The Structure of 1 Thessalonians 1

Note: I am again indulging myself in reposting something a bit off-topic from Dave’s blog, because I’d like to reference it on mine. Hopefully this is helpful to others. — HN

10:50 AM The responses about the structure of 1 Thess. 1:1-10 have begun coming in. Here’s the most recent email (I’ve taken the liberty of transliterating the Greek):

… I think dividing the text in this manner completely ignores the structure of the passage. The main clause is in 1:2 (we give thanks), the three participles in 1:3 and 1:4 describe how Paul gives thanks and why, the hoti clause in 1:5 provides a reason for why Paul knows the Thessalonians are chosen by God. Though some divide at v. 6, I think that there is an elided hoti and that the statement “you became imitators of me” is a second reason for why Paul knows they are chosen by God. The rest of the section (through 1:10) provides more info about 1:6.

“Completely ignores” is pretty strong language. What do you think?

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10:18 AM In my essay in the Southern Baptist Journal of Theology called The Literary Structure of 1-2 Thessalonians, I tried to show how 1 Thessalonians is comprised of several fairly clearly-defined thought units:

The Greek text of 1 Thessalonians consists of 18 paragraphs (thought units) that together merge to communicate Paul’s message. Read each paragraph and then assign a title to each (a paragraph title is a summary in your own words of the central idea in the paragraph). The paragraphs are: 1:1; 1:2-10;2:1-12; 2:13-16; 2:17-20; 3:1-5; 3:6-10;3:11-13; 4:1-2; 4:3-8; 4:9-12; 4:13-18; 5:1-11;5:12-22; 5:23-24; 5:25; 5:26-27; 5:28.

I say “fairly clearly-defined” because some may quibble about this or that paragraph division. For example, some prefer to see two paragraphs in 1:2-10 instead of a single unit: 1:2-5 and 1:6-10. But I think all would agree that 1:1 is set off from what follows as the letter’s opening salutation, and I think all would agree that the next thought unit is either 1:2-5 or else 1:2-10.

It was therefore a great surprise to me to read this morning that one of the latest commentators on 1 Thessalonians begins his forthcoming treatise with a discussion of 1:1-3 (see the sample here). I simply do not see how this is possible on the basis of Greek discourse analysis. Verse 4 begins with a subordinate clause (a participle in Greek) that is clearly attached to the head verb in verse 2. So again, while I suppose one could argue for a paragraph break between verse 5 and verse 6 (since verse 6 contains a finite verb), I am at a loss to explain how one could begin a new thought unit at verse 4. I suppose arguments may exist along these lines, but I am unaware of them. Perhaps the author could enlighten us?

To get the ball rolling, here’s how I understand “Wie der Text spielt” in 1:1-10:

The first chapter is comprised of two paragraphs and follows closely the standard letter writing convention used by Paul elsewhere: Greeting and Thanksgiving. The train of thought in these two paragraphs may be indicated as follows:

Opening Greeting 1:1.

The introduction gives the names of the writers and readers, and a salutation. The form is conventional but it has been Christianized (cf. the introduction to Romans [1:1-7], which has been richly “clothed” with doctrine; cf. also Gal 1:1-5). The introductions of the Thessalonian epistles are Paul’s briefest. Significant here is the absence of “apostle” to describe Paul. As in other letters Paul joins his helpers’ names to his own in the address. The church is then designated and greeted with the typical Pauline expression “grace and peace.”

Thanksgiving for the conversion and zeal of the Thessalonians 1:2-10.

In the Greek text, 1:2-10 is one long, awkwardly constructed sentence that is difficult to punctuate and that is loaded with adverbial phrases that are hard to place. If the paragraph is difficult it is also vitally important to the author’s argument. In the form of a prayer of thanksgiving, Paul brings together two themes: (1) the manner in which Paul and his colleagues shared their faith with the Thessalonians (vv. 2-5), and (2) the response of the Thessalonians to the missionaries’ preaching (vv. 6-9).

Because of this shift in emphasis, it may be useful to make a paragraph break at the end of v. 5. Secular Greek letters sometimes included in their introduction a prayer to some god, but not often a prayer of thanksgiving. Paul regularly does so (Galatians is an exception), but the theme of gratitude goes far beyond a mere introduction. Paul uses the thanksgiving (1:2-10) to relate the most important themes of the letter body that follows, though “thanksgiving” in our letter appears to be much longer (1:2-3:13) than in Paul’s other letters.

What is the specific content of this rich paragraph of thanksgiving? Hiebert divides it as follows: (a) Paul first sketches the character of the thanksgiving with various statements (v. 2) and then (b) elaborates three specific grounds for the thanksgiving (vv. 3-10). Paul’s thankful spirit for the Thessalonians is prompted by their Christian virtues (v. 3), their divine election (vv. 4-7), and the reports of others concerning the church in Thessalonica (vv. 8-10). According to Hiebert, “this elaboration of their grounds for thanksgiving forms an adequate background for the remainder of the epistle.”

Best’s overall analysis of 1:2-10, however, seems to unite the thoughts of the paragraph better. His explanation may be summarized as follows: (a) Paul thanks God for the way in which the Thessalonian converts have expressed their faith (v. 3) and (b) for its ultimate ground in God’s choice of them as Christians (v. 4). This choice was (c) made clear in the successful ministry by Paul to Thessalonica (v. 5) and (d) in their response to the gospel, despite tribulation (v. 6). They (e) became an example to others (v. 7) and (f) a spur to evangelical activity (v. 8) by their complete acceptance of the faith, whose content is (g) expressed in a creedal form (vv. 9-10). This last statement concerning a “creedal form” indicates a common opinion among NT scholars that Paul in 1:9-10 is quoting a pre-Pauline statement of the church’s faith.

Your thoughts? Care to blog about it?