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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

The Nature of the Christ-Following Community in Thessalonica.

1. Jews or Gentiles or Both?

In 1 Thess 1:9 Paul tells his audience they turned to God from idols to serve the one true God. This strongly suggests they were idolatrous Gentiles prior to conversion, for he would not describe Jews as turning from idolatry (de Vos 1999: 146–7). Many scholars refuse to accept this conclusion, mainly because it is contrary to what Acts 17:1–9 says, with its picture of Paul preaching in a synagogue and winning converts among Jews, God- fearers, Greeks, and rich women. But Luke is probably just following his typical pattern here (Lührmann 1990: 237–41), possibly based on his desire to depict an early movement of Christ-followers made up of Jews and Gentile God-fearers (Esler 1987: 36–45).


Exactly what sort of idolatry the Thessalonians had previously engaged in is uncertain. Jewett (1986: 127–32; 165–7) has mounted a significant argument that Paul's converts were impoverished manual workers who had seen Cabirus, their saviour-god, hijacked by upper-class interests. This view has, however, been criticized as lacking evidence and also as resting on the false assumption that an end-time ideology is necessarily founded on some form of deprivation (Barclay 1993: 519–20).

3. Social Status

Recent research on the social structure of Pauline communities has tended to favour socially stratified congregations with wealthy members providing a house for the meetings of the community and virtually acting as patrons to the members. But the fact that Paul does not mention the name of any person in Thessalonica raises the possibility that the whole congregation came from the poor non-élite, living in tenements (Jewett 1993). De Vos (1999: 154) sees in Thessalonica an audience of ‘free-born artisans and manual- workers’. Corinth and Thessalonica thus represent very different types of the early Christ-movement (Barclay 1992 ). The difficult life of an urban artisan has been well described by Hock (1980: 31–47). The community may also have embraced agricultural day labourers (Schöllgen 1988: 73, 76).

4. Opposition to the Christ-Followers in Thessalonica

Paul's initial proclamation in Thessalonica was attended by great conflict (agōn) in public ( 2:2 ). Furthermore, great affliction (thlipsis: 1:6 ) accompanied the reception of the word by the Thessalonians and, just as Paul had warned them that they would continue to be afflicted ( 3:4 ), so they are at the time he writes the letter ( 3:3 ). They have suffered at the hands of their fellow Thessalonians ( 2:14 ).


The best explanation for such opposition lies in the more general issue raised by Paul's aim of having the Thessalonians abandon their traditional gods in favour of the monotheistic brand of faith he was preaching, an aim achieved as far as his addressees were concerned, since they had turned to God from idols ( 1:9 ). To appreciate what this means we need to understand the everyday reality of paganism in this part of the empire (see MacMullen 1981 ).


Kinship, politics, economics, and religion were inextricably interrelated. Pagan rites were foci of economic and social interaction, playing a key role in maintaining the local political and economic system. The social dimension could be seen in crowds in theatres attached to shrines, with readings, music, and dancing (ibid. 18–24); economic aspects included coins minted and fairs attached to festivals (ibid. 25–7); and very important were meals at these festivals, generally involving meat not otherwise eaten and much wine and often partaken by thiasoi in small groups of diners, where the idea was found that the god might join those who were dining (cf. Plut. Mor. 1102A). Here gross indulgence often occurred (ibid. 36–40; cf. 1 Cor 8:10 ) in the eidoleion where the statue of the deity was located.


Jews and Christ-followers who abstained from these celebrations were likely to be accused of misanthropy (MacMullen 1981: 40). If people became Christ-followers in great numbers the local temples would be less frequented and the meat trade could suffer (so it was in Bithynia before Pliny's actions: Ep. 10.96; MacMullen 1981: 41). More dangerous was the charge of atheism, since the élite believed that the hoi polloi needed to take part in the local worship to ensure political stability (MacMullen 1981: 2–3). Later on there is explicit reference to such behaviour as ‘godlessness’ (atheotēs), but there is no reason such a charge could not have been made in Paul's time (Barclay 1993: 515). To be respectable and decent meant taking part in the cult; old was good and new was bad. Thus, religion served to strengthen the existing social order (MacMullen 1981: 57–8). To deny the reality of the gods was absolutely unacceptable—one would be ostracized for that, even stoned in the streets (ibid. 62).


The particular proposal that the conflict centred on a charge that the Thessalonian followers of Jesus were contravening ‘the decrees of Caesar’ (explained by Judge 1971 ) rests on little but the historically dubious account of the Thessalonian mission in Acts 17:1–9 (also see de Vos 1999: 156–7). Nevertheless, as Donfried (1985 ) has argued, any abandonment of the imperial cult as part of a general rejection of idols would not have been well received in Thessalonica, where coins reveal signs of a cultic devotion to the emperor as early as 27 BCE.

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