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.