The letter to the Thessalonians (1)

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Reading Time: 11 minutes

Who is the Author?

Internal evidence

The letter begins with “Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, To the Church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace.”

This address is declaring from whom it is from, Paul being the first and then naming two companions who are occasionally with Paul (Also to note Silvanus is an alternative spelling of Silas often).

Church Fathers

The Church Fathers support Pauline authorship even more for 2 Thessalonians, than they do for 1 Thessalonians. Thomas, R. L. writes, “Possible references to it are found in the Didache and Ignatius, and Polycarp has two passages that are almost assuredly from the Epistle. Justin Martyr also clearly refers to it.

Thomas, R. L. (1981). 2 Thessalonians. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Ephesians through Philemon (Vol. 11, p. 302). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House] 

Not only is 1 Thessalonians found in Marcion’s canon and the Muratorian canon, but it is also quoted by name by Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, and Tertullian. Perhaps even Polycarp alludes to it when he speaks of Paul’s letters to the Philippians. Further, it is found in the most ancient Manuscripts (including the old Latin, old Syriac, and ¸46), suggesting its full acceptance from a very early period. 1 Thessalonians has enjoyed universal acceptance.

https://bible.org/seriespage/1-thessalonians-introduction-outline-and-argument

Muratorian fragment (170 AD)

So while there are uses of Thessalonians early on and throughout the church father era, the Muratorian Fragment was also written. This document dating to the late second century gives us Paul’s stamp of the letters he has written according to early church tradition. We see here it affirms Paul’s authorship: “As for the Epistles of (40-1) Paul, they themselves make clear to those desiring to understand, which ones [they are], from what place, or for what reason they were sent. (42) …Paul himself, following the example of his predecessor (49-50) John, writes by name to only seven churches in the following sequence: To the Corinthians (51) first, to the Ephesians second, to the Philippians third, (52) to the Colossians fourth, to the Galatians fifth, (53) to the Thessalonians sixth, to the Romans (54-5)

http://www.bible-researcher.com/muratorian.html

Scholarly views 

Older New Testament critics (e.g. from the Tubingen School) denied that Paul wrote 1 Thessalonians. However scholars, Carson and Moo comment that “few scholars have followed in their footsteps. 1 Thessalonians is one of the seven letters ascribed to Paul that is included in the critical canon of authentic Pauline letters.”

Carson, D. A., and Douglas J. Moo. An Introduction to the New Testament. Second ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005. 535

Robert Thomas concurs, “Only extremists such as the Tubingen scholars have questioned it.”

Thomas, R. L. (1981). 1 Thessalonians. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Ephesians through Philemon (Vol. 11, p. 232). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House

Early Christian thinkers like Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Clement of Alexandria acknowledged it as a genuine letter of Paul.

Daniel B. Wallace the textual critic says of the Tubingen school

First Thessalonians is accepted by virtually all NT scholars. The radical criticism of the Tübingen and Dutch schools of last century is now considered passé (A. Q. Morton and his flawed computer-based linguistic analysis being an anomaly). Still, it is helpful to rehearse the reasons why it is so well accepted”.

Daniel Wallace, New Testament Textual Critic
https://bible.org/seriespage/1-thessalonians-introduction-outline-and-argument

Manuscript evidence for Paul’s authorship P46

Colossians 4.16-1 Thessalonians 1.1; 1 Thessalonians 1.9-2.3.
https://viewer.cbl.ie/viewer/object/prevHit/BP_II_f_94/1/LOG_0000/

This Folio (in two fragments) from the end of Paul’s Letter to the Colossians and the beginning of Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians, from a codex containing the Pauline Epistles (P46), written in Greek with ink on papyrus; made in Egypt and dated 200 AD. The manuscript is the oldest surviving almost complete copy of the Pauline Epistles (P46); 86 of its original 112 folios survive. These are divided between the Chester Beatty (56) and the University of Michigan (30). 

The manuscript evidence gives witness to verse 1 of 1 Thessalonians which we know mentions Paul, Silvanus and Timothy. To have even a partial of this verse is incredible and this is just from the Chester Beatty collection. Considering how papyrus can deteriorate within a few hundred years, this is truly remarkable fortune and an incredible witness to Paul’s authorship as far away as southern Egypt.

Paul was a writer/composer

Here church fathers make reference to Paul passing on commands or writing letters (with or without a scribe, likely with a scribe for all of them?). It is an additional factor for all Paul’s epistles that he was known as someone who wrote, taught truth and passed on commands, given an authority the first disciples did not possess. See two references below to this.

Ignatius wrote to the Romans ca. 105-107 AD: “I may be found a sacrifice to God. I do not, as Peter and Paul, issue commandments unto you. They were apostles of Jesus Christ, but I am the very least [of believers]: they were free,”

Polycarp in his letter to the Philippians ca. 115 AD: “For neither I, nor any other such one, can come up to the wisdom of the blessed and glorified Paul. He, when among you, accurately and steadfastly taught the word of truth in the presence of those who were then alive. And when absent from you, he wrote you a letter,”

Peter endorses Paul’s writings

If 2 Peter is written in the first century (though sceptical scholars have been known to attribute it to someone in the second century) this passage would bear the mark that Peter endorses Paul writing letters also

“Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.”

2 Peter 3:15-17

Audience & purpose

Impressed by the faithfulness of the Thessalonians in the face of persecution, Paul wrote to encourage the Christians in that community with the goal that they would continue to grow in godliness. Paul knew that the people had been exposed to errant teaching from those in opposition to the way of Jesus Christ and the grace of God. And Paul also understood that unless the young church continued to mature in its faith, the danger would only increase over time.

With that in mind, Paul taught the people that any spiritual growth would ultimately be motivated by their hope in the ultimate return of Jesus Christ. Paul was never interested in simply telling people to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, for he knew that what ultimately inspired change was a life of consistently walking in the power of God’s Spirit. And so to a group of young Christians with questions and uncertainties, Paul offered the hope of Christ’s return, providing both comfort in the midst of questions and motivation to godly living.

https://www.insight.org/resources/bible/the-pauline-epistles/first-thessalonians 

Date

Internal evidence

Sylvanus is another spelling for Silas, who accompanied Paul on his second missionary journey (49-51 A.D.). Timothy also joined the second missionary journey early on (Acts 16:1). However, Silas apparently did not accompany Paul on the third missionary journey, and this trio (Paul, Silas, Timothy) are not mentioned together again. Therefore, the greeting appears to come from the trio some time during their second missionary journey. This would be after they visited Thessalonica and established a church there (Acts 17:1-4). This allows only a very small time window for the letters to be written – from 50 to 51 A.D. This dating of 1 Thessalonians has been widely accepted by scholars of all persuasions with little dissent. For 2 Thessalonians, this date is also generally acknowledged, though there is some dissent.

1 Thess 2:2 supports the timeline in Acts, stating that Paul arrived in Thessalonica after being badly treated in Philippi (he was beaten and jailed – Acts 16:22-24). The reference to Paul’s stay in Athens (1 Thess 3:1) further backs up the sequence of events described in Acts (17:16-34). Therefore, the sequence of events is clear: Paul, Silas and Timothy established a church in Thessalonica, they then traveled to Berea and on to Athens. At this time, Paul and Silas sent Timothy back to check on things (1 Thess 3:2), and after Timothy returned with a report, the trio penned this letter.

Primary opposition to the gospel at this time is described as coming from the Jews, and Paul likens the Thessalonian church to the churches in Judea (1 Thess 2:14-16). This, along with the reference in 2 Thess 2:4 to a standing temple, further confirm a date of writing prior to the A.D. 70 destruction of the temple.

Canonical status

What was the acceptance rate of 1 Thessalonians as canonical by those early and later witnesses of the text? Ignatius and Polycarp use it very early on and heretics like Marcion used it in his canon (albeit a mutilated 1 Thessalonians). Generally there is a strong church acknowledgement of the letter to the Colossians as canonical in the eyes of the church fathers. Scholars have a consistent agreement with the church fathers that Paul wrote 1 Thessalonians.

See this table for a list on who recognised each book as canonical (key(s) below)

It does not mention every Church Father who used the New Testament books, this is just a survey of some of the most known
  • Ig = Ignatius
  • Po = Polycarp
  • M = Marcion
  • Va = Valentinus
  • JM = Justin Martyr
  • IR = Irenaeus 
  • C = Clement of Alexandria 
  • T = Tertullian
  • MC = Muratorian Canon
  • O = Origen
  • E = Eusebius
  • CS = Codex Sinaiticus
  • A = Athanasius
  • D = Didymus the Blind
  • P = Peshitta (Bible of the Syrian church)
  • V =  Latin vulgate 
taken from ntcanon.org/table.shtml 

Jesus, nor the apostles, nor Polycarp, Clement or Irenaeus left much for us to work with in terms of a formal “ok so here’s the rules of determination”. But what they did do is inform us that they had an informative way of knowing what was truth and what was not. And the truth had to have a connection to eyewitnesses.

For we did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.

2 Peter 1:16 

2“So now we must choose a replacement for Judas from among the men who were with us the entire time we were traveling with the Lord Jesus— from the time he was baptized by John until the day he was taken from us. Whoever is chosen will join us as a witness of Jesus’ resurrection

Acts 1:21-22

One of the soldiers, however, pierced his side with a spear, and immediately blood and water flowed out. (This report is from an eyewitness giving an accurate account. He speaks the truth so that you also may continue to believe.)

John 19:34-35

“God raised Jesus from the dead, and we are all witnesses of this.

Acts 2:32

You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead. And we are witnesses of this fact!

Acts 3:15

We are witnesses of these things and so is the Holy Spirit, who is given by God to those who obey him.”

Acts 5:32

“And we apostles are witnesses of all he did throughout Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a cross,but God raised him to life on the third day. Then God allowed him to appear, not to the general public, but to us whom God had chosen in advance to be his witnesses. We were those who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. And he ordered us to preach everywhere and to testify that Jesus is the one appointed by God to be the judge of all—the living and the dead. He is the one all the prophets testified about, saying that everyone who believes in him will have their sins forgiven through his name.”

Acts 10:39-43

[Paul] With Christ as my witness, I speak with utter truthfulness. My conscience and the Holy Spirit confirm it.

Romans 9:1

I passed on to you what was most important and what had also been passed on to me. Christ died for our sins, just as the Scriptures said. He was buried, and he was raised from the dead on the third day, just as the Scriptures said. He was seen by Peter and then by the Twelve. After that, he was seen by more than 500 of his followers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died.Then he was seen by James and later by all the apostles. Last of all, as though I had been born at the wrong time, I also saw him. For I am the least of all the apostles. In fact, I’m not even worthy to be called an apostle after the way I persecuted God’s church.

1 Corinthians 15:3-9

And now, a word to you who are elders in the churches. I, too, am an elder and a witness to the sufferings of Christ. And I, too, will share in his glory when he is revealed to the whole world. As a fellow elder, I appeal to you:

1 Peter 5:1

Caius the church father in 200AD writes how they knew of two fake letters circulating in Paul’s name. 

“There are also in circulation one to the Laodiceans, and another to the Alexandrians, forged under the name of Paul, and addressed against the heresy of Marcion; and there are also several others which cannot be received into the Catholic Church, for it is not suitable for gall to be mingled with honey”.

Caius, Church leader

How did they work this out? How did they know what was the divinely inspired word of God? We can thank Eusebius for beginning to help us clear up this territory. In his Ecclesiastical History, he mentions his four categories of books with descriptions as to why some were accepted, disputed, rejected and seen as heretical from his survey of the church fathers history going back and into the apostolic age. This is the structure we will take when we assess the books of the New Testament and this includes investigating the books the church rejected. 

So these summarised standards are these:

  1. Apostolicity. Was it written by an Apostle or one of their colleagues?
  2. Orthodoxy. Was the teaching orthodox? Consistent with Old Testament and the Christian worldview?
  3. Catholicity. Not the Catholic Church (that doesn’t exist for a few hundred years yet!)… This meaning widely agreed upon
  4. Relevance. Was it relevant to the church? Or does it seem completely detached from what we already have in the canon? (I.e. everything Gnostic)
  5. Inspiration. Did it have the ring of truth, the life changing power within?

Apostolicity

We see in 2 Peter 3:15-17 accredit the works of Paul as scriptures, and Peter, being the lead apostle, can testify to apostolicity. Elsewhere in Paul’s letters, Paul has called himself inline with the apostles (Romans 1:1 for example) and several times in 1 Corinthians. In 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 we see Paul associate himself with the Apostles as those to whom the risen Jesus appeared to. So Paul is an apostle and in Galatians 2:6 the Apostles Peter and James reviewed what Paul was preaching and added nothing to his message, meaning what he was preaching was inline with them. 

We have no early opposition to the authorship of 1 Thessalonians, nor any early documents to say this document was not written by Paul or is heretical. So we stand by Paul being the author.

Orthodoxy

As stated on the exchange in the beginning of Galatians 2, Paul got his message verified by the apostles. Paul also has a consistent message doctrinally with what Jesus teaches. 

Catholicity

There has been no challenge by the early church fathers to 1 Thessalonians, even heretics like Marcion tried to use the document. 1st century Polycarp and Ignatius, disciples of the Apostle John even makes use of the letter. There is a strong church agreement on from these disciples of the disciples all the way through the church fathers (Even Peter as we’ve discussed affirms Paul’s writings as scripture). 

Relevance

For Christians to stand firm in the face of persecution and what the church should be doing as answered in this letter is highly relevant of the time it was written with extending purpose throughout millennia. Today many Christians stand firm in the face of persecution and a letter like this would bring wisdom and encouragement. It was relevant at the time and now in the future. 

Inspiration

Paul is called by God (Acts 9), claims in many of his letters to be sent as an Apostle for Christ Jesus (Romans 1 for example).  He has the mandate also of the Apostles (Galatians 1:17 – 2:6; 2 Peter 3:15-17) and is considered by the church Canonical, with it being in all the Christian lists of New Testament books. They could additionally as with all New Testament books recognise the ring of truth within that shows the readers of the text that it is inspired. Galatians falls into this bracket. Paul claims clearly at the beginning of his letter that the truth he receives is not from man but from Jesus Christ and God the Father and that he is sent on his behalf (Galatians 1:1). If Paul is the author, it is an inspired work. The church seems to attribute this work as canon as is often with scripture that has the ring of truth which 

goes with all other factors hand in hand. 


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