Script for Amateur Exegesis – Season 2, Episode 7: “The End of the Proem”

INTRODUCTION

October 22nd, 2017.

There are only a handful of days I remember vividly: the day I got married, the days my children were born, and October 22nd, 2017. The reason it stands out is because of the call I received on it from my sister-in-law. “Ben,” she said with anguish in her voice, “your brother is gone.” At first, I was confused. Gone? Gone where? Then she told me: my brother, my little brother, had taken his own life. At first all I felt was bewilderment. Then came the tears. My sister-in-law asked me if I would break the news to my parents, which I did just a few minutes later. It was one of the hardest phone calls I’ve ever had to make in my entire life. 

Rarely does a day go by where I don’t think about my brother. Some days it triggers sadness, others feelings of guilt, and still others a sense of peace. To say that I miss him would be an understatement. I would give up years of my own life to have him back for just a day. I long to have him back here among the living so that he can watch his two boys grow up, to spend time with our parents as they navigate their twilight years, and to call me names as he trounces me at Call of Duty

Most of us have experienced some kind of loss in our own lives and if you haven’t yet you will. As I record this episode, the world has been a war with a microscopic virus that has killed nearly three million of us. We’ve lost brother and sisters, sons and daughters, father and mothers. How many of us have a deep longing not only to see the world return to normal but also to have those we’ve lost returned to us. If we could communicate with them with a letter, what would we say? Perhaps we’d express our eagerness to be reunited with them. Maybe we would tell them how much we loved them. At the least, we would say, “I miss you.” 

On today’s episode, we will be looking at 1 Thessalonians 2:17 – 3:12, a passage that, among other things, reveals Paul’s fondness for the converts he left behind in the Macedonian city, the eagerness with which he sought to return to them, and the lengths he was willing to go to make sure that the fledgling community of Christ followers had not left the faith. Of the various pericopes in this epistle, this section is my favorite as it depicts a Paul who gushes with emotion. 

Welcome to an extended episode of Amateur Exegesis.

1 THESSALONIANS 2:17 – 3:12

As is my custom, allow me to read to you my translation of this section, based upon the 28th edition of the Nestle-Aland Greek text. 

[17] But we, brothers and sisters, having been separated[1] from you for a short time – in person, not in heart – all the more we did our best your face to see with great longing. [18] Subsequently, we were determined to come to you, indeed I Paul time and again, but Satan hindered us. [19] For what is our hope and joy and crown of exultation – is it not even you? – in the presence of our Lord Jesus at his coming? [20] For you yourselves are our glory and joy! 

3 [1] Therefore, being unable to bear it any longer, we gladly were left behind in Athens alone [2] and we sent Timothy, our brother and coworker of God in the gospel of Christ, to strengthen you and exhort you about your faith, [3] so that no one may be shaken in these distresses, for you yourselves know that to this we are fated. [4] For even when with you we were, we told you beforehand that you were to soon face distress, as indeed it has happened, and you know. [5] For this reason, when I was no longer able to endure this, I sent to find out about your faith, lest tempted you the tempter had and unproductive our work became.

[6] But now Timothy has returned to us from you and delivered good news to us about your faith and love and that you remember us fondly at all times, longing to see us just as we you. [7] For this reason we were very encouraged, brothers and sisters, about you in all our anguish and distress on account of your faith, [8] because now we live if you stand firm in the Lord. [9] For what thanksgiving can we render to God for you for all the joy with which we rejoice on your account in the presence of our God, [10] night and day earnestly praying to see your face and to supply what lacks for your faith?  

[11] Now may our God and father himself and our Lord Jesus Christ direct our way to you. [12] As for you, may the Lord increase and overflow love for one another and for all just as even we for you. [13] to strengthen your hearts, blameless in holiness, in the presence of God and our father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his holy ones. 

In terms of structure, this section of 1 Thessalonians represents the close of the proem that began in 1:2. It is, therefore, Paul’s final words before he gets to the meat in the letter body. It is possible to read this section, with its intense emotional outbursts and affectionate language, as Paul “buttering up” his converts. But that might imply that what he says in the body of the letter is some sort of finger-wagging or verbal castigation, or that he is about to make some large personal request to them. Neither of these ideas fit with the rest of the letter. Nowhere does Paul make a personal appeal to them. And far from warning them to behave themselves, Paul twice tells them that they should “abound” in something that they not only should be doing but were doing. As he told them in ch. 1, the Thessalonian community is a model for other communities to imitate. And, as we’ll see in this episode, they are the pride and joy of the missionary team.

2:17

It may seem like an obvious thing to say but here I go anyway: Paul wouldn’t have written this letter if he was present with the Thessalonians. The letter’s existence directly implies the sender’s absence. But whence this absence? In this section of the letter, Earl Richard points out, “Paul employs emotive imagery to describe the concern of the apostles.”[2] In v. 17, he uses a word that is loaded with such imagery: the passive participle aporphanisthentes,“having been separated.” This is the only time that this verb appears in all of the New Testament and, as Abraham Malherbe notes, it evokes imagery of one who has become an orphan and may be a sign that when Paul left Thessalonica he did not do so willingly.[3] Paul never explains the reasons he had to leave and while it is tempting to bring the version of events in the Acts of the Apostles to bear on the issue, as we saw in episode five, this is not the best course of action. Whatever the reason, the participle when coupled with the imagery of a nursing mother and exhorting father earlier in the chapter adds to the image of an apostle who deeply cared for these converts. Additionally, Paul writes that his separation from them had not been very long – just “a short time” – but that even in such a short while his longing to see them had grown intense. “More than simply missing them,” writes Charles Cousar in his commentary, “Paul expresses a sense of the incompleteness of the family, while he is separated from them.”[4]But if Paul was truly at a loss while absent from them, why not just return? 

2:18

That question is addressed in v. 18: “Satan hindered us,” the apostle reports. Paul makes it clear that the desire to return was not simply that of the trio of Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, but that Paul himself was keen on seeing them again, using the construction egō…Paulos (“I…Paul”) to emphasize this fact.[5] Additionally, the apostle alerts his readers to the persistence in attempting to reach them: “time and again,” he says, they tried to come. But the reason he was unable to return was largely out of his control. There was a force powerful enough to thwart his plans: Satan. Paul’s “separation from his converts,” Malherbe writes, “has now been elevated to a supernatural level.”[6]

The Origin of śāṭān

When modern people think of Satan, they tend to envision a malevolent figure complete with a red body, horns, and a pitchfork for a tail.[7] For them, Satan is simply the name of the devil, the archnemesis of God. But if we look at the etymology of the word “Satan,” we find something a bit different. The English word and its Greek counterpart Satanas are not translations but transliterations of the Hebrew noun śāṭān, a word that means “adversary” or “opponent.”[8] In its first appearance in the Hebrew Bible, the word is used to describe the angel of Yahweh who stood in Balaam’s path to oppose him in Numbers 22:22. It’s also used by the Philistines to describe David in 1 Samuel 29:4: “But the commanders of the Philistines were angry with him, and the commanders of the Philistines said to him, “Send the man back, so that he may return to the place that you have assigned him; he shall not go down with us to battle, or else he may become [a śāṭān] to us in the battle” (NRSV). In the Hebrew Bible, then, śāṭān is used to describe an angel sent from God as well as a future king of Israel. 

One of the more well-known occurrences of śāṭān in the Hebrew Bible comes from the book of Job. There in chs. 1 and 2, the substantive śāṭān appears over a dozen times. However, it doesn’t appear as simply śāṭān but as ha-śāṭān – the Satan. “One day the heavenly beings [or, more literally, “the sons of God] came to present themselves before the LORD, and [the] Satan came among them,” we read in Job 1:6. As David Clines notes in his commentary on Job, ha-śāṭān is not a being distinct from the others. Instead, he is one of them: a son of God and a member of the heavenly court. He is singled out because of his function within the narrative. “On another ‘day,’ in another story, the Satan would be lost in the crowd of courtiers; today a drama will unfold in which he is to play a principal part,” Clines writes.[9] His role is one of accuser, a veritable prosecuting attorney who seeks to find fault in humanity and make the Judge of the universe aware of it.[10] Thus, ha-śāṭān isn’t a name but a title. He is fundamentally an agent of Yahweh as Job 1:12 and 2:6 suggest. As Peggy Day observes, ha-śāṭān “is not an independent, inimical force.”[11] When compared to Paul’s mention of Satan in the epistle of 1 Thessalonians, it becomes clear that we are dealing with two different conceptions of the being: the former is an agent of God, his servant; the latter is an opponent of God, his enemy (and Paul’s). 

It is during the Second Temple Period that we begin to detect a more malevolent and rogue figure than what we find in the book of Job. This trajectory begins with 1 Chronicles 21:1: “Satan stood up against Israel, and incited David to count the people of Israel” (NRSV). This text is significant for two reasons. First, the Hebrew definite article does not appear with śāṭān, suggesting that in this instance we are dealing less with a title than with a name. Robert Alter writes, “At this late period, it looks as if ‘The Adversary’ (hasatan) is moving into becoming a demonic figure, and he appears here without the definite article ha, suggesting it has become a name, not just a function.”[12] Second, of the various sources the Chronicler had at his disposal, one of them was clearly the Deuteronomic History which included the books of 1-2 Samuel. The story found in 1 Chronicles 21, in which David conducts a census but is punished for doing so, is based upon the account found in 2 Samuel 24. While the Chronicler attributes to Satan incitement to sin, the Deuteronomistic Historian is quite different, writing in v. 1, “Again the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel, and he incited David against them saying, ‘Go, count the people of Israel and Judah’” (NRSV). Commenting on the Chronicler’s version, Alter remarks that “the Chronicler, not wanting to represent God as perverse, makes Satan the agent.”[13]

Of course, not everyone thinks that the Chronicler had in mind a divine agent inciting David to sin. Kristin Swenson in her recent volume A Most Peculiar Book: The Inherent Strangeness of the Bible writes, “The nature of Chronicles (which shows David constantly bowing to divine power) makes the [idea of a divine adversary inciting David] less likely than the authors meant some person pushed David to make this devastating move.”[14] Human or divine, the effect is the same: the Chronicler wanted to distance the god of Israel from causing sin. And even if this passage is about a supernatural enabler, it does not entail that it is an entity who operates outside of God’s commands. Douglas Knight and Amy-Jill Levine note that not only is the Chronicler’s śāṭān “still God’s functionary [and] not a hostile figure,” he has a purpose very similar to that of ha-śāṭān in the book of Job such that just as God was angry with David for succumbing to the incitement so too “God would likely have been displeased with Job if he had not remained faithful.”[15] In other words, he is God’s agent to test the righteousness of humanity. Yet despite the similarity between the Chronicler’s Satan and that of the book of Job, the portrait painted by the Chronicler, complete with its omittance of the definite article in front of his name, prepared the soil in which the Satan of Pauline theology could grow.

Śāṭān in Jubilees and 1 Enoch

The first true glimpses of Satan as the archenemy of God appear in texts from the final few centuries before the common era.[16] Two in particular stand out: the book of Jubilees and the book of 1 Enoch. In Jubilees, a work of the second century BCE,[17] the stories told in the Pentateuch are recounted, modified, revised, and expanded upon. For example, in Jubilees 3:28 the author reports that due to the sin of the serpent of Genesis 3, all of the wild animals were rendered unable to speak: “For they all used to speak with one another, with one language and one tongue,” he writes.[18] In ch. 4, the author claims that the birth of Jared – the son of Mahalalel per Genesis 5:15 – saw that descent of a group of angels called “the watchers” to the earth “to teach humankind and to practice judgment and uprightness on the earth” (Jubilees 4:15). 

Following the Deluge and its aftermath, recounted in chs. 5-9 of Jubilees, the narrator says that “impure demons began to lead the children of Noah’s sons astray, to gain power over them and destroy them” (Jubilees 10:1). These sons came to Noah and complained about this demonic attack who in turn prayed to God, asking that he do something about it: “Bless me and my children,” he petitions God, “so that we may increase, multiply, and fill the earth” (vv. 2-4). Noah lays the blame for these demons at the feet of the watchers, claiming that it is their children who are the spirits infecting the earth with their demonic influence (v. 5). Earlier in the narrative, the watchers copulated with human women, producing a race of giants and causing the world to become violent and corrupt (5:2-3; 7:21-25; cf. Genesis 6:1-4). Implied in Jubilees is that that flood had killed off these giants, but their spirits remained and wreaked havoc on the humans that survived. God hears the prayer of Noah and orders his angels to bind all of these spirits (10:6-7).

In v. 8, however, a new character emerges and intervenes: Mastema, the “chief of the spirits.” Mastema asks God to give him some of the spirits to control: “Let them obey me and do everything that I tell them since if none of them remain for me, I shall not be able to execute the power of my will on humankind.” To this God agrees, and a tenth of the spirits remain with Mastema while the others are confined to “the place of judgment” (v. 9). In v. 11, the angel says, “We acted according to all his words. All the evil ones who are vicious we bound in the place of judgment, but a tenth of them we left to have power on the earth before Satan.” Thus, in Jubilees, Mastema, who is given power overs the demons, is Satan. Later in Jubilees, not only is Mastema referred to as a prince (e.g., 17:16; 48:9), but he is also seen as the one behind the sacrifice of Isaac (17:16-18), the strange bridegroom of blood story recounted in Exodus 4 (48:2-3), and the powerful deeds of the Egyptian magicians in their face-off with Moses (48:9). “Throughout Jubilees, Mastema attempts to harm the Noahide and Abrahamic lines,” notes Miryam Brand.”[19] Since in Jubilees, Mastema and Satan are one-in-the-same, this suggests that for the author of Jubilees Satan is the one who opposes humanity and God. He is truly the “adversary.” 

The book of Jubilees was influenced in one way or another by the so-called “Book of Watchers” found in the first major section of 1 Enoch. There a similar story line ensues, complete with the watchers copulating with women to produce giants as well as the ensuing judgment in the form of the flood. Later in 1 Enoch, in a section known as “the Book of Parables” (e.g., chs. 37-71), we read of “angels of punishment” who prepare “all the instruments of Satan” (53:3),[20] later understood to refer to chains (54:3). Enoch witnesses “a deep valley with burning fire” into which the wicked kings and mighty ones are thrown “for,” 1 Enoch 54:6 says, “their unrighteousness in becoming servants of Satan, and leading astray those who dwell on the earth.” That is, by following Satan rather than God, these humans have chosen for themselves divine punishment for their reward. By implication, then, Satan is viewed as a rival of God. 

Satan in Paul’s Apocalyptic Eschatology

What texts like Jubilees and 1 Enoch have in common is that they are generally considered to be a genre of literature known as an “apocalypse.”[21] What is an apocalypse? John Collins defines it as 

a genre of revelatory literature with a narrative framework, in which a revelation is mediated by an otherworldly being to a human recipient, disclosing a transcendent reality which is both temporal, insofar as it envisages eschatological salvation, and spatial insofar as it involves another, supernatural world.[22]

The outlook of apocalyptic is therefore often eschatological. In other words, it is revelation about things to come at the end of time. In his book Paul: Theologian of God’s Apocalypse, Martinus de Boer identifies two “tracks” of apocalyptic eschatology prevalent in Paul’s day: cosmological apocalyptic eschatology and forensic apocalyptic eschatology.[23] Cosmological apocalyptic eschatology is what we find in Jubilees and 1 Enoch. In this age, the world is overrun by demonic forces and we await a day, hopefully soon, when God will vanquish his foes and restore his kingdom.[24] Forensic apocalyptic eschatology is what we find in texts like 4 Ezra and 2 Baruch. Humans have free will to either obey God’s law or flout it. The suffering of the world is caused by the flouting of God’s law, i.e., sin, and one day God will judge those who disobey him and right the world.[25] As is clear from both tracks, one of the fundamental beliefs of apocalyptic eschatology is that there is something wrong with the world and it takes divine intervention to right it. “Apocalyptic eschatology corrects history,” writes Paula Fredriksen. “It promises a speedy resolution of history’s moral dissonances: good triumphs over evil, peace over war, life over death.”[26] In other words, it gives God a do-over. In Paul’s theology, both tracks can be found, though, as de Boer observes, they have been “christologically appropriated and modified.”[27]

The presence of Satan here in 1 Thessalonians 2:18 is evidence of Paul’s cosmological apocalyptic eschatology and his sense that there are some things that are ultimately outside of his control because there are larger forces at play. For Paul, this didn’t mean he gave up: as I already noted, he tried “time and again” to go to them. He put in the effort and was unwilling to abandon them. But Paul also knew that his decision to return was “not made in neutral territory,” as Eugene Boring observes, “but always under the pressure of a struggle in which the power of God and the demonic powers of Satan are operative.”[28] Nevertheless, though Satan resisted his attempts, Paul knew that God was in control.[29] In ch. 3, he is able to send Timothy in his stead and is so overjoyed at what he has learned he breaks out in praise in vv. 11-13. However powerful Satan may be, in Paul’s worldview it is God who is far greater. 

2:19-20

For now, Paul returns to his affection for the Thessalonian community, asking in v. 19, “For what is our hope and joy and crown of exultation? – is it not even you? – in the presence of our Lord Jesus at his coming?” That’s my translation. Here’s how the New Revised Standard Version renders it: “For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you?” If you’ve listened carefully, you will have noticed a syntactical difference between my translation and that of the NRSV. In the NRSV, Paul asks two questions, one right after another. First, he asks, “What is our hope, etc. before our Lord Jesus at his coming?” Second, “Is it not you?” But my translation inserts that second question (i.e., “is it not even you?”) into the middle of the first. Whence the difference? Have I forgotten how to construct a sentence properly? 

Let me begin by saying that the NRSV’s rendition is faithful to what Paul wrote. Ditto for other translations like the ESV, NASB, and NIV. What my translation attempts to do is to render into English what the underlying Greek text is doing. There the apostle interjects into his own question another, making for awkward reading but revealing his own affectionate excitement. As Abraham Malherbe writes, “With a rhetorical climax so passionate that it fractures his syntax, [Paul] rushes to an exclamation that brings him and his readers before the returning Christ.”[30] You can almost imagine Paul feverishly writing this letter, unable to contain his joy as he finishes the proem. The central question he asks is itself rhetorical but answered twice, both in the interjection and in v. 20: “For you yourselves are our glory and joy!” 

When Paul speaks of a “crown of exultation,” he is drawing upon the language found in the LXX. For example, Proverbs 16:31 reads, “A crown of exultation is old age, and in the way of righteousness it is found” (my translation). The Greek word rendered “crown” both here and in the LXX is stephanos, a term that often referred to a laurel wreath that was given to the victor in Greek games.[31] Arguably, Paul uses stephanos much in the way it is found in the Jewish scriptures: not as a reward for a life lived faithfully but as its crowning achievement. As Earl Richard writes, Paul “refers to the community as the culminating product of the apostolic community, an achievement from which they will gain great satisfaction on the day of the Lord’s coming.”[32] If Paul is in some sense their father and mother as vv. 7 and 11 imply, the Thessalonian believers – this newborn community of faith – are his pride and joy. 

The “eschatological framework”[33] of Paul’s affection is unmistakable and v. 19 is the first time both in 1 Thessalonians and in Paul’s writings that we read of Jesus’ parousia – his coming. Time does not permit us to consider it here but in episode nine we will look more closely at the subject, especially as it relates to Paul’s encouragement of the Thessalonians in light of the deaths of some of the community’s members. This is not the first time Paul has brought up the subject of Jesus’ return. In ch. 1, he wrote that the Thessalonians “await [God]s] son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the coming wrath” (v. 10). It suffices to say that for Paul and his apocalyptic worldview, the coming of Jesus is expected to happen sooner rather than later. 

3:1-2

The first verse of ch. 3 begins by connecting Paul’s affection for the Thessalonians discussed in vv. 17-20 with the lengths Paul must go to reconnect with them. Using a causal participle,[34] he writes that he was “unable to bear it any longer,” the “it” being his separation from the Thessalonians, and therefore had to do something about it. It is here in this section that we arrive at the occasion for his letter to the Thessalonians: the mission of Timothy. 

According to Paul, the missionary team was in Athens when it was decided that he and Silvanus would remain in town while Timothy would travel back to Thessalonica “to strengthen and exhort” the community there. As I noted in episode two, Timothy is mentioned in the superscription of the letter and is elsewhere described in Paul’s letters with affectionate, albeit restrained, language.[35] Here he is described as their “brother and coworker of God in the gospel of Christ.” Thus, while Timothy may not be someone of the caliber of Paul, he is nonetheless a competent and effective minister – God’s “coworker.” This moniker was so uncomfortable to some later scribes that they altered it completely.[36] For example, in the Textus Receptus, the Greek text upon which the King James Version is based, we read, “And we sent Timothy our brother and servant of God and coworker in the gospel of Christ” (my translation).[37]Nevertheless, the reading found in the 28th edition of the Nestle-Aland Greek text remains the best candidate for what Paul originally wrote.[38]

3:3-5

One of the reasons Timothy was sent back to the community was, per v. 3, Paul’s concern that in the midst of “distresses” they may have become “shaken.” The Greek verb underlying the word I have rendered as “may be shaken” was originally used to describe the wagging of a dog’s tail. Over time, its meaning changed to something less benign: a sense of agitation.[39] Earl Richard believes that the term refers to someone trying to talk the Thessalonian converts out of their commitment to Christ.[40] On balance, I think that Paul is referring to the general socio-religious ostracism that these converts would have faced on a day-to-day basis,[41] an ostracism that he claims he warned them of in v. 4. This isn’t Paul acting as prognosticator. Eugene Boring notes that since “Paul understands Christian faith to be eschatological existence” then “suffering for the faith is inherent in the divine [call]…and [election]…as such, not only for the apostles who display it before the world. Just as suffering and rejection is the mark of authentic apostleship, so it is the signature of authentic discipleship.”[42]

At the beginning of v. 5, Paul stresses that it was he who sent Timothy back to Thessalonica. Both here and in v. 2, Paul uses the verb pempō, a verb he uses often in his letters “to describe the dispatch of various individuals” including Timothy, Epaphroditus, and many others.[43] Paul’s sending of Timothy could be done with confidence that it would be a productive mission. As Margaret Mitchell points out in her 1992 article on envoys in the New Testament, there were two main principles about envoys. “The first principle that can be isolated about envoys in first-century antiquity is that proper reception of the envoy necessarily entails proper reception of the one who sent him,” she writes.[44] She also notes that this entails the opposite: rejection of the envoy is rejection of the sender. Moreover, standing behind this is a cultural assumption: “the one who is sent should be treated according to the status of the one by whom he was sent, not the status he individually holds.”[45] Thus, Timothy is as good as Paul before them. To treat him badly would be to treat Paul badly. The second principle is related to this: envoys “have the significant power and authority to speak for those who sent them in accordance with their instructions.”[46] Since Timothy had been sent to “strengthen…and exhort” the Thessalonians, it was in reality Paul who was doing so. As we’ll come to see, this is a two-way street since Timothy is sent back to Paul by the Thessalonians with a report. 

At the end of v. 5, Paul reveals who he believes stands behind all the distress facing the community: “the tempter,” no doubt a moniker for Satan. Again, he emphasizes the apocalyptic nature of commitment to Jesus. In the struggle between good and evil, the Thessalonians are targeted because of the side they have chosen. 

3:6

Having explained the reasons for his concern for them, Paul writes in v. 6 that “now Timothy has returned” to him. The apostle seems to be suggesting two things: that Timothy has just recently returned and that it is the reason he is writing to them.[47] You almost get the idea of Paul pacing back and forth, eager for Timothy to walk through the door and then, once he does, immediately requesting a report from his envoy about those back in Thessalonica. Have they fallen away? Do they now loathe Paul? Is the love he felt for them unreciprocated? 

The report from Timothy to Paul is so great that the apostle uses a word normally reserved for the preaching of the gospel – a participial form of euangelizō. So wonderful is Timothy’s report that Paul cannot conceive of it in any other way. And what exactly is good about it? For starters, the envoy has reported back to Paul that, just as he wanted to see them per 2:17-18, so too they wanted to see him: “you remember us fondly at all times, longing to see us just as we you.” 

3:7-8

For another, they also “stand firm in the Lord,” as v. 8 reports. It is for this reason, Paul writes in v. 7, that he and Silas “were very encouraged.” In ch. 1, he had mentioned that the Thessalonians had become imitators of himself in that I was “in great distress” that they had “received the word…in joy from the holy spirit” (v. 6). Paul never spells out what the distress he experienced was. However, here in ch. 3, Paul adds to distress “anguish.” As Monya Stubbs observes, the apostle had sent Timothy “not only because of his concern for them, but also because he is moved by the weight of his own insecurity and his own experiences with persecution. Paul needs the Thessalonians to reinforce his faith.”[48] And this they absolutely do, reinvigorating him by their faithfulness to his kerygma. The language Paul uses, also found in 2 Corinthians 7:3-7, was not out of the ordinary: “It was commonplace to speak of the preparedness of friends to live and die together,” Malherbe observes.[49] Paul is connecting his own vitality to theirs and, in so doing, strengthens the bond between them, albeit with “cautious optimism.”[50]

Monya Stubbs also observes that it is in this section that the “imitation theme comes full circle.”[51] That is, the kerygma Paul proclaimed and his own presence inspired new life for the Thessalonians. The gospel, Paul wrote in ch. 1, came to them “not…in word only but rather in power and in the holy spirit and complete certainty” (v. 5), causing them to become imitators of him and the Lord and as examples to believers in Macedonia and Achaia (v. 6). Now, it is Paul, in need of life, who sees in the Thessalonians an example. “The Thessalonian converts,” Stubbs writes, “in turn, in spite of distress and affliction, inspire new life in Paul.”[52] He had been like a parent who had learned their child had been in a distressing and dangerous situation. He paced the floor all night, praying to God that they were okay. And then finally, the call came: not only were they okay, but they were also flourishing! He not only breathes a sigh of relief, but he can’t help but feel overjoyed. It is no wonder that in 1 Thessalonians the proem runs all the way from 1:2 to 3:13, opening with thanksgiving and closing with doxology! 

3:9-13

We then find the third and final thanksgiving of the letter. The first had been in 1:2, the second in 2:13, and now we come to the third.[53] Paul uses a rhetorical question that effectively asks, “How can we ever thank God for the joy you’ve given us?” The answer is that Paul and his companions cannot. This expressive language shows just how happy Paul is with Timothy’s report. So happy that he has no choice but to close with a doxology found in vv. 11-13. In it, Paul looks forward to the coming of Jesus, the parousia that he had mentioned in 2:19 and alluded to in 1:10. 

NEXT TIME

So ends the proem of 1 Thessalonians. In the next episode, we will look at the opening section of the letter’s main body, 4:1-12. That’s next time on Amateur Exegesis


[1] The Greek participle translated “separated” is aporphanisthentes and means something like “orphaned.” Eugene Boring (I & II Thessalonians, The New Testament Library [Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015], 109) notes that the verb can be used to describe children deprived of parents or parents deprived of children.

[2] Earl Richard, First and Second Thessalonians, Sacra Pagina (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2007), 135.

[3] Abraham J. Malherbe, The Letters to the Thessalonians: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, The Anchor Yale Bible (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000), 182; cf. Boring, I & II Thessalonians, 110.

[4] Charles B. Cousar, Reading Galatians, Philippians, and 1 Thessalonians: A Literary and Theological Commentary (Macon, GA: Smyth and Helwys Publishing, Inc., 2001), 212. Boring (I & II Thessalonians, 110) writes, “The depth of his emotion – there is no professional or apostolic distance here – is seen in both syntax and vocabulary.”

[5] Michael Winger, “Paul and ἐγώ: Some Comments on Grammar and Style,” New Testament Studies, vol. 63 (2017), 27; Malherbe, The Letters to the Thessalonians, 184.

[6] Malherbe, The Letters to the Thessalonians, 184.

[7] On depictions of Satan and the devil in art and culture, see Darren Oldridge, The Devil: A Very Short Introduction, electronic edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), chapter four: “Depicting the Devil.”

[8] K. Nielsen, “שָׂטָן,” in Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, G. Johannes Botterwick, Helmer Ringgren, and Heinz-Josef Fabry, editors, Douglas W. Stott, translator (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2004), 14:73. 

[9] Clines, Job 1-20, Word Biblical Commentary (Nashville, TN: Word, Inc., 1989), 19. 

[10] Michael D. Coogan, The Old Testament: A Historical and Literary Introduction to the Hebrew Scriptures, third edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 479; Edward L. Greenstein, Job: A New Translation (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2019), 5.

[11] P.L. Day, “Satan,” in Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible, second edition, Karel van der Toorn, Bob Becking, and Pieter W. van der Horst, editors (Leiden: Brill, 1999), 728.

[12] Robert Alter, The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary, vol. 3 – The Writings (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2019), 907.

[13] Alter, The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary, vol. 3 – The Writings, 907.

[14] Kristin Swenson, A Most Peculiar Book: The Inherent Strangeness of the Bible (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020), 178. This is also the view of David Rothstein in his notes on the passage for The Jewish Study Bible (second edition, Adele Merlin and Marc Zvi Brettler, editors [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014], 1747-1748). He writes that “it is more likely that [śāṭān] here [in 1 Chronicles 21] refers to a human adversary.” 

[15] Douglas A. Knight and Amy-Jill Levine, The Meaning of the Bible: What the Jewish Scriptures and Christian Old Testament Can Teach Us (New York: HarperOne, 2011), 443.

[16] Hector Ignacio Avalos, “Satan,” in The Oxford Companion to the Bible, Bruce M. Metzger and Michael D. Coogan, editors (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), 679.

[17] On the dating of Jubilees, see James C. VanderKam, Jubilees 1-21, Hermeneia Commentary Series (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2018), 25-38. 

[18] Translation taken from The Jewish Annotated Apocrypha, Jonathan Klawans and Lawrence M. Wills, editors (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020).

[19] Miryam T. Brand, “Evil and Sin,” in The Jewish Annotated Apocrypha, 647.

[20] Translation taken from George W.E. Nickelsburg and James C. VanderKam, 1 Enoch: The Hermeneia Translation (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2012).

[21] VanderKam, Jubilees 1-21, 20-21; George W.E. Nickelsburg, Jewish Literature between the Bible and the Mishnah: A Historical and Literary Introduction, second edition (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2005), 52-53.

[22] John J. Collins, The Apocalyptic Imagination: An Introduction to Jewish Apocalyptic Literature, second edition (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1998), 5.

[23] Martinus C. de Boer, Paul: Theologian of God’s Apocalypse: Essays on Paul and Apocalyptic (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2020), 30.

[24] De Boer, Paul: Theologian of God’s Apocalypse, 22-23, 28-29.

[25] De Boer, Paul: Theologian of God’s Apocalypse, 23-24, 29.

[26] Paula Fredriksen, Paul: The Pagans’ Apostle (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2017), 9.

[27] De Boer, Paul: Theologian of God’s Apocalypse, 30.

[28] Boring, I & II Thessalonians, 111.

[29] James Dunn (The Theology of Paul the Apostle [Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1998], 37-38) notes that when Paul refers to Satan, he uses the definite article, similar to ha-śāṭān in the book of Job. Thus, for Paul, “the consistent use of the definite article probably reflects the continuing influence of the original concept, that of a force hostile to God but permitted so to act by God to serve his will.”

[30] Malherbe, The Letters to the Thessalonians, 184.

[31] Malherbe, The Letters to the Thessalonians, 185.

[32] Richard, First and Second Thessalonians, 134.

[33] Boring, I & II Thessalonians, 112.

[34] Malherbe, The Letters to the Thessalonians, 189.

[35] Malherbe, The Letters to the Thessalonians, 190. 

[36] See the discussion in Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, second edition (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibel Gesellschaft, 1994), 563.

[37] The edition of the Greek New Testament recently produced by Tyndale House (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2017) swaps synergon (“coworker”) with diakonon (“servant”) following manuscripts like Codex Sinaiticus. 

[38] Richard, First and Second Thessalonians, 140-141.

[39] Malherbe, The Letters to the Thessalonians, 192; cf. Richard, First and Second Thessalonians, 142.

[40] Richard, First and Second Thessalonians, 142.

[41] Charles B. Cousar, Reading Galatians, Philippians, and 1 Thessalonians, 213.

[42] Boring, I & II Thessalonians, 118.

[43] Richard, First and Second Thessalonians, 140.

[44] Margaret M. Mitchell, “New Testament Envoys in the Context of Greco-Roman Diplomatic and Epistolary Conventions: The Example of Timothy and Titus,” Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 111, no. 4 (Winter, 1992), 645.

[45] Mitchell, “New Testament Envoys in the Context of Greco-Roman Diplomatic and Epistolary Conventions: The Example of Timothy and Titus,” 647.

[46] Mitchell, “New Testament Envoys in the Context of Greco-Roman Diplomatic and Epistolary Conventions: The Example of Timothy and Titus,” 649.

[47] Malherbe, The Letters to the Thessalonians, 200; cf. Richard, First and Second Thessalonians, 154.

[48] Monya A. Stubbs, “1 Thessalonians,” in Women’s Bible Commentary, third edition (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012), 590.

[49] Malherbe, The Letters to the Thessalonians, 202.

[50] Edward Pillar, “1 Thessalonians,” in The New Testament: Fortress Commentary on the Bible, Margaret Aymer, Cynthia Briggs Kittredge, and David A. Sánchez, editors (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2014), 578.

[51] Stubbs, “1 Thessalonians,” 590.

[52] Stubbs, “1 Thessalonians,” 590.

[53] Malherbe, The Letters to the Thessalonians, 203.

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