Karl P. Donfried, Paul, Thessalonica and Early Christianity. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2002. 347pp. Paper. ISBN: 0-8028-0509-4. $26.00.
Donfried is one of a number of New Testament scholars who have been contributing fresh work on Paul's Thessalonian correspondence. Raymond Collins, Gene Green, Abraham Malherbe and Jeffrey Weima (cf. his lectures in 1 Thessalonians at Northwest Theological Seminary in August 2002 available through nwts.edu) are among this academic queue. Eerdmans has gathered several of Donfried's essays published in scholarly vehicles from 1974 to 2000. The whole is introduced by a "Preface" and "The Scope and Nature of the Essays: An Introduction and Some Responses" (xvii-xxxviii). A new essay is included ("Shifting Paradigms: Paul, Jesus and Judaism," pp. 1-20) and "Was Timothy in Athens? Some Exegetical Reflections on 1 Thessalonians 3:1-3" (pp. 209-220) is translated from German into English for the first time.
This is very much a "dialogue" compilation. Donfried engages his peers in a lively, often stinging, discussion of central elements in Paul's Thessalonian theology. Helmut Koester, Simon Legasse, Otto Merk, E. P. Sanders, James D. G. Dunn: all are pressed through Donfried's grid. The reader is admitted to the center of the discussion on such topics as the New Perspective on Paul, Justification in Paul, Epistolary and Rhetorical Structure in Thessalonians, the Cults in Thessalonica.
The last mentioned essay is worth the price of the book. I recall my first reading of it and the revelation it provided to the Thessalonian world of Paul and his Christian readers. While Donfried unduly elevates the obscure Cabirus cult (straining the limits of credibility), he provides an essential and fascinating window on the plethora of religions found on the streets of Thessalonica when Paul visited in the year 50 A.D. or later. What dramatic significance (let alone semi-eschatological significance!) this accords to the apostle's words: "you turned to God from idols to serve a living and true God" (1 Thess. 1:9)! And the consequences of that conversion ("turning")? "tribulation" (1:6), "suffering" (2:14), "affliction" (3:3). The church among the Thessalonians was a persecuted church earning the hostility of a polytheistic/pluralistic pagan culture intolerant of claims to "one way", "no other name under heaven", "no man comes to the Father but by" Jesus Christ. The immediacy of Christ alone because of the immediacy of cultural ostracism is striking.
Donfried is an optimistic ecumenist as his endorsement of the Lutheran/Roman Catholic "Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification" (1999) indicates ("Justification and Last Judgment in PaulTwenty-Five Years Later," pp. 279-92). His lust for aggiornamento on the crucial doctrine of justification by Christ alone through grace alone by faith alone is sadly tarnished by accommodating an eschatological ("once and for all") and forensic ("declared righteousness") Pauline concept into a Roman Catholic concept of sanctification ("made righteous" by the renewal of the Holy Spirit) and renovation. Luther is not cheering this essay!
But the advocates of the "New Perspective on Paul" will find no friend in Donfried. His work on the Qumran literature (is he slightly too optimistic here as well?) is a sober reminder that the Sanders/Dunn thesis of "covenantal nomism" is subject to serious question (as the work of Friedrich Avemarie is showing more and more). One citation from the Dead Sea Scrolls will suffice: "in your deed (i.e., works) you may be reckoned righteous" (4 QMMT C 30-31, cf. p. 287). Works righteousness, as opposed by Paul (and by Jesus!) is indeed present at Qumran.
The essay on "The Theology of 1 Thessalonians as a Reflection of Its Purpose" (pp. 119-38) is a helpful if somewhat de-eschatologized overview. The essay on the church ("The Assembly of the Thessalonians: Reflections on the Ecclesiology of the Earliest Christian Letter," pp. 139-62) reminds us that the assembly of the Lord is a gathering of those "in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ . . . and in the Holy Spirit" (1 Thess. 1:1, 5; cf. 2 Thess. 1:2). The Thessalonians were united to the Triune Godset apart ("his choice/election of you"1 Thess. 1:4) from the pagan culture of their metropoliscalled (even now!) "into his own kingdom and glory" (2:12).
For those studying 1 and 2 Thessalonians, Donfried's book is essential reading. Used critically, it will open up the world in which Paul and the Thessalonians lived. That world is our world too!
James T. Dennison, Jr.