New Testament Gospel Doctrine Lesson 31: Acts 15-18, 1-2 Thessalonians.

We’re moving into very very dense historical, textual, and doctrinal territory today. Today I lean pretty heavily on Wright and the Anchor Bible Dictionary.

First, the events and decisions of Acts 15 are commonly referred to as the “Jerusalem council,” since the apostles and elders met to discuss the requirements for non-Jews who converted to Christianity. Did they require circumcision? Keeping kosher? Other aspects of the Torah?  The thinking went something like this. If salvation came from the Jewish God, through the death and resurrection of a Jewish Messiah, who kept the Jewish law, in keeping with the  prophecies of the Jewish scriptures, then obviously you had to become a Jew in order to access that salvation. Right? This debate is to play a role in many of Paul’s letters, as he tries to explain why this thinking isn’t correct, and get everyone to play nice and understand each other.

In some ways, this change is a little like the ending of polygamy in the LDS Church. Certain characteristics were notable about Mormons, who had suffered and sacrificed to live them for decades. And then at God’s will, it was over?… just like that? That was very hard to deal with, and some (including a few apostles) thought it wasn’t really over, just… different.  (See this essay, especially the section on “After the Manifesto.”) Similarly,  Jews who had a lot of their identity tied up in traditional Jewish regulations like circumcision and kosher laws had a hard time letting go because of that connection. Combine that deep-seated ritual identity with the reasoning above, and you can see why this was a problem.  So, you have two main factions (Jewish and non-Jewish), rapid growth, geographic distance, and other factors, which made the early Christian church fairly divided, far from monolithic or correlated, and susceptible to schism without even recognizing it as such.

Now, as recounted by Paul in Galatians, things at the Jerusalem council happened a bit differently than Acts tells it. But I think we’ll talk about that in Galatians, because of this-

What can be said about the complexity of the historical problems surrounding the council and the variety of proposed solutions? Since Gal 2:1–10 represents the firsthand recollections of a participant at the conference and the Acts material is secondhand, historical priority must be given to Gal 2:1–10 as the normative account.- Anchor Bible Dictionary– “Jerusalem, Council of,” emphasis mine.


In Acts 16:9, Paul has a dream of a man in Macedonia saying “come help us!” Is the vision geographically specific enough to be useful? Does it matter? (Just how big is “Macedonia“?) Does Paul ever meet such a man?  They don’t seem to. Instead they meet Lydia who is quite interesting

A devout Jew from Thyatira who was converted by Paul in the city of Philippi, as recorded in Acts 16:11–15. Lydia was a worshiper of (the one true) God, i.e., she was a practicing Jew. This may have been a lifelong commitment since there was a colony of Jews in Thyatira (Josephus Ant 12.119; Bruce 1951: 312–14). That she was meeting beside a stream on the Sabbath for prayer suggests that there were not enough Jewish men in Philippi to make up a quorum and establish a proper synagogue. Here we see a subtle but important point that Luke is trying to make—while Lydia could not be a founding member of a Jewish synagogue, she can be and is the first European convert to Christendom, and in fact is the founding member of the Christian community which begins to meet in her household (16:40).- “Lydia (Person)” in the   Anchor Bible Dictionary My emphasis

How do we know she is  a devout Jew ? v. 14 calls her “a worshipper of God.” She’s also a businesswoman selling upper-class luxury clothing (“seller of purple” a very expensive color).

Note also that Lydia felt free, perhaps because of the liberating effect of the Gospel, to go against Jewish custom not only in speaking to Paul in public but also in inviting Paul and those with him, who were total strangers, to come and stay in her house (16:15). Herein we see a story of how the Gospel can free women from previous restraints, giving them new roles even as founding members of new Christian house churches….

The name “Lydia” originally designated a person from the country called Lydia, i.e., the Lydian (Bruce 1951: 314). If this is the case in Acts 16, then we do not actually know this woman’s name. However, at least as early as Horace (Carm. 1.8) Lydia had also become a personal name, and because the country of Lydia had been absorbed into the province of Asia when this story took place it is likely that Lydia is a personal name here (Conzelmann Acts Hermeneia, 130; Williams 1985: 273).

The city of Thyatira did exist in Paul’s day and had long been a famous industrial center where purple dye was made. We are told that Lydia was associated with her hometown trade by being a seller of cloth colored with this royal purple dye (Acts 16:14). This means that Lydia was probably a financially independent woman, since material dyed royal purple was a luxury item that only royalty and the wealthy could normally afford, and since she has a house which will accommodate not only herself but also both her household (servants?) and guests. Homer (Il. 4.141–42) mentions two women who were famous for the art of purple dyeing in Lydia, so apparently the biblical Lydia was following a precedent of women being involved in this trade. It is likely she had come to Philippi, a Roman colony city, to sell her goods to some of the wealthy clientele there. “Lydia (Person)” in the   Anchor Bible Dictionary

Lydia’s home becomes the “church” there, where the converts meet. Early Christianity had no churches per se; they  meet in the homes of converts that were large enough to receive them all.

Now, what about Paul’s traveling companion Silas?

 The person called “Silas” in Acts is undoubtedly the same person named “Silvanus” in Paul’s letters. Silas was a Jewish Christian and possibly a Roman citizen (see Acts 16:37). Along with Judas called Barsabbas, Silas was a leading member, emissary, and prophet of the Jerusalem church (Acts 15:22, 32), one who risked his life “for the sake of the Lord” (Acts 15:26). He was a travel companion and fellow missionary with Paul (Acts 15:40–18:5), one of the evangelizers in Corinth (2 Cor 1:19), and a co-sender, along with Paul and Timothy, of the Thessalonian correspondence (1 Thess 1:1; 2 Thess 1:1). Many interpreters also see the appelation “apostles of Christ” (1 Thess 2:6) as including Silas along with Paul (and Timothy).

Silas would have been his Jewish family name and may represent the Aramaic form of the Hebrew name Saul. Alternatively, Silas may also be a Greek shortened form of Silvanus (like Epaphras for Epaphroditus). The name Silvanus is a Roman cognomen, a Latinized form of Silas. -“Silas (Person),”-Anchor Bible Dictionary

Act 17:1-10 recounts the making of Christian disciples in Thessalonica by Paul, Silas, and unnamed “companions.”As is often the case, he begins by going into the synagogue and preaching about Jesus “out of the scriptures”, which means the Old Testament. For the early Christians, the Old Testament was the only Scripture they had, and moreover, probably in Greek.

Though Paul’s normal practice was to begin his preaching in the Jewish synagogue or place of prayer, it seems that most of the people who came to believe his message were non-Jews. For them, there was a double barrier to be crossed before they could accept the gospel. It was not only a crazy message about a man who was dead and then came to life again. It was a crazy Jewish message. Paul must have known, as he went from place to place, that most people who heard what he was talking about were bound to think him mad…. At the heart of it—and this is never far from Paul’s mind throughout the letter—was the call to worship the true God rather than idols.

That was simply unheard of in Paul’s world. It would be like asking people in a modern city to give up using motor cars, computers and telephones. The gods of Greek and Roman paganism were everywhere. If you were going to plant a tree, you would pray to the relevant god. If you were going on a business trip, a quick visit to the appropriate shrine was in order. If you or your son or daughter was getting married, serious and costly worship of the relevant deity was expected. At every turn in the road the gods were there: unpredictable, possibly malevolent, sometimes at war among themselves, so that you could never do too much in the way of placating them, making sure you’d got them on your side…..

Into this world came three unknown Jews, telling pagans that there was one true God (other Jews had done that) and that this God had a true son, and had demonstrated this fact by raising him from the dead (nobody had ever said that before). And people in Thessalonica, knowing from the start the risk they would be taking, turned away from their idols to this living God, and discovered, at the same moment, suffering and joy (verse 6). That is what conversion is all about: the word ‘turned’ in verse 9 is as close as Paul gets to a technical term for conversion itself, what happens when someone stops going in one direction, turns around and begins going the other way. – Wright, Paul for Everyone: Galatians and Thessalonians 

Some generalities about Thessalonians. We know it was written shortly after their visit. Timothy had gone back, and then brought word to Paul, probably in Corinth. (See 1Th 3:2, 6)

[Paul’s] opening thanksgiving and prayer actually extend, in a rambling sort of way, for over half the letter—to the end of chapter 3, in fact; and there is probably a good reason for this. The church in Thessalonica is very young, probably not more than a few months old. Already they have faced great difficulties; they have been persecuted, and some of them have died (whether from the persecution or from other causes, Paul does not say). By way of rooting them the more firmly in the gospel, Paul reminds them at length of what happened when he arrived and preached there; of the example he and his companions set them; of Timothy’s recent visit and the good report he had brought back. And he does all this within the broad framework of telling them how they feature in his prayers, which they do constantly (verse 2). – Wright, Paul for Everyone: Galatians and Thessalonians 

Now, Paul has to establish himself carefully with the Thessalonians in regards to money. Why? This runs a bit counter to LDS assumptions, but we have to put ourselves in Paul’s world.

The ancient world had its fair share of wandering salesmen, travelling teachers, people who tried to make a living by offering their hearers fresh wisdom or insight, some kind of magic, a new philosophy, or whatever. When Paul and his companions arrived in a city and began to tell their strange story, many people must have thought that’s the sort of people they were. The knowing ones in the crowd would be waiting for the moment when the speakers produced a money-bag and requested contributions, or invited people to pay to hear more in private. The cynical ones among them would be waiting for darker events still: for the speakers to single out for special private ‘instruction’ those (of either sex) who were physically attractive. At the very least, it would be expected that newly arrived teachers would want to make a good name for themselves, to be well known and well liked around the town….

The first thing concerned money. He has already made the point in [chapter 2] verse 7 that, as an apostle of Christ—in other words, as an ambassador of the world’s true king!—he could with complete justification have requested financial support. As the Corinthian correspondence makes clear, he was treading a fine line at this point: if he accepted money from the churches  where he was working, people might accuse him of working only for pay; but, if he didn’t take money, people might accuse him of not really ‘belonging’ to them. And it’s clear that he expects the normal ministry within churches themselves, as opposed to his work as their initial apostle and evangelist, to be properly paid (e.g., Galatians 6:6; 1 Timothy 5:17–18). But he has settled it as his own practice that he will work with his own hands to earn what he needs while he engages in primary evangelism and teaching.

We know from Acts what Paul did for a living: he made tents (Acts 18:3; 20:34; cf. 1 Corinthians 4:12). This involved hard physical work, cutting, tooling and stitching leather. We must presume that Paul would have worked either in the home he was renting, or in a separate workshop where he could be closer to his potential customers. He would thus need to pay at least one regular rent, as well as buying food and materials. He would be in daily contact with all kinds of people, and his integrity as a producer of worthwhile goods and as a man of business would be under regular public scrutiny. His preaching and teaching, though he would doubtless carry on innumerable conversations while at work, would be fitted in on the sabbath, and in the odd spare hours in the evenings, before returning to finish a tent he was working on while others were relaxing, drinking, and preparing for sleep. This must have made quite an impression, but Paul didn’t do it for show; he did it because he intended the new Christians to know that he was there for them like a father for his children. Fathers don’t charge their children for bringing them up, for raising them to be the people they ought to be. – Wright, Paul for Everyone: Galatians and Thessalonians 

Now, some specifics.

 1Th 3:4 To accept the gospel is to became a saint (4:7), to be holy and different. What does that mean? It will usually entail some social separation, and perhaps even physical persecution. Paul, Joseph Smith, and others know this, but missionaries don’t always seem to. As Eliza Snow taught in the LDS Hymnal,

Think not when you gather to Zion,
Your troubles and trials are through,
That nothing but comfort and pleasure
Are waiting in Zion for you:
No, no, ’tis designed as a furnace,
All substance, all textures to try,
To burn all the “wood, hay, and stubble,”
The gold from the dross purify.

Think not when you gather to Zion,
That all will be holy and pure;
That fraud and deception are banished,
And confidence wholly secure:
No, no, for the Lord our Redeemer
Has said that the tares with the wheat
Must grow till the great day of burning
Shall render the harvest complete.


 1Th 2:2 The KJV reads that Paul preached “with much contention.” What does contention mean here? How do other translations read? Is this a good thing or a bad thing?

1Th 5:22 The KJV famously reads- “Abstain from all appearance of evil.” This is often taken in LDS circles to mean, “don’t even do anything  good that could even conceivably look bad, even to stupid people!” Now, some of this is reasonable, like candy cigarettes or Big League Chew. But a lot of it is also eye-rollingly unreasonable, especially when the verse means something quite different, “abstain from every form of evil.” (NRS) (Darn 600 year-old language!)

One of the themes Paul preaches on in his letter (and apparently also in person) is the return of Jesus and God’s Kingdom (see 1Th 4:13 onwards into the next chapter.) In doing so, Paul is apparently allaying fears that those who died have no chance for salvation, and he’s reassuring them that such is not the case. However, he overdoes it somewhat, implying (as he probably believed) that the second coming was imminent. Somewhat like some current trends in Utah, some Thessalonians decide it’s not just imminent but immediate, and start pulling out of society, quitting their jobs, and hoarding their funds. Paul has to correct this in his second letter, where some have become “idle” in waiting (2Th 3:6-10). Paul has to say, some other things are coming first, like an apostasy.

As to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we beg you, brothers and sisters,2 not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by spirit or by word or by letter, as though from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord is already here. 3 Let no one deceive you in any way; for that day will not come unless the rebellion comes first and the lawless one is revealed, the one destined for destruction. 4 He opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, declaring himself to be God. 5 Do you not remember that I told you these things when I was still with you? (2Th 2:1-5 NRS)

Don’t be deceived, he says. If such a thing is happening soon, we’ll tell you.

Acts 17, if I can jump back, also contains the famous speech about the Unknown God. Paul borrows from Greek philosophy and poetry, quoting it favorably that “we are [God’s] offspring” in the KJV (v. 28-9). I remember very well on my mission reading this as “we are of the race of God” (Louis Second version), and the Greek says that we are of God’s genos or kind. It looks a lot like Latin genus. And indeed, LDS believe we are of the same kind as God is, but He is much much farther along the spectrum than we are.

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