The First and Second Epistles to the Thessalonians are exactly what they say they are: epistles. That's just a fancy word meaning letters. So essentially, we're sorting through some really old mail. Easy peasy lemon squeezey, right?
But hold up a second. While 1 Thessalonians is pretty much a traditional letter from Paul (he says "hi" and then starts doling out all kinds of advice), 2 Thessalonians probably wasn't originally sent as a letter.
See, scholars believe that some guy wrote 2 Thessalonians on his own to address whatever problems his community of Christians was having. Since the second letter is pretty similar to the first, he didn't really go into too many extensive changes. Afterwards, he just pretended that Paul was the genius behind it all in order to give his message more oomph. It was a clever move.
Since this was a pretty common practice in ancient times, we can't call the guy out too much (after all, he did make it to the Bible, so his spin on things couldn't be that bad). Basically, it just means that even though 2 Thessalonians is written in the style of a letter, it probably never made it through the mail to anyone. Hey, at least that ancient author saved on stamps.
The authors of New Testament books didn't title their works. Maybe they thought that was a little too fancy. Later generations of Christians, who liked fancy names, needed something to help them tell which book was which. They couldn't use the first lines for these two like they had done for other books, so they went the simple route.
The most commonly used title for these two—The First Epistle to the Thessalonians and The Second Epistle to the Thessalonians—pretty much say it all. It just means that these books of the Bible are:
• that were sent to the Christian church in Thessalonica…
• and that one came first and one came second.
Simple enough, right? Ah, but allow us to throw a monkey wrench in your certainty. While the first letter in the series was written to the Thessalonians by Paul, the second letter most likely wasn't.
The author of this second letter probably wanted to piggy-back on the popularity of Paul and his first letter to the Thessalonians, so he wrote a little work that he attributed to Paul and pretended that it had been sent to Thessalonica, too. It would be kind of like if you wrote a book called Harry Potter and the Sequel Everyone Wants to Read, but told the world it was penned by J.K. Rowling. The lines would be around the block.
Today, this would be called copyright infringement and J.K. Rowling would tell everyone that you were a big fat idea thief. But in the ancient world, writing under a pseudonym was a way to give your writing more oomph. After all, who cares what Demetrius from Athens thinks about God? But if we're talking Paul and a sequel to one of his most popular letters—well... where can we get a copy?
Paul wrote his earliest surviving letter around 50 or 51 CE. Though he was probably actually sitting in Corinth when he wrote it all down, the letter is addressed to the Christians in Thessalonica and it talks all about their successes and issues (source, p. 1199).
So what was going on in that town in the mid-1st century?
Thessalonica was a major city in Greece, which was located in the Northern region of Macedonia. It was founded in 316 BCE by King Cassander of Macedon who named the city after his wife Thessalonike (oh, how romantic!) (source, p. 1200). By 41 BCE, the Roman Empire had taken over, though Thessalonica remained a "free city," which just meant that they could govern themselves as long as the Emperor could keep checks on them (source, p. 1131). How kind.
Economically, the town was kind of a big deal. They were smack in the middle of a major commercial road going from the Adriatic Sea to the Black Sea and had an important seaport right in town (source, p. 64). There would have been a diversity of different people living inside the city—from a small wealthy elite to poor and working class artisans and laborers (source, p. 1200). The city also contained a small Jewish population, which, according to Acts 17, is where Paul made his first stop when he came into town.
He didn't have much luck.
Aside from the Jews living in town at the time, most citizens of Thessalonica probably worshipped a variety of Greek, Roman, and Egyptian gods. Paul says that the Christians in Thessalonica "turned to God from idols" (1 Thessalonians 1:9), so the church was probably mostly made up of ex-pagans (source, p. 1202).
Ancient coins from the city call out all kinds of deities: Apollo, Artemis, Athena, Heracles, Dionysus, Poseidon, Pan, and Zeus. Lots of people in town probably even paid homage to the Roman Emperor as a god. Most people probably worshipped some combinations of gods, so there wasn't a whole bunch of pressure to pick the one "best" religion in town. Christianity obviously had other ideas (source, p. 63).
The fact that there were so many gods to choose from meant that religion was a big part of life. Ancient people living in the Roman Empire were expected to pay homage to all kinds of different gods. If everyone took part in these rituals, Thessalonica could maintain economic, political, and social stability. It's just what all decent, upstanding people did. Otherwise, there would be problems. Big problems. (Source, p. 1200.)
Acts of the Apostles gives a brief overview of what happens the first time Paul sets foot into Thessalonica. As Luke tells it, Paul strolls into town and manages to win over some Jewish converts in the synagogue right away. Of course, Paul's letters don't really jive with this since he never mentions any Jewish-Christians in Thessalonica. Acts also says that he converted "many of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women" (Acts 17:4), but no one was "leading" enough to be called out by name in his letter.
Then, according to Luke, he's run out of town by some of the non-believing Jews who've managed to rile up "some ruffians" (Acts 17:5) to go after him. They attack the house of Jason, the guy Paul's been staying with (and who, oddly enough, isn't mentioned in 1 Thessalonians), but Paul is able to slip out of town before they find him. Basically, everyone is all up in arms because they think Paul is "turning the world upside down" and "saying there is another king named Jesus" (Acts 17:6-7). At least he didn't try to tell them that Elvis was the real king.
Though Acts only portrays Paul in Thessalonica for a super short time (maybe a few weeks), it was clearly long enough to educate the people about Jesus, set up a congregation, and even to get his own tent making business up and running on the side (source, p. 62). Paul is good, but even we know he'd need more than a few days to get all that accomplished.
Paul leaves Thessalonica and is gone for probably around a year. In that time, he knows that the Thessalonians are catching flack for their beliefs (just look what happened to him). He's a little worried that "the tempter had tempted [them] and that [his] labor had been in vain" (1 Thessalonians 3:5). Translation: he's worried that now that the going's gotten tough, they decided not to keep going with the whole Jesus thing.
So he sends Timothy to check the situation out and—thank goodness—the Thessalonians are still keeping the faith. Huzzah! But sadly, things haven't been easy for them. Remember, idol worship was very popular. All the cool kids were doing it. And the Christians were most definitely not part of the in-crowd.
And they would have stuck out like sore thumbs. On major holidays, citizens would gather for big meals where meat and wine that had been dedicated to the gods was offered. Naturally, Christians couldn't eat any of that. They also wouldn't have been able to stop by any of the shrines, light a stick of incense, and say a little prayer for the prosperity of the Roman Empire because Jesus—their new deity—would not have been amused (source, p. 1200).
Yeah, there's some persecution going on. Paul mentions it quite a bit and praises these new Christians for staying strong:
• "You became imitators of us and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit." (1 Thessalonians 1:6)
• "You suffered the same things from your own compatriots as they did from the Jews." (1 Thessalonians 2:14)
• "We sent Timothy[…] to strengthen and encourage you for the sake of your faith, so that no one would be shaken by these persecutions." (1 Thessalonians 3:2-3)
These guys are tough. Shmoop personally would have folded like a house of cards, but that's just us.
Paul's proud about how they've been doing in the face of adversity, but he wants to make sure they keep on keeping on, too. That's why he gives them little instructions to further cement their group identity. He says they're different from all the Gentiles around them who are, apparently, sex maniacs (1 Thessalonians 4:5). He also tells them that as "children of the light" (1 Thessalonians 5:5), they won't be surprised when Jesus floats down from the clouds and starts smiting the wicked. The wicked in town won't be so lucky.
But until that happens, Paul tells them to keep their heads down and not cause trouble: "live quietly, to mind your own affairs […] so that you may behave properly toward outsiders" (1 Thessalonians 4:11-12). Basically, Paul wants them to put their best face forward, so that when they're refusing to join in on the idol-worshipping festivities, people won't think they're godless misanthropes. Sure, the Gentiles will all crumble under the wrath of God, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't be polite to them.
Speaking of the wrath of God (aren't we always?), the environment of persecution is also probably one of the reasons Paul keeps bringing up the second coming of Jesus over and over again. The Thessalonians were in desperate need of some hope for the future. Who better to do that than Jesus (along with angels and trumpets)? Lots of down-trodden people have come up with myths about the destruction of their tyrants (source, p. 1201). Generally, they involve tossing off the shackles of their oppressors so the meek can inherit the Earth. But sometimes it's just as simple as knowing that one day those bullies are gonna be pumping your gas.
Since 2 Thessalonians probably wasn't written by Paul and probably was never sent to the actual Thessalonians, none of this good history stuff we just talked about applies to that letter. Some scholars think that 2 Thessalonians was actually written around 100 CE, but by then, Paul and the original Thessalonian Christians would have been long gone (source, p. 1214).
Though the letter is just pretending to have a Thessalonian setting, it's clear that whomever it's addressed to, they were having some of the same problems as the original Thessalonians. Persecutions hadn't gone away. And that whole end of the world thing still hadn't happened. Like Paul, that anonymous author wants his friends to just keep swimming even in the face of tough times.
We're pretty sure Paul and the original Thessalonians would be down with that.
For lots of people, there's nothing they wouldn't do for their nearest and dearest. Your relatives are people you have an obligation to love and care for (yes, even your weird Uncle Gene). But family isn't only made up of the people we happen to share DNA with. Family can be anyone that's important enough to join our inner circle. Or at least that's what the early Christians thought.
The New Testament uses tons of family imagery. Remember God the Father and Christ the Son? Family ties are powerful symbols. Paul (and his anonymous pretender) even occasionally uses this parent/child language to apply to describe his relationship with the Thessalonian Christians:
• "We dealt with each one of you like a father with his children, urging and encouraging you and pleading that you lead a life worthy of God" (1 Thessalonians 2:11-12). Father knows best.
• "Therefore we ourselves boast of you among the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith." (2 Thessalonians 1:4). He's one proud papa.
• "You yourselves know how you ought to imitate us" (2 Thessalonians 3:7). Do as I say, kids!
Does this mean they have to get him a card for Father's Day?
It's clear that Paul uses this image to convey his love for the Thessalonians. They're like his little brood of babies. He adores them and treats them delicately: "We were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children" (1 Thessalonians 2:7). Parent of the year, right there.
But he also uses this relationship to justify his concern for them. Unlike some of his other letters, Paul doesn't lay on the dad lectures too thick. But he obviously wants the Thessalonians to know that he has authority. When he preaches, they better be listening. Heck, Paul has so much dad power, some guy even pretended to be him when he wrote 2 Thessalonians. It's the ancient equivalent of forging dad's signature on a report card.
So Paul is the dad and Christians are the kids. That means they're all brothers and sisters, right? But don't forget, Paul's also their brother. Um, weird. Is he his own grandpa, too?
• "For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you." (1 Thessalonians 1:4)
• "You remember our labor and toil, brothers and sisters; we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you." (1 Thessalonians 2:9)
• "For this reason, brothers and sisters, during all our distress and persecution we have been encouraged about you through your faith." (1 Thessalonians 3:7)
• "Concerning love of the brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anyone write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another." (1 Thessalonians 4:9)
• "Greet all the brothers and sisters with a holy kiss." (1 Thessalonians 5:26)
• "But we must always give thanks to God for you, brothers and sisters." (2 Thessalonians 2:13)
• "Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right." (2 Thessalonians 3:13)
Unlike the image of the father figure, when Paul casts himself as a brother, he seems to be putting himself on the same level as the Thessalonians. He's just one of God's children just like them. But seriously, respect his authority.
Even though most of the family images in these letters are happy ones (a parent caring for children, brothers and sisters living together in harmony), Paul also uses some familial images to indicate sorrow or sadness:
When, for a short time, we were made orphans by being separated from you—in person, not in heart—we longed with great eagerness to see you face to face. For we wanted to come to you—certainly I, Paul, wanted to again and again. (1 Thessalonians 2:17-18)
Poor family-less Paul. When he couldn't come to see the Thessalonians, he felt like an orphan.
When they say, "There is peace and security," then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape!" (1 Thessalonians 5:3)
Paul uses the image of the woman in labor here to describe the how suddenly the end of the world will come. Notice: he doesn't refer to her as a "mother," just a "pregnant woman." Meaning these labor pains won't even lead to an adorable little baby in the end.
These family metaphors serve to show the connection between Christians. In the ancient world (and even today), family ties are really important. A family member is someone you have an obligation to love, to help, and to care for. Even though the Christians in Thessalonica aren't all blood relatives, Paul uses these images to emphasize the fact that they owe each other love and allegiance.
Without sleep, we turn into walking zombies in desperate need of Starbucks. Parents all over the world have invented little songs to get their children to just go the heck to sleep already. But for Paul and the early Christians, falling asleep was not a good idea. Were they afraid of the dark? Or was there something else going on?
Paul warns the Thessalonians not to nod off to sleep while they're waiting for Jesus to come back. Quick! Someone break out the No-Doz.
Let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing. (1 Thessalonians 5:6-11)
What does Paul mean by this? He's basically saying that Christians need to stay on their toes. They need to be alert and ready for when Jesus comes back. Mainly, that means living good Christian lives and not slacking off at all.
He ties this in with another one of his favorite images: light and darkness. In Paul's world, light means that people can see the truth about God and follow a good and righteous path. Darkness is synonymous with wickedness. Those who are in the dark can't make out what God wants to tell them. Maybe if someone could hand them a flashlight, they would be able to get a clue.
He tells the Thessalonians, "You are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness" (1 Thessalonians 5:5)—meaning that they are meant to act in a holy and illuminated way at all times. They should never give into the darkness and fall asleep. No matter how tired they get, they've got to rage against the dying of the light.
Every night when Shmoop goes to bed, we lock our doors. We don't want some crazed maniac breaking into the house in the middle of the night and getting a peek of us in our curlers, after all.
Paul and the Thessalonians couldn't agree more.
Paul uses this phrase to describe when the world is gonna end:
You yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. When they say, "There is peace and security," then sudden destruction will come upon them. (1 Thessalonians 5:2-3)
Basically, he means that the second coming of Jesus will sneak up on us. We'll all be lying cozy and snug in our beds when suddenly—bam!—some guy breaks in to rob us. That or drop off presents. That is kind of Santa's deal, too.
Paul probably intends for this image to be kind of scary. After all, no one wants some crazy intruder in their home in the middle of the night. And for the rest of the world, the second coming will be pretty frightening. But if you're doing what you should do, you'll be armed with your handy dandy baseball bat of faith when that villain bursts through the door. Just make sure you whack him real good.
Today, the phrase, "a thief in the night" isn't always used in a religious context. It's more of a metaphor for something that happens suddenly and unexpectedly. Examples abound:
• A Thief in the Night is a collection of short stories by Ernest William Hornung, which is literally about a thief in Victorian England.
• It's also the title of a Rolling Stones song.
• And a 1972 Christian film about the Rapture. That's a pretty good title for a movie about the end of the world.
First and Second Thessalonians are pretty tame. They're light on violence—even though Paul keeps mentioning the wrath of God pouring down on non-believers, he's pretty vague about the details. And drugs don't show up at all. Paul does have quite a lot to say about sex, but it's pretty much about not doing it (unless you're married, of course).
What can we say? Paul's pretty vanilla.