The church in Thessalonica faced a crisis of faith, which has generally been reconstructed as being precipitated by the interaction between their existing teaching on death and the reality of losing beloved church members. Therefore, Paul saw fit to provide encouragement through proper teaching to the church. Interestingly, Paul uses the existing genre of Consolatio, or Consolation in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18.

The following content is from the Pillar New Testament Commentary.

Paul’s teaching about the dead echoes a number of characteristics that were commonly contained in ancient letters of consolation, a literary genre well known in antiquity. In his discussion of various letter types, Demetrius says:

“The consoling type is that written to people who are grieving [eis lyp─ôs] because something unpleasant has happened (to them).

It is as follows:

When I heard of the terrible things that you met at the hands of thankless fate, I felt the deepest grief, considering that what had happened had not happened to you more than to me. When I saw all the things that assail life, all that day long I cried over them. But then I considered that such things are the common lot of all, with nature establishing neither a particular time or age in which one must suffer anything, but often confronting us secretly, awkwardly and undeservedly. Since I happened not to be present to comfort [parakalein] you, I decided to do so by letter. Bear, then, what has happened as lightly as you can, and exhort yourself just as you would exhort someone else. For you know that reason will make it easier for you to be relieved of your grief with the passage of time.

Cited in Malherbe, Ancient Epistolary Theorists, 34-35 and see 70-71. On this letter type, idem, “Exhortation in First Thessalonians,” 254-55; Stowers, Letter Writing in Greco-Roman Antiquity, 142-52.

Stowers isolates six characteristics of these letters of consolation:

  1. Death is inevitable.
  2. Death is the fate of all, kings and beggars, rich and poor.
  3. The person’s memory and honor will live on in spite of death.
  4. Death releases one from the evils of life.
  5. The funeral and the tomb are a great honor to the deceased.
  6. Either death is nonexistence and does not matter to the dead or it leads to some happier state of existence.

The consolation Paul extends to the Thessalonians shares a number of traditional elements, such as the call to minimize grief (v. 13), the need for mutual comfort (v. 18), and the explanation about the happy state of the dead (vv. 14-17). But unlike the common letters of consolation, Paul roots his consolation in the resurrection of Jesus and his coming. His resurrection is the paradigm of the destiny of the deceased believer (v. 14), and at the moment of his coming the dead will be raised, and they, in the company of the living believers, will be taken up to meet him (vv. 15-17).

Pillar New Testament Commentary

Pillar New Testament Commentary consolation genre

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