2018-06-25

Why Were Some Early Christians Giving Up Work?

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by Neil Godfrey

Michael Goulder

Well, I never suspected that about those idlers condemned in 2 Thessalonians.

6 Now we command you, beloved, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to keep away from believers who are living in idleness and not according to the tradition that they received from us. 7 For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us; we were not idle when we were with you, 8 and we did not eat anyone’s bread without paying for it; but with toil and labor we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you. 9 This was not because we do not have that right, but in order to give you an example to imitate. 10 For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat. 11 For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. 12 Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. 13 Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right. — 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13 (NRSV)

Many scholars don’t believe 2 Thessalonians was written by Paul (see #1 in insert box below) but we find the same problem addressed in 1 Thessalonians, too:

But we urge you, beloved, to do so more and more, 11 to aspire to live quietly, to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we directed you, 12 so that you may behave properly toward outsiders and be dependent on no one. — 1 Thessalonians 4:10b-12

What is going on here? One suggestion I came across recently (okay, maybe I have been the last to know) is that some among the Thessalonian converts had gone the way some always seem to go when possessed of apocalyptic fervour, expecting the end of days and coming of the Lord any day now.

I stumbled across this possibility as the explanation for “idleness” among the Thessalonians in Michael Goulder’s 1992 article, “Silas in Thessalonica” in the Journal for the Study of the New Testament 15, 87–106.

Idleness sounds like the culprits are just lazing around drinking beer paid for by others but the complaint is really about giving up work. Goulder has a “charitable” perspective:

1. The link between 5.14 and 4.11-12 is made by J.E. Frame (A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistles of St Paul to the Thessalonians [ICC; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1912], pp. 196-97) and approved by Holtz (Der erste Brief an die Thessalonicher, p. 251). A connection with the parousia theme is suggested by the phrase following in 5.14, ‘comfort the όλιγοψΰχους’; cf. 4.18, 5.11, ‘comfort one another’.

2. There is adequate evidence from the papyri for the meaning ‘idler’; see J.E. Frame, ‘οί άτακτοι, I Thess. 5.14’, in Essays in Modern Theology and Related Subjects (Festschrift C.A. Briggs; New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1911), pp. 189-206. Holtz says correctly that their motive in Thessalonians is far from being idleness; and he comments that even if 2 Thessalonians is not by Paul, this seems to be an especially Thessalonian problem, Der erste Brief an die Thessalonicher, p. 241 n. 536.

The new converts have given their money away in a burst of excitement. This is a sign of the Holy Spirit (1.5; 4.8) and it is marvellous; but in their enthusiasm some of them have given up work. No doubt they did this so as to attend to the distribution of funds to the poor of their and other churches, and to healing services, spreading the word, and so forth. Paul had to tell them to cool down (ήσυχάζειν); to leave church affairs for a while and ply their own trades (πράσσειν τά ϊδια); and to work with their hands rather than expect God to provide all by prayer.
 
 . . . . . such a practice is common in millenarian movements. The passage just cited (4.11-12) is immediately followed by the section on the parousia (4.13-5.11); and in 5.14 Paul bids the church νουθετείν τούς άτακτους.1 Now ‘disorderliness’, here unspecified, is clearly delineated in 2 Thessalonians 3 as being the cessation of work; so whether 2 Thessalonians is Pauline or not, άτακτος seems to carry a NT connotation of ‘idler’.2 If so, then the parousia passage is straddled by references to the giving up of work, and the connection of ideas would be clearly evidenced in the text. (pp. 88f)

Common in millenarian movements

Goulder cites the example of the followers of Sabbatai Sevi so I tracked down Sabbatai Ṣevi: The Mystical Messiah, 1626–1676 by Gershom Scholem and copy here one interesting passage:

The question how the community survived the economic crisis brought about by the excess of messianic enthusiasm is not yet satisfactorily answered. The wealthier classes were completely impoverished, and according to the Jesuit author of the French Relation, Sabbatai Sevi scornfully boasted of having “ reduced to beggary” all the rich Jews of Salonika.96 Throughout the winter and summer of 1666 some four hundred poor lived on public charity. (p. 634)

Another example, this time quoting Goulder:

Similarly, from the 1950s, L. Festinger et ai., When Prophecy Fails (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1957): Dr Armstrong, a teacher in a local college in California, lost his job for evangelizing the students, and did not seek another, believing that most of N. America was about to be inundated. (p. 88)

Paul versus the Gospel of Matthew

Even more interesting is Goulder’s connecting the propensity of religious zeal to lead converts to give up work with the Gospel of Matthew. He draws attention to the following passages:

From Matthew 6

19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; 20 but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. . . . .

24 “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.

25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? . . . .  28 And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, 29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31 Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ 32 For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33 But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

34 “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.

Commentators have protested that it is absurd to think that “Matthew” meant any of that advice literally. Goulder objects:

We should think that Matthew means what he says. (p. 90)

After all, there were indeed first century Christians who thought they should not work.

I don’t know what other scholars have written in response to the above suggestions of Michael Goulder but I do find them interesting.

 


Goulder, M.D., 1992. “Silas in Thessalonica.” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 15, 87–106.
Scholem, G., Dweck, Y., 1973. Sabbatai Ṣevi: The Mystical Messiah, 1626–1676. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ.

 

2 Comments

  • Bob Jase
    2018-06-25 15:55:17 UTC - 15:55 | Permalink

    I don’t recall Jesus having a job.

  • mcduff
    2018-06-25 19:35:15 UTC - 19:35 | Permalink

    Going on memory and without checking I seem to recall that the Didache is, in part, concerned with itinerant preachers who are essentially, in slang terms, ‘bludgers’ and charlatans and ‘false prophets’.
    So perhaps it shares a common era and set of concerns with the author of 2 Thess which, in turn, puts the common chronology, again perhaps, early to mid 2C.

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