Introducing the New Testament, 2nd Edition

A Historical, Literary, and Theological Survey

Materials available for professors by request only


20. 1 Thessalonians


This chapter should enable the student to

  • summarize what modern scholarship has to say regarding the historical background for 1 Thessalonians, including information about the city and church to which this letter was addressed, the possible date of its composition, and the circumstances that prompted Paul to write the letter.
  • relate what 1 Thessalonians reveals about Paul’s conduct of ministry—the manner in which Paul sought to evangelize Gentiles and the attitude he adopted toward his converts.
  • understand the encouragement Paul offers the persecuted Thessalonians against a background of “honor and shame.”
  • recognize the potential for harm that lies in Paul’s anti-Jewish remarks in 1 Thessalonians and realize how this potential has been fulfilled within Christian history.
  • summarize the advice that Paul offers the Thessalonians on such matters as sexual morality and labor, and the pastoral teaching that he provides them regarding the parousia and life after death.

Pedagogical Suggestions

1. Reconstructing the Early Church Mission

First Thessalonians offers the historian a wealth of information on how the early followers of Jesus grew into a movement spread throughout the Mediterranean world only 15–20 years after Jesus’s death. Ask students to take on the role of a New Testament social-historian. Using 1 Thessalonians as their evidence, have them profile Paul’s method of evangelizing the Gentile world. Students will need a map to trace Paul’s movements. Where does Paul go when he arrives in a town? What does he do? How does he behave? How many people are in his party? Why might he prefer urban environments to small villages? How long does the mission take? What is the response of residents of Thessalonica (and other cities) to Paul?

Take the social reconstruction a step farther. Ask students to compare Paul’s “pattern” of evangelizing in Acts (chs. 13–20) with that in Thessalonians. Is there a rhetorical reason for the evangelists in Acts to begin first in the synagogue and then move to the Gentile marketplace? How might Paul be rhetorically shaping his presentation of evangelization to encourage the new Thessalonian community? Compare additional material presented by Powell in the text (pp. 377–83).


This exercise begins with textual analysis; students learn how to use the texts as historical evidence for reconstructing social situations. In addition, students can compare the pattern of evangelization in Paul and Acts. When they do so, they will see that there is a rhetorical purpose to the presentation of evangelical patterns. Such a realization requires students to revisit their evaluation of the historical material. In a nutshell, this analysis, realization, and reevaluation describes the process scholars have learned since the nineteenth-century beginnings of the historical-critical method.

2. Moral Example and Teaching Model

Have students (in groups of 3) read 1 Thessalonians and identify the ways in which Paul presents himself as an example for the Thessalonian Christians to follow and learn from. What specific kinds of behavior does he name that he also exemplifies and tells them to follow? What more subtle kinds of behavior does Paul enact in writing the letter that the Thessalonians might also imitate?

In ancient times, philosophers often pointed to themselves as a moral model for their students to follow. Today, this mode of teaching/mentoring seems boastful or arrogant (“look at me and do what I do!”). That said, much of our personal behavior today has been disconnected from moral teaching. This shift away from modeling moral behavior is encapsulated in the modern refrain “do as I say and not as I do.” How do Paul’s words “become imitators of me” challenge this contemporary refrain? Why might the role of moral example be an important one for teachers and parents to take up? Is there evidence today of a return to Paul’s kind of moral teaching?


When reading Paul carefully, students have often commented that he is an arrogant SOB! He may be—but not because of his language about imitation and serving as a moral example to the new Christians he is mentoring. Students may not change their opinion about Paul, but they will be able to identify and understand this rhetorical practice that most ancient moral philosophers employed. Understanding an ancient rhetorical practice and exploring the ways in which it is different from our own helps students to see the distance between our own cultural assumptions and Paul’s, and to analyze these more carefully.

3. Thesis in the Thanksgiving

Often, the thanksgiving in Paul’s letters gives an overview of the topics he will address in the letter. (We have seen this in the “thesis” statement in Rom. 1:16–17.) First Thessalonians is perhaps the clearest example of this “thesis in the thanksgiving” in Paul’s writings. Have students read 1 Thessalonians 1:2–3. Paul mentions faith, love, and hope as the triad of topics he will address. Next, have students read the rest of the letter and see if they can detect where Paul addresses each of these three topics and what kind of encouragement, correction, or exhortation Paul presents on each topic.


First Thessalonians lends itself to this kind of structural analysis, and once students see the triad of faith, hope, and love in the thanksgiving, they can usually outline the letter according to these topics. A second step is the rhetorical analysis: what is Paul saying about each of these three topics. A final step is to see if students can state the thesis of the letter. In other words, they have just deconstructed Paul’s “essay.” This is a useful exercise on a number of levels. First, students can walk through clear steps of argument analysis on a manageable letter (topics, structure, perspective on topics, thesis). Second, once they have seen how Paul constructs an argument, and the steps involved, the instructor can guide students through the reverse process: let’s create a thesis, with a perspective on the topic of Paul’s letter through a particular structure. In other words, reverse the process and demonstrate how to write an argument paper on Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians.

Discussion Prompts

  1. First Thessalonians 4:13–18 is the only biblical reference to what many have called the “rapture.” What do students think of when they hear the term “the rapture”? After reading 1 Thessalonians 4:13–18, how does Paul describe the believers being united with Christ (“in the air”)? Does Paul’s description fit the students’ general sense of what “rapture” has come to mean today? What is Paul’s reason for writing this passage (i.e., how does this passage function in the broader context of 1 Thessalonians)? How might the passage in 1 Thessalonians be used to correct contemporary notions of “rapture”?
  2. What distinguishes Paul’s ministry and teaching from moral philosophers in the first century? In what ways is Paul similar (see text p. 380)? To work with primary texts in this comparison, see Diogenes Laertius’s Lives of Eminent Philosophers or distribute the Anchor Bible Dictionary’s description of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers for students to use in class. Alternatively, Abraham J. Malherbe’s source book on Greco Roman Moral Philosophers has collected most of the key parallel philosophical passages in one location.
  3. How do Paul’s anti-Semitic remarks in 1 Thessalonians (text box 20.2) compare with those in the fourth Gospel? Are there similar reasons for the language in each writing? How does the community’s self-understanding or experience of persecution and abuse figure in to the use of such anti-Semitic language? Interestingly, the more extreme language about the Jews in Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians (as compared to his other undisputed letters) does not put the authenticity of 1 Thessalonians under question. Why might this be?