Monday, December 29, 2014

1 Thessalonians: a Book Report

The following is from a work-in-progress called "The Bible: a Book Report" in which I read each book of the Bible, summarize it in my own words, and occasionally give some commentary.

Thessalonica (today called Thessaloniki) is the second largest city in Greece.

Paul’s first letter to the church in Thessalonica (the capital of the Roman province Macedonia) is believed to be authentic (written by Paul) and the oldest book of the New Testament (written about 50 C.E.).  The ordering of New Testament books in modern bibles is theological, not chronological.  Paul’s letters are the earliest writings we have, and the gospels are some of the latest.  Thus, if we want to read the New Testament chronologically (the order in which books were written), we should start with 1 Thessalonians.

The city of Thessaloniki has some amazing historical landmarks, like this 4th century Arch of Galerius.

Paul founded the church in Thessalonica on his second missionary journey.  He probably wrote this letter from Corinth to address questions he’d received from the church via his fellow missionary Timothy.  The letter is somewhat obsessed with what Paul (and the Thessalonians) believed to be the imminent return of the cosmic Christ, and the apocalyptic judgment of the world.  Throughout all his authentic letters, Paul clearly believed that this event was going to happen in his lifetime.  It didn’t.

Paul has received word from Timothy that, since he last visited the church in Thessalonica, some believers had died.  The church members were distraught because they didn’t  know what would happen to these people who have died before the second coming.  Paul encourages them with this explanation to what will happen to these people:

“But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.  For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died.  For this we declare to you, by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died.  For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first.  Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever.  Therefore encourage one another with these words.”

"Resurrection of the Flesh" by Luca Signorelli (c. 1500(

Basically, when Christ returns, those who have died will be resurrected and join the living believers and everyone will be joined with Christ in a kind of spiritual union.  It is interesting that Paul says nothing of what happens to these dead believers in the interim period between their death and Christ’s return.  In Paul’s day, this was a relatively small number of people.  But today, nearly 2,000 years later, this number is probably in the billions.  Where do these dead Christians go before Jesus returns?  The contemporary Christian answer is that their souls go to heaven, but Paul does not say this here.  For Paul, such questions are probably of minor concern, considering Christ’s imminent return.  Those few dead believers are presumably just kind of sleeping for a short while.

This passage inspired the Christian idea of “the Rapture” and also inspired much bad popular fiction and movies like Left Behind, which has, astonishingly, been made twice, most recently starring Nicolas Cage.  Here’s what the critics are saying about the latest “Left Behind” film, from Rotten Tomatoes (it currently has a rating of 2%)…

“Left behind is biblical in its silliness.”

—New York Magazine

“Score one for Satan.”

—Toronto Star

“Outlandishly inept in every way, ‘Left Behind’ is easily one of the worst movies of 2014.”

—Quad City Times

“Unfortunately, even after the rapture starts, Left Behind never picks up steam.”

—IGN Movies

“…may be one of the most inept films to ever see a wide theatrical release.”

—Austin Chronicle

“I can’t wait for Nic Cage to explain THIS one to God on Judgment Day.”

—Mixed Reviews

While they await the imminent apocalypse, Paul encourages the Thessalonians to behave correctly—abstaining from sexual immorality, treating one another kindly, and doing good deeds.  Paul also encourages the believers to live quiet, unobtrusive lives, and to “work with your hands,” meaning to be self-sufficient.  Paul supported his missionary activities through manual labor.  He was a tentmaker, according to Acts.

As with many of the New Testament books, Thessalonians contains some verses that have inspired Christian antisemitism over the ages: “For you, brothers and sisters, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea, for you suffered the same things from your own compatriots as they did from the Jews, who killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out; they displease God and oppose everyone by hindering us from speaking to the gentiles so that they may be saved.  Thus they have been constantly been filling up the measure of their sins; but God’s wrath has overtaken them at last.”

Regarding these verses, scholar David Fox Sandmel writes: “This passage (2:14-16) reflects Paul’s perspective on the tension between Jews who did not accept Jesus as messiah and the early followers of Jesus, whether Jews or gentiles.  These verses present a succinct summary of classical Christian anti-Judaism: the Jews killed Jesus, persecuted his followers, and threw them out of the synagogue; they are xenophobic and sinners, and God has rejected and punished them…This passage has implications for the emergence of anti-Judaism in the Christian tradition.”

It’s amazing how Paul, in the same letter, can say such harsh things against “the Jews” and also say this: “And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you” (3:12).  This apparent contradiction is worthy of discussion, especially for those interested in inter-faith dialogue between Christians and Jews today.

The expulsion of Jews from Spain (1492)

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