The Letters to the Thessalonians (Green)

01.01.03 | Denver Journal, New Testament, Craig L. Blomberg | by Gene L. Green

    A review of Gene Green's, "The Letters to the Thessalonians. Pillar New Testament Commentary," by Dr. Craig Blomberg.

    Green, Gene L. The Letters to the Thessalonians. Pillar New Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids and Cambridge: Eerdmans; Leicester: Apollos. 2002 xl + 400 pp. $ 42.00. ISBN 0-8028-3738-7 and 0-85111-781-3.

    This is the eighth volume of the Pillar New Testament Commentary series to appear, and the series is turning out to be an exceedingly good one. Gene Green, with an Aberdeen Ph.D., taught for many years at ESEPA in Costa Rica and now is professor of New Testament at Wheaton. He has authored highly touted commentaries on 1 and 2 Thessalonians and 1 and 2 Peter in Spanish but this is his first book-length English-language publication.

    A detailed, 77-page introduction presents much helpful historical, religious and cultural background information both on Macedonia in general and on Thessalonica in particular. We learn of the city's strategic port location, its strong pro-Roman sentiments that led to a flourishing imperial cult, and a diverse collection of twenty other deities that were variously worshipped. The Gentile Christians' sharp break from their idolatrous past, coupled with the Jewish Christians' rejection of a growing Zealotry, account for the repeated persecution the church underwent.

    Green also defends Pauline authorship for both epistles, prefers the chronological order that matches the canonical order of the letters, and deals in a very balanced way with rhetorical analysis. An interesting table of statistics comparing the frequent use of the first-person plural pronoun in the Thessalonian epistles with its occurrence elsewhere in Paul suggests that Silas and Timothy (1 Thess. 1:1, 2 Thess. 1:1) had "some real participation in the composition" of these letters (p. 57). Deliberative rhetoric predominates, as the letters fall naturally into the Hellenistic outline of greetings, opening thanksgiving, body--split between information and exhortation--and closing. But 1 Thessalonians actually contains three prayers and 2 Thessalonians, two, demonstrating Paul's flexible use of the genre. So, too, while the overall epistles best fit the form of letters of friendship, other genres appear within smaller constituent elements.

    One can only sample exegetical highlights in a brief review. Some of these would include Paul's emphasis, introduced as early as 1 Thess. 1:6, on imitating his model--a key Greco-Roman philosophical conviction as well--but with a striking twist in its application to suffering. Overall, Paul's first thanksgiving introduces two themes--the coming of the herald (1:3-5) and the reception of the message (1:6-10)--which Paul then unpacks in the first subsections of the letter body (2:1-12, 13-16). Green rightly prefers the textual variant "infants" in 2:7 to the NIV's "gentle" (a change which the TNIV has also made, though Green completed his work too early to know this). Paul's use of the maternal metaphor in the same verse refers to his nurturing role, while the paternal metaphor in v. 11 focuses more on instruction, though a tenderness permeates both tasks.

    The aorist in 2:16 (NIV "has come") should not be taken as prophetic, referring either to Christ's return or to God's judgment on the Jews in A.D. 70, but rather to Claudius' expulsion of Jews from Rome in A.D. 49 just a year or two earlier. 2:17-20 naturally turns to the report of the heralds' exit from town; now those who once resembled babies feel like orphans. Timothy is sent back to rectify the lack of communication since their departure (3:1-5), especially because the church may not have understood that their suffering formed "part of the basic catechism for new believers" (p. 161)--a concept radically different from the beliefs of many other religions then and now! Timothy returns with reassuring news that leads to Paul's final prayer (3:6-13), just as Titus had done while Paul was on his way to Corinth penning his second epistle to that congregation (cf. esp. 2 Cor. 7:5-16).

    An emphasis on sexual ethics is understandable in Paul's exhortation section (4:1-8), because male promiscuity (except with another man's wife) was taken for granted in the Greco-Roman world. The "vessel" of 4:4 refers to the man's own body, and the reference to "defrauding" in verse 6 is still speaking of sex, not shifting the topic to business ethics. Green treats 4:9-5:11 as a unit because he believes the peri de's ("now concerning") all mark topics that Paul was asked about in a letter. "Minding one's own business" (4:11) was used elsewhere for not participating in public affairs or politics. Green agrees with the recent trend that these and similar references to the idle to find work must be viewed in light of the entrenched practice of patronage, whereby wealthy benefactors cared financially for numerous "clients," who in turn owed them public favors and support. Throughout his letters Paul wants to wean Christians enmeshed in this system of reciprocity off of its "welfare" and put them to work, despite the artistocracy's aversion to manual labor.

    No fully satisfactory reason appears for Paul's extensive teaching on eschatology, with which the first epistle closes and which permeates the second letter. But use of parousia imagery (the arrival or return of a king or other dignitary to a city), the meaning of apantesis (the "meeting" of the honored guest by an escort that leaves the city to welcome the person and then brings him back home in triumph), and the public "noise" of a loud shout and a final trumpet, all combine to make a reference to a secret rapture in 4:16-17 unlikely. Rather Paul reflects a posttribulationist perspective as he describes elements of Christ's visible, final return to earth. The call to watchfulness in 5:1-11 does not mean to look for the fulfillment of biblical signs in current events but to be prepared by living in faith, hope and love at all times so that one is not caught by surprise whenever the end occurs.

    By the time of 2 Thessalonians, the church's suffering has intensified. But this plight is evidence that God's righteous judgment is being worked out, via a logic akin to 1 Peter 4:17. The emphasis on God's vengeance is meant to encourage the sufferers and give them an eschatological perspective on the present. Green doesn't think the Thessalonians misunderstood the first epistle (as I. H. Marshall does at 2:2) but rather that someone else is falsely teaching something in Paul's name. This verse should also be understood as referring to the belief that the Day of the Lord was "in the process" of coming, but with an immediacy that Paul can't accept. The "man of lawlessness" in 2:3 is modeled on the emperor and his divine claims. The temple is neither the literal one in Jerusalem nor the church, but the Thessalonian temple dedicated to the divine Julius and Augustus and home of the local imperial cult. The "restrainer" is not the right way to translate katechon in vv. 6-7; it should be rendered "the one who seizes" and taken as someone preparing the way for rather than opposing the Antichrist. The letter's closing call for the disfellowshipping of those who refuse to work does not refer to irrevocable excommunication but to a withdrawal of the most intimate forms of association in a culture of honor and shame in which such behavior would have usually produced the desired effect of repentance and reinstatement.

    Not every one of Green's positions proves equally convincing. His defense of Pauline authorship of 2 Thessalonians largely just responds to Wolfgang Trilling's arguments, already rebutted by Marshall's commentary in the early 1980s. His expanded use of chiasm to refer to synonymous as well as inverted parallelism is confusing, even if he can cite ancient precedent. He does not consider the possibility that 1 Thess. 2:16 refers to the judgment on unbelievers, including Jews, inaugurated already by Christ's crucifixion. He fails to discuss the fact that other studies have shown a much broader range of uses for peri de in both Paul's and others' letters. And the narrative flow of 2 Thess. 2 seems every bit as natural when taking katechon as "one who holds back," the more common meaning of the verb in the first place. The only typos I noted were "Andiscus" for "Andriscus" on p. 15, "exhortating" for "exhorting" on p. 300, and a missing "who" on p. 341.

    These few criticisms, however, pale in comparison to the enormous strengths of the volume. The commentary is thoroughly based on painstaking, detailed research into both the background to the letter and the meaning of the text. The vast majority of all the exegetical positions taken are fully convincing. And the results are all written up in very readable prose which does not require highly specialized training to understand. Green's succinctness also leaves the volume manageable in size and detail. Had Abraham Malherbe's magisterial Anchor Bible commentary on the Thessalonian letters not just appeared (too late for Green to utilize it), this would be my top pick for a commentary on the English text of these epistles. As it stands, I would rank it a close second. For those who want something a little briefer, it vaults over Malherbe into first place. Unfortunately, the cost still seems somewhat high.

    Craig L. Blomberg
    Distinguished Professor of New Testament
    Denver Seminary

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