BMCR 2001.10.05

The Letters to the Thessalonians. The Anchor Bible vol. 32B

, The letters to the Thessalonians : a new translation with introduction and commentary. The Anchor Bible ; v. 32B. New York: Doubleday, 2000. xx, 508 pages : map ; 24 cm.. ISBN 0385184603 $50.00.

This new volume will fascinate for several reasons, not least because of the felicitous marriage of material and commentator: Malherbe (= M.) is in many respects ideally suited to comment on the Thessalonian correspondence. Not only does he possess an enviable familiarity with Greek popular philosophy and its literary conventions—including ancient epistlography 1—he has also worked fruitfully for many years on Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians.2 The particular distinction of this volume, therefore, resides in M.’s ability to situate Paul’s epistles within the larger literary and philosophical context of his day. M. is able to illustrate in what respects Paul participates in these literary and philosophical conventions and where he departs from them. Either way, he helps to explain just why it is that the apocryphal correspondence between Paul and Seneca should have made such sense to the ancients.

Nor can it be said that M.’s subject matter is without interest since it consists of what are generally conceded to be the earliest extant Christian documents—Paul’s two letters to the church he founded in Thessalonica, probably written from Corinth about 50-51 CE. These letters were directed at a small non-Jewish group of believers and provide vivid glimpses into Paul’s missionary practice among Gentiles, as well as into the travails experienced by a recently-formed house church, numbering probably a few dozen believers. Put simply, the letters “open windows onto newly founded Christian communities as no other documents do. They reveal the challenges recent converts faced and how Paul, aware of their problems, acted pastorally in writing to them” (p. xi).

It is this pastoral dimension that receives particular emphasis in M.’s commentary. He maintains that it was not just the Thessalonians’ theological development that was of concern to Paul, but their emotional, moral and spiritual nurture as well. Here M. departs somewhat from the perspectives of a number of previous commentators in establishing the purpose of 1 Thessalonians. Given that the letter is usually divided into two main components, an “autobiographical” (1:2-3:10) and a parenetic or hortatory segment (4:1-5:22), interpretations have tended to concentrate on one or the other of these features. Most commonly, the letter’s purpose has been established from the autobiographical segment, especially verses 2:1-9, which are thought to constitute Paul’s apologetic against opponents variously identified as pagans, Jews, spiritual enthusiasts, or Gnostics.3 This apology is seen to inform the epistle as a whole, with the second half of the letter providing a generalized exhortation with no specific application to the Thessalonians. Less often, the parenesis of 4:1-2, 10-12 has been taken as the core of the letter, leading to the surmise that the purpose of the letter is hortatory. M. takes issue with both these views. Against the apologetic interpretation, he observes that the letter provides no basis whatever for positing any adversaries. And while he is not out of sympathy with the parenetic stance, he maintains that its scope needs to be broadened considerably: first, it should be recognized that the autobiographical component of the letter is also hortatory in that it provides Paul’s converts with a trustworthy model—namely, himself—to imitate. Second, Paul’s parenesis needs to be situated within a broader understanding of exhortation, one that takes fuller account of the types of parenesis practised by the popular philosophers. M. derives this broader understanding of parenesis from authors such as Seneca, Plutarch, Cicero, Epicurus, and Pliny, who, especially in their letters, show how exhortation was commonly used to instruct and to shape communities or individuals. M. contends that once these features are fully taken into account, the purpose of the letter clearly emerges as being pastoral and parenetic. This purpose informs both the form and the style of the letter, which are parenetic as well.

Given M.’s willingness to situate Paul within the rhetorical and philosophical milieu of his day, it is telling that he is far more hesitant to situate the Thessalonians within their pagan religious context. Paul’s condemnation of the “lustful passion” of the pagans “who do not know God” (1 Thes 4:5) has often prompted commentators to assume that the unregenerate Thessalonians had once participated in a Dionysiac cult or, because of Thessalonica’s proximity to Samothrace, in the veneration of the Cabiri. The latter inference is especially attractive in view of the cultic prominence of (one) Cabirus in Thessalonica in the first and second centuries CE 9.4 Yet, M.’s caution is certainly warranted. Paul’s condemnation of pagan sexual immorality amounts to little more than stock Jewish invective, and it is safe to say that we do not know as much about cults in Thessalonica as is sometimes supposed. So, while it is entirely possible that the Thessalonians had once been participants, the letter does not provide us with sufficient grounds for saying so.

M. is also reluctant to discount the literary integrity of 1 Thessalonians. In particular, he accepts verses 2:13-16, which have often been rejected as a later, unPauline interpolation.5 The passage’s strident condemnation of the “Jews” is apparently at odds with Paul’s later stance as expressed in Romans 9:3: “For I could wish that I myself were accursed…for the sake of my own people.” Moreover, verse 2:16’s assertion that “God’s wrath has overtaken them at last” sounds suspiciously like a reference to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE. Yet M. effectively argues both that the passage is Paul’s and that it belongs in its present position in the letter. Paul is not speaking of all Jews, but engaging in intra-Jewish polemic against those who had persecuted their fellow Jews. Further, the wrath to which Paul refers is primarily eschatological not historical: those Jews who prevented Paul from preaching to the Gentiles “have now proleptically experienced God’s wrath that will also be fully realized in the future” (177).

The above remarks pertain to First Thessalonians; Second Thessalonians is more problematic because its Pauline authorship has come to be increasingly questioned by scholars over the last three decades. As early as Wrede (1903) it was noted that the letter had marked structural affinities with First Thessalonians, and what is more, an apparent literary dependence, amounting to as much as a third of the letter. The theology of the two letters appears to differ also, with the eschatology of Second Thessalonians influenced by apocalyptic traditions not found in First Thessalonians. M., however, remains unswayed by these and related considerations. He contends that the structural similarities are more apparent than real, and that the literary dependence is readily explained as Paul’s calling to mind in his second letter what he had written a few months before in his first. In M.’s view, it is of particular importance that Second Thessalonians does not simply parrot the first letter but also makes new contributions to the discussion. The second letter’s apocalyptic eschatology, for instance, can be taken as one example of this procedure, with Paul drawing on established traditions to supplement the eschatological instruction he had already furnished to his fledgling community. In the end, M. is able to make a convincing cumulative case for the authenticity of Second Thessalonians. The only area where he falls short is when he attempts to revive Harnack’s theory that the differences in mood and tone between the two letters can be attributed to Paul’s having written the first letter to the entire church at Thessalonica and the second to a Jewish faction within it. M. does acknowledge that the theory is not without difficulties, but he concludes that it raises more problems than it solves.

Because of the close connection M. posits between the two letters, it is not unexpected that he discerns a parenetic purpose in the second letter as well. He concludes that the letter is Paul’s reaction to deteriorating conditions among the church at Thessalonica, where new believers were still being persecuted, mistaken eschatological doctrines were being taught, and some believers were refusing to work. To remedy these problems, Paul produces a pastoral response calculated “to encourage the discouraged, correct the doctrinal error, and direct the church in how to discipline the idlers” (375).

All told, therefore, M. has produced a careful and convincing assessment of Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians. The only area where the volume disappoints slightly is in its failure to consider very recent scholarship. Apart from mention of two of M.’s own articles, the (otherwise admirable) bibliography lists only three items more recent than 1997. One particularly misses reference to R. Riesner’ Paul’s Early Years (1998) on the church at Thessalonica and to J.D.G. Dunn’s magisterial The Theology of Paul (1998) on matters such as Paul’s eschatology. But this is only a niggle. Malherbe’s commentary fully warrants the epithet “magisterial” as well. His easy command of the primary sources—be they Jewish, pagan or Christian—his familiarity with the secondary literature, his balanced judgement, and philological acumen: all make for a splendid and rewarding volume.6 There can be little doubt that it will serve as a standard commentary on the Thessalonians correspondence for a very considerable time to come.


1. Of particular importance are: Moral Exhortation, A Greco-Roman Sourcebook (Philadelphia, 1986; The Cynic Epistles, A Study Edition (Missoula, Montana, 1977) and Ancient Epistolary Theorists (Atlanta, 1988).

2. See, in addition to numerous essays, Paul and the Thessalonians: The Philosophical Tradition of Pastoral Care (Philadelphia, 1987) and Paul and the Popular Philosophers (Minneapolis, 1989).

3. The place of 2:1-12 continues to foment extensive discussion; see K.P Donfried and J. Beutler (eds.), The Thessalonians Debate: Methodological Discord or Methodological Synthesis? (Grand Rapids/Cambridge, 2000) 3-131.

4. Cf. K.P. Donfried, “The Cults of Thessalonica and the Thessalonian Correspondence,” New Testament Studies 31 (1985) 336-56.

5. See especially B.A. Pearson, “I Thessalonians 2:13-16: A Deutero-Pauline Interpolation,” Harvard Theological Review 64 (1971) 79-94.

6. I might add that the book has been produced with commendable care. In almost 530 pages, I found only two typos: “Selbsbewusstseins” on p. 26 and “fulflled” on p. 244.