In terms of chronology, Paulís first letter to the Thessalonians is not only the earliest letter we have from Paul, it is also the earliest Christian document which we posses. For that reason it is extremely important because it opens a window on the early Church which we would otherwise not have. But, of exceedingly great importance, is the need for us to remember that between Jesus and Paul there was a large Jewish-Christian movement which owed nothing to Paul or to his thought. In other words, the Church still existed before Paul and his brand of Hellenistic/syncretistic/Christianity. Before Paul, the Church was Palestinian and quite Jewish. Only after Paul did the Church begin to spread into purely Gentile areas. Because Paul was striking out into new territory, it was necessary for him to adapt his message to his audience. Because he did make certain adaptations, some of the vigor and ambiance of the earliest Church was replaced by a more worldly message. In other words, earliest Christianity was a religion of the village and field whereas Paul transformed it into a religion of the city and the marketplace.
I Thessalonians is Paulís first effort to put into words this new viewpoint. He wrote the letter around the year 50, some 20 years after the death of Jesus. Paul established the Church at Thessalonica on his second journey and wrote the letter from Corinth shortly after his visit to Thessalonica. The issues he addresses have to do primarily with the early Christian expectation that Jesus would return before most of them died.
An outline of the letter will aid us in seeing clearly its purpose:
1- Greeting and Thanksgiving (1:1-10)
2- Paulís Activity There (2:1-12)
3- Their Reception of the Gospel (2:13-16)
4- Timothyís Report of their Progress and Problems (2:17-3:13)
5- Ethical Admonitions (4:1-12)
6- The Coming of Christ, the Center of the Letter (4:13-5:11)
7- How to Live in Expectation (5:12-22)
8- Conclusion (5:23-28)
The early Church wondered aloud why the promise of Jesus to come shortly was not yet fulfilled. Paul addressed this pressing situation, and a student of his addressed the same issue from a much later perspective in 2 Thessalonians.
ASSIGNMENT: Read 2 Thessalonians, and Brownís Introduction, chapter 26.
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