The letters to the Thessalonians are among the earliest of Paul’s epistles. They have many practical teachings that will be a value to those who study them. This first lesson will comprise some background information regarding the city of Thessalonica. It is important to gain the historical context for the letters that are included in the New Testament canon. A study of the opening verses of Acts 17, where Paul and his companions established the church, will be compared to statements in the epistles that reveal the nature of the church in Thessalonica.
King Cassander, in need of a port city that would to serve all of Macedonia, founded Thessalonica in 316 BC by joining together twenty-six villages surrounding the location of the ancient town Therme, at the head of the Thermaic Gulf. The new city, named after his wife would grow royally in wealth due to its prime location and become the mother city and crown jewel of Macedonia.
About half a century before Paul entered Thessalonica, Strabo, the famous Greek geographer, called Thessalonica the metropolis (literally “mother city”) of Macedonia.
The natural port of Thessalonica was not the only means of its commercial success. In the 2nd century BC, the Romans constructed the Via Egnatia, a military road commissioned by Cnaeus Egnatius in order to strengthen Rome’s hold on Macedonia. The result was an extremely mobile society conducive to the spread of the gospel (Gal. 4:4). All kinds of people travelled by land and sea through Thessalonica, a hub for commerce and the spread of ideas, a fact not lost on Paul and his companions. After evangelism in Philippi, they made straight for Thessalonica, probably along the Via Egnatia (Acts 17:1), intending on establishing a congregation that would be an epicenter from which Christian influence would sound forth (1 Thess. 1:8). It follows that some members of the church at Thessalonica, whose names the Lord has recorded for us in Holy Writ, were travellers with Paul. Acts 20:4 mentions Aristarchus and Secundus as some who accompanied Paul on his journey back first to Syria and then to Jerusalem. Aristarchus was with Paul during some defining moments (Acts 19:29; 27:2). Jason, a supporter of Paul during his first visit (Acts 17:6-9), is likely the same mentioned in Romans 16:21, a letter written in all probability from Corinth (Acts 20:1-3). These snapshots show the Thessalonian church to be in a strategic location to have a grand influence on the first-century world.
To know the mentality of a people, one must know some about their history. The history of the Thessalonians has its roots in the Macedonian kingdom of Alexander the Great in the 4th century BC. Alexander’s unrivaled success at conquering the world and his untimely death at the age of 33 made the memory of him to live on for centuries, especially among the Thessalonians who were descendants of his great empire. Alexander’s kingdom was divided among his four generals with Macedonia first going to Antipater.
But when Antipater died, Cassander usurped the throne of Macedonia by marrying Thessaloniki, the daughter of King Phillip II of Macedonia and stepsister of Alexander the Great, and then founded the city of Thessalonica in honor of her.
The years following Cassander’s rule were characterized by conflict for Macedonia. They later united under Philip V to battle Rome, the new rising world power, but eventually, after a series of wars, Macedonia was defeated in 168 BC and the people of Thessalonica became subject to Rome. The Romans claimed they were liberating the people from the oppressive monarchy of Macedonia, but in reality Rome set its focus on keeping the Macedonian people under their thumb and extracting as much from them as possible. For years, rebellion was on the minds of the Macedonians, but after many unsuccessful attempts to throw off Roman domination, hopes of returning to a Macedonian monarchy were slowly extinguished.
Over time the Thessalonians became very loyal to Rome and assimilated into the empire while still remembering their own heritage. Rome’s protection from outside forces was an asset that Thessalonica sought to maintain. The Egnatian road with its beautiful flagstones was constructed right through the city, bringing in commerce from all over the world. In the first century AD, when Paul would have entered the city, the nature of Thessalonica was very cosmopolitan, including a strong Greek segment, who maintained their historical identity of ancient Macedonia, along with several Romans and a significant Jewish population as evidenced by the synagogue (Acts 17:1). As a port city with many travelers, Thessalonica was abundant in wickedness and vices.
Since the first century, control has changed hands a few times. The Saracens captured it in AD 904, the Normans in 1185, and the Turks in 1430. The Turks maintained it until the Greeks seized it in 1912. Some interesting similarities to first-century Thessalonica characterize the city in present day. Called “Thessaloniki,” or “Salonika” it is a prosperous seaport city, and the second largest city in Greece. A significant Jewish population of over 50,000 resides in the city. It is also considered one of the best party cities in the world.
In the first century, Thessalonica had the status of being a “free city,” meaning it could govern itself without having a garrison of Roman troops occupying it. This status was only granted to cities that had demonstrated remarkable allegiance to Rome. The people, (demos), or assembly of free citizens are mentioned in Acts 17:5, 8.
Luke also mentions the governmental authorities before whom the envious Jews brought Jason and other Thessalonian brethren in Acts 17:6, 8. These “rulers of the city,” (politarchs), were the chief administrators, selected from the upper class, who were vigilant to seek Roman interests and keep their free status. Is it any wonder that when the Jews accused Paul’s company and their Thessalonian converts in Acts 17:6-7, saying, “these that have turned the world upside down are come hither also; Whom Jason hath received: and these all do contrary to the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, one Jesus,” the politarchs took this charge very seriously? Of course the Christians had no plans of political or military revolution. Just as they had done when Christ was before Pilate (John 19:12), the Jews had twisted the teachings of Christianity so it would be perceived as a threat to the Roman Emperor. Jesus was indeed King of Kings (Rev. 17:14), but His kingdom was not earthly (John 18:36). However, the rulers of the city would identify these charges to be equivalent to treason and sought to put an end to the matter abruptly. The fact that many of the chief women had been converted to Christ may have added to the worries of the politarchs, who wanted no rekindling of the memories of Macedonian revolt to invite Roman military occupation (Acts 17:4). Unlike Corinth, where Gallio, the “deputy,” i.e. a Roman proconsul, officiated matters (Acts 18:12-17), the politarchs took action in Thessalonica to keep the peace without any intervention of Roman proconsuls.
The judicial authority of these politarchs is seen in their action of taking “security” of Jason, likely involving the idea of bail. The politarchs seem to have bound Jason and his companions under some general terms to keep the peace, which resulted in the decision that Paul and his company would leave the city quickly.
Though Macedonia initially suffered at the hands of the Romans after they were conquered, by the first century AD, Thessalonica was benefiting immensely from policies that Rome had toward the city. The emperor and other powerful men in the Roman Empire extended favors through a network of relationships called patronage. Roman benefactors were partial to those clients who would honor them. Thessalonica was one such city that leaned heavily on the patronage of the emperor. In order to guarantee the continued favors of the emperor, Thessalonica had an imperial cult in the city, with its temple and priesthood. Some of the politarchs also served as high priests in the imperial cult. Elite Roman citizens who resided in Thessalonica were treated well so that they would represent the interests of the Thessalonian people in their connections to the Roman senate.
Understanding this characteristic of culture in Thessalonica broadens our understanding of the way Christians were perceived as a threat and the motivation for persecuting them. Thessalonica could also be called a “city wholly given to idolatry” as Athens was (Acts 17:16). The distinct difference of converts to Christ from the idol-mad mobs was the fact that they renounced all other supposed deities rather than adding Christ to the plethora of gods. Their allegiance to the one true God, made them outsiders, and the rumors that the Jews spread about them made them objects of persecution.
New converts to Christianity who had previously benefited as clients by their involvement with the imperial cult would immediately have a problem with employment. Even among the working class, the tools of each trade were dedicated to false deities and religion was not often separated from labor. Work among the members of the Lord’s church at Thessalonica is a problem that Paul mentions in both letters (1 Thess. 4:11-12; 2 Thess. 3:6-13). Though it is likely that some of the lack of work may have been due to, as we shall later see, a misunderstanding of the nearness of the Lord’s return, the patron/client relationships that were engrained in Thessalonian culture should not be dismissed. While not denying the duty of the Christian to meet genuine needs (1 Thess. 4:9-10; 2 Thess. 3:13), Paul commanded that labor should be the way the Christian supports himself, not patronage (1 Thess. 4:11; 2 Thess. 3:7-12). It is hard to tell exactly what the makeup of the congregation of Thessalonica was regarding social status. Luke mentions that “not a few” of the chief women were converted by Paul’s work in the synagogue in Acts 17:4, but Paul described the churches of Macedonia as being in “deep poverty” in 2 Cor. 8:2. While the makeup of the congregation may have been quite varied, the institution of patronage still seems to have been an issue.
The former religious practices of the Thessalonian brethren were varied as well. Paul’s work in the synagogue resulted in the conversion of Greeks who had come there to hear teaching from the law of Moses (Acts 17:4). The myriad of idols that were worshipped in cities like Thessalonica caused some to be disillusioned by polytheism with its lax morality. These Greeks had abandoned polytheism and were interested in the monotheism and lofty morals taught by the Jews in their midst. Since they were convinced from Paul’s reasoning from the Old Testament scriptures, it is appears that they whole-heartedly believed the Scriptures and had done everything short of becoming proselytes to Judaism at the time of Paul’s arrival. At places like Lystra (Acts 14:17) and Athens (Acts 17:24-31), Paul did not use arguments from the Scriptures but rather from physical creation in order to meet the idolatrous audience. But these Greeks in Thessalonica believed from arguments drawn from the scriptures. Thus, the presence of Jewish synagogue in Thessalonica introduced citizens to Jehovah, the only true, living God.
1 Thessalonians 1:9 seems to indicate that others were converted directly out of idolatry, rather than from teaching in the synagogue. The evidence for which idols were worshipped and how they were worshipped in Thessalonica has its share of gaps, but we do know some of the idols that would have been worshiped by the Christian converts in their former lives. Philip of Thessalonica mentioned more than twenty deities who played a role in the lives of the citizens.
Thessalonica, located under the shadow of Mt. Olympus, worshiped the Greek pantheon. The Twelve Olympians, known by their Roman names, included Jupiter (Zeus), Juno (Hera), Neptune (Poseidon), Ceres (Demeter), Minerva (Athena), Apollo, Diana (Artemis), Mars (Ares), Venus (Aphrodite), Vulcan (Hephaestus), Mercury (Hermes), and Bacchus (Dionysus).
The imperial cult has already been mentioned and evidence abounds to show that it had an integral place among the Thessalonians. This was the Ceasar cult that began with the worship dedicated to Julius Caesar. Roman coinage designated Julius Caesar as a god. Augustus (the adopted son of Julius) appeared on the reverse side and was designated as the son of the deified. Claudius, the emperor at the time Paul visited Thessalonica and wrote these letters, along with the Roman Benefactors would have worshipped by Thessalonica in order to maintain the status of being a free city. Additionally, being a free city, Thessalonica likely established the cult of Roma, a female deity who personified the city of Rome.
Excavation of the Serapeum, a temple dedicated in the third century BC, has shown that Egyptians gods had a role in the religion of the city. Inscriptions include praises to Serapsis, Isis, and Anubis right along side praises to Zeus.
Cabirus played a major role in the religion of Thessalonica. The center of the cult of Cabiri (father and son, descendants of Zeus) was Samothrace (Acts 16:11). Thessalonica had a long connection with Samothrace. Perseus, the last king of Macedonia, fled to Samothrace during battle with the Romans in 168 BC. Thessalonica likely received the religion of the Cabiri directly from Samothrace, but worshipped only one of the Cabiri, the son, Cabirus. Worshippers of Cabirus believed he had been martyred and would return in the future to deliver them. Whether or not the cult of Cabirus existed as early as the first century AD is disputed. The exact date of its establishment in Thessalonica cannot be determined. Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians include references to Christ’s kingdom and return (1 Thess. 2:12; 2 Thess. 1:5, 9-10). While the worship of Cabirus in Thessalonica may well have been in place when Paul arrived at the city, that the story of Cabirus’ martyrdom and expected return to deliver the persecuted and downtrodden was borrowed from the teaching of the gospel of Christ is not out of the question.
During his second missionary journey, Paul saw the vision of the man of Macedonia beckoning for help (Acts 16:9-10). What resulted was the spread of Christianity toward the west, but not without contrary winds. As mentioned, Paul’s usual practice was to seek to established congregations in cities at strategic locations to radiate the Christian influence. His first endeavor was in the city of Philippi, which evidently had no synagogue of the Jews, where he and Silas suffered imprisonment. Acts 17 opens with Paul and his companions heading through Amphipolis and Apollonia, with no record of preaching in either place, to arrive at Thessalonica.
As Paul’s custom was he began attending the synagogue of the Jews to preach Christ in their midst (Acts 13:5, 14; 14:1; 17:1, 10; 18:4). Luke records that he did this for “three sabbath days” (Acts 17:2). On the surface it seems that three weeks was the length of Paul’s stay at Thessalonica. Luke records the riot, (which the envious, unbelieving Jews started wherein Jason and other brethren were seized), as terminating Paul’s sojourn there, the brethren immediately sending him by night to Berea (Acts 17:5-10). However, a deeper look at various statements made in other New Testament books regarding this first visit may indicate a longer period than three weeks. For instance, the Philippian church sent monetary gifts twice to Paul at Thessalonica (Phil. 4:16); this, while not impossible, seems unlikely in the timespan of three weeks. Paul worked with his own hands while at Thessalonica (1 Thess. 2:7-11), which could indicate a longer period necessary to establish himself, but gives no conclusive evidence since Paul may not have had the means to go even three weeks without working and may have had to make as much money as he could while receiving help from the Philippians. With these indications, it may be the case that Luke was merely recording the time Paul spent in the synagogue in Acts 17:2, rather than his entire stay in Thessalonica. Paul may have not been allowed in the synagogue after those three weeks, but continued evangelizing in the city and edifying the new converts to Christ for a few more months until the riot occurred and he had to flee to Berea. This was Paul’s manner, to preach to the Jews first and then to the Greeks (Rom. 1:16). This would also coincide with the indications in 1 Thessalonians that the church was made up of Gentiles converted directly out of idolatry. Paul mentioned how they, “turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God” (1 Thess. 1:9). This would be a little odd to say if the majority of the converts were Jewish or were Gentiles who had given up polytheism and come to the Jewish synagogue before Paul came, as the Acts narrative seems to indicate (Acts 17:4). Further evangelistic endeavors outside of the synagogue would seem like a reasonable cause for the Gentile makeup of the Thessalonian congregation suggested by Paul’s letters. Regardless of the exact chronology, Paul’s initial visit to the city was short and he no doubt was concerned about the Thessalonian church because they were a group of new converts in the midst of persecution.
Paul was minded to return to Thessalonica and expressed this anticipation to the brethren (1 Thess. 2:17). The third missionary journey of Paul includes the mention of another visit to Macedonia to exhort the brethren (Acts 20:1-2). Thessalonica is not mentioned specifically, but it is fair to deduce that it was a stop he made sure to make while going over those parts.