First Thessalonians has aptly been stamped as "a classic of Christian friendship." It is a genuine letter called forth by the warm spiritual ties that bound the writers to the readers. For its proper interpretation it must be read in the light of the historical circumstances that evoked its composition. In the study of no other form of literature is it more important to know something of the life-situation amid which it was produced than in the study of a letter.
The city of Thessalonica enjoyed the advantages of a strategic location. The famous Via Egnatia (Egnatian Way), spanning Macedonia from east to west, passed through the walls of the city. This important Roman highway facilitated brisk travel and commerce and put Thessalonica into ready contact with the important inland districts on either side of it. It was the principal artery of communication between Rome and her eastern provinces.
Situated on a sloping incline at the northeastern corner of the Thermaic Gulf, Thessalonica had the further advantage of a splendid harbor. Its busy waterfront formed Macedonia's chief outlet to the sea. It stood in ready maritime contact with the rest of the Mediterranean world. Its only commercial rivals on the Aegean Sea were Corinth to the south and Ephesus on its eastern shores. Ships from all parts of the Roman world might be seen in the comparatively sheltered harbor at Thessalonica.
Because of its location, Thessalonica might well be called "the key to the whole of Macedonia." The dictum of Meletius concerning it was, "So long as nature does not change, Thessalonica will remain wealthy and fortunate." One of its native poets proudly called it the "mother of all Macedon."
The teeming metropolis of Thessalonica was the largest city of Macedonia. Harrison estimates that during the time of Paul its population might have been as high as 200,000.
The majority of its inhabitants were native Greeks, but it contained a considerable mixture of Romans, Asiatics, and Orientals of various backgrounds, including a sizable group of Jews. The Jewish colony maintained an influential synagogue where the Jewish religion and its forms of worship were furthered. It exerted a strong proselytizing influence upon a considerable number of Gentiles in the city.
Like every large city, among its citizens were the wealthy as well as the poor. Wealthy Romans often resided in the city, and its leading merchants were able to amass considerable wealth. The majority of the inhabitants supported themselves by their daily toil, by trade and manual labor.
The moral standards of the Thessalonians, the majority of whom were idolaters, were certainly no higher than those in any ordinary Greek city Thessalonica never acquired a reputation for immorality like Corinth, yet immoral practices were frightfully common in its idolatrous society. The effects of the paganism that clutched its inhabitants were truly degrading. Immorality was fostered under the protective shield of religion in the wanton rites connected with the worship of the Cabiri, deities of Samothrace.
It was about 315 b.c. when Cassander, the son-in-law of Philip of Macedon, collected the inhabitants of a number of villages in the area and resettled them in his new city of Thessalonica. He named it in honor of his wife, the half-sister of Alexander the Great.
When after the Battle of Pydna in 168 b.c. the Romans divided the conquered territory into four districts, Thessalonica was named the capital of the second district. In 146 b.c. Macedonia was united into one Roman province with Thessalonica as the natural choice for its capital. In 42 b.c. Thessalonica was made a "free city" by Anthony and Octavian, the future Augustus, as a reward for the help given in the struggle against Brutus and Cassius.
The Roman proconsul, the governor of Macedonia, had his residence in Thessalonica, but because it was a "free city" he did not control its internal affairs. Unlike Philippi, no Roman garrison was stationed there, and in spirit and atmosphere it was a Greek rather than a Roman city. Enjoying local autonomy, the city was governed by a board of magistrates, whose number of members apparently varied. According to Moulton and Milligan, "there were 5 politarchs in the time of Augustus, and 6 in the time of Antonius and Marcus Aurelius." Lightfoot holds that their number was seven rather than six. They bore the rather unusual title of "politarchs" (politarchai, Acts 17:6), a title not found in any classical author. This fact was once made a basis for assailing the reliability of Luke, but inscriptional evidence has triumphantly vindicated Luke's accuracy Some five or six inscriptions bearing this title have been recovered from Thessalonica itself; a number of others have been found in different Macedonian cities, proving that the title was not restricted to Thessalonica. It has also been found in a papyrus document from Egypt. The city apparently also had a senate and a public assembly. Thessalonica has continued its existence, with fluctuating fortunes, down through the centuries. Today it is an important Greek city with a population of more than 400,000. It is one of a small number of important New Testament centers that have maintained an unbroken continuity from the first century to the present.
The preaching of the gospel in Thessalonica was but a further carrying out of the commission received by Paul at Troas to work in Macedonia (Acts 16:8-10). In recounting the story of the apostle's second missionary journey, Luke gives a concise account of the mission in Thessalonica in Acts 17:1-10.
Their successful work at Philippi was suddenly terminated when Paul and Silas received a shameful beating and imprisonment because their work had touched the sensitive nerve of vested financial interests (Acts 16; 1 Thess. 2:2). Luke thus records the trip of the missionaries from Philippi to Thessalonica: "when they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica" (Acts 17:1). The trip was made along the Egnatian Way and was a journey of about a hundred miles. There is no indication that any preaching was done in the two cities through which they passed. Apparently this was because those cities had no Jewish synagogues. Also it seems that Paul recognized the strategic importance of Thessalonica as the key to the evangelization of the whole of Macedonia and was eager to begin preaching there.
The passing by of certain cities does not mean the gospel was not to be preached in them. Rather, as Roland Allen has pointed out, it was part of Paul's missionary strategy to seek to plant Christian churches in the important centers of a province with the confidence that from there the gospel would spread to the surrounding areas. Thessalonica was of crucial importance in carrying out this strategy. It is not certain who all were in the missionary party that entered Thessalonica. Who is included in Luke's they? The sudden dropping of the we, whereby Luke has shown his presence with the party from Troas to Philippi (Acts 16:10; 17:15), indicates that he remained behind at Philippi. Was Timothy also left at Philippi for some time? Acts is silent about the presence of Timothy at Thessalonica; he is next mentioned as being with Paul at Berea. Does this mean that Timothy did not journey to Thessalonica with Paul and Silas and only rejoined the missionary party at Berea? This is the view of Zahn who holds that Timothy would naturally stop to visit the new converts at Thessalonica on his way to Berea. Lenski thinks this explains why Timothy could be sent back to Thessalonica from Athens and at the same time Paul and Silas could not return; they "had been driven out of Thessalonica, while Timothy had not been. Timothy would encounter fewer difficulties."
Because the name Timothy is included in the salutation of 1 Thessalonians, others think Timothy must also have had a share in the founding of the church. It is generally assumed Timothy was in the weary party that concluded the hundred-mile trip from Philippi to Thessalonica. Commentators point out that Luke's interest is in recording the spread of the gospel, and this did not require naming the subordinate members in the party.
That Timothy's name is included in the salutation does not prove he had a share in the initial work at Thessalonica; it does prove he too stood in close contact with the Thessalonian believers. If he was not at Thessalonica during the initial preaching there, he may well have formed the acquaintance of the brethren when on his way to Berea to rejoin Paul. But from 1 Thessalonians 3:5-6 it is clear that Timothy had just completed an assignment that had brought him into close contact with the suffering saints there.
Luke at once records that "there was a Jewish synagogue" in Thessalonica (Acts 17:1). He describes Paul's synagogue ministry as follows: "As his custom was, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Christ had to suffer and rise from the dead. 'This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Christ,' he said. Some of the Jews were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a large number of Godfearing Greeks and not a few prominent women" (17:2-4).
In saying "as his custom was" Luke emphasizes that it was Paul's practice in beginning work in a new center to start preaching in the Jewish synagogue if possible. Not only was this in harmony with his principle "first to the Jew" (Rom. 1:16), but it was also the most advantageous place to begin. There he found "an audience provided for him which understood the underlying principles of his religion, and was familiar with the texts on which he based his argument."
Paul's synagogue message centered on two points. He used the Old Testament Scriptures to set before his hearers the great facts concerning the promised Messiah. These Scriptures proved it was necessary for the Messiah "to suffer and rise from the dead." This emphasis on the suffering and death of the expected Messiah would be a strange new note for Paul's audience. The traditional teaching in the synagogue did not associate suffering with the Messiah but rather proclaimed His coming as the champion and deliverer of Israel. On the basis of the talmudic teaching, Bruce concludes that there is little or no evidence to think the Old Testament references to His sufferings were attributed to the Messiah Himself before the coming of Christ.
Having established this teaching concerning the Messiah by his skillful expounding and comparing of the scriptural teaching on the subject, Paul next recounted to his synagogue audience the story of the sufferings, death, and resurrection of Jesus in exact fulfillment of these prophecies to prove that He "is the Christ." The fact that He is the Christ of course implies that He will also fulfill the prophecies concerning His coming reign. This naturally led on to the teaching concerning the return of Christ as the expected King.
Paul's synagogue audience was composed mainly of two classes of hearers, Jews and "Godfearing Greeks." Members of the latter class, as usual, proved to be the most responsive to his message. They may have included some "heathens honestly in search of truth," but the usual meaning of the term points to Gentiles who, disillusioned with their pagan gods and pagan morality, had been drawn to the purer ethical teachings of the Jews. They had become informal adherents of the synagogue as worshipers of Jehovah without accepting the rigorous, ritualistic demands of Judaism. While accepting the monotheism of the Old Testament and the hope of a coming deliverer, they
had found themselves dissatisfied with the narrow nationalism and ritual requirements of Judaism, and the advent of Christianity supplied their demand for an adequate and even greater conception of God than that which Judaism provided, a nobler ethic centered in the remarkable personal example of Jesus, and a universal outlook which came as a breath of liberation after the tightness of Jewish exclusivism.
The result of this synagogue ministry was the conversion of a few Jews and a large number of these God-fearers, including a number of the wives of the first men of the city
Acts speaks only of a ministry in the synagogue extending over three Sabbath days. This account is immediately followed by the story of the Jewish-led attack that forced the abrupt departure of Paul and Silas from Thessalonica. Was the stay of the missionary party limited to those three weeks, or did it spend a longer time there?
If we had only the account in Acts, we should naturally conclude that the work was confined to twenty-one days, that the mission was limited to the circle of the synagogue, and that the pagan population of the city was not directly touched. On the other hand, 1 Thessalonians seems clearly to indicate that many of the Thessalonian converts were won directly from heathenism (1:9; 2:14). Apparently Acts does not tell the whole story.
Interpreters such as Zahn, Frame, and Lenski hold that the work in Thessalonica cannot have extended much beyond the three weeks Luke mentions. Zahn points out that meetings were also held in the synagogue on Monday and Thursday, and that the synagogue "was open at other times, and served as a meeting-place for unusual gatherings." This would give the work at Thessalonica the nature of a short, intensive campaign. Frame thinks there is nothing incredible in the results attained in those three weeks "if the intensity of the religious life and the relative smallness of the group are once admitted." Advocates of this short ministry point out that the Gentile converts who composed the majority of the church had already been conditioned for receiving the gospel and that Paul's powerful preaching of that gospel would achieve large results in a short time. It is further pointed out that here, as at Athens, Paul doubtless took advantage of opportunities during the week to reach Gentiles outside the synagogue. Thus he may well have won some of the members directly from paganism. On the other hand, Lenski insists that 1 Thessalonians 1:9 and 2:14 "apply to Greek proselytes, and do not demand only converts from paganism." Thus these advocates hold that the facts can be fitted into a ministry of three weeks.
Others think there is good ground for holding that the stay lasted considerably beyond the three weeks mentioned in Acts. Rackham believes "the definite mention of the three weeks' preaching in the synagogue seems to imply a turning to the Gentiles at its end, as at the Pisidian Antioch." That Paul should turn directly to the Gentiles in Thessalonica when the synagogue was closed to him is very probable. In Ephesus his work in the synagogue was followed by a two-year ministry directly to the Gentiles (Acts 19:8-10). The devout Gentiles won in the synagogue would form a natural bridge to the Gentile masses of the city.
Beare holds that "the pastoral care with which the apostles had followed up their evangelism [see especially 2:9-12] and the strength of the affection which they had developed toward their converts [2:8; 3:6-10] would suggest, if not absolutely require, a period of months rather than weeks."He is also impressed with the strong Gentile complexion of the church, as revealed in the epistles. He concludes that from a reading of 1 Thessalonians alone one would never learn "that there was a Jewish community in Thessalonica at all, much less that it had been the center of the mission and had provided the apostle with the nucleus of the church." Beare's comment well underlines the Gentile features of the church, but it overlooks the true reason for Paul's strong words against the Jews in 2:14-16.
Advocates of a longer stay also note that Paul supported himself by manual labor while at Thessalonica (1 Thess. 2:9; 2 Thess. 3:8). Gloag thinks "it was his custom to do so only when his residence in any city was prolonged." It may simply mean that he was low on funds when he arrived and was settling down for an anticipated longer stay. The practice of self-support was necessary to keep his ministry free from any suspicion of being merely a money-making activity.
More substantial evidence for a longer stay is found in the fact that the Philippian church sent Paul "aid again and again" while he was working at Thessalonica (Phil. 4:16). Although it is possible that such repeated gifts of aid were received during the short period of three weeks, it is not probable. Because Paul was working, it is not likely the Philippian brethren thought he was in such urgent need for support, nor is it likely they would be able to afford it. Paul's expression "again and again" (hapax kai dis, literally, "once and twice") naturally means twice, but Frame seeks to break the force of this argument by rendering it "(when I was) in Thessalonica and repeatedly (when I was in other places)." Although this is a possible interpretation of the original, the other is simpler.
We cannot specify with certainty how long Paul and Silas remained in Thessalonica. It seems preferable to hold that the stay was longer than three weeks and that the subsequent period was used to work directly with the Gentiles of the city The length of this period can only be conjectured. Ramsay was willing to allow six months for the work at Thessalonica. Because Paul believed he was prematurely torn away from his converts, the suggestion of Moffatt that "two or three months possibly may be allowed for this fruitful mission at Thessalonica" seems more probable.
Luke gives a vivid account of the Jewish plot that succeeded in forcing the missionaries out of Thessalonica.
But the Jews were jealous; so they rounded up some bad characters from the marketplace, formed a mob, and started a riot in the city. They rushed to Jason's house in search of Paul and Silas in order to bring them out to the crowd. But when they did not find them, they dragged Jason and some other brothers before the city officials, shouting: "These men who have caused trouble all over the world have now come here, and Jason has welcomed them into his house. They are all defying Ceasar's decrees, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus." When they heard this, the crowd and the city officials were thrown into turmoil. Then they made Jason and the others post bond and let them go.
As soon as it was night, the brothers sent Paul and Silas away to Berea (Acts 17:5-10a).
Luke's account of the Thessalonian mission leaves the impression that this riot may well have occurred almost immediately after the third week of synagogue ministry by the missionaries. But the account is equally intelligible if there was a period of ministry to the Gentiles before the Jews staged their riot. The Jews had closed the synagogue to Paul, but they continued to watch with jealous eyes the success of his work in the city. Because the work was now completely beyond their jurisdiction, they could only watch with helpless wrath unless they took violent action to expel the missionaries from the city.
The base motive for the Jews' action is perfectly understandable. For years they had been wooing receptive Gentiles with the hope that they would be led fully to embrace the Jewish faith. But these hopes had been shattered by the work of the missionaries. Not only had large numbers of these Godfearing Gentiles been won by the apostolic company, but the apostles' continued success among the Thessalonian Gentiles ruined all further Jewish hopes of reaching any of them. Regarding the work of the missionaries as a perversion of the Jewish faith, the Jews resolutely took strong measures to suppress such work.
Unable to act alone against the missionaries, the Jews resorted to vile strategy. From among the numerous market-loungers, men loitering around in the marketplace and eager for some excitement, the Jews enlisted those who were known for their troublemaking. With their aid they gathered a crowd and set the city into a loud and boisterous commotion. When a sufficient following had been secured, they assaulted the house of Jason with the intention of seizing the missionaries. Jason's house apparently served not only as the place of residence for the missionaries but also as the place of assembly for the Christians.
The Jewish-led mob burst in on the home of Jason and searched for Paul and Silas, intending to haul them before "the people," apparently the Thessalonian assembly Because Paul and Silas could not be located, they dragged Jason and certain other Christians before the city rulers, the politarchs, and charged them with being parties to a revolutionary movement. They were said to be sheltering revolutionaries, men who "have turned the world upside down" (ASV). More specifically, they were charged with treasonable activity because they were all acting "contrary to the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, one Jesus" (ASV).
The charge was cleverly planned and clearly shows the Jewish prompting behind it. Because it was easy to pervert Paul's teaching concerning the return of Christ as judge and coming ruler, the Jews' charge contained a semblance of truth. Paul's spiritual teaching concerning the expected return of the Messianic King was easily misinterpreted to mean that he was disloyal to Caesar by advocating adherence to another king.
It was a dangerous charge, one to which the politarchs would be very sensitive. It was the charge most likely to arouse the antagonism of the politarchs against the Christians. But in spite of the agitation of the crowd, the magistrates refused to be panicked into violent action. Instead, they required Jason and his associates to "post bond" and released them. Perhaps they saw through the plot, suspecting that these Jews were acting out of hostility rather than loyalty to the government. Ramsay calls the action of the politarchs "the mildest that was prudent in the circumstances." By their action the magistrates guarded themselves against any charge of condoning treason, the Christians were not unjustly hurt, and the agitators could think that action had been taken against their enemies.
The exact significance of the "bond" or security taken from Jason and his associates is not certain. Ramsay thought it was a monetary security or bail that required them "to prevent the cause of disturbance, Paul, from coming to Thessalonica." But Acts does not say that Jason was required to guarantee the withdrawal of Paul from Thessalonica. Paul's statement that he twice tried to return to Thessalonica (1 Thess. 2:17-18) seems against this conclusion. The probable meaning is that Jason and the brethren were forced to give bond that the peace of the city would not be further disturbed. This demand in effect made it impossible for Paul and Silas to continue work in the city Were they to risk any further preaching there the Jews would undoubtedly stage another riot. This would involve Jason and his fellow Christians in serious financial loss and would arouse the active hostility of the magistrates against the church.
Under the circumstances the missionaries agreed to the view of the brethren that it was expedient for Paul and Silas to leave at once. This forced departure, due to vicious circumstances beyond their control, prematurely tore the missionaries from their young converts. It deprived the young church of the needed personal guidance from the missionaries. It also unleashed the outbreak of persecution against believers, which continued long after the missionaries had departed. When Paul wrote 2 Thessalonians the persecution against the church was still continuing or had broken out anew (2 Thess. 1:4). The Acts account as well as Paul's statement in 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16 establish that the instigators of the persecution were Jews. But clearly the antagonism and persecution started by the Jews were caught up and continued by their pagan neighbors (1 Thess. 2:14).
Leaving Thessalonica that night under cover of darkness, Paul and Silas traveled some forty miles westward to Berea. Timothy, whether or not he had worked with them at Thessalonica, joined them there. An effective ministry in the synagogue at Berea was again disrupted by the troublemaking Jews from Thessalonica. This outbreak of hostilities compelled Paul, the main target of their hatred, to leave Berea quickly and quietly.
Silas and Timothy remained on in Berea. Some of the Berean brethren conducted Paul safely to Athens. Upon returning they delivered an urgent summons to Silas and Timothy to go to Athens as soon as possible (Acts 17:10-15).
Acts records that Silas and Timothy did rejoin Paul after he had moved on to Corinth (18:1, 5). Had we only the condensed account of Acts we would conclude that they had not been able to comply with Paul's request until then. But from 1 Thessalonians 3:1-5 it is clear that at least Timothy, apparently also Silas, did go to Athens as requested.
Ever since Paul had been torn away from his Thessalonian converts his pastoral heart had been deeply concerned about them. He was well aware that he had left them a heritage of suffering. He had indeed warned them that suffering awaited them in becoming believers (1 Thess. 3:4), but would they endure when subjected to the fiery test? His own experience of the implacable hatred of the Thessalonian Jews, even at Berea, only increased his concern for his new converts. If the Jews had hounded him all the way to Berea, what would they do to his followers who did not move? He could well imagine the bitter attacks to which they would be subjected. Apparently Timothy and Silas brought unfavorable news that further increased Paul's anxiety.
The uncertainty concerning the effect on the Thessalonians of the storm of persecution raging around them produced an unbearable strain on Paul. Unable to endure the suspense, he decided that Timothy should return to Thessalonica to encourage the brethren and to bring back a report concerning them. Timothy would have no great difficulty in going back to Thessalonica because he had not been publicly identified with the disturbance there. Apparently Silas was also dispatched on a mission to Macedonia, perhaps Philippi. Paul may well have feared that the bitter hatred of the Thessalonian Jews might also lash out against the believers at Philippi.
The immediate occasion for writing 1 Thessalonians was the return of Timothy from Thessalonica with his report (1 Thess. 3:6-7; cf. Acts 18:5). The report was largely favorable. It relieved Paul's anxiety and filled him with praise and exultation. In response he sat down and dictated this letter, full of personal affection and thoughtful instructions. Only his letter to the Philippian church conveys such thankfulness and utterances of gratitude for the steadfastness of his beloved readers. Because he was unable to return personally, Paul's warm letter of gratitude and pastoral instruction was the best substitute for his personal presence with the Thessalonians.
Was the letter also written in response to a letter Timothy had brought along from the Thessalonian church? This was suggested by J. Rendel Harris and more recently has been advocated by Chalmer E. Faw. Faw suggests that the first three chapters echo Timothy's oral report, whereas the last two chapters are a point-by-point reply to the questions sent by the Thessalonians. He notes that the introductory phrase "but concerning" (peri de) in 4:9 and 5:1 occurs in several passages in 1 Corinthians where Paul makes a direct reply to the letter of the Corinthians to him. But 1 Thessalonians does not offer an exact parallel to 1 Corinthians. There Paul explicitly informs us that he is replying to a letter (7:1), but 1 Thessalonians contains no hint that he is answering a letter. Harrison well remarks that Paul's failure to recognize such a communication from the Thessalonians would have been a discourtesy on his part. The phrase to which Faw appeals occurs elsewhere in the New Testament in circumstances that clearly do not reflect a reply to a letter (Mark 12:26; 13:32; John 16:11). The details Faw thinks point to an oral report in the first part and a letter in the last part are quite indistinguishable.
The hypothesis of a letter from the Thessalonians is in itself quite tenable, but the evidence for it is elusive. If the hypothesis is accepted, it is not difficult to construct a series of questions to which reply is being made. That such a supposed list of questions can be reconstructed offers little proof that such a letter was actually written. A similar letter of inquiry might also be constructed for the letter to the Philippians. The hypothesis lacks a valid foundation. Hendriksen concludes, "A memorandum carefully prepared by Timothy himself or even a systematic oral report fills all the requirements."
The content of 1 Thessalonians indicates quite adequately the purpose of the letter. It was written to record the reactions of the writers and meet the needs of the readers.
The first purpose of the letter was to record the writers' joy at the good news concerning the steadfastness of the readers in the face of the affliction to which they were subjected. This report evoked, as found in chapter 1, a veritable torrent of thanksgiving to God for the readers.
A further purpose of the letter was to refute certain false charges and slanderous insinuations being circulated in Thessalonica against the missionaries. This campaign of slander, directed especially against Paul, was apparently promoted by the Jews. It was aimed at detaching the converts from their loyalty to the missionaries. For the Thessalonians to believe these charges would be fatal to the work of the gospel in Macedonia. The charges had to be refuted. But Paul's answer to them, contained in chapters 2 and 3, was not evoked by a feeling of wounded personal pride; he was motivated by a passionate concern to safeguard the faith of his converts.
The attacks being made were of a personal nature. It was an attempt to strike at the faith of the Thessalonian believers by discrediting the messengers from whom they had received their new faith. The missionaries were the first Christians the Thessalonian believers had known. From them they had learned the nature of Christian life and character. If therefore the enemies could shake converts' faith in the moral integrity and trustworthiness of those messengers, the faith of the new believers would be practically destroyed.
The attacks assailed the motives of the missionaries in carrying on their work in Thessalonica. The attempt was being made to class them with the wandering, mercenary religious teachers of that day who plied their skills on the gullible people for personal benefit. Was not the fact that Paul's "dupes" at Philippi had twice sent him money even while he was at Thessalonica, ample evidence that his preaching was really a money-making business? Were not all those men's smooth words and persuasive professions of interest in their followers' welfare a cover-up for their own self-seeking?
Paul countered those slanderous charges of self-seeking by asking the readers simply to recall the nature of their own experiences with the missionaries. A clear recollection of the facts would refute the charges (2:1-12).
Paul was further charged with cowardice in connection with his hurried departure and continued absence from Thessalonica. When charges of seditious teaching were made against him before the rulers of the city Paul did not dare to meet them. When dangers arose because of his teachings he quickly assured his own safety by flight, leaving his converts to suffer the consequences. If he was so interested in them as he claimed, why did he not come back?
Paul refuted these accusations by recounting his deep yearnings for the Thessalonians and his repeated efforts to return to them. His efforts to return had been hindered. Evidence of his sincere concern for them and desire to reestablish contact was demonstrated in how he had willingly sacrificed the help of Timothy to send him back to Thessalonica. Timothy's assignment had been to further the spiritual welfare of the readers as well as to relieve Paul's own anxiety concerning them (2:17-3:5).
These slanderous insinuations against Paul's character were like flaming torches flung at an unpopular figure; they served to bring into clearer view the true integrity and grandeur of his character as Christ's messenger.
A further purpose of the letter was to meet the definite needs in the church, which Timothy had reported. Certain defects and problems needed to be dealt with. Had Paul been able to return personally he would have dealt with these matters directly What he would have preferred to do in a face-to-face encounter he had to do by letter. The last two chapters are devoted to these matters.
On the basis of Timothy's report Paul thought it necessary to put the new Thessalonian believers on guard against their former heathen vices by reminding them of the superiority of Christian morality over paganism. He also exhorted them to continued love of the brethren and to honest work (4:1-12). By explaining the nature of events at the return of the Lord for His own (4:13-18), he comforted and reassured them concerning their loved ones who had died. He urged them to personal watchfulness in view of the uncertainty of the time of the Lord's return (5:1-6). He appealed to them to show proper respect for their leaders, to unite in securing the needed church order and discipline, and to live a life of holiness (5:12-22). Paul's answers and instructions were further proof of his unselfish interest in the spiritual welfare of the readers.
It is clear from Acts that 1 Thessalonians was written during the second missionary journey. The place of writing is almost certainly Corinth. Silas was Paul's co-worker on that journey, but he is not again mentioned in Acts following the termination of the work at Corinth. Paul had sent Timothy back to Thessalonica from Athens (1 Thess. 3:1-2), and this epistle was written upon his return from Thessalonica (3:6-7). From Acts 18:1 and 5 we learn that Silas and Timothy rejoined Paul at Corinth upon returning from Macedonia. It was shortly after Paul had moved on from Athens to Corinth. Only a few months at most had elapsed since Paul had left Thessalonica. Their presence together at Corinth meets all the requirements as to the place of writing.
A few manuscripts carry a subscription that reads "Written from Athens." This subscription, which of course was not a part of the original, embodies a scribal conclusion concerning the place of writing. It is evidently an error. It apparently arose out of a misunderstanding of Paul's words, "we thought it good to be left at Athens alone" (3:1, ASV). Paul's remark refers to a past event "and indirectly implies that the apostle was not at Athens when he wrote these words."
There are few events in the life of Paul that can be fixed with any chronological precision. The work of Paul at Corinth offers one of the most certain contacts with secular chronology in that it was partly parallel with the proconsulate of Gallio (Acts 18:12). Proconsuls usually held office for a year, seldom for two.
An imperfectly preserved inscription of a letter from the Emperor Claudius was discovered at Delphi in the twentieth century that named Gallio as proconsul. Claudius dated the letter as "in the 12th year of his tribunicial power, acclaimed Emperor for the 26th time." The twelfth year of his tribunicial power extended from January 25, A.D. 52, to January 24, A.D. 53, whereas his twenty-seventh acclamation as emperor took place before August 1, A.D. 52. The inscription, therefore, definitely locates Gallio in Corinth between January 25 and August 1, A.D. 52.
But at what time of the year did Gallio take office? It is generally assumed that he arrived in Corinth about July 1. The mutilated inscription apparently indicates that Gallio had been in office long enough to give the emperor some information of importance concerning the Delphians. This leads to the natural conclusion that Gallio must have entered upon his pro-consulship at Corinth in midsummer of A.D. 51. This date is widely accepted today
Other scholars, however, insist that this date is about a year too early. Lenski points out that "imperial orders designated the time when the appointed proconsul was to leave Rome for his province as April 1, later April 15." He therefore holds that Gallio did not begin his office in midsummer but rather in May, and that the date was May 1, A.D. 52, rather than A.D. 51. Harrop says it is "virtually certain that he was proconsul of Achaia in A.D. 52-53." This view places Gallio's coming to Corinth about ten months later.
The narrative in Acts does not indicate when Paul was hauled before Gallio by the Corinthian Jews, but it seems clear that it was shortly after his arrival. The Jews would be eager to have Paul silenced as soon as possible. Paul's encounter with Gallio must then be dated either in July A.D. 51 or May A.D. 52.
It is not certain how long Paul had already been in Corinth when Gallio arrived. Estimates differ. Lenski thinks Paul had been there six months. On the other hand, Kümmel says that "Paul had already been in Corinth one and a half years." Clearly Paul had already exercised a powerful ministry in Corinth by that time, but Luke's mention that Paul still remained there "many days" after the encounter indicates that it was not at the very end of his work at Corinth, which lasted eighteen months (Acts 18:11). It seems most probable that they had been at Corinth about a year at the time. Thus Paul arrived in Corinth in midsummer of A.D. 50 or in early summer of A.D. 51.
Inasmuch as 1 Thessalonians was written within a short time after Paul's arrival, the epistle may be dated in late summer or early fall of either A.D. 50 or A.D. 51. In either case we see that it was written within twenty or twenty-one years after the crucifixion of Christ and seems to be the earliest of the Pauline epistles.
Who took the letter to Thessalonica we do not know, but it is certain that a private courier was employed. The Emperor Augustus had established an imperial postal system, but its use was strictly limited to state and official communications. Ordinary correspondence had to be sent by a special messenger or taken by a friend or passing traveler. Paul generally sent his letters by one of his co-workers. The very nature of his letters made it desirable that their transmission be entrusted to someone who was in sympathy with Paul's work.
The Pauline authorship of 1 Thessalonians is no longer seriously challenged. A hundred years ago many scholars had serious difficulties regarding its authenticity, owing largely to the influence of the Tubingen School. F. C. Baur, its leading spirit, accepted as genuinely Pauline only the four Hauptbriefe (Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, and Galatians) and denied that Paul was the author of the remainder of the epistles ascribed to him. The radical Dutch school of Van Manen even made a clean sweep of all the Pauline epistles, attributing none of them to the apostle.
It is recognized today that the objections that were advanced against the authenticity of 1 Thessalonians are inadequate or even baseless, and may in fact be arguments in favor of its genuineness. The objections that have been raised are "more than counterbalanced by the tone and character of the Epistle as a whole." An impartial reading of the letter reveals an unmistakable ring of reality that no imitator could ever have attained. No convincing explanation for its appearance has yet been produced if it was a forgery. The historical situation, as presented above, offers a logical and rational explanation of this letter's purporting to be from the hand of Paul. Its vocabulary, style, and contents are genuinely Pauline. And, as Kümmel points out, "No later writer would have attributed to Paul the unfulfilled expectation of living to see the parousia (4:15, 17)." Thus Robert and Feuillet can confidently assert, "There is no longer any dispute about the authenticity of I Thes, for at the present time it is accepted by all the critics as a work of St. Paul."