The First and Second Letters to the Thessalonians
Gordon D. Fee, The First and Second Letters to the Thessalonians. New International Commentary on the New Testament. Rev. ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009. $44.00. xxviii +366 pp. ISBN 978-0-8028-6362-1.
Few living North American evangelicals have made as significant a contribution to New Testament scholarship over their careers as Gordon Fee, professor emeritus of Regent College, Vancouver. Fee has major commentaries on 1 Corinthians and Philippians under his belt in this same series, large books on Pauline Christology and pneumatology, smaller commentaries on the Pastorals, Galatians and Revelation, standard textbooks on hermeneutics, translation and exegesis, and countless studies on textual criticism. Well into retirement, he could be enjoying a “research-free” phase of life but instead continues his prodigious output. The church of Jesus Christ is richer for it and owes him an enormous debt of thanks.
Fee notes that when the volumes in the NICNT series began to be revised, Leon Morris was already ninety and able only to tweak his earlier work on the Thessalonian epistles lightly. Here is what truly may be called the replacement volume. As in his other commentaries, Fee has written the first draft of his remarks based on years of study and teaching but only afterwards gone back and integrated material from the secondary literature per se, almost all of it reserved for the footnotes. This means that some sections seem a little long and repetitive on textual minutiae, whereas major interpretive theories of others receive scant attention. Apart from this one systemic weakness, D. A. Carson’s book jacket blurb proves apt: “Fee could not be boring even if he tried. The zest of his prose makes him exciting to read, and his scholarship is always rigorous.”
Fee eschews long introductions to each letter; good ones appear in other major commentaries. He does highlight a number of the features of the style of 2 Thesslaonians that an imitator of Paul would have found very difficult, and fairly pointless, to try to reproduce. He agrees with I. H. Marshall that all of the arguments against Pauline authorship are weak, and that an accumulation of weak arguments does not add up to a strong argument. It is 2 Thessalonians’ focus on God’s judgment on his enemies that Fee deems the main reason why this letter has so often been viewed as pseudonymous. But disliking the contents of a document is scarcely a sound reason for ascribing it to a pseudepigrapher! The two letters should be seen, therefore, as coming from Paul and his co-workers around A.D. 50 from Corinth not long after persecution in Thessalonica led Paul to flee, and follow-up reports or return visits by Silas and Timothy have demonstrated that despite the Thessalonians’ exemplary faith, persecution has grown worse, and eschatological questions have come to the fore. Interpreting 2 Thessalonians 2:2 carefully and in light of 2:15 suggests, again with Marshall, that it is a false interpretation of Paul’s actual teaching in 1 Thessalonians, perhaps by means of an alleged early Christian prophecy, that has led to the need for the theological correctives of the second epistle.
Unlike many commentators who spend more time discussing the most intractable controversies, Fee typically spends less, urging us to admit what we don’t know and to move on. This applies to the ways in which Satan had prevented Paul from returning to Thessalonica (1 Thess. 2:18), to the details about the signs involving the revelation of the man of lawlessness or what the restraining person or power is that now holds him back (2 Thess. 2:3-6), and to the reasons that some in town were being both idle and disruptive, refusing to work with their hands (3:6-15).
Again and again I find myself in agreement with Fee on the key cruxes on which we can make progress. “Infants” rather than “gentle” is the most likely textual reading at 1 Thessalonians 2:7. The comma after “Jews” in 2:14 suggests a sweeping anti-Semitism that the grammar of Paul’s Greek does not, so it should be removed (as it now has been in the updated NIV). The “holy ones” in 3:13 must be angels, not believers, in light of the allusion to Zechariah 14:5. Loipon in 4:1 and 2 Thessalonians 3:1 means “as for other matters” (as in the TNIV and updated NIV), not “finally.” What could be translated “acquire a vessel” in 1 Thessalonians 4:4 is best understood as the man gaining mastery over his sexual organ. Paul’s desire that those who have lost fellow Christians in death should not grieve is not an absolute but rather that their grief should be of a different kind than that of pagans (4:13). Paul does not affirm that he will be alive at the Parousia but speaks only of whoever is alive then, by means of his generalizing “we” (4:15). Abstaining from every form of evil (5:21) appears in the context of evaluating alleged prophecies and refers to rejecting what is false among them. The everlasting destruction of 2 Thessalonians 1:9 is not annihilation, but neither is it a literal fiery (or dark) hell but “to be forever incapable of knowing God’s presence as it has been revealed in Christ. For beings created in the divine image this is the ultimate desolation” (p. 259).
I find myself only rarely disagreeing with Fee’s exegesis. First Thessalonians 1 does seem to suggest a bit more spontaneous evangelistic activity on the part of the fledgling church than Fee is willing to countenance. Word order alone hardly suggests that any of the “prophets” in 2:14 were Christian ones rather than Jewish. In rightly lamenting our modern culture’s preoccupation with the pleasure of sex, I wonder if Fee has swung the pendulum too far in the opposite direction by declaring only procreation as the reason for God making sex pleasurable. Finally, I do think the case for a more explicitly posttribulational rapture can be inferred from the imagery of 4:17, especially in light of the consistent language throughout the two letters for imperial matters.
As in his other NICNT volumes, each segment of commentary concludes with incisive applicational reflections, especially in light of common abuses of that text throughout church history. I cite merely one representative excerpt (from Paul’s comments on ecclesiastical leaders 5:12-13), dear to my heart because of the way both the academy and the church have overly exalted rank:
Thus we learn a bit about what they do, but almost nothing about who they are or the “positions” they held. This is especially trying for those of us who live in a culture that loves titles as a way of distinguishing people who are “important”! By turning such verbs into nouns one begins to focus more on position than person or function. Paul’s concern is consistently on character and activity, not on “role.” But since we can scarcely turn the clock back in the contemporary church, all of those who are in church leadership might use this passage as a valid “checklist” for personal inventory with regard to how one cares for those one is given the privilege to lead. (p. 208)
Fee’s commentary rightly takes its place alongside Gene Green in the Pillar Series and Abraham Malherbe’s Anchor Bible volume as one of the three best commentaries on these two little letters in the last quarter-century.
Craig Blomberg, Ph.D.
Distinguished Professor of New Testament