Apocalyptic Discourse in I Thessalonians
James D. Hester
Crawford Professor of Religion Emeritus
University of Redlands
Redlands, CA 92373
Assuming for the moment that the 1 Thessalonians is among the earliest written
evidence we have of discussions of primitive Christian theology, it seems clear
that issues of eschatology and apocalypticism were a part of the dialogue being
carried on among believers. It is also clear that Paul did not write apocalypses, if
one limits the understanding of apocalypse to issues of genre. Having recognized
that, however, leaves us with the task of identifying apocalyptic elements in his
argumentation. Robert Hall , Louis Martyn , and Duane Watson
 have argued that Paul is capable of formulating a rhetoric of apocalyptic
that makes use of, or focuses, the topics typically found in apocalypses, and in
the process of doing so changes the function of apocalypticism to fit the needs of
his audiences. Genre issues are moot! The topics of apocalypse are reconfigured
for use in apocalyptic discourse.
I am indebted to Greg Carey for the conceptualization of "apocalyptic
discourse." [Carey 1999: 2-10] After describing various modern attempts to
understand the dimensions of the concepts of apocalypse, apocalyptic
eschatology and apocalypticism, he goes on to define apocalyptic discourse in
Apocalyptic discourse refers to the constellation of apocalyptic topics as they
function in larger early Jewish and Christian literary and social contexts. Thus
apocalyptic discourse should be treated as a flexible set of resources that early
Jews and Christians could employ for a variety of persuasive tasks. 
The importance of this definition for me lies in the insight that apocalyptic
topics can function persuasively outside of the context of an apocalypse. Said
differently, and now being increasingly widely acknowledged, apocalyptic
discourse exists in early Christian literature outside of the context of an
apocalypse and without necessary recourse to the full conceptual matrix of an apocalypse!
The concept I want to elaborate in the definition is "discourse." Carey highlights
the concept of the rhetorical function of discourse, but he tends to focus on the
social dimensions of functionality [Carey 1999: 12-14]. I want to expand the
notion a bit.
In the context of modern literary criticism and rhetorical theory, it seems as
though it is better to talk about what discourse "does" rather than what discourse
"is." It is possible to think of discourse as the communication of ideas
concerning things that are of interest to all members of a community. [Barilli
1989: vii] Discourses arise in a variety of social settings, institutions, and
disciplines, each of which have coding systems understood by members of those
entities, and for which the use of a coding system can both generate and
elaborate knowledge. New sets of knowledge are created through
communicative exchange. The truths of these discourses are relative to their
disciplinary and institutional contexts. That in turn means that those truths can
have some claim to authority only within those contexts. [Bové 1990: 54-56]
Discourses sustain not only the knowledge created by institutions and
disciplines, but also make it possible for them to distribute knowledge by
entering into discourse about that knowledge. In doing so such discourses
become authoritative for the group and exercise some power over the members
of the group and those who choose to join in the discursive exchanges.*
The analytical method I want to use to analyze apocalyptic discourse is Fantasy
Theme Analysis (FTA), the major topics of which are described in the Glossary
below. The argument I want to make is that in 1 Thessalonians apocalyptic
discourse encompasses Paul's dramatizing messages and apocalyptic
argumentation, thus functioning without recourse to the typical markers of the
apocalyptic genre. It is placed within the framework of epistolary discourse and
functions to give a specific content to the fantasy type, eschatological hope. It
also functions to sustain the rhetorical vision of eschatological hope that Paul
had preached among them and the group consciousness of the Thessalonians
based on that hope. The expression of that vision through apocalyptic discourse
sustains their identity as "insiders," the righteous of God who, through their
holiness and purity, will escape the wrath to come and will be caught up into
heaven at the Parousia. It also provides a moral imperative that grows out of the
shared values that had developed as the vision was chained out while Paul was in
Thessalonica. FTA allows us to analyze how Paul's rhetoric functions to sustain
group consciousness and set the stage for further consciousness raising.
Symbolic Convergence Theory (SCT)
In an earlier essay I have described in fuller detail the concept and claims of
Fantasy Theme Analysis (FTA) and SCT. [Hester, 2000] In what follows I will,
therefore, give only a basic overview of the theory.
SCT is a general theory of communication that provides an account of the
formation of group consciousness through the use by the group of imaginative
language that creates for it a shared sense of reality. It assumes that the rhetoric
of an individual, a "dramatic message," can be shared and "chained out" in a
process of communication within a group that produces a "convergence" or
overlapping of private symbolic worlds so that a common consciousness or
"rhetorical vision," emerges. A group of individuals finds ways of talking about
attitudes or emotions they have shared in response to some person or event in a
world that they may find chaotic, threatening or hostile. They produce
"fantasies" that are imaginative interpretations of events that have occurred in a
particular time and place. These fantasies use metaphorical or other forms of
"insider" language that, "... interprets events in the past, envisions events in the
future, or depicts current events that are removed in time and/or space from the
actual activities of the group." [Foss 1989: 290] Thus a rhetorical community,
made up of those who share a common rhetorical vision, is formed. SCT posits
that the social reality constructed by the group allows for discursive argument
within the group and is a source of motivation for action. [Bormann 1982: 289,
The "dramatizing message" is the rhetorical foundation of fantasy sharing. It is
set somewhere other than the here and now and makes use of metaphors,
analogies, puns, allegories, anecdotes, narratives and other imaginative language
to talk about some past conflict or envision some future conflict and interpret
them so that they make sense to the group. [Bormann, Cragan, and Shields 1994:
280] It is the dramatizing message that is incorporated into member's fantasies. It
causes the group to share individual fantasies and to internalize the style, tone
and implications of the original message. This results in the expansion of the
content of the original message to include shared group fantasies. A illustration
of this process can be seen in the Road to Emmaus story (Luke 24:13-35), which
not only chains out the dramatizing message of the Resurrection but also
incorporates the group sharing of post-resurrection appearances, which is then
further chained out by Jesus appearance to the disciples in Luke 24: 36-43.
Dramatizing messages can make use of fantasy themes. These themes are
orderly, shared interpretations of an experience that allow members to talk with
one another about a shared experience. They use insider references, or "symbolic
cues," that can cause emotional response to that experience. These cues help the
hearer understand what the theme means and to feel again the response they had
when they first heard the dramatizing message. The language of fantasy themes
characterize the event or experience, giving it a "spin" that allows members of
the group to account for differing perceptions of what happened. [Bormann
1990: 107] The important distinction to be made here is that dramatizing
messages trigger shared fantasies, which is a result of such sharing on the group
consciousness. Chaining of fantasies can then occur as a result of an group
member taking a fantasy theme and making use of it in a "new" dramatic
message, which can then trigger further fantasy sharing that can impact group consciousness.
Fantasy themes can be organized under fantasy types, which are general
scenarios, reference to which can help explain or interpret new experiences.
Stock scenarios and generalized persona are synthesized from various themes
shared by the group. Types undergird the group culture. In conventional terms, it
is within fantasy types that commonplaces are found.
And, finally, fantasy themes and types can be organized into a larger rhetorical
vision, a coherent vision of social reality that can be conjured by the use of key
words or slogans. [Bormann, Cragan, and Shields 1994: 281] A group's rhetorical
vision provides a "...common set of assumptions about the nature and reality of
proof..." that is necessary for discursive argument. Evidence need not be tied to
empirical experience, or even dialectic, but can be based on such things as
"revelation." [Bormann, 1985]
Fantasy Theme Analysis of the rhetoric, or public discourse, of a group may
allow the critic to anticipate the behavior of a group. [Bormann 1982: 304;
Cragan & Shields 1981: 10] For example, an analysis of a groups rhetorical
vision could suggest at what stage the social reality of group finds itself --
consciousness creating, consciousness raising or consciousness sustaining -- and
therefore predict the viability of the vision for maintaining the groups definition
of reality and anticipate actions by the group to make changes in the vision in
order to cope with new experiences or events.
Consciousness creating occurs when fantasy sharing generates "new symbolic
ground" for people, which in turns creates a group consciousness. New rhetorical
visions that explain new experiences help the group to cope with and even
re-create social realities. [Bormann, Cragan and Shields 1996: 2-3]
Consciousness raising communication is pre-dominantly fantasy sharing that is
aimed at newcomers. It is "proselytizing" communication that seeks to enlarge
the world of social reality created by the new rhetorical vision of the group.
[Bormann, Cragan & Shields 1996: 10-12] To some degree both consciousness
creating and consciousness sustaining communication occur throughout the life
cycle of a given rhetorical vision.
The final stage of the life cycle, consciousness sustaining, deals with keeping
those who have been converted to a rhetorical vision committed to that vision.
The communications challenge is to keep converts from falling away from the
rhetorical vision that has sustained the group. If the rhetorical vision is flexible
enough, symbolic fantasies can be re-constructed using new characters, plot
lines, and scenes. [Bormann, Cragan and Shields 1996: 13] If not, little or no
accommodation is made to change features of the rhetorical vision in order to
deal with changes in the world around a group, and the predominate rhetorical
strategy is preservation. However, preservation may not work as a strategy and
failure to adapt the vision may lead to its inability to maintain group consciousness.
An FTA of Apocalyptic Discourse in 1 Thessalonians
To offset those problems, Paul has to elaborate certain fantasy themes in order
that the group raise its consciousness beyond the here and now and see the full
power of his vision. In effect he has to remind his audience of earlier
dramatizing messages and build new ones that will help them chain out new
fantasies concerning their ultimate fate and the what is expected of them in the
meantime. By doing so he would expect to extend the power of his rhetorical
vision by making it theirs.
There appear to be three major fantasy themes in the letter: imitation of persons
crucial to the life of the community (1:5-6; 2:4; 2:14), persecution that resulted
from that behavior (1:6; 2:2; 2:14-16; 2:18; 3:3; 3:7), and vindication in the form
of glorification that will come if the Thessalonians remain faithful and persist in
that behavior (1:10; 3:13; 4:6; 4:13; 5:1-9; 5:23). These themes share aspects of
the elements of apocalyptic argumentation outlined by Robert Hall: a claim to
inspiration, revelation of divine judgement against unrighteousness, exhortation
to join the realm of the righteous and reject unrighteousness, and expectation of
righteous activity. [Hall 1996: 436]
It is important to distinguish between the two levels of dramatizing messages in
this letter: earlier messages that have been accepted by the group and
incorporated into their consciousness; new messages intended to trigger new
chaining important to sustaining the rhetorical vision of the group free of novel
distortions. There are at least two major insider cues pointing to earlier
messages: the repeated reference to things the Thessalonians "know" and the
reference to some form of "persecution."
The topic or insider cue of "knowing" is scattered through out the letter. It
functions as a reminder of a dramatizing message in 3:3 4, 4:2 and 5:2. Each of
those messages apparently had apocalyptic themes in them: persecution of the
faithful, description of righteous behavior necessary to avoid wrath, and
eschatological expectation. Furthermore, the knowledge they have had is an
"insiders" knowledge; this is made clear by reference to various "outsiders" who
have rejected it, oppose it, or act unrighteously (2:14,18; 4:5, 12, 13; 5:6, 15).
The new dramatizing message includes the assurance that Paul had been deeply
concerned for them during his enforced separation from them because he
recognized that there was more they needed to know in order to be ready for the
return of the Lord Jesus (2:18-3:10). This new knowledge includes apocalyptic
teaching, based on divine inspiration "a word of the Lord" concerning the
Parousia and the Resurrection of the believers who have died. (4:13-18) The
reference to grief over the implied death of at least one member of the
congregation suggests that the original message and its underlying rhetorical
vision had failed to sustain them in the face of death. An insider cue to the old
message of Resurrection is used in 4:14, but the larger drama of the Resurrection
is elaborated by the apocalyptic images described in 4:16-17. Those who have
died in Christ will be resurrected at the same time as the Parousia and
accompany the remaining members of the group to meet the Lord in the air. That
Paul expects this message to be chained out into the group consciousness is
indicated by his exhortation to them to "encourage one another" (parakalei'te
ajllhvlou" 4:18) with this new knowledge. Furthermore, the pragmatic result of
this new knowledge is a state of readiness for the return of the Lord, an old
message that is chained out in 5:2-10.
The narrative of Paul's work among them, which was carried out in the midst of
persecution(1:6), presumably of Paul, and the reference to persecution of the
Thessalonians themselves (2:14), is meant to remind the Thessalonians of the
fantasy theme of imitation of the faithful, both Paul and believers in Judea. The
fact that an earlier message had produced this theme can be found in Paul's
report that the Thessalonians turned from idols and became a model for believers
in Macedonia and Achaia. John Barclay has reviewed the role that persecution
played in creating what he calls "apocalyptic excitement" in Thessalonica and
points out that the symbolic world created by this excitement is "markedly
dualistic," including the "social dualism of 'insiders' and 'outsiders' "[Barclay
1993: 517] Barclay goes on to argue that this excitement enhanced a sense of
social alienation from the larger community and thus reinforced an "us versus
them" view of their social world. This social dislocation contributed to a
dualistic, apocalyptic world view in which "insiders" stood against "outsiders"
waiting for future vindication and destruction of the unrighteous. [Barclay 1993: 518]
The new dramatizing message elaborates Paul's insider persona. There is an
implied reference to his apostolic persona, his more public persona, in 2:4 and 7,
but he is careful to remind the Thessalonians that his "public" face, which could
invite comparison with others (2:5-6), is different from their experience of his
work while he was with them. It is the private, insider Paul, the loving father
(2:11), they should remember and imitate. The nature of that imitation is
elaborated upon in 4:9-12. Although he does not say so explicitly in this letter, it
is clear from other letters that Paul thought of himself as God-taught (e.g. Gal
1:1-2, 11-12; Rom 1:1-6). He now identifies them as taught by God to love one
another (4:9). They have done so (4:10) and can continue to do so by imitating
the insider persona of Paul. But he also implies that they have to modify, or at
least be more attentive to their public persona. They need to live quietly,
minding their own business, and avoiding confrontation with outsiders (4:11-12).
Again, the pragmatic result of this new message is sanctification, a state of
purity, that will make them able to participate in the Resurrection (5:23).
Now to look more directly at the apocalyptic discourse in the letter, for it is by
the use of that type of argumentation that Paul seeks to sustain the consciousness
of the group.
I see the following as the major sections of apocalyptic discourse.
1Ths. 1:4-10 [knowing], brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen
you, because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in
power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what
kind of persons we proved to be among you for your sake. And you became
imitators of us and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word
with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the
believers in Macedonia and in Achaia.
For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but in every place your faith in God has become known, so that we have no need to speak about it. For the people of those regions report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming.
1Ths. 2:17-20 As for us, brothers and sisters, when, for a short time, we were made orphans by being separated from you in person, not in heart we longed with great eagerness to see you face to face. For we wanted to come to you certainly I, Paul, wanted to again and again but Satan blocked our way. For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? Yes, you are our glory and joy!
1Ths. 3:12-13 And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.
1Ths. 4:13-17 But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangels call and with the sound of Gods trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever.
1Thes 5:1-10 Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. When they say, "There is peace and security," then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape!
But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness. So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him.
1Ths. 5:23 May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your
spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord
Although claims of inspiration are not as explicit here as they are, e.g. , in the
Galatian letter, references to the gospel coming to the Thessalonians "in power
and in the Holy Spirit" (1:5) and to the fact that the Thessalonians have been
"God taught" (4:9) imply some form of inspiration having been experienced by
members of the community. Paul himself claims inspiration indirectly by his
reminding the Thessalonians that he seeks to please God, not man; and that he
speaks the word of the Lord (4:15). He also claims warrant for his authority from
Whether or not one could argue that there is evidence of a "divine revelation"
against unrighteousness manifest in the argument in the letter, clearly such
teaching occurs. Reference to "the coming wrath"(1:10) and the function of the
Lord as an "avenger" (4:6) imply an earlier dramatizing message against
unrighteousness. These references are complemented by the message to reject
unrighteous behavior, including the need for "holiness" and to remain
"blameless" before God at the coming of the Lord (3:13, 5:23), the need to be
protected in the struggle against "darkness" (5:8), and the need to abstain from
Pragmatic discourse (4:3-6a; 4:9-12; 5:11-22) is interleaved with apocalyptic
discourse in those sections outlining an expectation of righteous activity. The
whole argumentative unit, 4:2 5:23 has been called the Probatio by some
rhetorical critics [Wanamaker 1990: 146-204; Watson 1999: 72-78]. It is typical
to identify it as the paranetic section of the letter (e.g., Bruce 1982: 77]. However
one identifies the unit as a whole, discursively it functions in part to detail the
content of righteous behavior and point towards the consequences of failure to
behave righteously. It is within this unit that Paul seems to make his most direct
argument for the consequences of ignoring his rhetorical vision: rejection of God
(4:8), exposure to the wrath of God (4:6, 5:9), and collapse of insider ethics
Now to look at some important details of the argumentation.
The argument beginning in 1:4 is the second element in "case-result" form of
argumentation. It is the case that Paul gives thanks for Thessalonians, with the
result that he (a) remembers them (mnhmoneuvonte" uJmw'n) before God and
(b) knows (ei[dote") that they are the elect of God. This knowledge is confirmed
by their behavior in receiving the Spirit and becoming imitators of Paul, with the
result that their faith is known throughout Macedonia and Achaia. Among the
things reported about them is their hospitality, their conversion from paganism,
and their expectation of the Parousia. These three things are cited as expressions
of their faith, and all three will be the topic of elaboration in chapters four and
five. The presence of these topics in 1:2 10, as has been pointed out frequently
before, is characteristic of the function of the thanksgiving period of the letter,
and the whole section is epistolary discourse.
However, 1:9-10 introduce topics associated with apocalyptic discourse and is
part of the topography of the argument laid out first in 1:3. Donfried has argued
that the reference in 1:9, to "turning from idols" may refer to abandoning such
cults as those of Dionysius and Cabrius, as well as the imperial cult of Caesar.
[Donfried 1985: 338-347] A direct reference to idol worship is part of the
cultural intertexture of the argument, but it also has elements of an historical
intertexture and might have reminded some hearers of the Maccabean period. In
any case, as Barclay makes clear, such action would have caused considerable
problems for believers, including the possible charge of treason and anti-social
behavior. [Barclay 1993: 514-518] Such a radical turning away from the world
and its political and religious institutions would be characteristic of a group who
thought themselves to be already living in the end time. That perspective is
enforced by the reference to the expectation of the Parousia and attendant events
There are two apocalyptic insider cues in this verse: the Son from heaven (to;n
uiJo;n aujtou' ejk tw'n oujranw'n) and the coming wrath (ojrgh'" th;"
ejrcomevnh"). Although Paul uses the phrase, "his son," eight other times (Rom.
1:3,9; 5:10; 8:29; 1Cor 1:9; Gal. 1:16; 4:4, 6), this is the only occurrence in an
eschatological context. Wanamaker suggests that the phrase, "from heaven," is
added both to indicate the place of the Lord's present rule and to remind the
Thessalonians of Paul's earlier mission proclamation that promised, " the return
of Jesus from heaven to complete the eschatological beliefs begun with the
resurrection." [Wanamaker 1990: 87] From my point of view the insider cue of
"his Son" is recontextualized with the addition of "from heaven" to elaborate an
earlier dramatizing message of the resurrection -- thus reason for the insertion of
the stylistically clumsy "whom he raised from the dead" (1:10b) -- and adds to
the texture of Paul's rhetorical vision.
It appears that Paul has reconfigured Jewish traditions concerning the "wrath of
God." Sjöberg and Stählin argue that in late Judaism historical examples of the
operation of God's wrath are used as precursors for eschatological wrath
[Sjöberg/Stählin 1954: 416]. However, that claim can't be made from this verse
alone. The configuration of 2:16 and 5:9 with this teaching suggests that the
wrath that has come "fully" or "at last" on the persecutors of Paul and the
Christian churches of Judea and Thessalonica is an example of the wrath from
which righteous believers will be spared at the return of the Lord. The problem
is, of course, that we dont know the nature of the wrath Paul mentions in 2:16!
Perhaps it is nothing more that the state of unbelief that will result in having to
suffer the coming wrath. God will turn the tables on the persecutors who will
experience God's just and righteous wrath just as the unrighteous have always
suffered the wrath of God.
The noun orgh' is used in the undisputed Pauline literature only in 1
Thessalonians and Romans. From the point of view of SCT, it is possible to
argue that 1:10 was is fact chained out by Paul in Romans 2 and 3. There we find
a much more elaborate description of the same kind of teaching found in 1
Thessalonians 1 and 5. Therefore, we might be able to reason that Paul had, from
a very early time in his preaching, been consistent in teaching that unrighteous
behavior led to exposure to the wrath of God while righteousness, both as a
product of belief and a way of life, protected the believer from that wrath of
God. But the addition of the qualifying phrase, th;" ejrcomevnh", distinguishes
between "wrath" as the operation of God's judgment against the unrighteous
within history and makes it clear that Paul is referring to the final judgment that
will occur at the time of the Parousia. The distinction can be seen by Paul's
reference to "wrath" in 2:16.
The discourses in 2:17-20, 3:12-13, and 5:23, refer to the status of believers at
the coming of the Lord Jesus (Christ). In 2:19-20, the "believer" is Paul who
seems to see the righteous behavior of the Thessalonians as evidence for the
success of his mission and therefore as eschatologically significant for him. This
view of converts as apologia pro sua vita can be seen in other places in his
letters (Romans 1:13; 1 Cor 9:2; Phil 4:1) and here, as in Galatians 2:2, he
expresses concern that something or someone, in the case of the Thessalonians,
the Tempter (oj peiravzwn), had caused his work to be "in vain"(eij" kevnon)
(3:5). [Bruce 1982: 56] However, the apocalyptic nature of the argument
suggests that Paul reconfigured the figure of Satan or the Tempter, whose typical
work of hindering the operation of the will of God in the course of history now
has cosmic consequences. The implication (3:12-13 and 5:23) for cooperating
with the work of Satan is that believers who do so will not be holy and blameless
at the time of the Parousia.
The teaching in 4:13-17 is the only new information conveyed in the entire letter.
Old dramatizing messages have been elaborated or reconfigured, but this
material is not only identified as new (4:13) but seems to fit the category of
teaching mentioned in 3:10, providing something they lacking in their faith. Alan
Segal makes the claim that in this passage Paul "forever alters" the quality of
apocalyptic prophecies of the resurrection. [Segal 1998: 401] Resurrection is not
only the fate of Jesus, but of also of those who have died in Christ. Their
resurrection will occur shortly after the Parousia(4:16), which is described here
as an, " explicit second coming bodily to earth from heaven on clouds of glory."
The analogies for basic elements of the passage can be found in older
apocalyptic texts like Daniel 12:1-3. There the "wise" who are "asleep" shall
"awake" and receive "everlasting life." But the teaching about Resurrection is
reconfigured here by the word of the Lord (ejn lovgw/ kurivou 4:15). The fantasy
theme of Resurrection, which he undoubtedly preached while he was in
Thessalonica [Gillman 1985: 270-271], is chained out by a new dramatizing
message that describes the fate of all believers at the time of the Parousia. Paul
moves beyond Old Testament and Jewish apocalyptic teaching about the living
being assumed into heaven and consoles the Thessalonians with a new message
that those who have died in Christ will also be part of the assumption that occurs
at the Parousia. [Wanamaker 1990: 165-166] Paul needs to extend the trajectory
of Resurrection from Jesus, to those who have died in Christ, to those who are
alive at his coming. In light of this new understanding of the function of
resurrection -- not judgement but vindication and transition into glory -- it is
possible to argue that Paul's resurrection theology is grounded in apocalypticism.
[Segal 1998:402-405; compare Longenecker 1985: 89]
Although the assertion in 5:1 and 2 makes appear that the Thessalonians know
about the Day of the Lord, an insider cue that must have been part of an earlier
dramatizing message, it also appears that the Thessalonians have not understood
Paul's earlier teaching and may have chained out the fantasy to teach that that
Day had already come. Perhaps the Thessalonians had understood Paul to say
that Jesus's appearance as Lord to him and the other apostles constituted the
substance of the Day of the Lord and that the Parousia would be the time of
vindication of the righteous. Paul has to reconstruct the temporal relations
between these two events while maintaining their distinctiveness, and to argue
for balance and perspective in interpreting experiences influencing the
Thessalonians social and political world. It may well be that at the time Paul
wrote this letter, he expected that the Parousia would occur in his lifetime (4:17)
[Wanamaker 1990: 172-173], but he had also to make clear that the Day of the
Lord had not occurred and in fact may be imminent (5:6). Again, this apocalyptic
teaching gives imperative to morality. The future defines the pragmatic present.
Argumentatively 5:1-10 serves to dramatize the responsibility of those who are
"awake" and waiting for the return of the Lord. The metaphors Paul uses to do so
shift during the course of the argument. The initial metaphor is one containing
the elements of surprise or even stealth, the activity of a "thief in the night." That
image is elaborated to include loss of peace and security. At 5:4 the metaphor
has to do with the location or condition of the believer. They are not in darkness
but are children of the light. This state of being is characterized as one of
sobriety, wakefulness, and preparedness.
The use of the hortatory subjunctive in 5:6 and 8 follows on the declaration in
5:5b that the righteous are "not of the night or of darkness." The switch in the
pronominal in 5:5b is significant. Paul's use of the insider cue of "children of
light" in 5:5a is elaborated by inclusion of himself with the Thessalonians, "we
are not " This reinforces the theme of imitation and implies that the
Thessalonians somehow share Paul's insider persona. It reinforces the idea that
Paul is in solidarity with them despite his absence from them. He is part of their
social world, sharing their dislocation and the consequent persecution, and
sharing their need to be vigilant!
The use of the insider cue word "wrath" in 5:9, recontextualizes the metaphors of
"light", "night", "day" and "darkness." The original context was righteous
behavior in daily life. That seems clear from the paranetic instruction in 4:3-12.
The new context is the Day of the Lord. Children of the light are ready for the
Day. Righteousness is an eschatological condition. As such it is now possible to
understand that death doesn't affect the status of being children of light. Even
when believers are "asleep", they live with the Lord (5:10).
An empirical analysis of the narrative discourse in the letter has led some commentators to portray the situation in Thessalonica as deeply troubled. They had experienced some form of persecution; their founder was unable to visit them and was worried about their response to persecution; one or more of their members had died before the return of the Lord Jesus; their community was having trouble fully enacting moral principles they had been taught. A fantasy theme analysis of the apocalyptic discourse of the letter has shown that the Thessalonians had shared in a rhetorical vision that promised them a glorious future and helped them participate in the larger people of God by giving a value system to share and models to imitate. The drama of the Resurrection and the Parousia changed their understanding of their destiny and provided motivation for holy and blameless living. It also created a new social reality and with it a new understanding of how they were to live in a chosen community and to interact with the non- elect outsider. Paul redefines the preferred location of believers and the believing community in the prevailing social order. He affirms their social reality as that of "insiders" but argues that that does not relieve them of responsible behavior when dealing with the outside world as well. Insider persona entails maintenance of group boundary conditions, observance of group value systems, and an discrete behavior in the outside community. God is the judge of the outsiders, whose wrath is manifest temporally and eschatologically. The morality and destiny of the insider is defined by the future and enacted in the present as they wait for the Day of the Lord. Eschatology becomes the hermeneutic that allows believers to understand history and be confident of their destiny.
Apocalyptic discourse is also used to sustain Paul's rhetorical vision and provide
enhanced fantasy themes to help the Thessalonians share in it. His original vision
included instruction on the consequences of becoming part of the eschatological
people of God. However, the exigence of the death of one or more church
members required him to elaborate that vision so that the future could empower
morality and not undermine it. That this was important to Paul personally can be
seen in 2:18 3:13. Dunn says that 4:13 18 is, " the single clearest statement of
[Paul's] parousia belief."[Dunn 1998: 299] To that observation it should be added
that this passage and his teaching on the Day of the Lord (5:1-10) are bracketed
by paranetic material. Apocalyptic teaching is at the heart of ethics;
righteousness is the pragmatic expression of apocalypticism. This is the
substance of eschatological hope!
Thus despite the troubling aspects of their situation, the Thessalonians had reason for hope and could be motivated to engage in further discourse among themselves about the implications of their shared rhetorical vision. Furthermore, as 5:10-22 demonstrate, hope was the foundation for sustaining not only the inner symbolic of members of the community but also the pragmatic operations of daily communal life.
Symbolic Convergence Theory (SCT) and Fantasy Theme Analysis (FTA)
Symbolic Convergence Theory: a general theory of communication that attempts
to offer an explanation the presence of a common consciousness on the part of
members of a group. It posits that the sharing of group fantasies and the chaining
out of those fantasies is responsible for that consciousness and group
cohesiveness. As fantasies are "dramatized," a convergence of symbols on which
participants agree occurs, and fantasy themes and fantasy types help the group
understand unexpected, confusing, or even chaotic events or experiences. The
process of convergence creates social reality for the group until new exigences
cause new fantasies and moments of sharing, which in turn produce new group
realities. These realities provide the underlying assumptions used by the group in
Fantasy Theme Analysis: a method of rhetorical criticism designed to analyze and describe the rhetorical artifacts produced by symbolic convergence, not just in small group communication but also in social movements, political campaigns, etc. Analysis focuses on the content of message and the relationship among message elements.
Dramatizing Message (DM): a story that contains a pun, double entendre, personification, figure of speech, analogy, anecdote, allegory, fable or narrative. The story often deals with past conflict or the potential of future conflict and is thus set in time references of somewhere/sometime rather than the here-and-now. It is based on some original facts. A DM is the basis for group fantasy sharing. If it is accepted by the group and is chained out in a process of elaboration and other responses, then it becomes a group fantasy. Acceptance may be due to the rhetorical skill of the one conveying the message.
Fantasy: "The creative and imaginative shared interpretation of events that fulfills a group's psychological and rhetorical need to make sense out of its experience and anticipate its future." [Bormann 1990: 104] Fantasies are dramatic re-constructions of past events and experiences that create a social reality for a group and its participants.
Fantasy "chains" are created when a group member tells about an experience, or event, and others who shared in that experience add their view of it until it becomes the experience of the group.
Fantasy sharing is a means whereby groups establish identity and set boundary conditions for identifying insiders from outsiders. It is also a way in which group history and traditions are developed, thus enabling the group to think of itself as unique. [Bormann 1990: 115]
Fantasy Theme (FT): Themes become part of the group consciousness; are artistic and organized; and are slanted, ordered, and interpretive. As a result, they provide a way for two or more groups of people to explain an event in different ways. An illustration of an FT is, "Illegal immigrants consume more in social services than they contribute in taxes."
Fantasy Type (fT): a general scenario that covers several concrete fantasy themes. This scenario may be repeated with similar characters and may take the same form. It can be generalized so that characters become persona who act in predictable fashion. Rhetors simply make use of a familiar type and the audience fills in the particulars. "Fantasy types allow a group to fit new events or experiences into familiar patterns." [Foss 1989: 292] An example of a fantasy type is, "The American Dream," or "Family Values."
Rhetorical Vision (RV): a unified construction of themes and types that gives those sharing fantasy types and themes a broader view of things. A rhetorical vision may be indexed by a symbolic cue or key word. A number of rhetorical visions can be integrated by means of a master analogy. [Foss 1989: 293] Seven principles apply to all rhetorical visions: novelty, explanatory power, imitation, critical mass, dedication, rededication, and reiteration. [Bormann, Cragan and Shields 1996: 25] It is a rhetorical vision that can attract and help integrate larger groups of people into a common symbolic reality. [Cragan and Shields 1981: 6]
Sanctioning agent: "The source which justifies the acceptance and promulgation of a rhetorical drama." [Cragan and Shields 1981: 7] Agent can refer to an external source of authority like God or to a dominant feature of a culture or a moment in history, like a war or the Crucifixion.
FTA Elements in 1 Thessalonians
A Preliminary Taxonomy
Fantasy Type: Eschatological Hope
(1) Imitation of faithful and reliable persons or groups: 1:5-6; 2:3-13
(2) Persecution experienced by heroes of the faith and by believers who imitate
those heroes: 2:1-2; 2:14-16; 3:1-7
(3) Vindication of the pure and holy in the form of "escape" from coming wrath,
which takes place in the form of resurrection of the dead and ascension of all
believers to "heaven": 4:2 -5:10
Present Persecution: both Paul and church have suffered it to some degree and Paul's message is and has been that persecution is the lot of the believer.
Praxis: fantasy has practical side that has to be expressed if vindication is to be experienced and the wrath of God avoided. ("You know..." what has to be done.)
Future Glory: it is the past that guarantees future outcomes; present events and experiences do not. (All you need is more description of the future so that you can make sense of the present.)
Master Analog for Rhetorical Vision: Resurrection of the Dead/Ascension of Believers
Goal of Rhetorical Vision: maintenance of fantasy chain, thereby sustaining group consciousness: 5:11 22
Some Major Insider Cue Words: Faith, Love, Hope, Knowing, Holiness, Affliction, Resurrection