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Chapter Summary

1 Thessalonians is the oldest Pauline letter that has survived. Most scholars date it to around 49 CE (some even earlier). It is a friendship letter in which Paul renews his ties with the community. Through a socio-historical investigation, this chapter examines this letter to uncover clues not only about the Thessalonian community but also about the social and historical aspects of Paul’s apostolic mission to the Gentiles.

The Founding of the Church in Thessalonica

Paul typically chose large cities in which to spread his gospel, presumably because there were more potential converts. Paul did not concentrate on converting large groups of people: He did not stand on the street corner and shout his message. Rather, he set up shop, perhaps dealing in leather, and talked with people (mostly pagans) as they came around.

Presumably, Paul began the process of conversion by convincing pagans that they were worshipping false Gods (1 Thess 1:9–10). Then he introduced the concept of the one God, the God of Israel. Once Paul convinced a person of these two premises, he began to speak of Jesus as the Son of God who, through his death and resurrection, brought salvation. Accordingly, the Thessalonians believed that Jesus’ death and resurrection brought Christians into a right relationship with God. These Christians also adhered to Paul’s apocalyptic belief that Jesus would return soon to judge the world.

The Beginnings of the Thessalonian Church: A Socio-Historical Perspective

Although historians cannot be certain of the socio-economic makeup of Paul’s churches, it seems likely that most converts were not wealthy, elite, or educated—though certainly some were. These Christians did not meet in public places but in private homes called “house churches.” The communities apparently thought of themselves as closed groups, and there were strict membership regulations. Perhaps because of the closed nature of their association, they experienced some persecution from those outside the church. A shared experience of suffering helped solidify the social group; Paul also stresses their connections with other Christian communities as well as Jewish history.

The Church at Thessalonica after Paul’s Departure

After Paul, Timothy, and Silvanus left Thessalonica to continue their mission elsewhere, Paul sent Timothy back to the Thessalonians to check on them. When Timothy returned, Paul penned this friendship letter as a response to some of the church’s concerns. Their primary concern involved the delay of the end. The Thessalonians had taken Paul’s apocalyptic message seriously and were disturbed when members of the church died before Jesus’ return. The church members were concerned about the ultimate fate of these dead believers. Paul assured the Thessalonians that when Jesus returned, those who had died would be raised first. Paul, however, still expected some of the church members—including himself—to be alive when his apocalyptic expectations were realized. Paul’s apocalyptic scenario presupposes a three-storied universe, an ancient way of viewing the world in spatial terms of “up,” “down,” and “here.”

Conclusion: Paul the Apostle

Paul was the apostle to the Gentiles. His mission in Thessalonica, as well as in other places, was directed at Gentiles. Paul convinced these people to turn away from pagan gods and to accept the God of Israel and Jesus, his only Son. These Christians also wholeheartedly awaited Jesus’ return in judgment and vindication. They were also part of a larger, cohesive social group, reinforced by (i) shared insider information, (ii) mutual love and support, (iii) a common front against external persecution, and (iv) rules that governed their lives.

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