An Introduction to the New Testament

By Adolf Jülicher


Chapter 1 - Section 4


§ 4. The First Epistle to the Thessalonians

[Cf. H. A. W. Meyer, vol. x., in which W. Bornemann undertakes the Hpistles to the Thessalonians (1894, 5th and 6th ed.); ʽHand-Commentar,ʼ ii. 1 (1. and 2. Thess. and 1. and 2. Cor. by P. W. Schmiedel, 1892), and P. Schmidt: ʽDer 1ste Thessalonicherbrief neu erklärt, nebst einem Excurs über den 2ten gleichnamigen Briefʼ (1885).]

1. After the address and greeting ofi.1, Paul expresses in somewhat hyperbolical terms his grateful satisfaction at the steadfastness in faith of his Thessalonian friends, wherein he hopes that they may become an example to others far beyond the borders of Macedonia and Achaia (i. 2-10). Parallel with this runs i. 1-16, where the Apostle calls to mind his former experiences in Thessalonica—the dark side of them as well as the bright—before expressing in 17—20 his earnest desire for another meeting. But this being impossible, he has at all events sent Timothy to obtain news of the community; news on the whole so reassuring that he feels he can now only wish it further increase by the grace of God in love and holiness.1 Here follows the most clearly marked division in the Epistle; in the next two chapters Paul makes some earnest exhortations, to which the mention in iii. 10 of what was lacking in his readersʼ faith and the good wishes of vv. 11-13 form a delicate transition from the tone of grateful remembrance of the earlier part. In iv. 1-12 he protests against certain relics of heathen immorality, especially with regard to their sexual relations and their ordinary dealings one with another, and rebukes a scandalous tendency to idleness which had arisen through their excited expectation of the approaching millennium. To this he attaches some eschatological instruction,2 declaring first in iv. 13-18 that Christians who had already ʽfallen asleepʼ should not yield precedence at the Parusia to those who were still alive, and then warning his readers in v. 1-11 that nothing was known about the coming of the Last Day, and that their only care must be to see that they were prepared for it ata ny moment. In what their preparation was to consist he explains in a few more particular exhortations touching the life of the community, ending in good wishes and promises;3 then comes a short and hearty farewell.4

2. Those to whom the Epistle is addressed are named in i. 1 as the Christians of Thessalonica, the brilliant merchant city on the Gulf of Thermae which was at that time the capital of Macedonia. According to i. 9 and ii. 14, the community consisted entirely of Greeks, former idolaters—a statement which contradicts the account in Acts xvii. 1-9— who had been converted to God and the expectation of the return of Christ by the preaching of Paul, Silvanus and Timothy, the writers of the Epistle. These three had come to Thessalonica from Philippi, where they had been ʽshamefully entreated,ʼ5 probably in the year 53, and according to Acts xvii. 2 they had only stayed three weeks, because the mob, incited against them by the numerous Jews of Thessalonica, had then driven them away. Now the abovementioned shortcomings in the manner of life of the community would certainly favour the supposition that it had not enjoyed long years of Apostolic guidance; but that Paul should only have made a three weeksʼ stay there is wholly inconsistent with the remarks he makes in ui. 7 and 10 about his personal relations with his readers, while his description of the toil and trouble he had had there and of his daily and nightly labours would under such circumstances sound boastful. Moreover, three weeks would certainly not have been sufficient for the two gifts of love mentioned in Philip. iv. 16, to have reached him from Philippi. He had left Thessalonica abruptly with his-two companions, heavy at heart and full of anxious fears lest the work so well begun should be destroyed behind his back, especially since the Thessalonian converts had from the very first been sorely oppressed by their compatriots. Since he could not return thither himself, as he would have preferred to do, he had sent back Timothy from Athens6 to strengthen the forsaken community, only Silvanus remaining with him.

3. The Epistle was not written from Athens7 but from Corinth, whither Paul had betaken himself after his somewhat unsuccessful appearance in the former city.8 For we must infer from i. 7 and 8, that Achaia possessed by now a considerable number of converts, and Paul evidently felt himself as much at home there as he did in Macedonia. Gix months at least must have elapsed since his departure from Thessalonica: probably more, for Timothyʼs journey there and back9 would have occupied some space of time, and Paulʼs repeated plans of travelling thither10 cannot be fitted into a few weeks. Besides this, one or two members of the Thessalonian community had died in the interval,11 whereas nothing of the kind had occurred during Paulʼs visit, and since the whole body did not consist of more than a few hundred souls this circumstance would also seem to suggest a longer period. Hence the Epistle could hardly have been written before 58 (for the end of 52 is the earliest date at which Paul could have set foot on European soil) and certainly not after 54. But the inducements for Paul to write it immediately after Timothyʼs return are obvious. They may be summed up as follows: his objects were to draw the community closer to himself, and to sever it more completely from heathenism—but more especially, also, to correct some misconceptions concerning the Second Coming and the fate of Christians who had died before it. In all essentials, of course, Timothyʼs report of the Thessalonians had been favourable; he could say that they had remained true to the Gospel against all attacks; but a certain mistrust of Paul and of the ʽsincerity of his interest in their congregation had also arisen, which was probably promoted from without—the words of ii. 15 fol. seem to justify the conjecture that Paul suspected Jewish intrigues. Hence in chap. ii. he strikes an apologetic note, while in i. and iii. he declares how he loves the Church and takes pride in it, only he cannot now propose the one proof of his sincere attachment to it which was so eagerly demanded12—a visit to Thessalonica itself. Besides these reasons for writing, it was now becoming manifest in various ways that the Thessalonians were as yet very scantily instructed in the truths of the faith and their bearing on the Christian standard of life: the idea, for instance, of a resurrection of the dead had still to be solemnly proclaimed to them. An enthusiastic section among them13 were behaving as though the great convulsions of the Last Day were already upon them and the old order of things and the old duties all swept away; while side by side with these stood others who in their reaction against such a course went too far in the opposite direction, clinging tenaciously to the old views and so missing the profound meaning of the Christian life. Quarrels and insubordination to the elders14 were the result, and many opportunities for malicious criticism were given to the enemies of the Church.15 Although Timothy may already have had to deal with this state of things, a confirmation of his words by the chief Apostle, at any rate by letter, might still seem advisable, and he had in all probability promised the perplexed Thessalonians a direct reply from Paul on the subject of the dead.

4. In opposition to the school of Baur the genuineness of the Epistle should be upheld as unquestionable. In style, vocabulary and attitude it approaches as nearly as possible to the four Principal Epistles (see p. 19); and although the views laid down in iv. 16 fol. as to the resurrection of ʽthe dead in Christʼ do not correspond with those expressed in 2. Cor. v., they do correspond with those of 1. Cor. xv. 51 fol., and Paul may very well have changed his point of view in this matter as in others, in obedience to the impressions of later years. It is true that in this Epistle Paul does not make any use of the Old Testament, which plays so large a part in the other four, and that he does not contend for the liberty of the Church against the doctrine of justification by the Law; but this is a controversy—the only one for which the use of the Old Testament was indispensable—on which he never entered without provocation; and in Thessalonica there were as yet no Judaists. The new converts were threatened, not by a false Gospel, but by rabid hatred of any Gospel. Chapters i.—iii., it is suggested, give the impression of a survey of the history of the Thessalonian Church made by a later hand, with the help of the materials furnished by the Acts; a knowledge of the Epistles to the Corinthians is thought to be betrayed in it, and in i. 8 the Pauline trio of faith, hope and charity is supposed to be clearly connected with the Apocalyptic ʽworks, labour and patience.ʼ16 The connection is certainly accidental; works, labour and patience are frequent ideas with Paul; and the fundamental Pauline principle is as little compromised by the ʽwork of faithʼ in 1. Thess. i. 3, as by the hope expressed in Phil. i. 6 that He who has begun a ʽgood workʼ in the Philippians will perfect it until the Parusia. In spite of a great many points of contact between our Epistle and 1. and 2. Corinthians, its literary dependence on the latter is not demonstrable, and its frequent agreement with the Acts should surely be considered as evidence in favour of the latter rather than hostile to the Epistle, while verse iii. 1 fol., on the other hand, contradicts Acts xvii. 14-16 and Xvili. 5, in a point of some importance. Nor is it easy to see from what motive a later writer should have composed the Epistle; while it is hardly likely that he would have made Paul—as in iv. 15 —express a hope which he knew had never been fulfilled. On the other hand, if we assume that Paul was giving some friendly advice to a newly founded and as yet but scantily instructed Gentile community, the Epistle presents no difficulties, while the mention in v. 12 of the rulers of the new ehurch, whom he describes as those ʽwhich labour among you and admonish you,ʼ does not point toa time of fully developed hierarchies, but just the opposite, for no technical name (such as bishop or presbyter) is as yet in existence, much less any fixed jurisdictions. No Christian community, however, was ever entirely without leaders.

A particular objection has been raised against vv. i. 14-16; it is contended that the former persecutor of the Christians of Judxa could not have suppressed his own part in that affair; that for a patriot like Paul17 such violent invective against the Jews was unnatural, and here quite uncalled for, since the Jews had done the Thessalonians no harm; and, moreover, that the mention of the wrath of God in verse 16 evidently refers to the destruction of Jerusalem, which Paul, seventeen years before it happened, could not have spoken of as a thing of the past. But to mention his own share in the persecution of the Christians at this point would surely have been in bad taste—was he really obliged in the interests of truth to insert after the words ʽof the Jewsʼ the confession, ʽof whom I unfortunately was then oneʼ? Moreover, he speaks of the Jews in 2. Cor. xi. 24 with much the same alienation as here. He had long realised that in their hatred of Christ they were hastening to their own destruction, and even a patriot may be driven to bitter wrath against his countrymen by painful experiences, especially if patriotism is not the ruling passion of his heart. Probably Paul had recently been made to suffer heavily by the Jews at Corinth, just as they had been the instigators of the agitation against him and the community at Thessalonica. Without prophesying, he could show that Godʼs judgment had already been fulfilled upon them—he was thinking, not of risings suppressed, of the famine described in Acts xi. 28, or of the Edict of Claudius,18 but merely of what he fears to be the incurable blindness of his countrymen. Is not the same thought expressed in 1. Cor. ii. 8 and ii. 6? Verse 16a, b bears in the highest degree the Pauline stamp. In form, the same is true of the abrupt conclusion 16c, for which a quotation from some Jewish Apocryphon or a gloss on the text of Paulʼs Greek Bible has been—quite superfluously—suggested. As a matter of fact, both verses read like echoes from an angry indictment lately flung in the face of his persecutors by Paul. I can thus see no sufficient grounds for removing verses ii. 15 and 16 or even only ii. 16c, as interpolations, from the genuine Epistle of Paul.



1) iii. 1-13.

2) iv. 13-v. 11.

3) v. 12-24.

4) 25-28.

5) ii. 2; Acts xvi. 16 fol.

6) iii. 1. fol.

7) iii. 1.

8) Acts xviii. 1.

9) iii. 6.

10) ii. 18.

11) iv. 13 fol.

12) iii. 6, 10.

13) iv. 11 fol.

14) v. 12-15,

15) iv. 12.

16) Rev. ii. 2.

17) Rom. ix.-xi,

18) Acts xviii. 2.