on August 1, 2012
I came into this commentary holding to a Pre-Tribulation Rapture eschatology--Withington has challenged that view in this commentary, especially concerning the Harpazo in 1 Thess 4:16-17 and the Parousia. He uses his extensive socio-rhetocial knowledge to demonstrate that the language of 1 Thess 4 is that of a royal greeting: when the Roman Caesar/Emperor came to visit a city, all of the people who were glad to see him would come out to greet him. Those who were his enemies, hid in their homes, and the Emperor would seek them out! The usage of language like a "shout" and a "trumpet" also indicate a public event, not a secret rapture.
In 2 Thess., the dealbreaker for me is in 2:1 & 2:8--the former being called a "gathering" of the Elect, and the latter being the Parousia, which is obviously the same event. The "gathering" is also the same event as 1 Thess 4:16-17. So unless an interpreter arbitrarily makes a distinction of two events in 2 Thess 2:1 & 2:8, then Paul cannot have in mind a Pre-Tribulation Rapture--especially since he commends the Thessalonians extensively for enduring tribulation already throughout the two epistles.
Witherington also has an outstanding excursis in 2 Thess 2:7 concerning the "Restrainer". There are many different interpretations of who this is, and obviously the audience knew who it was based on previous (oral?) teachings by Paul. Witherington suggests (on historical grounds) that the Restrainer is Michael the Archangel, who is known in Jewish thought to be the one who contends with Satan and keeps his dominion at a minimum.
It is also demonstrated that Paul was writing to the Elect/God's choice of believers (1 Thess 1:4-5) but yet he was authentically concerned that some of them had gone apostate due to persecution (3:1-5). This is just another example of the reality of the fact that it is possible for Christians to go apostate and forfeit their election (see also 4:8), but fortunately, Paul was relieved to find out that most of them had remained faithful. 1 Thess 4:1-12 also shows that a person's sanctification is dependent on their obedience, particuarly abstaining from (the) fornication. For Paul, justification does not guarantee glorification--otherwise his teaching here would be meaningless.
This is an outstanding commentary on Thessalonians for those who like inductive Bible study. Students and teachers should all check this out--it is easy to follow, exciting, and life-changing. Even if you hold to different theological positions, this commentary will be both enjoyable and challenging, and you will be a better expositor and Jesus follower because of it. Witherington has persuaded me that Pre-Tribulation Rapture was not implied in 1 Thess 4:16-17, which is the basic foundation of such theology (also this movement was primarily a 19th Century American doctrine). While I have not tied up all of the "end" of my personal echatological beliefs, this was an important step in the right direction.
`1 and 2 Thessalonians, A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary' is one of several such `socio-rhetorical' commentaries written by Professor Ben Witherington III. I have used his similar work on `The Acts of the Apostles' with great satisfaction, even though his style of rhetorical analysis was not entirely suited to the largely historical work, `Acts'. Paul's two letters to the Thessalonians, on the other hand, are superb material for Witherington's approach, which analyzes the works using the maxims of the ancient Greek and Roman teachers of rhetoric from Aristotle to Cicero. Since both works are pure works of rhetoric, the style of analysis fits perfectly, even if Paul may not have been totally cooperative in using all the standard rhetorical conventions.
Just as with Witherington's work on `Acts', I find his commentary the perfect choice if you with to read these books of the Bible as literature. Witherington deals primarily with `the work itself', much as the literary critics of the early 20th century would have us approach literature in general. He discusses many of the historical and theological issues raised by the letters, but does not dwell on them ad nauseum. For example, he is quite comfortable with the simplest hypotheses about the historical origins of the letters, believing that both were written by Paul, shortly after his founding the church in Thessalonica, and that 1st Thessalonians was truly written before 2nd Thessalonians.
In most matters, he is (intentionally or from some other inspiration) true to Martin Luther's belief that the best interpretation of scripture is the simplest, avoiding any heavy reading meaning into the words. For example, in 2nd Thessalonians, the letter ends with criticism of people who may not be doing their fair share of work. Many have said this is connected to the expectation of Jesus second coming (the Parousia) cited earlier in Paul's letter. However, Paul himself does not make that connection clear, and the two subjects are separated by two different prayers. On the other hand, Witherington is candid, and minces no words when he find's St. Paul's rhetoric a bit confused. The section on the Parousia has all the earmarks of being dictated off the top of his head, with little reflection on whether the ideas really hung together. So, it should be no surprise that we have difficulty understanding it. So, in the end, this passage has probably contributed little to our understanding of Paul's theology. It is certainly far less important than his very careful letter to the Romans.
As with all of Witherington's commentaries, this is probably the very best one for the lay reader who wants to make a serious effort to understand these books in scripture.
on March 4, 2007
Written by Ben Witherington III (Professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary), 1 and 2 Thessalonians: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary is a full-scale discussion of Paul's two letters to the Thessalonians, applying a socio-rhetorical approach specifically to examine aspects that might remain hidden using only form criticism, epistolary categories, or traditional criticism. Subjects given an extra-close study include "Holy Wedlock and Unholy Alliances", "A Christian Manual on Manual Labor", "Exercising Restraint: Apocalyptic Answers to Difficult Questions", and more. A heavily researched, scholarly, in-depth examination written for intermediate to advanced students and fellow professors of the New Testament, highly recommended for its thoroughly reasoned interpretations keen attention to detail.