1 Thessalonians Chapter 1

Hello. Until I get this figured out more effectively, you may want to read the first few posts in which I talk about aims, what I’m doing, etc.

Here is where I start my first actual post on biblical text.  The previous posts will clarify a bit more on the context of my purpose, etc.

To oversimplify a bit, Paul’s letters tend towards two main themes.

The first is pastoral.  Pastoral letters, or sections of letters, generally deal with the sort of practical matters of running a church, a community.

The second theme would be, doctrinal.   Doctrinal letters, or sections thereof, deal with matters of faith.  In these sections, Paul tells his congregations what Christians should believe, or do believe.  He explains the fundamentals of the faith.  These are the sections that will particularly concern us.  My primary interest is to discover what the earliest Christian communities knew about Jesus, what they believed about Jesus, and what they thought it meant to be a follower of Jesus.  Bear in mind, that, in Paul’s day, the term “Christian” hadn’t been invented.

1 Thessalonians is, primarily, a pastoral letter.  It does not specifically deal with articles of faith.  The primary focus is to remind the Thessalonians, the residents of the Greek city of Thessalonika–which still exists, now simply called “Salonika”–that they are followers of Jesus, and to fortify them in their faith.  However, despite the primary emphasis, the letter contains a certain amount of incidental doctrine, things that the followers of Jesus believed.

Remember: this is probably the earliest piece of Christian writing in existence (“extant”, in the language of historians).

1 Παῦλος καὶ Σιλουανὸς καὶ Τιμόθεος τῇ ἐκκλησίᾳ Θεσσαλονικέων ἐν θεῷ πατρὶ καὶ κυρίῳ Ἰησοῦ Χριστῷ: χάρις ὑμῖν καὶ εἰρήνη.

Paul, Silvanus, & Timothy, to the church of the Thessalonians, in the name of God the father, and the Lord Jesus Christ, we [wish] you grace & peace.

Again, bear in mind that this is probably the earliest extant piece of Christian writing.  Already, Jesus is a) our lord; and b) the Christ.

Here we have our first bit of doctrine.  He specifically calls Jesus the “Christ”.  In Greek, this literally means ‘anointed one’, which is more or less the translation of  “messiah” in Hebrew or Aramaic, whichever it is.  Already, apparently, the idea of Jesus the Christ had become a foundation stone of Christian belief.

2 Εὐχαριστοῦμεν τῷ θεῷ πάντοτε περὶ πάντων ὑμῶν, μνείαν ποιούμενοι ἐπὶ τῶν προσευχῶν ἡμῶν, ἀδιαλείπτως

We give thanks to God for all of you(r activities), ceaselessly making mention of your deeds in our prayers.

Here is where we get to the pastoral theme.  This is a congregation that Paul organized, if he didn’t exactly start it from scratch.  He is grateful to them for remaining true to the word, and he is proud of them, as we shall see more explicitly.  

2 Gratias agimus Deo semper pro omnibus vobis, memoriam facientes in orationibus nostris, sine intermissione;

3 μνημονεύοντες ὑμῶν τοῦ ἔργου τῆς πίστεως καὶ τοῦ κόπου τῆς ἀγάπης καὶ τῆς ὑπομονῆς τῆς ἐλπίδος
τοῦ κυρίου ἡμῶν Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ ἔμπροσθεν τοῦ θεοῦ καὶ πατρὸς ἡμῶν,

Remembering your works of faith, and your labors of love and your patience of hope in our lord Jesus Christ before God our father, 

Works of faith. This is a interesting concept, one that foreshadows themes to come. Our Lord Jesus Christ is repeated, and God the Father has been used.  God as the father is an extremely widespread notion among a lot of pagan religions. However, I believe that this was something rather new in Judaism, which is why the prayer “Our Father” as taught by Jesus in the gospels was somehow startling, or at least a bit new. But, since this use predates the gospels by at least a decade, we have to ask if it was actually Jesus’ idea.  

Remember, by his own testimony in Galatians, Paul never met Jesus.  As such, Paul did not get this concept directly from Jesus.  So we have to conclude, I believe, that Paul’s usage indicates that it was fairly common among at least some Jews at the time.

And the phrase “patience of hope” in Jesus is interesting.  What are they hoping for? We do not know yet.  This phrase speaks to assumptions, but we, hearing these first words of Christianity, do not know what the hope is.

3 memores operis fidei vestrae et laboris caritatis et sustinentiae spei Domini nostri Iesu Christi ante Deum et Patrem nostrum;

4 εἰδότες, ἀδελφοὶ ἠγαπημένοι ὑπὸ [τοῦ] θεοῦ, τὴν ἐκλογὴν ὑμῶν,

knowing, brothers, that you are loved by God, (knowing of his) selection of you

 Here we get the idea of a loving god. Not altogether something common from the Hebrew Scripture.  The term “chosen” will have significant implications later, especially in Romans.  But what is notable is that God has chosen the Thessalonians, and, by extension, all Christians.  That is, the initiative belongs to God.  The Thessalonians/we as Christians did not choose God.

But at this point, ‘chosen’ is still a fairly neutral term.     

4 scientes, fratres, dilecti a Deo, electionem vestram,

5 ὅτι τὸ εὐαγγέλιον ἡμῶν οὐκ ἐγενήθη εἰς ὑμᾶς ἐν λόγῳ μόνον ἀλλὰ καὶ ἐν δυνάμει καὶ ἐν πνεύματι ἁγίῳ
καὶ [ἐν] πληροφορίᾳ πολλῇ, καθὼς οἴδατε οἷοι ἐγενήθημεν [ἐν] ὑμῖν δι’ ὑμᾶς.

His selection of you that [my] evangelizing of you [lit: toward you] was not in words only, but also in power and in the holy spirit and in the great full-bearing, just as you know how we were {[ἐν] ὑμῖν δι’ ὑμᾶς} among you, and with you. [how we behaved when we were with you and among you]

Here, the Greek is a bit awkward, especially in the final clause. So I’ve given the literal, and then smoothed it out at the end.

The important part of this is the idea that Paul claims to have preached both in power, and in the holy spirit. I have deliberately left this lower case, because capitalizing has the force of making this into a concept that truly did not develop until later.  Greek did not use Capital Letters to denote Proper Nouns as we do in English. Thus, it is difficult to know what he meant by the idea of a holy spirit. Did he mean the third person of the Trinity? Almost certainly not. The idea of the Trinity as we understand it was not fully developed for another 200 years or so. This is a classic example of how we read back into a text ideas that were not fully (or even partially) articulated until later–sometimes much later.

And this is interesting. The text I used includes the word ἁγίῳ as an adjective for “spirit.”  This is the standard word for “holy.”  However, is omitted from some of the textual traditions, which reinforces the idea that ‘the spirit’ does not necessarily, or even possibly, imply The Holy Spirit, as something somehow apart from God. (Standard Trinitarian definition is three separate Persons in One God. So there is a degree of distinction in ‘Holy Spirit’ that we cannot simply assume from ‘spirit.’

Aside from any theological implications, the fact is that Paul delivered the Good News (ev-angelon) with power.  It may be me, but there is a certain level of self-importance to this.  It may be justified, but Paul is a bit proud of his accomplishment here. Moreover, I would infer from this that he truly and deeply believes what he is saying. This s a sentiment from a person convinced s/he is speaking Truth.

5 quia evangelium nostrum non fuit ad vos in sermone tantum sed et in virtute et in Spiritu Sancto
et in plenitudine multa, sicut scitis quales fuerimus vobis propter vos.

6 καὶ ὑμεῖς μιμηταὶ ἡμῶν ἐγενήθητε καὶ τοῦ κυρίου, δεξάμενοι τὸν λόγον ἐν θλίψει πολλῇ μετὰ χαρᾶς πνεύματος ἁγίου,

And you were imitators of us and the Lord, showing the Word in many troubles with great joy in the Holy Spirit,

 The idea of imitating the behavior of others who are already initiates and followers is interesting. It would seem to imply a code of conduct, something like a moral code perhaps? Or at least a lifestyle.  And again, we have the holy spirit.  And note that this way of life brings joy even during troubles.

 θλίψει is an interesting word. It can be a generic ‘troubles’; it can also mean persecution.   

6 Et vos imitatores nostri facti estis et Domini, excipientes verbum in tribulatione multa cum gaudio Spiritus Sancti,

7 ὥστε γενέσθαι ὑμᾶς τύπον πᾶσιν τοῖς πιστεύουσιν ἐν τῇ Μακεδονίᾳ καὶ ἐν τῇ Ἀχαΐᾳ.

so that you became a role-model to believers [both] in Macedonia and in Achaia.

More of the idea of imitation of, presumably, a way of life?  However, I am not set on this concept, but it seems most logical to me.     

7 ita ut facti sitis forma omnibus credentibus in Macedonia et in Achaia.

8 ἀφ’ ὑμῶν γὰρ ἐξήχηται ὁ λόγος τοῦ κυρίου οὐ μόνον ἐν τῇ Μακεδονίᾳ καὶ [ἐν τῇ] Ἀχαΐᾳ, ἀλλ’ ἐν παντὶ τόπῳ ἡ πίστις ὑμῶν ἡ πρὸς τὸν θεὸν ἐξελήλυθεν, ὥστε μὴ χρείαν ἔχειν ἡμᾶς λαλεῖν τι:

For from you the Word of the Lord came not only to Macedonia and Achaia, but to all places the faith of you to God has come, so that it is not necssary to have us say anything (regarding it).

 My translation here is a bit rough in English, but it pretty much catches the Greek exactly.  The last clause, “so that it is not…” is a bit difficult to get to work idiomatically. Greek (and Latin) have the capability of leaving out words that we would regard as necessary. This seems to be an instance where it is necessary rather to ‘fill out’ the Greek to render a complete concept in English. In this case, it’s reasonably harmless; in other instances, however, it can be more problematic. Especially when discussing doctrinal issues, the need to fill out the Greek can result in a seriously altered meaning from what the bare Greek actually says.      

8 A vobis enim diffamatus est sermo Domini non solum in Macedonia et in Achaia, sed in omni loco fides vestra, quae est ad Deum, profecta est, ita ut non sit nobis necesse quidquam loqui;

9 αὐτοὶ γὰρ περὶ ἡμῶν ἀπαγγέλλουσιν ὁποίαν εἴσοδον ἔσχομεν πρὸς ὑμᾶς, καὶ πῶς ἐπεστρέψατε πρὸς τὸν θεὸν
ἀπὸ τῶν εἰδώλων δουλεύειν θεῷ ζῶντι καὶ ἀληθινῷ,

For they reported among us our welcome among you, and how you were turned towards God and away from idols, to serve the God living and true,

  Taking the last part first: the living and true God is a very old idea in Judaism. It carries forward into Christianity.

What’ s interesting is that the Thessalonians converted directly from idols to Christianity; that is, they were pagans, and not Jews. So, right from the start, we see Paul preaching to and converting Gentiles.  

9 ipsi enim de nobis annuntiant qualem introitum habuerimus ad vos, et quomodo conversi estis ad Deum a simulacris, servire Deo vivo et vero

10 0καὶ ἀναμένειν τὸν υἱὸν αὐτοῦ ἐκ τῶν οὐρανῶν, ὃν ἤγειρεν ἐκ [τῶν] νεκρῶν, Iησοῦν τὸν ῥυόμενον ἡμᾶς ἐκ τῆς ὀργῆς τῆς ἐρχομένης.

and you await the Son of Him (to come) from the heavens, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus, him pulling us away from the coming wrath.

 All sorts of things here. First, the son of him, referring back to the living and true god. Again, Jesus being the son of God shows up, early, in the oldest piece of extant Christian writing. Second, he is coming from the heavens; so not only is the son returning, but from the sky, imagery that will be repeated in Revelations, largely because it’s a standard part of Jewish apocalyptic literature of the time.  It has links to the book of Daniel. Again, Paul refers to the one “raised from the dead.”  Not the one who rose, but the one who was raised, another usage of the accusative case indicating a direct object that received the action, not one who performed the action. To underscore, the son was raised, with the verb in the passive tense.

Finally, the last expression: the coming wrath. This reminds us of John the Baptist in asking who warned the Pharisees to flee from the coming wrath.

Perhaps this is another example of the Jewish apocalyptic literature that was fairly common at the time.  If anyone can verify this, please do so. 

10 et exspectare Filium eius de caelis, quem suscitavit ex mortuis, Iesum, qui eripit nos ab ira ventura.

About James, brother of Jesus

I have a BA from the University of Toronto in Greek and Roman History. For this, I had to learn classical Greek and Latin. In seminar-style classes, we discussed both the meaning of the text and the language. U of T has a great Classics Dept. One of the professors I took a Senior Seminar with is now at Harvard. I started reading the New Testament as a way to brush up on my Greek, and the process grew into this. I plan to comment on as much of the NT as possible, starting with some of Paul's letters. After that, I'll start in on the Gospels, starting with Mark.

Posted on April 9, 2012, in 1 Thessalonians, Paul's Letters and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Do you think that some of his language is borrowed from the language of pagan mysteries familiar to the Hellenic background of the followers?

  2. Interesting thought. Paul was living in a heavily pagan milieu; aside from Jews, pretty much everyone he encountered (with exceptions, of course) would have been pagan. More, they would have been part of a common pagan heritage in which a lot of the various pagan religions had sort of blended together in the process known as syncretism. It would have been pagan the way Europe was Christian in the 12th Century CE.

    As such, how much would a Jew living in France have known about Christianity in 1187? Some, no doubt. S/he would certainly be familiar with outward observances; mass on Sundays; Christmas and the major holidays; the meaning of a cross. And some Jews would have taken more care than others either to learn, or to avoid the ambient religion.

    As Paul will tell us in Galatians and Philippians, he was a Jew of some stature within his religion. He’s the tribe of Benjanmin, a Pharisee, notably zealous among his generation, to the point that he persecuted the nascent sect of Christians. As such, we have to ask ourselves if this is the sort of person who would likely borrow religious sentiment from pagans? My instinct is “no”, but I think this may short-change Paul. He was, ultimately, enormously successful, to the point that the Gentile church that he helped found eventually swallowed up the Judean church of James, brother of Jesus.

    Another problem with this idea is that paganism did not have a large technical vocabulary in the way Christianity does: Trinity; Holy Spirit; sacrament; eucharist; bishop; & c. Or, the language was not shared with outsiders; initiates into the ‘mysteries’ would have, perhaps, used technical language in the way Christians did, but we have no surviving records of any of the pagan mysteries. As such, it becomes difficult to point to words that had particular resonance to pagans.

    So, I guess my answer would be: I suspect not, but honestly, I don’t have a clue. This idea had never occurred to me, so haven’t really thought it through. I will keep it in mind as I go through the rest of the text.

  3. Do you think the similarities may be the common language of human group dynamics? The Mystery Cults, Hellenic clubs (cultic or otherwise), and tribal affiliations share the common characteristics of initiations, group secrets, signs of recognition, group consumption, and charity. Is Paul consciously adopting what was expected in such a group at that time? Does his group look different at this time from other clubs? Does he want it to look different to attract members or does he want it to look the same for safety?

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