In antiquity crucifixion was a popular way of punishing enemies of the state and criminals; even Judean officials (Alexander Janneus) crucified fellow Judeans (Josephus Antiquities13, 380-83; Jewish Wars 1, 97-98). There was a religious reason for crucifixion in Israelite texts: executed idolaters and blasphemers were hanged on a tree to show they were accursed by God (Deuteronomy 21:22-23). So it seems odd that the crucifixion of Jesus and the cross became central elements of Pauline Theology:
For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power (1 Cor 1:17; see in particular 1:17-22).
For I have decided to know nothing among you, except Jesus Christ and him crucified (1 Cor 2:2).
But far be it from me to glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world (Gal 6:14).
Nevertheless only three of his seven letters specifically mention the cross (1 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians); four do not (2 Corinthians, Romans, 1 Thessalonians, Philemon). On the other hand, four of his seven letters mention crucifixion, and three do not (1 Thessalonians, Philippians, Philemon). And of those that mention crucifixion, Romans mentions it only once (Romans 6:6).
The two letters that mention neither the cross nor crucifixion are 1 Thessalonians and Philemon. The absence of these two motifs from Philemon is understandable. Philemon is a familiar letter of recommendation, a well-known literary form in the Greek world, in which Paul is trying to secure personal consideration for a runaway slave from the owner. It is a delicate situation and his language is accordingly sensitive to and appropriate for the situation.
But 1 Thessalonians is another matter. By general agreement 1 Thessalonians is the earliest (ca. 50 or 51) of Paul's letters, and the earliest writing in the New Testament. In a number of ways this letter reflects a Paul at the beginning of an apostolic career not yet aware of his characteristic apostolic message. For example, one does not find in 1 Thessalonians Paul's emphasis on justification by faith, or the role of the law in Christian faith (but compare 4:1-8), or reliance on Scripture in argumentation. There are no quotes here from Hebrew Bible. His idea that the Judeans are "enemies of the whole human race" (1 Thess 2:15) is scarcely typical of Paul in the later letters (compare Romans 11-13). And his idea that God's wrath has come upon the Judeans "at last" (1 Thess 2:16) is contradicted later by Romans 11:25-26 where "all Israel will be saved."
But most significant is an absence of Paul's cross gospel and the theological significance of the crucifixion of Christ, which seems to suggest that he has not yet made the cross gospel central to his theology. For example, in 1 Thessalonians Jesus is not crucified but "killed" and Paul blames the Judeans for his death (1 Thess 2:14-16), while Mark blames the Romans (Mark 15; cf. Matt 27:25 where the Judeans accept responsibility for his death). In 1 Thessalonians Paul proclaims the gospel of God (2:9; cf. Mark 1:14) or the gospel of Christ (3:2); the content of his gospel in 1 Thessalonians seems to be: that Jesus died for us (5:9-10), that God raised him from the dead (1:10), and that he is coming again in Paul's own lifetime (4:13-18).
There is no developed thinking in 1 Thessalonians about the cross or the crucifixion and its role in the Christian experience, such as we find in Paul's later writings (e.g. 1 Cor 1:18; Rom 6:6; Gal 2:20, 5:24, 6:14). In 1 Thessalonians Paul had not yet developed the concept that believers (1:7; 2:1, 13), or "brothers" (as he usually referred to them) in the community gatherings (e.g. 1:4; 3:1, 7) were saints (i.e. "holy ones"). In 1 Thessalonians the term saint is reserved for those coming with Jesus at his appearing (parousia, 3:13, or perhaps it refers to holy angels, Zechariah 14:5 LXX). The word "saint" is a usual locution for those in Paul's community gatherings in the later letters (Rom 15:25-26; 1 Cor 14:33; 2 Cor 1:1, 13:13; Phil 1:1, 4:21-22). The reason for the difference is perhaps because Paul had not yet discovered (1 Thess 4:3) that the Holy Spirit had sanctified (i.e. "made holy") those in Christ (Rom 15:16; 1 Cor 1:2, 6:11).
If these observations are correct, 1 Thessalonians gives us a remarkable window into the mind of a not quite ready for prime time apostle before he developed his characteristic theological thinking that shaped Christianity for 2000 years. Apparently Paul matured in his thinking, as all of us do. His theology of justification by faith based on the crucifixion of Jesus did not come to him in a blinding flash of divine inspiration, but it was a case of human creative thinking that needed to be developed over time.
And where does that leave us who use a text as "inspired Scripture" that Paul likely would no longer regard as reflecting his best thinking? First Thessalonians is clearly deficient in the sense that it does not reflect Paul's mature thought. If so, should we also regard 1 Timothy as ethically deficient because of its misogyny (1 Tim 2:8-15)?
Charles W. Hedrick
O'Collins, "Crucifixion" Anchor Bible Dictionary 1:1207-10.