Orville Jenkins Articles Menu
Orville Jenkins Home
Orville Jenkins Book Reviews Menu


Thessalonica, Qumran and the Cult of the Emperor
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins
A review of the book by Karl Paul Donfried
Paul, Thessalonica, and Early Christianity (Grand Rapids and Cambridge, UK:  Eerdmans, 2002.  386p.)

See all my reviews on Amazon.com

Donfried presents a fascinating collection of essays, now revised and compiled in a tight sequence, dealing with questions about the first letter of Paul, 1 Thessalonians, and its followup, which might have been his second letter.

I was excited as Donfried filled in the background picture of the religion and culture of Thessalonians and the Roman Empire in general, providing a well-knit backdrop from which to interpret fine details of Paul's theme of consolation to the Thessalonians, as a persecuted church.  This is the best study of Thessalonians I have read in years.  Probably the best thing for Thessalonians since I studied the Thessalonian letters with Victor Furnish, in the 1970s. Furnish, by the way, will shortly have a new book out on the Thessalonian letters.

Cult of the Emperor
Donfried talks about the cult of the Emperor, which was rising at the time the Christian Good News was moving into the Roman Empire.  The cult of the Emperor was at its height, apparently, in Thessalonica.  The term "lord" came to be applied to the Emperors as a part of the growing Emperor cult of Civil Religion.  This made it hard for new believers to consistently confess Jesus Christ as the only lord, and to maintain their faith in the One Universal Invisible, but Living, Creator God.

Thessalonica was a city that retained certain privileges like a City-State, such as minting of its own coins.  The extensive coinage of this commercial and religious centre provides insights which Donfried unravels into the nature and extent of the Cult of the Emperor.  This includes insights into terms like Divine Emperor and Son of God, assigned to the Emperor and his family, apparently growing from the time of Augustus, but reaching its peak in Nero.

The Preaching Context
Donfried also provides a detailed comparison of the thought of Paul in this context to the wandering Stoic preachers, the ecstatic Christian prophets, and the themes and terminology of the Essenes from the Qumran documents.  He identifies certain vocabulary, and possible themes, in Paul with the Essene terminology which is not found in the Old Testament.

He looks at vocabulary or phrases Paul uses in the first Thessalonian letter which he does not use in his later writings.  (Donfried thinks 2 Thessalonians is not an autograph of Paul himself, but definitely written faithfully by someone within his working circle of early missionary work, perhaps Silas/Silvanus.)

Donfried is competent in the Greek and Hebrew of Old Testament as well as the details of the Hebrew and Aramaic documents of Qumran. Donfried notes, as does Thiede in The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Jewish Origins of Christianity that evidence seems to point in the direction of connections between the new sect of the Nazarenes and the Qumran teachers and document collectors.

Cultures and Religions
His commentary critically looks at various authors who have addressed some of these cultural and religious questions related to the Thessalonian letters, in German, as well as English.  He quotes from the original, then translates where helpful.  Further citing footnotes some sources in French, he expects his readers to be conversant with the biblical and contemporary languages of scholarship.  

Donfried provides a thoughtful and serious analysis of the doctrines of Justification and Salvation in Paul, focusing on the passages in Thessalonians, supplemented by other references to Corinthians and Romans.  He emphasizes here the broader context of Paul's concept of the Word of God (initially proclaimed in the Gospel) and the prophetic words of comfort, in a "word of the Lord" to the Thessalonians through this letter in their persecution by the pagan populace.

Converted then Saved
He points out that Paul's emphasis uses the term Justification where I have observed that it is popularly common today to use the term "saved" for conversion. It seems Paul uses the term "saved" only in the continuous and future tenses.  Paul does not commonly use the term "saved" for the event of initial conversion, but for the concept of living and enduring in Christ, and culminating in the "final hope" in the return of Christ.

This is also a basis for understanding the strong statements and warnings Paul repeatedly makes, not only in 1 Thessalonians, about the importance of personal vigilance and endurance in faith.  This endurance is not based on one's good works, but on the remaining in faith, in Christ, in the hope that will be finally realized only in the apocalyptic deliverance and judgement.  A future deliverance into the fullness of the Kingdom of God.

Refreshing Update
I was struck by how novel this is in light of the classical analytical view of Paul's theology as a systematic scheme on the late medieval model of philosophical reflection.  Donfried brings to life the apostolic prophetic sense of urgency of the preacher and pastor, Paul, in his real-world working context in the pagan Roman Empire.  The author probes the depths of Paul's doctrine of election, which is rarely mentioned in comments of Thessalonians.  He relates this to faith, hope, endurance and faithfulness of confession under persecution, which was the situation for the Thessalonian church.

Oh, and another theme and usage Donfried reviews is the usage of the common word "ekklesia" for the assembly of Christians in Jerusalem and the similar assemblies of Christian in Achaia.  He finds here another fascinating similarity with the Qumran usages.  This is a worthwhile read for students of the New Testament, classical culture and religions, history or early Middle Eastern thought.

See related review on this site:
[Review] Dead Sea Insights and Alternatives
[Review] The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Jewish Origins of Christianity
[Review] Delay, Deception and Delivery of the Dead Sea Scrolls
[review] Jesus and the Jewish Resurrection
[review] The Revelation of Comfort and Hope

See this book on Amazon.com.
See all my reviews on Amazon.com
See menu of all formal book reviews on this site
See my reading lists
Many other books have review notes with the reading list entry


First written and posted on Amazon.com 08 June 2006
Posted on Thoughts and Resources 9 September
Last edited 21 January 2012

Copyright © 2006 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Please give credit and link back.  Other rights reserved.

Email:  orville@jenkins.nu
Orville Jenkins Articles Menu
Orville Jenkins Home
Orville Jenkins Book Reviews Menu

filename: donfriedthessalonica.html