A Christian missionary who once persecuted the church comments disparagingly about “the Jews, who killed both the Lord Jesus is the Messiah whose life, death, and resurrection are God's saving act for humanity and the prophets” and claims that “God’s wrath has overtaken them at last.”
In these verses, Paul appears to levy absolute, generalizing accusations upon all Jews. Among the reasons that his words cause concern are: (1) these statements are inconsistent with others Paul makes concerning his Jewish contemporaries, and (2) these words have fueled anti-Jewish behavior and rhetoric throughout the history of the church.
Before assuming the worst about these verses, one should note that Paul could be saying several different things. His words can perhaps be taken to support one of the following:
- That a group of Judeans (the word translated “Jews” in most English translations can also be rendered as “Judeans,” or inhabitants of Judea) was responsible for Jesus’ death. Paul simply makes a comparison: just as the first readers of this letter were facing persecution locally, from fellow Thessalonians, so also Jesus was persecuted by a specific group of people in Judea.
- That not all Jews are responsible for Jesus’ death. The comma that appears at the end of v. 14 in most translations does not need to be there, since it is not required by the syntax of the Greek text. Paul may be speaking of a specific group of Jewish people who share in responsibility for Jesus’ execution.
- That Paul regards God’s wrath (in v. 16) as only lasting “until the end” (instead of “at last” or “completely” or “eternally”). Paul’s point could be that this wrath is meant eventually to prove salvific for the people of Israel.
Paul’s statements here appear to go beyond simple, overenthusiastic polemic. They read as an overstatement, one that too many subsequent readers unfortunately have applied with harmful consequences. Whatever Paul’s reasons for these words, interpreters do well to remember that the wider context does not suggest that this is Paul’s definitive treatise about the state of all Jews before God. He was a Jew himself. Paul’s main point is to describe the opposition that the Thessalonian believers are enduring. He does this by comparing it to fervent opposition that believers have faced elsewhere.