Epistolary Analysis (in 1 & 2 Thessalonians)

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Readers of 1 and 2 Thessalonians need to recognize that these are letters, not Gospels or essays or sermons. The fact that these are letters has implications for the process of interpreting these biblical texts. In epistolary analysis, the interpreter focuses on how the biblical writers use and adapt the standard letter-writing conventions of their day.

Formal studies of ancient letters have been made possible because of some dramatic discoveries of letters, mostly on papyri, preserved in the dry desert sands of Egypt. These studies reveal a standard format: the letter opening, a statement of thanksgiving or a health-wish, the letter body, and the letter closing. The following brief letter dated 154 B.C. illustrates this format (cited by Doty: 13):

Serapion to his brothers Ptolemaeus and Apollonius greeting. If you are well, it would be excellent. I myself am well. I have made a contract with the daughter of Hesperus and intend to marry her in the month of Mesore. Please send me half a chous of oil. I have written to you to let you know. Goodbye. Year 28, Epeiph 21. Come for the wedding day, Apollonius.

Though short and to the point, this letter includes an opening, a health-wish, the main letter body consisting of an announcement and a request, and a closing. The fact that this letter has been adapted for a particular purpose is evident from the postscript, which invites one of the two brothers to come to the wedding!

Paul in his letter writing follows the prevailing epistolary patterns but shapes his letters so that they suit his specific pastoral intentions. This is also evident in 1 and 2 Thessalonians:


The Salutation:

1 Thess. 1:1 and 2 Thess. 1:1-2

The salutations with which the letter opens typically contain three elements: the name(s) of the sender or senders; the person or group to whom the letter is addressed; and the greeting.

In both of the letters to the church at Thessalonica, three senders are named: Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy. Unlike later letters, which include some further identifying information such as "an apostle of Christ Jesus" (1 Cor. 1:1) or "a servant of Jesus Christ" (Rom. 1:1), these earliest NT letters simply give the names of Paul and his missionary companions.

The greeting in contemporary Hellenistic letters is often limited to the word "greetings," or some other near equivalent to "hello" or "hi." In 1 and 2 Thessalonians, Paul enlarges this usual opening greeting by means of two words which have rich theological significance for his converts: grace and peace. The simplest greeting in 1 Thess. 1:1 is elaborated in 2 Thess. 1:2 and in the later letters to note the source of grace and peace: God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.


The Thanksgiving Section:

1 Thess. 1:2-10 and 2 Thess. 1:3-12

In all of his letters except Galatians, Paul includes a thanksgiving section, which serves as the transition between the traditional letter opening and the main body of the letter. Contemporary Greek letters usually contained a wish for the good health of the recipients and/or an expression of thanks for health or prosperity. In Paul's letters, the thanksgiving section typically provides a general preview of some of the themes and concerns addressed in the main letter body. For example, the triad in 1 Thess. 1:2-3 seems to announce the major themes of the letter: work of faith, labor of love, and steadfastness of hope. In 2 Thessalonians the thanksgiving section signals a shift of focus toward the themes of steadfastness and faith in the midst of the Thessalonians' afflictions (1:4) and an accompanying concern about the righteous judgment of God (1:5).


The Letter Body:

1 Thess. 2:1-5:22 and 2 Thess. 2:1-3:15

In the Hellenistic letter quoted above, after the customary opening and wish for good health, the writer turns to the main reason for his letter: to announce his upcoming wedding and to make a request. Similarly, Paul begins to address the primary issues after opening his letters with the salutation and thanksgiving. In epistolary analysis, this section of the letter is normally called the letter body.

Paul's pastoral and theological agenda and the needs of the churches largely determine the scope and content of the main body of his letters. The letter to Philemon and the epistle to the Romans respectively illustrate how brief (Philem. 8-22) and how extensive (Rom. 1:16-15:33) this part of the letter can be.

Most letters include a section of ethical exhortations and pastoral instructions. These can be regarded as part of the letter body, although some epistolary analyses put them into a separate category.


The Letter Closing:

1 Thess. 5:23-28 and 2 Thess. 3:16-18

Hellenistic letters regularly concluded with two or three conventional formulas: another health wish for the recipient of the letter, a word of farewell, and sometimes a word of greeting (Doty: 39).

Paul adapted these usual closings to his missionary concerns in relation to these fledgling churches. The situation in the congregation again shaped the content of this part of the letter. Following are some of the components in these letter closings, along with occurrences in the Thessalonian letters, or other examples lacking there:

Travel plans

Rom. 15:22-29


Wish-prayer, specifically a peace wish

1 Thess. 5:23; 2 Thess. 3:16

Commendation of fellow workers

Rom. 16:1-2

Prayer requests

1 Thess. 5:25


Rom. 16:3-16; cf. 1 Thess. 5:26

Final instructions and exhortations

1 Thess. 5:27

Holy kiss

1 Thess. 5:26

Autographed greeting

2 Thess. 3:17


1 Thess. 5:28; 2 Thess. 3:18

In sum, epistolary analysis directs the interpreter's attention to the particular medium of communication being employed in the ongoing interaction between the missionary pastors and their congregations. The letter serves as the medium for continuing a pastoral conversation when separated from their congregations. As apostle to the Gentiles, Paul adapted the letter form in effective ways to communicate pastorally both to churches he was instrumental in planting (such as at Thessalonica) and later to other churches as well (for example, at Rome). These letters came to be read more broadly in other churches and eventually were incorporated into the NT canon.

For more epistolary analysis, see Roetzel: 59-71; Stowers; Doty.

Jacob W. Elias