Paul’s New Family in Thessalonica

in Novum Testamentum
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The ongoing debate about the structure of the earliest Christian communities—an issue of Christian origins—continues to divide Pauline interpreters. While some (e.g. E. Schüssler Fiorenza) are of the view that Paul’s communities were “egalitarian” at the outset only to become more rigid and organized with the passing of time, others ( J.H. Elliott) argue that Paul’s churches were more structured from their earliest inception. Still others have had a change of mind on this issue. In all of this, Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians has not been given due consideration. Against the social context of the period, Paul’s relationships—predominantly described in familial terms—with this community is explored. Paul’s parental (nursing-mother, 2:7; father, 2:11) relations towards his convert-children (2:7, 11) show his preference of situating himself above them. Moreover, the Thessalonians’ relations to one another as siblings, often understood as imbued with egalitarianism, also demonstrate a similar degree of differentiation (1 Thess 5:12-15) within the community—some siblings are given to lead, to be respected and to admonish the rest. It is concluded that rather than viewing the community at Thessalonica as egalitarian in composition there is evidence here, in what is regarded by many to be Paul’s earliest extant letter that some degree of structure was in place at the very beginning.

Paul’s New Family in Thessalonica

in Novum Testamentum




A.J. Malherbe“God’s New Family in Thessalonica,” The Social World of the First Christians: Essays in Honor of Wayne A. Meeks (eds. L.M. White and O.L. Yarbrough; Philadelphia: Fortress Press 1995) 116-125.


M. Penn“Performing Family: Ritual Kissing and the Construction of Early Christian Kinship,” JECS 10 (2002) 175-202 (175). Penn rightly asks: “Why have so many works on the ancient family ignored one of the most widespread familial practices in the Greco-Roman world?” He concludes that “the kiss’s performance is a way to define Christianity as family” (158).


Malherbe“God’s New Family in Thessalonica” 121.


E. Schüssler FiorenzaBread Not Stone: The Challenge of Feminist Biblical Interpretation (Boston: Beacon Press1984) 75.


E. Schüssler FiorenzaIn Memory of Her: A Feminist Reconstruction of Christian Origins (New York: Crossroad1983) 180-183.


J.H. Elliott“The Jesus Movement was not Egalitarian but Family-Oriented,” BI 11 (2003) 173-210 (204). emphasis added; idem “Jesus was not an Egalitarian: A Critique of an Anachronistic and Idealist Theory” BTB 32 (2003) 75-91; K.E. Corley “The Egalitarian Jesus: A Christian Myth of Origins” Foundations and Facets Forum NS 1.2 (1998) 291-325.


See T.D. Still“Organizational Structures and Relational Struggles among the Saints: The Establishment and Exercise of Authority in the Pauline Communities,” After the First Urban Christians: The Social-Scientific Study of Pauline Christianity Twenty-Five Years Later (eds. T.D. Still and D.G. Horrell; London: T & T Clark International 2009) 79-98 (89).


B. Witherington1 and 2 Thessalonians: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans2006) 81 n. 87 91 n 127 98. C. Gerber Paulus und seine “Kinder”: Studien zur Beziehungsmetaphorik der paulinischen Briefe (Berlin: de Gruyter 2005) 308 views Paul’s paternal relationship towards the Thessalonians as a strongly-authoritarian and hierarchical one: “Die Beziehung ist . . . feste hierarchische” (emphasis original). She concludes on Paul’s role as “Father”: “Ohne Zweifel setzt dieses Vater-Kinder-Verhältnis seine Autoritätsgefälle voraus wie auch in der Antike ein typischer Vater kaum ohne Autorität vorstellbar war” (308). Paul’s authority comes from his parental roles and unlike 1 Cor 4:14-21 where such authority is being undermined in Thessalonians it is not; thus I think Gerber’s phrase “strongly authoritarian” is too strong an expression to describe Paul’s relations to the Thessalonians. Neither does this negate Paul’s affection and emotional attachment to his converts; see my comment in n. 28.


B.R. GaventaOur Mother St. Paul (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press2007) 13; Gerber Paulus und seine “Kinder 305-308.


J.M.G. Barclay“‘There is Neither Young nor Old’? Early Christianity and Ancient Ideologies and Age Ideologies,” NTS 53 (2007) 114-129states: “As father (or mother) of his churchesPaul assumes authority over them . . . this lies in his parentage” (240) (emphasis added); see also D.G. Horrell “‘From ἀδελφοί to οἶκος θεοῦ’: Social Transformation in Pauline Christianity” JBL 120 (2001) 293-311 (303). E.D. Schmidt Heilig ins Eschaton: Heiligung und Heiligkeit als eschatologische Konzeption im 1. Thessalonicherbrief (Berlin: de Gruyter 2010) 145 states regarding both parents: “Auch die Vater-Metapher (gering fügigerauch die der Mutter) kann bei Betonung einer ihrer Konnotationen Autorität und Hierarchie paränetisch in Anspruch genommen warden.”


Roberts GaventaOur Mother14; Aasgaard “My Beloved!” 288.


C. SpicqTheological Lexicon of the New Testament (trans., J.D. Ernest; Peabody, Mass: Hendrikson1994) 3:30-35.


J.A.D. Weima“Infants, Nursing Mother, and Father: Paul’s Portrayal of a Pastor,” CTJ 37 (2002) 202-229 (228).


S.E. WitmerDivine Instruction in Early Christianity (WUNT 246; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck2008) 163.


See E.A. CastelliImitating Paul: A Discourse of Power (Louisville: Fortress Press1991) who clearly demonstrates that imitation was expectation of the father-child relationship. Her view that Paul’s claim to authority is not benign however provides little room for the deep affection that the apostle clearly demonstrates towards his converts. See T.J. Burke “Pauline Paternity in 1 Thessalonians” TynBul 51 (2000) 59-80.


J.S. Kloppenborg“Egalitarianism in the Myth and Rhetoric of Pauline Churches,” Reimagining Christian Origins: A Colloquium Honoring Burton L. Mack (eds. E.A. Castelli and H. Taussig; Valley Forge Pa.; Trinity Press International 1996) 247-263 (248).


M.M. Mitchell“1 and 2 Thessalonians,” The Cambridge Companion to St Paul (ed. James D.G. Dunn; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2003) 58. See also I.H. Jones The Epistles to the Thessalonians (Peterborough: Epworth Press 2005) 28 who states in regard to Paul: “In 1 Thess. 5:14 some of the father’s tasks are to be exercised within the community.”


J.M.G. Barclay“Conflict in Thessalonica,” CBQ 55 (1993) 512-530 (522).


C.R. NichollFrom Hope to Despair: Situating 1 & 2 Thessalonians (SNTSMS, 126; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press2004) 157ff.


E.g. E. BestThe First and Second Letters to the Thessalonians (London: A & C Black1977) 228.


E.D. FreedThe Morality of Paul’s Converts (London: Oakville, CT: Equinox Pub.2005) 64 rightly sees a distinction between the brothers when he writes: “With respect to the various groups of believers the “brothers” addressed in 1 Thess. 5:12-13 are all members of the brotherhood except the leaders who preside over them (proistēmi) . . . who are also brothers.” P.R. Trebilco Self-Designations and Group Identity in the New Testament (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2012) 35 also writes in respect of 1 Thess 5:12-13: “There is some structure in the community—some ἀδελφοί have a leadership role others are led—but they are all ἀδελφοί.”


R.A. CampbellThe Elders: Seniority within Earliest Christianity (SNTW; Edinburgh: T & T Clark1994) 121-122; Horrell “From ἀδελφοί to οἶκος θεοῦ” 303 comments instructively on this: “What seems clear . . . is that the frequent use of ἀδελφός language reflects both an established designation for the members of the Christian assemblies and Paul’s efforts to ensure relationships ἐν ἐκκλησίᾳ are structured . . . distinctions can be and are made among the ἀδελφοί (cf. Gal. 6:6; 1 Thess. 5:12)” (emphasis added); L.T. Johnson “Paul’s Ecclesiology” (ed. Dunn St. Paul ) 208 comments under the general heading of “Organization in the Local Church”: “The undisputed letters provide . . . significant evidence that such simple structure was present also in Pauline churches from the beginning. Paul can speak of those in the Thessalonian church—presumably in existence for a very short time—who preside over others and exhort them (1 Thess. 5:12).” See also K.P. Donfried Paul Thessalonica and Early Christianity (Eerdmans: Grand Rapids 2002) 155; R. Gehring House Church and Mission: The Importance of Household Structures in Early Christianity (Peabody Mass.: Hendrickson 2004) 198.


SchmidtHeilig ins Eschaton165. Campbell The Elders 135 even goes as far as to state that “ἀδελφοί is . . . Paul’s preferred vocabulary for leadership.”


G.G. FindlayThe Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Thessalonians (Grand Rapids: Baker1982) 123.


G.D. FeeGod’s Empowering Presence: The Holy Spirit in the Letters of Paul (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson1994) 51.


B.R. GaventaFirst and Second Thessalonians (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press1998) 82.


G. MilliganSt. Paul’s Epistles to the Thessalonians: The Greek Text with Introduction and Notes (Minneapolis: Klock and Klock1908) 153-154. Although Fee Thessalonians 209 comments that the reading “idlers” “does not have a lexical leg to stand on” he nevertheless goes on to concede that “the translation ‘idlers’ . . . correctly points to an aspect of those who are in view here.”


J.A.D. WeimaNeglected Endings: The Significance of the Pauline Letter Closings (JSNT 101; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press1994) 185 has shown convincingly how the closing peace benediction (5:23) recapitulates major concerns earlier in the letter (e.g. 5:13b). Weima states: “A careful reading of the letter body of 1 Thessalonians . . . does reveal that the church experienced a problem of division.” Though he does not see the significance of the sibling language Weima nevertheless rightly concludes that those who had stopped working led to “division . . . between the church’s leaders and certain ‘idlers’” (185).


S.C. Barton“Eschatology and the Emotions in Early Christianity,” JBL 130 (2011) 571-591 (590). Trebilco Self-Designations and Group Identity 35-37 also points out: “Paul . . . uses . . . language about one group respecting and esteeming or submitting to particular ἀδελφοί who have charge over or admonish the first group . . . ” (36) (emphasis added).




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