Thessalonica in Paul’s Day
Memory Text: “Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible” (1 Corinthians 9:19, NIV).
The primary focus of this lesson will be a summary of that which history, literature, and archaeology tells us about Thessalonica. This material is important for two reasons. First, it helps us to understand how Paul’s original hearers and readers would have understood him. In so doing, it clarifies the meaning of what he wrote and the impact it had back then on both church and society. Second, the more we know about the ideas and beliefs of the
Thessalonians, the better we can understand that against which Paul was reacting. In order to promote the gospel, Paul would also have had to correct wrong ideas. So, while this lesson is not directly focused on the Bible, it sets the stage for our reading of the biblical text of 1 and 2 Thessalonians during the rest of this quarter’s lessons. Following are some highlights from the lesson as a summary to describe Thessalonica in Paul’s day.
1. During a time of civil war in Greece, the Thessalonians invited the Romans to protect them. In exchange the Romans rewarded them with a certain amount of autonomy. Those left in charge, the wealthy, and benefited from the arrangement. These were pro-Roman, even in Paul’s day. But, the poor were left more oppressed and dispossessed.
2. The poor found comfort and hope in the worship of a man martyred for defending the lower classes. It was believed that this man would one day return to liberate and emancipate the lower classes. The worship of this man had very similar characteristic to Christianity. However, the Romans co-opted this figure, saying that this man had come back as Ceasar; leaving the lower classes hopeless, again. They were ready for change. Ellen White says the time was right for the Thessalonians to hear the gospel,
“At this time the systems of heathenism were losing their hold upon the people. Men were weary of pageant and fable. They longed for a religion that could satisfy the heart.”—Ellen G. White, The Desire of
Ages, p. 32)
3. During the first century in
many philosophers would go from city to city proclaiming their beliefs and
recruiting followers. These philosophers
expected to live out of their activity.
What Paul did was similar to these.
4. This is the Thessalonica Paul arrives to. They were used to itinerant speakers. What Paul preached was familiar and attractive to the non-Jews. But, not to the Jews.
So, Paul spent three week in Thessalonica reasoning and proving the Jesus was the Christ from the scriptures. Many accepted Christ, but his success incited opposition from local religious leaders and from a gang of thugs. Paul was finally expelled by the city council, which also sought to prevent his return. When someone preaches new teachings and people get excited, the leaders and teachers of other religious groups may become jealous. Attention that was once placed upon them is now directed to others. As a result, they may behave in irrational ways in order to try to reduce the influence of the new teacher.
According to Acts 17:5, Paul’s success in Thessalonica infuriated some of the Jews who were not persuaded by his message. Jealous of Paul’s success with the Gentiles, and certainly not very happy that some of their fellow countrymen had joined him, they decided to enlist the help of “some wicked men of the rabble” (ESV) to stir up trouble. In Greek the phrase “wicked men of the rabble” literally means “men of the marketplace.” It refers to a group of unemployed ruffians who hung out in the marketplace looking for something to do. What a contrast to the people who responded to Paul’s gospel. According to Luke, these hooligans barged into Jason’s home in order to drag Paul out to the crowd (17:5). The Greek word translated as “people,” or “crowd” (demos), can also refer to the public assembly of citizens who had authority over local legal matters. Unable to lay their hands on Paul, they decided instead to haul Jason and others before the local magistrates. When they arrived, they laid two accusations against Paul: (1) Paul was an itinerant troublemaker with a track record of causing problems in other cities; (2) Paul was guilty of sedition for claiming that Jesus, not Caesar, was King.
According to the Roman historian Suetonius, shortly before the events described in Acts 17, conflict arose among the Jews of Rome over a man Suetonius calls “Chrestus.” This term probably reflects a Roman misunderstanding of the Jewish concept of the Messiah or, in Greek, “the Christ.” Apparently someone’s preaching of the gospel had just split the Jewish community of
To Roman officials, debate over the Messiah sounded like preparation for
the installation of a new king on the throne of Rome (see Acts 17:7). Probably for that
reason the emperor expelled all Jews from his capital city (Acts 18:2). Some of
these exiles probably settled in or passed through Thessalonica, bringing
knowledge of these events to the city. Because the gospel had turned the world
of Rome’s Jews
upside down, religious leaders in Thessalonica were determined to prevent
something similar from happening there.
Notice that it was not their main concern. Being that the Jews were n a certain amount
of disrepute, the tried to gain favor. They
used that story in order to drum up the charges against Paul and gain favor
with the rulers of the city.
Sufficiently alarmed by these charges, the magistrates banned Paul and
Silas from their city and required Jason to pay some kind of fee in order to
ensure that the two men would not return.
The leaders did not want trouble with the Romans.
Thessalonica itself was ruled by a city council of perhaps five or six “mayors” who made decisions as a group. This arrangement allowed for a considerable amount of independence from
which they would be loath to give up. So, the behavior of the city officials in
this matter was quite impressive under the circumstances. The similarity to
recent events in Rome
could have led to severe physical punishment for the new Christians. Instead,
the city leaders responded evenhandedly (contrast Acts 16:22–40). They took a
significant amount of money from the new Christians as security so that they
would not be the cause of further disturbances. Then the leaders let everyone
As we can see the opposing Jews and the Thessalonian leaders were acting out of self interest. They acted out of fear of losing their place to live, wealth and position in society. So, to them Paul had to go, if they were to survive. Is this how we live today? There is nothing new under the Sun. A church pastor once told three church members who were asked to leave after being accused of being problematic, that is was expedient to let them go, if the church was to survive. Sounds like Caiphas, does it not: “it is expedient for us, that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not” (john 11:50). This kind of scenario is still happening.