Today, I’m beginning a new series of posts, reflecting on Scripture. Marcus J. Borg challenges readers to take a fresh look at the New Testament in his “Evolution of the Word”, approaching it in the order in which its books were composed. He expects to lose potential readers who belong to fundamentalist evangelical churches, where they would be unlikely to embrace the “humanity” of God’s word, in tension with ideas of inerrancy. His own approach is not only historical-critical but leans in a liberal direction, insisting on inclusive language, and on calling the early disciples “Jesus followers” or the “Christ-community” rather than more conventional labels.
Why I am pursuing this on this blog? I think the AspiePriest perspective brings something distinctive to the party. Our starting point is the Catholic teaching that the Gospels offer the “honest truth” about Jesus and that Scripture does not err in teaching things God wishes to communicate about faith and morals. As a charismatic Catholic I am willing to embrace supernatural perspectives: I allow the possibility of divine revelation given to Christ even in his self-imposed humanity, and to the human authors of the sacred texts through the promptings of the Holy Spirit. With that in mind, let us begin.
Around the year AD 50, Paul, Silvanus and Timothy wrote a letter to the Christians in Thessalonica. Following Paul’s vision of a “man of Macedonia” these missionaries had visited first Philippi, then Thessalonica. Later, Paul had gone on to Athens and Corinth but sent Timothy back to visit and report on matters in Thessalonica. Some time after Timothy’s return to Paul, the letter we now know as I Thessalonians was written and despatched.
After the usual greeting formula, the letter immediately affirms (1:5) that when these missionaries had preached in Thessalonica, the Gospel came “not only in word, but in power and in the Holy Spirit and in full conviction.” What exactly happened when the missionaries first preached there? What powerful outpouring of God’s Spirit was manifested? Whatever happened, it immediately sealed a community of convicted believers. The end of the letter (5:19-20) intimates that gifts of prophesy were present, but receiving a mixed reception; the immediately prior admonishment not to “quench the spirit” leans towards this being current rather than Old Testament prophecy.
The missionaries say they did not seek to collect money or offer false flattery, but sought to nurture a community of disciples beginning to follow God’s ways. Paul prays that the Thessalonians grow to “even greater love” for one another (3:12) and reminds them that, to follow Jesus’ teaching, they must resist “lustful passion” (4:5) avoiding fornication (4:3). As usual, the underlying Greek word used is porneia, frustratingly vague in communicating what exactly was being forbidden; but the mention of “not exploiting” other members of the community (4:6) sounds like this message was a corrective to adulterous relationships being considered as a wrongful expression of “love one another”. Closing remarks also affirm the Christian values of patience, returning good for evil, rejoicing, thanksgiving and continuous prayer (5:15-18).
This letter famously contains teaching about the Second Coming – the dead will rise first, and the living will be caught up to meet them in the air (4:16-17). How can Paul know this? If he has been caught up into heaven and granted visions (as he intimates in some of his other letters), he could plausibly have been given teachings about this. This early generation of Christians still expected the imminent return of Christ, and are questioning how some of their number could have died already; Paul minimises this (5:2) and affirms it doesn’t matter whether we are alive or dead when Christ comes (5:10).