One of the many books I read as a teenager was one written about the end of the world. It was a work of fiction, albeit one based upon a particular reading of certain biblical texts. In the opening chapter of the book, one of the main characters, an airline pilot, is flying over the Atlantic Ocean on his way to Heathrow Airport when he decides to put the vessel on autopilot, hand the reins over to his first officer, and head back to flirt with one of the flight attendants on board. As he approaches her, he expects there to be a brief, intimate liaison, but that expectation is shattered when she whispers to him, “People are missing.” She begins to explain that all across the flight multiple people have vanished, leaving behind only their clothes. When the pilot finally lands, he goes home only to find that his wife, who had just recently become a Christian, and their son have vanished as well. He has been left behind. In fact, that’s the title of the book: Left Behind. In the course of the story it is revealed that the missing all have one thing in common: they had all trusted Jesus as their savior. Now, those who remained would face the darkest time in human history – the Tribulation.
Left Behind (as well as numerous sequels and even a few movies, including one starring Nicholas Cage) was the brainchild of dispensationalist Tim LaHaye and novelist Jerry Jenkins. The colorful plot follows a timeline that evangelicals like LaHaye saw in how the Bible portrayed future events. For LaHaye and his ilk, the return of Jesus was a two-phase affair. The first phase – the one that gets the eschatological clock ticking – is the “Rapture,” an idea derived from 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18. In LaHaye’s view, what is described in those six verses isn’t the return of Jesus to reign on earth but rather his gathering of his people, both living and dead, so that he can take them up to heaven before all hell is loosed on earth for the seven-year tribulation. At the end of those seven years comes the day of the Lord, an event discussed in 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11. On that day, Jesus returns with all the saints to establish his kingdom on earth.
Dispensationalism is today a sinking ship, popular only among particular segments of evangelicalism. One of its many problems is its tendency to divide biblical texts where no division is warranted. In LaHaye’s understanding of 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 and 5:1-11, Paul is referring to two different events. But as we will see in today’s episode, this could not be farther from the truth.
Welcome to the penultimate episode of this season of Amateur Exegesis.
Before we begin a look at today’s passage, allow me to read to you from my translation of it, based on the 28th edition of the Nestle-Aland Greek text.
 Now, we do not wish for you to be ignorant, brothers and sisters, concerning those who are asleep, so that you do not grieve as the rest who do not have hope.  For if we believe that Jesus died and rose, so then also through Jesus God will bring with him those who are asleep.  For this to you we say by word of the Lord, that we the living who remain at the coming of the Lord will in no wayprecede those who are asleep,  because the Lord himself with a command – with the voice of an archangel and with the trumpet of God – will descend from heaven and the dead in Christ will rise first;  then we, the living who remain, together with them will be caught up in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so always with the Lord we will be.  So then, exhort one another with these words.
5  Now, concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you have no need for us to write to you,  for you yourselves know well that the day of the Lord as a thief by night so comes.  Whenever they say, “Peace and security!” then suddenly upon them descends destruction, like the labor pains of a pregnant woman, and they in no way will escape.  But you, brothers and sisters, are not in darkness such that the day will as a thief surprise you,  for you all are sons of light and sons of day. We are not of the night nor of darkness.  So then let us not sleep as the rest but instead let us be awake and sober.  For those who sleep do so at night and those who get drunk do so at night;  but since we are of the day, let us be sober, clad in the breastplate of faith and love and a helmet of the hope of salvation,  because God has not destined us for wrath but rather to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ,  the one who died for us so that, whether we are awake or we are asleep, together with him we might live.  Therefore, exhort one another and build up, one by one, just as even you are doing.
Paul is initially concerned with the knowledge of the Thessalonian community. He doesn’t wish for them “to be ignorant,” per v. 13. Elsewhere in the letter, Paul had appealed to what they knew and remembered: Paul and the missionary team’s exemplary behavior in 1:5, the productiveness of the initial mission in 2:1, the “shameful treatment” Paul underwent in Philippi in 2:2, that Paul did not use flattering words in his preaching in 2:5, the apostle’s “labor and hardship” which was intended not to burden the Thessalonians in 2:9, and more. Now, Paul, using what is sometimes referred to as a “disclosure formula,” presents information to these ex-pagan Jesus followers. But information about what?
He employs a prepositional phrase: “concerning those who are asleep.” Most listeners are familiar enough with this text that they know that sleeping is only a euphemism for death. F.F. Bruce notes that such usage was “commonplace in antiquity,” found in both Jewish and pagan literature. But sleeping on some level suggests an awakening at some point in the future. Consider, for example, the story of Jesus’ raising to life the twelve-year-old daughter of Jairus, a leader of the synagogue, in Mark 5. Though still alive when the request to heal her is made (Mark 5:23), by the time Jesus reaches Jairus’ home the girl has died (v. 35). Outside the home, the Markan text records, Jesus “saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly” (v. 38). But Jesus doesn’t understand their turmoil: “Why do you make a commotion and weep?” he asks them. “The child is not dead but sleeping” (v. 39). Though their response to him is one of laughter (v. 40), Jesus demonstrates his divinely endowed power by taking the girl’s lifeless hand and returning her to the land of the living (vv. 41-42): “Talitha cum,” he says in Aramaic – “Little girl, get up!” Joel Marcus notes that in this intercalated pericope, there may be a message for the community to which Mark was writing his biography of Jesus. He writes that
Jesus’ eschatologically ironic statement that the girl is only sleeping is greeted by the professional mourners, the experts on death, with derision (5:40a). They know full well that the girl is dead and that dead people don’t come back to life! This skepticism may mirror that of some in the Markan environment, perhaps even that of some prospective followers of Jesus (cf. 9:10). The early Christians’ belief in the resurrection induced puzzlement in their contemporaries, since many people were inclined to doubt life after death, and those who accepted it generally looked forward to the immortality of the soul rather than the resurrection of the body….
Jesus’ choice of the metaphor of sleep for the girl’s death directly anticipates the girl’s resurrection a few verses later. Here in 1 Thessalonians 4:13, something similar is happening: Paul is using the metaphor to anticipate the resurrection he will discuss beginning in v. 14. Thus, as Colin Nicholl writes, the apostle’s euphemism “is a significant, if subtle, affirmation of Paul’s main point in 4:13-18, that deceased Christians will rise from the dead to be with Christ at his parousia.”
Paul’s exhortation here is with a stated purpose: “so that you do not grieve as the rest who do not have hope.” Two questions immediately come to mind: why are they grieving and who are “the rest who do not have hope”? The first question has a superficially simple answer: they are grieving because of those that have recently died or, in Pauline terms, fallen “asleep.” But why would this be so distressing? There are a few possibilities. It could be that the Thessalonians were taken by surprise that any in their community had died before the coming of Jesus. Recall that in 1:9-10 Paul wrote that these pagan Thessalonians had abandoned idolatry for the god of Israel, and they were also waiting this god’s “son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the coming wrath.” This was part of Paul’s kerygma, the message he preached to them during his initial visit. Implicit in it is the idea that this deliverance would happen soon. Because of this, Eugene Boring posits that some in Thessalonica misunderstood what Paul had been saying. He writes that “it could be that they had understood from Paul’s preaching that the Parousia was so near that they all expected to experience it, and then were shocked at the deaths of some of their group, which called into question their whole new symbolic universe.” Another related possibility is that this misunderstanding didn’t lead to them questioning Paul’s teaching per se but rather, as Joulette Bassler suggests, it created in them “the concern that those who have died before Christ returns will miss out on the glorious events of his return.” Bassler points out that in some ancient texts death becomes a barrier to eschatological joy. For example, in 4 Ezra 13, in a vision wherein Ezra witnesses the destruction of a multitude who try to make war against God’s agent (cf. v. 25-26), he decries what he has witnessed, saying,
For as I consider it in my mind, alas for those who will be left in those days! And still more, alas for those who are not left! For those who are not left will be sad because they understand the things that are reserved for the last days, but cannot attain them. But alas for those also who are left, and for that very reason! For they shall see great dangers and much distress, as these dreams show. Yet it is better to come into these things, though incurring peril, than to pass from the world like a cloud, and not to see what will happen in the last days (4 Ezra 13:16-20, NRSV).
Such grief may have led them to “a paralyzing despair or a denial of hope” in the resurrection. Whatever the case may be, such grief was problematic for Paul and is directly connected to our second question: who are “the rest who do not have hope”?
Philip Esler notes that the apostle’s usage of hope is intended “to differentiate Christ-followers from other groups,” though this undoubtedly results in some stereotyping. While it is clear that some believed in some kind of afterlife, this was not ubiquitous. Philosophical schools like the Epicureans denied the existence of an afterlife altogether. Even the Stoics were not exactly settled on the existence of the afterlife. The Roman emperor and Stoic Marcus Aurelius wrote, “If the universe is composed only of diverse atoms, death is dispersion; if the universe is really one unified whole, death is extinction or transfiguration” (Meditations 7.32). In ancient Greek literature like the Iliad and Odyssey, the afterlife is nothing to look forward to since the dead are depicted as shadowy figures with no real life to speak of. Death was not necessarily something to look forward to. “The pagan world was without real hope,” writes William Hendricksen. “The Iliad ends with funeral-rites!”
Paul, then, has in view gentiles when he speaks of “the rest who do not have hope.” But what about their grieving makes it so problematic? What is it about not having hope that is so troublesome to Paul? One possibility is that pagan grieving often involved pagan cults. Florence Gillman notes that in some cults weeping was prominently figured, like the cult of Isis. Often, funerary rituals related to these cults included women whose role was that of mourner and it was with loud wailing that they would weep. “It is likely that Paul’s observance of the manner of grieving by [hoi loipo– i.e., “the rest”] coupled with his belief in the resurrection of the dead caused him to form strong opinions about funeral customs,” Gillman writes.
Another possibility involves ancient voluntary associations in which, Richard Ascough notes, rituals surrounding death and burial “figured prominently in the collective lives of their members.” In many such associations, death was a time to celebrate a member who had recently passed. But these Thessalonians were not part of any of those associations. So, what happened when their members died? What was their status? Were they no longer part of the community? Ascough writes, “The Thessalonians’ cessation of the forum of funerary epigraphy and commemoration, resulting from Paul’s preaching, is perceived by them to indicate that any member who dies is no longer part of the association. For the Thessalonians, the dead no longer have hope for the salvation found in Jesus’ return.” Paul, therefore, writes to dispel this myth, doing so by speaking of them with language that indicates their continued membership in the community, like the phrase “the dead in Christ” found in v. 16.
Why should the Thessalonians “not grieve as the rest who do not have hope”? To answer that question, Paul uses a conditional sentence. The protasis is fairly straightforward: “For if we believe that Jesus died and rose.” Here Paul reminds the Thessalonians of the foundation of their hope: Jesus’ death and resurrection, a fundamental aspect of Pauline kerygma as we saw in 1:9-10. Some scholars have suggested that here Paul is appropriating an early creed: his use of the first-person plural “we believe,” the mention of Jesus without the titles often associated with him like “Lord,” and more may point in that direction. Regardless, for the apostle the ground of his response to the Thessalonians and therefore the ground of their hope is to be found in Jesus’ own death and resurrection which, for Paul, constitutes “a sure historical foundation.” But why would this stir hope? In his commentary on the epistle, Eugene Boring mentions three “dimensions” of early ideas about Jesus’ return that are part and parcel of Paul’s apocalyptic eschatology and thus instructive here.
First, the resurrection of Jesus is the beginning of the general resurrection. In Jewish apocalyptic thought, there weren’t multiple resurrections that would happen sporadically throughout history. Instead, there would be a single resurrection. This is illustrated clearly by the book of Daniel: “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt,” we read in Daniel 12:2 (NRSV). This single resurrection would happen at the end of time when God would finally right the world. But Paul and other early followers of Jesus came to believe Jesus of Nazareth had been raised from the dead. This presents a problem because if Jesus had been raised to life then why hadn’t everyone been raised, and why hadn’t God brought an end to this evil age? To reconcile these issues, Paul conceived of the single end-time resurrection as being in two stages. The first stage is the resurrection of Jesus, described in 1 Corinthians 15:20 and 23 as “the first fruits” (NRSV). The metaphor is agricultural, describing the earliest yield of a harvest. The second stage is the resurrection of everyone else, the full harvest. With this single, two-stage resurrection complete, Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15:24 that “[t]hen comes the end, when [Jesus] hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power.” As I mentioned in episode 7, in cosmological apocalyptic eschatology there is the idea that the current age is overrun with demonic powers and it is only God who can rescue humanity from their rule. This God does through Jesus, the one who died and God raised. Thus, as Martinus C. de Boer writes,
The death and resurrection of Christ has inaugurated a unified apocalyptic drama that reaches its conclusion at the Parousia/the End (1 Cor 15:20-26). The Apocalypse of God in Jesus Christ covers events from the initial sending of the Son and his Spirit into the world to the transfer of Christ’s messianic sovereignty to God at the End (1 Cor 15:23-28).
The second dimension that Boring mentions is related: Jesus’ resurrection and the general resurrection are tied together. He writes that “the resurrection event that began with Jesus will be completed, and the full harvest will fulfill the pledge signified by the firstfruits.” Because it is Jesus as God’s agent who “inaugurated” this “apocalyptic drama” (to borrow de Boer’s words), Jesus will also factor importantly in the general resurrection to come.
The third and final dimension is that for Jesus’ followers to participate in the general resurrection is to participate in Jesus’ own resurrection. This is what Paul brings out in the apodosis, the “then” clause, of the conditional sentence: “so then also through Jesus God will bring with him those who are asleep.” However, as straightforward as the protasis was, the apodosis is a bit messier.
Setting aside the nature of the syntactical relationship between the protasis and apodosis, a topic a bit too technical to get into here, there are a couple of “grammatical ambiguities” that affect interpretation. The first is illustrated well by comparing two English versions of the apodosis. Let’s begin with my translation of it: “so then also through Jesus God will bring with him those who are asleep.” Now, here’s the King James Version: “even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him.” Can you hear the difference? In my translation, “through Jesus” is connected to God’s activity of bringing “with him those who are asleep.” In the King James Version, the Greek phrase I’ve rendered “through Jesus” is translated “in Jesus” and connected to the ones who have fallen asleep (i.e., died). Now, you may be thinking that the issue has to do with the word order in the Greek texts underlying the translations. After all, I’m using the 28th edition of the Nestle-Aland Greek text and the translators of the King James Bible were using a version of the Textus Receptus. But that isn’t the problem. Except for a couple of words that are spelled slightly different, the two underlying Greek versions are identical. Importantly, the word order is the exact same. So, what gives? Why have I connected “through Jesus” to God’s activity but the King James translators connected it to the dead? Who screwed up? The answer is that both translations are a possibility since, as Charles Cousar notes, a strict reading of the word order in the Greek text allows for the translation found in the King James Bible while the text’s ambiguity allows for a translation like my own.
The Greek phrase rendered “through Jesus” or “in Jesus” is the preposition dia plus the genitive tou Iēsou. In both the Textus Receptus and the Nestle-Aland text, dia tou Iēsou appears immediately after the accusative participle rendered in my translation as “those who are asleep.” It would therefore be quite natural to render these words together as “those who are asleep through Jesus.” In fact, F.F. Bruce defends this very view, contending in his commentary that since the resurrection of believers happens with Jesus then it only makes sense that the death of believers happens through him as well, providing balance. It’s a relatively strong argument to make but I’m not convinced that this is what Paul means.
David Luckensmeyer in his work on eschatology in 1 Thessalonians notes that not only does Paul often use the preposition dia (“through”) to express the idea of agency, but when he couples dia with either “Jesus,” “Christ,” or “Lord,” then, in the words of Luckensmeyer “this is exclusively the case.” Since the genitive dia tou Iēsou appears right before the apodosis’ main verb axei (“he will bring”), Paul seems to be saying that God, the subject of axei, is using Jesus as his agent through whom he “will bring with him those who are asleep.” Thus, while Luckensmeyer rightly acknowledges that no grammatical argument can definitively rule out one option or the other, “the preponderance of evidence regarding Paul’s use of [dia] with Jesus, Christ and Lord makes [a genitive of agency] far more compelling.” I am in total agreement with this assessment.
The second issue has to do with the phrase “with him.” Does the pronoun refer to God or to Jesus? For some commentators, the pronoun must refer to Jesus. After all, isn’t it Jesus who they await from heaven (1 Thessalonians 1:10)? And doesn’t the rest of this passage refer to Jesus when it speaks of “the coming of the Lord” (v. 15)? Thus, “with him” surely refers to Jesus. This is a possibility. But as Abraham Malherbe points out, the imagery Paul is using stems from the Jewish prophets who describe God’s gathering of his people together. The phrase “will bring with him” means that those who are asleep “are both raised and brought into God’s presence.” And who does this action? Ultimately, it is God who does so. Yes, it is done “through Jesus,” God’s agent, but it is still God who is ultimately behind it.
In vv. 15-17, Paul explains in a bit more detail why the Thessalonians should have hope that their dead have not been forgotten or otherwise abandoned. He begins in v. 15 by appealing to a “word of the Lord.” But what exactly is a “word of the Lord”? A number of possibilities have been raised by commentators. Perhaps it refers to a tradition that also stands behind the Synoptic Gospels. Maybe it is an agraphon, a saying of Jesus that could be found among some in the early Jesus movement but didn’t end up in any of the Gospels. Could it be Paul’s own teaching original to him, based on his authority as an apostle of the risen Lord? Is it an oracle from a Christian prophet that has been appropriated by Paul in his words of comfort to the Thessalonians? All of these options have their pros and cons, though some are far more plausible than others. For example, as appealing as it might be to think that this is an agraphon, Abraham Malherbe observes that as a hypothesis to explain what Paul means it is worthless: “While possible,” he writes, “the hypothesis cannot be verified and ultimately contributes little to the exegesis of 1 Thess 4:15-17.” Eugene Boring’s view is the final suggestion, namely that Paul is basing his teaching on an oracle delivered by a Christian prophet. He notes that “word of the Lord” constitutes “a very common phrase for prophetic revelation in the LXX” and is found in Paul seven times. Furthermore, in ch. 5 of this epistle, Paul refers to “charismatic prophets” whose message Paul tells the Thessalonians in vv. 21-22 they are to “evaluate,” holding to the good and rejecting the bad. Taken together, it is possible Paul is thinking of a prophetic revelation, though one given to someone else and then put to work in comforting the Thessalonian community.
The exact content of this “word” is not clear. It could be that it constitutes all of the rest of vv. 15-17. It could be that it only encompasses vv. 16-17 and v. 15 acts as a kind of summary. Or it could be that vv. 16-17 are Paul’s commentary on the word which is actually found in the rest of v. 15. It is a complicated question about which we cannot go into detail here. What we can say is that whatever this “word” comprises, Paul employs it pastorally and, therefore, to understand it we don’t necessarily need to figure out all the ins and outs of what it constituted. We simply need to appreciate its rhetorical function in the letter itself, a topic we will get to when we discuss v. 18.
So, whether Paul is summarizing the word or appealing directly to it, he starts by saying in v. 15, “[W]e the living who remain at the coming of the Lord will in no way precede those who are asleep.” As simple as this all may seem, there is still much to unpack. First, Paul uses the pronoun hēmeis (“we”) and attaches it to two participles, rendered in my translation as “the living who remain.” Though doubted by some, for many commentators this is a sign that here in Paul’s earliest surviving epistle the apostle expected to be part of the generation that saw Jesus’ return. “Paul himself expects to live to see Christ’s triumphant return and the coming of the Kingdom,” Paula Fredriksen writes. This, of course, doesn’t mean Paul was an extreme optimist, discounting altogether that he might not make it. Later in the letter, in 5:10, Paul writes as if it is possible that he and the Thessalonians may all die before the End. Nevertheless, he’s hopeful and appears to believe that he will lay his eyes on Jesus before he dies. That is, Jesus’ coming was for Paul to happen very soon.
I’ve mentioned Jesus’ parousia, his “coming,” in earlier episodes. Now would be a good time to briefly discuss the word and what it means here in 1 Thessalonians. Fundamentally, it refers to an arrival such that the one arriving is present. For example, in his letter to the Philippians Paul expresses his eagerness to see them, writing, “in order that your boasting in Christ Jesus may abound by my coming [i.e., parousia] again to you” (Philippians 1:26, my translation). It is also used to describe the arrival of dignitaries, such as the Roman emperor. While some have seen in Paul’s use of parousia a bid by the apostle to secretly undermine Roman imperialism, on balance it is far simpler to see the use of the term in Pauline thought as cohering with the apostle’s general apocalyptic outlook.For Paul, Jesus is God’s eschatological agent, the one who, per Galatians 4:4-5, was sent “when the fullness of time had come…to redeem those who were under the law” (NRSV). It was this Jesus who, per Philippians 2:8-9, “became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross” and was then “highly exalted” by God (NRSV). He is in heaven now with God the Father (1 Thessalonians 1:9-10). At the right time, God will send Jesus from heaven to deliver his people from coming wrath.
But did this include the dead? That is the central question: were they at a disadvantage? As I already mentioned, in some strands of apocalyptic thinking, the dead were at a disadvantage because they would not be present for the events at the end of this age. In the Thessalonian context, Earl Richard contends, the perceived advantage that the living had over the dead “consisted in the living being able to welcome the returning Lord, going on ahead, and being assumed bodily with him prior to the final, general resurrection.” But Paul’s response to this is emphatic: “[W]e the living…will in no way precede those who are asleep,” he writes. The apostle employs a double negative, ou mē, which I have rendered as “in no way.” With it, Richard observes, Paul is offering “a deliberate challenge to a traditional apocalyptic view that the generation of the end-time will be more blessed than those who have already died.” Will the dead miss out on eschatological joy? “No way!” is Paul’s retort. Will only those who are living at the time of the parousia greet the returning Christ? “No way!” Paul replies. “The dead,” writes Joulette Bassler, “are at no disadvantage whatsoever.” But how? They’re dead, aren’t they? The answer comes in vv. 16-17.
In vv. 13-15, Paul uses the metaphor of “sleep” to talk about death. And what do you do to wake up those who sleep? Well, you make a lot of noise. This is precisely what v. 16 describes: “the Lord himself with a command – with the voice of an archangel and with the trumpet of God – will descend from heaven and the dead in Christ will rise first.” But this isn’t a divine alarm clock. As Martinus de Boer notes, this is the imagery of war. Paul uses three prepositional phrases to help describe the character of the Lord’s descent: en keleusmati (“with a command”), en phōnē archangelou (“with the voice of an archangel”), and kai en salpingi theou (“and with the trumpet of God”). Abraham Malherbe notes that each of these are “military sounds.” But these aren’t three distinct sounds. Rather, based on Paul’s wording in the underlying Greek text, both “with the voice of an archangel” and “with the trumpet of God” further explain what is meant by “with a command.” It would be beyond Paul’s point to try to go into depth and parse what each prepositional phrase means. What we can say is that Paul is borrowing from common apocalyptic stock imagery to tell us something about the parousia: it will be, in the words of Nijay Gupta, “public, visible, and loud!” And it is with this command that “the dead in Christ will rise first.”
It must be remembered that what Paul describes here isn’t for the sake of describing it but is intended to ease the pain of his readers. This is what makes what he says at the beginning of v. 16 all the more significant. If we compare Paul’s words with what we find in the Synoptic tradition, we notice some overlap. For example, in Mark 13:27 the elect are gathered together as they are here in 1 Thessalonians 4. And in Matthew 24:31, Jesus mentions “a loud trumpet call” that accompanies the end. And in Luke 21:28, Jesus tells his disciples to “raise [their] heads” since their “redemption” was coming from the sky above them. But what sets Paul’s version apart from the Synoptics is the beginning of v. 16: hoti autos ho kyrios – “because he the Lord,” or, as in my translation, “because the Lord himself.” That is, in Paul’s scheme, Jesus is directly involved and there are no intermediaries. It is “the Lord himself and no deputy,” writes F.F. Bruce. Influencing Paul may have been the wording of Isaiah 63:9 LXX: “Neither an elder nor an angelos but autos kyrios [“the Lord himself”] saved them because he loved them and spared them; he himself redeemed them and took hold of them and exalted them for all days forever” (my translation). Since for Paul Jesus is a kyrios, a lord, this text would have fit naturally in his view of the impending apocalypse. And with it he is able to purchase comfort for the Thessalonians. Not only are the dead not forgotten by God, but it is Jesus himself who will come to wake them up so that they may participate in his coming.
Once “the dead in Christ” are raised, Paul says that it is “living who remain” who are next to go, and he includes himself in this group. The verb Paul uses to describe their ascent to Jesus is from harpazō, a term that suggests a violent seizing or snatching. In the Vulgate, Paul’s harpagēsometha becomes the Latin rapiemur, the word from which “rapture” is derived. Thus, the Left Behind crowd that I mentioned in the introduction is no doubt correct that Paul speaks of “the rapture,” though how it fits into Paul’s eschatology and how it fits into theirs appears to be two separate things. Earl Richard notes that harpazō was a relatively popular term used in apocalyptic literature to describe a journey to heaven, either upon death or in a vision. In 2 Corinthians 12:2, Paul relates a story about someone he knew who had fourteen years prior been “caught up [harpagenta] to the third heaven” where they “heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat” (v. 4). Here in 1 Thessalonians 4:17, Richard writes, the apostle’s use of harpazō “represents Paul’s attempt, by means of apocalyptic imagery, to describe the indescribable fate of the elect, their sudden translation into the heavenly sphere on that great and terrible day of the Lord.”
But there is another dimension to this. Remember, Paul is trying to comfort and reassure his Thessalonian audience. In that context, the use of harpazō is not unexpected since, as Abraham Malherbe points out, the verb was often used in the Greco-Roman consolation tradition. Epitaphs and letters would speak of death snatching away their loved ones from the world of the living. But here Paul has turned the term on its head, using it to describe the snatching of the living away from death. “In a neat twist,” Malherbe writes, “Paul uses the conventional language of grief to comfort.” This is seen quite clearly in the apostle’s emphasis that the living who remain “together with [the dead in Christ] will be caught up.” The underlying language conveys a sense of community, one that had been ravaged by death but thanks to the returning Lord is now restored.
Paul continues by describing to where the living and dead will be caught up: “in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.” It is helpful to keep in mind that in ancient Jewish cosmology, “the air” was the realm between heaven above and earth below. The living dwell on the earth, the dead “under” it (cf. Philippians 2:10), and Jesus far above it in heaven. While we scoff at such a simplistic view of the world as modern people, Paul wasn’t a modern person and his language, Philip Esler writes, “presupposes a first-century cosmology.” Thus, when Jesus returns, he is descending from heaven while the quick and the dead ascend up from the earth and they all meet somewhere in between – “in the air.” But why clouds? Those familiar with the Hebrew Bible know that clouds are often associated with appearances of divine beings: “The LORD is king!” writes the psalmist in Psalm 97:1-2, “Let the earth rejoice; let the many coastlands be glad! Clouds and thick darkness are all around him; righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne” (NRSV). In the book of Daniel, the “one like a son of man” appears before the Ancient One with “the clouds of heaven” (Daniel 7:13). Clouds, then, are part of that stock apocalyptic imagery from which Paul draws. But here it is with yet another twist: Paul doesn’t associate the clouds with the descent of the Lord but with the ascent of the Thessalonians to meet him.
Having met their returning lord in the air, Paul comforts his readers by stating, “and so always with the Lord we will be.” But what do this mean? Attached to this question we could ask another: After this grand reunion in the air, then what? There are three possibilities, the discussion of which we should preface by saying that Paul never comes out to tell us what will happen next here in 1 Thessalonians. We shouldn’t be alarmed by this since letters are occasional by their very nature and are not exhaustive. And in this case, Paul is writing not to detail all that will happen in the Eschaton but rather to show the Thessalonians that their dead are in Christ and will also reap the blessings of Jesus’ parousia. Now, what happens after they meet Jesus in the air?
The first possibility is that they all go back to heaven to be with Jesus there. This is the default position of the Left Behind crowd. If this rapture is so that the Thessalonians avoid the impending wrath of God in the seven-year tribulation, then removing them so that they can be in heaven would make sense. In other words, on this view the rapture precedes the Eschaton by a number of years.
The second possibility is that they all return to earth, at which time Jesus sets up his kingdom. This seems like a more likely possibility than the first option since, as Colin Nicholls points out, in other “eschatological contexts,” the word parousia speaks of Jesus’ return to earth, not a return to heaven. Furthermore, in ch. 5, Paul refers to “the day of the Lord” (v. 2), and since “the Lord” in 4:13-18 is Jesus, it seems likely that there it refers to him as well. In other words, 4:13-18 and 5:1-11 go together. Given cosmological apocalyptic eschatology with its emphasis on righting this world’s evils, this option is appealing.
The final possibility is that the Thessalonians remain in the air with Jesus. At first, this option may seem silly. But as Candida Moss and Joel Baden note in their 2012 article “1 Thessalonians 4.13-18 in Rabbinic Perspective,” there were some strands of Judaism that taught that at the End “the righteous will fly up to the new eschatological Jerusalem, either in the seventh heaven or floating in the clouds.” Thus, it is possible that Paul, had he been familiar with such traditions, may have believed that it was “in the air” that believers remained forever. “The impulse to come down firmly either on terrestrial or celestial ground neglects all the space in between,” Moss and Baden write.
That’s enough speculation. As noted, Paul’s intent isn’t to give us all the details we as modern readers are interested in but rather it is to comfort the Thessalonians in their hour of need. This point is made expressly in v. 18: “So then, exhort one another with these words.” Here then is the rub and part of the reason Paul had prior to this pericope emphasized his own character and kerygma, noting in ch. 2 that his “appeal was made not from error, nor from an ulterior motive, nor with trickery” (2:3) but were instead from God. “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 but rather as what it truly is – the word of God, which is working in you believers,” the apostle writes in 2:13. “Since it is words that Paul offers to resolve the Thessalonians’ theological problems,” Margaret Mitchell observes, “we can appreciate why so much of the earlier part of the letter was spent defending the truthfulness of his word.” All that Paul has said before in this pericope should be interpreted in light of his overarching goal to provide relief for the Thessalonians.
Sometimes the chapter and verse divisions found in modern editions of the Greek text and their corresponding English translations can be quite unfortunate. The beginning of ch. 5 is such a case. While it is true that there is a change in topic, indicated by the construction peri de (“now concerning”), it is not much more than variation on a theme. “While in 4:13-18 [Paul] had focused on the believers’ concern about those who had already died, in 5:1-11 Paul considers the situation of the living at the Parousia,” Florence Gilman notes in her commentary. He opens this section by referring to “the times and the seasons” about which, the apostle said, “you have no need for us to write to you.” The two-word phrase “the times and the seasons” is a hendiadys. That term may be unfamiliar to you but the phenomenon itself isn’t. For example, in the idiom “raining cats and dogs” the meaning is that it’s raining with intensity. If you’re the parent of a teenager, you’ve no doubt said to them at some point, “I’m sick and tired of your poor attitude.” In considering the meaning of a hendiadys, you don’t bother to parse out its constituent parts. Rather, they work together to communicate the idea. Here in v. 1, “the times and the seasons” appear to be a reference to the timing of the Day of the Lord that is mentioned in v. 2. But as Paul notes at the end of the verse, Paul had “no need to write” to them about it. Why?
According to v. 2, it is because they have already have knowledge about it: “for you yourselves know well that the day of the Lord as a thief by night so comes.” This is no doubt another item to include in the list of things that constituted Pauline kerygma. During Paul’s initial visit he had proclaimed the gospel which included the call to abandon idolatry, serve the true God, and to wait for God’s son from heaven who would rescue them from coming wrath (1:9-10). Evidently, though he had intimated its imminence, Paul had not given the Thessalonians a timetable. How could he? Instead, he stressed to them what he reiterates here: “the day of the Lord as a thief by night so comes.”
With “day of the Lord,” the apostle is evoking the language of the Hebrew prophets mediated by the LXX. Hēmera kyriou (“day of the lord”) renders the Hebrew yōwm yhwh (“day of Yahweh”). How do the prophets characterize the day of Yahweh? According to the prophet Amos, the earliest writer to speak of the idea in the Hebrew Bible, the day of Yahweh is “darkness, not light, and gloom with no brightness in it” (Amos 5:20, NRSV). John Barton noted that the prophet Amos likely contended with a “popular eschatology” that saw the day of Yahweh as a time to which the nation of Israel could look forward. “This was an eschatology that Amos rejected and reversed, predicting instead a day of disaster,” he writes. Barton goes on to note that other prophetic texts pick up on this trope of the day of Yahweh as one of disaster. For example, God informs the prophet Ezekiel that the day of Yahweh “will be a day of clouds, a time of doom for the nations” (Ezekiel 30:3, NRSV). The prophet Zephaniah depicts it as “a day of wrath, a day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness, a day of trumpet blast and battle cry against the fortified cities and against the lofty battlements” (Zephaniah 1:15-16, NRSV). According to the prophets, then, the day of Yahweh looked good for neither God’s covenant people Israel nor for the gentiles. Paul’s use of “the day of the Lord” in his letter to the Thessalonians is therefore pregnant with meaning, literally. In v. 3, he compares the sudden destruction that befalls the world on the day of the Lord as “the labor pains of a pregnant woman,” destruction that they cannot escape.
But when this day will come is unknown: it comes “as a thief by night,” Paul tells them. In his commentary, William Hendriksen observes that thieves do not announce when they will come to plunder a home: the thief “does not send a warning letter to this effect, ‘Tomorrow, at such and such a time, I’ll pay you a visit. Be sure to hide all your valuables,” Hendriksen quips. While it is true that other NT texts use the metaphor of a thief, including Jesus in Matthew 24:43, this isn’t the source of Paul’s usage of it. Moreover, as we’ll see when we discuss vv. 4-7, Paul’s “by night” remark plays into his exhortation of the Thessalonians in light of the uncertainty of the day of the Lord.
The metaphor of “labor pains of a pregnant woman” also heightens the indeterminacy of the day of the Lord, and perhaps with greater effect. Today we have advanced medical equipment that can track a fetus’ development such that doctors can give women an exact date of when their child will be due. None of this was available in the ancient world. Instead, while ancient people knew that women were pregnant for around seven to ten months, it was impossible to point to an exact date when birth was to be expected. Once labor pains hit, it was too late to prepare: the birth was nigh at hand! And while in Western societies, infant mortality rates are relatively low, childbirth in the ancient world could bring with it not only the death of the child but also the death of the mother. Sudden destruction, indeed!
But both metaphors – the thief who comes by night and the labor pains of a pregnant woman – are not a call to handwringing and anxiousness. One could prepare for their inevitability. In the case of labor, ancient authors mentioned a variety of things to have on hand for delivering a baby: oil, water, sponges, bandages, pillows, and more. Paul doesn’t extend the labor metaphor any further than what we find in v. 3, but he does use the motif of night to contrast the attitude toward the day of the Lord that should be taken by the Thessalonian converts with that of the rest of the world that would be caught unawares. Beginning with v. 4 and continuing to v. 10 we find an “eschatological paraenesis,” as David Luckensmeyer dubs it. Throughout this section we find a number of verbs in the subjunctive mood that “impart a forceful and sustained exhortation.”
Paul begins by describing what the Thessalonians are not, likely for emphasis. While Paul “renounces any attempt to calendarize” the day of the Lord, he encourages his readers by noting that they “are not in darkness such that the day will as a thief surprise” them. According to v. 5, they are “sons of light and sons of day” and therefore “not of the night nor of darkness.” The binary of light and darkness, common among ancient and even modern religions, belongs to Paul’s apocalyptic worldview. Earl Richard writes, “Light and darkness imagery addresses the Pauline belief in two mutually exclusive spheres of power. Humans are under the sway of the power of light or darkness and produce its works.” Richard goes on to note that many contemporaries of Paul used this light/darkness duality in their writings. For example, in the “Community Rule,” found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, we are told that the “Instructor” is to “teach all the sons of light about the nature of all the sons of man” and that “the sons of deceit,” who are controlled by the Angel of Darkness, “walk on paths of darkness” (1QS 3.13, 21). This isn’t to say that Paul was influenced by the sect that produced the “Community Rule,” but that this was a motif common among apocalyptic thinkers.
In light of their nature as children of light and day, Paul issues a series of exhortations clothed as hortatory subjunctives. Each revolves around the contrast between being awake and sober versus being asleep and drunk. Malherbe notes that the combination of being sober and awake could be found among moral philosophers like Plutarch and that here in 1 Thessalonians 5 the idea of being awake and sober forms another hendiadys. At the end of v. 8, Paul couples soberness with “the breastplate of faith and love and a helmet of the hope of salvation.” In so doing, Paul has introduced another metaphor: the preparation of a soldier for battle. But as Eugene Boring notes, the Thessalonians aren’t commanded to put on the armor; instead, they are described as having already been “clad in” it. Paul is no doubt drawing this imagery from the biblical texts in which he was saturated. For example, in Isaiah 59:17, Yahweh is described as one who “put on righteousness like a breastplate, and a helmet of salvation on his head” (NRSV). Similarly in the Wisdom of Solomon 5:18 we read that the Lord will arm “all creation to repel his enemies” by putting on armor that includes “righteousness as a breastplate” and “impartial justice as a helmet” (NRSV). Though the imagery is inspired by passages like these, here in 1 Thessalonians 5 it is surely a metaphor for Pauline kerygma as well as the Thessalonians’ response to it. In 1:3, Paul was thankful for the Thessalonians and in his prayers before God recalled their “work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.” All of this was a direct result of the efficaciousness of Paul’s preaching among them, preaching that was accompanied by the power of the holy spirit (1:5). It was therefore upon their turning “to God from idols to serve the living and true God” (1:9) that the Thessalonians became clothed in the breastplate of faith and love and the helmet of the hope of salvation.
But if the day of the Lord is a day of destruction, what can the Thessalonians expect? In a word, salvation. Remember, the previous pericope with its discussion of the status of the dead in Christ at the parousia and the present pericope are not to be seen as discussing two separate events. Christ’s parousia happens on the day of the Lord. What Paul is emphasizing here is that because the Thessalonians are “sons of light and sons of day,” they are not going to be caught by surprise when that day comes, despite not knowing exactly when that would happen. Instead, as he said in the beginning of the letter, they await the return of Jesus because for them it means rescue from wrath (cf. 1:10). They are part of God’s eschatological family and it is for them that Jesus died “so that,” v. 10 says, “whether we are awake [i.e., are alive] or we are asleep [i.e., are dead], together with him we might live.” Or, as he said in 4:17, “and so always with the Lord we will be.” It is with all this in mind that the Thessalonians are to “exhort one another, and build up, one by one” as they had already been doing (v. 11).
In reading Paul’s words two-thousand years after the fact, it is easy to take for granted what he is saying to the Thessalonian congregation, interpreting it in light of all the history and theology that has taken place between then and now. But we cannot forget that Paul’s audience was comprised of real people with thoughts and feelings, hopes and dreams, rooted in a particular historical context. They had come to believe that Paul’s message was true, but with it were certain expectations and even fears. It isn’t hard to imagine Timothy reporting back to Paul the fears of a wife whose husband passed away just a few weeks prior to the envoy’s visit. Would he miss out on Jesus’ return? And if the day of the Lord was characterized by wrath, what would be the fate of this fledgling community in Thessalonica? Would they face God’s wrath too? Paul, like a nursing mother and exhorting father, encourages the Thessalonians and reassures them that they are part of God’s family. God will take care of his own. And as we will see in the next episode, the final episode of this season of Amateur Exegesis, there are those among them whose function it is to care and instruct them before the coming of Jesus. We will explore that and letter’s closing next time on Amateur Exegesis.
 Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, Left Behind, electronic edition (Nashville, TN: Tyndale House Publishers, 1995).
 Tim LaHaye, “Second Coming of Christ,” in The Popular Encyclopedia of Bible Prophecy, Tim LaHaye and Ed Hindson, editors (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 2004), 349-352.
 The second half of this verse is fraught with difficulty. The main problem is with how the prepositional phrase dia tou Iēsou works in the clause. As the verse stands written, the phrase appears immediately after the participial tous koimēthentas (“those who sleep”), suggesting a translation of “those who sleep through Jesus.” F.F. Bruce (1 & 2 Thessalonians, Word Biblical Commentary [Nashville, TN: Word, Inc., 1982] 97-98) believed that connecting dia tou Iēsou to tous koimēthentas was the best way of reading the verse since it balanced the sentence. On this reading, then, dia tou Iēsou speaks to the status of those who have died, i.e., that they were believers in Jesus. However, it is also possible that the prepositional phrase belongs to axei (“he will bring”). As David Luckensmeyer (The Eschatology of First Thessalonians [Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht GmbH & Co. KG, 2009], 223), observes, whenever Paul uses dia with Jesus, Christ, or Lord, he always uses it with the sense of instrumentality (e.g., 1 Thessalonians 5:9, Romans 5:9, 1 Corinthians 15:21, etc.). And so, while “there is no grammatical argument which rules out either option,” Luckensmeyer finds that “the preponderance of evidence regarding Paul’s use of [dia] with Jesus, Christ and Lord makes the second option [e.g., instrumentality] far more compelling.” Malherbe (The Letters to the Thessalonians: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, The Anchor Yale Bible [New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000], 266) agrees, writing that it “is more natural to read dia tou Iēsou with axei and to understand it as a genitive of instrument or agent. This is in keeping with Paul’s use of dia with Christ.” Consequently, my translation reflects the position of scholars like Luckensmeyer and Malherbe rather than the view of Bruce.
 Paul uses a double negative, ou mē.
 The word I have translated as “well” is the adverb akribōs which conveys the idea of precision and accuracy. Here it modifies the verb oidate and so describes the quality of their knowledge about the coming day of the Lord, i.e., they are well acquainted with the notion that it comes as a thief by night.
 Or “those who sleep sleep at night.”
 Or “those who get drunk get drunk at night.”
 Luckensmeyer, The Eschatology of First Thessalonians, 212.
 F.F. Bruce, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, 95-96.
 Joel Marcus, Mark 1-8: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, The Anchor Yale Bible (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000), 371.
 Colin R. Nicholl, From Hope to Despair: Situation 1 and 2 Thessalonians (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 23; cf. Marcus, Mark 1-8, 371-372.
 M. Eugene Boring, I & II Thessalonians, The New Testament Library (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015), 157.
 Joulette M. Bassler, Navigating Paul: An Introduction to Key Theological Concepts (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007), 89.
 Monya A. Stubbs, “1 Thessalonians,” in Women’s Bible Commentary, third edition, Carol A. Newsom, Sharon H. Ringe, and Jacqueline E. Lapsley, editors (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012), 591.
 Philip F. Esler, “1 Thessalonians,” in The Oxford Bible Commentary: The Pauline Epistles, John Muddiman and John Barton, editors (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 230.
 See the discussion in Bart D. Ehrman, Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2020), 70-72;
 Translation taken from The Emperor’s Handbook: A New Translation of the Meditations, C. Scot Hicks and David V. Hicks, translators (New York: Scribner, 2002).
 See the discussion in Ehrman, Heaven and Hell, 35-55.
 William Hendricksen, “1-2 Thessalonians,” William Hendrickson and Simon J. Kistemaker, Thessalonians, the Pastorals, and Hebrews, New Testament Commentary (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2007 [originally published in 1955]), 110.
 Florence M. Gillman, Mary Ann Beavis, and HyeRan Kim-Cragg, 1-2 Thessalonians, Wisdom Commentary (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2016), 79-80. Gillman highlights how Paul’s opposition to this form of grief would have negatively impacted women whose economic stability may have depended upon it.
 Richard S. Ascough, “A Question of Death: Paul’s Community-Building Language in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18,” Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 123, no. 3 (2004), 509.
 Ascough, “A Question of Death: Paul’s Community-Building Language in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18,” 525.
 Charles B. Cousar, Reading Galatians, Philippians, and 1 Thessalonians: A Literary and Theological Commentary (Smyth & Helwys Publishing, Inc., 2001), 224.
 Boring, I & II Thessalonians, 161-162; Richard, First and Second Thessalonians, 225.
 Leon Morris, The First and Second Epistles to the Thessalonians, NICNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1959), 138.
 Boring, I & II Thessalonians, 162-163.
 Martinus C. de Boer, Paul, Theologian of God’s Apocalypse: Essays on Paul and Apocalyptic (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2020), 207-208.
 Boring, I & II Thessalonians, 163.
 See the discussion in Malherbe, The Letters to the Thessalonians, 265-266; Richard, First and Second Thessalonians, 225-226; Nicholl, From Hope to Despair, 26.
 Cousar, Reading Galatians, Philippians, and 1 Thessalonians, 225.
 Cousar, Reading Galatians, Philippians, and 1 Thessalonians, 225.
 Bruce, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, 98.
 See James A. Brooks and Carlton L. Winbery, Syntax of New Testament Greek (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1979), 24-26.
 Luckensmeyer, The Eschatology of First Thessalonians, 223.
 Luckensmeyer, The Eschatology of First Thessalonians, 223.
 E.g., Hendriksen, “1-2 Thessalonians,” 113; Morris, The First and Second Epistles to the Thessalonians, 140.
 Malherbe, The Letters to the Thessalonians, 266.
 Luckensmeyer, The Eschatology of First Thessalonians, 224.
 Malherbe (The Letters to the Thessalonians, 266) mentions an analogous text in Matthew 24:31. There Jesus says that the Son of man uses angels to gather together the elect. So, is it the Son of man who gathers the elect or is it the angels? It is both: the Son of man uses the angels to do his bidding. Something similar is going on in 1 Thessalonians 4:14. God is using Jesus to gather his people.
 Malherbe, The Letters to the Thessalonians, 267-268; cf. Nichols, From Hope to Despair, 38-41.
 Boring, I & II Thessalonians, 164.
 See the discussion in Boring, I & II Thessalonians, 166-167; Nichols, From Hope to Despair, 32-33; Malherbe, The Letters to the Thessalonians, 269.
 E.g., Morris, The First and Second Epistles to the Thessalonians, 141-142.
 Paula Fredriksen, Paul: The Pagans’ Apostle (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2017), 132.
 BDAG, s.v. “παρουσία.”
 Florence M. Gillman, Mary Ann Beavis, and HyeRan Kim-Cragg, 1-2 Thessalonians, Wisdom Commentary Series (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2016), 77.
 E.g., Edward Pillar, Resurrection as Anti-Imperial Gospel: 1 Thessalonians 1:9b-10 in Context (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2013).
 Alexandra R. Brown, “Paul and the Parousia,” in The Return of Jesus in Early Christianity, John T. Carroll, editor (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2000), 54-55.
 Wayne Meeks (The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul, second edition [New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003], 182) writes, “The dominant image of Jesus’ resurrection in pre-Pauline and Pauline Christianity seems to have been not the resuscitation of his corpse, as it is depicted in the passion narratives of the canonical gospels and Acts, but his exaltation and enthronement in heaven.” Meeks does not specifically appeal to this passage in Philippians but given that this passage, he so-called Carmen Christi, is generally understood to be pre-Pauline in some form or fashion, it reads in a way so as to fit in with the idea Meeks discusses.
 Richard, First and Second Thessalonians, 242.
 Richard, First and Second Thessalonians, 227.
 Bassler, Navigating Paul, 89.
 Nicholl, From Hope to Despair, 42.
 De Boer, Paul, Theologian of God’s Apocalypse, 214.
 Malherbe, The Letters to the Thessalonians, 274.
 Luckensmeyer, The Eschatology of First Thessalonians, 242-243.
 Boring, I & II Thessalonians, 169.
 Nijay K. Gupta, 1-2 Thessalonians, New Covenant Commentary Series, electronic edition (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2016), “The Hopeful Fate of the Christian Dead (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18).”
 Ehrman, Heaven and Hell, 176-177.
 Bruce, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, 100.
 For a discussion of the rapture in dispensational theology and its relationship to 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17, see Anthony C. Thiselton, 1 & 2 Thessalonians Through the Centuries (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2011), 143-145.
 Richard, First and Second Thessalonians, 246.
 That Paul is referring to himself is almost certain. See Ralph P. Martin, 2 Corinthians, Word Biblical Commentary (Nashville, TN: Word, Inc. 1986), 398.
 Richard, First and Second Thessalonians, 246.
 Malherbe, The Letters to the Thessalonians, 276.
 Malherbe, The Letters to the Thessalonians, 276.
 Cousar, Reading Galatians, Philippians, and 1 Thessalonians, 226.
 Richard, First and Second Thessalonians, 247.
 Philip F. Esler, “1 Thessalonians,” 230.
 Luckensmeyer, The Eschatology of First Thessalonians, 258.
 Tim LaHaye and Richard Mayhue, “Rapture,” in The Popular Encyclopedia of Bible Prophecy, 309.
 Nicholls, From Hope to Despair, 44; cf. Paul Ellingworth, “Up or Down, Which Way Will We Go? Looking again at 1 Thessalonians 4.13-18,” The Bible Translator, vol. 64, no. 3, 229-230.
 Candida R. Moss and Joel S. Baden, “1 Thessalonians 4.13-18 in Rabbinic Perspective,” New Testament Studies, vol. 58, no. 2, 208.
 Moss and Baden, “1 Thessalonians 4.13-18 in Rabbinic Perspective,” 209.
 Margaret M. Mitchell, “1 and 2 Thessalonians,” in The Cambridge Companion to St Paul, James D.G. Dunn, editor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 57.
 Florence M. Gillman, Mary Ann Beavis, and HyeRan Kim-Cragg, 1-2 Thessalonians, 83.
 Malherbe, The Letters to the Thessalonians, 288.
 Nichols, From Hope to Despair, 50.
 John Barton, The Theology of the Book of Amos, Old Testament Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 202-203.
 Hendriksen, “1 Thessalonians,” 122.
 Boring, I & II Thessalonians, 178.
 See Soranus, Gynecology, 2.1.
 For a helpful discussion of the import of this metaphor, see Gillman, Beavis, and Kim-Cragg, 1-2 Thessalonians, 89-91.
 Soranus, Gynecology, 2.2.
 Luckensmeyer, The Eschatology of First Thessalonians, 295.
 Luckensmeyer, The Eschatology of First Thessalonians, 295.
 Malherbe, The Letters to the Thessalonians, 293.
 Boring, I & II Thessalonians, 179.
 Richard, First and Second Thessalonians, 263.
 Translation taken from The Dead Sea Scrolls: Study Edition, Florentino García Martínez and Eibert J.C. Tigchelaar, editors, vol. 1 (Leiden: Brill, 1997)
 Malherbe, The Letters to the Thessalonians, 295.
 Malherbe, The Letters to the Thessalonians, 296.
 Bruce J. Malina and John J. Pilch, Social-Science Commentary on the Letters of Paul (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2006), 52.
 Boring, I & II Thessalonians, 183.
 Philip F. Esler, “1 Thessalonians,” 231.
To open this episode of Amateur Exegesis, let’s begin with my translation of 1 Thessalonians 4:1-12.
4  Finally then, brothers and sisters, we ask and exhort you in the Lord Jesus that just as you received from us how you should walk and please God (as you are doing) that you should abound all the more.  For you know what directives we gave to you through the Lord Jesus.
 For this is the will of God, your sanctification: to stay far from sexual immorality,  to know each of you to control your own body in holiness and honor,  not with passionate desire as the paganswho do not know God,  to not wrong and take advantage in this matter your brother or sister, because an avenger is the Lord concerning all of this, as we warned you and emphatically testified.  For God did not call us for impurity but rather in sanctification.  Thus, the one who rejects this rejects not a human but instead God who gives his holy spirit to you.
 Now concerning the love for brothers and sisters, you have no need for us to write to you, for you yourselves are taught by God to love one another,  for indeed you are doing this for all the brothers and sisters in the whole of Macedonia. We exhort you, brothers and sisters, to abound all the more,  and to endeavor to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we directed you,  in order that you may walk respectably towards those without and may have need of nothing.
As I noted in the last episode, ch. 4 marks the beginning of the letter body. What we find here is something scholars refer to as paraenesis, a word that means instruction or exhortation, often on topics related to moral behavior. These first twelve verses of the letter body can be broken down with this in mind. First, in vv. 1-2 we find the introduction to the entirety of the letter body. Second, in vv. 3-8 we read exhortations on sexual behavior. Third, in vv. 9-12 we see exhortation on proper behavior toward both those within the community and those without.
This section and what follows may feel like this is Paul finally getting down to business, but I would venture to say that this is a misread. As Abraham Malherbe points out, the apostle uses a paraenetic style throughout the letter, not only here in chs. 4-5. Prior to the letter body, Paul has reminded the Thessalonians of their status as imitators and examples, the nature of the founding mission undertaken by Paul and his companions, the reality of socio-religious ostracism, the supernatural struggle preventing Paul’s return, and the value of good news for Paul’s soul in the form of a report from Timothy about the Thessalonians. Thus, Paul has been building and laying the groundwork all along for what we read in chs. 4-5.
Paul begins in the introduction by encouraging them to continue and abound in walking and pleasing God. Twice he appeals to what they already know: in v. 1 he speaks of that which they “received” from the missionary band and in v. 2 he mentions the “directives” given to them “through the Lord Jesus.” This is the Pauline kerygma, a topic we covered in episode four. In the epistle of 1 Thessalonians, we only encounter a few of the elements of that kerygma: turning from idolatry to the worship of the god of Israel and to expect the soon return of this god’s son Jesus, a man killed and raised back to life. This was surely only the ground floor of Paul’s teachings to them. There was undoubtedly much more to it and in what follows in chs. 4-5 we will no doubt discover some of it.
In v. 3, Paul opens up by explaining what God’s will entails: “your sanctification.” As its root, sanctification conveys the idea of holiness which itself suggests a kind of identity that is separate from others. But here it isn’t holiness as a state of being so much as it is an action. In other words, sanctification for Paul is proactive rather than passive; it is something you do and not simply something you are or become. This is made abundantly clear in what follows: Paul employs five infinitives to explain what this sanctification entails.
First, “to stay far from sexual immorality.” Some of you have may know the Greek word that underlies my translation of “sexual immorality” – porneia. It is the word from which we get the term “pornography.” Defining porneia is no easy task but at its root is the idea of sexual activity considered deviant by this or that ethical standard. Because Paul was a Jew, his standard would have been that set forth in the Torah. But what about the Thessalonians? What would they have thought about porneia?
Florence Gillman notes that in the city of Thessalonica there were among the various cults two that “incorporated a strong phallic and sexual character” – the cults of Cabirus and Dionysus. Dionysus, known to the Romans as Bacchus, was the son of Zeus and his cult was associated with ecstasy (i.e., personal transcendence), enthusiasm (i.e., being filled by the god), and mania (i.e., an “intoxicating madness”). The playwright Euripides portrayed the cult to Dionysus in orgiastic terms, claiming through the mouth of the Thebian king Pentheus that during meetings of the cult “women drink wine from full tankards, and then one after the other they all slink off into quiet corners in the arms of their sexual partners.” And while there was some resistance to the proliferation of the cult by conservative Romans, it nevertheless remained popular among many in the Greco-Roman world. Monya Stubbs notes that “Greco-Roman male privilege allowed sexual freedom for married men that was out of the question for married women.” It is possible that prior to their conversion, some of the men in the Thessalonian community had enjoyed this privilege in the context of cults like that of Dionysus. “Porneia hardly raised an eyebrow,” writes Eugene Boring, “there was no ethos of public or peer pressure to discourage casual sex for men.”
Porneia did, however, raise Paul’s eyebrow and in his view of things sex outside of the sanctity of marriage was forbidden. When a Corinthian believer began sleeping with his father’s wife, Paul was flabbergasted at both the boldness of the offending party but also the tolerance of the Corinthian community: “I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother or sister who is sexually immoral or greedy, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber. Do not even eat with such a one,” he writes in 1 Corinthians 5:11 (NRSV). So grievous was sexual sin to Paul, his converts were instructed to not even sit down to eat a meal with those who participated in it.
In v. 4, Paul continues on this theme of sexual sanctity, using the second infinitive: “to know each of you how to control your own body in holiness and honor.” There is some difficulty in this verse: first, the word I have translated as “body” could refer to a wife and the word I have rendered “how to control” could mean “acquire.” Abraham Malherbe translates v. 4 as, “that each of you learn how to acquire his own wife in holiness and honor.” Time does not permit an explanation as to why I don’t think this is the best way to understand what Paul is saying. Instead, I concur with the conclusion of Earl Richard when he writes that the idea is one of “sexual self-control, expressed especially as mastery of one’s body, for such a reading agrees with attested Greek idiom.” What Paul seems to be calling for is self-restraint. Could they go back to the sexual behavior that once characterized their pagan lives? Sure. But back in 3:13, Paul told these believers of his veritable prayer that God would “strengthen [their hearts], blameless in holiness, in the presence of God and our father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his holy ones.” Thus, if Paul’s worldview is right and Jesus’ parousia was right around the corner, these Thessalonians had everything to lose and nothing to gain by abandoning Pauline kerygma. Their only option was self-restraint, to control their bodies “in holiness and honor.”
Juxtaposed holy and honorable self-restraint is, per v. 5, pathei epithymias, or “passionate desire,” a trait connected to “the pagans who do not know God.” The first word of this phrase, pathos, is a rarity not only in the Pauline corpus but in the New Testament generally. In fact, it only appears in three places: here in 1 Thessalonians 4:5, in Romans 1:26, and in Colossians 3:5 (a Deutero-Pauline letter). Pathos is where we get words like “pathology” and “pathetic.” In the New Testament it is invariably connected with something negative. For example, in speaking of the failure of pagans to worship the god of Israel, the Creator, God paredōken autous…eis pathē atimias – “handed them over to shameful passions” (Romans 1:26, my translation). What does he mean by “shameful passions”? As the rest of vv. 26-27 suggest, Paul has in mind some kind of sexual activity, most likely homosexual behavior. Thus, in the apostle’s mind, the rejection of the one true God led to sexual impropriety.
This seems to be what is going on here in 1 Thessalonians 4:5. The will of God is, per Paul, that the Thessalonians abstain from porneia or sexual immorality. To that end, they are to control their bodies “in holiness and honor” as becoming gentile followers of the god of Israel and “not with passionate desire” as gentiles who do not follow God. In reasoning this way, Paul is following Jewish precedents. Maria Pascuzzi writes,
Throughout Jewish literature, among the most popular topoi, or themes, used to slander non-Jews…were those related to sexual vice, which was associated with idolatry…. Jews profiled gentiles as hyper-sexualized, sexually deviant people, given to every manner of sexual excess and depravity. This was an effective strategy that functioned to underscore the distinction between Israel and all others and to showcase Jewish moral superiority.
As I already noted, Paul’s worldview is thoroughly Jewish. Consequently, his morality is Jewish as well. Since sexual deviance was connected to pagan worship in the Jewish mind, Paul’s call to abandon porneia should be viewed in the light of Paul’s Jewish worldview in which, Pamela Eisenbaum observes, “idolatry is the sin that leads to all other sins.”
Given the socio-religious context of the Thessalonians, in a city replete with idols and the potential for sexual immorality, and Paul’s apocalyptic worldview, complete with a Satan who tempts, Paul’s call to faithfulness makes good sense. At the end of the letter, he implores them to “be awake and sober” in light of the coming return of Jesus and the wrath upon the unbelieving world that will no doubt accompany it (5:7). He doesn’t want to see all the work that he and his missionary team did among the Thessalonians to become, in the words of 3:5, “unproductive.” As a further barrier to return to idolatry, Paul employs kinship language and instructs them “to not wrong and take advantage in this matter your brother and sister.” To what matter does he refer? In context, it is surely porneia.Abraham Malherbe points out that the command to “not wrong and take advantage” of a fellow believer “fits well with ancient discussions of adultery” found in the works of authors like Dio Chrysostom and Epictetus. Their sexuality should not be used “as a tool of power or exploitation.”
To bolster his rhetoric, Paul adds a warning: “because an avenger is the Lord concerning all of this, as we warned you and emphatically testified.” The idea of the Lord as an avenger is influenced by the Jewish scriptures where the Lord is seen as the judge of the wicked. But the idea of divine recompense on iniquity is also in view in ch. 2 where Paul says in v. 16 that upon the Judeans who killed Jesus “has come the wrath of God to the end” which, as we discussed in episode six, may either be an example of a proleptic aorist or an allusion to recent events viewed through an apocalyptic worldview. Whatever the case may be, the phrase “wrath of God” conveys the idea of wrath from God and is in response to the perceived sins of the Judeans. If they cannot escape God’s anger despite being part of God’s covenant people, what makes these Thessalonians think that they could do so? Again, the exhortation to “stay away from sexual immorality” is about more than just stay away from sexual immorality; it’s about what happens if you don’t.
In v. 7, Paul offers the grounds for his instruction on porneia: “For God did not call us for impurity but rather in sanctification.” “The reason…why Paul had spoken so emphatically about God’s vengeance is found in the nature of their call,” Malherbe writes. God did not call the Thessalonians to live in debauchery. Instead, he called them to live a life of holiness. To that end, v. 8 reports that God had given them his holy spirit and, therefore, the one who rejects the words of Paul isn’t rejecting Paul so much as they are rejecting God. This is what he argued in ch. 2 where he says, in v. 13, that he was thankful that they had “received the word of God through hearing us” and “accepted it not as the word of people but rather as what it truly is – the word of God, which is working in you believers.” And since, according to 1:4-5, their election as part of God’s family was demonstrated by the efficacy of the message among them, if the Thessalonians acted in a way contrary to Paul’s kerygma it would be a sign not of the failure of God but proof that God had not chosen them. There was a lot at stake for the Thessalonians if they returned to a life of idolatry and porneia.
Having urged them to flee sexual immorality and to live a life pleasing to God, Paul now turns in vv. 9-12 to how the Thessalonians should behave both toward one another and to those on the outside of the community. In vv. 9-10, the apostle describes them as a community characterized by love, having been “taught by God” to do so. The word rendered “taught by God” is theodidaktoi, a word found only here in all of the New Testament and otherwise unattested before this epistle. In other words, this may have been a term that Paul coined. Whatever the source of the term, it coheres with what Paul has been saying all along: his message isn’t his message but God’s. This also gives us another subject to add to the content of Pauline kerygma: the call to philadelphia – love of the brothers. This is something they have not only done well but have done for those even outside of the immediate vicinity of Thessalonica stretching to the larger region of Macedonia. Recall that in ch. 1 of the letter, Paul expressed his gratitude that the Thessalonians had become “an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia” (v. 7). As I noted in episode four, one of the reasons Paul likely chose large cities like Thessalonica in which to spread the gospel was their value as launching pads into neighboring areas. It’s possible, then, that the Thessalonians had begun their own mission endeavors.
If love for one another is to be the behavior characteristic of believers toward those within the community, quietness is to be the behavior of believers towards those without. As I’ve mentioned repeatedly in the last few episodes, the Thessalonian likely faced socio-religious ostracism for their conversion from paganism to following Jesus. They had already rocked the boat, so-to-speak. Lest they draw any more unwanted attention, Paul urges them to “live quietly” and “mind [their] own affairs,” working “with [their] hands” as he had instructed. “Keep your heads down,” he tells them. Remember, according to 2:9 Paul had worked “night and day” so as not to burden the Thessalonians while he lived and preached among them. This was his way of showing the pagan Thessalonians that he cared for them. Now, he urges the same kind of behavior for the now converted Thessalonians but in this case it is in their native context as ex-pagans living among idol worshippers. By living quietly and working with their own hands, they appear to be self-sufficient.
In the next episode we will turn our gaze toward one of the most misunderstood passages in all of the Pauline corpus: 1 Thessalonians 4:13 – 5:11. This section is no doubt familiar to virtually anyone who has spent time in an evangelical church since many believe it is a text that speaks of that mysterious event referred to as the Rapture. That is a topic we will explore next time on Amateur Exegesis.
 The Greek phrase translated “finally then” is loipon oun” and is a rare construction, appearing in the NT only here. Scholars are divided over whether loipon oun has a temporal meaning (i.e., we are approach the end of the material Paul wishes to cover) or should be understood inferentially (i.e. this next section flows necessarily from what has been said previously).
 The choice of “directives” to render parangelias is influenced by Earl Richard’s translation of the word in his commentary (First and Second Thessalonians, Sacra Pagina [Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2007], 180-181). As he points out, parangelia suggests orders given by a superior to a subordinate.
 That is, using the authority of the Lord Jesus.
 The Greek word skeuos, here rendered “body,” is commonly used to refer to a vessel of some kind, e.g., storage containers, luggage, military equipment, etc. (LSJ, s.v. “σκεῦος”). Some scholars understand skeuos to refer to one’s wife (e.g., 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], 226-228) but this seems to be highly interpretive. It is certainly possible that Paul is referring to controlling (or, alternatively, acquiring) a wife but he could have easily said so using gynē instead.
 My choice of “pagan” instead of “gentile” (NRSV) is influenced by Paula Fredriksen’s view that the word “pagan,” for all its trouble,” better renders ta ethne than does “gentile” due to the latter’s religiously “neutral” connotations (Paul: The Pagans’ Apostle [New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2017], 34). While “gentile” denotes a non-Jew, ta ethne emphasizes religious commitments of non-Jews, the primary one being that they worship deities other than the god of Israel.
 Malherbe, The Letters to the Thessalonians, 217.
 Malherbe, The Letters to the Thessalonians, 84-85.
 Malherbe, The Letters to the Thessalonians, 225.
 M. Eugene Boring, I & II Thessalonians, The New Testament Library (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015), 141.
 For an overview of porneia in classical Greek and New Testament usage, see Kyle Harper, “Porneia: The Making of a Christian Sexual Norm,” Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 131, no. 2 (2011), 366-379.
 Florence M. Gillman, Mary Ann Beavis, and Hye-Ran Kim-Cragg, 1-2 Thessalonians, Wisdom Commentary (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2016), 69.
 Hans-Josef Klauck, The Religious Context of Early Christianity: A Guide to Graeco-Roman Religions, Brian McNeil, translator (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2000), 107.
 Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, third edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2003), 261.
 Euripides, The Bacchae, 221-224, quoted in Klauck, The Religious Context of Early Christianity, 111.
 Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, 261-262.
 Monya Stubbs, “1 Thessalonians,” in Women’s Bible Commentary, third edition (Louisville, KY: The Westminster John Knox Press, 2012), 590.
 Boring, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 145.
 Malherbe, The Letters to the Thessalonians, 224.
 Richard, First and Second Thessalonians, 198.
 James D.G. Dunn, Romans 1-8, Word Biblical Commentary (Nashville, TN: Word, Inc., 1988), 73-74.
 Maria Pascuzzi, “The Rhetorical Function of Invective, or Negative-Stereotyping,” in Gillman, Beavis, and Kim-Cragg, 1-2 Thessalonians, 71.
 Pamela Eisenbaum, Paul Was Not a Christian: The Original Message of a Misunderstood Apostle (New York: HarperOne, 2009), 152.
 Boring, I & II Thessalonians, 147; cf. Richard, First and Second Thessalonians, 188.
 Malherbe, The Letters to the Thessalonians, 232.
 Edward Pillar, “1 Thessalonians,” in Fortress Commentary on the Bible: The New Testament, Margaret Aymer, Cynthia Briggs Kittredge, and David A. Sánchez, editors (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2014), 579.
 Malherbe, The Letters to the Thessalonians, 233.
 Malherbe, The Letters to the Thessalonians, 242.
 Boring, I & II Thessalonians, 149.
 Charles B. Cousar, Reading Galatians, Philippians, and 1 Thessalonians: A Literary and Theological Commentary (Smyth & Helwys Publishing, Inc., 2001), 221.
A few weeks ago, Michael Jones (aka “Inspiring Philosophy”) published a documentary over at his YouTube channel entitled “Exodus Rediscovered.” The lengthy film was quintessentially Jones: it was well-produced, interesting to watch, and deeply flawed. I had been vaguely aware that the documentary was in the pipeline but paid little attention to the specific details. When it was finally published, I was tagged on Twitter asking my opinion of it. I muted the tweet since I honestly had no desire to get involved. However, a friend of mine on Twitter had watched it and found problems with it. He also alerted me to a review by Egyptologist David Falk that had been posted to Falk’s YouTube channel. You can watch that review here:
Not long after Falk’s mildly scathing (is that a thing?) review, Jones took down his documentary and issued a statement over at his blog which you can read here. In it, he acknowledges the multiple flaws with his film and abandons the dating for an early exodus in favor of a later date. But at the end of his post, Jones writes this:
I also want to be clear, I hold no grudges against early exodus date proponents (nor will I mention their names) who initially convinced me the Exodus best fits with the reign of Amenhotep II. It is very easy for people to hold resentment if they feel like they have been deceived. For example, many ex-Christians go around claiming all apologists are dishonest because, in their view, they feel apologists deceived them. I often encourage people to extend the principle of charity as much as possible and that is what I must do as well. I have no hard feelings for early date proponents who initially convinced me. It is better to believe they were advocating what they thought was true and right, not lying to me or themselves.
While I am all for giving charity, the problem with so much of what passes for Christian apologetics deserves none. And while Jones’ action of taking down his discredited video is viewed by some as the model of Christian humility and the willingness to change one’s views in light of new evidence, for my part it seems like the symptom of a much larger problem, one that is inherent to the apologetic impulse.
If we lacked the biblical account of the exodus, could we come to the conclusion that a relatively large group of former Semitic slaves escaped Egypt, supernaturally thwarting Egyptian might, to arrive in the Levant unmolested based solely on archaeological and inscriptional evidence? I would venture to say that we could not. But it is precisely because we have biblical accounts of an exodus that have been coupled with particular views of divine inspiration, infallibility, and inerrancy that the need to square the Pentateuchal narratives with the historical record arises. Apologists, therefore, are compelled to find in the data the proof they need to declare that the Bible got it right all along. In other words, they begin with their conclusion and try to find evidence to confirm it. This is pop-apologetics in a nutshell: it is defensive by its nature and of very limited value.
Now, before the “but atheists” crowd jumps in, let me acknowledge that my unbelieving brethren do this too. I find this to be especially true of the Jesus Mythicist crowd. But here is the key difference between Christian apologists and atheists: the latter do not claim to be given a supernatural guide in the form of the Holy Spirit to spur them on to truth (cf. John 14:16-17). From where I’m standing, there’s no practical difference between an atheist who denies the existence of the Holy Spirit and a Christian who affirms it. Why would I want to become a Christian if it has no discernible, real world effect? For the fire insurance?
No thank you.
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.
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.
 But we, brothers and sisters, having been separated 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.  Subsequently, we were determined to come to you, indeed I Paul time and again, but Satan hindered us.  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?  For you yourselves are our glory and joy!
3  Therefore, being unable to bear it any longer, we gladly were left behind in Athens alone  and we sent Timothy, our brother and coworker of God in the gospel of Christ, to strengthen you and exhort you about your faith,  so that no one may be shaken in these distresses, for you yourselves know that to this we are fated.  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.  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.
 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.  For this reason we were very encouraged, brothers and sisters, about you in all our anguish and distress on account of your faith,  because now we live if you stand firm in the Lord.  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,  night and day earnestly praying to see your face and to supply what lacks for your faith?
 Now may our God and father himself and our Lord Jesus Christ direct our way to you.  As for you, may the Lord increase and overflow love for one another and for all just as even we for you.  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.
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.” 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. 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.”But if Paul was truly at a loss while absent from them, why not just return?
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. 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.”
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. 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.” 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. 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. 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.” 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.” 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.”
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.” 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.” 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.
The first true glimpses of Satan as the archenemy of God appear in texts from the final few centuries before the common era. Two in particular stand out: the book of Jubilees and the book of 1 Enoch. In Jubilees, a work of the second century BCE, 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. 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.” 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), 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.
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.” 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.
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. 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. 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. 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.” 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.”
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.” Nevertheless, though Satan resisted his attempts, Paul knew that God was in control. 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.
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.” 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. 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.” 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” 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.
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, 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. 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. 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).Nevertheless, the reading found in the 28th edition of the Nestle-Aland Greek text remains the best candidate for what Paul originally wrote.
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. Earl Richard believes that the term refers to someone trying to talk the Thessalonian converts out of their commitment to Christ. 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, 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.”
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. 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. 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.” 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.” 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.
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. 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.”
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.” 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. Paul is connecting his own vitality to theirs and, in so doing, strengthens the bond between them, albeit with “cautious optimism.”
Monya Stubbs also observes that it is in this section that the “imitation theme comes full circle.” 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.” 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!
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. 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.
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.
 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.
 Earl Richard, First and Second Thessalonians, Sacra Pagina (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2007), 135.
 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.
 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.”
 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.
 Malherbe, The Letters to the Thessalonians, 184.
 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.”
 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.
 Clines, Job 1-20, Word Biblical Commentary (Nashville, TN: Word, Inc., 1989), 19.
 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.
 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.
 Robert Alter, The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary, vol. 3 – The Writings (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2019), 907.
 Alter, The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary, vol. 3 – The Writings, 907.
 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.”
 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.
 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.
 On the dating of Jubilees, see James C. VanderKam, Jubilees 1-21, Hermeneia Commentary Series (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2018), 25-38.
 Translation taken from The Jewish Annotated Apocrypha, Jonathan Klawans and Lawrence M. Wills, editors (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020).
 Miryam T. Brand, “Evil and Sin,” in The Jewish Annotated Apocrypha, 647.
 Translation taken from George W.E. Nickelsburg and James C. VanderKam, 1 Enoch: The Hermeneia Translation (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2012).
 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.
 John J. Collins, The Apocalyptic Imagination: An Introduction to Jewish Apocalyptic Literature, second edition (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1998), 5.
 Martinus C. de Boer, Paul: Theologian of God’s Apocalypse: Essays on Paul and Apocalyptic (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2020), 30.
 De Boer, Paul: Theologian of God’s Apocalypse, 22-23, 28-29.
 De Boer, Paul: Theologian of God’s Apocalypse, 23-24, 29.
 Paula Fredriksen, Paul: The Pagans’ Apostle (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2017), 9.
 De Boer, Paul: Theologian of God’s Apocalypse, 30.
 Boring, I & II Thessalonians, 111.
 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.”
 Malherbe, The Letters to the Thessalonians, 184.
 Malherbe, The Letters to the Thessalonians, 185.
 Richard, First and Second Thessalonians, 134.
 Boring, I & II Thessalonians, 112.
 Malherbe, The Letters to the Thessalonians, 189.
 Malherbe, The Letters to the Thessalonians, 190.
 See the discussion in Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, second edition (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibel Gesellschaft, 1994), 563.
 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.
 Richard, First and Second Thessalonians, 140-141.
 Malherbe, The Letters to the Thessalonians, 192; cf. Richard, First and Second Thessalonians, 142.
 Richard, First and Second Thessalonians, 142.
 Charles B. Cousar, Reading Galatians, Philippians, and 1 Thessalonians, 213.
 Boring, I & II Thessalonians, 118.
 Richard, First and Second Thessalonians, 140.
 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.
 Mitchell, “New Testament Envoys in the Context of Greco-Roman Diplomatic and Epistolary Conventions: The Example of Timothy and Titus,” 647.
 Mitchell, “New Testament Envoys in the Context of Greco-Roman Diplomatic and Epistolary Conventions: The Example of Timothy and Titus,” 649.
 Malherbe, The Letters to the Thessalonians, 200; cf. Richard, First and Second Thessalonians, 154.
 Monya A. Stubbs, “1 Thessalonians,” in Women’s Bible Commentary, third edition (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012), 590.
 Malherbe, The Letters to the Thessalonians, 202.
 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.
 Stubbs, “1 Thessalonians,” 590.
 Stubbs, “1 Thessalonians,” 590.
 Malherbe, The Letters to the Thessalonians, 203.
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.
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).
If you’d like to host a carnival on your website, reach out to Phil Long (firstname.lastname@example.org; 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
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.
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. However, once we peel away this façade, we will see that it does nothing to actually resolve the contradiction.
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. 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.
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.” 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), 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.
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. 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,” Matthew has no problem whatsoever in carrying over Mark’s exact wording in other places in his Gospel. 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. This oversight by Poythress renders his explanation untenable.
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.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.
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.
 Craig L. Blomberg, Matthew, The New American Commentary (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1992), 160.
 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
 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.
 Keith F. Nickle, The Synoptic Gospels: An Introduction, revised and expanded (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 115.
 L. Michael White, Scripting Jesus: The Gospels in Rewrite (New York: HarperOne, 2010), 300.
 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.
 Vern Sheridan Poythress, Inerrancy and the Gospels: A God-Centered Approach to the Challenges of Harmonization (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 211.
 Joel Marcus, Mark 1-8: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, The Yale Anchor Bible (New Haven, CT Yale University Press, 2000), 356.
 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.
 See LSJ, s.v. “ἄρτι.” With the aorist, arti expresses the idea of a very recent past event.
 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