New Testament 102: Seeking the Welfare of the City in 1 & 2 Thessalonians

Bruce’s teaching on this matter has been pretty influential – here’s a photo of two of his students seeking the welfare of the ancient city of Corinth.

As mentioned in the previous post, the issue of public benefaction presents an interesting dilemma for interpreting 1 Thessalonians 4 – which prima facie (at first glance, just a little phrase I picked up in my three years as a law student) suggests Christians should live quite lives…

Bruce’s contention is that the rhetorical purpose of 1 Thessalonians is to break down harmful social structures the church have inherited from Roman culture, or in this case, a particular harmful social structure – the patron client relationship.

A secular patron who converts to Christianity must go from being a patron seeking honour from his clients, to a private benefactor, bestowing generosity on those around him without the honour his previous status brought. Bruce contends that Paul’s sharp use of his own example in 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13 came as a result of the Thessalonians’ collective inability to do this. Christians, so far as Paul was concerned, were to be benefactors (whether public or private) of those around them.

“7 For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example. We were not idle when we were with you, 8 nor did we eat anyone’s food without paying for it. On the contrary, we worked night and day, laboring and toiling so that we would not be a burden to any of you. 9 We did this, not because we do not have the right to such help, but in order to offer ourselves as a model for you to imitate. 10 For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.”

And this, in verse 12:

12 Such people we command and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to settle down and earn the food they eat. 13 And as for you, brothers and sisters, never tire of doing what is good.”

Some scholars have speculated that the situation underpinning these non-working eaters was a drought and work shortage – Bruce suggests this would make Paul a little unsympathetic to their plight. Others suggest that converts had taken the example of the Cynics and quite their jobs, taking to the streets. Others suggest it was an aversion to manual labor that prevented the Thessalonians getting in and working.

Underpinning the issue in 1 & 2 Thessalonians (especially 2) is the fact that some Christians are providing food for those who aren’t working for it – there’s some sort of patron-client thing going on. And Paul has a problem with this. But some have identified a problem with suggesting there’s a problem with the patron-client relationship being the model – because patrons only formed relationships with people of the same social status with less wealth, this objection comes from the characterisation of the early church as lower class only… So the idea that they’re clients suggests that they have some status.

Clients had all sorts of social obligations to their patron, and by keeping them they were able to receive the generosity of the patron, it was a symbiotic rather than parasitic relationship though, because the patron’s social status was based on the size of his clientele. It’s possible that a bloke named Aristarchus who gets two mentions in Acts as a member of the church was a wealthy guy (there is an Aristarchus from Thessalonica at the same time who was a local pollie). Someone of that standing would have had the means to be both a civic and a private benefactor. Jason, Paul’s host in Thessalonica also appears to have been a wealthy man. And women could be benefactors too.

A patron who converted would have had to maintain their non-Christian client base. And Christian patrons with Christian clients would have resulted in an unhealthy power dynamic cutting both ways (the patron would have to honour their client’s requests, while the client would be the patron’s subordinate). Not an easy situation to be in, so Paul was keen for them to avoid those relationships all together.

Many have taken the 1 Thessalonians 4:11 verse mentioned in the previous post to entail keeping out of public life, to turn to a life of political quietism. The term was used to describe a person who gave up public duties in order to rest – but the alternative Paul puts forward is not to rest, but rather to stop being a busy body and to get back to working with one’s hands. Bruce thinks the starkest contrast possible to the life of the quiet worker who fed themselves by their labours was the client. Clients were political activists for their patrons – like a crowd in South Park chanting “rabble, rabble, rabble” their job was to make noise on their patron’s behalf. There are shades of Plato’s Republic in this command not to be a busybody, Plato says to “do one’s business and not to be a busybody is just.” Paul’s use of the term “busybody” most likely describes clients doing their patron’s work in the public square, and not looking to their own affairs.

Paul wanted Christians to live lives admired by all, “commanding the respect of outsiders” (1 Thes 4:12), and the life of the client impressed nobody but his patron – groups of clients would even get into fisticuffs with clients of their patron’s rival.

Paul’s exhortation towards quietism is not a general command – but a specific one to the “some” who do not work, “such” as they are to do their own work and eat their own bread.

Paul wants the Thessalonians to follow his paradosis his example amongst them, in word and deed. Commanding people to stay away from (and not feed) the idle man was the manner Paul used to break the link between patron and client within the church – but Christians weren’t just to work for their food, they were to do good too (2 Thes 3:13). They were to be a benefit for their city – Bruce argues that Paul’s objections to the patron-client relationship aren’t about upsetting the civic apple cart, but rather are about encouraging the Christians to make positive contributions to the city, rather than being a drain on resources. Christians were to be benefactors to the truly needy, not to those who were able to work, but wouldn’t.

New Testament 102: Seeking the Welfare of the City in 1 Peter

You know you’re on a good thing if you’re preparing for an exam and the lecturer’s pet topics share the title of his books… Bruce wrote a book called “Seek the Welfare of the City” where he picks up that the New Testament picks up Jeremiah 29:7 “Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile, Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers you too will prosper.” No. Bruce doesn’t pull one of those eisegetical fallacies and suggest that urban ministry is the only way to go – he suggests Christians have certain responsibilities when it comes to the welfare of their fellow citizens.

For the purposes of this exam it pays to be aware of this theme as it presents in 1 Peter, and in 1 and 2 Thessalonians. There’s a chapter in his aforementioned book Seek the Welfare of the City drawn from 1 and 2 Thessalonians and a journal article called The Public Hnouring of Christian Benefactors on 1 Peter and Romans 13. It’s on Ebsco’s journal article collection.

1 Peter

1 Peter 1:1 addresses the “elect sojourners of the dispersion” – a theological, rather than social description, and an allusion to the Jeremiah passage. One of Peter’s big arguments is that Christians weren’t saved to just keep doing what they were doing. Salvation involves a change of heart, and a change of heart involves a change of action. And the change of action is a change to loving those around you… and that change will be noticed by others. Which is kind of the logic in 1 Peter 2:

“Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, 14 or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. 15 For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people. 1617 Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the emperor.” Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as God’s slaves.

Bruce uses evidence of the first century practice of epigraphically honouring benefactors to show that the government did indeed make a practice of recognising the good deeds of civilians, and that this result was essentially guaranteed, as Paul also suggests in Romans 13:

1 Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. 2 Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 3 For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. 4 For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.

I’m using the NIV here, because the ESV has a bunch of footnotes and they’re annoying to delete. But the ESV translates will be commended as “you will receive his approval” and many have commented on the certainty these two passages demonstrate in terms of the reward for being good.

We have some evidence that a Christian did indeed step up in this way – Erastus the Aedile of Corinth is mentioned in Romans 16, and an extant inscription in Corinth to such an Erastus has been a matter of some scholarly dispute. Mainly because some scholars are idiots and believe that all the Christians in Corinth were paupers (despite Paul saying “not many of you were of noble birth… etc” they read that as “none of you were…”

When we were in Corinth, Bruce said that being a benefactor, and the commands in Romans, referred to indi­vid­u­als act­ing in what­ever capac­ity they had to serve the city. He says this looked like mak­ing a finan­cial bene­fac­tion for a project, or run­ning for office.

Peo­ple who ran for office had to promise bene­fac­tions, and this foot­path inscrip­tion says that it was pro­duced under the Aedile­ship of Erastus.

Bruce asks:

Given these non-literary sources as well as the literary evidence of authorities praising benefactors, and the reference to this same activity in the New Testament passages, what conclusions can now be drawn about the New Testament meaning of the terms which promised to evoke this official response?

The Greek words used to describe good deeds in Rom. 13.3-4 and 1 Peter 2 are used in inscriptions to refer to a public benefaction.

Would the congregations, however, have understood the terms to refer to a public benefaction? Apart from the political context of both New Testament passages, which would have readily suggested the meaning of benefaction because of the praising by rulers, Paul in Rom. 5.7 refers to ‘the good’ man. His argument is that for a righteous man one would hardly be prepared to lay down his life, “although perhaps for a good man one will even dare to die’. The order is firstly διακαιος, and then αγαθος. Paul believes that the latter is a greater possibility because of obligations established through the receiving of a benefaction. This has been rightly taken to refer to one’s benefactor.

So Bruce concludes that these imperatives to act as benefactors in 1 Peter are indicative of at least the presence of some people of means within the church. Being a benefactor didn’t come cheap. His argument is also that the rulers of a city were hardly likely to notice small good deeds, so the implicit guarantee must be something bigger.

The cost of a benefaction was very considerable and would be beyond the ability of some, if not most, members of the church. However, there must have been Christians of very considerable means to warrant Paul’s imperative in v. 3 and also that of 1 Pet. 2.15.37 This further supports the view that there were some members of significant social status and wealth in the early church.

These wealthy Christians had a special role to play in earning some PR air miles for the early church:

The writer of 1 Peter, as does Paul, endorses public benefactions per se but in 1 Peter there may have been a need to press home the importance of ethical conduct expressed in high-profile good works. This could well have been because of the natural tendency to withdraw from them in the face of possible persecution… The New Testament stance is clear that their light was so to shine in this arena also that men would see their good works.

This interpretation also raises the question of “living quietly” as advocated by 1 Thessalonians 4.

But we urge you, brothers, to do this more and more, 11and to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, 12so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one.

Yep, Bruce is aware of the apparent contradiction.

The conclusion of this paper also runs counter to the view that Paul encouraged his converts ‘to stand aloof from public life’, an argument based on a possible parallel thought in 1 Thess. 4.11 and the Epicurean stance of withdrawal from society.

Before we get on to resolving what 1 Thessalonians 4 means, Bruce makes this point about the function of benefaction:

“It was done to bring good to the life of the citizens in terms of their physical and environmental needs. This teaching is in keeping with the highly important theme of the Christian lifestyle, expressing itself in the doing of good in all aspects of life. Verses 14-15 are set within such a context in 1 Pet. 2.11-3.17…There is no suggestion that the Christian endorsement of this socio-political convention in the city was done in order to maintain the status quo but because it brought good to the life of the city… The committing of one’s soul to a faithful Creator is accomplished by doing good and this again reflects the strong encouragement given to Christians to make positive contributions to the everyday life of others. “

These good deeds were done to the dual end of silencing unwarranted criticisms of Christians (particularly those who thought Christian conversion meant withdrawing from society).

The public acknowledgment of a generous Christian benefactor by crowning him as a noble person, and the permanent reminder of the benefaction on an inscription would be the means of refuting unfounded rumours against Christians as being men of ill-will, subversive to the peace and well-being of a city.

1 Peter 2:12 gives another reason for doing said good works:

“Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God”