Both letters to the Thessalonians were written to the new church in that city.
Thessalonica (modern Salonica) was a commercial city with about 100,000 inhabitants.
Paul and Silas visited the city in about AD 48 or 49, on his second missionary journey (Acts 17:1-9).
Paul preached in the synagogue for three Sabbaths. Some times afterwards, there was a riot and the two missionaries were forced to depart. Their stay, therefore, was quite brief – between one and four months.
Both letters name Paul, Silas and Timothy as co-authors. However, given the occurrence of 1st-person singular references (1 Thess. 2:18; 3:5; 5:27; 2 Thess. 2:5; 3:17) and other considerations, it is right to consider Paul as the primary author. If so, the use of the 1st-person plural may be more of the nature of literary device.
Few scholars doubt the Pauline authorship of 1 Thessalonians.
The two letters were probably written in quick succession, around AD 50 or 51.
Carson and Moo outline a threefold purpose in 1 Thessalonians:-
- ‘to clear up any misconceptions about his own motives in light of his hasty departure from Thessalonica (chaps. 1–3);
- to remind the Thessalonians of some key ethical implications of their new faith (4:1–12); and
- to comfort the Thessalonians over the death of some of their fellow Christians (4:13–5:11)’
Carson and Moo add that in 1 Thessalonians ‘Paul seeks to strengthen the faith of new converts. He does so by reminding them that they have been transformed by a powerful and reliable word from God, by encouraging them to hold fast to basic Christian ethical standards, and by comforting them about their brothers and sisters who have died.’
Some scholars have thought that these letters – the earliest extant from Paul’s pen – reflect an earlier stage of theological development compared with the later letters. So, for example, it is claimed that teaching of the cross of Christ and on justification by faith is absent from 1 and 2 Thessalonians. In response it must be said that such themes are present, albeit in muted form, and that in any case the contents of all of Paul’s letters was determined by circumstance and need more than by theological development. After all, Paul was no novice Christian teacher at the time of their writing: he had been preaching for around 15 years.
The most obviously distinctive theme in the two letters is that of eschatology (especially in 1 Thess 4:13 – 5:11 and 2 Thess 2:1-12). In addition, Paul stresses the word of God, the message of the gospel (especially in 1 Thess 1-2). Also very prominent in 1 Thessalonians is Paul’s concern to strengthen new believers: ‘Paul writes to nurture a young Christian community in the midst of a hostile and pluralistic environment—a situation not far off from the situation the church in our day faces. 1 Thessalonians deals with many of the problems faced by new converts, such as alienation from family and friends and the cooling of one’s initial spiritual ardor.’
Carson and Moo conclude: ‘The persecution that so quickly arose was an immediate and painful sign of the alienation that they were experiencing. Paul reminds the church that such persecution is the norm to be expected (1 Thess 2:14–16; cf. 2 Thess. 1:5) and that it is their rootedness in the word of God that will keep them steadfast (1 Thess 1:6; 2:13). Paul therefore uses many familial images to remind the Christians that their faith in Christ has introduced them into a new spiritual and eternal family. Paul himself acted as both father (1 Thess 2:11) and mother (1 Thess 2:7) to the fledgling congregation. The Christians themselves are, of course, “brothers and sisters” (1 Thess 2:1, 14, 17; 3:7; 4:1, 6, 10, 13; 5:1, 4, 12, 14, 25); and they need to exhibit the “love for one another” that should typify family (1 Thess 4:9–10)’
Carson & Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament.