... continued from yesterday
One of the first new interpretive thoughts I had in college came on being exposed for the first time to a commentary that started by saying things like this: "Thessalonica was located on the Egnatian Way on a trade route that ran along Macedonia to the north of Greece from the east toward Rome." The information seemed completely irrelevant to me, not because I didn't think the location had any impact on the meaning of 1 Thessalonians but because I read the verses of the Bible as timeless propositions.
I had grown up reading the Bible more or less non-historically. True, I did have a sense of the biblical story that started with creation and moved to Adam, Noah, Moses, and so on to Jesus. But this is not a historical view of the Bible. This is a story created out of the Bible from the inside, not a historical view of the Bible that understands the individual writings as moments in history themselves. That understanding was completely foreign to me.
So I read 1 Thessalonians not as a moment in Paul's ministry in the first century but as a source of timeless truths to believe and live by. I read 1 Thessalonians as an answer book or as a manual of conduct. I did not read it as a letter written to address a certain situation at a concrete place and time.
Let me jump ahead and give you a glimpse of my thinking now, over twenty-five years later. First, the books of the Bible at least spoke to their first audiences. This seems pretty obvious. Surely the Thessalonians got something out of the letter that says it's written to them. If so, then the meaning of 1 Thessalonians relates at least to the way words were being used at that time.
There are words that seem to leap across time, that seem timeless. "Love your neighbor as yourself" probably does mean different specific things at different times, but surely the gist of love has some common ground at all places at all times. But surely the first meaning of 1 Thessalonians was the one the Thessalonians understood. If I ask myself, "What was the most likely meaning of 1 Thessalonians given how people used words and thought about the world at the time?" surely I am asking the question most likely to get me to the first meaning of 1 Thessalonians.
This new way of thinking soon led me to other questions. Sure, there are instructions Paul could have given the Thessalonians that were "Thessalonian-specific." But would God have allowed those sorts of instructions to end up in the Bible? In other words, given that the first meaning of the Bible was a meaning directed at ancient audiences who are long dead, would God have allowed any "situational" or "time-specific" instruction to them to end up in his "timeless word"?
Let me illustrate with an issue where 1 Corinthians comes into conflict with current Christian practice: head coverings for women...