Most scholars think that the first letter to the Thessalonians is the very first piece of Christian writing we possess. It is a letter sent by the Apostle Paul, formerly Saul of Tarsus, to a community of Christians he had founded in Thessalonica, a city in Greece. In this unit we will look at the story of Paul and use the letter to the church in Thessalonica to see what it can tell us about him and the early Christian communities.
Exploring: History and Geography
Paul and other first generation missionaries were responsible for the movement of the Christian communities beyond Palestine into Asia Minor and the Mediterranean world. So be sure to check the maps relevant to Paul in Chapter 18 of the Online Atlas of the Bible, especially those illustrating the early expansion of the Church. Look particularly at the map setting out the second missionary journey of St Paul, during which he established the community in Thessalonica.
There are several good photo essays which introduce the places associated with Paul. Craig Koester’s Journeys of Paul site provides a very interesting and well-organised orientation to the travels of Paul. It traces the movements of his life from his birth in Tarsus until his imprisonment and presumed death in Rome and relates them to photographs of many of the significant places he visited, Thessalonica among them.
‘Thessalonica’ is an account of a recent visit to Thessalonica by a group keen to discover the traces of Paul’s movements in the city. It mentions locations in modern Thessalonica where there are remnants of the old city and gives a brief summary of Paul’s time there. Most of us are aware that Paul was both a Jew and a Roman citizen; ‘Social Aspects of the Pauline World’ sets out in point form quite a few facts about:
- what it meant that Paul was a Roman citizen
- the first ‘churches’ and households
- slaves and slavery
- travel and mail in the first century
The religious world Paul was confronting is described in the article ‘Religion in the Roman World’, while another article from a Jewish source sets out some of the reasons Paul’s efforts to preach the gospel throughout the Roman empire were so successful.
- Mark Paul’s journeys on a map. Estimate how far he travelled in his recorded journeys.
- List some of the difficulties, recorded or otherwise, that Paul might have encountered in his travels.
- Devise word searches or crosswords to become familiar with the names of people and places of Paul’s world.
- Several photo essays are accounts of present-day travels in Paul’s footsteps. Make a ‘then and now’ comparison of conditions of housing, travel, religion, domestic life, politics, entertainment etc. What are some of the similarities and differences?
- What religions were prevalent in the days of the Roman Empire? How did the Roman Empire help or hinder Paul’s work?
- Explain some of the reasons the Christianity preached by Paul was attractive to people of his time.
Examining: Genre and Author
The first letter to the Thessalonians, which is most likely the first piece of Christian writing we have, was written by the Apostle Paul to members of a community that he had founded in Thessalonica. A simple chronology of Paul’s life will show you at a glance a summary of his movements and also an indication of when scholars think the letters were written. ‘Paul’s Childhood and Education’ provides a sense of where Paul came from and reconstructs the kind of childhood and formation he might have had. ‘Paul’s Apostolic Life’ is more like a biographical article than a chronology. It is quite detailed and has some good illustrations.
Another page on this site introduces the style ofGreco-Roman Letters. It explains the conventions of letter-writing in the Greco-Roman world, distinguishing between public and private letters, including an outline of their usual structure and providing an example of an ancient private letter. Felix Just SJ at Loyola Marymount also looks at New Testament letters. You might find particularly useful a chart which helps you see the structure of the letters of Paul, including Thessalonians.
- What impact did Paul’s background have on the person he was and the way he approached his mission?
- On which of Paul’s journeys did he establish the community at Thessalonica?
- From what sections of society were the members of the community at Thessalonica drawn?
- What particular problems did Paul encounter in Thessalonica?
- Why are scholars sure that Paul is the author of the first letter to the Thessalonians?
- What was the difference between a public letter and a private letter in ancient times?
- What are some special features of Paul’s letters in the New Testament?
Examining: Time and Place
A short article on the people who made up Paul’s early Christian communities and how and where they gathered might also help you visualise the community to which the letter was written. Another good background article is found in The Early Christian Writings site.
- According to the articles you have read, approximately when was the first letter to the Thessalonians written?
- Where was Paul when he wrote the letter? How far away was he?
- How do scholars pinpoint these kinds of facts about the New Testament writings?
- What is an ‘amanuensis’?
- Using the insights of The Early Christian Writings site create playlets/storyboards depicting facets of the Thessalonian experience:
– Paul speaking in the synagogues at Thessalonica (What would he have said?)
– Paul being opposed (By whom and why?)
– Sneaking away in the night (Why?)
– Continuing his journey, wondering what has happened to the new community(What was happening to it?)
– Sending Timothy and Silas back to check
– Being delighted to hear the good news that the people in Thessalonica are doing well
– Calling in an amanuensis and excitedly dictating a response
Encountering: Reading the Text
An online version of the first letter to the Thessalonians which is set out well and has helpful footnotes is the New American Bible, a translation commissioned by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
The Blue Letter Bible provides access to several versions of the letter and is also well set out.
An excellent article by Brendan Byrne SJ entitled On Rereading Paul discusses the negative ways in which the letters of Paul have been used to denigrate Jews and Judaism and seeks to show how a more profound understanding of the text and of the context in which they were written can direct a more holistic understanding of the letters.
- Though Paul’s letters were not originally divided into the chapters and verses in which we now have them, the divisions often help us to see the sense of the letter and its emphases. As well as reading the letter right through to understand its overall message, read and summarise the main thoughts in each chapter. A print version such as the Jerusalem Bible has further headings that guide a reader in gaining a sense of what the letter is about.
Encountering: Studying the Text
Richard Martin’s fine site The Narrow Gate will provide an introduction to Paul and his letters. Another good introduction to the study of Paul, including the letter to the Thessalonians, is Fr. Felix Just ‘s site
A question and answer format recapitulates some theories about the letter’s authorship and dating but also provides an introduction to its themes. ‘As Paul Tells it …’ is a well-written but non-specialist introduction to the letter, emphasising what it can tell us about Paul and the community at Thessalonica
A chartof the content of Thessalonians provides an (almost) single-screen glance at the structure and contents of the letter, while a brief article on the second coming clarifies Catholic teaching about this aspect of our faith referred to in 1 Thessalonians 4:16–18, in which Paul describes his expectation that Christ would return soon.
Many useful general articles on Paul and his theology are available on line and though the following are not directly related to Thessalonians they are well worth a look both because they are written by experts on Paul and because they deal with aspects of Paul and his teaching which are controversial today. The first is by a great English scholar of Paul, Jerome Murphy O’Connor, and it is entitled The Whole Christ. The second, by New Testament scholar and Anglican Bishop N.T Wright, discusses Who Founded Christianity: Jesus or Paul?While you might enjoy a look at Luke Timothy Johnson’ talk:What kind of a Jew was Paul?
If the short letter to the Thessalonians was the only record we had of Paul’s ministry, what would it tell us about:
- his personality
- his work
- his beliefs
- his hopes
The Letter to the Thessalonians is the only record we have of that early Christian community. What does Paul’s letter tell us about:
- the members of the community
- their convictions
- their behaviour
- the difficulties they confronted
- the worries they had within the community
Encountering: Biblical Exegesis
Scroll down the Assignments page of the Narrow Gate site to find questions about the text that will encourage close careful reading. Also check the quiz section on this site.
For help with more formal exegesis see Richard Ascough’s page Biblical Exegesis.
After reading Richard Ascough’s page practise your skills by choosing a short passage of 1 Thessalonians to examine in detail:
- 1 Thess 1:1–3
- 1 Thess 2:5–7
- 1 Thess 3:6–8
- 1 Thess 4:13–15
- 1 Thess 5:14–18
Encountering: Praying with the Text
A series of Paul’s prayers especially for his communities provides a treasury of his prayers from which to choose.
The American bishops have prepared a Holy Hour for use during the Year of Paul. Though intended as an hours prayer before the Blessed Sacrament and concluding with Benediction, it provides a structure for prayer which could be adapted to your circumstances.
Responding: Lived Responses, Then and Now
Paul was the greatest apostle of the first century. He travelled on three great missionary journeys through Asia Minor and southern Europe preaching, teaching and setting up Christian communities as he went. However, the missionary impulse did not end with Paul. Men and women inspired with similar faith spread Christianity throughout Europe and the world. Read about later missionary efforts in Europe on three sites:Age of Missionaries, Gregory the Great and Missionary Efforts in the New World.
A very different article discusses Paul’s impact on life and culture, especially on human psychology (This page is structured rather oddly but if you scroll to the very bottom you will find the material.) Another section examines his influence on the Flemish painter Rembrandt.
Responding: Responses in Art and Music
It is fascinating to look at a collection of paintings of Paul and to notice and discuss how they reflect, comment upon or challenge the character and activities of the Paul that you have been studying.
- Which depiction of Paul best matches your image of him? Explain why.
- Look at the chronologies in ‘Examining the Text’ to work out Paul’s approximate age at his conversion. Which picture depicts Paul at this age?
- Compare Caravaggio’s two pictures of Paul’s conversion. Are they both ‘saying’ the same thing?
- Why might Michelangelo (and Rembrandt) have chosen to depict Paul as an old man?
- What does El Greco’s painting of Peter and Paul convey about the character of each man?
Other depictions of Paul
A carving on a child’s gravestone of the Chi-Rho symbol for Christ and the faces of Peter and Paul shows early veneration of Paul with Peter in Rome.
El Greco’s famous painting contains echoes of traditional murals of Peter and Paul. Investigate why Peter and Paul are so often represented together and why their feast day is combined rather than each being celebrated individually.
Finally what does the painting of Paul, ‘an old man now’ with spectacles, suggest about his story and his personality?
Responding: A Personal Response
Paul often invited members of his communities to imitate him. Having discovered something of his personality and mission, what aspects of Paul’s faith and behaviour do you find attractive? In the very different world of today how is it possible to model similar conviction and commitment?