1 and 2 Thessalonians: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary

  • Ben Witherington
  • Jan 1, 2007
  • Series: Volume 10 - 2007

Ben Witherington, 1 and 2 Thessalonians: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Grand Rapids and Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2006. xxxi + 286 pp. Paperback, $30.00. ISBN 0-8028-2836-1

This illustrious New Testament professor at Asbury Seminary is closing in on his goal of having written commentaries, most of them socio-rhetorical, on every book (or small groups of books) in the New Testament. His offering on the two Thessalonian letters is more substantial than most of his efforts, devoting almost as much attention to their eight chapters as he does, say, to Mark's sixteen or 1-2 Corinthians' twenty-nine.

His introductory conclusions largely match traditional evangelical commentary. Paul is writing around 50-51 from Corinth, with his co-workers, in light of a comparatively brief time spent in Thessalonica planting the church there. That time ended in fierce Jewish opposition and has spawned persecution from Jew and Gentile of the fledgling Christian church in town ever since. Second Thessalonians should not be viewed as pseudonymous; epistles were the one main genre of the day for which we have by far the smallest amount of evidence of Jewish or Greco-Roman acceptance of pseudonymity, and none whatever in Christian circles. The arguments against Pauline authorship, like those for reversing the chronological order of what we have come to call 1 and 2 Thessalonians, are comparatively weak.

With respect to sociological backgrounds, Witherington follows the recent, persuasive consensus that sees the abuse of patron-client relationships, which Paul wants to wean Greco-Romans off when they become believers, as behind the problem of the idle, hinted at in the first letter and addressed head on in the second. There is, to be sure, the false belief among some that they had missed the (entirely spiritual) resurrection (2 Thess. 2;2). But this belief does not account for their idleness, not least because it is not the same as believing that the resurrection was still imminent on the horizon.

It is with his rhetorical analysis that Witherington makes his most distinctive contributions and, thus, it is here where he will be alternately hailed or questioned the most. Positing a sharp distinction between epistolary and rhetorical forms, he opts unequivocally for the latter, dividing 1 Thessalonians into an epistolary prescript and exordium (1:1-3), a large narratio(n) (1:4-3:10), a transition (3:11-12), exhortatio(n) (4:1-15), peroratio(n) (5:16-22) and an invocation and epistolary closing (5:23-28). Because he sees the letter as largely epideictic (praising and blaming) rhetoric, there is no need for a propositio(n), while the narration of what is praised and blamed can be extensive.

Second Thessalonians, however, utilizes mostly deliberative rhetoric and subdivides into a prescript and exordium (1:3-10), a propositio(n) (1:11-12), a refutatio(n) (2:1-12), a section on prayer (2:13-3:5) and another on work (3:6-12), a peroratio(n) (3:13-15) and closing (3:16-18). The unusual placement of a refutation immediately after the proposition is not unprecedented and shows the urgency of the problem.

All of these concepts get unpacked, explained and illustrated both in the introduction and at the relevant places in the commentary. Some dovetail nicely with more conventional outlines that follow the typical structure of Hellenistic letter. For example, exhortational material typically forms the last main section of the letter body, while opening greetings and prayers/thanksgivings, like their counterparts at the ends of epistles, mesh reasonably well with the more rhetorical outlines Witherington utilizes. It is not as clear, however, that 1 Thessalonians 1:4-3:10 all belongs together (rather than keeping 1:5-10 with the opening prayer or word of thanksgiving), nor that 2:1-12 is not more comprehensively explained as simply the information-providing main section of a letter body, nor that the three segments Witherington identifies in 2:13-3:12 fit rhetorical categories, especially when two of them he does not even try to fit into such a structure, nor that the last two verses of a prayer (2 Thess. 1:11-12) form a thesis sentence for the letter (esp. when 2:2 fits much better into this role). But if we recognize, with Janet Fairweather and others, that the lines are not so hard and fast between oral rhetoric and written epistles, not least because letters like these were meant to be read aloud publicly to the congregations they addressed, then we do not have to feel forced either to analyze them entirely via classical rhetorical categories or to reject such categorizations altogether.

When one turns to Witherington's passage-by-passage exposition, as is typically true of his commentaries, the vast majority of his insights prove reliable, helpful and incisive. Whenever he gets a chance to put in a plug for his Wesleyan-Arminianism he does so, including some very helpful and balanced comments and contemporary applications of the juxtaposition of commands concerning prayer and work at the end of the second epistle. As elsewhere, too, and even more convincingly than in his promotion of corporate election, he has no time for classic dispensationalism. 1 Thessalonians 4:17 makes no sense as the description of a pretribulational rapture. The meeting (Greek apantēsis) often referred to the arrival of a triumphant general or visiting dignitary who would be welcomed by townspeople outside the city gates and escorted back into the city with honor. Given all the other language that so often was co-opted by Caesar to refer to what he thought he could offer (good news, peace, safety, epiphanies, salvation, etc.), it is hard to imagine the language here not similarly implying that Jesus is the only one who can really do what the emperor requires acclamation for being able to do. He will return to earth, believers will be caught up to greet him in the air and escort him back to earth in triumph at the second coming or Parousia of the Christ.

The additional eschatological debates surrounding 2 Thessalonians 2, a bit more curiously, find Witherington accepting the "temple of God" as the literal edifice in Jerusalem (even though every other use of "temple" in Paul refers to the church), thinking that if Paul had lived to see the Roman general, Titus, overrun the temple precincts in A.D. 70 he would have seen plenty of foreshadowings of the ultimate end of the age. For the same reason he does not want to identify the restrainer with the emperors (that would be too positive a role for them) or any comparable system of government, but more likely with the man of lawlessness. With Colin Nicholl, Witherington suggests that the archangel Michael should be understood to be the restrainer.

More satisfying are Witherington's detailed and nuanced remarks showing how even as strong a passage as 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16 is not anti-Semitic. So, too, following Malherbe, is his repeated insistence that Paul is contrasting his behavior with the huckster Greco-Roman philosophers of his day and reminding his audience about his exemplary behavior among them, even as he commends them for the good reports he has heard about them from other. Imitation of older and/or more mature Christians in every walk of life remains crucial for growth in Christian living and a particular challenge for those of us who have so professionalized ministry that our charges seldom if ever have a chance to see how we live away from the office (or pulpit), as it were. Bucking current trends a little is Witherington's return to an older view that saw the vessels of 1 Thessalonians 4:4 that men were to acquire or maintain in honor referring to wives rather than to their own bodies. But this approach may well make better sense of the warning not to defraud other believers in the process (despite what I just wrote in my newly released From Pentecost to Patmos: An Introduction to Acts through Revelation [Broadman & Holman] under this passage)!

My last book review for the Denver Journal, completing the volume for 2006, sharply criticized Witherington's Matthew in the Smyth & Helwys series for being abominably proofread with typos on almost every other page in the volume. 1 and 2 Thessalonians is far better in this respect, no doubt because of Eerdmans' long track record of excellence in their editorial work. But when it comes to Greek transliteration or lexical forms, one has to check every one of Witherington's efforts carefully, and it seems there are almost always far too many errors. On p. xxxi, in the reference to Witherington's own previous journal article, the Greek word should read Eidōlothuton, not Eidolathuton, on pp. 50 the word is sunagōgē, not sunagōgos, on p. 57 adialeptos requires a long o, on p. 58 proseuchon should be proseuchē, on p. 72 thilipsis should be thlipsis, on p. 87 symphyletos needs to read symphyletēs, on p. 92, n.133, synergos should read synergon, and so on, throughout the book. But these annoying errors notwithstanding, the volume contains a wealth of helpful information at a medium-level and length that every seminary student or graduate should be able to handle and find exceedingly useful.

Craig L. Blomberg, Ph.D.
Distinguished Professor of New Testament
Denver Seminary
January 2007