In my two previous posts I discussed a textual variant that could be explained either as a scribal accident or as an intentional change. I thought it might be interesting to point out a few other variants that also could go either way. These are all intriguing problems in and of themselves, and by talking about them I can illustrate a bit further the kinds of quandaries textual critics find themselves in when trying to decide what an author wrote when we have different versions of his words in different manuscripts. My plan right now is to look at three variants in three different mini-threads (all of them subsumed under the larger thread of why I wrote The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture). Today is one of my favorites, a particularly thorny issue found in 1 Thessalonians 2:7.
I can’t get to a discussion of that issue without providing some important background; just the very basics of the background will take me two posts, before I can even start to explain the textual problem.
First Thessalonians was, more or less obviously, the first letter Paul wrote to the church in Thessalonica. We don’t know how many other letters he wrote to the church there. In the New Testament we also have 2 Thessalonians, but scholars have had long and protracted debates for well over a century over whether that book was originally written by Paul or was written by someone *claiming* to be Paul who wanted you to *think* he was Paul. The latter is my rather strongly held personal view. I talk about it a bit in my book Forged, and at substantial length, in case anyone is interested, in my book Forgery and Counterforgery.
But that’s of no moment here. My point right now is that 1 Thessalonians is Paul’s first of an indeterminable number of letters that he wrote to Thessalonica. At least it is the first we know about (not knowing about any others!), but there are reasons from the letter itself for thinking that this is the first letter he wrote to them after leaving their community.
It is also, as it turns out, the very first letter of Paul’s that we have, chronologically. That also makes it the very first writing of any kind that we have from any Christian author, so that it is particularly special and important to us. There are not particularly heated debates over its date (at least that I’m aware of) (and you’d be amazed at things I’m not aware of). It is usually dated to 49 or 50 CE – so about 20 years after Jesus’ death and about 15 before Paul’s.
The letter is an unusually joyful and affirming letter from Paul. In most of his other letters, he is rather hot and bothered about something – which is almost always why he writes in the first place. Often he is disturbed by the “false teachers” who have arisen within (or from outside) a community who, in his opinion, are leading the church astray (e.g., the letters to the Galatians and Corinthians); often he about disturbed by ethical issues (or huge moral failings) that have arisen in the community, or about community infighting (e.g., again, Corinthians, and Philippians).
In his letter to the Thessalonians, he is not particularly disturbed about ethical issues, although there is an important section of the short five-chapter letter in which he urges his readers to lead sexually upright lives and not to engage in lustful activities (1 Thess 4:1-8). Possibly that is because he has heard there are some ethical improprieties going on? Within this particular passage there is a very difficult verse that very much affects the meaning of what Paul is trying to say. It is *not* a textual problem – that is, it is not a problem because different manuscripts have different readings – but an interpretation/translation problem. (So this is not the textual problem I’ll eventually be talking about, which is the raison d’être for this mini-thread).
After urging his readers to avoid all forms of sexual immorality, he tells his (male) readers to understand how they are to “hold their own vessel in holiness and honor.” The word “vessel” is much disputed. There are reasons for thinking that it means body, or more specifically penis (= keep your pants zipped) and other reasons that it means wife (= stay faithful to your spouse; or stay true to your own wife; or hold on to your *own* wife).
It’s a very difficult passage to work out and a very difficult issue to resolve, but as I said, it doesn’t involve a textual problem.
Paul also is not particularly worried about false teachers in the Thessalonian community, which makes one suspect that none had come there (yet). But there is a doctrinal issue that he is very deeply concerned about, and it is the reason he is writing the letter. The point of the letter becomes clear after he has finished spending three chapters praising the Thessalonians, remembering them fondly, recalling in warm terms the time he had spent with them when he converted them and then communed with them as they set up their Christian community. The problem, which is discussed at length in the final two chapters (4:13-5:12), is that some of the Christians in the community have begun to question or doubt Paul’s teaching that the end of the age, and the return of Jesus, were to happen right away.
This was the core of Paul’s message when he preached his Gospel: the end of the age has come; Christ who died has been exalted to heaven and is soon to return; people need to prepare for this imminent inbreaking of the Kingdom of God; it could happen any time now.
Paul convinced some of the pagan Thessalonians of this message (his Christian community appears to be made up entirely of former pagans, as becomes clear in 1:9-10 and its reference to their past lives); they converted to join his movement; after he established the church then he moved on somewhere else to do the same thing.
But in the meantime, over the weeks, and months, following Paul’s departure, nothing happened. Jesus didn’t come back. And now some people in the community have died. Those who are still alive are perplexed and worried. Does this mean that the ones who have died have lost out on the salvation they were to have with Jesus’ return?
Paul writes to the Christians of Thessalonica to assure them that Jesus still will arrive suddenly from heaven and they need to be ready for his advent. But in the meantime, they should not worry about those who have died. They too will be rewarded at Jesus’ second coming.
This letter is meant, then, to renew Paul’s relationship with his devoted followers, to comfort and exhort them, and to give them some instruction about what will soon take place at Jesus’ return.
I will pick up the story there in my next post. All of this is simply background to a discussion of a very interesting textual variant in chapter 2 of Paul’s letter, a textual variant that determines the meaning of a passage, and is a difference of precisely one letter of the alphabet. Some manuscripts have the letter and others don’t.