Book Review – The First and Second Letters to the Thessalonians (Gordon Fee)

This is a replacement volume in the New International Commentary on the New Testament series (NICNT), provided by the series editor, Gordon Fee. His reputation as a biblical scholar and commentator is first-rate, and as one would expect, this is another fine contribution. The series now features the text of the TNIV, although commentators are free to disagree with the translation and provide their own preferred alternatives.

The introduction is relatively brief (there is a separate introduction for each book). 1 Thessalonians is dated around AD49, most likely sent during Paul’s visit to Corinth, and with Timothy delivering the letter in person.

1 Thessalonians

The structure of the book is simple, with the first three chapters forming a lengthy introduction consisting of thanksgiving, narrative and prayer, before the final two chapters address the reason for writing – to answer questions concerning the sanctity of marriage, the refusal of some to work, and the timing of the second coming.

Fee regularly points out the high Christology that is to be found in 1 Thessalonians, particularly in the way that Paul will echo Old Testament passages but use Lord to refer to Jesus (e.g. in 3:13). On top of this, in 1:3 and 3:11 he indentifies precursors of Paul’s inserting Jesus into the Shema which he does more explicitly in 1 Cor 8:6.

Contrary to most commentators, he argues for infant rather than gentle in 2:7 – Paul and his companions were innocent like infants. There are some helpful comments on perseverance on 2:11-12 and 3:5, noting that our perseverance depends ultimately on God’s absolute faithfulness (5:23).  He argues that the polemic of 2:14-16 does not fall on the entire Jewish community but on those who were specifically responsible for killing Christ. He shows how the crown in 2:19 refers to a laurel wreath at the Roman games, which Paul pictures as the Thessalonians themselves.

The “vessel” of 4:4 is considered to be a euphemism for the male sexual organ. He provides some helpful comments on how the Holy Spirit enables us to walk in holiness (4:7-8). I was a little surprised, given how much emphasis Green puts on the client-patron relationship as the background to the letter, that Fee does not interact with this possibility at all in 4:11-12.

Fee considers the question behind 4:13-18 to be “what has happened to those who died before the second coming”? He criticises those who try to speculatively go beyond the main point of this passage, with especially strong censure for the “Left Behind” interpretation. He diffuses the debate concerning “going to heaven” versus living on the new earth somewhat, by pointing out that for Paul, our final eschatological “geography” was a secondary concern, whereas his interest was primarily personal – we will be with the Lord.

The short section on prophecy in 5:19-22 is of interest as Fee brings a Pentecostal perspective to bear, noting that there is no hermeneutical justification for modern-day prohibition of prophecy. He argues, drawing on evidence from Romans and 1 Corinthians as well that prophecy seemed to be part of the normal activity of the early church, and reminds us that the solution to abuse is not disuse but proper use. He proposes two tests of prophecy: a test of content (is it doctrinally correct?) and purpose (is it given to edify?). In 5:23, whilst he acknowledges that Paul probably would have made some kind of distinction in meaning between soul and spirit, he is not thinking in terms of humans as a trichotomy here. With regards to the “holy kiss” of 5:26, Fee points out how it would have crossed social boundary lines of slave/free, rich/poor and Jew/Gentile (although he fails to mention male/female! – not sure what they did there).

2 Thessalonians

The introduction to 2 Thessalonians briefly sets forth 9 reasons for considering it to be authentically Pauline and dates it c. 50, shortly after the first letter. It is written in response to the news brought back from Timothy, that the “disruptive idle” were a bigger problem than first thought, that some were misrepresenting Paul’s eschatological views, and that the persecution had increased in severity.

In chapter 2, Fee is at pains to remind us that we do not have the “insider knowledge” that the Thessalonians and Paul shared, making it impossible for us to answer all the questions we may have without resorting to guesswork. Additionally, we need to recognise Paul’s purpose (to encourage believers facing persecution) in these eschatological passages is often far removed from our own (to gather information for our end-times theology). As such, he refrains from speculating on who the “Rebel” (man of lawlessness) is, and who or what is holding him back.

As with the commentary on first letter, Fee is eager to point out the high Christology and Trinitarian soteriology to be found in this early letter. The commentary also benefits from his extensive prior work on Pauline pneumatology, and his comments are incisive when it comes to the work of the Spirit. Having said that, I was hoping he would elucidate a bit more on how exactly the sanctifying work of the Spirit relates to our salvation in 2:13.

Another thread running through the commentary is Fee pointing out numerous places that are so authentically Pauline in theology, grammar, vocabulary and concerns that by the end he declares that the theory of 2 Thessalonians as a forgery no longer deserves any place in NT scholarship.

Conclusion

As with all Fee’s commentaries, this one is an excellent resource for any Bible teacher or student, and is easily equal to my previous favourite on Thessalonians (Green’s Pillar Commentary). Fee is thorough, without being long-winded. Despite it being a primarily exegetical commentary, he is not afraid to put a paragraph or two of application in at the end of each section, with suggestions of lessons the modern church needs to be aware of. Whenever he differs from the majority view in either translation or meaning, he always makes his case persuasively. The right amount of material is relegated to the footnotes, which mostly deal with further manuscript evidence or the views of other commentators, but occasionally provide some additional theological reflection.

2 thoughts on “Book Review – The First and Second Letters to the Thessalonians (Gordon Fee)

  1. I consider it high praise for Green that Fee’s commentary merely equals his, especially given Fee’s reputation and the fact that Green’s was earlier and therefore Fee had access to it.

    I’m guessing one reason you don’t think Fee is superior is because he ignored the patron-client background, and another is because his introduction was thinner.

  2. Hmmm, thin introductions are fine by me. To be honest, it has been a few years since I read Green, which makes it hard for me to objectively compare them. I’d probably recommend people go with Fee, because I he has a bit more of a lively writing style (e.g. swipes at the Left Behind series!).

    As for whether the “patron-client” background ought to play a part in interpreting the letter, I am not qualified to say, but I seem to remember it making a lot of sense as I read through Green’s commentary.

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