1 and 2 Thessalonians

Written by I. Howard Marshall Reviewed By Murray J. Harris

What may the theological student legitimately expect of a serious exegetical commentary on a biblical book? Amongst other things, a discussion of the standard introductory matters of historical and geographical setting, date, occasion and purpose, authorship and authenticity, structure and integrity; at points of ambiguity, an indication of the exegetical options with reasons given for the alternative preferred; interaction with recent literature on the book found not only in other commentaries but especially in articles and general works that may be inaccessible; and, more generally, an avoidance of the temptation to import foreign ideas into the text and a willingness to let the biblical text in all its potency speak for itself.

It will be no surprise for any who already know of Professor Marshall’s splendid contributions to New Testament studies to learn that this commentary on the Thessalonian letters fully meets each of these expectations. After a thorough introduction of 45 pages there is a verse-by-verse exegesis in which no issue is dodged and adequate attention is given to matters of lexicography, syntax, and theology. In one sense the commentary complements that of E. Best (1972) in Black’s New Testament Commentaries since the author focuses on more recent discussion of the epistles, describing Best’s commentary as ‘detailed and marked by a sobriety and wisdom of judgment from which I have generally been unwilling to differ’ (Preface).

Few will doubt that the most disputed question in the discussion of the Thessalonian epistles is the authenticity of 2 Thessalonians. Marshall’s comprehensive and judicious treatment of this issue (17 pages) indirectly highlights the need for a full-scale examination of the detailed arguments against the traditional Pauline authorship adduced first by W. Wrede in 1903 and then by W. Trilling in 1972. In 1980 Trilling wrote a commentary on 2 Thessalonians (based on his 1972 monograph) in which he consistently interprets the letter as a pseudonymous work. Three years later and no less consistently Marshall has interpreted the epistle as the work of Paul, thus doing for 2 Thessalonians what E. M. B. Green did for 2 Peter in his Tyndale New Testament Commentary.

In order to whet the reader’s appetite, the conclusions the author reaches on some of the principal exegetical points in the letters may be mentioned. In 1 Thessalonians 1:9b–10 Paul echoes traditional missionary phraseology such as would be used in preaching to Gentiles (cf. Acts 14:15–17; 17:31) (p. 57). 1 Thessalonians 2:16b means that the divine wrath in its full and final manifestation had drawn very near to the Jews collectively as a people since by and large they were opposed to the gospel (pp. 80–83). Satan’s ‘hindering’ (1 Thes. 2:18) was perhaps achieved through Paul’s bouts of illness (cf. 1 Thes. 3:1 f.; 2 Cor. 12:7) (pp. 86–87). The fascinating instance of enallage of verb in 1 Thessalonians 3:11 (see also 2 Thes. 2:16–17) where a plural subject (God and Jesus) is followed by a singular verb shows that Paul assumes the deity of Jesus (pp. 100, 211). ‘All his holy ones’ (1 Thes. 3:13) are angels (pp. 102–103). In 1 Thessalonians 4:14 the word ‘vessel’ (skeuos) refers to the man’s own body in its sexual aspects and the whole verse to the need for sexual self-control (pp. 107–109). The background of 1 Thessalonians 4:13–18 was the failure of the Thessalonians to incorporate Paul’s teaching about resurrection into their thinking, so that they feared that their dead would be excluded from future salvation (pp. 118–122). The strong element of retributive divine punishment evident in 2 Thessalonians 1:6–9; 2:10 must be seen in light of God’s prior offer of love and reconciliation to his enemies (Rom. 5:8, 10) and their rejection of the gospel (pp. 174–175, 203). In 2 Thessalonians 2:6–7 ‘that which restrains’ may be the preaching of the gospel to all nations (Mk. 13:10), while ‘he who restrains’ and will be taken ‘out of the way’ is perhaps some angelic figure who, at the direction of God, was keeping evil under restraint during the period of preaching (pp. 193–200).

Here is evangelical biblical scholarship at its best: well-informed, even-handed, courageous, and reverent.

Murray J. Harris

Murray J. Harris
Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (Professor Emeritus)
Cambridge, New Zealand