The Paul of 1 Thessalonians

My Pauline reading circle has made it through the first two of seven so-called “authentic” Pauline texts in the New Testament, which are: Galatians, I Thessalonians, Philippians, Philemon, 1 and 2 Corinthians, and Romans. With each of these texts, my aim is to arrive at a conclusion about whether these seven letters, attributed to a pseudo-historical Jewish figure named Paul, should be treated as Jewish texts, and if so, on what basis. Unlike Galatians, 1 Thessalonians is not overtly antagonistic to visible Jewish difference, yet the letter eventually undermines any argument that it should be studied as a Jewish text by the way it decides who is “in” and who is “out. “We,” the protagonists in the story, are the ekklesia, those who believe in Christ; “they,” whether antagonists or simply not “us” are all the non-believers, Jew and Gentile alike. The authors’ (there are three) closest relationships are not to other Jews (the Hebrews or Judaeans of antiquity), as you might expect to find in a Jewish text. Instead, Paul, Timothy and Silas’s brothers and sisters (ἀδελφοί) are the members of the ekklesia, those with whom they share a common faith in Christ. The Thessalonian recipients of the text are co-members of the ekklesia, former Gentiles who have “turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God” in full expectation that Jesus, the crucified and resurrected Son that Paul preaches, will return from heaven to rescue the ekklesia from the wrath of God. These former Gentiles have not become members of the Jewish nation (ἔθνος), instead they stand outside it, in a new relationship to the Jewish God, to their fellow countrymen, and to those Jews who are not members of the ekklesia.

The only construction of Jewish difference in this chapter is the rather ill-fitting reference to Jews as those who persecute the churches that are “in Christ” in Judaea, and who are charged with killing the prophets as well as Jesus, and with driving the authors out. While a portion of the vitriolic language in 2:14-16 may be a later interpolation or gloss, the gist of the passage still “others” the Jews (at least in Judaea) and pits them against the ekklesia with which Paul is associated by a common faith in Christ.

For you, brothers and sisters, became imitators of God’s churches [ekklesias] in Judea, which are in Christ Jesus: You suffered from your own people the same things those churches suffered from the Jews who killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets and also drove us out. They displease God and are hostile to everyone in their effort to keep us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved. In this way they always heap up their sins to the limit. The wrath of God has come upon them at last. (1 Thessalonians 2:14-16 NIV)

While it might seem counterintuitive to see Paul, a self-described Hebrew/Jew, objectifying fellow Jews as the “other,” the text’s perspective makes sense when we realize that the Thessalonian Paul’s primary social and religious identity is within the ekklesia rather than among the Jews. There is nothing in this letter that suggests the text is concerned with differentiating Jews from Gentiles. The letter does not use ‘Jew and Gentile’—the normative identities in a Jewish worldview—to categorize either the recipients or the other groups mentioned. Instead it is the ekklesia that serves as the focal point of identity formation. “We” and “you” (the recipients and the authors), are all ekklesians, while “they” are the Jews and the rest of the Gentiles who don’t believe. Perhaps the Paul of 1 Thessalonians treats “Jews” as those with knowledge of the living and true God, but those who do not believe in Christ are at best outsiders, and at worst persecutors of the newly founded ekklesia.

My argument is that any text purporting to be a Jewish text of the first or second century CE would have to be written from a worldview where the difference between Jews and non-Jews is critically important to self-understanding. The Jew-Gentile binary so critical to establishing a distinctive Jewish worldview might be an implicit understanding in the text, or there might be explicit references as such. What a text cannot do and remain a Jewish text, in my scheme of reference, is to create a new and primary center of self-definition that intentionally breaches the rules, laws, or other mechanisms governing the contemporaneous boundaries of Jewish identity. When the center of a text’s identity is the ekklesia, then the text converts to a new category of ekklesial literature. Canonical texts of ekklesial literature came to form the interpretive core of Christian scripture, which is known today as the New Testament.

Image: A portion of 1 Thessalonians 1 (right column) from Codex Vaticanus B, https://www.bible.com/bible/111/1TH.2.NIV

2 thoughts on “The Paul of 1 Thessalonians

  1. First, I am starting with a presumption that there was a historical Paul, who identified himself as an observant Pharisaic Jew who had a private, individual revelation about Jesus (whom he labels “Our Lord Jesus Christ”). That revelation made him stop “persecuting” the new Christians and turned him into someone dedicated to converting gentiles into Christians without requiring them to be circumcised, observant Jews.
    I am also presuming that the letters we are reading were originally written by this person, in the time period from 50 CE to 70 CE approximately, even though we do not have manuscripts from that era. I am presuming that much of the material in these letters has been fairly well preserved, even though there may be insertions (such as the invective against the Jews in I Thessalonians 2:15-16. Insertions are more likely to have been made as the church’s relationship with the Jews evolved than are deletions. I am also presuming that personal material about Paul, his wishes for his churches and the people he knew by name, etc., are likely to have been preserved relatively intact. This material has little theological import that would make it likely to be modified, and retaining the “personal touches” would serve to preserve a link to someone regarded as the primary human founder of Christianity.
    Who is Paul writing too. He refers to “the church (ekklesia) of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” From the information Pat sent us about Thessalonika, we know it was a center of trade, with a healthy Jewish population that may have included “god-fearers,” citizens who affliated in some way with the synagogue and the God of Israel but did not pursue becoming Jewish (that is, being circumcised and becoming observant), whether they saw the Jews as a different religion, a different ethnos, or somehow both. These “god-fearers” may have been attracted to Paul’s preaching (even as he offended the synagogue Jews) because he held out some message to them {the “gospel”) that did not require conversion to Judaism.
    What sorts of personal information about Paul and his intentions are present in I Thessalonians. He has been to Thessalonika before, apparently after having been “suffered and been insulted in Philippi.” He asserts that he is trying to please God “who tests our hearts” rather than pleasing men. He is quick to assert that he does not flatter people and he is not greedy. “We were not looking for praise from men, not for you or anyone else.” Nevertheless, he says he “could have been a burden” but was “gentle among you like a mother caring for her little children (2:7).” Later he says he was like a father dealing with children (2:11). The people he is addressing are “brothers” who are dear to Paul. He reminds them that he worked with them “night and day in order not to be a burden to anyone.” He says he longed to return to them. He is pleased that Timothy reports that “You always have pleasant memories of us and that you long to see us (3:6).
    So on one hand, Paul denies wanting to flatter his audience, but then he does flatter them (describing how they have adopted his preaching and have stood up to trials (which Paul predicted – unless 3:4 is an insertion). He engages in some self-praise (about not being a burden, working along with his brothers, etc.) Clearly a lot of Paul’s flattery of the Thessalonian ekklesia could be good marketing, keeping this group attached to him by making them feel good about themselves in relationship to him. One could also read a strain of a narcissism in Paul, a need to have others think well of him and like him.
    Even though Paul emphasizes how he taught the Thessalonian ekklesia to live and work together, he does not criticize them. There is no suggestion that he is writing to a group that may have back-slid in some fashion or have been attracted to some other preacher. He does make the point that they should not be disappointed that some of their members have died (or “fallen asleep”), but he does not sound fearful that people are leaving the church because these deaths make them question Paul’s message.
    In a passage that sounds a bit out of place, Paul reminds his audience that they should “be sanctified” and “avoid sexual immorality” by controlling their own bodies “in a way that is holy and honorable, not in passionate lust like the heathen who do not know God (4:3-6).” Why is the question of sexual immorality important?
    The information Pat sent us suggested that the dominant religious cult in Thessalonika was related to Isis, an adopted Egyptian goddess. Isis is portrayed as a mother-goddess, and I am not aware of any sort of sexual aspect to her worship. The paper also asserts that the Greco-Roman culture of Thessalonika would not have been licentious. So, why does Paul bring the subject up. First, one does not tell someone to NOT do something unless you are aware that there is a strong possibility that they are already doing it or very likely to be doing it. Certainly the god-fearers would not have been picking up sexual licentiousness from the synagogue Jews, and the paper from Pat suggests that they would not have been picking it up from the general culture or dominant religious influences in Thessalonika at the time. Why does Paul suspect them of the possibility?
    I know at times early Christians were thought by the Roman authorities to be engaging in some sort of sexual practices in their gatherings. That’s the sort of suspiciousness of a divergent group that authorities are likely to develop. However, I don’t think those sorts of accusations had been leveled at the ekklesia of the mid-first century. We are probably talking at that time of a very small group who had not stirred up much trouble for the authorities by that time.
    One might accuse others of impulses that one is afraid of losing control of oneself. Is Paul adopting a degree of sexual asceticism as part of his conversion from observant Jew to Christian preacher? Is he afraid of being licentious himself? If that sort of projection of his own impulses is a factor, does it go along with his injunctions to the ekklesia members about work with their hands and living quiet lives? If Paul was a highly place Pharisee (who was given tasks related to persecuting deviant Jews), did he live a life that looked down on manual laborers? Thus, he has to remind the Thessalonians that he worked right along with them (“See I don’t think I’m socially above you guys, not anymore.”) Can we raise the question of whether he indulged in some sort of sexual licentiousness before his conversion experience?
    To sum up, there are themes in this letter that suggest an thread of insecure narcissism in a man whose life was turned upside down so that he now struggles with controlling sexual impulses and with controlling his pride.

    Posted for Dr. Mariam Cohen, Phoenix

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