June 23, 2006

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

St. Paul: His letters to the Thessalonians

Paul was in Corinth in the years 50 and 51.

Before arriving in Corinth, though, he had sent Timothy and Silas (or Silvanus) back to Thessalonica to see what was happening there. When they finally caught up with Paul again, in Corinth, they brought the news that the Christian community was thriving.

That prompted Paul’s first letter to one of his communities—and the first writing in what would become the New Testament. Biblical experts agree on that much.

What they don’t agree on is how many letters Paul wrote to the Thessalonians. The Bible has two letters, but some experts believe that what we know as the First Letter to the Thessalonians was actually two letters. To complicate matters further, other experts believe that someone else wrote what we know as the Second Letter to the Thessalonians.

It does seem more likely that Paul would have begun his letter by telling the Thessalonians how anxious he was about them, so he sent Timothy to them, but that doesn’t appear until Chapter 2, Verse 13. Furthermore, Chapter 4 begins with the word “Finally.” Some experts believe that Paul’s first letter is contained between Thessalonians 2:13 and 4:2. There is also the fact that the tone of the rest of the letter is completely different.

It could be that Paul wrote that letter immediately after Timothy and Silas assured him that things were going well. He then entrusted the letter to a messenger. When the messenger returned, he reported to Paul some behavior he had observed that made Paul concerned, so he then wrote a second letter—what we know as Chapter 1 and Chapter 2 through Verse 12, and then Chapter 4, Verse 3, through to the end of the letter.

Or it could be just one letter. Perhaps it was Timothy and Silas who brought back word of troubling behavior, and Paul decided to begin his letter by reminding his readers of his work among them before admonishing them and giving them advice.

The troubling behavior was that some of the Thessalonians thought that the end of the world was near, so they stopped working. Paul told them to go back to work, just as he had always worked. He then describes what we know as the parousia, when the dead will rise and the living “will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.”

Although Paul thought that would happen in his lifetime, he admonished his readers that the time was unknown and they must be prepared at all times.

As for the Second Letter to the Thessalonians (perhaps the third letter he wrote), apparently what he wrote before was misunderstood. Paul learned somehow that some of the Thessalonians were under the impression that the parousia had already taken place and they were left behind.

Apparently there was a forged letter ostensibly from Paul. Paul repeated what he had said before, then added a note in his own handwriting to try to exclude forgeries in the future. †



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