1 & 2 Thessalonians Part One Deep Dive
A DEEP DIVE INTO THESSALONIANS
PART 1 | DR ADAM WHITE
The story of Thessalonians is, from beginning to end, a story of inclusion and exclusion. In the ancient world, community was priority. People understood themselves in relation to the community to which they belonged, be it their family, their city, their local cultic group or trade guild, or whatever other group they might be a part of. There was no sense of the individual — as we understand it today — rather, your identity, and with it, your perceived character, was directly related to who you associated with. In this context, your social status could rise or fall on the status of the group with which you were identified. That is, an honourable group must surely consist of honourable individuals and vice versa for a dishonourable group. This meant that you had an obligation both to yourself and your group to uphold the values and honour of the group. Conversely, the group had a responsibility to deal with members according to how they behaved. Honour to those who brought the group honour, shame to those who brought the group shame. In the worst cases of a member’s dishonourable behaviour, shame through excommunication.
you are who you’re with
It should therefore come as no surprise to us when we see this type of group dynamic in the earliest Christian communities. The Christian communities in the first century — if they were large enough to even get attention — were seen by outsiders as a whole, as with all other groups of a shared belief or practice. There was no distinction made between the group and the individual, the part was indicative of the whole. If an individual Christian was bad, then Christianity must be bad (sound familiar?). So, for the Christians, there was a significant obligation on the part of the individual to uphold the values of the whole group. Each believer needed to take into consideration how his or her actions would impact on the rest of the members. And in the event that a member was bringing discredit to the community, they needed to be disciplined.
This is a somewhat crude description of a very complex social structure, but it will have to suffice as a starting point for our discussion. The story of Thessalonians begins in Acts 17. Thessalonica was the Roman provincial capital of Macedonia. That is, when Rome annexed the region of Macedonia, they set up Thessalonica as the capital and that seat of the Roman governor (e.g. Corinth was the capital of Achaia, hence the governor Gallio was seated there). They also gave it the status of a ‘free city’, which meant they were self-governing and relatively tax free. In other words, it was a very important city with significant honour and privileges; as you might imagine, its citizens would go to great lengths to uphold this status.
Paul vs Rome
Paul came to the city in 49 CE and his first point of call, as with all his travels, was to visit the local synagogue on the sabbath. Being both a Jew and a Pharisee had its advantages. First, there was a Jewish community in every ancient city with whom he could find support and accommodation. In the case of Thessalonica, Paul and his companion, Silas, stayed with a man named Jason. Second, as a Pharisee, he could always teach in the synagogue. This meant that Paul had an open pulpit every Saturday to proclaim that Jesus was the Messiah, which is precisely what he did in Thessalonica. Pretty soon, we find out, people started to buy into the message and it’s at that point that things went downhill.
So long as Paul and Silas were in town, their presence and their message was a threat to the stability of the local synagogue and related Jewish community — which is a topic we will discuss in the next blog — but it was not within the powers of the local Jewish authorities to remove them from the city. The only person who could do this was the Roman authority, in this case, the governor and the other officials. Therefore, a mob was formed and searched for Paul and Silas; unable to find them, they brought out Jason (guilt by association) and charged them all with sedition; specifically: ‘These men who have caused trouble all over the world have now come here, and Jason has welcomed them into his house. They are all defying Caesar’s decrees, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus’ (Acts 17:6–7).
There is a lot to unpack here, but the point is that the mob charged Paul and his associates with treason; not only in Thessalonica but throughout the whole Roman Empire! It was one thing to undermine the political stability of your local community by starting a riot or acting subversively, that will result in exile. But to undermine the divinity and authority of the emperor by saying that there is another king?! That’s treason, resulting in death. Should they be found guilty of the mob’s accusations, these men were in serious trouble.
But what were the specific ‘decrees’ that Paul and Silas (and Jason, apparently) were violating? Well, it’s unclear, but there is one clue from history. A few months prior to this, the emperor Claudius had exiled the Jews from Rome over constant bickering over a certain ‘Chrestus’, who scholars have taken to refer to Christ. In other words, these inter-Jewish tensions over Jesus as the Messiah had become so bad in Rome that the emperor expelled many of the Jews. Now, it seems, the same thing was happening in the provincial capital, right under the governor’s nose. No governor wants that on their resume and the mob well knew this.
Fortunately, the trial amounted to very little. Jason was fined and that was that. But it did, in some ways, have its desired outcome. It had become clear to all that Paul and Silas’ lives were at risk if they stayed; moreover, their presence in the city was a danger to the new believers. The decision was therefore made that it was time to move on. This was a terrible situation, made worse by the fact that they had only been there for a couple of months and were leaving behind an infant community; young believers who were very under-trained, and, as we will see next time, exposed to a hostile Jewish synagogue.