I am writing to oppose an anti-Christian tall tale that says the New Testament is full of Pagan ideas. There are several logical arguments against this popular anti-Christian slander. I want to concentrate here on just one source of good information. This post is to consider some of the evidence provided by St. Paul’s First Epistle to the Thessalonians.
Paul’s First Epistle to the Thessalonians is my choice for this exercise because it has been overlooked but it sheds a lot of light that should be helpful in considering anti-Christian allegations. Thessalonians I is commonly acknowledged among historians, even anti-Christian historians, to be a genuine writing of Paul, and, crucial to my argument, the consensus among both Christian and anti-Christian scholars is that it may be dated from 51 or 52 AD. This provides a fatal flaw in theories about the “evolution” of Christian thinking over time.
Matters such as the divinity of Jesus and the Trinity are commonly alleged by anti-Christians to have developed over three or four generations, incorporating ideas from Pagan culture in the process. Nope.
The oldest physical copy of 1 Thessalonians is in P46, a collection of the letters of Paul that dates from the mid- second century. Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria and Origen quoted 1 Thessalonians. Even earlier are quotes from 1 Thessalonians in Ignatius (110 AD) and The Didache (first century).
1 Thessalonians is contained in the major early (second through fourth centuries) codices (Alexandrinus, Sinaiticus, Vaticanus, Ephraemi Rescriptus) and in other early manuscripts (P30 and P65).
The dating is crucial because of the allegations of “evolution” of Christian doctrine. Thessalonians I was written only twenty years or less after the Resurrection of Jesus. There were no intervening generations of gentile Christians bringing old Pagan ideas with them to influence Paul when he wrote I Thessalonians. In fact, 1 Thessalonians was written only about ten years after Paul began preaching to gentiles. I Thessalonians is one of four books that are chief candidates for the title “first of the New Testament books to be written,” and it is the candidate with the most widespread scholarly support for that position.
Also, all those quotes by early Christian writers, plus many later manuscripts and fragments, provide a solid body of evidence that the text of First Thessalonians was stable in transmission and coincides with the text we have today.
Paul’s Second Missionary Journey was undertaken soon after the Council of Jerusalem, which was held in 48 AD. Paul first reached Thessalonica in 50 AD. He wrote his first letter to the Thessalonians a few months later. (Allowing for some interpretation of the dating, there are advocates for an early date of 50 or a late date of 54 AD, but the most common dating is 51 or 52 AD.)
In Thessalonians I, Paul is writing to new Christians who have only recently come to Christ. Several of the key Gentile leaders of this group had been closely associated with the local Synagogue. They were conversant with Jewish teachings and the Old Testament. The little band of Jesus-followers in Thessalonica consisted both of Jews and “God-fearers.”
God-fearers were gentiles who had rejected Pagan religion and were exploring Jewish religion. It was very difficult to convert, but the Jewish religion was very appealing. It said:
God is One.
God is good.
This is a dramatic departure from Pagan thinking. Rather than experiencing spirituality as the relations between the community and a large cloud of spirit beings, Judaism concerns the spiritual relationship between each person and the one creator God who made us.
This body of God-fearers was very fertile ground for the Gospel. Gentile God-fearers were associated with most synagogues in the Roman Empire. They were familiar with the Old Testament books. They had rejected Pagan ways of thinking.
The news about Jesus was electrifying. The first Jesus-followers said “Messiah has come! He died and rose again! He appeared to us and promised to return at the end of time!”
The Christians also said that the followers of Jesus would be acceptable to God the Father, that God the Father wanted Jesus to be worshipped along with Himself, and that God the Father had made Jesus the Lord of all the earth. Further, part of the Good News was that Gentile followers of Jesus did not have to become Jews in order to inherit eternal life through the sacrifice that Jesus made on the cross.
Greeting to the Thessalonians (1 Thessalonians 1:1-10):
Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy,
To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ:
Grace to you and peace.
2 We give thanks to God always for all of you, constantly[a] mentioning you in our prayers, 3 remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. 4 For we know, brothers[b] loved by God, that he has chosen you, 5 because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction. You know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake. 6 And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit, 7 so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. 8 For not only has the word of the Lord sounded forth from you in Macedonia and Achaia, but your faith in God has gone forth everywhere, so that we need not say anything. 9 For they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, 10 and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.
Notice here that Paul opens his letter to these new Christians with a greeting that is thoroughly Trinitarian. In this letter he is not explaining the doctrine of the Trinity, nor is he explaining about the Resurrection or the Atonement, but he is assuming that the Thessalonians are already well-acquainted with these teachings. Paul implicitly assumes that the Thessalonian believers have accepted the idea that the risen Jesus is God and the Holy Spirit is God, along with God the Father, while at the same time maintaining a very Jewish attitude that they are worshipping one God, not many. God the Father is noted as the One who raised Jesus from the dead, and Jesus is now in heaven with the Father. This is a complete and orthodox and monotheistic Christian passage. It demonstrates that the core Gospel of the Jesus story and orthodox Christian doctrine were well-established within less than 20 years after the Resurrection.
Note in particular, from verse 9: “…you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God….” This gives a clear and unambiguous rejection of Pagan religion.
This Gospel story is the same as what Paul preached in his first missionary journey, and it could not have changed since the Council of Jerusalem, which puts the message back to, at least, before 48 AD. If Paul and his traveling friends had been changing their story, there would have been large controversies within the church and probably not much success in proselytizing, but the only controversy at the time was the question of how Jewish new gentile converts had to become.
This new movement got started as a Jewish thing, and they had great success in spreading the Gospel, especially among the gentiles who had already been attracted away from Paganism by the Jewish teachings.
‘History of Religions School’ wants to say that the Doctrine of the Trinity evolved over generations of Christians, importing Pagan concepts along the way. But Paul the Jew is discussing a robust orthodox Trinitarian Christianity with these new Christians only a few months after they became Christ-followers. He and his congregations worship the triune God in the first generation of Jesus-followers.
Reject the anti-Christians of the “Historical Jesus” movement.