Here I am continuing my work on Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonian Assembly, with my own translation and comment.
Thessalonians 2: 13
Always we thank God for this; that when you received the word -heard through us from God – you grasped it as it is in reality, a word of God and not of human origin. It is also powerfully active in you believers, for you have modelled yourselves, brothers and sisters, on God’s assemblies in Judaea, since you suffered the same things from your compatriots as they did from the Judaeans, who killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets and persecuted us. They displease God and are contrary to all humanity by hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be rescued. So they have continually filled out the total of their sins, but fury has caught up with them in the end.
When translating the New Testament writings I have adopted the practice of translating the Greek “Iudaioi” literally as Judaeans, rather than the usual “Jews” as it may refer to a particular sort of Jewish religion rather than an ethnicity. It may be argued that Paul does seem to speak of the whole ethnic group, for example, in Romans, but many of his converts were ethnically Jewish and did not cease to be so. In Paul’s writings Iudaioi are “Jews who are hostile to Jesus Messiah.”
The characterisation of the missionary message as transmitted by human beings, in a human language, in the concepts of a human culture, but nevertheless a word of God, is important for any theology of God’s word. It is not dictated by God or angels; it is conceived differently by different emissaries, but it is always the message of God’s rescue, authorised by Jesus in his ministry, death and resurrection. The emissary may not get it completely right; his understanding may be insufficient or his prejudice may distort it, and it is therefore a Word of God only when it is known to be a human word, reflecting Jesus who is God’s word made flesh.
(The church has often confused the doctrine of God’s word with the notion of an inerrant text or creed. Bible and creed are God’s human word, like Jesus, and are therefore, like him, subject to argument, interpretation, dissent and reformulation, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit and the shared intelligence of the church. Whatever the doctrines have said, this is clearly the fact which is evident in the history of the church. Even fundamentalists disagree with one another. This does not mean that anything goes. Certainty and inerrancy may not be available, but that does not rule out arriving at the likeliest truth. It’s in that faith that I have written more than 2000 bible blogs.)
For Paul, as for the prophets and the author of Hebrews, the word of God is active. When people receive it their lives express it, as do the Thessalonians by modelling their lives on the original assemblies in Judaea, even to to the extent of suffering persecution from some of the Jewish community. Clearly we have to exercise our interpretive freedom when dealing with anything Paul says about Judaeans. Did they really “kill” Jesus? What about the Romans? Did all Judaeans kill the prophets? What about the Jews who listened to the prophets and preserved their message? And doubtless any “persecution” while certainly frightening, took place within the laws of the Roman empire, as is evident from the account in Acts 17.. So we can understand Paul’s rhetoric as the language of a man who once was active in persecuting believers, and now regards his actions with horror.
It’s hard to know what Paul means by fury having caught up with them. Of course he means God’s fury, and perhaps he has in mind some specific event. Scholars speculate as to the Jewish famine of 49 AD, or the edict of Claudius in the same year expelling Jews from Rome, but we cannot be certain. The passage is unique in Paul’s work for its trenchant and judgemental language about his own people. Nowhere else does he accuse them of “killing” Jesus. Some scholars have concluded that the whole passage is an addition to this letter. That’s possible, but an occasional passionate carelessness with words is not untypical of the great emissary.