Reflections on 1 Thessalonians: Setting the Stage

The story of Thessalonica has a very modern sound -- the city was the product of amalgamation. It was founded by the king of Macedonia in 315 BC by merging a number of existing villages with the town of Thermae and became a major port and administrative centre because of its position. Not only does it lie on a large natural inlet, the Thermean Gulf, but it is also located at the crossing of an important route from Rome to the east and a north-south route into the interior of eastern Europe. After Macedonia became a client state of Rome, Thessalonica acted as a regional capitol for the Roman administration. Like most Greek cities it retained a significant degree of self-government until long after St Paul's day. Mostly populated by Greeks, it did have significant minorities of Romans and Jews settled in it. So for both trade and administration, Thessalonica was a hub.

For Paul, Thessalonica was also one of the first stops on his newest missionary venture -- the attempt to move the Gospel into Europe and into the heart of the Gentile world. In the 14 or so years since his dramatic conversion to Christianity on the road to Damascus, he had amassed a lot of experience in evangelising. In the mid-40's, he and Barnabas, as described in Acts of the Apostles, were commissioned and set apart for spreading the word to the Gentiles by the ethnically mixed congregation at Antioch. They made an extensive missionary journey through the island of Cyprus and the mainland of Asia Minor (modern Turkey) before returning to Antioch some three years later. At the end of the decade, after talks with the Jerusalem church on relations between the new Gentile congregations and the Jewish Christian communities of Palestine, Paul and Barnabas went their separate ways. Paul returned to Asia Minor accompanied by Silas (also known as Silvanus) and later joined by Timothy. They were prevented (by the Holy Spirit according to Luke's report) from going to Bythinia, a territory in northern Asia Minor, and shortly afterward, Paul had a dream which altered his career and the whole history of Europe.

The book of Acts recounts that in this dream Paul saw a Macedonian man pleading with him to come and help. In response, Paul and his companions decided that they should carry the word across to the Greco-Roman, pagan world of Europe. So they took passage for Macedonia (the first part of Europe you meet travelling west from Asia Minor), where they met with a mixed reception in both the ports of Philippi and Thessalonica. This was likely in AD 49 (and Paul likely wrote this letter sometime in AD 50, about 8 or 9 months after his arrival in Thessalonica). In Philippi, Paul and his companion Silas were imprisoned and only released when an earthquake opened the prison gates. Acts doesn't tell us very much about Paul's work in Thessalonica -- it's not even easy to figure out from its account how long Paul preached there -- but we can tell from it that his preaching aroused, as it often had in Asia Minor, push-back from the local Jewish community. One thing led to another, including rioting in the market, and Paul had to get out of town quickly and go to nearby Beroea.

From Acts we also learn that Paul converted some members of the Thessalonica synagogue and some 'God-fearing' Greeks (those who were already attending synagogue worship but not converted) and some well-off women. It is clear from the letters he wrote to the congregation that it was overwhelmingly made up of former pagans and working-class people, though. It may have met in the house of Jason, the local man who entertained Paul during his stay and put up bail for him in case of another disturbance after the riot. The new congregation at Thessalonica would likely have gathered in someone's workshop or in the house of Jason or another leader to hear the letter read by a delegate or messenger entrusted with it by Paul. We know a little about how that worked -- Paul would have sent a delegate like Timothy (whom he mentions here) or Phoebe the deacon from the Corinth area who seems to have been the delegate sent to Rome to bring them the letter we call Romans. That delegate would be there to explain and provide background for the letter when it was read. This procedure was modelled on the system used for official letters and would have been an important part of Paul's ministry, which relied so heavily on personal contact with Paul and the missionary team and among convert communities.

As mentioned above, Paul had to leave Thessalonica early, before he felt that he had laid a firm foundation for the future, and the letter reflects his concern that what he had accomplished there might not last. Would the city become a hub for the good news as it was for trade, or would the attempt to move the gospel further into the pagan world fail at first?

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