The Literary Structure of 1 and 2 Thessalonians -- By: David Alan Black

Journal: Southern Baptist Journal of Theology
Volume: SBJT 03:3 (Fall 1999)
Article: The Literary Structure of 1 and 2 Thessalonians
Author: David Alan Black

The Literary Structure of 1 and 2 Thessalonians

David Alan Black

David Alan Black is Professor of New Testament and Greek at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He received the Dr. Theol. from the University of Basel and is the author of twelve books and over one hundred articles. Dr. Black has most recently written It’s Still Greek to Me and The Myth of Adolescence.


Literary structures, to use a scientific analogy, are like those mysterious species of fish that live on the ocean floor. As soon as they are brought to the surface to be examined, the change in pressure is too great for them and they explode, leaving their investigators in a state of frustration and bewilderment.

This analogy applies as much to the structure of the Thessalonian correspondence as it does to the other NT writings. Casual readers may know something about the “rapture” passage in 1 Thessalonians 4:13–18 and about certain vivid passages, such as “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess 5:17), but they are often unaware of the total nature of the author’s thought. Indeed, for many Christians these letters have been reduced to a collection of prooftexts and memory verses—a sort of biblical telephone directory, with chapter and verse instead of area code and number. In this essay we shall examine the literary structure of 1 Thessalonians (and, to a much lesser extent, that of 2 Thessalonians), attempting to understand how the biblical author has composed his correspondence and how the parts fit the whole—hopefully without the pages exploding before us!

Outlining 1 Thessalonians

However, before I discuss the literary organization of 1 Thessalonians, I would like to ask you to roll up your shirt sleeves and do a little work of your own—an inductive study of the letter. The following steps will help you discover the structure of 1 Thessalonians for yourself. Ideally, these steps should be done every time you study a biblical book before consulting other resources—including journal articles like this one!

A. First Reading. Read the letter for your first impressions. Then answer the following questions:

1. What is the general tone or atmosphere of the letter?

2. What are Paul’s purposes for writing the letter? Does he seem to have one over-riding purpose in writing?

3. What are your personal impressions of the book? Which parts or topics interest you the most?

B. Second Reading. The Greek text of 1 Thessalonians consists of 18 paragraphs (thought units) that together merge to communicate Pa...

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