Oct 21, 2011

The Dead in 1 Thessalonians 4:13

Phillip Long has an interesting post on the identity of the dead in Christ in 1 Thessalonians 4:13. He suggests that the dead are not believers generally but martyrs particularly. I remain a bit skeptical in light of several factors. (1) don't see anything in the immediate context that suggests persecution or martyrdom. (2) The comparison to "the rest of men who have no hope" would suggest to me a broader audience than just martyrs. Furthermore, I wonder how the argument would work in light of the fact that Christians were not the only martyrs in the ancient world. (3) Explicit vindication language  is absent unless you take the going first as vindication language. This is possible, but if so, very subtle. In any case, I would encourage you to check out Phillip's post here.


Richard Fellows said...

I have answered some of your concerns in my comment on Phillips blog post.

Charles said...

Thanks for your comment. But it seems to me that your point is at best a possible explanation and inference. If Paul is referring to persecution, the reference is very subtle. Contextual factors notwithstanding, I would also be interested in how you would address my other concerns as well.

Richard Fellows said...

Hi Charles,

my view is that they had died as an indirect consequence of economic persecution, rather than by direct violence. Thus they were not martyrs in the sense that we normally use the word. So my proposal is a somewhat watered-down version of what Phillip is suggesting. For this reason, I think my proposal does not suffer from some of the weaknesses of Phillip's. Let's look at your numbered points in turn.
1) the context could well be economic persecution.
2) I may not be understanding your point here. The ponts that Paul makes in 1 Thess 4:13-18 are applicable to all Christians who have died, irrespective of the cause of death, as far as I can see. These words tell us nothing about the causes of the deaths. The deaths had resulted from economic persecution, but that does not oblige Paul to make points that apply only to people who died in this way.
3) If, as I suppose, the deaths had been indirect consequences of persecution, we would not expect much vindication language.

Remember too that the hypothesis does not require that Paul's words told the Thessalonians how their companions had died. They already knew, of course.

It is worth asking what the life expectancy was for the poor compared to the rich. I suspect that many or most deaths for the poor were related to their poverty. It it seems to me that it is almost inevitable that economic stress would have reduced life expectancy in the believing community. This would explain why there were deaths so soon after Paul left Thessalonica.

Your thoughts?

Charles said...

Thanks for the further interaction.

You are correct in that, "the context could well be economic persecution." But it seems to me that for you to offer a narrower reading of the context, you need to move from the possible to the probable.

What I mean to suggest is that a comparison is being made between those who grieve as/for believers [who have hope] and those who grieve as/for unbelievers who have no hope. This is a nice balanced comparison. The shared component between the groups is the experience of death, the distinguishing component is the possession of hope. If you are correct then it would be something like those who grieve as/for believers who have been martyred (economically) and those who grieve as/for unbelievers. I am just not convinced that works better than the more traditional reading. I might add that the emphasis of the passage is not on how the believers died. One might presume that were it important to the issue at hand Paul would mentioned it. I know that this is an argument from silence, but it seems to me that your reading is from the silence as well.

I do think that vindication language would be appropriate. There are of course a number of instances in the OT about the vindication of the economically abused and passages like 2 Cor 6:1-10, and although not Pauline, James 5 and 1 Peter 4.

All that being said, I can't rule your view out, but I just don't think that there is enough there to embrace a narrower reading.

Richard Fellows said...

Thanks, Charles.

We agree that the passage is not about martyrdom (though I think the deaths had been an indirect consequence of persecution).

For more thoughts on economic persecution, see my next comment on Phillip's blog.

Charles said...

Thanks again Richard. Your nuancing of your view from Phillip's view does little to change my opinion based on what I have already stated. The problems for either martyrdom or death through indirect persecution is a difference in my opinion of degree not kind. I am more comfortable in just saying that these believers had died, regardless of cause, and leave it at that.