In 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12 Paul tells his readers to “work with your hands” (Be diligent!) This command to work hard to provide for your needs is what Paul himself did; he worked as a tentmaker in order to support himself while doing ministry. In 2 Thessalonians 3:6-12 Paul urges his readers to avoid any brother who is idle by following Paul’s own example of working hard to day and night so as not to be a burden to anyone. He claims in verse 8 to “we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it.” In fact, Paul commanded the Thessalonians “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat” (3:10).
This “working with your hands” stands in contrast to the traveling “teachers” of the ancient world that lived off of a few rich patrons and produced nothing of value. In the Greco-Roman world those who needed to do manual labor to survive were at the bottom of society. A person of substance had a slaves who did hard labor and create wealth for their owners. Cicero gave a list of work which was “vulgar” and “unbecoming to a gentleman”:
Cicero, De Officiis 1.153. Now in regard to trades and other means of livelihood, which ones are to be considered becoming to a gentleman and which ones are vulgar, we have been taught, in general, as follows. First, those means of livelihood are rejected as undesirable which incur people’s ill-will, as those of tax-gatherers and usurers. Unbecoming to a gentleman, too, and vulgar are the means of livelihood of all hired workmen whom we pay for mere manual labour, not for artistic skill; for in their case the very wage they receive is a pledge of their slavery. Vulgar we must consider those also who buy from wholesale merchants to retail immediately; for they would get no profits without a great deal of downright lying; and verily, there is no action that is meaner than misrepresentation. And all mechanics are engaged in vulgar trades; for no workshop can have anything liberal about it. Least respectable of all are those trades which cater for sensual pleasures, “Fishmongers, butchers, cooks, and poulterers, and fishermen,” as Terence says. Add to these, if you please, the perfumers, dancers, and the whole corps de ballet (translator Walter Miller adds a note: the ludus talarius was a kind of low variety show, with loose songs and dances and bad music).
The earliest Jesus followers were drawn from this Roman “basket of deplorables”: tax collectors, hired workers, fishermen, prostitutes and other sinners. Paul himself engaged in hard labor which had no artistic value in exchange for a wage (for Paul as a lower class laborer, see Saldarini, Pharisees, Scribes and Sadducees in Palestinian Society, 139; Ronald Hock, The Social Context of Paul’s Ministry, 20-27).
Unlike this Roman attitude toward manual labor, the Second Temple wisdom literature represented by Pseudo-Phocylides valued hard work. Paul reflects this Jewish wisdom worldview and it eventually it becomes the Judeo-Christian work ethic. For example, “You shall eat the fruit of the labor of your hands; you shall be blessed, and it shall be well with you” (Psalm 128:2, ESV). “Sweet is the sleep of a laborer, whether he eats little or much, but the full stomach of the rich will not let him sleep” (Eccl 5:12). This view is also reflected in later Jewish literature as well: “Do not hate hard labor or farm work, which was created by the Most High” (Sirach 7:15). In the Talmud, “He who does not teach his son a craft teaches him brigandage” (Kiddushin 29a).
Like Paul, Pseudo-Phocylides admonishes his readers to “work hard so that you can live from your own means; for every idle man lives from what his hands can steal (153-154). The verb μοχθέω has the sense of being worn out from hard work and the related adjective could be used to refer to “of a person, lack of skill, incapacity” and occasionally as a metaphor for moral depravity (LSJ). Yet Pseudo-Phocylides says “labor (πόνος) gives great increase to virtue” (163). Again, the noun πόνος is the kind of labor which requires exertion and toil. Paul used the word in Colossians 4:13 to describe Epaphras’s hard labor in Colossae. Pseudo-Phocylides urges everyone to find some way to earn their living: “if someone has not learned a craft, he must dig with a hoe” (158).
In 1 Thessalonians 4:11 Paul also said the Christian ought to “be dependent on no one.” In the context of 1 Thessalonians, self-sufficiency guarded the young Christian church against the charge of “impure motives.” Pseudo-Phocylides has a similar view: “Eat not the leavings of another man’s meal, but eat without shame what you have earned yourself” (156-157). Sirach 40:28-29 also warns against “looking to the table of another”:
Sirach 40:28–29 (NRSV) My child, do not lead the life of a beggar; it is better to die than to beg. When one looks to the table of another, one’s way of life cannot be considered a life. One loses self-respect with another person’s food, but one who is intelligent and well instructed guards against that.
The view of work in Pseudo-Phocylides therefore reflects a Jewish wisdom literature tradition which values hard work and manual labor to meet one’s physical needs.