Note on 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16

This note is supplemental to the current article on the eschatology of 1 and 2 Thessalonians. I surveyed four eschatological references in 1 Thessalonians—1:10; 2:19; 3:13; 5:23—in addition to the major sections of 4:13-18 and 5:1-11, where Paul addresses matters of eschatology. There is an additional reference in 2:16, but, due to the sensitive nature of its context (vv. 13-16), I felt it better to discuss this passage separately.

1 Thessalonians 2:13-16

This brief passage is central to the narration (narratio) portion of 1 Thessalonians (2:1-3:10), and may be described as a digression (digressio). The lack of an obvious connection with what precedes (2:1-12), along with the apparent anti-Jewish character of the passage, has led some commentators to regard it as a (non-Pauline) interpolation. Could the Jewish Christian Paul really have made such statements? Would the man who wrote Romans 9-11 truly have spoken of his fellow Jews this way? Christians today are apt to find the language and polemic troubling, sensitized by the centuries of anti-Jewish (and anti-Semitic) behavior and attitudes from a ‘Christian’ world. The desire to have 1 Thess 2:14-16 excised from the New Testament is understandable. But it rather ignores the historical circumstances in which Paul is writing, as well as the harsh polemic he uses against other Jewish Christians, for example, in Galatians and 2 Corinthians 10-13. More relevant, and closer in time to the writing of 1 Thessalonians (c. 50 A.D.), are the historical traditions recorded in the book of Acts—of Jewish opposition and hostility to Paul’s mission work, along with his rather harsh response to it (13:46; 18:6; also 28:25-28).

Within the context of 1 Thessalonians, the passage is part of Paul’s expression of thanksgiving for the faithfulness of the Thessalonian believers (v. 13), which he relates back to his own recent mission work among them (vv. 9-12). They remained faithful to their new-found trust in Jesus, in spite of a certain measure of opposition and suffering they faced (1:6ff). This suffering, apparently to be understood in terms of hostility/persecution from the surrounding population, is emphasized more strongly in 2 Thessalonians (1:4-5ff, which may have been written prior to 1 Thessalonians). In verses 14-16, Paul compares their experience of persecution to that endured by believers in Judea (probably including Syria and Palestine as a whole). Paul was all too familiar with this, at least in its early stages, since he himself oppressed believers in Syria (Galatians 1:13ff, 23; Acts 8:1-3; 9:1-2ff par; cf. also 22:19-20) prior to his coming to faith. It would seem that the opposition and negative (from his standpoint) Jewish Christian influence among the Galatians came from Judea as well.

Here is how he makes the comparison in verse 14:

“For you came to be imitators, brothers, of the (one)s of God called out (to assemble) [i.e. congregations of God], the (one)s being in Yehudah, in the Anointed Yeshua, (in) that you also suffered the same (thing)s under (those) growing together (from your) own (race), even as they also (did) under the Yehudeans…”

The literal and glossed translation here may be summarized simply: the Thessalonian Christians suffered under their fellow Macedonians (from the same ethnic birth/generation [genea/] as they), even as (Jewish) believers in Judea did under their fellow Jews. This is a basic enough statement of fact, but it takes a sharper turn as Paul continues in verse 15, describing those (hostile) Jews as:

“…the (one)s also killing off the Lord Yeshua and the Foretellers [i.e. Prophets], and (who were) pursuing us (all) out, and (so are) not being pleasant to God, and (are) set in front (opposite) to all men…”

As noted above, this description is likely to make Christians today most uncomfortable. The idea of the Jewish people (as a whole) being responsible for killing Jesus has played a role in much of the virulent anti-Jewish (and anti-Semitic) hatred and persecution in the West over the centuries. However, it cannot be denied that the basic association with killing Jesus is very much part of the early Christian (and Gospel) tradition. It features both in the Passion narratives (see esp. Matt 27:24-25) and the early Christian preaching in Acts (2:23; 3:14-15, 17; 5:30; 10:39; 13:28f, etc), though in the latter the role of the leaders/rulers (rather than the populace) tends to be emphasized (e.g. 3:17; 4:25-28). The persecution/killing of Jesus and his disciples is also connected clearly with that done to the Prophets of prior generations, at a number of points in early Christian tradition—Matt 23:29-37; Luke 11:47-51; 13:34; Acts 7:52).

To be sure, Paul is referring specifically to those Jews who are, and have been, actively hostile to Jesus and the Gospel. However, he paints with a rather broad brush here in verse 15, creating a most thorough (and intensely negative) portrait:

    • they persecute us (i.e. Paul and other Jewish Christians), even as they did Jesus and the Prophets
    • they are not pleasing to God—that is, presumably in their persecution of believers, but it comes across like a more general characteristic
    • they are conspicuous and stand contrary to “all men” —a careless reading could interpret this as a description of the people as a whole, comparing Jews with the other nations, and reflecting the current anti-Judaism of the Greco-Roman world (e.g., Josephus Against Apion 2.121; cf. Tacitus’ Annals 5.5.2, etc).

It would seem that the latter statement, in particular, i.e. of Jews being opposed to “all men”, should be understood in terms of opposition to the mission of Paul (and other Jewish Christians) among Gentiles in the Greco-Roman world. Since this mission is aimed at proclaiming the Gospel to all peoples and nations (in the Roman Empire), by opposing it Jews could, in a way, be said to stand opposing “all men”. This is made clear with the conclusion of the lengthy statement of vv. 14-16a:

“…cutting us off (from) speaking to the nations so that they [i.e. the nations] might be saved, unto the filling up of their sins (at) all times [pa/ntote].”

Only the force of adverb pa/ntote is uncertain. Basically it means “all the time, everytime, always”, and, it would seem, the meaning here is that, every time Jews oppose the Christian mission, they add to their sins, filling up the number. It is in the final closing statement (v. 16b) that the eschatological dimension of Paul’s discussion comes into view:

“And (so) the anger (of God) came first upon them, unto (the) completion [ei)$ te/lo$].”

The word o)rgh/ (“anger”) is commonly used as a shorthand term for the coming (end-time) Judgment by God upon the wicked, and so by Paul here (as in 1:10; 5:9). The fundamental meaning of the verb fqa/nw is “come first, do first”, but it can also be used in the specific sense coming ahead of a person, i.e. “reach, overtake”. Paul seems to be saying that the end-time Judgment is reaching these Jews first, ahead of what will face the rest of humankind. What exactly is meant by this? In the earlier studies on the Eschatological Discourse, we saw how the beginning of the end-time pains, according to the framework of the Discourse, is manifest in suffering and distress for the people in Judea (Mk 13:8, 14-23 par), culminating in the desecration and destruction of the Temple (13:2, 14ff par). The Lukan version describes this more precisely in terms of a military siege of Jerusalem, led by a pagan (i.e. Roman) army (21:20-24; cf. also 19:41-44). While the prophesied time was not fulfilled until the war of 66-70 A.D., long (it would seem) before the writing of 1 Thessalonians, there is some evidence that Paul was aware of the basic eschatological scenario of the Synoptic Discourse. Two points, in particular, in the Thessalonian letters should be noted:

    • In 1 Thess 4:15, Paul refers to his eschatological instruction as “a word of the Lord”, by which he likely means a tradition coming from Jesus’ own teaching (to his disciples). In vv. 15-17, Paul describes something similar to the coming of the “Son of Man” in Mk 13:26-27 par.
    • The famous description of the “man of lawlessness” in 2 Thess 2:4ff almost certainly draws upon the same Daniel 9:26-27 tradition alluded to in Mark 13:14 par, and may, indeed, reflect an interpretation/exposition of the traditional saying by Jesus (cp. the Lukan ‘interpretation’ in Lk 21:20ff).

So it seems likely that in 1 Thess 2:14-16 a similar eschatological framework is in view, with a specific period of distress for those in Judea as part of the “beginning pains” of the end-time Judgment. Moreover, Paul’s strong reaction to the Jewish opposition to the Gentile mission could also be related to an eschatological world view that goes back to the words of Jesus (in the Synoptic Discourse). There, an apostolic mission to the nations, however brief (or long), is set firmly within the framework of events, prophesied to occur in the decades prior to the destruction of the Temple (Mk 13:9-13 par; cf. also Acts 1:6-8, etc). In opposing this mission, Jews were hindering vital work that had to be done in the period before the coming of the end.

The final phrase of verse 16 remains ambiguous and much debated. The expression is ei)$ te/lo$, “unto (the) completion”, but how it relates to the rest of the sentence is not immediately clear. There are several possibilities:

    • The anger of God comes completely upon them, or lasts until its completion (when it is spent)
    • The anger of God come for the purpose of finishing them, bringing them to an end.
    • God’s anger finally comes upon them, as the result/punishment of their sins.
    • Similarly, it refers back to the idea of the “filling up” of their sins, to the completion of them.
    • It is a temporal indicator—i.e. the completion of the current Age.

In my view, the last option is definitely to be preferred, especially in light of the strong eschatological emphasis throughout 1 Thessalonians. Even so, how does this fit the statement in v. 16b? I would interpret as follows: God’s Judgment comes first upon the wicked/unbelieving Jews (i.e. those opposing the Gospel), and this Judgment, which will extend to all humankind, marks the completion of the current Age.

Concluding observation:

I believe that much of the difficulty with this passage for modern Christians is removed when it is set (and maintained) in its early Christian, first-century context, especially in regard to the eschatological outlook of believers in the period Paul’s letters were written. An important (and often overlooked) aspect of the imminent eschatology of early Christians is the expectation that many, if not most, of all people living at the time would still be alive when the end comes. This is also true for Jews at the time who were hostile to the Gospel or actively opposed the mission work of Paul (and others). Moreover, if 1 Thessalonians was written around 50 A.D., that is probably less that 20 years after the death of Jesus, meaning many of the people in Judea who were hostile to him (and the first believers) would still be alive at the time of Paul’s writing. Similarly, a significance percentage of these Jewish opponents, both in Judea and throughout the Greco-Roman world, would be expected to live until the coming of the Judgment. To the extent that this was prophesied by Jesus in the Eschatological Discourse, it did, in fact, come to pass with the war of 66-70 A.D. and the destruction of the Temple, etc. The basic problem of how this 1st-century manifestation of Judgment relates, from our vantage point today (with an intervening 1,900+ years), to the actual end of the Age (and the return of Jesus), is an entirely separate interpretative question—one touched on many times in this series.

In any event, to ignore the (imminent) eschatological context of 1 Thess 2:14-16, applying Paul’s polemic to the many generations of Jews during the past 1,900+ years, results in a gross distortion of the apostle’s original message. Certainly, we may still say today that all those who actively oppose the Gospel and oppress believers—whether such opponents are Jewish or not—face God’s Judgment even as Paul declared for persecutors in the first century. The scope of our eschatology and historical outlook may be somewhat different today, but the basic thrust of Paul’s message—both in terms of the exhortation for believers, and warning to non-believers—remains as valid now as it was back in the middle of the first century. Fortunately, we have a more positive view of the place of Israelites and Jews within Paul’s eschatology—in Romans 9-11, which will be discussed at the appropriate point in this series.

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