My Appearance on ‘Apocalypse Here’

This past week I was invited to come on the YouTube channel Apocalypse Here to discuss the question, “What is the Bible?” The channel is run by Jon DePue and Laura Robinson, a pair of knowledgeable scholars who just happen to be married to one another! (Laura you may know from the fantastic podcast New Testament Review that I’ve mentioned a few times here on the blog.) You can probably tell that at the beginning of the interview I was pretty nervous. (Thanks, imposter syndrome!) I always get this way, especially when speaking extemporaneously. But Jon and Laura are fantastic interviewers and put me right at ease. Looking back at the few interviews I’ve participated in, I’ve been lucky to have interviewers who make me feel at home. Following the interview, Jon and Laura opened it up and brought on some more guests, some I knew (like my friend @MiraScriptura) and some I didn’t. What ensued was an enlightening conversation about inerrancy, interpretation, and more.

If you haven’t subscribed to the channel, give it a go!

Helen Bond: The Markan Jesus’ Timelessness

Helen K. Bond, The First Biography of Jesus: Genre and Meaning in Mark’s Gospel (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2020), 165.

On first reading, it is easy to miss the fact that Mark’s Jesus is ageless. We are used to Luke’s note that Jesus was “about thirty years of age” when he began his ministry (Luke 3:23), not to mention centuries of Christian art and decades of films that reinforce this image. But Mark does not tell us when he was born, how old he was at the start of his ministry, or his age at death. The impression is of a man in the prime of life – young enough to cope with a demanding itinerary, yet mature nought to speak with wisdom. Mark’s lack of any reference to time or date (other than locating Jesus’s execution during the governorship of Pilate) lends the figure of Jesus a timeless air; he might be anything from late teens to early sixties. Similarly, Jesus’s social status is curiously indeterminate: although a carpenter and a friend of fishermen and tax collectors, he speaks to religious authorities as equals and dies as a would-be king (15:26). And though we have seen that Jesus displays a range of manly virtues, there is something rather sexless about him: we never hear of a wife or have the slightest indication that Jesus behaves as a virile male. Whether or not all of this is deliberate, the effect of this lack of specificity is to enhance the mimetic aspects of Jesus’s character. Mark’s Jesus can easily be appropriated by a variety of believers, irrespective of age, gender, or social standing.

Script for Amateur Exegesis – Season 2, Episode 5: “The Mission to Thessalonica”

INTRODUCTION 

I was raised in a King James Only, dispensational, independent Baptist church near Syracuse, NY. We valued singing hymns, denouncing corrupt translations of the Bible like the NIV, placing Chick tracts in every bathroom stall and restaurant table (along with a generous tip), and, more than anything else, missionaries. If memory serves, our little church supported over fifty missionaries who could be found ministering on every continent except Antarctica. When they would return home, usually to raise funds, we would host them in a single-wide trailer specifically furnished for them and invite them to speak during worship services. I can remember many a Sunday night service sitting in a darkened sanctuary, watching slides of happy faces in the Philippines or Ireland or some other nation that needed the gospel of Jesus Christ, and listening to a missionary speak of the highs and lows of missionary work. I can also remember my dad dropping a little extra money into the offering plate to help with their work. After service, he would track the missionaries down to remind them that he had been praying for them and would continue to do so. As I mentioned in the last episode, praying for missionaries was part of his daily routine. 

What did spreading the gospel in these foreign countries entail? For many missionaries, they had to learn the local language, a task not made easier with the passage of time. Additionally, they often couldn’t be sent as missionariesbut rather as a skilled laborer of some kind or an ESL teacher or something similar. Fundamentally, it was all about building relationships and talking about Jesus once those relationships had been formed. While missionaries undoubtedly engaged in evangelical “cold calls,” their most fruitful work was found in the slow, gradual relationship building that produced not simply converts but life-long disciples. 

In the last two episodes, we have looked at the story of Paul as it is told to us in the Acts of the Apostles, a book that among other things describes the missionary activity of the early church. In episode four, we reached the point in the narrative where Paul first reaches the Macedonian city of Thessalonica. Today we will consider that initial visit from the perspective of Paul himself in 1 Thessalonians 2:1-12. Following this, we will compare the account in Acts with what Paul suggests in his letter. 

Welcome to another extended episode of Amateur Exegesis. 

1 THESSALONIANS 2:1-12

Let’s begin with my translation of the passage.

2 [1] For you yourselves know, brothers and sisters, our visit to you has not been unproductive, [2] rather,[1]having faced suffering and shameful treatment in Philippi (as you know), we had courage in our God to speak to you the gospel of God in great agony.[2] [3] For our appeal was made not from error,[3] nor from an ulterior motive,[4] nor with trickery,[5] [4] rather[6] just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, thus we speak, not as pleasing people but God, the one who examines our hearts. [5] For it was never with flattering words that we came (just as you know) nor with a pretext for greed (God is witness), [6] nor did we seek the praise of people, not from you or from anyone else.  [7] Though able to throw our weight around[7]as Christ’s apostles, we instead came into your midst with gentleness, as a nurse who cares for her own children, [8] Thus caring greatly for you, we were pleased to share with you not only the gospel of God but even our own souls, because of how beloved[8] to us you became. [9] For you remember, brothers and sisters, our labor and hardship: night and day we worked so as to not burden any of you while we preached to you the gospel of God. [10] You are witnesses and God how holy and righteous and blameless to you believers we were, [11] just as you know, how with each one of you we were as a father with his own children, [12] exhorting you and encouraging and urging that you walk worthy of the God who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.

What Paul describes here is his first visit to the Thessalonian community, a visit that we know from ch. 1 was a success because of its effects (cf. 1:4-9). Here, however, Paul describes what happened from his own perspective, addressing the how of his sharing of the gospel with the Thessalonians. We catch a glimpse of not only Paul’s motivations and emotions but also his missionary strategy. 

Emboldened by Suffering (2:1-2)

The first thing Paul does is to appeal to the knowledge that the Thessalonians had of his time spent with them. This is strategic: Paul wants to reinforce their bond and an appeal to their shared experience accomplishes exactly that.[9]The way Paul goes about doing this is to mention the “suffering and shameful treatment” he had undergone in Philippi. Paul does not explain what exactly this entailed but the author of the Acts of the Apostles depicts a situation wherein Paul is arrested, stripped naked, beaten with rods, and then imprisoned (Acts 16:19-24). Regardless of what exactly happened, Paul uses this experience to not only contrast the response of the Thessalonians but also to make the point that God had emboldened them despite what they had suffered at the hands of the Philippians. It is here that, as Abraham Malherbe shows, Paul demonstrates his indebtedness to Greco-Roman philosophical and rhetorical traditions.[10]

Paul in v. 1, reminds the Thessalonians that his initial visit to them was not kenē – “unproductive.” As is clear from the context, Paul connects this directly to his preaching of the gospel (v. 2). He is therefore distinguishing himself from those who merely talk to entertain, uninterested in seeing their words produce some moral effect in lives of their hearers. “Such speech the handbooks on rhetoric described as empty,” Malherbe writes, “which reflected as much the characters of the speakers as their speeches…for they merely aimed at pleasing.”[11] Not so Paul. As we learn in v. 4, Paul spoke with the aim of pleasing God, not people, since it was God (and God alone) who could rightly examine his heart. 

He also shows his indebtedness to Greco-Roman ideas in v. 2 where he says, “[W]e had courage in our God to speak to you the gospel….” The word I have translated as “we had courage” is from a word often used in the context of “Greek political philosophy to express frank and truthful speech and later is associated with the moral philosopher’s use of free speech to cure human ills.”[12] But Paul’s boldness to preach is not to be found in his own person and efforts. As I mentioned in episode four, Paul seems to be speaking of powerful deeds he performed through God’s spirit in 1:5. Thus, it is God who is “the divine source of [his] courage and strength.”[13] This is why his visit was “not unproductive.” God was at work through him and the missionary team.

At the end of v. 2, Paul refers to speaking the gospel “in great agony.” My translation reflects more transliteration than translation since the word behind “agony” is the Greek term agōni. What does Paul mean when he speaks of “agony”? In all likelihood, Paul has in view the idea of an athletic contest, a metaphor of which Stoics and Cynics were fond of using.[14] As Leon Morris notes, the term “denotes not a token opposition, a tepid struggle, but a very real battle.”[15]While some commentators have sought to connect this agonizing contest with the story told in Acts 17,[16] the context here suggests Paul is referring to something internal, for example the various vices listed in v. 3.[17] Another possibility, offered by Earl Richard, is that Paul is speaking of the “competitive rhetorical context” in which his preaching at Thessalonica had taken place.[18] In other words, Paul was not the only one speaking in Thessalonica and so he faced an agonizing contest to make the gospel known to those within earshot. 

Character Witnesses and Familial Solidarity (2:3-7, 11-12)

In vv. 1-2, Paul used a rhetorical technique known as antithesis, a device he also used in 1:5.[19]

The pattern of an antithesis is simple enough. First, Paul states something negatively. For example, in v. 1 Paul writes that his visit was “not unproductive.” Second, Paul states something positively. In v. 2, Paul wrote that he “had courage…to speak…the gospel.” Paul continues to use antithesis in vv. 3-8 to great effect. 

“For our appeal was made not from error, nor from ulterior motive, nor with trickery,” Paul says in v. 3, “rather just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, thus we speak, not as pleasing people but God, the one who examines our heart” (v. 4). Here Paul begins to speak directly about his motives.[20] In vv. 3-4, the antithesis is straightforward: Paul was not pulling one over on the Thessalonians or deceiving them because he himself was deceived. Instead, he makes it clear that it was God himself who approved of Paul’s work and entrusted him with the great task of spreading the gospel. Moreover, Paul’s ministry was not about tickling the ears of his audience. In v. 2, Paul states that he “had courage in…God to speak,” using the language of free and frank speech. As Malherbe notes, philosophers held in contempt those who wanted to entertain the crowds for personal gain. In their eyes, this was the opposite of free and frank speech.[21] This wasn’t Paul; he sought God’s approval, not people’s. 

This aversion to flattery is picked up again in vv. 5-6 as well as the suggestion he was greedy or seeking a pat on the back from his listeners. He wasn’t a flatterer? No, and the Thessalonians are witnesses to that fact. He wasn’t preaching for personal gain? No, and God is his witness. Throughout this section, Paul will appeal to the Thessalonians’ memory of his initial visit. They are, in the words of Margaret Mitchell, his “character witnesses.”[22] Paul’s defense throughout this passage isn’t merely about himself; he has a nobler goal, namely, to reinforce the empathetic bond between himself and the Thessalonians.[23]

To this end, Paul employs a couple of different metaphors. First, in v. 7, Paul compares himself to “a nurse who cares for her own children.” The metaphor of a nurse, or trophos, is apt for Paul. Given the relatively high infant mortality rate in the first century, Monya Stubbs notes, “the care provided by a nurse was essential to its existence.”[24]Historically, a nurse was one charged with the care of other’s children.[25] Undoubtedly, a good nurse provided her charges with her undivided attention. But Paul’s metaphor isn’t about a nurse who cares for someone else’s children. Rather, Paul’s metaphor is about a nurse who cares for her own children. The implicit logic here is that if a nurse is gentle and careful with another’s child then she must surely be even more so with her own. And this is how Paul behaved with the Thessalonians.[26]

The second metaphor Paul uses is found in v. 11 where Paul compares himself to “a father with his own children.” As I mentioned in episode one, because public education was not widespread in the ancient world, it fell on the father to instruct his children on how to make their way in the world and to live right within it.[27] In many ways, the Thessalonians had entered a brand-new world, one that was rapidly approaching the end of all things, and so as their father he, per v. 12, exhorted, encouraged, and urged them to walk worthy of God’s calling. They were, after all, God’s chosen ones (1:4) and it was Paul, having “been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel” (2:4), who was ordained to the task of bringing them up in the faith.

Why such imagery? Why does Paul depict himself both as a nursing mother and a dutiful father? Eugene Boring offers a succinct explanation: 

The intensification of family imagery in [1 Thessalonians 2:1-12] is no accident. Conversion to the Christian faith had sometimes caused strained relationships within families, or even uprooted the new converts from their family life, and they needed the reassurance that they belonged to a new and greater family. This kind of language is not merely descriptive or hortatory but also performative: it brings into being the reality it describes.[28]

But it was not just with family members that such a strain would have been created. The implication of 1 Thessalonians 1:9 is that the Pauline community was not comprised of Jews but pagans: they had “turned to God from idols,” Paul explains, “to serve the living and true God.” Such language, Pamela Eisenbaum writes, “is standard language – almost cliché – to describe Gentiles who have come to appreciate the wisdom of Jewish monotheism.”[29] But Paul was not interested in turning non-Jews into Jews. In writing to Galatian believers who were being drawn in by rival Jesus followers that Paul claimed were promoting “a different gospel” (Galatians 1:6), the apostle makes clear that if his gentile readers undergo circumcision, and therefore become Jewish proselytes, that “Christ will be of no benefit to” them and they will be “obliged to obey the entire law” (5:2, 3). Paul did not want his pagan followers to become Jews; they were to remain as gentiles. And herein lies the difficulty for these pagans. Mark Nanos explains: 

Paul prohibited non-Jews who turned to God in Christ from becoming Jews, yet at the same time he also instructed them not to practice one of the most basic ways of being non-Jews in the Roman world of Paul’s time, namely, family and civic cult (Rom 3:29-4:25; 6; 1 Cor 7:17-22; Gal 4:18-10; 1 Thess 1:9-10).[30]

Paula Fredriksen complicates this situation further by noting that “[a]ncient people were born into their relationships with their gods. Cult was an aspect and a statement of a people’s family connection, of their peoplehood, of their ethnicity.”[31] From the moment of his birth, a Thessalonian male was obligated to his ancestral gods and so to abandon their worship put his family and even his city at risk of divine wrath.[32] It would only make sense that his neighbors would be none-too-pleased with the prospect of converting. 

This, then, is the heart of the problem. On the one hand, Paul was preaching to non-Jews that they must abandon their families’ and cities’ cults to worship exclusively the god of Israel. To their pagan neighbors, this would make them appear to be Jewish.[33] On the other hand, Paul makes it clear that they are not Jews as they were not to take the sign of the covenant, circumcision. So, to Jews they are pagans; to pagans they are Jews. In reality, they are neither.[34] “[T]he early apostles,” writes Fredriksen, “walked these Christ-fearing pagans into a social and religious no-man’s land.”[35]

Paul’s Thessalonian community, therefore, was comprised of people who had no people, veritable orphans in a world where family was fundamental. Into this void, this “social and religious no-man’s land” of which Fredriksen wrote, he interjects images of a family, one where God is their father and Paul too takes on parental imagery as a nursing mother and a father, “reinforcing the sense of family solidarity among the readers…and depicting a nurturing ministry of pastoral care.”[36]

A Working Man (2:8-10)

In vv. 8-10, Paul seeks to further demonstrate his affection for the Thessalonians. First, he says that he shared with them not only the gospel but also his very soul due to the affection he felt for them. Coupled with both the nursing mother imagery of v. 7 and that of a dutiful father in vv. 11-12, Paul’s affectionate language “intensifies the emotional tone of the discussion.”[37] Paul’s missionary activity was not like a traveling salesman who is in and out quickly, disconnected from the day-to-day lives of those to whom he is making his pitch. Rather, for Paul the work of spreading the gospel was a total investment. It’s why when we read Paul’s letters we can detect powerful emotions. In the letter to the Galatians, for example, you can detect Paul’s frustration and anger with both the Judaizing Jesus followers seeking to lead the gentile Galatians astray as well as with the Galatians’ apparent willingness to go along with it. Here in 1 Thessalonians, readers can detect Paul’s love for the Thessalonians and the warmth with which he wrote. 

Verse nine is pivotal for understanding the context of Paul’s kerygma or preaching. Though Acts depicts Paul as a powerful speaker, one who confidently proclaimed Jesus as the crucified and resurrected messiah in Jewish synagogues and even entered the philosophical lions’ den in Athens (Acts 17), Paul depicts himself as one not particularly eloquent: “My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom,” he tells the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 2:4-5, “but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.” Others too had observed Paul’s ineloquence. “His letters are weighty and strong,” someone said of Paul, “but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech contemptible” (2 Corinthians 10:10). “Paul was neither a great orator nor what we might call a street preacher,” writes J. Albert Harrill.[38] Instead, he seems to have spoken about Jesus while he did manual labor.[39] Just what exactly this labor entailed isn’t clear, though on the evidence of the book of Acts we could plausibly posit that Paul was a tentmaker (Acts 18:3). Manual labor was often looked down upon and it is likely that Paul was viewed as a member of one of the lower social classes.[40] However, in terms of Paul’s missionary strategy, working as a manual laborer was pure genius. Harrill explains: 

Such a setting would have exposed Paul to a wide socioeconomic mix of people. Ancient workshops were family businesses that connected visitors of the larger network of household relationships in an urban neighborhood. They employed both slave and free labor side by side. Their proprietors were not typically members of the aristocratic elite but rather artisans themselves. The patronage and slave-holding that grew businesses also interconnected the rich and the poor economically, tempering (what we might call) class distinctions.[41]

Moreover, manual laborers were often subjected to abuse and humiliation, things that Paul claims to have experienced himself in his ministry.[42] In these ways, then, Paul demonstrates a sort of solidarity with those to whom he is offering the gospel: he’s just like they are, giving credibility to the message he offers them about the god of Israel and his crucified and resurrected son. Additionally, as v. 9 tells us, Paul’s decision to support himself through work as an artisan was intended to avoid burdening those hearing him. Calvin Roetzel suggests that this was, for Paul, a way for him to avoid compromising both his independence and the gospel he preached.[43] In this way, v. 10 reports, the Thessalonians witnessed Paul’s holiness, righteousness, and blamelessness while he was there with them. 

THE IMAGE OF PAUL IN ACTS VS. 1 THESSALONIANS 

In episodes three and four we briefly looked at the depiction of Paul in Acts and we traced his narrative from the death of Stephen in Acts 7 to the initial visit to Thessalonica in Acts 17. We’ve also in the past four episodes gone over 1 Thessalonians 1:1 – 2:12. So, with all this covered, what we can we say about the depiction of Paul in Acts versus what we find in Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians? 

Primary vs. Secondary Source Material

To begin with, whatever value the Acts of the Apostles has in reconstructing the life of Paul and the foundation of the Thessalonian community of Jesus followers, it must be conceded by all that the book of Acts is not a primary source for these topics. Rather, it is at best a secondary source. But why should we consider the book of Acts to be at best a secondary source for these issues? There are a variety of reasons. 

First and foremost, since “[p]rimary sources consist of the written material produced more or less contemporaneously with the object of research, ideally recorded by eyewitnesses,”[44] the book of Acts cannot function as such. While tradition ascribes the authorship of both the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles to an individual named Luke,[45] a known associate of Paul from his letter to Philemon (Philemon 1:24; cf. Colossians 4:14; 2 Timothy 4:11), in reality both the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts, though almost certainly written by the same author, are anonymous.[46] Moreover, their singular author was undoubtedly an educated follower of the apostle Paul.[47] But it is almost certainly not the case that their author was a contemporary of Paul. 

The Dating of the Book of Acts

Termini

In terms of the order in which the two volumes of Luke and Acts were written, the Gospel of Luke undoubtedly has priority.[48] This is all but demanded by the logic of the preface to the Acts of the Apostles found in Acts 1:1-5. There is mention of “the first book,” suggesting that Acts is the second; Theophilus is mentioned by name as he was in Luke 1:3; and the preface in Acts summarizes in broad strokes the entirety of the Gospel of Luke, particularly the final chapter. But the Gospel of Luke is not a wholly original creation. Instead, scholars are reasonably certain that the author used the Gospel of Mark when writing his own,[49] incorporating around seventy percent of Mark’s material.[50] There is also evidence to suggest that the author of the Gospel of Luke not only used the Gospel of Mark but also the Gospel of Matthew, [51] a narrative about Jesus that also used Mark’s Gospel. So then, the dating of the Acts of the Apostles is dependent upon the dating of the Gospel of Luke. And the dating of the Gospel of Luke is dependent upon the dating of both the Gospel of Mark, the first of the canonical Gospels to be written, as well as the Gospel of Matthew. In chronological order then, first came Mark, then came Matthew, then came Luke, then came Acts.

When was Mark’s Gospel written? We do not have the time to go into depth on the dating of Mark in this episode or even in this season of Amateur Exegesis, but we can state the scholarly consensus: the Gospel of Mark was written sometime just before or just after the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple in 70 CE.[52] Let’s assume that Mark wrote in 70. When did Matthew write? It must have necessarily been some time after Mark produced his account, especially when one considers that the invention of the printing press didn’t happen until fourteen hundred years after these authors composed their respective volumes. Moreover, the author of the Gospel of Matthew undoubtedly wrote after 70 CE given the way he has Jesus interact with the Pharisees, referring to them in rather harsh ways. “Wherever he refers to ‘scribes and Pharisees,’” Keith Nickle writes, “he also has the Judaism of his own day in mind.”[53] In the wake of the fall of the temple, it was the Pharisees who became the leading sect of Judaism, “giving the Jewish people a new center of religious life apart from the temple.”[54] Some scholars think, then, that the Matthean community was one that was in conflict with the Pharisaic movement and struggling to define itself, not as an entirely new religion outside of Judaism but as a sect within it. “We may thus think of it as ‘sibling rivalry,’” L. Michael White writes, “in which the followers of Jesus…are now feeling marginalized by their Jewish neighbors.”[55]What does this mean for dating the Gospel of Matthew? For starters, it is clearly post-70 CE but also post-the Gospel of Mark. It is not unreasonable to think that at least a decade passed before a copy of Mark’s Gospel could have been produced, placed in circulation, and made its way to the author of the Gospel of Matthew. Thus, it seems that if Mark wrote his Gospel in 70 CE, Matthew wrote his in 80 CE. New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman dates the writing of the Gospel of Matthew to somewhere between 80 to 85 CE.[56] Other scholars favor slightly later dates, ranging from 85 to 100 CE.[57] For the purposes of this episode, let’s assume 80 CE.[58]

Mark writes in 70 and Matthew in 80. If Luke uses both Mark and Matthew, when did he write his Gospel? When dating any ancient source, there are two expressions that scholars use. The first is terminus a quo, a Latin phrase that means “limit from which.” In short, terminus a quo refers to the earliest possible time at which an event occurred or, in our case, in which a document was written. For the book of Acts, the terminus a quo is whatever date the Gospel of Luke was published since, as I noted earlier, the two documents are related to one another. The terminus for the Gospel of Luke is dependent upon the date of the Gospel of Matthew which, in turn, is dependent upon the Gospel of Mark. If we assumed that Mark wrote his Gospel on August 31st, 70 CE – the day after the destruction of the temple of Jerusalem – then it is possible that Matthew wrote his on September 1st and Luke on September 2nd. But possibility is not plausibility and we may reject this scheme on historical grounds. As I stated earlier, it undoubtedly took time for a Gospel to be published and then sufficiently circulated so it could be redacted.[59] So, if Mark is 70, Matthew 80, then Luke is 90. The terminus a quo for the Acts of the Apostles then would be not long after that. But that merely establishes the earliest possible date, not the likeliest one. 

The second expression scholars use in dating works of antiquity is terminus ad quem, another Latin phrase that means “limit up to which.” This refers to the latest possible date an event occurred or, in our case, in which a document was composed. The key question in determining the terminus ad quem is, What is the earliest external reference to a given document? This is a relatively easy question to answer in the case of the Acts of the Apostles: the second century.[60] Is it possible to be more precise? 

The clearest reference to it comes from the pen of Irenaeus in the late second century.[61] In book three of Against Heresies, the bishop of Lyon discussed Paul’s itinerary relative to the Council of Jerusalem, quoting from Paul’s letter to the Galatians. He concludes by writing, 

If, then, any one shall, from the Acts of the Apostles, carefully scrutinize the time concerning which it is written that he went up to Jerusalem…he will find those years mentioned by Paul coincided with it. Thus the statement of Paul harmonizes with, and is, as it were, identical with, the testimony of Luke regarding the apostles. (Against Heresies3.13.3)[62]

In his commentary on Acts, Hans Conzelmann lists a variety of earlier possible “reminiscences” of Acts including many found in the Apostolic Fathers like 1 Clement and Polycarp’s letter to the Philippians. But, he notes, the phrases and expressions used in these texts that are similar to those found in Acts were “common to the language of early Christianity,”[63] an indication not necessarily of literary dependence but of shared tradition. 

Time does not permit a full discussion of these issues and there is debate over whether other authors before Irenaeus but after the Apostolic Fathers, like Justin Martyr, knew the Acts of the Apostles.[64] However, no one debates that the clearest and most explicit reference to the book of Acts comes from Irenaeus. Thus, the terminus ad quem is around 180 CE. But, as with the terminus a quo, this only tells us the latest possible date Acts could have been written, not the likeliest one. Our chronological bookends, then, for the writing of the Acts of the Apostles are 90 CE and 180 CE. Can anything more be said about the dating of Acts? 

Luke and Josephus

One of the more interesting arguments to come out of the scholarship of the nineteenth century was that the author of the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles had utilized the works of the first century Jewish historian Josephus.[65] One of the best modern treatments of the issue is Steve Mason’s Josephus and the New Testament.[66] In ch. 6 of that volume, Mason discusses the relationship of Luke-Acts with that of Josephus. First, he mentions generic parallels, like the similarities to be found in the prefaces of both the Gospel of Luke and the book Acts and that of Josephus’ Jewish War.[67] Such similarities, he observes, are no doubt due to their use of “the conventional tools of Hellenistic historiography.”[68] Second, Mason moves on to commonly reported events, like the census in Syria that happened when Quirinius was governor (Luke 2:2; Acts 5:37; Jewish Antiquities 18.1).[69] Mention of this event and others suggest a closer relationship between the two such that, Mason writes, “[t]hese observations suggest that Luke was familiar with Josephus’s work.”[70] Third, Mason addresses what he sees as agreements of theme and vocabulary between Luke-Acts and Josephus, like their shared language of philosophical schools for Jewish sects, their criticisms of wealth and power, and more.[71] Mason concludes the chapter by writing, 

[I]f Luke did know Josephus, then we can fix the date of Luke in the mid-90s or later, for Josephus finished the Antiquities, the major work in question, in 93. Luke may have heard an earlier version or only a part of the work recited, perhaps in 90 or so. But a date of 95 or later for Luke would seem most plausible if he knew Antiquities 18-20.[72]

Barbara Shellard in her monograph New Light on Luke reasons similarly, asserting that “it seems more than likely Luke used Jewish War, quite likely that he used Jewish Antiquities, and possible that he used Against Apion.”[73]Consequently for Shellard, a date of around 100 CE seems fitting. Neither Mason nor Shellard are alone in their assessment and other scholars have looked at a number of people, places, and events that can be found in the Lukan texts and Josephus that make it likely the author of Luke-Acts knew Josephus’ work,[74] consequently placing the terminus a quo for Acts into the mid-90s. This coheres with what I said a short while ago on the topic based upon the relationship of the Acts of the Apostles to the Gospel of Luke and the Gospel of Luke’s relationship to the Gospels of Mark and Matthew. If the author used Josephus, especially Jewish Antiquities, a date of 95 CE for the composition of the book of Acts is not unreasonable. If anything, it may be too early. 

A Pauline Corpus

The reason I said that it may be too early has to do with one of the perennial debates in New Testament studies. The problem is this: all of Paul’s letters were occasional; that is, they were written to specific audiences under specific circumstances for specific purposes. Had the letter to the Galatians ended up in the hands of the Thessalonians, there might have been some confusion. What was this “different gospel” that wasn’t really a gospel? (Galatians 1:6-7) Why would these ex-pagans want to become Jewish proselytes via circumcision? (Galatians 5:2) Because the struggles specific to the Galatian communities would not necessarily map onto those of the Thessalonians’, confusion would ensue had their mail gotten mixed up. And yet the New Testament contains multiple letters by Paul to various communities. How did this happen? And, more importantly, when did it happen? To answer the first question would require more time than we have. Interested listeners should read Stanley Porter’s summary of the various theories on how Paul’s letters came to be collected in the volume Paul and the Second Century.[75] For now, let me say some general things about the when of the creation of the Pauline corpus.

The first signs of a collection of Paul’s letters comes from the epistle of 1 Clement which was written sometime toward the turn of the first century CE.[76] There in ch. 47, the author tells his Corinthian audience, “Take up the epistle of the blessed Paul the apostle! What did he first write to you in the beginning of the gospel? Truly he wrote to you in the Spirit about himself and Cephas and Apollos, because even then you had split into factions” (1 Clement 47:1-3).[77]The text to which he is referring is found in what we know as the first epistle of Paul to the Corinthians (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:12-17). There are also signs that the author of 1 Clement knew the Pauline epistle to the Romans (e.g., 1 Clement 32:1-2; cf. Romans 9:5)[78] but beyond these Pauline epistles there is no concrete data. It doesn’t seem the author knew Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians since, as Ian Elmer observes, “the content of [2 Corinthians] would have served his argument better.”[79] Regardless, as Elmer notes, “the significance of [1 Clement] lies not so much in the number of letters that it referred to as in the fact that this letter” from the Roman church to the Corinthian church “reflects an acquaintance with two letters that are unrelated geographically.”[80] So, a corpus of Paul’s letters seems to have existed in the 90s CE but was relatively small. 

Others among the Apostolic Fathers also knew of a collection of Paul’s letters. The bishop Ignatius, for example, shows signs that he knew many of Paul’s letters (e.g., Ephesians 12:2).[81] According to Eusebius (Ecclesiastical History 3.36.5-11), Ignatius died sometime during the reign of the Roman emperor Trajan who ruled from 98 to 117 CE, martyred for his faith in Jesus Christ.[82] In the few weeks before his death, while imprisoned in Rome, Ignatius wrote seven letters to various communities, including to those in Ephesus, Rome, and Philadelphia. In these seven letters, he demonstrates knowledge of the epistles of Romans, 1 Corinthians, Ephesians, and Philippians.[83] So, at least in the East, in Antioch where Ignatius served as bishop, a collection of Paul’s letters seems to have been known that was larger than what was in the West in Rome where the author of 1 Clement had been writing. Thus, it seems that around 100 CE that a collection of Paul’s letters was growing.[84]

What does all of this have to do with the Acts of the Apostles? In a word, much. “The Acts of the Apostles,” writes Gerd Theissen, “appears at first glance to be unfamiliar with any letters of Paul, who is nowhere described as a letter writer.”[85] For some conservative scholars, this supposed silence is suggestive of an early date for the writing of the book of Acts, perhaps around 62 CE.[86] But is the book of Acts devoid of any knowledge of the Pauline letters? Some scholars don’t think that it is. For example, in an article published half a century ago historian Morton Enslin listed eleven places where he believed “that Luke not only did know but made occasional use of at least some of [Paul’s] letters.”[87] For example, in Luke 24:34 the two disciples that had walked with the risen Jesus on the way to Emmaus report to the eleven, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” Astute readers of Luke’s Gospel know that no such appearance to Simon is narrated. So, where did this exclamation come from? For Enslin the answer is clear: he got it from Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:5 – “he appeared to Cephas.”[88] So the author of the Gospel of Luke (and, by extension, the Acts of the Apostles) appears to have known Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. Enslin makes the case that the author of Luke and Acts knew other Pauline epistles as well including Romans, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, and Philippians. Fifteen years after Enslin published his article, William O. Walker, Jr. did a follow up entitled “Acts and the Pauline Corpus Reconsidered” in which he generally affirmed Enslin’s work and offered further evidence for the connection, including verbal parallels.[89] More recent scholarship has suggested that there are around ninety texts from the book of Acts that have some affinity with texts from the epistles of Romans, 1-2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and 1 Thessalonians.[90] All of this suggests that among the author of Acts various sources were the Pauline epistles, if not in written form then certainly in memory.[91]

Dating Acts

When was the Acts of the Apostles written? Based upon this information, it seems likely that it was written no earlier than 100 CE, the time frame suggested by Barbara Shellard,[92] though Mikeal Parsons thinks it was probably written around 110 CE.[93] Other scholars date the book of Acts even later, some as late as the mid-second century![94] But why does this matter? Because if Paul died in the 60s as tradition holds then the writing of Acts took place a generation after his death. Its author was not an eyewitness to any of the events described. Rather, the book of Acts is something of an interpretation of Paul and is, therefore, at best a secondary source. We must therefore agree with Paula Fredriksen who writes, “In our quest for the historical apostle…Paul’s own letters must have priority.”[95]

Incongruities 

The priority of Paul’s letters over the Acts of the Apostles isn’t because Paul is unbiased. He most certainly is. Rather, our preference for Paul’s letters is due to the fact that if we want to figure out what Paul thought and how Paul viewed his missionary activity, his own words are indispensable. But with that being said, are there places where the letters of Paul are incongruous with the Acts of the Apostles? Indeed, there are! 

Paul the Persecutor 

Consider how Paul is depicted prior to his experience of Jesus on the road to Damascus: he stands in approval of Stephen’s murder in Acts 7, overseeing it as an authority figure (Acts 7:58, 8:1); in Acts 8 he conducts house raids to find and arrest Christians in Jerusalem (Acts 8:3); in Acts 9, with the permission of the high priest, he leaves for a city of the Diaspora in which to find and arrest Christians and bring them back to Jerusalem (Acts 9:1-2); in Acts 22 Paul describes himself as one who “persecuted [Christians] up to the point of death by binding both men and women and putting them in prison” (Acts 22:4); and in Acts 26 he says to Herod Agrippa, “I not only locked up many of the saints in prison, but I also cast my vote against them when they were being condemned to death” (Acts 26:10). Paul is portrayed by the author of Acts as a ruthless, murderous foe of Christianity. But there are a couple of problems with this depiction. 

The first problem is historical. While the high priest had authority in Jerusalem to rein in wayward Jews through punishment, there is no reason to think that his authority extended beyond Jerusalem and into the Diaspora such that he could have Jews extradited and returned to Jerusalem.[96] Moreover, as Calvin Roetzel points out, “[n]either the high priest nor the Sanhedrin had the authority to administer capital punishment in Paul’s lifetime.”[97] The author of Acts has invented all of this. In fact, the strongest physical punishment that synagogues could administer was thirty-nine lashes, especially in cities outside of Judea.[98]

The second problem concerns Paul’s own claims in his letters. Whereas the book of Acts depicts Paul’s reign of terror as occurring primarily in Jerusalem, in his letter to the Galatians Paul seems to suggest he was working in Damascus (Galatians 1:17). Additionally, Paul never describes himself as one who killed members of the church. Though Galatians 1:13 in the NRSV has Paul “violently persecuting the church of God,” this translation is almost certainly incorrect. Rather, as Paula Fredriksen writes, a better translation would be something like “persecuting to the maximum,” a reference to the thirty-nine lashes that represented the strongest punishment a synagogue could give.[99] Alternatively, Mark Nanos suggests that it isn’t physical persecution that is in view but rather social, i.e., Paul was attempting to discredit these groups using rhetoric and, if that failed, by using ostracism.[100] Regardless, there is no reason to think that Paul was seeking to kill anyone. Additionally, while the Paul of Acts seems to depict himself as a member of the Sanhedrin (Acts 26:10), Paul in his letters never makes that suggestion, despite boasting about his Jewish credentials in places like Galatians 1:13-14 and Philippians 3:4-6. 

Paul the Convert

Another problem arises with the story of Paul’s conversion. Before his encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus, Paul’s efforts in stamping out the church were concentrated in Jerusalem. When he reaches Damascus and meets Jesus, he is said to have spent “several days” there with believers in Damascus (Acts 9:19). According to Acts 9:23, Paul flees the city in the wake of a conspiracy to kill him and immediately goes to Jerusalem and meets with the apostles (vv. 26-27). But this isn’t what Paul says happened in his letter to the Galatians. Paul emphatically denies going to Jerusalem after he was called by God, traveling instead to Arabia before returning to Damascus (Galatians 1:17). He writes, 

Then after three years I did go up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and stayed with him fifteen days; but I did not see any other apostle except James the Lord’s brother. In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie! (Galatians 1:18-20)

So, who is right: Paul or the author of Acts? In this instance it is hard to be certain: they can’t both be right, but they could both be wrong. Paul’s version of events in Galatians 1 is motivated by a concern for his own authority. He wants to demonstrate that the gospel he received had nothing to do with the apostles in Jerusalem and, additionally, when he did meet the apostles at the conference in Jerusalem they confirmed that he was preaching the true gospel (Galatians 2:1-10). Luke, on the other hand, wants to connect Paul intimately with the apostles in Jerusalem so as to present a unified front and that Paul’s authority is derived from the apostles themselves.[101] Whatever the case may be, these two versions of events are incongruent. 

Paul and the Thessalonians

To close this episode, let’s consider specifically the story of the Thessalonian mission in Acts and how it compares with Paul’s depiction in 1 Thessalonians. Following the work of Ernest Best, Earl Richard lists five areas in which the two accounts fail to cohere.[102] First, while the narrative of Acts suggests only a stay of about three sabbaths (Acts 17:2), Paul seems to imply a much longer one, claiming in Philippians 4:16 that while he was in Thessalonica, he had received help from the Philippians “more than once.” Second, whereas Acts depicts the converts in Thessalonica as including both Jews and pagan (Acts 17:4), the community to which Paul writes in 1 Thessalonians is made up exclusively of ex-pagans (1 Thessalonians 1:9-10). Third, there seems to be a difference between Paul’s preaching in Thessalonica in Acts and what he seems to have preached per his letter. In Acts, the emphasis is on Jesus as dead and raised with no mention of his Parousia. In 1 Thessalonians, however, there is a heavy eschatological emphasis which pervades the epistle such that is seems to serve as the “best hermeneutical key” with which to understand Paul’s “pattern of exhortation” to the Thessalonians.[103] Fourth, the prescript of 1 Thessalonians includes Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, and Timothy plays an important role as Paul’s envoy in ch. 3. However, the author of Acts fails to mention Timothy at all in connection with the founding mission. Moreover, in 1 Thessalonians 3:1-2 Paul implies that he, Silvanus, and Timothy were in Athens and from there sent Timothy back to Thessalonica. The book of Acts depicts the situation differently: first, Paul and Silas go to Beroea (Acts 17:10); next, Paul leaves Silas and Timothy behind in Beroea and heads to Athens (Acts 17:14-16); finally, Paul leaves Athens for Corinth and it is there that Silas and Timothy arrive to meet him, not from Athens but from Macedonia (Acts 18:1, 5). Fifth, Acts in no way suggests that the Thessalonians were eager for Paul’s return while in 1 Thessalonians, per the report from Timothy to Paul, they were very eager to see Paul once again (1 Thessalonians 3:6). 

We can even expand on these some. In the passage we discussed today, Paul claimed to have not taken anything from the Thessalonians, choosing instead to work “night and day.” It was in that context, from his workshop, that Paul proclaimed “the gospel of God” (1 Thessalonians 2:9). There is no mention of preaching in a synagogue in 1 Thessalonians just as there is no mention of Paul setting up a shop in the city in the book of Acts. We should also note that the image of Paul as going into the synagogue almost everywhere he went is problematic for a couple of different reasons. With regards to Thessalonica itself, as Eugene Boring writes, the narrative of Acts constitutes “the only explicit literary evidence for Jewish residents of Thessalonica in Paul’s time.”[104] There is, as of yet, no archaeological evidence for a synagogue in Thessalonica in the 50s CE.[105] With regards to the general picture of Paul’s ministry in Acts, the idea that he first visited the local synagogue is part of the scheme of Acts whereby the author pays homage to the Pauline cliché “to the Jews first and also to the Greek” (Romans 1:16).[106] Moreover, in its depiction of Jewish rejection of the gospel and pagan acceptance of it, the author of Acts not only tries to account for why the church of his day is predominantly non-Jewish but he also wishes to show that this originally Jewish sect is in no way a threat to Rome. In fact, according to the book of Acts, its leading proponent, Paul, was a Roman citizen![107]

NEXT TIME 

While there are points of convergence between the story told in Acts and the version of events found in Paul’s letters, for many details there are also many points of disagreement. This is seen in the depiction of Paul’s mission to Thessalonica by the author of Acts, a portrayal that fits his concerns but is in many ways disconnected from what Paul himself seems to be saying. For reconstructing the historical Paul, we must (as Fredriksen advised) consult Paul himself in his letters. But this introduces a new issue: which letters? In the next episode we will briefly explore the subject of interpolations as well as which Pauline letters scholars generally agree were written by Paul and which ones weren’t. 

That’s next time on Amateur Exegesis.


[1] The Greek text reads alla, often rendered with the word “but.” However, Paul intends to create contrast between that which was without profit and that which was, e.g., the preaching of the gospel to the Thessalonians. 

[2] I have chosen to transliterate rather than translate the underlying Greek word agōni. 

[3] The Greek noun planēs, a word from which the substantive planētēs (“planet”) derives, refers to wandering from a path. It is frequently used in a metaphorical sense, i.e. to wander from the path of truth (BDAG, s.v. “πλάνη”), i.e. error. 

[4] Here Paul employs akatharsias which refers to some kind of impurity. It seems clear from Paul’s usage here that he has in mind the notion of an impure motive, and akatharsia is used by various ancient authors to refer to an ulterior motive (BDAG, s.v. akatharsia; cf. 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], 140.) 

[5] In his commentary on 1 Thessalonians, M. Eugene Boring (I & II Thessalonians: A Commentary, The New Testament Library [Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015, 77) renders the prepositional phrase en dolō with the words “some sort of trickery.” I think this is a fitting way to render dolō here and have followed his example. 

[6] Greek, alla. Paul is creating a strong contrast.

[7] The Greek phrase dynamenoi en barei is variously translated. For example, the NRSV renders it as “though we might have made demands.” I find more compelling Boring’s suggestion (I & II Thessalonians, 78) that the idea is one of throwing one’s weight around. Here in v. 7, Paul is emphasizing that while the missionaries had the ability to do as they wanted because they were Christ’s apostles, they were instead gentle with the Thessalonians. 

[8] Cf. 1 Thessalonians 1:4. 

[9] Boring, I & II Thessalonians, 81.

[10] Malherbe, The Letters to the Thessalonians, 135.

[11] Malherbe, The Letters to the Thessalonians, 135-136.

[12] Earl J. Richard, First and Second Thessalonians, Sacra Pagina (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2007), 91.

[13] F.F. Bruce, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, Word Biblical Commentary Series (Nashville, TN: Word, Inc., 1982), 25. 

[14] Malherbe, The Letters to the Thessalonians, 138; cf. Dorothea H. Bertschmann, “’What Does Not Kill Me Makes Me Stronger’: Paul and Epictetus on Suffering,” in Paul and the Giants of Philosophy: Reading the Apostle in Greco-Roman Context, Joseph R. Dodson and David E. Briones, editors (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2019), 11.

[15] Leon Morris, The First and Second Epistles to the Thessalonians, NICNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Co., 1959, 70.

[16] E.g., Bruce, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, 25.

[17] Malherbe, The Letters to the Thessalonians, 138.

[18] Richard, First and Second Thessalonians, 92-93.

[19] Malherbe, The Letters to the Thessalonians, 111.

[20] Malherbe, The Letters to the Thessalonians, 138.

[21] Malherbe, The Letters to the Thessalonians, 141.

[22] Margaret M. Mitchell, “1 and 2 Thessalonians,” in The Cambridge Companion to St. Paul, James D.G. Dunn, editor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 56.

[23] Edward Pillar, “1 Thessalonians,” in The Fortress Commentary on the Bible: The New Testament, Margaret Aymer, Cynthia Briggs Kittredge, and David A. Sánchez, editors (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2014), 575.

[24] 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), 590.

[25] Malherbe, The Letters to the Thessalonians, 146.

[26] Jennifer Houston McNeel, Paul as Infant and Nursing Mother: Metaphor, Rhetoric, and Identity in 1 Thessalonians 2:5-8 (Atlanta, GA: SBL Press, 2014), 136.

[27] Jo-Ann Shelton, As The Romans Did: A Sourcebook in Roman Social History, second edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 100.

[28] Boring, I & II Thessalonians, 87.

[29] Pamela Eisenbaum, Paul Was Not a Christian: The Original Message of a Misunderstood Apostle (New York: HarperOne, 2009), 151.

[30] Mark D. Nanos, Reading Paul Within Judaism, Collected Essays of Mark D. Nanos, vol. 1 (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2017), 139.

[31] Paula Fredriksen, Paul: The Pagans’ Apostle (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2017), 34.

[32] Fredriksen, Paul: The Pagans’ Apostle, 89-92.

[33] Nanos, Reading Paul Within Judaism, 140.

[34] Or both. On this, see the discussion in Joshua D. Garroway, Paul’s Gentile-Jews: Neither Jew nor Gentile, but Both (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), 45-69. 

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

[36] Charles B. Cousar, Reading Galatians, Philippians, and 1 Thessalonians: A Literary and Theological Commentary (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2001), 207.

[37] Richard, First and Second Thessalonians, 101.

[38] J. Albert Harrill, Paul the Apostle: His Life and Legacy in Their Roman Context (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 14.

[39] Richard S. Ascough, Paul’s Macedonian Associations: The Social Context of Philippians and 1 Thessalonians (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2003), 171. 

[40] Boring, I & II Thessalonians, 88; Malherbe, The Letters to the Thessalonians, 160-161.

[41] Harrill, Paul the Apostle, 51. Malherbe (The Letters to the Thessalonians, 163) points out that, in relationship to the language of 2 Corinthians 12:15-18, Paul must have “spent considerable time in the workshop,” and therefore Paul preferred to speak in private contexts like households.

[42] Ascough, Paul’s Macedonian Associations, 172-173.

[43] Calvin Roetzel, Paul: The Man and the Myth (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1999), 24.

[44] Chris Lorenz, “Scientific Historiography,” in A Companion to the Philosophy of History and Historiography, Aviezer Tucker, editor (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 2009), 399.

[45] For a defense of this view, see D.A. Carson and Douglas J. Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament, second edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005), 204-206; cf. John Nolland, Luke 1 – 9:20, Word Biblical Commentary (Nashville, TN: Word, Inc., 1989), xxxiv-xxxvii.

[46] Keith F. Nickle, The Synoptic Gospels: An Introduction, revised and expanded (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 157.

[47] Nickle, The Synoptic Gospels; L. Michael White, Scripting Jesus: The Gospels in Rewrite (New York: HarperOne, 2010), 334.

[48] This holds true even if we do not assume the unity of authorship for both volumes.

[49] For a defense of Markan priority, see Mark Goodacre, The Synoptic Problem: A Way Through the Maze (London: Continuum, 2001), 56-83.

[50] Nickle, The Synoptic Gospels, 140.

[51] See Goodacre, The Synoptic Problem, 122-161.

[52] For a defense of this dating, see Joel Marcus, Mark 1-8: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, The Anchor Yale Bible (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000), 33-39. Marcus ties the Gospel to a Syrian provenance and a community that is aware of what transpired during the First Jewish War. More recently, Helen Bond (The First Biography of Jesus: Genre and Meaning in Mark’s Gospel [Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2020], 8-9) places the writing of the Gospel somewhere in the early to mid-70s CE. 

[53] Nickle, The Synoptic Gospels, 122.

[54] Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, third edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2003), 515.

[55] White, Scripting Jesus, 312; cf. Paula Fredriksen, From Jesus to Christ: The Origins of the New Testament Images of Jesus (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1988), 188.

[56] Bart D. Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, sixth edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 83.

[57] E.g., Nickle, The Synoptic Gospels, 129; Fredriksen, From Jesus to Christ, 39. Charles Talbert (Matthew, Paideia Commentaries on the New Testament [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2010], 4) offers a range of 80-100 CE. 

[58] Ulrich Luz (Matthew 1-7: A Commentary, James E. Crouch, translator, Hermeneia Commentary Series [Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2007, 59] concludes in his discussion of the date of Matthew that “[w]e may not date the Gospel of Matthew long after the year 80.”

[59] Ehrman, The New Testament, 100.

[60] Jens Schröter, From Jesus to the New Testament: Early Christian Theology and the Origin of the New Testament Canon, Wayne Coppins, translator (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2013), 276.

[61] Richard I. Pervo, Dating Acts: Between the Evangelists and the Apologists (Santa Rosa, CA: Polebridge Press, 2006), 343.

[62] Translation taken from The Ante-Nicene Fathers: Translations of the Writings of the Fathers Down to A.D. 325, vol. 1, Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, editors (Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 2002).

[63] Hans Conzelmann, Acts of the Apostles, James Limburg, A. Thomas Kraabel, and Donald H. Juel, translators, Hermeneia Commentary Series (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1987), xxvii. For the examples Conzelmann offers, see pp. xxvii-xxx.

[64] See the discussion in Ernst Haenchen, The Acts of the Apostles: A Commentary, Bernard Noble and Gerald Shinn, translators (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1971), 8-9; Schröter, From Jesus to the New Testament, 277-279.

[65] For a brief history of this argument, see Pervo, Dating Acts, 149-151.

[66] Steve Mason, Josephus and the New Testament, second edition (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2003).

[67] Mason, Josephus and the New Testament, 253-259; cf. Loveday Alexander, The Preface to Luke’s Gospel: Literary Convention and Social Context in Luke 1.1-4 and Acts 1.1 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 160-164.

[68] Mason, Josephus and the New Testament, 272.

[69] Mason, Josephus and the New Testament, 273-277. Mason discusses the fact that Luke’s dating of the census is in error and does away entirely with attempts to reconcile Luke and Josephus by suggesting there were two censuses instead of one. He believes that Luke has incorrectly recalled what for Josephus was a “watershed moment” (p. 274) in Jewish history, applying it to the wrong era.

[70] Mason, Josephus and the New Testament, 277.

[71] Mason, Josephus and the New Testament, 283-291.

[72] Mason, Josephus and the New Testament, 293.

[73] Barbara Shellard, New Light on Luke: Its Purpose, Sources and Literary Context (London: Sheffield Academic Press, 2002), 34.

[74] For example, Richard Pervo (Dating Acts, 197) lists eighteen places in the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles that correspond to details found in either Josephus’ Jewish War or Antiquities, ranking them with a letter grade. Based upon this information, Pervo offers a terminus a quo of 93-94 CE (p. 198). 

[75] Stanley E. Porter, “Paul and the Pauline Letter Collection,” in Paul and the Second Century, Michael F. Bird and Joseph R. Dodson, editors (London: T&T Clark, 2011), 19-36. Joulette Bassler (“Paul and his letters,” in The Blackwell Companion to the New Testament, David E. Aune, editor [Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, Ltd., 2010], 382) rightly adds a measure of caution, writing, “The actual circumstances of the collection are, at this point, beyond recovery and were at any rate probably more complex than a single theory can comprehend.”

[76] Claudio Moreschini and Enrico Norelli, Early Christian Greek and Latin Literature: A Literary History, vol. 1 – From Paul to the Age of Constantine, Matthew J. O’Connell, translator (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2005), 104.

[77] Translation taken from The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations, third edition, Michael W. Holmes, translator (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007).

[78] Cf. Gerd Theissen, The New Testament: A Literary History, Linda M. Maloney, translator (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2012), 98.

[79] Ian J. Elmer, “The Pauline letters as community documents,” in Collecting Early Christian Letters: From the Apostle Paul to Late Antiquity, Bronwen Neil and Pauline Allen, editors (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 40.

[80] Elmer, “The Pauline letters as community documents,” 40.

[81] Arthur G. Patzia, The Making of the New Testament: Origin, Collection, Text & Canon, second edition (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2011), 136.

[82] Cf. William R. Schoedel, Ignatius of Antioch: A Commentary on the Letters of Ignatius of Antioch, Hermeneia Commentary Series (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1985), 4-7.

[83] Bruce M. Metzger, The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development, and Significance (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987), 45. Theissen (The New Testament, 98) suggests that Ignatius may have also known the Pastoral Epistles (i.e., 1-2 Timothy and Titus). 

[84] Theissen, The New Testament, 99. 

[85] Theissen, The New Testament, 97.

[86] E.g., Carson and Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament, 300; cf. F.F. Bruce, The Acts of the Apostles: Greek Text with Introduction and Commentary, third edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1990), 12. 

[87] Morton S. Enslin, “Once Again, Luke and Paul,” Zeischrift für die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft, vol. 61, no. 3-4 (1970), 257. 

[88] Enslin, “Once Again, Luke and Paul,” 260-261.

[89] William O. Walker, Jr., “Acts and the Pauline Corpus Reconsidered,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament, vol. 24 (1985), 3-23.

[90] Pervo, Dating Acts, 139-143.

[91] Walker (“Acts and the Pauline Corpus Reconsidered,” 14-15) doubted that Luke had the Pauline epistles before him as he wrote. Instead, he had either read them in the past or had heard them and was thereby influenced in his writing of his account of the early church. Walker does state that in certain issues, like the Jerusalem Conference, the author of Acts is directly interacting with the Pauline epistle of Galatians, molding it for his own purposes. 

[92] Shellard, New Light on Luke, 34.

[93] Mikeal C. Parsons, Acts, Paideia Commentaries on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 17.

[94] For a survey of dates proposed by scholars for the composition of Acts, see Pervo, Dating Acts, 359-363.

[95] Fredriksen, Paul: The Pagans’ Apostle, 62.

[96] Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The First Paul: Reclaiming the Radical Visionary Behind the Church’s Conservative Icon (New York: HarperOne, 2009), 70. 

[97] Roetzel, Paul: The Man and the Myth, 40.

[98] E.P. Sanders, Paul: The Apostle’s Life, Letters, and Thought (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2015), 77; Roetzel, Paul: The Man and the Myth, 40.

[99] Fredriksen, Paul: The Pagans’ Apostle, 83.

[100] Nanos, Reading Paul Within Judaism, 31-32.

[101] Ehrman, The New Testament, 337-338.

[102] Richard, First and Second Thessalonians, 5-6; cf. Ernest Best, The First and Second Epistles to the Thessalonians (New York: Harper, 1972), 5-6.

[103] David Luckensmeyer, The Eschatology of First Thessalonians (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht Gmb H & Co. KG, 2009), 2. 

[104] Boring, I & II Thessalonians, 18.

[105] Boring, I & II Thessalonians, 18-19.

[106] Richard, First and Second Thessalonians, 5.

[107] Daniel R. Schwartz, “Paul in the Canonical Book of Acts,” in The Writings of St. Paul: A Norton Critical Edition, Wayne A. Meeks and John T. Fitzgerald, editors, second edition (New York: W.W. Norton, 2007), 194; cf. Daniel Marguerat, The First Christian Historian: Writing the ‘Acts of the Apostles’ (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 76-77. On the problematic nature of Paul’s claim to Roman citizenship, see Roetzel, Paul: The Man and the Myth, 19-22.

Mark Goodacre and Dennis MacDonald in Discussion on Q

Recently one of my favorite scholars, Mark Goodacre, appeared on the podcast MythVision to discuss the Q source with Dennis MacDonald. Goodacre is famous for his repudiation of Q, discussed some in his book The Synoptic Problem: A Way Through the Maze (T&T Clark, 2001) and at length in The Case Against Q (Trinity Press International, 2002), both of which I highly recommend. MacDonald is a noted scholar as well having written a number of books connecting New Testament literature with classical literature, for example his book The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark (Yale University Press, 2000). 

The discussion itself revolved in part around MacDonald’s view, proposed in his book Two Shipwrecked Gospels: The Logoi of Jesus and Papias’ Expositions of Logia about the Lord (SBL, 2012), that what Luke had available to him in composing his Gospel was not only the Gospel of Mark (in agreement with Markan Priority), a version of Q (in agreement with the Two-Source Hypothesis), and Matthew (in agreement with the Farrer Hypothesis) but also Papias’ Expositions of the Sayings of the Lord. He refers to this as the Q+/Papias Hypothesis. Goodacre doesn’t find MacDonald’s idea convincing, emphasizing that Luke could have written his Gospel with little more than his knowledge of Mark and Matthew (and with the help of a little creativity). 

Here’s the link to the well-moderated conversation.

Public Displays of the Ten Commandments: Which Version?

Every so often in the news you’ll read in the news where this or that conservative Christian organization wants to either erect a copy of the Ten Commandments outside a courthouse or post it somewhere inside a public building like a school or something similar. For example, back in January of this year the school board of Cleveland County, NC took up a resolution to place a display featuring the Ten Commandments in or outside of all thirty of their public schools. As of right now, the issue has been tabled. It’s a thorny topic since the Supreme Court has signaled varying views on the subject. For example, in 2005 the court ruled that displays of the Decalogue on government lands did not violate the Establishment Clause because it represented something of historical and cultural value and not merely something religious. 

For Christians who applaud this testing of the wall of separation, rarely does the question come up, Which Ten Commandments? Most are aware of the version found in Exodus 20:3-17 and often it is some truncated version of this found on displays. But since the Pentateuch wasn’t written by a single author but was the product of a redactor bringing together four different sources, it is no wonder we find different versions of the Ten Commandments within it. In Exodus 34 we find a version of the commandments (v. 28) that includes things like a requirement to keep the festival of unleavened bread (v. 18) or the prohibition against boiling a kid in its mother’s milk (v. 26). Why don’t Christians want to display that version? 

Looking beyond the biblical text and into the literature of the Second Temple period, we find various “recensions” of the Ten Commandments, the subject of a post over at thetorah.com by Sidnie White Crawford. Crawford considers specifically the order in which the commandments appear. For example, while the prohibition against murder is listed before those of adultery and theft, in the LXX of Codex Vaticanus it is sandwiched in between them. She also shows how the Decalogue was often incorporated into liturgical documents for worship (e.g., tefillin).  

The reception of the Ten Commandments is a fascinating subject in and of itself and there is no time to explore it here. Jews and Christians alike have put it to use for this or that religious, rhetorical, and even political purpose. 


Featured image: Wikimedia Commons

Explaining Away the Plagues: Bibhistctxt Takes on ‘The Exodus Decoded’

In my series “Invasion of the Bible Snatchers,” I tackle concordist interpretations of biblical texts that attempt to ascribe to those texts some sort of prescience that anticipates later scientific discoveries. My problem with such interpretations is that they attempt to wed texts written for ancient people to ideas formulated by modern ones. Such an activity is both anachronistic as well as eisegetical. Christians who persist in such mishandling of the Bible would do well to abandon the project entirely, if for no other reason than it makes their beliefs appear ridiculous.

A related but no less problematic course of action is to take the supernatural elements of the biblical text and (for lack of a better word) tame them such that they can be explained using natural phenomena. Young Earth Creationists often do this with the Noachian Flood. While the biblical authors[1] envision a world in which an ocean of water exists above the firmament dubbed “windows of heaven” (Genesis 7:11; cf. 1:7-8), these creationists will often posit other explanations that feel more scientific, like the idea that the antediluvian world was surrounded by a canopy of water vapor.[2] Since the scientific evidence is clear that our planet is surrounded by the vacuum of space and not an ocean of water, the “windows of heaven” that allowed water to pour on the earth cannot refer to such an ocean and there must be some more “scientific” explanation. 

Such an approach has also been applied to the plagues that Yahweh brought upon the Egyptians in the book of Exodus. One of the premiere examples of this is the 2006 documentary The Exodus Decoded. In it Simcha Jacobovici and his peers suggest that the events described in Exodus 7-12 coincide with the eruption of a volcano in nearby island of Thera sometime in the middle of the second millennium BCE. But while this attempt at taming sounds scientific, Twitter user and blogger @bibhistctxt shows that it is fraught with difficulties. He has begun a series over at his blog explaining why Exodus Decoded is wrong that is both enlightening and accessible. The first article covering the first plague can be found here.


[1] The story of Noah and the Flood is a pastiche of two different stories. See Richard Elliot Friedman, Who Wrote the Bible? second edition (New York: HarperOne, 1997), 54-60.

[2] E.g., https://www.genesispark.com/exhibits/early-earth/atmosphere/

Helen Bond: The “Social and Cultural Ramifications” of a Writing a Bios of Jesus

Helen K. Bond, The First Biography of Jesus: Genre and Meaning in Mark’s Gospel (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2020), 92.

[I]t is useful to consider not simply the literary implications of writing a bios, but also its social and cultural ramifications. To write a biography of a philosopher or a religious figure was to immortalize his memory, to create a literary monument to his life and teaching. Rather than reducing Mark’s work to a “memory aid,” a depository of earlier tradition, or even a natural evolution from an earlier oral period, we should understand his actions as an attempt to produce an authoritative, written document. His work, we can assume, was both an attempt to keep alive the memory of a figure with whom he was personally intensely invested, and also a bid to legitimize a very specific view of that figure. Our author would have been aware that there were those who held different assessments of Jesus, both in the wider world and perhaps within other early Christian groups, but his work constructs what he sees as the “right” portrait, the account that for him best captures the life and significance of the figure at the heart of his faith. Moreover, by linking Jesus firmly to the story of Israel (through quoting prophetic texts), and by articulating a shared future hope (through Jesus’s eschatological sayings), Mark’s work aims to create a firm basis for Christian identity in the past, present, and future.

Script for Amateur Exegesis – Season 2, Episode 4:”Turned to God from Idols”

INTRODUCTION 

For most of my childhood that I can remember, my dad would wake up around 4:30am, shuffle off into the kitchen, pour himself a cup of coffee, and pore over his King James Bible. Following this, he could take out a stack of prayer cards, mainly from missionaries which included a picture of their family along with their names. These my dad would pray over, one-by-one, name-by-name. Some mornings, when I happened to get up too early, I would find him in the adjacent room, prostrate on the floor, fervently praying for someone who he believed needed God’s help urgently. After spending an hour or so in prayer for the sick and dying, the saints and the sinners, the saved and the lost, he would take a quick shower and drive to the Chrysler garage where he worked for nearly fifty years as a mechanic. 

My dad was and still is an ardent believer in the power of prayer. “The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much,” he would quote often to me and my brother.[1] He was convinced of its efficacy because of its fruit. He prayed for a police officer who had been plagued with cancer for years. One day he found out that the man’s cancer had gone into remission: “The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.” A customer at work came in and, in the course of discussing what was ailing the car my dad invited him to see the evangelist preaching at our church that week. He came and accepted Christ as his lord and savior: “The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.” My mother who had long resisted going to church and for whom he and I both prayed would repent and join the fold was now joyfully attending with us every Sunday: “The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.” Tucked in his Bible case he had a little notebook that included not only prayer requests he had received but also all the answered prayers he had seen over the course of the years he had kept track. Gratitude was a frequent theme in his prayers; God had done something great and my dad saw to it that worship was the response. “The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.” 

In the last episode, we discussed the life of the apostle Paul, specifically with how it is offered to us in the Acts of the Apostles. We ended that episode with Paul and Barnabas parting ways following the Council of Jerusalem. That scene isn’t the last in Paul’s story in the book of Acts and so in today’s episode we will continue our survey of his narrative up to his arrival in Thessalonica. But before we do that, we will turn briefly to 1 Thessalonians 1:2-10 and consider Paul’s words to his community there. 

Welcome to Amateur Exegesis.

1 THESSALONIANS 1:2-10

As I mentioned in episode two, unless otherwise noted all quotations of 1 Thessalonians are from my own translation, based upon the 28th edition of the Nestle-Aland Greek text. And so here is my translation of 1 Thessalonians 1:2-10.

[2] We give thanks to God always for all of you, mentioning you in our prayers unceasingly, [3] recalling before God and our father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ; [4] knowing, brothers and sisters beloved by God, your election, [5] because our gospel did not come to you in word only but rather[2] in power and in the holy spirit and complete certainty,[3] just as you all know what kind of persons we were with you for you.[4] [6] And you yourselves[5] became imitators of us and of the Lord, having received the word in great distress with joy from the holy spirit, [7] and thus you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. [8] For from you has sounded forth the word of the Lord, not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but in every place your faith in God has gone, so that we have no need to say anything. [9] For they themselves about us report what sort of visit we had to you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, [10] and to await his son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the coming wrath. 

These nine verses constitute the beginning of the proem, the section of a letter wherein one finds various elements like prayer-wishes, thanksgivings, and remembrances.[6] As I noted in episode two, the proem could serve many functions including setting the tone for the letter and acting as a “thematic sampler” to introduce the topics the author would be addressing in the main body.[7] The proem of Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians is extraordinarily long, running from 1:2 all the way to 3:13.[8] In it we find thanksgivings, remembrances, autobiographical information, and much more. 

We Give Thanks to God” (1:2-5)

The section opens with a long sentence that begins in v. 2 and ends with v. 5.[9] The opening verb which I have translated as “We give thanks” is further modified by three participles: “mentioning,” in v. 2, “recalling,” in v. 3, and “knowing” in v. 4.[10] We can think of the verb and the dependent participles as addressing four questions: For whom is Paul thankful? In what way does he express his gratitude? For what specifically is Paul expressing such gratitude? And in what is this gratitude firmly grounded? 

For whom is Paul thankful?

We should begin by answering a related and what is arguably the most important question: To whom is Paul thankful? As a good Jew, Paul would answer that question with one response: the god of Israel. This is, after all, the entity to which he refers in the opening prescript and mentions throughout his epistle. In his letter to the Romans, in the context of his undying confidence in the salvation of his own people, Paul breaks out in worship: “For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever. Amen” (Romans 11:36, NRSV). For Paul, as important as Christ is to the unfolding drama of redemption, it is God who takes center stage. As Eugene Boring notes when writing about 5:9-10, “The saving act is theocentric, not ‘God and Jesus,’ but ‘God through Jesus.’”[11] It is only natural, then, that it is to God that Paul directs his thankfulness. In fact, nowhere in all of Paul’s epistles do we find him giving thanks to Jesus. Paul is ever looking to God above all.[12]

Paul is thankful to God but for whom? The answer to that question is clear from the context: the Thessalonians. Paul had written this letter following a successful visit by Timothy to the congregation while Paul was in Athens (3:1-2). Paul had somehow learned that the community had been facing distress (3:4; cf. 1:6) and feared that they were locked in battle with Satan himself (3:5; cf. 2:18), a battle for which he was not present. It isn’t clear what the distress Paul refers to was but, if it didn’t do so in the Thessalonians themselves, it certainly created psychological distress within Paul.[13]Would they falter? Would their faith fail? Would the missionary trio’s work all be for naught? Paul’s fears were allayed, however, when Timothy returned with his report that the community was not only still in existence but thriving (3:6-10). Consequently, Paul doesn’t write in v. 2 that he thanked God, as if it were something in the past, but rather he uses a verb in the present tense: he is thankful to God for the Thessalonians. And he is thankful to God because it was through his divine power that the community not only owed its formation but its continued existence.[14]

In what way does he express his gratitude? 

Later in v. 2 we encounter the first of the three participial phrases, rendered in my own translation as “mentioning you unceasingly in our prayers.” For Paul, prayer can comprise both petitions, as in 3:10, or praise, as it does here in v. 2. Earl Richard notes that in the epistle of 1 Thessalonians Paul’s prayer has four qualities: universality, frequency, concreteness, and mutuality.[15] Richard writes,

His prayer of thanksgiving involves all his converts (1:2), who are urgently exhorted to “continual prayer” (5:17). His prayer presumably was manifested in frequent, concrete acts of prayer (use of the plural) to and in praise of God for the gift of faith (1:4) and the joy of new life (5:16-17). Finally, his concept of prayer involved mutual prayer, for he ends his missive with this address: “brothers and sisters pray also for us” (5:25). As Paul mentioned their names in thanksgiving before God so he requests that they do the same for him and his colleagues in mission.[16]

For what specifically is Paul expressing his gratitude? 

The next participial phrase offers readers for what specifically about the Thessalonians Paul is thankful: “recalling before God and our father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 3). Here we find the triad of faith, love, and hope that we find elsewhere in Paul’s writings (e.g., 1 Corinthians 13:13; cf. Galatians 5:5-6; Romans 5:1-5). Abraham Malherbe contends that these three terms carry connotations of gospel-preaching, the apex of which is “steadfastness of hope.”[17] The underlying Greek word rendered as “steadfastness” is, as Malherbe notes, often used in connection with eschatological distress.[18] Here it is coupled with “our Lord Jesus Christ,” the one for whom, v. 10 reports, the Thessalonians “await.” “While such steadfastness need not be frothy cheerfulness,” writes Eugene Boring, “neither is it grim determination: it lives in the glad confidence of the ultimate future triumph of God.”[19]

But Paul isn’t so much thankful for what the Thessalonians are doing as much as he is thankful for the vibrancy of their faith.[20] That is, their “work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope” are akin to the readings of an EKG: no reading at all points to death but this trio indicates a vibrant life of faith and hope. And by indicating life, they have restored in Paul confidence that his own labor in the community was not in vain.

In what is this gratitude firmly grounded? 

The final participle Paul uses is rendered in my translation (and in most others) as “knowing.” And what does Paul know? Paul knows their eklogēn, their “election.” Here in v. 4, Paul “is…providing the ultimate ground for [his] thanksgiving.”[21] But to what does “election” refer? Eugene Boring notes that by using the term “Paul taps into a deep and broad stream of Jewish biblical theology.”[22] In his letter to the Romans, Paul uses the term “election” in the context of Israel: “As regards the gospel [Israelites] are enemies…for your sake; but as regards election they are beloved, for the sake of their ancestors” (Romans 11:28). Since “election” refers simply to a choice, of what choice and from whom was he speaking in Romans 11? Undoubtedly, Paul has in his mind Deuteronomy 7. In v. 6, Moses tells the Israelites that God chose them “to be his people, his treasured possession.” And then, in vv. 7-8, he continues on this theme: 

It was not because you were more numerous than any other people that the LORD set his heart on you and chose you – for you were the fewest of all peoples. It was because the LORD loved you and kept the oath that he swore to your ancestors, that the LORD has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.

In the LXX, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, the verb yibḥar (“he chose”) in v. 7 is rendered with the Greek verb exelexato, a cognate of eklogē – “election.” Thus, Paul appropriates language normally reserved for Israel and applies it to the community of Jesus followers in Thessalonica. And that isn’t all. 

Paul uses two other ideas to reinforce this idea of election. First, he refers to the community as “brothers and sisters.” Obviously, no one at Thessalonica was the literal brother or sister of Paul. Instead, what’s going on is Paul is using a very common rhetorical technique known as “fictive kinship.” We encountered this phenomenon in episode one in the correspondence between Naptera, queen of Egypt, and Puhuhepa, queen of Hatti. The language of a fictional family was employed by mystery cults, philosophical schools,[23] and various voluntary associations.[24] Malherbe suggests that Paul’s use of the language of fictive kinship is informed most by its use in Jewish literature, specifically that of proselytes to Judaism.[25] By referring to the believers in Thessalonica as “brothers and sisters,” Paul is portraying them as members of the same family.[26] Not a family of flesh and blood; rather, what binds them together is something stronger – God’s choice. 

The second idea that reinforces the concept of election is found in the words “beloved by God.” Recall that in Deuteronomy 7:7-8 that the reason Yahweh is said to have chosen Israel is because he loved them. This love coupled with his oath to the patriarchs is what caused him to reach down into Egypt and redeem his people. Paul then depicts these believers in Thessalonica as being so loved by God that he has chosen them to be his own. 

Before we continue, there is an exegetical pitfall that we must avoid when trying to understand Paul’s use of election here in 1 Thessalonians. Paul isn’t thinking of the dichotomy of free will and divine providence, nor is he somehow anticipating the debates between Augustine and Pelagius or Calvin and Arminius. The election that Paul has in mind isn’t of the individual but of the community. When he speaks of “your election” he is using the second person plural. In Southern speak, Paul is referring to “y’all’s election.” In his commentary on the passage, Eugene Boring notes that the language of election “is insider language” and is ultimately “the language of a community, not the individualizing language of personal choice and responsibility.”[27] Paul isn’t speaking to the parts but to the whole

Verse five answers a related question: how did Paul know that these Thessalonian believers were elected by God? F.F. Bruce explains that it was made known “because the unmistakable signs of the new life have become apparent in them, including their ready response to the gospel – a vital as well as a verbal response.”[28] Paul wrote that he knew their election “because our gospel did not come to you in word only but rather in power and in the holy spirit and complete certainty, just as you know what kind of persons we were with you for you.” Paul seems to be saying that in his mission to Thessalonica he not only proclaimed the “word” (i.e., the gospel) but performed powerful deeds that confirmed it.[29] In this, Paul stands out from other wandering preachers. Their words were merely words; his words were infused with power and God’s holy spirit.[30]

Imitators and Examples (1:6-8)

The Thessalonians’ acceptance of Paul’s message is seen in two ways: their imitation of Paul and Jesus (v. 6), and their becoming an example to believers in Macedonia and neighboring Achaia (v. 7). In what way do they imitate Paul and Jesus? According to Paul, their imitation is seen in the way that they “received the word in great distress with joy from the holy spirit.” But how is this like what either Paul or Jesus experienced? This is a question more easily asked than answered. Earlier I noted that the word “steadfastness” in v. 3 is often used in connection with eschatological distress. At the end of this chapter, Paul will refer to coming wrath (v. 10) and in the final chapter of the letter he will speak of a period of distress that happens at the eschaton – the end of the world (5:1-11). For Paul, then, the Thessalonian community is one on the precipice of the end of the current world order. They are truly members of an apocalyptic sect. It is therefore to be expected that, in light of this coming end of all things, that suffering will increase,[31] as if the world itself knows it is being cornered and is lashing out. But what specifically could this distress entail? This is a question we must table for the moment and will return to in episode five. For now, it suffices to say that this distress is perhaps of a socio-religious variety rooted in the nature of the communities Paul has founded. 

Not only had they become imitators of Paul and the Lord, the community had become “an example to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia” (v. 7). In what way? Verse eight says, “For from you has sounded forth the word of the Lord, not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but in every place your faith in God has gone, so that we have no need to say anything.” Remember, Thessalonica was a city in Macedonia – a “mother city” per the ancient historian Strabo (Geographica 7 fragment 21). Another major city in Macedonia was Philippi, the city that Paul and his missionary band had been in just prior to their initial visit to Thessalonica (cf. 2:2). Achaia was a region south of Macedonia, encompassing such cities as Athens and Corinth.[32] Paul is in essence claiming that the Thessalonians have themselves become proclaimers of the gospel such that their outreach spans much of Greece! “The new churches have themselves become informal centers of evangelism,” Boring writes.[33] This was undoubtedly part of Paul’s missionary strategy and the reason he chose such prominent cities as Philippi, Thessalonica, and Corinth as places in which to plant the seed of the word and watch it grow.[34]

Turned to God from Idols (1:9-10)

So widespread and well-known has the faith of the Thessalonians become that v. 9 tells us that these communities elsewhere in Macedonia and Achaia (and other locations) “report what sort of visit we had to you.” The “visit” Paul refers to is the initial mission wherein the Thessalonian community of Jesus followers was first formed. Paul does not go into detail here on what that visit looked like other than to give us a glimpse into what his preaching there looked like. The term that scholars use to speak of this is kerygma, a word derived from a Greek root meaning “proclamation” or “preaching.” Here in vv. 9-10 Paul lays out a number of elements of which his kerygma consisted. 

First, Paul’s preaching was a call to abandon idolatry. As I mentioned in episode two, Greco-Roman cities were full of idols and, therefore, the gods those idols represented. Moreover, religion was not a separate and distinct element of one’s life. Rather, religious values informed every aspect of existence. To reject one’s ancestral gods was dangerous because it risked incurring the wrath of the gods.[35]

Second, rather than worship these idols, they were to “serve the living and true God.” But in what way would Paul have made it clear which god was the “living and true”? One clue is found back in v. 5 where he reminds the Thessalonians that “our gospel did not come to you in word only but rather in power and in the holy spirit and complete certainty.” That is, by performing powerful deeds, Paul demonstrated the superiority of the god he worshipped. And who was this god? It was the god of Israel, a being so powerful and magnificent that he demanded people worship only him (Exodus 20:4-6). 

Third, Paul called on these Thessalonians to “await [God’s] son from heaven” (v. 10). That the gods had children was hardly surprising. But what Paul meant by claiming that his god had a son was different than the idea that Zeus had one. “The Jewish god took no human sexual partner,” writes Paula Fredriksen. “[A]ccordingly, he did not leave behind human offspring in the ways that Greek gods did.”[36] So the sense in which this awaited son, Jesus, was God’s child was decidedly different than in Greek myths. What Paul means is not explicitly stated in his letter to the Thessalonians but, as I mentioned in episode two, Paul gives Jesus two titles: kyrios (“lord”) and christos (“christ”). To speak of the “christ” is to speak of the Jewish “messiah” and, since Paul in Romans 1:3 makes it clear that he thinks of Jesus as the Davidic messiah, he is therefore the rightful Jewish king. And because Jewish kings were referred to as God’s sons (e.g., 2 Samuel 7:14; Psalm 2:7; Psalm 89:26-27), Jesus is therefore God’s son – the awaited son. 

Fourth, this awaited son is also the one that God raised from the dead. Paul must have explained to the Thessalonians at his initial visit what all this entailed: Jesus was crucified, buried, and raised from the dead (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:3-4). But why mention here in v. 10? Because it is illustrative of the fact that Paul’s god is “living,” not just in the sense that he surely exists but also in that he is the creator, sustainer, and restorer of life,[37] an element of Paul’s preaching that becomes important in chapter four of the letter. 

Fifth, Paul’s preaching included a message about coming wrath from which Jesus would deliver his people. This too will be explained more later in the letter and so we will reserve discussing it for that episode.

What We Have Learned 

From 1:2-10 we have learned a number of things but two in particular stand out. First, according to v. 5, Paul seems to suggest that his ministry in Thessalonica included not only preaching of the gospel but also powerful deeds, perhaps miracles. Second, the community to which he is writing was called to abandon idolatry, a sure sign that this is an assembly of gentiles, not Jews. But these two things clash with what we read in the book of Acts concerning the founding mission described there. So, let’s return to the discussion of the book of Acts we began in episode three. 

PAUL IN THE BOOK OF ACTS: PART TWO 

The Addition of Timothy and the Mission to Macedonia

In the previous episode we were introduced to Silas, a character that is almost certainly the same individual as Silvanus in 1 Thessalonians 1:1. Here in Acts 16 we meet another character from the Pauline epistles: Timothy. But given the importance of Timothy in Paul’s letters, including his significant role in Paul’s continuing ministry to the Thessalonians, it is striking just how insignificant Timothy is in the book of Acts. Hans Conzelmann writes, “In Acts, Timothy, like all of Paul’s fellow workers, stands completely in Paul’s shadow.”[38] In fact, as Conzelmann also notes, Silas has all but disappeared from view in this first pericope after he joined Paul’s team. 

Paul arrives in Lystra, a city in southern Turkey that Augustus had made into a Roman colony in the first century BCE.[39] While there he meets a Jesus follower by the name of Timothy whose Jewish mother was also a follower of Jesus and whose father was Greek (v. 1). “He was well spoken of by the believers in Lystra and Iconium,” the author of Acts reports, and consequently Paul wanted to bring Timothy along with him on his journey (vv. 2-3a). However, we learn in v. 3 that Timothy is uncircumcised, a situation that Paul desires to remedy, in the words of the author, “because of the Jews who were in those places, for they all knew that his father was a Greek.” His circumcision complete, they depart and go “from town to town” to communicate what the council of apostles and elders in Jerusalem had decided for gentile Jesus followers (vv. 4-5). 

The missionary team is supernaturally directed to Macedonia (vv. 6-10) and their first stop is the Roman colony of Philippi. Time does not permit a full discussion of all that transpired there but it suffices to say that Paul, as usual, runs into trouble but manages to escape, though this time it is due not to the comradery of his fellow believers as in Damascus and Jerusalem but rather to Paul’s claim of Roman citizenship (vv. 37-40). Leaving Philippi, they travel along the Via Egnatia and arrive in Thessalonica where, 17:1 tells us, “there was a synagogue of the Jews.” It is here that the epistle of 1 Thessalonians and the book of Acts full converge. 

Triumph and Trouble in Thessalonica 

Over the course of three sabbaths, Paul entered the Thessalonian synagogue and argued for his belief in a suffering and resurrected messiah (vv. 2-3). According to v. 4, Paul’s declaration is met with acceptance by not only some of the Jews that heard him but also “devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women.” This is not the first time we encounter non-Jews in a Jewish synagogue in the Acts of the Apostles. In ch. 13, Paul and Barnabas arrive in Antioch of Pisidia where Paul is given a chance to speak to the gathered assembly in the local synagogue. He opens his speech with these words: “You Israelites, and others who fear God, listen” (13:16). Thus, in the synagogue were not only Jews but also pagans who were dubbed “God-fearers.” This too seems to have been the situation in the Thessalonian synagogue: alongside the Jews were pagan men and women. But what did it mean to be a “God-fearer”? Pamela Eisenbaum puts it plainly: “[G]enerally it refers to Gentiles who were either respectful of the Jewish God or of the Jewish community or both.”[40] This could include a variety of things: sabbath observance, synagogue attendance, or worship of the Jewish god.[41] Another way respect could be shown was through financial contributions and we have various ancient sources that depict pagans doing just that. For example, Roman aristocrat and pagan priestess Julia Severa is mentioned as one who helped to build the synagogue in Acmonia.[42] Similarly, Capitolina, a woman of wealth whose father was proconsul of Asia and whose husband was a Roman senator and pagan priest, is indicated in an inscription as one who contributed financially to refurbishing a synagogue in Tralles.[43] An inscription from the third century CE from the city of Aphrodisias lists one-hundred and twenty-six donors to the local synagogue, fifty-four of which were gentiles, “indisputable evidence of the large number of Gentiles who could be attracted to the synagogue.”[44]

Paul’s triumphant preaching, however, is soon met with trouble. According to v. 5, jealous Jews and marketplace ruffians stirred up a mob to find Paul and Silas, arriving at the house of Jason, a character whose first and last appearances in the book of Acts are in this pericope. Unable to find Paul or Silas, they opt instead to drag Jason and all those in his house before the local magistrate where they then accuse them of harboring those “who have been turning the world upside down” (vv. 6-7). Ultimately, despite how disturbed local officials were at all they heard, Jason and those in his home were released (vv. 8-9). Meanwhile, Paul and Silas were shipped off to Beroea (v. 10). 

NEXT TIME 

It is here that our survey of Paul in the book of Acts will conclude since we are now at the point in which the story of the founding of the Thessalonian church in the book of Acts and the story of its founding in 1 Thessalonians converge. In episode five we will consider how the picture painted in Acts fits with Paul’s own description and we will briefly wrestle with the reliability of the book of Acts and how useful as source it is for constructing what actually happened in the life of Paul generally and the founding of the Thessalonian church specifically.

That’s next time on Amateur Exegesis. 


[1] James 5:16, KJV.

[2] “But rather” renders the phrase alla kai. The NRSV renders the phrase “but also,” a perfectly acceptable translation. However, I think the contrast is strong between “in word only” and “in power, etc.” Thus, I have chosen to render alla kai with “but rather” to highlight that contrast. 

[3] “Complete certainty” renders the phrase plērophoria pollē. The substantive plērophoria is rare in the NT, appearing only here and in Colossians 2:2, Hebrews 6:11, and Hebrews 10:22. It is related to the verb plērophoreō which is used by Paul to speak of one who is completely convinced of the truth of something (e.g. Romans 4:21, 14:5). BDAG offers for plērophoria the definition a “state of complete certainty.” Similarly, LSJ offers a definition “fulness of assurance, certainty.” 

[4] “With you for you” renders literally the Greek phrase hymin di’ hymas. The NRSV takes a more dynamic approach, rendering it “among you for your sake.” The sense, of course, is that Paul is speaking of the missionary team’s personal presence among the Thessalonians and how it played out with them. 

[5] By using the construction hymōn…egenēthēte, Paul is placing emphasis on Thessalonians becoming imitators of Paul and the Lord. 

[6] M. Eugene Boring, I & II Thessalonians: A Commentary, The New Testament Library (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015), 35.

[7] Calvin J. Roetzel, The Letters of Paul: Conversations in Context, fifth edition (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 64.

[8] See 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), viii, 80, 104.

[9] Boring, I & II Thessalonians, 57.

[10] Malherbe, The Letters to the Thessalonians, 107; Earl Richard, First and Second Thessalonians, Sacra Pagina (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2007), 58-59. 

[11] Boring I & II Thessalonians, 184.

[12] Morna Hooker (Paul: A Beginner’s Guide [Oxford: Oneworld Press, 2003], 64) reasons similarly noting that while Paul’s “letters are of necessity ‘Christocentric’… his theology remains theocentric, since it is about what God has done ‘through Christ (2 Cor. 5:19; cf. Rom. 8:3).” 

[13] Monya Stubbs (“1 Thessalonians,” Women’s Bible Commentary, third edition, Carol A. Newsom, Sharon H. Ringe, and Jacqueline E. Lapsley, editors [Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012], 588) suggests that perhaps the great distress caused the Thessalonians to question whether their own experience of God was genuine. Paul’s words, therefore, provide confirmation of their standing “in God the father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (1:1).

[14] Boring, I and II Thessalonians, 59.

[15] Earl Richard, First and Second Thessalonians, Sacra Pagina (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2007), 60.

[16] Richard, First and Second Thessalonians, 60.

[17] Malherbe, The Letters to the Thessalonians, 108.

[18] Malherbe, The Letters to the Thessalonians, 108, 109.

[19] Boring, I and II Thessalonians, 61.

[20] Richard, First and Second Thessalonians, 61.

[21] Malherbe, The Letters to the Thessalonians, 109; cf. Richard, First and Second Thessalonians, 63-64.

[22] Boring, I & II Thessalonians, 62.

[23] Malherbe, The Letters to the Thessalonians, 110.

[24] Richard S. Ascough, Paul’s Macedonian Associations: The Social Context of Philippians and I Thessalonians (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2003), 10, 76-77; John S. Kloppenborg, Christ’s Associations: Connecting and Belonging in the Ancient City (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2019), 95.

[25] Malherbe, The Letters to the Thessalonians, 110.

[26] For an overview of Paul’s use of kinship language in 1 Thessalonians, see Trevor J. Burke, Family Matters: A Socio-Historical Study of Kinship Metaphors in 1 Thessalonians (London: T&T Clark International, 2003).

[27] Boring, I & II Thessalonians, 63.

[28] F.F. Bruce, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, Word Biblical Commentary (Nashville, TN: Word, Inc., 1982), 13.

[29] Malherbe, The Letters to the Thessalonians, 112.

[30] Boring, I & II Thessalonians, 64.

[31] Boring, I & II Thessalonians, 66.

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

[33] Boring, I & II Thessalonians, 67.

[34] Boring, I & II Thessalonians, 68; Hooker, Paul: A Beginner’s Guide, 2.

[35] Paula Fredriksen, Paul: The Pagans’ Apostle (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2017), 89-90.

[36] Fredriksen, Paul: The Pagans’ Apostle, 37.

[37] Malherbe, The Letters to the Thessalonians, 122.

[38] Hans Conzelmann, Acts of the Apostles, James Limburg, A. Thomas Kraabel, and Donald H. Juel, translators, Hermeneia Commentary Series (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1987), 125.

[39] Clyde E. Fant and Mitchell G. Reddish, A Guide to Biblical Sites in Greece and Turkey (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 241.

[40] Pamela Eisenbaum, Paul Was Not a Christian: The Original Message of a Misunderstood Apostle (New York: HarperOne, 2009), 112.

[41] Amy-Jill Levine, “Visions of Kingdoms: From Pompey to the First Jewish Revolt,” in The Oxford History of the Biblical World, Michael D. Coogan, editor (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 375.

[42] Fredriksen, Paul: The Pagans’ Apostle, 55.

[43] Fredriksen, Paul: The Pagans’ Apostle, 55.

[44] Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, third edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2003), 550.

Resources on Textual Criticism from Brent Niedergall and Digital Hammurabi

My capstone project to complete by bachelor’s degree involved writing a lengthy paper discussing the so-called Long Ending of the Gospel of Mark (i.e., Mark 16:9-20) and the reason it is disputed among textual critics. At that point in my life, I had amassed a decent library of books on textual criticism as well as a few commentaries that broached the subject. But what if you’re just starting out? What resources should you invest in? What should you read? 

Last month, Brent Niedergall, a pastor and biblical languages enthusiast, published a piece over at his website answering the question, “What Should I Read on New Testament Textual Criticism?” He lists a number of resources, some more advanced than others, but all of which are valuable to those interested in the text of the New Testament. Bookmark Niedergall’s post and start picking up the volumes he mentions, beginning with The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration (4th edition) written by the late Bruce Metzger and the ever-controversial Bart Ehrman. 

If you’d like a crash course on the textual criticism of both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, look no further than the 3.5-hour introduction to the subject by Digital Hammurabi’s own Joshua Bowen (linked below). It’s broken up into smaller segments, so you don’t have to sit there and watch all 3.5 hours to get it all down.