By Peter Amsterdam
December 6, 2022
The New Testament Epistles 1 and 2 Thessalonians were written by the apostle Paul, probably sometime between AD 49–51. They are considered to be among Paul’s earliest letters. The book of Acts also touches on the events that Paul experienced in Thessalonica, which will also be covered within this series.
Thessalonica is known today as Thessaloniki and is a Greek port city on the northwest corner of the Aegean Sea. It is one of the Mediterranean cities with a continuous history from the Greco-Roman period to the present. Thessalonica is located on the eastern coast of Macedonia, between the Balkan Mountain range and the Greek peninsula.
Thessalonica was founded in 316 BC by Cassander, the king of Macedonia. He joined together 26 villages into one city. Cassander married Thessalonike, the daughter of King Philip ll of Macedonia, and in honor of his wife, named the new city Thessalonica. This port city had deep anchorage and protection from the southeast winds, which were dangerous. It is the only seaboard city in contemporary Greece which has never lost its commercial importance.
Besides the advantage of a thriving seaport, Thessalonica also had access to major land travel routes. It was situated near the Via Egnatia, a road which was constructed by the Romans in the 2nd century BC. It ran through what today is Albania, North Macedonia, Greece, and European Turkey. It covered a total distance of about 1,120 km (697 miles). Going west on this route would lead to the port of Dyrrachium on the Adriatic Sea, which could then be crossed by boat to Italy and the Via Appia, which would lead directly to Rome. Going east on the Via Egnatia would lead to Byzantium, on the edge of the Black Sea, which would give access to Asia Minor.
One author wrote: “The great success of Thessalonica was due in grand part to the union of land and sea, road and port, which facilitated commerce between Macedonia and the entire Roman Empire. No other place in all Macedonia offered the strategic advantages of Thessalonica.”1
It’s not possible to know the exact population of the city during Paul’s time, but using the length of the city walls to determine the living area and factoring in typical demographics of ancient cities, the population of Thessalonica can be calculated to have been between 65,000 and 100,000 people. As such, Thessalonica was among the ten largest cities in the Roman Empire.
In the time of the apostle Paul, Thessalonica held a special status as a “free city.” This meant, among other things, that it had some autonomy over its local affairs. The inhabitants also had the right to mint their own coins and were free from military occupation within the walls of the city. Instead of having to operate their governmental structure according to Roman practices, the Thessalonians were allowed to keep their own civic structure. This structure was composed of three main offices, two of which are explicitly mentioned in Acts 17:1–10.
The first was the citizen assembly, called the demos. This was the lowest level of city governance. The demos style of government (from which we get the word “democracy”) originated in Athens in the fifth century BC. It later spread throughout the Hellenistic cities. In Thessalonica, the administrative body handled city matters such as finances, festivals, and some judicial concerns. In the book of Acts, the mob in Thessalonica was angry about the charges made against Paul and Silas, and originally planned to try them before this citizen assembly.2
The second of the three main offices was the council. This body functioned as an executive branch of the citizen assembly, and it filtered problems before they were brought to the lower body. The council played a role in which issues were brought before the citizen assembly and what decisions should be adopted.
The third of the offices was the Politarchs (city officials). The Politarchs came from the wealthier families, and their number varied from city to city. In Thessalonica at the end of the first century BC, there were five individuals who served as Politarchs, but that number varied from three to seven during the following two centuries. The Politarchs functioned as the chief administrative and executive officers of their cities or communities. They had the authority to deal with judicial matters, which is seen in the book of Acts when the angry crowd grabbed Jason and some other Christians and brought them to the Politarchs. They were allowed to leave only after they posted bond.3
Thessalonica was under Roman rule beginning in 168 BC. At that time, the victorious Romans used the strategy of “divide and conquer” by dividing Macedonia into four “districts.” Thessalonica was the capital of the second district. For the next 22 years there were periodic rebellions, which were finally quelled in 146 BC. The Romans reorganized Macedonia as a province, and elevated Thessalonica to the status of a capital city. It became the hometown of the Roman governor.
One of the reasons Rome chose Thessalonica as a provincial capital was the city’s loyalty to the Roman Empire. In 42 BC it was given “free city” status. The city built good relations with Rome, which allowed its people to keep this status. This was important to the inhabitants of Thessalonica, and they would probably deal aggressively with anyone or any group who they perceived as jeopardizing their favored status. This is likely why, as mentioned above, some of the disciples were arrested and fined.4
Thessalonica was heavily involved in pagan worship. They worshipped Dionysus as well as the gods of Egypt, especially Serapis and Isis, as well as Osiris and others. The belief in the gods of Egypt moved to Macedonia in the third century BC. Different religious associations financially supported the activities of this pagan worship. There was also a Jewish presence in the city, as seen in the book of Acts.
Now when they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews.5
Thessalonians converting to Christianity signified a radical break from the traditional religions of the city, which resulted in anger and resentment among the citizens. The apostle Paul commended the Thessalonian Christians, comparing them to the Christians who were in Judea and had also endured persecution.6
The book of Acts tells us that when Paul and his companions came to Thessalonica, they visited the local synagogue on three successive Sabbath days. While there, Paul reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, “This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ.”7 Some of those who listened believed and joined Paul and Silas, as did a great many of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women.8
There was a strong backlash to the preaching of Paul and Silas, and it became dangerous for them to remain in the city, so the believers sent them to Berea.
But when the Jews from Thessalonica learned that the word of God was proclaimed by Paul at Berea also, they came there too, agitating and stirring up the crowds.9
Due to the persistence of the Jews from Thessalonica, it was necessary for Paul to leave Berea, most likely by sea, and to go to Athens, 300 miles (480 km) away.10
After a short stay in Athens, where Paul made his seminal address before the Areopagus, he moved on to Corinth, where he remained for 18 months.11 It was from Corinth that he wrote his first epistle, 1 Thessalonians, and then sometime later 2 Thessalonians. The city of Corinth was about 50 miles (80 km) west of Athens. Modern Corinth is three miles away from the site of ancient Corinth, as in 1858 ancient Corinth was destroyed by an earthquake.
Paul began his letter:
Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace.12
Paul, Silas, and Timothy were the three authors of this letter, though it appears that Paul is the main one responsible for its writing. These three were the founders of the church in Thessalonica, and they were together in Corinth when they wrote this letter to the Thessalonian church. Silvanus and Silas are traditionally assumed to be the same person. In the book of Acts we’re told that Silas had been a leader in the Jerusalem church and that he had a prophetic ministry.13
We’re also told that Timothy was the son of a Jewish woman who was a believer, but his father was a Greek. He was well spoken of by the brothers at Lystra and Iconium.14 Paul considered Timothy to be his spiritual son.
That is why I sent you Timothy, my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, to remind you of my ways in Christ, as I teach them everywhere in every church.15
Timothy, my true child in the faith.16
I have no one like him, who will be genuinely concerned for your welfare.17
We find that Timothy is also mentioned as being with Paul in 2 Corinthians 1:1, Philippians 1:1, Colossians 1:1, and Philemon 1:1.
The letter was meant to be read to the whole church, and not just to the church leadership. To make sure that all the members of the Thessalonian church heard Paul’s message, he ended his letter with these instructions:
I put you under oath before the Lord to have this letter read to all the brothers.18
(To be continued.)
Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
1 Gene L. Green, The Letters to the Thessalonians, Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 6.
2 Acts 17:5.
3 Acts 17:6–9.
4 Acts 17:8–9.
5 Acts 17:1.
6 1 Thessalonians 2:14.
7 Acts 17:3.
8 Acts 17:4.
9 Acts 17:13.
10 Acts 17:14–15.
11 Acts 18:11.
12 1 Thessalonians 1:1.
13 Acts 15:22–23, 32.
14 Acts 16:1–2.
15 1 Corinthians 4:17.
16 1 Timothy 1:2.
17 Philippians 2:20.
18 1 Thessalonians 5:27.