Who wrote 1 and 2 Thessalonians? While the apostle Paul was a capable evangelist and prolific letter writer, he rarely worked alone.1 To focus exclusively on his personal involvement in his ministry and writing projects is to discount the invaluable contributions of his colleagues.
The naming of three senders in 1 Thessalonians 1:1 and 2 Thessalonians 1:1 is a unique feature, unlike any other opening address in the Pauline corpus.2 Moreover, of all the first person verbs, pronouns, participles, adjectives and articles in the extant writings of Paul, the highest concentration of plurals (‘we,’ ‘us,’ ‘our’) is found in the Thessalonian letters. Over 96% of the first person terminology in 1 Thessalonians is plural, with 92% plural in 2 Thessalonians. No compelling reason can be given for not taking these “we” references at face value and as indicative of a cooperative endeavor.
The fact that first person singulars appear in both 1 Thessalonians (2:18; 3:5; 5:27) and 2 Thessalonians (2:5; 3:17), twice with Paul’s name emphatically appended (‘I, Paul’), shows that he was the leading correspondent, although he kept his personal comments to a minimum. And the implication of 2 Thess. 3:17 is that the actual writing of the material preceding the postscript was done by someone other than Paul himself.3
A distinct feature of both 1 and 2 Thessalonians is the wording of the introductory thanksgiving. Elsewhere in Paul the introductory thanksgiving is typically in the first person singular (eucharistō = ‘I thank’), even when co-senders have been named.4 Yet in 1 Thess. 1:2 (eucharistoumen = ‘we give thanks’) and 2 Thess. 1:3 (eucharistein opheilomen = ‘we ought to give thanks’) the plural form appears – clearly suggestive of multiple persons – while a distinction is made with the second-person readership (‘you’). Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy are most naturally understood as the thanks-giving communicants, as no doubt the initial recipients would have inferred.5
Also unique to the Thessalonian correspondence is how the Pauline parakaleō formula is worded. The apostle’s frequent use of this clause, while customarily in the first person singular (parakaleō humas = ‘I appeal to you’),6 is consistently plural in the Thessalonian letters (1 Thess. 2:12; 4:1, 10; 5:14; 2 Thess. 3:12). Outside of these letters, only in 2 Cor. 6:1 (where ‘we’ naturally includes Timothy [1:1, 13] and is contrasted with ‘you’) and in 1 Cor. 4:13 (where parakaloumen applies to ‘us the apostles,’ v. 9) is the first person plural used.
With Paul as the prominent figure, 1 and 2 Thessalonians were co-authored by him, Silvanus (a.k.a. Silas), and Timothy from Corinth in late 50 and/or early 51. The two letters appear to have been composed within close proximity of one another, and 1 Thess. 2:17 indicates that this was a relatively short time after the three-man mission team had left the Thessalonian brethren. Having planted churches in Macedonia and then separating for a time, Paul and his companions rejoined one another in Corinth in late 50 (Acts 16–18).7 At the time of writing the three missionaries were together, and Timothy had had time to revisit Thessalonica and rejoin his colleagues (1 Thess. 3:1-6; cf. Acts 18:5). Corinth (as opposed to Athens) is the most likely place where these documents were penned, since enough time needed to elapse for the situation addressed in the letters to develop.
The Thessalonian epistles seem to be the earliest extant writings in which Paul was involved.8 The question of what happens to Christians who die before the Lord’s return (1 Thess. 4:13 ff.) must have arisen fairly early in the history of the church. In the openings of 1 and 2 Thessalonians Paul is mentioned by name only, with no reference to his apostleship or any other appendage, while in every subsequent letter a descriptive designation is added. Moreover, a number of manuscripts of 1 Thess. 1:1 have the abbreviated greeting, “grace to you and peace” (cf. N/ASV, ESV),9 while the other Pauline documents include the added phrase, “from God our Father and Lord Jesus Christ.” This could suggest that the stereotypical Pauline greeting developed after the earliest letter (1 Thessalonians) had been composed.
Because of discernable differences between the two documents, a number of critics have rejected 2 Thessalonians as a genuine Pauline writing. The sentences are longer and more complex in 2 Thessalonians, and 2 Thessalonians is more formal in tone than 1 Thessalonians. It has also been alleged that the eschatology of 1 Thessalonians (with a sense of the imminent return of Christ) is different from 2 Thessalonians (warning against thinking the Lord’s return is imminent).
While the extent of the differences has been exaggerated in some scholarly circles, one must appreciate the collaborative effort of Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy in producing these letters. If Silvanus did the actual transcribing of one and Timothy the other, both the similarities and the differences are not only explicable but are perfectly understandable. Further, the respective issues and emphases would readily account for the seemingly different tones.
The two epistles are responding to two different ideas about the Lord’s second coming. The first letter responds to the fear that those who had died will miss out on the return of Christ, and emphasis is placed on the suddenness and unexpectedness of the return (whenever that might be). The second letter addresses the false idea that Christ has already come back, therefore emphasis is on certain events that must take place first. The theology is not different between the two letters, but the emphasis is because of different circumstances.
Under the guidance of God's Spirit, who wrote 1 and 2 Thessalonians? Do we believe in giving credit to whom credit is due? When reading, for example, “you received the word of God which you heard from us …” (1 Thess. 2:13) and “we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ …” (2 Thess. 3:6), why do so many emphasize Paul alone and dismiss the contributions of Silvanus and Timothy? All of these men were spiritually gifted (cf. Acts 15:32; 2 Tim. 1:6) and equally involved in the Lord’s work. Rather than speaking of “Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians,” would it not be more accurate to make reference to “the letters of Paul, Silvanus and Timothy to the Thessalonians”? Not only does the New Testament teach the importance of unity and cooperation among brethren, the Thessalonian correspondence is a product, example and demonstration of it.
--Kevin L. Moore
2 Two senders are designated in 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon, and only one in Romans, Ephesians, and the Pastorals. While at least three (possibly more?) co-senders are mentioned in Galatians, only Paul is actually named.
3 Cf. Rom. 16:22; 1 Cor. 16:21; Gal. 6:11; Col. 4:18; Philm. 19. Since Timothy is mentioned in the third person in 1 Thess. 3:2-6 and the adept writing ability of Silvanus (a.k.a. Silas) is elsewhere suggested (Acts 15:22-23; 1 Pet. 5:12), Paul’s authorial partner in 1 Thessalonians was probably Silvanus. Timothy’s name in the opening address on the same level as Paul and Silvanus suggests his collaborative role, and the verbal and stylistic differences between 1 and 2 Thessalonians may be due to a greater involvement of Timothy in the drafting of the second letter.
4 Rom. 1:8; 1 Cor. 1:4; Phil. 1:3; 2 Tim. 1:3; Philm. 4. In 2 Cor. 1:3 and Eph. 1:3 the introductory blessing or eulogy is worded generically with no reference to person. Unless otherwise noted, all scripture quotations are the author's own translation.
5 The first person plural is also used in the introductory thanksgiving of Colossians, naturally inclusive of Timothy (1:1-3). The main difference between Colossians and the Thessalonian letters is that the “we-you” contrast does not extend beyond 1:12 in Colossians (except for sporadic instances in 4:3, 8), whereas it is maintained throughout the Thessalonian correspondence.
6 Thirteen times this formula is used in Paul’s writings in the first person singular: Rom. 12:1; 15:30; 16:17; 1 Cor. 1:10; 4:16; 16:15; 2 Cor. 2:8; 10:1; Eph. 4:1; Phil. 4:2; 1 Tim. 2:1; Philm. 9, 10.
7 Silas and Timothy met up with Paul in Athens (Acts 17:15; 1 Thess. 3:1), apparently returned to Macedonia, and then joined Paul again in the city of Corinth (1 Thess. 3:2-6; Acts 18:5). Claudius had dispelled Jews (including Aquila and Priscilla) from Rome in 49, and Gallio began as proconsul of Achaia in June 51 (cf. Acts 18:2, 12).
8 The letter embedded in Acts 15:23-29 would be an exception, but this is best left for another discussion.
9 Both the Alexandrian and Western text types are in agreement on the abbreviated clause. It seems more reasonable to conclude that later copyists sought to harmonize the shorter reading of 1 Thessalonians with the conventional longer version than having omitted the rest of the phrase (see B. M. Metzger, Textual Commentary [2nd ed.] 561).