Introduction. There are less special problems when approaching the letters to the Thessalonians than with other Pauline letters. Authorship of 1 Thess is rarely doubted, although 2 Thess is sometimes thought to be written by later writer with a decidedly apocalyptic world view. Another issue which is usually covered in the introductions to these letters is the possibility that the order ought to be reversed. It is well known that the Pauline letters collection is not chronological, but according to size (longest to shortest). Since 2 Thess is shorter and far more apocalyptic, it has been suggested that the order has been reversed when the letters were collected into a “Pauline canon.”
Unfortunately many evangelicals who study 1-2 Thessalonians move too quickly 4:13-5:11. This section concerns eschatology and is the primary text for the Rapture the relationship of this event to the Second coming. There is far more in this letters than “end times” and there is nothing in them that will help predict the end of the world or anything like that. Twice Paul says his purpose is to comfort the church and to encourage them to comfort one another. I believe that these books teach a “Rapture” of some kind, but I would like to find another word for it to separate my belief from the weirdness popular today.
There are two other books which will be very helpful for students of 1-2 Thessalonians. Karl Donfried and Johannes Beutler edited a collection of essays on methodological issues produced by the SNTS Thessalonian Correspondence Seminar, The Thessalonians Debate (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2000). The main thrust of these essays is the current popularity of rhetorical analysis of Paul’s letters, a method which has been particularly fruitful for reading Thessalonians. There are two articles in the collection by Frank Hughes, the scholar who should be considered an early pioneer of this method. Donfried’s Paul, Thessalonians, and Early Christianity (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2002) is collection of essays from a variety of sources (journals and festschrifts) written as early as 1974. This is a very useful book since it covers many of the historical and “background” issues commentaries often treat only briefly.
Abraham J. Malherbe, The Letters to the Thessalonians (New Jersey: Doubleday, 2000). Malherbe’s commentary is a detailed exegetical commentary that takes seriously forms of ancient letter writing. He presents Paul as a model letter-writer who follows the standard forms of letter writing in the Greco-Roman world. He illustrates this throughout the commentary by citing other letters that have similar rhetorical style or vocabulary to 1 Thess. His knowledge of this literature is encyclopedic, yet it is not too distracting to the reader interested in Paul’s meaning these letters. This is true even in discussion the “rapture” in 1 Thess 4:17, where he illustrates the use of the word harpazo in non-biblical Greek by Cicero and Seneca. I find his comments on this apocalyptic section excellent, since he works very hard to show how the Rapture (whatever it is) was intended as a consolation for the church, not a scare-tactic to keep the behaving properly. This is a very readable expert-level commentary, with Greek appearing in transliteration.
Charles A. Wanamaker, 1 & 2 Thessalonians (NIGTC; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1996). This was a textbook for a class on Exegesis of Pauline Epistles when I was in seminary. Like Malherbe, Wanamaker makes full use of rhetoric studies to unpack Paul’s argument in the letters. He is guided by Malherbe’s earlier work on rhetoric, Malherbe’s commentary then interacts with Wanamaker’s. His seven page essay on the rhetorical analysis of the letters is a good introduction for those who are new to this approach to Paul’s letters. The body of the commentary is based on the Greek text with no transliteration and all citations are in-text. This is true for the NIGTC in general and makes for a challenging read. Like Malherbe there are numerous comparisons to other Greco-Roman letters, although Wanamaker does not quote them at length.
F. F. Bruce, 1 & 2 Thessalonians (WBC; Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1982). It seems strange to say that this commentary is now thirty years old! Bruce is always worth reading, and this early entry in the Word series is an exceptional commentary on the Greek text of the Thessalonian letters. Bruce is an efficient exegete. He comments on the Greek text of these letters briefly yet there is always a depth of understanding. Since Bruce wrote before the explosion of rhetorical studies on Thessalonians, the commentary itself is not concerned with “forms” or style of argument. A particular highlight of this commentary is Bruce’s nine-page excursus on the Antichrist in the context of his commentary on 2 Thess 2:1-12.
Leon Morris, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, Revised Edition (NICNT; Grand Rapids, Mich.: 1991); 1 and 2 Thessalonians, Revised Edition (Tyndale; Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1984); 1 and 2 Thessalonians (Word Biblical Themes; Dallas: Word, 1989). I suppose this should count as cheating on my own rule of “only Five Commentaries,” but all three of these books are from Morris are worth reading. The Tyndale commentary is a revision of Morris’s 1956 commentary in the Tyndale series. Morris covers both books in a mere 152 pages, but does a good job highlighting what is important for reading and understanding the text of these letters. The commentary is based on the English text with Greek appearing in transliteration. The NICNT is also a revision of an earlier volume from the early 1960s. This is definitely the “first off the shelf” commentary. The newer commentary updates the bibliography and interacts with Ernest Best’s work on Thessalonians. The main body of the commentary is based on the English text, Greek and other details are in the notes. It is also worth seeking out Morris’s contribution to the Word Biblical Themes series written in 1989. This is little book is a biblical theology, drawing out several key themes of importance in the letters. I find his comments on the eschatology of 1-2 Thessalonians refreshing, and judging from the underlining in my copy of the book, I have stolen learned a great deal from Morris.
Greg Beale, 1-2 Thessalonians (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2003). This commentary is in the IVP New Testament Commentary series and is intended for pastors and teachers. The body of the commentary is based on the English, with occasional key Greek words appearing in transliteration. All citations are in-text; he interacts with a range of scholarship although it is weighted towards evangelical commentators. Beale treats more technical details in a footnote-like section at the bottom of the page. With respect to eschatology, Beale has a chart summarizing his belief that Paul is commenting on the Olivet Discourse (Matt 24) in his eschatological section (p. 137).
Conclusion. I cheated a bit on this one by including three by Morris and adding the Donfried books in the introduction. But I did leave off a few very handy commentaries to at appear to obey my own rules – what did I miss? Let me know what you have found useful in your preaching and teaching.
Index for the Top Five Commentary Series
Matthew Mark Luke John Acts
Romans 1 Corinthians 2 Corinthians
Galatians Ephesians Philippians Colossians
1-2 Thessalonians Pastoral Epistles Philemon
Hebrews James 1 Peter 2 Peter & Jude
Letters of John Revelation