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The New Testament is all about Jesus, right?
So why are 15 of the 27 New Testament books said to be written by or about Paul?
Paul's not just a biblical character—he's also our author. With letters like these, Paul was able to shape the early Christian church into what it is today: a powerhouse with 2.1 billion followers.
So let's dig in a little.
Paul doesn't drop in a lot of biographical details for himself in these two letters—mainly because the Thessalonians Christians he's writing to wouldn't have needed it. Paul had already visited them in person and set up a church there. It's fair to say they would have known their apostle like the back of their hands.
But we're not the Thessalonians, so let's delve into some back story.
Paul was born as Saul. Scholars think he was probably a few years younger than Jesus, so the two men, who were both raised in the Roman Empire around the same time in Jewish homes, would have been contemporaries. But although Paul spent the majority of his life writing, preaching, and teaching about Jesus, he never actually met the guy while he was alive (source, p. 11).
Unlike Jesus, Paul grew up in a big city called Tarsus, which is located in modern day Turkey. While Jesus spent his whole life in the Jewish homeland, Judea, Paul was part of the Jewish Diaspora around the Empire. He would have had access not only to a great Jewish religious education (he eventually joined up with the Pharisees—those dreaded baddies from the gospels), but would have been exposed to Greek universities in the area as well (source, p. 60).
Important note alert!: Paul was born a Jew and remained a Jew his entire life. It wouldn't be correct to say that Paul "converted" to Christianity, because there was no Christianity to convert to (even though, yes, Shmoop and other folks use that term all the time to describe this group of early believers. It just makes life a little easier).
Many of the earliest followers of Jesus would have considered themselves Jews—and their message an off-shoot of the Jewish religion. Paul certainly saw it that way. He lived and died believing he was leading the Jewish faith in the right direction. Of course, you wouldn't know it from his letters to the Thessalonians.
But more on that later… we were talking about Paul's younger days.
Acts of the Apostles tells Paul's story most fully, and we suggest taking a minute to cruise over there and get the full scoop. But here's his deal in a nutshell.
Paul (or Saul, as he was still known then) was a devout Jew who actually persecuted Christians. Acts says that he was present when Stephen, one of the followers of Jesus, was martyred. (That's just a fancy way of saying he was bludgeoned to death by big freakin' rocks.)
Then, one day, as Saul was travelling to Damascus to go terrorize some more Christians, he was blinded by a light on the road. Paul heard Jesus' voice say: "Saul, why are you persecuting me?" (Acts 22:7) Um, good question. Anyway, later Saul regained his sight, changed his name, and become a devoted follower of Jesus.
For the next thirty years, Paul traveled around the eastern half of the Roman Empire telling everyone what he'd heard about Jesus. By all accounts, he was pretty successful. He arrived in Thessalonica to set up shop sometime around 50 CE. He also started churches in ancient cities like Philippi, Galatia, and Corinth. These guys are the recipients of some pretty lovely letters as well.
Acts also relates the story of Paul's first visit to Thessalonica. He says he came there after he was "shamefully mistreated at Philippi" (1 Thessalonians 2:2). Yup. Pretty much. When he arrived in Thessalonica and stopped in to visit the synagogue to get his preaching on the Jewish folks there were none to pleased and eventually ran Paul and friends out of town. But not before he could convert some of the Jews in town as well as "a great many of the devout Greeks" and "a few of the leading women" (Acts 17:1-10).
Oddly enough, even though Paul is a über devout Jew, his writings to the Thessalonians have hardly any Jewish shout-outs in them. In fact, he actually calls out the Jews in Judea because he thinks they "killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets" (1 Thessalonians 2:15).
It's not that Paul is tossing off his Jewish roots here. Nope. Like any good public speaker (or writer), Paul knows his audience. Even though Acts says Paul was able to convince some Jewish Thessalonians to follow Jesus, this congregation actually seems to be made up of mostly Gentile-Christians. Paul points out that they "turned to God from idols" (1 Thessalonians 1:9), so that's a pretty big clue that he's dealing with a bunch of goys.
Not that Paul doesn't try to sneak in a little Jewish theology. His thoughts on "the day of the Lord" are eerily similar to some passages in the Hebrew Bible. But mainly, he's really using his Greek education to appeal to these non-Jewish folks and really earning his title as "apostle to the Gentiles" (Romans 11:13).
1 Thessalonians was probably written between 50 and 51 CE (source, p. 1199), which makes it the oldest known piece Christian writing to date in existence.
It's okay. You can take a minute to be impressed.
As a result, Paul, who became a Christian sometime around 36 CE and started traveling around the Roman Empire in 46 CE, was still fairly new to this whole winning converts-for-Christ thing. The Thessalonians are clearly doing a good job following Paul's teachings, but at every turn, he seems to be trying to nurture them into beautiful little Christian snowflakes:
• "We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers." (1 Thessalonians 1:2)
• "For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you." (1 Thessalonians 1:4)
• "You became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia." (1 Thessalonians 1:6)
• "For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? Yes, you are our glory and joy!" (1 Thessalonians 2:19-20)
• "You do not need to have anyone write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another; and indeed you do love all the brothers and sisters throughout Macedonia." (1 Thessalonians 4:9-10)
Is Paul always this nice? No way. Just take a peek at some of his other letters to the Romans and Corinthians to know that Paul wasn't afraid to get angry when he had to. Paul is clearly still in the honeymoon stage with his friends in Thessalonica. Now we can only hope he stayed there forever.
Paul also goes to great lengths to point out to the Thessalonians what a hard-working apostle he really is:
You remember our labor and toil, brothers and sisters; we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God. You are witnesses, and God also, how pure, upright, and blameless our conduct was toward you believers. (1 Thessalonians 2:9-10)
He's also no stranger to being persecuted for his beliefs:
We had already suffered and been shamefully mistreated at Philippi, as you know, we had courage in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in spite of great opposition. (1 Thessalonians 2:2)
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)
Paul uses this proof of his hard work and suffering to counter some of the rumors that have been floating around. It seems as though some of the naysayers in town are just saying that Paul and friends are opportunists praying on poor unsuspecting Thessalonians. But Paul shuts that line of argument down real quick:
Our appeal does not spring from deceit or impure motives or trickery […] As you know and as God is our witness, we never came with words of flattery or with a pretext for greed; nor did we seek praise from mortals, whether from you or from others, though we might have made demands as apostles of Christ. But we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children. (1 Thessalonians 2:3, 5-7)
Basically, Paul's point is that he and his friends have acted like stand up guys in the community. They haven't taken money from anyone; instead, they've worked their butts off to support themselves, all while endangering their lives to preach the gospel. They don't want handouts—they just want to save souls.
Take that, naysayers.
So, what happens to Paul after all his letters are written and delivered? Well, the last we hear of him is at the end of Acts when he's arrested in Jerusalem and shipped to Rome to stand trial and face yet a possible death sentence. That's where his trail of letters dries up, too. We don't know for sure if Paul was executed or if he lived to a ripe old age playing pinochle in his living room with other disciples of Christ.
Church tradition says that Paul was beheaded in Rome in 64 CE when the Emperor Nero decided to start persecuting him some Christians. Lots of religious icons and paintings show Paul holding a sword, even though we can't imagine he would have been too excited about carrying that around. That's because, if Paul was a Roman citizen, like it says in Acts 22:25, then he would have been entitled to a quick and (relatively) painless end by having his head chopped off.
Of course, it's also possible he wasn't a Roman citizen (Paul never says so in any of his letters). If he were an average Joe, he could have died like the other Christians in that persecution. According to the Roman historian, Tacitus, the Christians were "covered with the skins of beasts […] torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired" (Annals 15.44.4).
The sword thing is looking pretty good right now.
So that's pretty much everything we know about Paul, right?
There is one really important point we did forget to mention: only one of the letters to the Thessalonians was written by Paul.
The majority of scholars believe that only 1 Thessalonians was actually written by Paul himself. 2 Thessalonians falls into the category of "disputed letters." That just means that there are some people who think Paul might have written them and some who don't. Though the consensus for this one generally falls on the "no" side.
Think about it. Did you notice when you were reading both letters that 2 Thessalonians is eerily similar to 1 Thessalonians? It's like Paul wrote his first letter and then penned another using some of the same lines and talking about the exact same subjects. Why give the same advice twice, especially if people didn't follow it the first time? Paul's way too smart for that.
So who wrote the second letter? No one knows. Some scholars date it to the last part of the first century (which would make it one of the oldest books in the Bible). There was probably some guy out there who really loved Paul's letter to the Thessalonians but thought it needed a little tweaking. So, he sat down and wrote some first century fan fiction…and then told everyone that Paul did it…and made it a sequel because everyone knows sequels sell. (Source, p. 1213-14.)
Today, we would call this copyright infringement, but writing under a pseudonym was actually a really common practice in the ancient world. And after all, Paul is the kind of guy you would want to listen to. The question really is—why wouldn't you want to write under his name? (The answer is because it's unethical…but we digress.)
But really, the fact that someone would forge a letter under Paul's name just shows what a huge impact he made on early Christianity. His letters were such a hit, that they made people want to be him.
You done good, Paul. You done good.