Encyclopædia Britannica, Ninth Edition/Thessalonians, Epistles to the

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From volume XXIII of the work.
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THESSALONIANS, Epistles to the. Thessalonica, now Salonica (q.v.), was in the time of the Romans the most important town of Macedonia. In consequence of its advantageous situation, on a good harbour and on the Via Egnatia, the great trade road which connected the Adriatic with the Hellespont, the town had surpassed the old capital Pella, and had indeed become one of the chief commercial centres of the ancient world. Since the Roman conquest the seat of the Roman provincial government had been here. Here, as in Corinth, the conditions were favourable for the reception of Christianity. The population was not purely Greek, but cosmopolitan, a mixture of divers nationalities. Such a population is always more susceptible to religious novelties for good and for evil than one of old, firmly established national growth. The apostle Paul experienced this to his great joy and satisfaction here also, as he for the first time set foot on the shores of Europe with the message of Jesus Christ. It was about the year 52 or 53 that he, on his arrival from Philippi, preached the gospel of Christ in the rich merchant city. As in other places, he began with the Jews. There was a Jewish congregation at Thessalonica, as at all the great ports and trading centres of the Mediterranean, with their own synagogue and regular service. For three Sabbaths Paul stood up in the synagogue, prov ing by the Scriptures that Jesus was the promised and expected Messiah (Acts xvii. 1-3). He had not much success with the Jews, but this was more than compen sated by the number of " devout Greeks " (i.e., Gentiles who already had some connexion with Judaism) whom he won to a belief in Christ. He found hearing especially with the chief women (Acts xviii. 4). But Paul had also converted a not smaller number of real heathens. Indeed, they must have constituted the majority of the Christian church there formed, for in his first epistle he says quite generally that his readers, in consequence of his preaching, had turned from idols to the one true God (1 Thess. i. 9). Paul's stay in Thessalonica was short. The plots of the Jews soon obliged him to leave the town, and he betook himself to Beroea (Acts xvii. 10), thence to Athens (Acts xvii. 15), and finally to Corinth (Acts xviii. 1). The two epistles were written to the church of Thessalonica during a stay of a year and a half in Corinth (Acts xviii. 11), about 53-54, not before this in Athens, as is asserted in the subscription of both epistles in the Codex Alexandrinus and other MSS. For when Paul wrote the first epistle some time had elapsed since the formation of the church: some members were already dead (1 Thess. iv. 13), and Paul had worked for some time, not only in Macedonia, but also in Achaia (i. 7, 8). On the other hand, the church appears to be comparatively young; the conversions are still spoken of everywhere in Macedonia and Achaia (i. 9). All this points to the conclusion that the first epistle was written in Corinth, and this is confirmed by the opening salutation (i. 1), in which Silvanus (Silas) and Timotheus are named as joint authors, for they were in Corinth with Paul (Acts xviii. 5).

The first epistle gives us a very clear picture of the disposition and state of such a young church, composed of former heathens. They had received with enthusiasm the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Bringer of salvation, the Saviour in the approaching day of judgment (i. 9, 10). But the realization of this salvation is now awaited with impatience, and a sense of disappointment is experienced because some members of the church have died without having seen the advent of the Lord (iv. 13). At the same time many there are still living in gross heathen sins and vices (iv. 1-8). Paul had sent back Timotheus from Athens to Thessalonica in order to advise the young inexperienced church, and to obtain news concerning it (iii. 1-5). He has just returned to Paul (iii. 6), and the information received through this source is the occasion of the first epistle,[1] designed to supply the place of Paul's personal presence and bring new exhortation and instruction from the apostle to the young church, which still much needed guidance.

We have no information concerning the effect of this letter. It is conceivable, however, that the church required yet further advice and direction from the apostle, and so far it is not remarkable that Paul saw the need for a second similar letter of teaching and exhortation. This second epistle also, if it is genuine, was written during Paul's stay of a year and a half at Corinth, very soon after the first. For it also is written in the conjoined names of Silvanus and Timotheus, who were still with Paul, while we must understand from Acts xviii. 18 that after Paul's departure from Corinth they ceased to be his companions. The occasion of this epistle seems especially to have arisen from the circumstance that the church had been put into fear and anxiety about the advent of Christ, perhaps by a pretended letter from Paul. Two passages point to the existence of such a thing: in ii. 2, Paul says that the church shall not let itself be alarmed "by word or by letter as from us" (i.e., nominally coming from us), and in iii. 17 again Paul lays emphasis on his signature by his own hand as the token (of genuineness) to be noticed in each letter. In any case the chief aim of the epistle is to tran quillize the church concerning the advent of Christ, which is not yet immediately imminent. He particularly exhorts them not to let themselves be shaken in mind, as that the day of Christ is at hand (ii. 1, 2). For before this day comes the "man of sin" must first appear, who seats himself in the temple of God, and gives himself out for God (ii. 3-5). And he too is for the present kept back by another power (ii. 6, 7). Only when the latter is taken out of the way shall "that wicked" be revealed, and the great falling away shall follow (ii. 8-12).

The genuineness of the two epistles has not remained unquestioned by the newer criticism. Baur declared him self against the genuineness of both epistles,[2] and he is followed by Van der Vies[3] and several others.[4] But in general the predominant opinion of impartial criticism at present is that the genuineness of the first epistle is certain, while that of the second must be given up.

This is the opinion of Hilgenfeld (Z. f. uriss. Theol., 1862, p. 225-264; 1866, p. 295-301; 1869, p. 441 sq.; 1870, p. 244 sq.), Van Manen (Onderzoek nacur de echtheid van Paulus tweeden brief aan de Thessalonicensen, Utrecht, 1865), S. Davidson (Introd. to the New Testament, 2d ed., 1882, i. 4-16, 336-351), Weizsacker (Das apostolischc Zeitalter, 1886, p. 249-261); and Holtzmann also leans to the same view, without, however, definitely commit ting himself (Einl. in d. N. T., 2d ed., 1886, p. 233-241). The genuineness of the first epistle is vindicated by Lipsius (Theol. St. u. Kr., 1854, p. 905-934), Von Soden (ibid., 1885, p. 263-310), and Paul Schmidt (Der erste Thessalonichcrbriefneuerkldrt, Berlin, 1885), while, on the other hand, Kern (Tubing. Zeitschr. f. Theol., 1839, ii. 145-214) and Bahnsen (Jahrb. fur prot. Theol., 1880, p. 681-705) attack that of the second. Grimm (Theol. St. u. Kr., 1850, p. 753-816) and "Westrik (De echtheid van den tweeden brief aan de Thessalonicensen, Utrecht, 1879) have entered the lists for the genuineness of both epistles.

The final decision of the newer criticism is justified by the evidence. No real difficulties can be brought against the genuineness of the first epistle, but they certainly can against that of the second. When Baur finds that the epistles lack the characteristic Pauline ideas, he is only so far right that the doctrine of justification by faith is not dealt with, for which, however, no occasion arises. It has been asserted that there are traces of imitation of the epistles to the Corinthians, but the points of resemblance are not such as to justify this conclusion. The connexion of the passage in 1 Thess. iL 16 (the wrath of God is already come upon the Jews) with the destruction of Jerusalem rests on an arbitrary, nay false, interpretation. And it cannot be maintained on impartial examination that in 1 Thess. ii. 14, 15, the Jewish churches of Palestine are set forth in a way unlike Paul, as an example for the heathen churches.

The objections to the second epistle are much weightier, though here also not all the arguments adduced by hostile critics are valid. It has been often said that the author, like the author of the Apocalypse, regards Nero as the Antichrist, expecting him to reappear as the arch-enemy of Christ. But this interpretation of the short statement of our epistle cannot be proved. The assumption that before the dawn of salvation godlessness would reach its height, through the appearance of an arch-enemy of God and His church is, so to speak, a dogmatic postulate which rests on the prophecies of Daniel and other prophets of the Old Testament. And, in so far as the picture of this arch enemy is endowed with historical features, they can quite as well have been drawn from Caligula as from Nero. For Caligula had already laid claim to the honours of a god, and because of this appeared to the Jews to be the embodiment of godlessness. The assumption of such an Antichrist would not be striking in Paul. Even if it is correct (as is generally and with reason taken for granted) that by the hindrance which keeps back the appearance of Antichrist (2 Thess. ii. 6, 7) the established might of the Roman emperor and empire is to be under stood, this view would be quite in keeping with Paul's views about the Roman dominion (Rom. xiii. 1-7). Yet it must be conceded that the statements on this head create real difficulty, if we compare them with those of the first epistle, in which all stress is laid on the fact that the day of the Lord comes as a thief in the night, and that man must be prepared for it at any moment (1 Thess. v. 1-11). In the second epistle it is pointed out with equal emphasis that the day of the Lord is nt>t immediately imminent, and that certain events must come first (2 Thess. ii. 1-10). It is certainly very striking that Paul, so soon after the admonitions of the first kind, should have given the quieting assurances of the second. And 2 Thess. ii. 2 and iii. 7 can hardly be explained except by the supposition that the readers had been thrown into alarm by a pretended epistle from Paul. Could this have been dared in that early time, almost under the eyes of the apostle? Finally, it is not to be denied that the style of the second epistle is different from that of the first, and that the contents often appear a mere imitation, except in the eschatological passages on account of which it was written. It must therefore be admitted that weighty if not conclusive considerations have been produced against its genuineness. (E. S*.)

  1. According to Acts xvii. 14-15 and xviii. 5, Silas and Timotheus had remained behind in Berœa, and first met Paul again in Corinth. But according to 1 Thess. iii. 1-5 it must be understood that Timotheus was in Athens with Paul, and had been sent thence to Thessalonica.
  2. Paulus der Apostel Jesu Christi, 1845, and Theologische Jahrbücher, 1855, p. 141-168, reprinted in 2d ed. of Paulus, ii. 341-369.
  3. De beide brieven aan de Thessalonicensen, Leyden, 1865.
  4. Holsten also (Jahrb. f. prot. Theol., 1877, p. 731 sq.) and Steck (Jahrb. f. prot. Theol., 1883, p. 509-524) dispute the genuineness of the first epistle, presupposing the spuriousness of the second.