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‘Peace’ and ‘Security’ (1 Thess 5.3): Roman Ideology and Greek Aspiration

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  10 September 2014

Joel R. White*
Freie Theologische Hochschule, Rathenaustrasse 5–7, 35394 Giessen, Germany. email:


Against the consensus that ‘peace and security’ in 1 Thess 5.3 is an allusion to a common Roman imperial slogan, it is argued that, while ‘peace’ does, in fact, evoke Roman propaganda's promise of a stable society to her loyal subjects, ‘security’ has its roots in the Hellenistic conception of the polis as the guarantor of stability. Paul himself combined these two catchwords, thereby promoting a counterclaim both to Roman imperial power and to Hellenistic visions of the ideal civic society. Neither can offer true security in the face of the apocalyptic cataclysm he is convinced is coming. That can be found, as far as he is concerned, only in identifying with the community of believers in Jesus.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2014 

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1 White, J. R., ‘“Peace and Security” (1 Thessalonians 5.3): Is It Really a Roman Slogan?’, NTS 59 (2013) 382–95CrossRefGoogle Scholar. I provide only a very succinct summary of my argument here. The reader is encouraged to read that article before proceeding with this one.

2 I do not discount the presence of a strong secondary allusion to the Jesus tradition; 1 Thess 5.3 exhibits a striking similarity to Luke 21.34, and the ‘thief in the night’ metaphor in the preceding verse is about as clear an allusion to Jesus' apocalyptic teaching as one can hope for. Cf. Rigaux, B., ‘Tradition et rédaction dans 1 Th. v.1–10’, NTS 21 (1974–5) 323–4Google Scholar, and Holtz, T., Der erste Brief an die Thessalonicher (EKKNT xiii; Zürich: Benzinger/Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener Verlag, 1986) 213Google Scholar. According to Plevnik, J., Paul and the Parousia: An Exegetical and Theological Investigation (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1997) 117–19Google Scholar, Paul's theology in 1 Thess 5.1–11 is definitively shaped by Jewish apocalyptic thought, but it also reflects Jesus' reticence to lay out a specific timeframe for his parousia (cf. Matt 24.36; Mark 13.32) and reiterates his emphasis on watchfulness and preparedness (cf. Matt 25.13; Luke 21.36) in view of the certainty of that event. See below.

3 On which see Crossan, J. D., ‘Roman Imperial Theology’, In the Shadow of Empire: Reclaiming the Bible as a History of Faithful Resistance (ed. Horsley, R. A., Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2008) 6971Google Scholar.

4 Cf. e.g. vom Brocke, C., Thessaloniki – Stadt des Kassander und Gemeinde des Paulus (WUNT 2/125; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2001) 171–4Google Scholar; Weima, J. A. D., ‘“Peace and Security” (1 Thess 5.3): Prophetic Warning or Political Propaganda?’, NTS 58 (2012) 331–59CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

5 Unless otherwise noted, the translations are mine.

6 The translation is that of Norlin, G., Isocrates, vol. ii (LCL 229; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1929)Google Scholar.

7 On which see Marek, C., Die Proxenie (Europäische Hochschulschriften iii/213; Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 1984)Google Scholar; Mclean, B. M., An Introduction to Greek Epigraphy of the Hellenistic and Roman Periods from Alexander the Great down to the Reign of Constantine (323 bc–ad 337) (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2002) 233–6Google Scholar.

8 I am grateful to Privatdozent Dr Alexander Weiss of the University of Leipzig for first directing my attention to this fact.

9 Cf. Marek, Proxenie, 389–92.

10 Cf. J. A. O. Larsen and S. Hornblower, ‘proxenos/proxeny’, OCD 4, 1231.

11 Cf. the detailed lists in Marek, Proxenie, 8–118.

12 The epigraphy data bank of the Packard Humanities Institute (available at: lists some 800 instances of the phrase in Oropos and Delphi.

13 Neither ‘Hierosolyma’ nor any other epithet for Jerusalem actually appears in Homer. He does, however, mention the ‘Solymi’ (cf. Il. 6.184; Od. 5.283), a tribe in Asia Minor (cf. Strabo 14.3), and this seems to be the origin of the tradition, also known to Tacitus (cf. Hist. 5.2), that Homer knew of the Jews and their illustrious capital. For a detailed discussion, see Feldman, L. H., Jew and Gentile in the Ancient World: Attitudes and Interactions from Alexander to Justinian (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973) 190–2Google Scholar.

14 Eusebius is aware of this interpretation (Praep. Ev. 34.11). Cf. Begg, C., Flavius Josephus: Translation and Commentary, vol. iv: Flavius Josephus, Judean Antiquities 5–7 (Leiden: Brill, 2004)Google Scholar 222 n. 244.

15 Cf. Rajak, T., Josephus: The Historian and His Society (London: Duckworth, 1983) 78Google Scholar; Attridge, H. W., ‘Josephus and His Works’, Jewish Writings of the Second Temple Period: Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha, Qumran Sectarian Writing, Philo, Josephus (ed. Stone, M. E.; Compendia Rerum Iudaicarum ad Novum Testamentum 2,2; Assen: Van Gorcum/Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984) 196200Google Scholar.

16 This possibility is dismissed by Koester, H., ‘Imperial Ideology and Paul's Eschatology in 1 Thessalonians’, Paul and Empire: Religion and Power in Roman Imperial Society (ed. Horsley, R. A.; Harrisburg: Trinity, 1997) 161–2Google Scholar, but his judgement results from a prior decision that the phrase was, in fact, a Roman slogan rather than from any convincing argument regarding its inherent implausibility.

17 See Luz, U., Das Geschichtsverständnis des Paulus (BEvTh 49; Munich: Chr. Kaiser, 1968) 307Google Scholar; Becker, J., Paulus: Der Apostel der Völker (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1989) 469Google Scholar. On the predilection for the periodisation of history in early Jewish and Christ apocalyptic literature, see W. Lane, ‘Times of Refreshment: A Study of Eschatological Periodization in Judaism and Christianity’ (Diss. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1962).

18 Cf. Bruce, F. F., 1 & 2 Thessalonians (WBC 45; Waco, TX: Word, 1982) 109Google Scholar.

19 See n. 2 above.

20 Rigaux, B., Saint Paul: Les Épitres aux Thessaloniciens (Études Bibliques; Paris: Gabalda/Gembloux: Duculot, 1956) 557–8Google Scholar agrees that ‘they’ in 1 Thess 5.3 stands in opposition to ‘you’ in 1 Thess 5.4–5, but he regards ‘they say’ as a formulaic trope of apocalyptic literature on the basis of a similar (though not identical) use of the third person plural in Jer 6.14 and Ezek 13.10 and believes it refers to a hypothetical group of unbelievers. It may indeed be an apocalyptic trope (if so, it is not the only one in this pericope; see below), but that by no means precludes the possibility that Paul has a particular group of people in mind and that these are to be found in the social context of the Thessalonian believers.

21 The reference to these dualistic topoi – children of light and darkness, sleep and watchfulness – is quite conspicuous here. The latter have strong associations with early Jewish apocalyptic traditions, the former more particularly with the Qumran literature. Cf. Koester, ‘Ideology’, 162–3.

22 On the living arrangements in a typical Roman city, see Ebner, M., Die Stadt als Lebensraum der ersten Christen: Das Urchristentum in seiner Umwelt i (Grundrisse zum Neuen Testament 1,1; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) 81–5CrossRefGoogle Scholar. On the social status of the Thessalonian church, see Jewett, R., The Thessalonian Correspondence: Pauline Rhetoric and Millenarian Piety (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1986) 121Google Scholar, according to whom there was a ‘somewhat narrower range of social levels [in the Thessalonian church] … than in other Pauline congregations’, consisting mainly of artisans and petty merchants.

23 Most apartments in the insulae did not have a kitchen. Their inhabitants ate regularly in the tabernae that were often found on the ground floor or they cooked for themselves over terracotta stoves outdoors. See Gerlach, G., Zu Tisch bei den alten Römern: Eine Kulturgeschichte des Essens und Trinkens (Stuttgart: Theiss, 2001) 1820Google Scholar, 30.

24 See vom Brocke, Thessaloniki, 95–6.

25 Ibid. 96–101.

26 See White, J., ‘Anti-Imperial Subtexts in Paul: An Attempt a Building a Firmer Foundation’, Biblica 90 (2009) 305–33Google Scholar. I argued there, however, that this subversive undertone was more a function of the apocalyptic, especially Danielic, narrative frame that Paul shared with his Jewish contemporaries, rather than a proprium of his Christology.

27 Barclay, J. M. G., ‘Why the Roman Empire Was Insignificant to Paul’, Pauline Churches and Diaspora Jews (WUNT 275; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2011) 363–87Google Scholar, at 383.

28 Ibid. 384.