Everyone is Wrong (Except Me): Peace and Security – 1 Thess 5:3 (Gupta)

Thess Book

Consult just about any 1 Thessalonians commentary or monograph and, when it comes to 1 Thess 5:3, it will note that when Paul refers to some people crying “peace and security,” that he is tipping his hat at a Roman slogan. Well – everyone is wrong.

OK, let’s be clear. Roman did promise peace. And they did promise security. I don’t have any problem admitting these things. But these are not uncommon words and, 99 times out of 100, those who associate Paul’s “peace and security” statement in 5:3 with Rome pluck this verse out of context. It is a nice “sound-bite,” but almost no one actually makes a case that Paul is intending to say something about Rome in particular in the context of 1 Thess.

This is going to sound pretty critical, but there is a reason why few associated 1 Thess 5:3 with the Roman empire prior to the 1990’s. We biblical scholars (re-)discovered Roman politics and “tuned in” to it a couple of decades ago. Now – it is everywhere. Again, I have no problem with this new awareness, but I fear we are quick to cry “Roman slogan” without seeing if it actually fits the situation. (If, all of a sudden, we learned from archaeologists that Greeks and Romans loved upside-down pineapple cake, I bet you someone would discover a hidden recipe in the Sermon on the Mount!)

Here is why I don’t think 5:3 is about a Roman slogan. Paul is talking to a church shaken by recent deaths in the community. No doubt Paul is trying to allay fears of further destruction. Some are offering security. But who? And from what? Who could be offering these sectarian worshippers of Jesus “peace”? Rome? Did they have anything to do with these deaths? And if so, why would they now be offering security? To my mind, Paul does not seem to be making a generic appeal here (Rome is offering security), but a rather specific one, in view of specific local people. No scholar seems to think 1 Thess is, as a whole, a condemnation of the Roman empire, but in 1 Thess 5 Paul is very particular about the complete annihilation of these promisers of peace.

I have further argumentation on this in my commentary, but, again, no scholar I know has tried to make a case that a Roman slogan of “peace and security” fits the situation of 1 Thessalonians specifically with a view towards the recent death of community members. I have my own theory, but you need to get the book to get the scoop!

Everyone is Wrong (Except Me): The Thessalonian Situation (Gupta)

Thess Book.jpg

*This is the second post in my new series on 1-2 Thessalonians where I briefly note some ideas that I put forth in my new commentary (coming out this month). Though my commentary is not a technical academic commentary, still I tried to re-think the interpretation of these letters. These are some of my arguments and conclusions.*

Everyone is wrong about the Thessalonian Situation (Except Me)

OK, so pretty much every Thessalonian scholar holds these truths to be self-evident

#1: the Thessalonian believers were (mostly/almost entirely) former pagans with no connection to Judaism.

#2: the persecutors of the Thessalonian believers were (mostly/almost entirely) pagans, not Jews

I actually think both of these are off-track. Let’s start with #1:

Scholars tend to make much of Paul’s statement in 1 Thess 1:9 that the believers previously turned from idols to God and Jesus. To these scholars, that means they were pagan polytheists with no connection to Judaism because they were idol worshippers. I.e., they were not pagan god-fearers (Gentiles who were sympathizers with Judaism). Now, if this is true, it puts 1 Thess 1:9 in tension with Luke’s account in Acts, because Luke makes it seem like a decent portion of the church was indeed god-fearers. So, this is part of the reason some reject Luke’s account.

Here is where scholars go wrong. There is much evidence that god-fearer is not a rigid category and there was a range of commitment and exclusivity of worship. Scholars like Paula Fredriksen and S.J. Cohen urge that one could sympathize and identify with the synagogue, and still worship idols. This was not ideal for Jews by any means, but there was probably hope they would move closer to exclusive worship.

My hypothesis is that some such Gentile sympathizers were connected to a synagogue (and yet still polytheists), and were “wooed” away by Paul and Paul required absolute exclusive worship (hence 1 Thess 1:9). This was upsetting to the Jews in Thessalonica for obvious reasons.

That bring us to point #2: persecutors. Most scholars assume the persecutors were all/mostly Gentiles, but Acts narrates a scenario were Jews were hostile. Many seem forced to reject Acts. Part of this involves the use of the word symphyletes in 1 Thess 2:14. Most commentators take this word to mean “ethnic countrymen.” That is, the Thessalonian believers were persecuted by their own pagan countrymen while the Judeans were persecuted by Jews. What does symphyletes actually mean? That is a good question. Truth be told, most commentators work off of the opinions of other commentators and very few people have really investigated the use of this word for themselves. One person who HAS examined this word is N.H. Taylor (Pretoria) and he argues that its extant ancient usage is inconclusive – one cannot narrow it to ethnic in-group. It very well could mean “fellow-countrymen” in a broader sense. 

To my mind, if Paul is including Jews in his use of symphyletes in 1 Thess 2:14, it would make sense of the critical statements he makes against Jews in 2:14-16. They are the “ring-leaders” of the persecution, so to speak, and they are drawing his criticism (as it seems in Acts 17). He is not criticizing all Jews everywhere; he is pointing out the waywardness of those Jews who persecute and reject Gentiles, preventing Gentiles from coming in contact with the gospel.

I have not given “full-blown” arguments here; there is more in my commentary, so check it out! This post is just to let you know – I am right.

(In the interest of full disclosure, I think Donfried, Still, Tellbe, and Weima are most willing to having an open mind on these issues)


Everyone is Wrong (Except Me): 1 Thessalonians

Thess Cover

I am excited to report that my commentary on 1-2 Thessalonians (New Covenant Commentary Series, Wipf & Stock; ed. Mike Bird and Craig Keener) will be published in the next few weeks. In the run up to that release, I thought I would have a bit of fun and do a blog series: “Everyone is Wrong (Except Me)”. One might look at yet another commentary on 1-2 Thess and wonder if there is anything “new” to discover. The point is fair, as there are lots of outstanding Thessalonian commentaries (Marshall, Malherbe, Gaventa, Weima, to name just a few). My commentary is a theological and pastoral work, so my goal was to penetrate to the theological heart of the text. And I think I have made a good crack at it.

BUT – and this is the point here for this post – I did try to re-think scholarly assumptions wherever I could and move into some new directions or push assumed consenses.

So, with a bit of tongue-in-cheek, this blog series is meant to say – I think I am right, and the rest of y’all are wrong! (For those of you without a sense of humor, stop reading….now). There are some issues in 1-2 Thessalonians where I think many scholars have got it wrong. Here I stand, I can do no other!

Without further ado.

Everyone is wrong about Acts 17:1-10. 

That is, a remarkable number of Thessalonian scholars are skeptical about the historical usefulness of Luke’s account of Paul (and Silas) in Thessalonica (most notoriously, Ascough and Koester). (Because of this noisy skepticism, many more are bashful about using Acts to aid the study of 1 Thess.) This is probably for three reasons. First, many doubt Acts’ overall historical reliability. Secondly, Acts 17 follows a strong narrative pattern in Acts of Paul going to the synagogue, getting ousted, and then turning to pagans. To many, the pattern is too stylized to be considered historical. Thirdly, the conversion of some Jews and many pagan godfearers (according to Acts 17) seem to contradict 1 Thess 1:9  – Paul implies the Thessalonian church was nearly all former polytheists who “turned from idols.”

I will deal with this last point in a separate blog post. Here I just want to say a couple of reasons why I think everyone is wrong on this.

Firstly, about the patterns in Acts. Yes, those patterns are there. Yes, it does imply editing and embellishment. But we should not ignore the fact that Luke does not present a static portrayal of the Jews, or conversions, or Gentiles. There may be stylization in broader patterns, but the details vary enough to allow for Luke to bring in the color of the region or the development of the specific situation. For example, the Jews of Thessalonica are portrayed as hostile, but the Jews of Bereoa are noted to be more open-minded (17:11). Historians tell us these were, indeed, rival cities.

Secondly, I want to bring up a key point about doing historical work. Sometimes we biblical studies folk create our own weird rules and methods that (non-religion) historians of Antiquity might find odd (*historical Jesus scholars, I’m looking at you*). I have spent quite a bit of time studying how classicists, archaeologists, and historians of Antiquity study the history of ancient Thessalonica (nb., they tend to call it Thessalonike, or Thessaloniki), and every single one of them incorporates Acts 17 (so, e.g., Nigdelis, Kyrtatas, Allamani-Souri). Some of them explicitly note that Luke clearly has a theological agenda, and narratival patterns – but in no case have I found anyone discounting Acts 17 as a legitimate historical source. This should go without saying, but all such historians cautiously draw from Acts the same way they would from any ancient source. Utilizing Acts is not just an “evangelical” thing to do – cautiously drawing from Acts is just good historical work.

My own preference, then, is to find the best way to bring Acts 17 and 1-2 Thess together to paint a historical picture, and only discount material from Acts 17 that would out-and-out contradict Paul’s own words. But I did not find such contradictions.

So, everyone is wrong, except me.

Stay tuned for more in this series.