The Letters to the Thessalonians (Malherbe)

02.01.01 | Denver Journal, New Testament, Craig L. Blomberg | by Abraham J. Malherbe

    A review of Abraham Malherbe's, "The Letters to the Thessalonians," by Dr. Craig Blomberg.

    Abraham J. Malherbe, The Letters to the Thessalonians. The Anchor Bible, vol. 32B. New York and London: Doubleday, 2000. $50.00. xx + 508 pp. ISBN 0-385-18460-3.

    The epistles to the Thessalonians have not been as well served by recent, major, scholarly commentaries as have most of Paul's epistles. Abraham Malherbe, Professor Emeritus of New Testament Criticism and Interpretation in Yale University, has just remedied that situation. Although this volume follows the sometimes cumbersome, often repetitive format of translation, notes and commentary that characterizes the Anchor Bible series, the patient reader will find a treasure trove of helpful information here, especially comparing Paul's views (and those of the Thessalonians presupposed by his instruction) with the various schools of Greco-Roman philosophy current in his day (and in their world).

    A brief review can only sample key perspectives. Malherbe believes Paul wrote both letters within a short period of time in around 50 B.C. probably not much more than a half a year after founding the church there. He surveys the arguments for the pseudonymity of 2 Thessalonians and finds them wanting. He sees no need to invert the order of the two letters either. He takes seriously the testimony of Acts as providing accurate background information for these letters and for the movements of Paul and his co-workers after leaving Thessalonica.

    Departing from the majority of commentators (and without convincing this reviewer), Malherbe suspects the distress the Thessalonians have been experiencing is less the persecution from the Jews described in Acts 17 and more their internal consternation at all that is involved in the Christian life, and especially in learning the way their founder and apostle, Paul, has suffered so. With most recent commentators, Malherbe stresses the exhortational nature of the letter, the amount of praise Paul has for the church's rapid growth, and the unusual feature of having two or three periods of thanksgiving in each letter, rather than the conventional one of traditional Greco-Roman epistolography. Moving beyond those observations, Malherbe adds some otherwise unparalleled evidence for the letters' functioning as letters of friendship and consolation, especially in their eschatological teaching. Paul is not concerned to teach doctrine per se, but to add to his teaching in the area of eschatology in order to encourage, exhort and console his readers who are troubled and/or behaving inappropriately as a result. With Russell, Winter and Jewett, but without adopting the precise reconstruction of any of the three, Malherbe recognizes that the idle in Thessalonica should be explained sociologically not theologically—those who are not willing to work are still dependent on old, non-Christian models of patronage and reciprocity and not pulling their fair share as contributors to the tightly knit Christian community.

    As Malherbe compares Paul and the Thessalonians with the various Greco-Roman philosophies, he returns more often than not to comparisons and contrasts with the Epicureans, especially with their ideal of living a quiet life, dependent on no one, which alternately attracted and alienated other segments of the first-century Mediterranean world. These two ideals are Paul's as well, but their definitions radically vary from those of the Epicureans, as Paul is more concerned with what will promote the Gospel in a world full of potential obstacles and misunderstandings.

    Malherbe notes numerous places where assuming a background similar to what we know of from Corinth illuminates Paul's teaching (and after all Paul was writing both letters from Corinth), most notably in his sequence of topics in chapter 4 (from sexual concerns to eschatology—cf. 1 Cor. 5-7, and within chap. 7 itself). Malherbe falls prey to the common misconception that Paul's “we” in 1 Thess. 4:15 necessarily includes Paul and therefore that at this early stage of Paul's career, he mistakenly believed that he would live to see the Parousia. But apart from this one non sequitur, he steers the reader judiciously through all the difficult exegetical decisions attaching themselves to the eschatological material in both letters. He does not find the evidence for apantesis (the “meeting” with the Lord in the air) in 1 Thess. 4: 17 strong enough to prove that Paul was using the more technical meeting of an escort party welcoming visiting dignitaries, but neither does he offer any support for seeing a separate (and therefore secret) rapture prior to Christ's public, visible return which chapter 5 unpacks. In 2 Thessalonians, he recognizes (with I. H. Marshall) that a careful translation of 2:2 combined with 2:15 may suggest that it was a misunderstanding of 1 Thessalonians itself that caused the pendulum to swing from one extreme to the other—from the Thessalonians wondering whether the Parousia were near at all to some claiming that it had actually (invisibly) come. He recognizes that the identities of the man of lawlessness and the restrainer cannot finally be solved but that, like Jewish and Christian sources of the time more generally, Paul did anticipate a diabolical anti-God figure who would oppose all true religion. Paul probably had the Jewish temple that was still standing in A.D. 50 in mind when he penned 2 Thess. 2:4 but that does not mean we look for a literal, rebuilt temple today—merely whatever is our equivalent to the most blasphemous way one might oppose the work of God.

    The harsh language of retribution in 2 Thess. 1 also has a consoling function. 2:13-15 nicely balance predestination and free will, just as 3:14-15 blends the punitive and remedial functions of disfellowshiping, a blend not often well preserved in the history of the church. One gains much useful guidance even with respect to the closing comments in each epistle. Eidos in 1 Thess. 5:22 does not mean “appearance” in the sense of something that is not what it looks like but rather in the sense of an actual manifestation—hence the NIV's “kind”. In context the verse is the conclusion of a paragraph about how to treat prophecy. And Paul's remarks in 2 Thess. 3:17 suggest both a way of emphasizing the importance of his teaching but also contrast with a copy of 1 Thessalonians that may have been made but circulating without Paul's characteristic personal signature.

    In addition to minor criticisms implied in the foregoing, one could quibble with this or that other detail. It is not clear that there is enough evidence to postulate a letter written by the Thessalonians to Paul prior to his first letter to them, as Malherbe tentatively postulates. One wonders if his references to “psychagogy”—the pastoral use of words to create right attitudes—as a background and foil for what Paul is doing is at times a little overdone. And I remain to be convinced that “vessel” in 1 Thess 4:4 should be translated “wife” rather than “body” or “sexual organ.” But these are very minor matters compared with the rich exegetical resources that the volume offers and the judicious weighing of alternatives in controversial discussions. The number of references to Greco-Roman background literature, especially philosophy, many of them quoted in English translation (and quoted in considerable detail) alone justifies the otherwise daunting price of this hardback volume.

    The commentary will take its place among my top four to recommend for in-depth study of these epistles (along with Bruce [WBC], Marshall [NCB] and Wanamaker [NIGTC]). On the one hand, at least one of these latter three, all being consistently evangelical, should probably be the top choice for the evangelical pastor's library. But Malherbe, as up to date as he is with the secondary literature, and as versed as he is in the primary sources, might well be the most important second book to buy on these letters to avoid simply duplicating information or perspectives.

    Craig L. Blomberg
    Professor of New Testament
    Denver Seminary
    February 2001

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