stand firm in the face of anxiety around the return of Jesus (2:1‒12), external opposition (1:3‒12 and 2:13‒3:5), and internal disruptions (3:6‒15).

3. Founding the Christ Group at Thessalonike

Paul probably came to Thessalonike, a significant commercial port city, after being released from prison in Philippi (1 Thess 2:1‒2. After traveling west along the Via Egnatia, the main Roman road across Macedonia, Paul and his coworkers, Timothy and Silvanus, proclaimed their message at Thessalonike while working at their trade to earn their keep (1 Thess 2:9). The book of Acts 17:1‒8 notes that Paul and his companions went first to the synagogue in Thessalonike, where they had some early success in convincing people that Jesus is the Messiah, but were soon driven out by an angry mob. The letters make no mention of any of these events and the narrative strategies of the writer means that there is limited historical value to Acts. Thus, for determining the details behind the formation of the Christ group in Thessalonike, the letters are our most important sources. And in 1 Thessalonians 1:9 Paul claims that the Thessalonians "turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God." As a Judean himself, Paul would not have referred to other Judeans as serving "idols" before turning to God through Christ. Thus, from the letter itself we can conclude that the first Christ group at Thessalonike was largely, if not exclusively Gentiles (cf. the pre-class reading on Thessalonians).

Based on references to work, particularly manual labor, throughout 1 Thessalonians (e.g., 2:9), Ascough has argued that Paul convinced an extant association of manual laborers to collectively switch their allegiance to Christ (see 2014a, 9‒16). While there are a number theoretical models for understanding the origins of the group at Thessalonike (several of which are not antithetical to the association model), there is a great deal of primary source evidence that supports the organization of the Thessalonian Christ group as similar to other occupational associations, many of which are attested at Thessalonike itself, as well as in the surrounding region (see P. Nigelis in Nasrallah, et al. 2010). Students interested in this type of group structure can examine a number of association inscriptions from Thessalonike and discuss some of the community characteristics they observe in these texts.

Map of Roman Macedonia with districts and the Via Egnatia (Ascough 2014, used with permission)

Once the Christ group was formed, Paul and his companions continued to work "night and day" to support themselves (2:9). Occasionally their earnings were supplemented by money sent from the Philippian Christ group (Phil 4:16).

4. Content Summary

1 Thessalonians is largely relational, with a focus in the first half of the letter on how Paul and his companions interacted and continue to interact with the Thessalonian Christ adherents (1:1‒3:13, cf. 5:25‒28) and in the second half on how the Thessalonians interact with one another (4:1‒5:24). The overall tone of the letter is warm and affirmative about the existing relationships and the faithfulness of the audience in their service to "the living and true God" (1:9). Although there may be some questions about sexual ethics (4:1‒8), the need for reliance on outside patrons (4:9‒12), and details of Jesus' return (4:13‒5:11) on some sort of judgment day as first preached by Paul (1:10), overall the Thessalonian Christ adherents seem to get on well with one another.

This positive state of affairs seems to have shifted in 2 Thessalonians, with problems both of disruptiveness and idleness among the group members (3:6‒16) and concern by many that they have missed out on the "Day of the Lord" — that somehow Jesus returned and they did not notice or at least were not included in gathering with him (2:1‒12). Nevertheless there is also in this letter an overall aim of reassurance and urging that the group members continue in their faithfulness to God (1:3‒4, 11‒12; 2:15‒17; 3:4‒5).

Given the history of apocalyptic thought, particularly in modern North America, students may gravitate toward the apocalyptic passages in one or both of these letters, attempting to reconcile them not only with one another but also with other Jewish and Christian apocalyptic texts (e.g., Daniel; Mark 13; Revelation) in order to compose, or more likely reaffirm, a pre-existing theological framework around the "end-times." Thus, the instructor might want to spend some time explaining the history of Jewish apocalyptic thought and the rise in the mid-nineteenth century of dispensationalism, which was then imposed upon texts such as those found in 1 and 2 Thessalonians (see further Not the End of the World as we Know It).

III. In-class Student Learning Activities


1. Comparing 1 and 2 Thessalonians

This assignment aims to have students engage in a close reading of both letters while also constructing an argument around the authenticity and authorship of the letters. It also provides an opportunity to open up a discussion with students about authorship more broadly (why it matters; ancient authorship versus contemporary authorship; etc.) and what kinds of evidence NT scholars use to determine authorship (or at least draw some tentative conclusions regarding authorship). The exercise is lengthy and would take up the entire class period of sixty or ninety minutes. That said, the exercise and discussions would allow for the critical issues in the letters to be discussed as they arise naturally from a reading of the text (that is, this assignment is meant to replace a lecture with an extended discussion format in which mini-lectures can complement the work the students are doing).

To begin with, the instructor distributes a photocopy of the texts of 1 and 2 Thessalonians. Students are asked to work in groups of two to four and use colored markers to highlight words and phrases that are the same or similar between the two letters. Once they have done the initial identification, each pair can create a chart comparing the wording and/or structure of 1 and 2 Thessalonians. Students may need some initial guidance or an example or two from the instructor; for example, the opening verses of the two letters have considerable overlap in wording or a chart showing the overall structure of the letters.

Once the students have spent some time working on the charts, the instructor can open up the classroom for plenary discussion, perhaps beginning by asking what kinds of information can be gleaned from the highlighting of words and the similarities and differences noted between the two letters. Students will initially want to list the things that they have discovered, but as more similarities and differences are unveiled the instructor can start guiding them toward the more interesting and more critical methodological issues. It is important to note that ancient literary forms such as letters followed certain templates. Thus, students might be asked how significant it might be that both letters contain a thanksgiving? Or is it the content or style of the thanksgiving that is important? The students might also be asked why word choice matters? Or whether there is something more we can tell from word choice, not necessarily about single words, but about patterns of words strung together?

After the class has had the opportunity to share and discuss their initial findings, they can be asked to return to their small groups. In this second round, students are asked to decide whether the evidence for similarity and differences between the letters indicates that (a) Paul is the writer of both letters or (b) one of the letters "borrows" from the other (what today we would call "plagiarism") or (c) they are so dissimilar that they bear no relation to one another and in fact are written by different authors. Students must determine two or three key arguments that support their conclusion, which they can put on the board or on newsprint.

The class then returns to a plenary format in which each group briefly outlines their conclusion and the evidence supporting it. Once again there is an opportunity for the instructor to highlight for students what types of evidence "count" when scholars try to determine questions of authenticity and authorship of biblical texts.

If students have already discussed the Synoptic Problem prior to this lesson (if this is a NT Introduction course), then there is also an opportunity for cross-pollination in building student observational skills and raising questions of authorship. If the Synoptic Problem has not yet been discussed then this exercise can anticipate that latter topic. Similarly, if students have already discussed the Book of Acts prior to this lesson, there is an opportunity to compare the stories of the founding of the group (cf. the discussion in section II.3 above).

2. Identifying Core Arguments

Using either 1 or 2 Thessalonians (as assigned by the instructor), in groups of three or four identify what is Paul's main argument and where you can find it in the letter—that is, what is Paul's "thesis statement"? Next, using the main epistolary and rhetorical divisions of letter writing as discussed in the readings/lecture, explain why the thesis is where it is and how the other components of the letter work with and/or support the thesis. Why does Paul use this structure to make this argument?

Once students have spent some time working on this assignment, the instructor can take up their findings in a plenary discussion. If different thesis statements are identified among the groups then the instructor should try to navigate why the epistolary and rhetorical features of the letter support one identification over another.

As a final exercise, the instructor can pose the broad question of genre—what can letters do that other types of writing cannot do? Consideration might be given as to why Paul uses letters rather than, for example, diatribes, narratives, or philosophical treatises.

The objective of this assignment is to move students beyond a close reading of the text to identify structural features that play a part in the writers' argumentation through an exercise in rhetorical analysis. It is also an opportunity for students to consider the significance of genre. Finally, using a "parallel process" (see Ascough 2014b), the instructor can reflect on how arguments are made, and the differences between augmentation in letter format and the types of argumentation that students might be asked to present in an academic paper.

3. Articulating the Thessalonian Community Structure

When letters are embedded in the biblical canon it is sometimes easy to forget that they were conversational documents written to real communities. The objective of the following assignment is for students to identify that there is a living community "behind" the text that would look to 1 or 2 Thessalonians for guidance on how to engage with one another at meetings and beyond.

The pre-class readings and/or a mini-lecture could describe briefly the formation of the Thessalonian Christ group, either as a Gentile occupational association (see above and in more detail in Ascough 2014a) or one of the alternative community structures proposed by scholars such as the synagogue, philosophical school, or household group (see the annotated entries under Community Structure in the Oxford Bibliographies Online and more broadly Ascough 1998 and 2015b).

Using one of the following options, students are divided into groups of four to six (depending on class size) and asked to mirror-read the texts to uncover core features of the Thessalonian community structure, organization, and behavior, such as the social status of members, leadership structure, and interaction with outsiders. Students should be made to feel like some imagination and creativity is necessary here, since there are no "right" answers, only more plausible ones. If the class is WiFi enhanced, students are encouraged to search online for background information about life in a Roman city.

(a) Each group is assigned either 1 or 2 Thessalonians. Students are told they are detectives (perhaps Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson). The letters are documents that hold "clues" to the nature of the Christ groups, and it is the students' task to use these clues to develop a composite picture of that community.

(b) Each group is asked to think like an actor who in developing a character must think about the entirety of that character, even though only a few traits will be shown, or only a few glimpses into that character's history. Given the list of traits they find in either 1 or 2 Thessalonians, students must list the character traits of the Thessalonian community as a whole.

(c) Each group is given one of the texts listed below and is asked to develop a little vignette about what their passage would look like visually if they were directing and acting in a movie about Paul's interaction with the Christ group at Thessalonike—a scene that would depict what is described in the text:

  1. 1 Thess 1:6‒10 (proclaiming their allegiance)
  2. 1 Thess 2:9‒12 (working together)
  3. 1 Thess 4:2‒7 (sexual relationships)
  4. 1 Thess 4:9‒12 (relationship to insiders and outsiders)
  5. 1 Thess 5:9‒12 (leadership and actions in the group)
  6. 2 Thess 3:6‒15 (disorderly members)

Once the students have presented their findings to the class, the instructor will have the opportunity to note how the ancient world is like/unlike our own contemporary society, and how Paul's "churches" often bear very little resemblance modern churches.

4. Summarizing Key Theology

In groups of three or four use the Concise Concordance to the NRSV to trace Paul's use the following three terms in his "genuine" letters: faith; hope; love. List the different ways that Paul is using each of these terms by looking at their contexts and note where he uses two or three of these terms together in one place (including in 1 Thessalonians). Determine why these three terms are central to Paul's theology—what role do they play for Paul in determining how a Christ adherent should live her or his life?

The objective of this assignment is to have students summarize how key words are used in the Thessalonian letters and beyond, and to analyze their role in Paul's theology. Students will, of course, quickly discover the triad in 1 Corinthians 13, so the instructor should be prepared in the follow-up plenary discussion to have students confront the different nuances these words have in the Thessalonian letters. Methodologically, students should understand that exegetes should not simplistically import latter configurations (e.g., 1 Cor 13) into earlier letters, even while there are overlapping sentiments. One way to get at this issue is to ask students to consider why in 1 Thessalonians the triad faith . . . love . . . hope (cf. 5:8) is modified by words that underline the recipients' status as laborers—work . . . labor . . . steadfastness (cf. the background material above on the origins of the group as an occupational association).

IV. Student Learning Outputs (Assignments)


1. Argumentative Paper: Paul's Eschatology

Use the following texts (given here in chronological order) to argue either that Paul's eschatology (view of the end of human history) is consistent or that Paul's eschatology develops over the course of his letter writing: 1 Thessalonians 4:13‒5:11; 1 Corinthians 15:20‒28, 51‒58; Philippians 1:21‒24. Conclude by using your analysis to argue for or against the inclusion or exclusion of 2 Thessalonians 2:1‒12 among the authentic letters of Paul (that is, does it fit into Paul's eschatological schema or not).

The objective of this assignment is to have students analyze the developmental sequence of Paul's eschatological thinking and reconcile any inconsistencies. It deliberately asks students to take a clear position and defend it rather than recite the arguments of others, which for many of them may be challenging but has also proven in our experience to be exciting for the students. It is important to urge students to have a clear thesis statement. Equally important is for the instructor to make it clear at the outset that the instructor is not looking for them to choose a "right" answer. Rather, they will be evaluated on their ability to articulate a position and defend it using evidence taken from the letters themselves (rather than drawing on other biblical texts or secondary sources). For example, drawing on the words of Jesus in the gospels is not considered valid argumentation unless the student can demonstrate that Paul knew these words, since the gospels postdate Paul's letters. Key issues for discussion could include (but are not limited to) the order of the resurrection of the dead, where the dead are "located" prior to Christ's return, whether or not Paul thinks he will live to see the return of Christ, or the nature of signs preceding the events.

2. Exegetical Paper

Write an exegetical paper on one of the following texts:

  1. 1 Thess 1:2‒10 (the initial foray into Thessalonike)
  2. 1 Thess 2:1‒8 (strengthening the relationship)
  3. 1 Thess 4:1‒8 (sexual ethics)
  4. 2 Thess 3:6‒15 (disorderly members)

Be sure to explain the socio-historical, literary, and theological aspects of the text. Note that this is to be an academic paper and not a sermon or Bible study—that is, it should focus on the first two steps in the exegetical process (observation and interpretation).

The objective of this assignment is to introduce students to the basics of the exegetical method while they explore in some detail part of the Pauline corpus. Students should be guided to producing a plausible (not just a "possible") interpretation of the text based on a close reading of the evidence. This assignment presumes that at some point during the course (or their program) students have been taught how to exegete texts. It would also help for the instructor to model the exegetical process step-by-step in class, drawing students' attention to each exegetical move and explaining how it might all be brought together in an academic paper.

Further Reading

Ascough, Richard S. 1998. What Are They Saying about the Formation of Pauline Churches? New York and Mahwah, N.J.: Paulist Press.

Ascough, Richard S. 2014a. 1 and 2 Thessalonians: Encountering the Christ Group at Thessalonike Phoenix Guides to the New Testament 13. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press. Republished: London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2016.

Ascough, Richard S. 2014b. "The Parallel Process." Teaching Theology and Religion 17, no. 4: 346‒347.

Ascough, Richard S. 2015a. "Thessalonians."Oxford Bibliographies Online: Biblical Studies.

Ascough, Richard S. 2015b. "What Are They Now Saying about Christ Groups and Associations??" Currents in Biblical Research 13, no. 2: 207‒244.

Esler, Philip F. "1 Thessalonians."Oxford Bible Commentary.

Esler, Philip F. "2 Thessalonians."Oxford Bible Commentary.

Malherbe, Abraham J. 1987. Paul and the Thessalonians: The Philosophic Tradition of Pastoral Care. Philadelphia: Fortress.

Nasrallah, Laura, et al., eds. 2010. From Roman to Early Christian Thessalonikē: Studies in Religion and Archaeology. Harvard Theological Studies 64. Cambridge, Mass., and London: Harvard University Press.

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