Extended Book Review – Paul and the Thessalonians by Abraham Malherbe

paul-and-the-thessaloniansThis book review is more in-depth for biggzipp.com than normal. That’s because I was asked to read and write a review on this book as part of fulfilling some conditions for Acts 29. But I like to post all my book reviews here, so I’m posting it. If you just want the highlights, I suggest skipping to the last section.


Abraham Malherbe’s book, Paul and the Thessalonians, is an expanded version of the Haskell Lectures that he originally delivered to Oberlin College in 1985. Malherbe’s intent in writing is to “illuminate Paul’s method of founding and nurturing churches” (vii). He is focused specifically on the book of First Thessalonians which he argues is unique because it was written to the church just eight months after Paul had originally arrived in Thessalonica (2). In Malherbe’s words, “First Thessalonians reflects this pastoral care of a fledgling church more clearly than any of Paul’s other letters” (2). Malherbe is especially interested in the way in which Paul both mimicked and distanced himself from the moral philosophers of his day. At the time of Paul’s writing, the Roman Empire was filled with moral philosophers and the small communities that formed around these men. Paul was acquainted with the teachings and practices of these philosophic communities, and in contextually appropriate fashion, he compares and contrasts christian community to these other communities in his letter to the Thessalonians. The historical distance of 2000 years makes it hard for the modern reader to pick up all of Paul’s allusions to these communities, but Malherbe – with an excellent knowledge of early Roman philosophic practices – helps the reader to more fully understand the comparisons that the Apostle Paul makes.


This book is divided into just four chapters: 1) Founding the Christian Community, 2) Shaping the Community, 3) Nurturing the Community, and 4) The Christian Community in a Pagan Society. This portion of the review will briefly sketch the contents of each chapter.

Founding the Christian Community
Malherbe begins this chapter by examining the method that the Apostle Paul used in establishing new churches. Acts demonstrates that Paul would typically begin by going to a synagogue and trying to convert Jews. However, it’s fairly obvious that a synagogue was not the longterm location of Paul’s operations. The Apostle Paul tended to work out of the homes of recent converts. He typically taught privately rather than publicly. Street preaching was popular at the time, but not an ideal place to present the Christian message. As Malherbe says, “Paul, unlike the field preachers, did not primarily deliver an individualistic challenge to give up vice but aimed at forming a community of those who responded to his proclamation, for which a teacher-student relationship was necessary” (11).

When one examines the information available in the book of Acts, and the two Thessalonian letters, it seems that the Thessalonian church was established in Jason’s home. The church was composed of a few prominent members of society, but mainly of middle and lower class tradesmen and workers with whom Paul came into contact as a tentmaker. In a large city in the Roman Empire, the home in which Paul taught was most likely an “insula.” Malherbe describes an insula this way, “A typical insula would contain a row of shops on the ground floor, facing the street, and provide living accommodations for the owners and their families over the shop or in the rear. Also on the premises would be space for the manufacturing of goods sold in the shops, and living quarters for visitors, employees, and servants or slaves” (18). Many of the philosophers in Paul’s day chose to instruct their adherents in the workshops of an insula. Paul likely did as well, but rather than teach while others worked, it seems that Paul both worked and taught as an example to his listeners.

Conversion is not simply a Christian tradition, but was a typical response to teaching within the philosophic traditions. In many ways, Paul was mimicking the traditions of the philosophers in his call for persons to repent and be born again. There are however significant differences between Paul and his philosophic counterparts.  Malherbe describes the differences this way:

The content of his preaching, particularly such items as the resurrection of Christ and eschatological judgment was manifestly different…whereas the philosophers stressed the importance of reason and reliance on self in moral growth, Paul refers the moral life to God and the power of the Holy Spirit. The philosophers, furthermore through character education aimed at virtue and happiness, for the attainment of which one could be justly proud. Paul…has in mind a metamorphosis of the intellect that rejects conformity to the world and aims at discerning the will of God. For him the goal is not the achievement of one’s natural potential but the formation of Christ in the believer (32-33).

In summary then, Paul grew a church mainly in the private setting of a home / workshop. He interacted with a wide swathe of Roman society, but especially the regular working class people of the city. He, like the philosophers of his day was aiming at the conversion of his listeners, but whereas they relied on the excellence of their speech to gain adherents, Paul relied upon the power of the Holy Spirit.

Shaping the Community
Epicurean converts, Jewish proselytes, followers of moral philosophy, and new Christians all may have been drawn to their new faith because of the refuge that it offered from Roman society. Malherbe surmises that many converts were outsiders in normal society looking for a community in which to belong. However, the life of a Epicurean convert or a new Christian was far from easy. Malherbe concludes that, “regardless of what attraction a cult or philosophical sect might have exercised, conversion brought with it social as well as religious and intellectual dislocation, which in turn created confusion, bewilderment, dejection, and even despair in the converts” (45).

Paul’s primary mode of instruction is by calling new Christians to imitate him. As Malherbe states, “As with serious philosophers, Paul’s life could not be distinguished from what he preached: his life verified his gospel” (54). While much of Paul’s method of pastoral care mimicked that of the moral philosophers, there were significant differences. These differences include: Paul’s greater confidence in his appeal for converts to mimic him, his focus on God’s power as the force which converts people, and the humility which is present in Paul’s boldness. Malherbe ends this chapter by commenting that:

It is striking that Paul reminds them (the Thessalonians) of things that are not in the first instance doctrinal or theological. The greatest stress is on the relationships that were developed both between the Thessalonians and Paul and among themselves, on sexual morality, and on the distress they would continue to suffer for their faith (60).

Nurturing the Community
The Thessalonian church was still unstable and immature when Paul fled from Thessalonica. As such, Paul employed a variety of methods to encourage and care for his converts from a distance. Malherbe lists three specific ways in which Paul cared for this church, “by sending Timothy as his emissary, by writing the letter, and by directing them to continue among themselves the nurture he had begun” (61).

Before sending the Thessalonian letter to the church, Paul sent Timothy to check on the young community. He describes both himself and the church as orphans because of their forced separation from one another. Timothy was sent both to strengthen the young church in their faith, and to remind them of Paul’s intense, fatherly love for them. As Malherbe comments:

Paul’s relief and joy, then, were occasioned by the report that the Thessalonians still looked to him as their model. Paul’s enforced absence had caused him to worry that they no longer regarded him in this way. But his concern extended beyond his continuing to provide them with a moral paradigm, for Paul did not think that his life could be distinguished from his gospel.

Paul’s letter was the second way in which he sought to strengthen this young flock of believers. In writing, Paul followed a common letter form of his day known as the paranesis. In paranesis the writer seeks to influence the reader’s behavior by reminding him of what he already knows. Another common feature of paranesis was to offer examples of the desired behavior, often using one’s self as the example. Paul employs the form continually in his letter to the Thessalonians using phrases such as “you know” and “I have no need to remind you.” He sought to write in a way that made it seem like he was physically present with them when the letter was read.

Lastly, Paul sought to encourage this church through directing them to nurture one another’s faith. Paul encourages this self-nurture of the church by reminding them of their eschatalogical standing. As Malherbe states:

Paul’s readers are not a ragtag group of manual laborers formed by an itinerant tentmaker. Rather, they are a community created and loved by God and occupy a special place in his redemptive scheme. Paul is careful…to characterize the community as not confined to this age. (79-80).

Remembering their place in God’s eschaton and continually encouraging one another would ensure the longterm success of this new church. Community self-care, known as psychagogy, was a common feature of all the moral philosophic communities in Thessalonica at the time that Paul wrote. These communities included the Stoics, the Platonists, and the Epicureans. As has been demonstrated throughout this book, Paul mimicked and adapted the methods of the philosophers – including the use of psychagogy – for his own purposes. The Thessalonians were to build one another up and guard the community through correcting one another when sin was apparent.

The Christian Community in a Pagan Society
An important aspect of the Thessalonian church’s health as a community would be determined by the way they interacted with those outside the community of faith. As such, Paul instructs them to love everyone, live quietly, mind their own affairs, and to work with their hands as a witness to the watching world. This combination of commands was extremely controversial in Thessalonica at the time. For instance, Plato, Seneca, and the Epicureans commended a quiet life that withdrew from political pursuits and focused on life within the community. However, men such as Plutarch thought that the quiet life was simply an excuse to be lazy and cease from work. Paul, aware of this condemnation, instructed his readers to lead a quiet life, but also to work with their hands. Manual labor was also controversial and thought by to be an inferior mode of existence to the Cynics. Cynics tended to use their newfound “faith” as an excuse to quit work, go out preaching in the marketplace, and expect others to care for their needs. According to Lucian, the popular view of the Cyncis was that they “leave their jobs, sponge off people, contribute nothing to society, and meddle in other people’s business” (100). Paul rejects this notion as well. Indeed, it would be impossible for the Christians to demonstrate practical brotherly love for one another if all of them were broke because they had quit working.  Malherbe concludes that Paul, “consciously sought to distinguish Christians from the Epicureans as well as the Cynics” (104).


This book is unique because of its detailed portrayal of the moral philosophic schools that were popular at the time Paul planted the Thessalonian church. Malherbe makes it clear that Paul continually adopted and adapted the methods of these philosophers. This is the first point that I found instructional for twenty-first century pastors. Churches should feel free to take the good ideas of society, examine them closely, and adapt them for their own purposes. We should embrace the good parts of culture (those that are a result of common grace) and shun the bad parts of culture. Where the Bible is silent, we shouldn’t make new rules; we should remain silent like the Bible! This sort of attitude guards pastors from an over-zealous use of the regulative principle.

Secondly, creating disciples is a process where a teacher-student relationship is necessary. Conversions seem to happen suddenly, but are usually the result of a multiplicity of teaching that the convert previously received. Week-in and week-out pastors should preach the gospel to their people. We never know when a seeker may turn into a convert, and we never know how deeply the gospel has sunk-in to the hearts of our people. As Paul employed the paranesis which simply reminded his people of what he had already taught them, twenty-first century pastors labor to remind our people of the gospel that they’ve previously heard.

A third principle that really stood out to me in this book, was the necessity of pastors to demonstrate what the Christian life looks like in their own lives. Paul constantly instructed his converts to mimic Jesus by mimicking him. Pastors should be involved in the lives of their people so that their people know what being holy, parenting well, and working hard looks like. This method of discipleship grows a church that can effectively go into every facet of society and bring glory to God because they’ve seen it demonstrated.

Fourthly, conversion to Christianity can often be a hard road to walk. Everything changes. Converts oftentimes have to make a firm break with their previous way of life. For instance, the homosexual that decides to follow Christ will probably find that nearly everything in his life must change. The church must truly provide a new family, a new community, a new support group, and a new way of life. They must surround one another with love and encouragement. If the church is not a caring family, then it will be impossible for Christians to truly follow the pattern of holiness that Jesus demonstrated.

Finally, pastors should try to work themselves out of a job. I don’t mean that churches don’t need pastors, but a good pastor should teach the flock to care for itself. If pastors teach their people to constantly exhort, encourage, and correct one another, then when transitions in the church take place – a pastor leaves to plant a new church for instance – everything doesn’t fall apart. A congregation that cares for itself allows the church to continually grow larger because church members fulfill some of the responsibilities that the pastors previously fulfilled. New leaders emerge and responsibilities are delegated because the pastors “equipped the saints for the work of the ministry.”


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