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.

Did Jesus Plan to Start a New Religion? Matthew Thiessen’s Answer

I know, I know – I’ve been on a Matthew Thiessen kick as of late. First, my review of his fantastic book Jesus and the Forces of Death. Then his interview over at the OnScript podcast. Now, this post. But let me briefly explain why I am a bit obsessed. Thiessen reminds me of Paula Fredriksen, the author of Paul: The Pagans’ Apostle (Yale University Press, 2017). No, it isn’t the hair. Rather, both Fredriksen and Thiessen write in such a clear and compelling way that you come away from their work not only with the feeling you’ve learned something of value but also with a model to pattern your own writing after. I know I’m no Fredriksen or Thiessen but I feel like if I can write half as well as they do then both of my readers will be better off for it. I digress.

Thiessen recently posted over on his academia.edu profile his contribution to the recently released edited volume Understanding the Jewish Roots of Christianity: Biblical, Theological, and Historical Essays on the Relationship Between Christianity and Judaism (Lexham Press, 2021). In his essay “Did Jesus Plan to Start a New Religion?” Thiessen argues that on the basis of the data we have in the Synoptic Gospels, we can at least say that as far as their authors were concerned Jesus had no interest in starting a religion apart from Judaism. Jesus valued the temple as the dwelling place of Israel’s god, the ritual purity system as the means by which the impure can deal with their impurities and approach God, and the Sabbath as the day prescribed by God to rest. Poignantly, Thiessen notes that if the historical Jesus had rejected these as passé then why do the Evangelists “depict him in a way that contradicts this truth? Could the gospel writers ‘really have understood nothing’?” (p. 31) This question has implications for the study of the historical Jesus since if the Gospel writers were wrong then their historical value is seriously undermined.

This essay is packed and fully referenced so you’ll find some great material in the footnotes from which to launch your own expedition on the subject. But if you’re wondering if Jesus was trying to start a new religion, Thiessen’s piece is a great place to start. It’s clear that as far as the Synoptic Jesus is concerned, Jesus was a first-century Jew with a Jewish worldview and therefore Jewish beliefs about Temple and Torah.

Biblical Studies Carnival #181 (March 2021)

INTRO

For this month’s carnival, I decided to do something a little different. What you’ll find below are 30 links to various blog posts, videos, and podcasts related to the field of biblical studies. Why 30? Because April has 30 days! (Trust me. I verified this using the counting-knuckles method my dad taught me.) That means that by clicking on one link a day you can get through the entire carnival in a month, just in time to be ready for the Carnival #182! So, without further ado, here’s Biblical Studies Carnival #181 (March 2021).

Hebrew Bible/ANE

LXX/Apocrypha/Dead Sea Scrolls

New Testament

Misc.


If you’d like to host a carnival on your website, reach out to Phil Long (plong42@gmail.com; Twitter, @plong42) and let him know! It’s a great way to showcase 1) what you’ve been reading in the field of biblical studies and 2) your own work on your website. Dr. Long is always looking for new hosts so shoot him a message. Now, here’s a list of future carnivals!

182 April 2021 (Due May 1) – Ruben Rus, Ayuda Ministerial/Resources for Ministry, @rubenderus 
183 May 2021 (Due June 1) – Bobby Howell, The Library Musings, @SirRobertHowell 
184 June 2021 (Due July 1) – Brent Niedergall, @BrentNiedergall 
185 July 2021 (Due August 1) – Kenson Gonzalez Viviendo para Su Gloria @KensonGonzalez

What Jairus Said to Jesus: One Attempt to Reconcile the Matthean and Markan Accounts and Why It Doesn’t Work

Recently my friend @AlchemstNon posted a video over on his YouTube channel discussing a fairly overt contradiction between the Markan and Matthean accounts of the raising of Jairus’ daughter (Mark 5:21-43; Matthew 9:18-26). The short video (which can be viewed below) features fundamentalist lightning rod Bart Ehrman explaining why the two accounts contradict, with @AlchemistNon following up by aptly describing the discrepancy as “flagrant.” 

As expected, not everyone agreed with @AlchemistNon’s (and Ehrman’s) claim that a contradiction can here be found. One pop-apologist trotted out an attempt at reconciliation promoted by evangelical scholar Craig Blomberg who wrote the following in his commentary on the Gospel of Matthew:

As consistently throughout his Gospel (and esp. with miracle stories), Matthew abbreviates Mark, this time to such an extent that he seems to contradict the parallel accounts (Mark 5:21-43; Luke 8:40-56). Instead of coming to plead with Jesus while his daughter is still alive, Jairus apparently arrives only after her death. Yet to call this a contradiction is anachronistically to impose on an ancient text modern standards of precision in story telling. What is more, in a world without modern medical monitors to establish the precise moment of expiry, there is not clearly so much difference between Matthew’s arti eteletēsen in v. 18 (which could fairly be translated “just came to the point of death”; cf. Heb 11:22) and eschatos echei in Mark 5:23 (which could be rendered as “is dying”). What is important is not the precise moment of death but Jairus’s astonishing faith.[1]

One the face of it, this seems like a fairly reasonable way to resolve the contradiction: Matthew is simply abbreviating Mark, and Jairus’ words to Jesus in both Mark and Mathew pretty much mean the same thing. Its veneer of verisimilitude has made it a fairly popular way of reconciling these two texts among apologists.[2] However, once we peel away this façade, we will see that it does nothing to actually resolve the contradiction.

Matthean Redaction of Mark

Blomberg notes that Matthew has a habit of abbreviating Markan pericopes, especially in miracles stories. For example, the pericope that directly precedes the subject of this post, the exorcism of the Gerasene demoniac (Mark 5:1-20), is in Mark over 320 words long while Matthew’s redaction of it in Matthew 8:28-34 reduces it to around 130 words.[3] Why abbreviate? What is the payoff for Matthew? A cursory reading of Matthew’s Gospel makes it clear: such abbreviation creates all the more room for Jesus’ teaching. One of the most prominent examples of this is the Sermon on the Mount found in Matthew 5-7. Mark has nothing comparable in his own Gospel. Matthew, then, in his redaction of Mark subordinates miracles to Jesus’ teaching.[4]

One consequence of Matthew’s redaction of Mark is that the two often do not line up well. For example, when did Jesus’ rejection at Nazareth take place (Mark 6:1-6; Matthew 13:54-58)? Was it before the sending of the Twelve (Mark 6:7-13) or after (Matthew 10:5-15)? They cannot both be true. Yet it is easy to see why Matthew has made such a change. In Mark’s Gospel, the call of the Twelve (Mark 3:13-19) and the sending of the Twelve are not connected. Matthew, however, has a better story in mind and thus connects the two together in ch. 10. Additionally, to the calling and commissioning of the Twelve Matthew adds a series of teachings that do not appear in the Gospel of Mark. Again, Matthew’s emphasis is on Jesus’ teaching and he is willing to do whatever he needs to do to accomplish it. But this creates a contradiction of chronology. 

It is precisely Matthew’s redaction of Mark that creates an issue between the two accounts. The first major block of Jesus’ teaching in Galilee, the Sermon on the Mount, is followed by a series of ten miracles, all intended “to dramatize Jesus’s power as a teacher sent from God.”[5] As I already indicated, Matthew’s main interest isn’t in the miracles qua miracles but in their function as substantiating the teaching of Jesus. Since Mark’s miracles often take up a lot of space, Matthew has no choice but to strip them down and, if need be, change them. This is precisely what he does with the raising of Jairus’ daughter (though he never names him Jairus). Matthew knows full well that at the end of the story the girl is raised from the dead. So, why not cut to the chase? 

That he does, beginning with having the unnamed Jairus say, “My daughter has just died” (v. 18). But in order to make the story coherent, Matthew has to make other changes. So, instead of Jairus asking Jesus to heal a dying girl as he did in Mark (Mark 5:23), he asks him to raise her back to life again (Matthew 9:18). Additionally, Matthew has removed the entourage that had come from Jairus’ house and met him on the way to tell him that the girl was dead and there was no further (eti) need to bother Jesus with it. In other words, while the girl was alive there was hope Jesus could save her; now that she’s dead, what more could be done for her? Finally, because the girl starts the Matthean pericope dead a funeral procession has already begun when Jesus arrives (Matthew 9:23),[6] whereas in Mark’s account the death is still fresh (Mark 5:38). 

So yes, Matthew is abbreviating Mark’s account. But he is not merely summarizing it; he’s changing it. And in changing it he is making his version incongruous with the version he had before him in the Gospel of Mark. In other words, his abbreviation is what creates the contradiction. But why should that matter? Why should the Matthean author care that his account is different than Mark’s? Why would it matter to him that in his version the girl is already dead but in Mark’s she’s alive? Matthew isn’t maintaining Markan status quo, preserving Mark exactly as he found it. No, he’s writing his own Gospel, for his own purposes, with its own emphases. If he needs to amend Mark’s empty tomb narrative so that it includes resurrection appearances, he does it. If he needs to create a backstory for Jesus that extends to his birth because Mark begins with only his baptism, he does it. If he needs to cut down the verbiage of Mark’s miracle stories to emphasize Jesus’ teaching, he does it. If he needs to directly connect episodes from Jesus’ life to what he thinks are prophecies in the Jewish scriptures, he does it. In other words, Matthew had no problem with changing (adding to or subtracting from) what he received. So, let Matthew be Matthew and let Mark be Mark

Do eschatos echei and arti eteletēsen Mean Basically the Same Thing?

In a further bid to reconcile the two accounts, Blomberg suggests that what Jairus claims in both versions is, “in a world without modern medical monitors to establish the precise moment of expiry,” essentially the same thing. That is, Mark’s eschatos echei (“is at the point of death”; Mark 5:23, NRSV) and Matthew’s arti eteletēsen (“has just died”; Matthew 9:18, NRSV) are equivocal expressions given the state of medical knowledge at the time. Vern Poythress takes a similar track, arguing that while the Matthean eteletēsen expresses the ending or finishing of the girl’s life, it may not mean that’s dead but that “she has finished her life,” i.e., she is in its final stages and has just a little more life to live.[7] Is all this so unreasonable? 

The answer to that question is found in Matthew’s redaction of Mark. Had he intended to express that the girl was still alive but near the point of dying, he could have retained Mark’s exact words. Not only is Mark’s eschatos echei a suitable means of expressing the idea of being near death but still alive, literally meaning something like “she has it terminally,”[8] Matthew has no problem whatsoever in carrying over Mark’s exact wording in other places in his Gospel.[9] Why not do so here? Moreover, Matthew appears to be quite conscious of what arti eteletēsen means given the changes he makes to Mark’s narrative on account of it: no mention of healing the girl, no entourage to declare she has died and there is no need to further bother Jesus, and the addition of a funeral procession. It should also be noted that Poythress’ explanation leaves out the adverb arti which, when coupled with the aorist, is a forceful way of saying that the girl’s life just recently ended.[10] This oversight by Poythress renders his explanation untenable. 

On teleutōn in Hebrews 11:22

Blomberg lists as a cross reference for his rendering of arti eteletēsen as “just came to the point of death” Hebrews 11:22. It isn’t exactly clear what bearing Blomberg thinks this instance of teleutaō has on the conversation. The word teleutōn in Hebrews 11:22 isn’t a verb but a present participle modifying the subject “Joseph.” Since the main verb is the aorist emnēmoneusen (“he mentioned”), the action of the participle coincides with that of the main verb.[11]Thus, it is as his life is coming to an end that Joseph mentions the Israelite’s exodus. 

This isn’t what is going on in Matthew 9:18. The Matthean author doesn’t use a present participle but an aorist verb. Had he intended what Blomberg suggests, he could have used a present tense form of the verb teleutaō with the adverb arti. He had before him in Mark an example of this kind of usage: the adverb eschatos and the present tense verb echei. But what does Matthew do? He changes not only the word but the tense as well from present to aorist. This is instructive. Coupled with all the other changes Matthew makes, it is clear that he intended for his readers to think that the girl was dead, over and against Mark’s claim. This is a blatant contradiction. But that only matters if you are committed a priori to a strict view of inerrancy. 

Conclusion 

There is no reasonable way to get around this contradiction between Mark and Matthew. And we shouldn’t want one: these are two different authors, writing with two different purposes, for two different audiences. It is only when we expect something that these authors themselves did not expect that we run into trouble. Apologists would do well to abandon the silliness of trying to defend the indefensible. 


[1] Craig L. Blomberg, Matthew, The New American Commentary (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1992), 160.

[2] E.g., Erik Manning, “A Look at an Alleged Contradiction in the Gospels: Was Jairus’ Daughter Alive When Jesus Was Approached or Was She Already Dead?” (1.8.19), isjesusalive.com

[3] In Nestle-Aland 28th edition I count 325 words in Mark 5:1-20 and 135 in Matthew 8:28-34. I did this in a hurry so it might be off by 1 or 2 words. 

[4] Keith F. Nickle, The Synoptic Gospels: An Introduction, revised and expanded (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 115.

[5] L. Michael White, Scripting Jesus: The Gospels in Rewrite (New York: HarperOne, 2010), 300.

[6] White, Scripting Jesus, 187; cf. Ulrich Luz, Matthew 8-20: A Commentary, translated by James E. Crouch, Hermeneia Commentary Series (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2001), 43; Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, third edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2003), 244.

[7] Vern Sheridan Poythress, Inerrancy and the Gospels: A God-Centered Approach to the Challenges of Harmonization (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 211.

[8] Joel Marcus, Mark 1-8: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, The Yale Anchor Bible (New Haven, CT Yale University Press, 2000), 356. 

[9] For example, Mark 2:14 says, Kai paragōn eiden Leuin ton tou Halphaiou kathēmenon epi to telōnion, kai legei autō; akolouthei moi. kai anastas ēkolouthēsen autō (“As he was walking along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he got up and followed him,” NRSV). Similarly, Matthew 9:9 reads, Kai paragōn ho Iēsous ekeithen eiden anthrōpon kathēmenon epi to telōnion, Maththaion legomenon, kai legei autō; akolouthei moi. kai anastas ēkolouthēsen autō (“As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he got up and followed him,” NRSV). I have placed in bold those words in Matthew that are directly from Mark.

[10] See LSJ, s.v. “ἄρτι.” With the aorist, arti expresses the idea of a very recent past event. 

[11] Evert van Emde Boas, Albert Rijksbaron, Luuk Huitink, and Mathieu de Bakker, The Cambridge Grammar of Classical Greek (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019), 607. 

Featured image: Wikimedia Commons

Book Review: ‘Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife’ by Bart D. Ehrman

Author: Bart D. Ehrman
Book: Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife
Publisher: Simon and Schuster
Year: 2020
Page Count: 352 pages
Price: $28.00 (hardcover)

I. INTRODUCTION 

In his book The Demon-Haunted World, the late Carl Sagan talks about the death of his parents. “I still miss them terribly,” he writes.[1] He describes dreams of his parents so vivid that he wakes up thinking that maybe they really are still alive, that their death was just some horrible dream. But then reality kicks in and he mourns them all over again. “Plainly, there’s something within me that’s ready to believe in life after death. And it’s not the least bit interested in whether there’s any sober evidence for it,” he says.[2] Belief in the afterlife is so thoroughly prevalent in our society that we take it for granted that not only are people’s conceptions of it wildly different at times but not everyone thinks it’s a real thing to begin with. I certainly don’t despite moments when I long to hug my younger brother again or to sit on my grandmother’s front porch and toss poker cards into a hat. I’ll be the first to admit that there are times when I’m envious of believers whose confidence that there is life after this one can make it so that when their loved ones breathe their last, they “do not grieve as the rest who do not have hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13, my translation). Nevertheless, my views align with Sagan’s: “better the hard truth, I say, than the comforting fantasy.”[3]

The psychology of belief in the afterlife – the why of its existence – is a fascinating and nearly inexhaustible subject. Less explored (at least in a scholarly, popular form), though, is the history of the afterlife itself, especially as it relates to Judaism and Christianity. To fill the gap, historian Bart Ehrman has written a fascinating and compelling look at the subject entitled Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife (Simon and Schuster, 2020). 

II. SUMMARY

Ehrman opens Heaven and Hell with a preface (pp. xv-xxiii) that among other things describes his own journey from fundamentalist belief to agnosticism. In ch. 1 (pp. 1-16), he takes us on a tour of guided tours of the afterlife found in works like the Passion of Perpetua and the Acts of Thomas. Chapter 2 (pp. 17-34) is an overview of the very human fear of death itself, examining the Epic of Gilgamesh and the words of Socrates and their views on why or why not we should fear it. Following this, Ehrman gives us a breakdown of the afterlife in the Homeric epics and Virgil’s fanfiction version of them in the Aeneid (pp. 35-55). In ch. 4 (pp. 57-79), the author details the rise of postmortem rewards and punishments, citing the works of Plato, Aristophanes, and others. Chapter 5 (pp. 81-101) explores death in the Hebrew Bible, including that mysterious place known as Sheol. In ch. 6 (pp. 103-126), Ehrman discusses the “rise of apocalyptic thinking” and how it played into the development of views on the afterlife in ancient Jewish thought. Chapter 7 (pp. 127-146) considers the origins of immediate postmortem rewards, setting up for the discussion in ch. 8 (pp. 147-167) for a discussion of Jesus’ views of the afterlife (see “Analysis” below). Paul’s views are investigated in ch. 9 (pp. 169-189) as are those of later Gospel writers like the authors of Luke and John in ch. 10 (pp. 191-211). One of the most puzzling books of the Bible, the book of Revelation, is taken up in ch. 11 (pp. 213-231) and ch. 12 (pp. 233-251) talks about pagan ridicule of Christian teaching on resurrection as well as the response of apologists to those criticisms. In ch. 13 (pp. 253-269), Ehrman explores the subject of martyrdom and the views of early Christians on the nature of existence in the afterlife. The final chapter (pp. 271-290) features a discussion of purgatory, universalism, and reincarnation (among other things). An afterword closes out the volume recapitulating the main ideas of the book, contending that the dominant view of the afterlife in modern Christianity “cannot be found in the Old Testament or in the teachings of the historical Jesus” (p. 292).

III. ANALYSIS

Like everything he writes, Ehrman’s Heaven and Hell does two things well: it offers a sweeping overview of the relevant information (e.g., anthropology, texts, etc.) and presents it in a clear and compelling manner. Readers should bear in mind that as is always the case with popular level trade books, not everything that could be said can be. For example, while I would have appreciated a fuller discussion of Sheol, especially as it relates to the cosmic geography of ancient Israelite thought, this clearly wasn’t in Ehrman’s purview.[4] His discussion of Sheol in ch. 5 is sufficient for the purpose of his book. 

One of the exciting things about Heaven and Hell is that it does not examine only those texts found in the typical Protestant canon of scripture with its sixty-six (and only sixty-six) books. For example, in ch. 6 Ehrman discusses the subject of apocalypticism and brings to bear on the subject ancient writings popular among many ancient Jews (and even some Christians) like Jubilees and the Book of the Watchers from 1 Enoch. In the next chapter, he introduces readers to 4 Ezra and the Testament of Abraham to give readers a glimpse into what some Jews believed about the afterlife around the time of Jesus. Moreover, early on in Heaven and Hell, Ehrman discusses works like the Iliad and Odyssey as well as Virgil’s Aeneid. Greek philosophers like Plato and Epicurus too become relevant data as background for the Hellenistic world in which Christianity began to flourish. Finally, he presents the views of Christians from the second century CE and beyond like Ignatius, Tertullian, and Augustine. Ehrman’s incorporation of so many varied views on the afterlife gives the reader a more rounded picture of the complex world of ancient religion. Many readers of the Bible come to it knowing very little about the background of the biblical texts. Such ignorance often leads to a misreading of what Jesus or Paul had to say on a given matter, including the afterlife.

Nevertheless, Ehrman shines when he talks about the Bible itself. Consider, for example, ch. 8 – “Jesus and the Afterlife.” 

Jesus’ Views on the Afterlife 

Of all the views that should matter to Christians concerning heaven and hell, surely Jesus’ ranks among the highest. And yet, as Ehrman points out, “very few” have a grasp of them (p. 147). But there is considerable difficulty in ascertaining Jesus’ views: Jesus “is…virtually the only figure we will be discussing in [Heaven and Hell] who did not leave us any writings” (p. 147). To put it another way, every word spoken by Jesus in the New Testament is mediated through someone else. Further complicating this is that none of the accounts that contain Jesus’ words (e.g., the canonical Gospels) were written by people who knew Jesus directly (pp. 150-151) How can we ever hope to know if anything the canonical Jesus says was something that the historical Jesus did? 

Luckily, historians have devised clever (though imperfect) methods for figuring out what the historical Jesus said and did. “These methods involve rather obvious and commonsensical rules of evidence that you would use today if you wanted to know if anyone in the past actually said things attributed to him or her,” Ehrman writes (p. 152). So, historians favor sources closer in time to the historical person (p. 152), a saying or action that is attested in multiple independent sources (pp. 152-153), and words spoken that are congruent with what people thought at the time they were purportedly said (p. 153). Ehrman elaborates on these methods in other volumes and does not spend considerable time discussing them in Heaven and Hell,[5] but it suffices to say that with these and other methods we have some measure of hope of figuring out what Jesus actually said and did generally and what he thought about the afterlife particularly. Based upon these methods, Ehrman writes, “Jesus did not teach that when a person died they would go to heaven or hell. He taught that the Day of Judgment was soon to come, when God would destroy all that is evil and raise the dead, to punish the wicked and reward the faithful by bringing them into his eternal, utopian kingdom” (p. 154). Additionally, “a close reading of Jesus’ words shows that in fact he had no idea of torment for sinners after death. Death, for them, is irreversible, the end of the story. Their punishment is that they will be annihilated, never allowed to exist again, unlike the saved, who will live forever in God’s glorious kingdom” (p. 155). 

The idea of annihilation might be a surprise to some readers but Ehrman demonstrates in ch. 6 that though Jewish views on the afterlife varied (p. 144), annihilation was certainly on the table for many. Evidence that Jesus thought this way can be found in texts like Matthew 7 where he says that those who enter through the narrow gate find life but those who enter the wide gate find destruction (Matthew 7:13-14). “Jesus does not say it leads to eternal torture,” Ehrman observes. “Those who take it will be destroyed, annihilated” (p. 155). Other texts suggest a similar view (e.g., Matthew 13:47-50). In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus warns that it would be better to go into the kingdom of God maimed in some way than to be whole and “be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies and the fire is never quenched” (Mark 9:43-48).[6] The word translated in the NRSV (and many other English translations) as “hell” is geenna or “Gehenna.” Given such a stark warning, “Gehenna is obviously serious business,” Ehrman writes. “But what is it?” (p. 157)

The word itself is an abbreviated form of gei ben Hinnom, “the valley of the son of Hinnom.” Ehrman points out that scholars have at times claimed that the valley served as a garbage dump (p. 157).[7] The claim, derived from a rabbi in the thirteenth century CE, is without merit. “Neither archaeology nor any ancient text supports the view,” Ehrman writes. Rather, the valley became infamous because it was claimed that children had been sacrificed to the pagan deity Molech there (e.g., 2 Kings 23:10). Joel Marcus in his commentary on the Gospel of Mark notes that the valley’s “associations with death, judgment, and fire contributed to the later Jewish conception of Gehenna as a place of eternal postmortem punishment in fire.”[8] For example, in 4 Ezra 7:36 we read, “The pit of torment shall appear, and opposite it shall be the place of rest; and the furnace of hell [i.e., Gehenna] shall be disclosed, and opposite it the paradise of delight.”[9] Ehrman points readers to the book of 1 Enoch where Gehenna is referred to as the “accursed valley” (p. 159). The language in Mark of worms that do not die and of an unquenchable fire is taken from the book of Isaiah where the bodies of the rebellious dead are outside Jerusalem for all to see: “And they shall go out and look at the dead bodies of the people who have rebelled against me; for their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh” (Isaiah 66:24). This is language of final destruction and Ehrman thinks that the Markan Jesus would have taken it as such as well: “So too when Jesus teaches about Gehenna, he is thinking of annihilation, not torment” (p. 160). 

Ehrman doesn’t query whether the claims of human sacrifice in the valley of Hinnom correspond to any material evidence for it. As K.L. Noll observes, there is “a complete absence of evidence for human sacrifice in Palestine during the Bronze and Iron ages.”[10] Moreover, simply because some biblical authors decry human sacrifice doesn’t mean that any were actually being performed. For example, though the prophet Jeremiah complains that in the valley of Hinnom the people had “burn[ed] their sons and their daughters in the fire,” an activity not prescribed by Yahweh (Jeremiah 7:30-31), Robert Carroll pointed out in his commentary that the cultic ritual that took place in the valley 

is not described but abused and condemned. There is some evidence in the ancient world that for cults of human sacrifice, but it should not be assumed that the abuse of opponents necessarily is to be taken literally….Writings influenced by the Deuteronomists [e.g., Jeremiah] have a tendency to substitute abuse for argument and contempt for description.[11]

Carroll goes on to explain that the ritual of passing through the fire was probably a kind of dedication service but that the children were not burned and were returned to their parents following the service. However, biblical authors ramp up the language such that the ritual became human sacrifice and that of helpless children. Carroll also finds some irony in the eventual connection between child sacrifice in the valley of Hinnom (i.e., Gehenna) and later conceptions of hell: “for many who would condemn human beings for burning their children would also praise god for burning his children for ever!”[12]

Whether or not actual child sacrifice happened there is moot. What matters is that it developed into an image of utter destruction and annihilation, language that befits the fate of those who resist God’s kingdom. For those who rebel against God, “there would never again be any hope of life” (p. 160).

Following his discussion of Gehenna, Ehrman moves on to reward for the saints, a subject that is less easy to document than Jesus’ words about Gehenna (p. 161). To close the chapter, he turns to Jesus’ teaching about the sheep and the goats found in Matthew 25. Ehrman thinks that there is a good chance that the teaching found there from Jesus is something he actually said. Since Jesus’ earliest followers believed that it was faith in him that saved, the idea that salvation actually comes by living a good life and helping the poor and oppressed suggests it was something Jesus actually taught. “If a later Christian storyteller were to make up a saying and place it on Jesus’s lips about how one could be saved at the resurrection, would he indicate that salvation had nothing actually to do with believing in Jesus but instead would involve doing all sorts of good things?” (p. 164) I cannot help but disagree with Ehrman here. Having faith in Jesus is being construed as mere assent to propositions about him. But is this how the NT understands faith? I’m not sure that it does. Earlier in the Matthean Gospel, Jesus taught that the merciful would themselves receive mercy (Matthew 5:7) and that the disciples should love their enemies (Matthew 5:43-47). In other words, these are the kinds of things the followers of Jesus do: they show mercy, and they love their enemies. When we come to Matthew 25, the Sermon on the Mount is background. The sheep showed mercy and loved their enemies but were not aware that in so doing they were actually showing mercy and loving Jesus (Matthew 25:36-40). Additionally, while pistis (“faith”) is not frequently used in the Gospel of Matthew, its usage there seems to suggest that it is always connected with action. For example, the woman who suffered from a flow of blood pursued Jesus, intending to touch his cloak and thus be made whole again. Jesus witnesses this action and says, “Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well” (Matthew 9:22). It is not faith plus action but rather faith that is action. So then, Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 25 coheres well with the view of faith generally in the Gospel of Matthew and even in much of early Christian teaching found in the New Testament.

Ehrman observes that Jesus was an apocalypticist who anticipated the end of the world in his own lifetime. Consequently, “his apocalyptic understanding of his world extended to his view of the afterlife” (p. 166). What need, then, for a heaven or hell following death? After all, if the world was coming to a close soon and the righteous would be raised from the dead, those who had died in the meantime could just wait it out in a state of peaceful slumber. In fact, Ehrman writes that Jesus was never focused on what happened to individuals at death but was “principally concerned with the great act of God that was coming soon, with the appearance of a cosmic judge from heaven, the Son of Man, who would destroy the evil powers in control of this world and establish a great, utopian, and eternal kingdom” (p. 167). Of course, the coming of the Son of Man was delayed and so apocalyptic expectations changed. 

IV. CONCLUSION 

While Heaven and Hell is far from an academic treatment of the issue, it is nevertheless a helpful volume that both scholars and amateurs alike can turn to when wanting an excellent summary of the available data. It is by no means a perfect volume but Ehrman would be the first to admit his own short comings. For readers desiring an easy to digest volume on the thorny and often complex subject of the afterlife in the Jewish and Christian traditions, Heaven and Hell is an excellent place to start. Not only does Ehrman write with perspicuity, but the endnotes will allow readers to find other works covering the topics he addresses but is unable to get into deeply. 


[1] Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (New York: Ballantine Books, 1996), 203.

[2] Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World, 203.

[3] Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World, 204.

[4] Readers are encouraged to peruse Philip Johnston’s Shades of Sheol: Death and Afterlife in the Old Testament (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2002).

[5] E.g., Bart D. Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, sixth edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 242-248.

[6] Unless otherwise noted, all citations of biblical texts are from the New Revised Standard Version.

[7] E.g., Kenneth S. Wuest, “Mark in the Greek New Testament,” in Wuest’s Word Studies from the Greek New Testament for the English Reader, vol. 1 – Mark, Romans, Galatians, Ephesians and Colossians (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1966), 191.

[8] Joel Marcus, Mark 8-16: An Introduction with Translation and Commentary, The Anchor Yale Bible (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009), 691.

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

[10] K.L. Noll, Canaan and Israel in Antiquity: A Textbook on History and Religion, second edition (London: Bloomsbury, 2013), 212n34. 

[11] Robert P. Carroll, Jeremiah, The Old Testament Library (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1986), 222.

[12] Carroll, Jeremiah, 224.

Script for Amateur Exegesis – Season 2, Episode 6: “Yea, Hath Paul Said?”

INTRODUCTION

“Of all historical events, the Holocaust seems the most unfathomable.” Such are the words of the late Robert Michael in his 2006 book Holy Hatred: Christianity, Antisemitism, and the Holocaust.[1] The word “holocaust” ultimately derives from the Greek substantive holokautōma, a compound word that means “wholly burned.” It appears in the LXX in Exodus 10:25 where it refers to burnt offerings that Moses demanded Pharaoh provide for Israel for their worship of God – “And Moses said, ‘But you yourself will also provide us with [holokautōmata] and sacrifices, which we will present to the Lord our God.’”[2] A “holocaust,” then, has significant religious overtones and in the LXX was specifically used to describe activity in the Israelite cult. Today, however, the term has become synonymous with the idea of genocide, particularly of the five and a half million Jews who were murdered by the Nazis in Europe in the middle of the twentieth century.[3] Whence this use of the term? 

When Jews refer to the tragedy that befell their people nearly a century ago, the term that they often use is the Hebrew word shoah – “destruction.” Walter Laqueur, editor of The Holocaust Encyclopedia, notes just how “unfortunate” it is that a religiously laden term like “holocaust,” a word that signifies a sacrifice, should be employed to describe the extermination of so many: “Whatever the cause and the significance of the mass murder of the Jews and others by the Nazi regime, it was not a sacrifice,” he writes.[4] Interestingly, “holocaust” as a metonym for the destruction of large amounts of people predated the genocide of the Jews with which it is now associated. French authors had used the term to describe the horrors that happened during World War One.[5] But using “holocaust” with a capital H, i.e., the Holocaust, began sometime shortly after the end of World War Two.[6]

What lay at the root of the Holocaust? In his introduction to antisemitism, Steven Beller writes, “Central to any explanation for the Holocaust should…be the ideological motivation of the extreme racial antisemitism that Hitler and the Nazi leadership shared.”[7] Beller goes on to explain that Hitler and his cronies saw themselves as at war with the Jews who they viewed “as a race of parasitical sub-humans.”[8] But neither Hitler nor the Nazis invented such stereotypes. The roots of antisemitism are buried deep in the past, stretching all the way back to Greco-Roman antiquity. Historian Benjamin Isaac observes that in Alexandria, Egypt an alternative version of the Exodus narrative appeared that claimed the Israelites were expelled from Egypt because they were disease-ridden and, upon arriving in the Levant, proceeded to construct a society of misanthropic atheists.[9] The Jewish historian Josephus writing in the late first century CE attributes to Manetho, an Egyptian author who lived in the third century BCE, the notion that the Jews “had the leprosy and other diseases” and were thus “condemned to fly out of Egypt together” (Against Apion, 1.229).[10] Other Alexandrian texts, Isaac notes, painted the Jews as practitioners of human sacrifice and cannibalism, thereby “questioning their humanity and comparing them to animals.”[11]

Much of this has to be placed into the larger context of Hellenistic and, later Roman, xenophobia. As historian Paula Fredriksen writes,

The habits, customs, and behaviors of outsiders rarely inspired expressions of admiration from Greek and, later, Roman writers; and it is important to see what these authors say about other “exotic others” in order to take the measure of their remarks about Jews. Egyptians and Celts; Persians, Parthians, and Germans; Phoenicians and Syrians; Gauls and even (in the view of later Latin writers) Greeks: all came in for their share of ethnic insults, cross-cultural condescension, and invidious insinuation.[12]

Criticisms and caricatures of the Jews where thus part of a Greco-Roman pastime of denigrating the other. The Egyptians? Picky eaters (like the Jews). The Phoenicians? Greedy. The Germans? Brutish.[13] One of the worst sins that a people could commit was to be antisocial. “Classical Greek and Latin authors considered sociability an indispensable feature of a civilized people,” Isaac writes.[14] The Jews, however, were peculiar: they generally didn’t participate in local cults, preferring instead to worship their own god and him alone, and they observed a day of rest once a week, segregating themselves and abstaining from work. Moreover, to become a Jew, one had to not only renounce the gods of pagan cults with all that entailed but, in the case of males, be willing to part with one’s foreskin. “Not merely a change in an individual’s personal beliefs, ancient forms of conversion urged a radical transformation of one’s identity that disrupted family ties and former group associations,” writes J. Albert Harrill.[15] This was no less true for those who converted to Judaism. It is no wonder that the Jews became the focus of negative depictions. 

Yet caution is warranted when considering what Greco-Roman authors had to say about the Jews. “We should regard the accusations of extreme antisocial behavior leveled at ancient Jews…with a healthy skepticism,” Fredriksen writes.[16] Robert Michael concurs, writing that “the pagan Greeks and Romans regarded the Jews little differently from other peoples. There was no intense emotional or ideological hostility.”[17] Thus, while we may detect a rudimentary form of antisemitism among Greeks and Romans, this must be seen in light of what Greco-Roman authors often said about those who didn’t live up to their ideals. In other words, it speaks more to Greco-Roman ethnocentrism in general than to antisemitism in particular. 

“Christ-Killers” 

To find what fueled the antisemitism that caused the Holocaust, we must look to Christianity. “The emergence and success of antisemitism in the late 19th and 20th centuries cannot be understood without recognition of the large part played by a centuries-long heritage of Christian doctrinal hostility to Jews,” Steven Beller writes.[18] One of the monikers given to Jews was that of “Christ-killers.” This title historically had often given Europeans the cover to do what they willed with Jews. For example, in the eleventh century CE, mobs in northwestern Europe murdered Jews en masse because they were dubbed “Christ’s killers.”[19] In German cities like Speyer, Worms, and Mainz, crusaders had deliberately sought out Jews. According to one account, the crusaders in Mainz had gone looking for Jews, saying to them,

You are the children of those who killed our object of veneration, hanging him on a tree, and he himself had said: “There will yet come a day when my children will come and avenge my blood.” We are his children and it is…therefore obligatory for us to avenge him since you are the ones who rebel and disbelieve him.[20]

By the time the massacre was over, the entire Jewish population of the city had been exterminated. In some cities, bishops would attempt to either prevent crusaders from killing the Jews there or would have them flee to the countryside, “but,” William Chester Jordan notes in his book Europe in the High Middle Ages, “search parties hunted down the refugees in villages and hamlets.”[21] In some instances, when given the option by crusaders to convert or die, Jews would sometimes choose suicide instead.[22]

From where did this charge that the Jews were “Christ-killers” come? Robert Michael minces no words when he writes, “The profound antisemitism that we know of today began not with the pagans but with the Christian Scriptures.”[23] He goes on to write that “Christ-killers was the essential Christian accusation against contemporary Jews throughout the patristic period.”[24] And these Christian accusations had as their foundation a number of texts from the New Testament. Among the Gospels and Acts, Michael mentions Matthew 21:43; 27:23, 25; John 8:44-45; Acts 2:22-23; 3:13-15, and 7:51-52.[25] Such “anti-Jewish” portions of the Christian Scriptures,” he writes, “have been seared into the Christian psyche.”[26]

Of course, there is no shortage of antisemitic insults available for certain Christians. Recently on Twitter, Rabbi Susan Lippe responded to the question of why Jewish rabbis would care what the New Testament had to say by noting that the New Testament documents are Jewish in nature, were often written about Jews, and were to this day used to attack Jews. When a Christian responded that she wasn’t being attacked but corrected for her purported lack of understanding about the New Testament, Lippe recommended her interlocutor invest in the highly acclaimed Jewish Annotated New Testament. This was the Christian’s response: “[U]nless the editors are Christian, forgive me if I don’t really put much stock into what a bunch of [M]ol[e]ch-worshippe[r]s (modern day Jews) have to say about scripture.” Attached to this tweet was an image of Acts 7:43 from the King James Version.[27] This antisemitic Christian weaponized the words of Stephen in Acts 7 to dismiss Jewish understandings of the New Testament, specifically by referring to them as worshippers of false gods.

It is not only texts like Acts 7 or John 8 that are used against Jews. Michael notes that even some of the words of the apostle Paul have been weaponized and Michael lists a number of passages like Galatians 3:13, Philippians 3:8, and the subject of today’s episode – 1 Thessalonians 2:13-16, a text in which, he says, “the whole Jewish people were defamed as murderers of Christ.”[28]

Welcome to an extended episode of Amateur Exegesis.

1 THESSALONIANS 2:13-16: TWO TRANSLATIONS

“Murderers of Christ.” How is it that such language could be derived from a text written by the apostle Paul? As he himself emphasizes in his letters, Paul was a Jew. “I myself am an Israelite,” he writes in Romans 11:1, “a descendent of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin” (NRSV). Two chapters earlier, in Romans 9:1-5, Paul expresses his deep love for the Jews. He writes, 

I am speaking the truth in Christ – I am not lying; my conscience confirms it by the Holy Spirit – I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself was accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh. They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen. (NRSV)

“Paul lived and died a Jew,” writes Pamela Eisenbaum.[29] But if this is the case, whence 1 Thessalonians 2:13-16? Let me read it to you as it is translated in the New American Standard Bible: 

For this reason we also constantly thank God that when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of mere men, but as what it really is, the word of God, which also is at work in you who believe. For you, brothers and sisters, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea, for you also endured the same sufferings at the hands of your own countrymen, even as they did from the Jews, who both killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out. They are not pleasing to God, but hostile to all people, hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved; with the result that they always reach the limit of their sins. But wrath has come upon them fully.

One of the central issues has to do with the end of v. 14 and the beginning of v. 15: “even as they did from the Jews, who both killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out.” Because you can’t always hear punctuation, let me state clearly the problem: after “the Jews” in v. 14 is a comma. It is this bit of punctuation, referred to by New Testament scholar Frank Gilliard as “the antisemitic comma,”[30] that creates a great deal of consternation for many exegetes. Of this problematic punctuation, Gilliard writes, “If there were no comma, Paul would be inveighing against specifically restricted groups of Jews.”[31] In other words, it wouldn’t be antisemitism; it would be inner-Jewish disagreement.

But it is not only this “antisemitic” comma that is problematic about the passage. As we will see, some commentators have found so many issues with this section of 1 Thessalonians that they dub it “un-Pauline,” attributing its existence to a later editor. Before we get to that, allow me to read to you my translation of the passage, based upon the 28thedition of the Nestle-Aland Greek text. 

[13] And for this reason also we ourselves give thanks to God unceasingly: that having received the word of God through hearing us, you accepted it not as the word of people[32] but rather[33] as what it truly is – the word of God which is working in you believers. [14] For you yourselves became imitators, brothers and sisters, of the churches of God that are in Judea in Christ Jesus, because[34] you suffered from your own[35] the same things as they from the Judeans[36] [15][37] who both killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out, and displease God, and oppose all people, [16] hindering us from speaking to the gentiles so that they might be saved and so filling up the measure of their sins. But upon them has come the wrath of God to the end.[38]

YEA, HATH PAUL SAID?

“There is one section in 1 Thessalonians that has received a more thorough examination than any other part of the letter – 2.13-16,” writes Matthew Jensen.[39] One of the first scholars to critically analyze these four verses was the German theologian Ferdinand Baur. Writing in the nineteenth century, Baur thought that this section of the epistle was riddled with problems: “This passage has a thoroughly un-Pauline stamp,” he wrote in his two volume Paul the Apostle of Jesus Christ.[40] For example, he found it “far-fetched” that Paul would compare the troubles facing the Thessalonian church with those that faced the churches of Judea mentioned in v. 14.[41] He also found it difficult to believe Paul would use a phrase attributed to gentile invectives, the idea expressed in v. 15 that the Jews “oppose all people,” against his own.[42] “It is evident on the face of this passage that the story in the [book of] Acts is the only source of its information,” he wrote, thereby relegating these four verses to someone other than Paul.[43] In fact, Baur thought that both 1 and 2 Thessalonians were “greatly wanting in original matter, and that this deficiency discredits their apostolic authorship.”[44] Who wrote 1 Thessalonians? If you asked Baur, he would not say, “Paul did.” 

As I mentioned in the first episode, scholars today think that 1 Thessalonians was not only written by Paul but that it is also the earliest extant piece of Christian literature we have available to us.[45] Paul Foster, professor of New Testament at the University of Edinburgh, conducted a survey at the 2011 British New Testament Conference asking scholars whether they thought Paul wrote the letters attributed to him in the New Testament. Of the roughly 109 who took his survey, all of them thought that Paul was the author of 1 Thessalonians and 63 believed it to be the first epistle Paul wrote in the New Testament.[46] While this survey was not scientific, it does suggest a trend among scholars that the authenticity of 1 Thessalonians is not in dispute. 

Interpolations

But simply because the epistle’s authorship is undisputed doesn’t mean that everything within the letter is. Some scholars believe that these four verses in the second chapter of 1 Thessalonians are an example of an interpolation. The word “interpolation” may be unfamiliar to you. In essence it’s an interjection, a place where something has been inserted into something else. Usually, that which is interjected is foreign to the original. For example, if you were watching the classic 1939 film The Wizard of Oz starring Judy Garland, and halfway through there was a scene from Garland’s 1954 movie A Star is Born, you would correctly note that as an interpolation. Depending upon how much you knew about the chronology of Garland’s film carrier, you could deduce from that interpolation that the copy of The Wizard of Oz you were watching must have been produced after 1954 when A Star is Born first came out in theaters. Interpolations can be useful. 

At times, identifying an interpolation is relatively straightforward. For example, 1 John 5:7-8 of the King James Version reads, “For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one. And there are three that bear witness in earth, the Spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one.” If ever there was a clear-cut reference to the Trinity in the whole of the Bible, this would be it. Unfortunately, scholars are almost universally agreed that these words represent an interpolation. For one, the external attestation to it is relatively poor and, as Bruce Metzger notes, “the passage makes an awkward break in the sense.”[47]

In his book Interpolations in the Pauline Letters, William Walker, Jr. observes that various scholars have argued that a number of texts in the Pauline corpus are interpolations. In the epistle to the Romans, for example, Walker lists over thirty passages that this or that scholar has suggested is non-Pauline in origin.[48] Other epistles fare somewhat better, but few come out completely unscathed.[49] This is certainly the case for 1 Thessalonians as 2:13-16 is undoubtedly the most contested of any passage purportedly written by the apostle Paul. Why do some scholars reject its authenticity? 

A Deutero-Pauline Interpolation?

One of the most cited examples of a scholar arguing for this passage being an interpolation is Birger Pearson in his article for the Harvard Theological Review entitled “1 Thessalonians 2:13-16: A Deutero-Pauline Interpolation.”[50] When scholars speak of something being “Deutero-Pauline,” they mean that it is secondary to Paul, i.e., that it isn’t from the apostle. In Pearson’s view, this section of the epistle belongs to a period after 70 CE.[51] One reason he thought this was because of the end of v. 16: “But upon them has come the wrath of God to the end.” Pearson looked at the aorist verb ephthasen (“has come”) and the prepositional phrase eis telos (“to the end,” or, “at last” [e.g., ESV, NIV]) and concluded that this verse “refers to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.”[52] In his commentary on the text, Earl Richard agrees, writing, “The plight of the Jew, following the destruction of Jerusalem and later dispersal from Palestine, is seen as the result of divine retribution finally being meted out for centuries of hostility toward God and the whole of humanity.”[53]

The ending of this pericope is low-hanging fruit and both Pearson and Richard identify other elements in the text that suggest its Deutero-Pauline origins. For example, Richard argues that v. 13 exhibits a “structural problem” that suggests the work of an editor. But, while he still considers v. 13 “Pauline,” he contends that vv. 14-16 are not and that the two sections – v. 13 on the one hand and vv. 14-16 on the other, “have little in common.” [54] Moreover, he believes that there is “no obvious link” between v. 13 and v. 14.[55] Pearson makes no such argument, casting v. 13 and its reference to thanksgiving as a non-Pauline redundancy.[56]

For both Pearson and Richard problems abound in vv. 14-15. In Pearson’s reading of v. 14, the text states that the Judean church underwent some kind of persecution from the Jews for which there is no historical reference. Citing events reported in Josephus that took place in the early 60s CE, he claims that Judean Christians “were living in harmony with their fellow-Jews” up until that time.[57] Richard takes a slightly different angle, suggesting that the language used in the text suggests that the Thessalonian congregation was a mix of Jew and gentile and that, based upon the parallel made between it and the churches of Judea, the community in Thessalonica was facing persecution at the hands of Jews in the city. To this notion Richard objects: “The Jewish character of the Thessalonian community is not confirmed by the Pauline text.”[58]

One of the central problems that both Pearson and Richard point to is the text’s use of the genitive tōn Ioudaiōn at the end of v. 14, rendered in my translation as “the Judeans” (for reasons I will discuss later) but more often than not translated as “the Jews.” Richard writes that “scholars are hard put to defend such usage by Paul, the author of Romans 9-11, since the term in verses 14-16 already has the polemic meaning found in John’s Gospel.”[59] In vv. 15-16, this marked group is responsible for killing Jesus and the prophets and driving out Paul’s missionary band. They are guilty of displeasing God and opposing all people as well as preventing Paul and his companions from preaching the gospel to the gentiles, thereby “filling up the measure of their sins.” Pearson finds that “much of the material” in these two verses to be “traditional and formulaic.”[60] For example, the phrase I rendered as “opposing all people” is, per Pearson, “a theme from Graeco-Roman anti-Semitism.”[61] Richard agrees, noting similar language in Tacitus and writing, “This anti-Judaism is uncharacteristic of Paul and more likely the product of a later Gentile-Christian hand.”[62] In the view of both, such language belongs to an era after 70 CE: “There is ample evidence that Christians post-70 interpreted the destruction of Jerusalem as a punishment inflicted by God upon the Jews for killing the Christ,” Pearson observes.[63] As Robert Michael put it, it is in this passage that “the whole Jewish people are defamed as murderers of Christ.” [64]

Much more could be said about why Pearson and Richard view 1 Thessalonians 2:13-16 as a Deutero-Pauline interpolation and so listeners are encouraged to consult the work of these two scholars to find out more. For now, we must ask whether they have demonstrated that these four verses represent an actual interpolation. 

THUS SAITH PAUL

Earlier I discussed 1 John 5:7-8 as it appears in the King James Bible and how it represents an interpolation, a later insertion into the text. One of the reasons that scholars consider it to be an interpolation is the lack of external attestation to it. Two of our most significant witnesses, Codices Sinaiticus and Vaticanus, lack this unique reference to the Trinity. In fact, the earliest Greek manuscript we have that attests to it is from a thousand years after the epistle of 1 John would have been written.[65] This near-universal omittance of this text is strong evidence that it was not part of the original version of 1 John.

The same cannot be said about 1 Thessalonians 2:13-16. The earliest non-fragmentary version of 1 Thessalonians extant can be found in the codices Sinaiticus and Vaticanus from the fourth century CE. Both of these texts contain these four verses. In fact, as Eugene Boring notes, the manuscript evidence that points to the validity of the interpolation hypothesis is lacking.[66] With but one partial exception, there is no early version of 1 Thessalonians extant that willfully omits these four verses.[67] But neither Pearson nor Richard argued for an interpolation on the grounds of textual criticism. Rather, their arguments had to do more with what the text said. Thus, the question before us is this: can we make sense of these verses in the context of 1 Thessalonians? I think that we can.

Verse Thirteen

Paul opens up in v. 13 with the words kai dia touto – “And for this reason.” The apostle is connecting what he has said in v. 12, that God calls the Thessalonians “into his own kingdom and glory,” to another reason that he is thankful: their reception of the word.[68] Specifically, Paul is thankful that the Thessalonians had “accepted it not as the word of people but rather as what it truly is – the word of God.” By “the word,” he isn’t referring to scripture, at least not entirely. For one, as 1 Thessalonians is the earliest piece of literature from the New Testament, Paul couldn’t have had any other document from the New Testament on hand from which to preach. For another, it seems doubtful that he lugged around a copy of the Septuagint. He no doubt had memorized significant portions of it[69] but to own his own copy seems like a stretch. So then, what does Paul mean when he speaks of “the word” that the Thessalonians had well-received? 

In episode four I discussed the Pauline kerygma, i.e., the message Paul proclaimed to the Thessalonian community. In ch. 1, he wrote to the Thessalonians that was grateful to God that he knew they were chosen by God because, v. 5 reports, “our gospel did not come to you in word only but rather in power and in the holy spirit and complete certainty.” That is, accompanying the message Paul preached were deeds of power that confirmed its validity. When Paul speaks of the “gospel,” he is not referring to the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John since none of those even existed. And when he uses the phrase “in word only” he certainly isn’t speaking of a written document. Instead, in ch. 1 Paul is alluding to his kerygma, and that is precisely what is going on here. As Eugene Boring writes, “Though this text has often played a role in discussions of biblical inspiration, the subject here is not the Scripture – the Bible is neither mentioned nor specifically quoted in 1 Thessalonians – but the missionary kerygma of Paul and his colleagues.”[70] And Paul is grateful that the Thessalonians did not think that what he was preaching was original to him. Rather, they received it as the message of God, a message that Paul says is at work within them. But in what way? 

Verse Fourteen 

The first part of v. 14 provides the answer: “For you yourselves became imitators, brothers and sisters, of the churches of God that are in Judea in Christ Jesus.” In ch. 1, Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, “[Y]ou yourselves became imitators of us and of the Lord” (v. 6). Here the motif of imitation is extended to include an entire community of believers: the churches of Judea. Earl Richard found this to be problematic: “The reference to the Judaean churches either as models or a topic of concern is…un-Pauline.”[71] But why? Pearson reasoned that because elsewhere Paul speaks of imitating himself and does so with “an intense apostolic self-understanding” that it makes little sense that he would use imitation language with reference to churches. Thus, the beginning of v. 14 is in Pearson’s words “not only historically incongruous but theologically incongruous as well.”[72] But this seems very shortsighted. 

If you look back at ch. 1, Paul speaks of the Thessalonian community in v. 7 as becoming “an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia.” The word I translated as “an example” is tupon, a relatively rare term in the Pauline corpus. It can be found, for example, in Philippians 3:17 where Paul writes, “Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us” (NRSV). If you pay close attention, you can detect Paul’s use of a technique more common in poetry: parallelism, specifically synonymous parallelism. In synonymous parallelism, the second line in a couplet repeats and expands upon the first. We find this technique used over and again in the book of Psalms: “Your word is a lamp unto my feet,” writes the psalmist in Psalm 119:105, “and a light to my path.” This is synonymous parallelism in action. In Philippians 3:17, the first line is a call to imitation: “Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me,” Paul writes. The second line reiterates the first using similar language: “and observe those who live according to the example you have in us.” The word rendered “observe” in the NRSV is from Greek verb that “conveys the idea of close observation, fixed attention.”[73] But this close observation is not an end in and of itself. Paul isn’t calling the Philippians to be mere people watchers. Instead, observation should lead to imitation, specifically of “those who live according to the example [tupon] you have in us.” Examples are meant to be imitated.

Looking back at 1 Thessalonians 1, we find exactly this: per v. 6, not only have the Thessalonians become imitators of Paul and Jesus but implied by v. 7 – that the Thessalonian community has become “an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia” – is that those communities there become imitators of the Thessalonians. And if the churches of Macedonia and Achaia could be imitators of the church of Thessalonica, why couldn’t the church of Thessalonica become imitators of the churches in Judea? To quote Abraham Malherbe, “[T]he charge that this use of the imitation theme is not Pauline…is not apt.”[74]  

But this is not imitation in the abstract. Paul writes that the Thessalonians imitate the Judean churches in a very specific way: “you suffered from your own the same things as they from the Judeans.” But suffered what exactly? Paul isn’t clear. Earlier in the letter Paul used the language of imitation to describe the way in which the Thessalonians had modeled themselves after Paul: “And you yourselves became imitators of us and of the Lord, having received the word in great distress with joy from the holy spirit,” v. 6 says. As I noted in episode four, Paul never explains what this distress entails. But in episode five I offered a glimpse of to what it may be referring. The reason Paul uses the imagery and language of a family in this letter is because of the implications of Paul’s policy toward believing gentiles. They weren’t Jews and they weren’t pagans. They were something else. Paul, to quote Paula Fredriksen, “walked these Christ-fearing pagans into a social and religious no-man’s land.”[75] Their conversion to Christianity meant rejecting the local cults to pagan deities and thereby incurring the wrath of the gods. It would have been the natural response of their neighbors to ostracize these pagan apostates. Jennifer Houston McNeel writes, 

After Paul left town, the Thessalonian believers faced the challenges of living in a countercultural manner, specifically the social ostracism that would have resulted from their withdrawal from pagan rituals honoring the gods and the Roman emperor. Given the very-group oriented Mediterranean culture, pressure and persecution from neighbors, severed family ties, and the collapse of business relations had led to a crisis of identity for the Thessalonians.[76]

It is for this reason, McNeel observes, that Paul uses “extensive kinship language.” He “sought to fill the void left by broken connections with a vision of a community centered in Christ.”[77] This then explains the “great distress” of 1:6 as well as Paul’s reference to suffering “from [their] own” here in 2:14. But what about the group he says the Thessalonians are imitating? 

The translation “from the Judeans” renders the Greek prepositional phrase apo tōn Ioudaiōn. Earlier in this episode I read to you 2:13-16 as it appears in the New American Standard Bible. There in v. 14, apo tōn Ioudaiōn is rendered “from the Jews.” This is also how the ESV, KJV, NIV, and NRSV render it. It is a perfectly acceptable way of translating apo tōn Ioudaiōn. So then, why didn’t I translate it the same way? Why did I choose “from the Judeans” instead of “from the Jews”? Let me explain. 

Earlier in this verse Paul speaks of “the churches of God that are in Judea.” In the Greek text, “Judea” is Ioudaia, a reference to the geographic region from which the early Jesus movement spread.[78] Ioudaia is a feminine form of Ioudaios, the genitive of which appears at the end of v. 14 in the phrase apo tōn Ioudaiōn. Thus, an Ioudaios is from Ioudaia.[79] Now, as Eugene Boring notes, Ioudaioi – the nominative plural of Ioudaios – can be conceived of in “three concentric circles.” First, it may refer simply to the residents of Judea. Second, it may serve to distinguish Jews from gentiles. Third, it can be used to refer to Jewish leadership. Of these three, Boring observes, Paul uses Ioudaioi to refer mainly to Jews as opposed to gentiles, though in 2 Corinthians 11:24 he uses it to refer to Jewish leadership.[80] It is the third sense that Boring believes Paul is using the term in 1 Thessalonians 2:14, and I am inclined to agree. 

Paul is comparing the situation of the Thessalonians with that of the Judean churches. Therefore, when he uses the language “you suffered from your own,” he is referring to their fellow Thessalonians or, perhaps more broadly, Macedonians. In fact, some translations use the phrase “from your own compatriots” (NRSV) or “from your own countrymen” (ESV, KJV) rather than the idiomatic “from your own” to make this abundantly clear. In other words, Paul doesn’t think that all pagans in all places are ostracizing the Thessalonians. Why would they? Since cults tended to be very localized, it would hardly matter to people in, say, Athens what people in Thessalonica were doing. The gods didn’t punish Athens because some people in Thessalonica weren’t worshipping them. And if Paul is restricting the meaning of “from your own” then he must be doing the same when he uses the phrase apo tōn Ioudaiōn. He is surely not referring to all Jews in all places but is specifically referring to those with whom the believers in Judea would have been well acquainted. This is an important point, because at the end of v. 14 we encounter both in the Nestle-Aland Greek text and many English translations and unfortunate piece of punctuation: a comma – an antisemitic one at that! 

Verse Fifteen 

Earlier in this episode I referred to the work of Frank Gilliard who referred to the comma at the end of v. 14 as “antisemitic.” In his article written for the journal New Testament Studies nearly thirty years ago, Gilliard points out that while the comma’s presence in modern editions of the Greek New Testament and many of the translations that use them as their basis has created “’antisemitic’ consequences,” he also notes that such punctuation was not used by either ancient Christians or pagans.[81] In other words, Paul wouldn’t have put a comma at the end of v. 14 because commas weren’t a thing when he was writing. This is good to know since it means that we can perhaps see how the description of the Judeans in v. 15 applies to a specific context.[82]

At the beginning of the verse, the text describes the Judeans as those “who both killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets.” With the comma at the end of v. 14, this description would seem to indict all Jews everywhere as being guilty of the death of Jesus, or at least it could lead to that sort of conclusion. Without the comma, however, the meaning changes. Abraham Malherbe writes, “He does not speak of all Jews, but of those who acted against their fellow Jews.”[83] Malherbe draws upon the work of Gilliard who noted that the effect of the comma is to create a “nonrestrictive clause” such that the text would be indicting all Jews – it would be an “antisemitic comma.”[84] But there is a grammatical case to be made that Paul intended something more restrictive, a matter that is too technical to go into detail here. Interested listeners are strongly encouraged to read Gilliard’s piece for the ins and outs of his view. The key point here is that this passage indictment need not be viewed as antisemitic any more than the charge that these Judeans “killed…the prophets” would be. The motif of Israelites being responsible for killing the prophets originated not with Jesus followers but with the Jewish scriptures themselves. In fact, in Romans 11:3 Paul quotes from 1 Kings 19:10, a text wherein the prophet Elijah laments his own fate in view of what the people of Israel have done to Yahweh’s prophets.[85]

We must also keep in mind the polemical function of Paul’s words. For example, when he says that these Judeans “drove [them] out, and displease God, and oppose all people,” he is clearly using hyperbolic language, some of which is perhaps drawn from Greco-Roman rhetoric employed against the Jews.[86] The point of this language isn’t to say something about Judean Jews but is instead intended to show the Thessalonians that they, as part of God’s family, are not experiencing anything new. Indeed, Sarah Rollens has plausibly asserted that this story from Paul of the suffering the Judean churches experienced may be an “invented tradition” meant to create a backstory in which to ground the identity of the fledgling church. She writes, “1 Thessalonians 2:14-16 can thus be described as an invented tradition insofar as it reinforces an identity connected to Christ, creates continuity with a (somewhat) legendary past, and promotes group cohesion for the Thessalonians.”[87] As we saw in the previous passage, Paul’s interest seems to be to give this congregation a sense of family, especially in light of the tension and division created by their status as Jesus followers.[88] What better way to do that than to connect them to the original movement that was itself persecuted by Jewish leadership? 

Verse Sixteen

There is one hiccup in this entire exposition: what do we make of the end of v. 16? Here it is again in my translation: “hindering us from speaking to the gentiles so that they might be saved and so filling up the measure of their sins. But upon them has come the wrath of God to the end.” Pearson looked at this verse and concluded that the text was referring to a past event, specifically the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE. With this view, Earl Richard agrees. But is that the only way of reading the passage? Not at all. 

In his monograph The Eschatology of First Thessalonians, David Luckensmeyer argues that Paul isn’t referring to the timing of God’s wrath but to its certainty. Time does not permit a detailed look at his reasoning, but the main idea is that the verb translated “has come” may be proleptic, that is, future.[89] In other words, the wrath of God upon these Judeans is as good as done. But this isn’t the only way to read this text. For example, Boring notes a number of possible references: the death of Agrippa, the insurrection of Theudas, the famine of Judea, the massacre of Jews under Cumanus, the expulsion of Jews from Rome. If the letter of 1 Thessalonians was written sometime around 50 CE, all of these events would be in the recent past. But Boring goes on to explain that perhaps no specific historical event is needed to explain what Paul means here. He writes, “In the apocalyptic perspective, the quite ‘normal’ tragedies of history take on an ultimate, foreshadowing-the-end-perspective, as all the modern apocalyptic movements make clear.”[90] Through the lens of an apocalyptic eschatology, the signs of the end are everywhere. 

Conclusion 

If there is a way to read 1 Thessalonians 2:13-16 that fits with both the epistle and Paul’s thought, and there is no manuscript evidence for interpolation, it stands to reason that this text should be considered Pauline. In comparing this text with what we found in ch. 1 of the letter, it becomes clear that it is intended to be a parallel. As Karl Paul Donfried writes, “[T]o understand 2:13-16 we need to pay careful attention to 1:6-9a. The themes of ‘imitation’ and ‘affliction’ from those earlier verses are taken up and expanded in 2:13ff., where the behavior of the Thessalonian converts is contrasted to that of the Jews.”[91] If we take Sarah Rollens’ approach to this text, this passage may be Paul’s attempt at creating a fictionalized past to which the Thessalonians may attach themselves and thereby see themselves in solidarity with other believers undergo similar distress. At the least, Paul’s intention in the passage is to comfort the Thessalonians and show that this trouble is a sign that the kerygma that Paul brought to Thessalonica is most definitely at work within them. And while interpretations of this passage may have resulted in antisemitic behavior, this text is not in and of itself antisemitic. There is a way to read it that makes it plain that it is one Jew, Paul, complaining about the actions of a specific group of Jews, Judean Jews, specifically Jewish leadership. It is an intra-Jewish conflict. 

Yet we should be careful not to dismiss out of hand the concerns of Jews with regards to the language so often used in the New Testament. As Ed Kessler explains, 

The NT shares an intrinsic problem that is common to all Sacred Scriptures: polemic against a named other, once enshrined in venerated documents, is available for later use or abuse to justify the most appalling actions in the name of God.[92]

And even though the apostle Paul is in the words of the late Krister Stendahl, the “first to have discerned the specter of gentile Christian contempt for the Jews,”[93] arguing in Romans 9-11 that Israel would be saved because they remain God’s people, the appropriation of Paul’s words remains a potent weapon for bigots. “In spite of Paul’s warning,” Stendahl wrote, “anti-Semitism follows Christianity as its dark shadow.”[94] Given the horrors of the Holocaust and the antisemitism that persists today, those who read and love the New Testament should be on guard lest these ancient texts become potent ammunition against Jews.

DISPUTED AND UNDISPUTED LETTERS

With what little time remaining in this extended episode, let’s briefly discuss the content of the Pauline corpus. In the New Testament, there are thirteen letters attributed to Paul: Romans, 1-2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1-2 Thessalonians, 1-2 Timothy, Titus, and Philemon. There are two things you should know about these letters. The first is that they aren’t listed in chronological order. Rather, they are lumped into two groups: letters written to communities (Romans – 2 Thessalonians) and letters written to individuals (1 Timothy – Philemon). These two groups are arranged by length with the longer epistles appearing first.[95] Second, New Testament scholars aren’t convinced that Paul wrote all of the letters attributed to him.

For most listeners, this comes as no surprise. After all, the thirteen letters in the Pauline corpus do not comprise all of the letters attributed to Paul. For example, we have extant a third letter to the Corinthians, a letter to the Laodiceans, and even a correspondence between Paul and the Roman senator Seneca.[96] But none of these letters, despite being attribute to the apostle, were actually written by him. These are pseudonymous works written long after Paul was dead and gone. They do, however, offer us a valuable lesson: just because a document claims to have been written by Paul doesn’t mean that it was. 

Of the thirteen letters attributed to Paul in the New Testament, most scholars view seven to be most assuredly from the historical Paul: Romans, 1-2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon. Why these seven? As Bart Ehrman explains in his introduction to the New Testament, these seven share a similar writing style, vocabulary, and theology.[97] For example, in these letters the author seems to prefer a “direct and incisive style,” generally eschewing long, complex sentences.[98] These letters are also replete with antithetical parallelism, a subject we mentioned in episode five.[99] And the “tenor” of these letters is “consistently apocalyptic.”[100] Ehrman also writes that “the issues that they address can plausibly be situated in the early Christian movement of the 40s and 50s of the Common Era, when Paul was active as an apostle and missionary.”[101]

Where does this leave the remaining letters attributed to Paul. Ehrman divides these letters into two categories: the Deutero-Pauline epistles, e.g., Ephesians, Colossians, and 2 Thessalonians; and the Pastoral Epistles, e.g., 1-2 Timothy and Titus.[102] Of the Deutero-Pauline letters, two are the subject of frequent debate: 2 Thessalonians and Colossians. Ephesians is generally regarded as non-Pauline and the consensus on the Pastorals is that they are most definitely not written by Paul.[103] With the Pastorals, its relatively simple to show why they are almost certainly not from Paul. As Pamela Eisenbaum notes, the Pastorals speak to a situation closer to the second century, when ecclesiastical structure became more of a concern. She writes, “While writings that come from the second century…reflect the existence of ecclesiastical offices, Paul’s letters indicate that he had no interest in establishing institutionalized authority of that sort.”[104] Given Paul’s expectation of the imminent return of Jesus, it would make little sense for him to establish a church structure since such structures have in mind long-term goals. Paul just didn’t think they would be around that long. Wayne Meeks observes that in both the book of Acts and the Pauline epistles, formal leadership is never in view, though roles like apostle, prophet, and teacher do seem to take on a more formal status in Pauline congregations.[105] For the Pastorals to be so concerned with bishops and elders and deacons speaks to a situation wherein Jesus’ return has been delayed and there is a need to think more long-term.

The reason all of this is important is because in reconstructing the life and thought of the apostle Paul, we want thebest information available. While the Deutero-Pauline letters and the Pastorals are valuable, their value is best seen in the way they interpret Paul or seek to expand his influence after his death in the 60s CE. As with the book of Acts, they serve an important but limited role. We must prefer the undisputed letters if we want to best understand the historical Paul. 

In the next episode, we will look at 1 Thessalonians 2:17 – 3:13, a passage which among other things explains the reason for Paul’s letter to the community. That’s next time on Amateur Exegesis.


[1] Robert Michael, Holy Hatred: Christianity, Antisemitism, and the Holocaust (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), 1.

[2] Translation taken from The Lexham English Septuagint (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2019).

[3] Ian Kershaw, To Hell and Back: Europe 1914-1949 (New York: Viking, 2015), 369.

[4] Walter Laqueur, “In Place of a Preface,” in The Holocaust Encyclopedia (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001), xiii. Emphasis added.

[5] Zev Garber and Bruce Zuckerman, “Why Do We Call the Holocaust “The Holocaust?” An Inquiry into the Psychology of Labels,” Modern Judaism, vol. 9, no. 2 (May 1989), 200-201.

[6] For an overview of the various views on why the term “holocaust” was used to describe the genocide of the Jews, see Garber and Zuckerman, ““Why Do We Call the Holocaust “The Holocaust?” An Inquiry into the Psychology of Labels,” 197-211.

[7] Steven Beller, Antisemitism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 91.

[8] Beller, Antisemitism, 91.

[9] Benjamin Isaac, “The Ancient Mediterranean and the Pre-Christian Era,” in Antisemitism: A History, Albert Lindemann and Richard S. Levy, editor (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 35. Isaac notes that by “atheist” the ancient authors did not mean one who denies the existence of all gods. Rather, it meant one who denied the recognized gods of “civilized society.” The Jews, as monolatrous monotheists, refused to worship any god but their own, thereby earning them the pejorative “atheists.”

[10] Translation taken from The New Complete Works of Josephus, William Whiston, translator (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1999).

[11] Isaac, “The Ancient Mediterranean and the Pre-Christian Era,” 35.

[12] Paula Fredriksen, Paul: The Pagans’ Apostle (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2017), 44-45.

[13] Fredriksen, Paul, 45.

[14] Isaac, “The Ancient Mediterranean and the Pre-Christian Era,” 37.

[15] J. Albert Harrill, Paul the Apostle: His Life and Legacy in Their Roman Context (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 52.

[16] Fredriksen, Paul, 45.

[17] Michael, Holy Hatred, 15.

[18] Beller, Antisemitism, 11.

[19] Beller, Antisemitism, 13.

[20] James Carroll, Constantine’s Sword: The Church and the Jews – A History (Boston: Mariner Books, 2001), 261.

[21] William Chester Jordan, Europe in the High Middle Ages (New York: Penguin Books, 2001), 106.

[22] Jordan, Europe in the High Middle Ages, 106-107.

[23] Michael, Holy Hatred, 16.

[24] Michael, Holy Hatred, 17. Emphasis author’s. 

[25] Michael, Holy Hatred, 17.

[26] Michael, Holy Hatred, 17.

[27] 

[28] Michael, Holy Hatred, 18.

[29] Pamela Eisenbaum, Paul Was Not a Christian: The Original Message of a Misunderstood Apostle (New York: HarperOne, 2009), 5; cf. Mark D. Nanos, Reading Paul within Judaism, The Collected Essays of Mark D. Nanos, vol. 1 (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2017), 80.

[30] Frank D. Gilliard, “The Problem of the Antisemitic Comma between 1 Thessalonians 2.14 and 15,” New Testament Studies, vol. 35 (1989), 481-502.

[31] Gilliard, “The Problem of the Antisemitic Comma between 1 Thessalonians 2.14 and 15,” 482.

[32] Or, “You accepted it not as the word of mere humans.” Paul’s emphasis is on the contrast between his message being derived from God and the idea that it is derived from mere humans. 

[33] “But rather” renders the single conjunction alla

[34] The Greek word hoti, here translated as “because,” should not be thought of as a causal connection but rather a qualification of how the Thessalonians imitated their Judean counterparts. That is, they became imitators in the way that they themselves suffered as Judean Jesus-followers suffered.

[35] The noun tōn idiōn refers to their fellow countrymen, other Thessalonians or Macedonians, e.g., other gentiles. 

[36] Many translations render tōn Ioudaiōn as “the Jews,” a perfectly acceptable way of rendering it. However, my translation is intended to highlight the regional nature of the issue, specific to Paul’s own circumstances. It isn’t “the Jews” generally but specifically those who resided in Judea and, more specifically, those who he accuses of killing Jesus, killing the prophets, driving Paul out, etc.

[37] The verse divisions are unfortunate. Paul isn’t denigrating “the Jews” but rather a specific subset who he accuses of killing Jesus, etc. The way the verses in this section appear, however, can cause some confusion as to what exactly Paul is doing. Moreover, the punctuation used in Greek texts like that of NA28 heightens this sense of disconnect, suggesting that Paul is merely listing rather than qualifying. 

[38] There is considerable debate over how to translate eis telos (“to the end”) and to what it refers. I have chosen a more literal translation to leave some ambiguity, though I have an opinion as to what Paul is referring here. 

[39] Matthew Jensen, “The (In)authenticity of 1 Thessalonians 2.13-16: A Review of Arguments,” Currents in Biblical Research, vol. 18, no. 1 (2019), 59.

[40] F.C. Baur, Paul the Apostle of Jesus Christ: His Life and Works, His Epistles and Teachings (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2003), 2:87. 

[41] Baur, Paul the Apostle of Jesus Christ, 2:87.

[42] Baur, Paul the Apostle of Jesus Christ, 2:87.

[43] Baur, Paul the Apostle of Jesus Christ, 2:88.

[44] Baur, Paul the Apostle of Jesus Christ, 2:93.

[45] 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), 13.

[46] Paul Foster, “Who Wrote 2 Thessalonians? A Fresh Look at an Old Problem,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament, vol. 35, no. 2 (2012), 170-171.

[47] Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, second edition (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1994), 649; cf. George L. Parsenios, First, Second, and Third John, Paideia Commentaries on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2014), 123.

[48] William O. Walker, Jr., Interpolations in the Pauline Letters (London: Sheffield Academic Press, 2001) 16-17.

[49] Walker, Jr., Interpolations in the Pauline Letters, 18-20.

[50] Birger A. Pearson, “1 Thessalonians 2:13-16: A Deutero-Pauline Interpolation,” Harvard Theological Review, vol. 64 (1971), 79-94.

[51] Pearson, “1 Thessalonians 2:13-16: A Deutero-Pauline Interpolation,” 81. 

[52] Pearson, “1 Thessalonians 2:13-16: A Deutero-Pauline Interpolation,” 82-83.

[53] Earl J. Richard, First and Second Thessalonians, Sacra Pagina (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2007), 119-127.

[54] Richard, First and Second Thessalonians, 123.

[55] Richard, First and Second Thessalonians, 119.

[56] Pearson, “1 Thessalonians 2:13-16: A Deutero-Pauline Interpolation,” 88-91.

[57] Pearson, “1 Thessalonians 2:13-16: A Deutero-Pauline Interpolation,” 87.

[58] Richard, First and Second Thessalonians, 120.

[59] Richard, First and Second Thessalonians, 120.

[60] Pearson, “1 Thessalonians 2:13-16: A Deutero-Pauline Interpolation,” 83.

[61] Pearson, “1 Thessalonians 2:13-16: A Deutero-Pauline Interpolation,” 83.

[62] Richard, First and Second Thessalonians, 121-122.

[63] Pearson, “1 Thessalonians 2:13-16: A Deutero-Pauline Interpolation,” 84.

[64] Michael, Holy Hatred, 18.

[65] Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 647-648.

[66] M. Eugene Boring, I & II Thessalonians: A Commentary, The New Testament Library (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015), 91; cf. Jon A. Weatherly, “The Authenticity of 1 Thessalonians 2.13-16: Additional Evidence,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament, vol. 42 (1991), 98.

[67] Per the critical apparatus of Nestle-Aland 27th edition, one manuscript of the Latin Vulgate omits the last clause of 2:16. (This is not noted in the 28th edition).  

[68] Malherbe, The Letters to the Thessalonians, 165.

[69] E.P. Sanders, Paul: The Apostle’s Life, Letters, and Thought (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2015), 71.

[70] Boring, I and II Thessalonians, 95.

[71] Richard, First and Second Thessalonians, 119.

[72] Pearson, “1 Thessalonians 2:13-16: A Deutero-Pauline Interpolation,” 87-88.

[73] Gerald F. Hawthorne and Ralph P. Martin, Philippians, revised edition, Word Biblical Commentary (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Inc., 2004), 218. 

[74] Malherbe, The Letters to the Thessalonians, 167.

[75] Fredriksen, Paul: The Pagans’ Apostle, 91.

[76] Jennifer Houston McNeel, Paul as Infant and Nursing Mother: Metaphor, Rhetoric, and Identity in 1 Thessalonians 2:5-8 (Atlanta, GA: SBL Press, 2014), 123.

[77] McNeel, Paul as Infant and Nursing Mother, 123.

[78] Cf. Galatians 1:22.

[79] And sometimes in more ways that one since Ioudaia is also the way one refers to a female Jew!

[80] Boring, I & II Thessalonians, 98-99. 

[81] Gilliard, “The Problem of the Antisemitic Comma between 1 Thessalonians 2.14 and 15,” 486.

[82] Gilliard (“The Problem of the Antisemitic Comma between 1 Thessalonians 2.14 and 15,” 487-488) notes that in medieval manuscripts of the Greek of 1 Thessalonians 2:14-15, the comma may have been inserted to create a pause in an otherwise lengthy sentence and thereby giving the reader a chance to breathe. 

[83] Malherbe, The Letters to the Thessalonians, 169. Similarly, Gilliard (“The Problem of the Antisemitic Comma between 1 Thessalonians 2.14 and 15,” 498) writes that “Paul’s invective can be more accurately assessed as an emotional outburst, not against the Jews, but against those Jews whom he specified.”

[84] Malherbe, The Letters to the Thessalonians, 169; cf. Gilliard, “The Problem of the Antisemitic Comma between 1 Thessalonians 2.14 and 15,” 493-498.

[85] And Yahweh reminds Elijah in 1 Kings 19:18 that there was still a remnant who had not bowed the knee to Baal. Elijah was not alone. 

[86] Boring, I & II Thessalonians, 104-105, 107.

[87] Sarah E. Rollens, “Inventing Tradition in Thessalonica: The Appropriation of the Past in 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16,” Biblical Theology Bulletin, vol. 46, no. 3 (2016), 129.

[88] Cf. Florence Gillman, Mary Ann Beavis, and HyeRan Kim-Cragg, 1-2 Thessalonians, Wisdom Commentary (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2016), 55.

[89] David Luckensmeyer, The Eschatology of First Thessalonians (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht GmbH & Co., 2009), 160-161.

[90] Boring, I & II Thessalonians, 106-107.

[91] Karl Paul Donfried, “Paul and Judaism: 1 Thessalonians 2:13-16 as a Test Case,” Interpretation: A Journal of Bible and Theology, vol. 38 issue 3 (July 1, 1984), 246.

[92] Ed Kessler, “The New Testament and Jewish-Christian Relations,” in The Jewish Annotated New Testament, second edition, Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler, editors (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), 764.

[93] Krister Stendahl, “Anti-Semitism,” in The Oxford Companion to the Bible, Bruce M. Metzger and Michael D. Coogan, editors (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), 33.

[94] Stendahl, “Anti-Semitism,” in The Oxford Companion to the Bible, 33.

[95] Marcus J. Borg, Evolution of the Word: The New Testament in the Order the Books Were Written (New York: HarperOne, 2012), 29-30.

[96] For translations of these texts, see The Writings of St. Paul, A Norton Critical Edition, second edition, Wayne A. Meeks and John T. Fitzgerald, editors (New York: W.W. Norton, 2007), 144-154. 

[97] Bart D. Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, sixth edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 336-337.

[98] Andrew T. Lincoln, “Ephesians,” in The Cambridge Companion to St Paul, James D.G. Dunn, editor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 135.

[99] Boring, I & II Thessalonians, 216.

[100] Mark Harding, “Disputed and Undisputed Letters of Paul,” in The Pauline Canon, Stanley E. Porter, editor (Leiden: Brill, 2004), 155.

[101] Ehrman, The New Testament, 337.

[102] Ehrman, The New Testament, 336.

[103] Wayne A. Meeks and John T. Fitzgerald, “Introduction,” in The Writings of St. Paul, xiv-xv.

[104] Eisenbaum, Paul Was Not a Christian, 19.

[105] Wayne A. Meeks, The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul, second edition (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003), 134, 135.

Matthew Thiessen’s Recent Interview on the OnScript Podcast

Back in January I wrote a review for Matthew Thiessen’s latest book Jesus and the Forces of Death: The Gospels’ Portrayal of Ritual Impurity within First-Century Judaism (Baker Academic, 2020) which you can find here. I cannot recommend this book enough as it sets Jesus in his own context as a first-century Jew who fully accepted Torah and all it entailed, even if he disagreed with some sects’ interpretation of it. Thiessen was recently interviewed over at the Onscript podcast about his book and he offers a great overview of his work and how the Gospel writers seem to have understood Jesus. For those of you who don’t have time to read but may have a lengthy commute to work, give it a listen!

Kristin Swenson: The Bible Undermines Blind Faith In It

Kristin Swenson, A Most Peculiar Book: The Inherent Strangeness of the Bible (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020), 59.

The Bible simply doesn’t portray a perfectly consistent, laudable, and powerful deity. In the Bible, even the nature of God is a messy affair. What’s a reader to do? First, recognize that the Bible blows away any effort to stuff God into a box of human making, the better to tote around and show off, or presume to quote with definitive confidence. The Bible itself undermines the popular declaration “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.”

What we can say is that the Bible portrays a God who is neither male nor female; who is both out there in cosmic neverland and right here, immediately, intimately present; who is punitive and forgiving, capable of experiencing a range of emotions, deeply interested and invested in the affairs of earth, and wildly, extraordinarily dynamic. In other words, the Bible’s representations of God reflect the Bible’s wide-ranging history, its literary diversity and the driving urge of human beings to find our place and purpose and to make some sense of it all.