Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost (2 November 2014)



  • Joshua 3:7-17 & Psalm 107:1-7, 33-37 [Micah 3:5-12 & Psalm 43]
  • 1 Thessalonians 2:9-13
  • Matthew 23:1-12

Thessalonica in the time of Paul

This is the third in a series focused on 1 Thessalonians:

  • Week One: Letters in Antiquity: Paul as a Letter Writer
  • Week Two: Paul as founder of new Christian communities
  • Week Three: Faith making a difference in first century Thessalonica
  • Week Four: Facing death with courage and hope
  • Week Five: Living in meantime: Awaiting the coming of the Lord Jesus

This week the focus moves to what we know of ancient Thessalonica.

The web site has a Thessalonica photo gallery with a brief summary, together with some selected photographs.

These notes will draw heavily on the description of Thessalonica (and Paul’s activity there) in Crossan and Reed, In Search of Paul, while supplementing their material with information from other sources.


Thessalonica is located in northern Greece (ancient Macedonia) at the head of the Thermaic Gulf where several rivers enter the Aegean Sea.

The city had the double benefit of being a major port, as well as being a main station on the main East/West highway (Via Egnatia) that linked the Balkans to Turkey. Crossan and Reed comment on the ancient and modern versions of that same road:

… you pause to read the big blue and gold sign in Greek and English, put up by the European Union, that announces the new Egnatia Odos, the new Via Egnatia. The sign emphasizes that half the cost of those cranes, bulldozers, and cement mixers in front of you is being paid by the European Union’s Community Support Framework and much of the rest is funded by the European Investment Bank. You learn later that the total cost is estimated at 1.15 trillion Greek drachmas, a currency made obsolete by the Euro …
Construction along that 1100-yard-wide swath of land has unearthed 270 historical and archaeological sites, which have slowed the project down and required the contractors to pay over 2.5 billion drachmas for salvage excavations at over 40 sites. That, of course, is a reminder of the ancient geopolitics along the original Via Egnatia, which had much the same purpose, to link Rome and Italy with Asia Minor and the East. But that ancient project, built by the Roman proconsul Gnaeus Egnatius between 146 and 120 B.C.E., was much more impressive, since travel by air was not available and travel by sea all but impossible for six months of the year. The only way to send the legions eastward and bring booty westward was to construct, on an unprecedented scale, an all-weather road with solid pavement, bridges, leveled grades, water stations, and milestones.
… As you relinquish your small strip of the new Egnatia Odos that summer morning, you ponder the obvious parallels with the original one. Is it still about empire for the few or about justice for the many? Here is a simple test. By the time that the new Egnatian motorway is completed, will Turkey be a full member of the European Union; will Turkey be the first non-European and non-Christian country to join that alliance? If not, if its 65 million inhabitants are excluded, we will then know that the new motorway is, like its ancient predecessor, again about empire, still about empire, always about empire. (2004:153f)


The city of Thessalonica was founded in 316 BCE by Cassander, the King of Macedon and brother-in-law of Alexander the Great. The city was created on (or near) the site of an older settlement (Therme), but it is named for Cassander’s wife, the half-sister of Alexander. She was given her name by her father, Phillip II of Macedon, to commemorate the fact that she was born on the day of his victory (Greek: nike) over the Thessalians. The new foundation included the ancient Therme as well as some 35 other small settlements.

Thessaloniki developed rapidly and as early as the 2nd century BC the first Hellenistic walls were built, forming a large square. It was, as all the other contemporary Greek cities, an autonomous part of the Macedon kingdom, with its own parliament (Ekklesia tou Demou, Assembly of the People) but the king was represented and could interfere in the city’s domestic affairs. (Wikipedia)

In 146 BCE, Macedonia became a Roman province and Thessalonica was made the capital. As the center for Roman administration, the city prospered. It was later to side with Antony and Octavian in their successful struggle against the Republican forces at the battle of Philippi in 42 BCE. The description in Harper’s Bible Dictionary is evocative of Thessalonica’s success:

… we know that the Roman statesman and orator Cicero spent part of his exile in Thessalonica in 58 B.C., that the Roman general Pompey took refuge from Julius Caesar in the city in 49 B.C., and also that such prominent literary figures as Lucian and Polyaenus visited the city. The extensive coinage of Thessalonica underscores its prosperity, certainly due to its status as a free city (i.e., one granted certain tax concessions and some other privileges) and its location as a main station on the Via Egnatia.

Crossan and Reed suggest a population around 40,000 at the time of Paul, making Thessalonica one of the smaller provincial capitals within the Empire. Its natural advantages have hindered archaeological research. The city has been continuously occupied since its foundation in 316 BCE, allowing little opportunity for excavations. The current excavations of the Roman forum in downtown Thessalonica has mostly uncovered structures from the second and third centuries, although other contemporary construction projects have yielded some fragmentary first-century remains.

Population and religion

Crossan and Reed (2004:156-60) comment on several significant social groups within Paul’s Thessalonica:

  • Greek
  • Romans
  • Jews
  • Christians

The Greeks (including Macedonians and Thracians) were the local population. They were deeply engaged in the internationalization processes driven by the conquests of Alexander and the continued struggles of the successor kings. With the ascent of Rome, the people of Thessalonica cast their lot with the new world order and reaped significant rewards for their city as a result.

Foreign gods were welcomed into the public affections of the city, as one would expect in a commercial port. In particular, the mysteries associated with worship of Serapis and Dionysius were prominent and well integrated into the civic cult. Of particular significance, according to Robert Jewett (The Thessalonian Correspondence, Fortress: 1986), was the mystery cult of the Cabirus. The evidence suggests that this cult was “not only the most distinctive but also the most important factor in the religious environment” (Jewett, 1986:127). Here is Jewett’s summary description:

The Cabirus figure worshipped in Thessalonica was structurally similar in some regards to the apocalyptic Christ proclaimed by Paul. He was a martyred hero, murdered by his brothers, buried with symbols of royal power, and expected to return to help lowly individuals and the city of Thessalonica in particular. Whereas in other cities, two or three Cabiri figures are honored … in Thessalonica there was a concentration of devotion on a single hero. … the worship of Cabirus exhibits some intriguing parallels to Pauline Christianity. In what appears to be a Cabiric cult in Samothrace, the initiation of participants involved donning special robes, confessing sins, and cleansing through water baptism and through symbolic immersion in the blood of martyred god. Another source refers to ceremonial participation in the shed blood of Cabirus by means of blood sacrifices. … If the experience of initiation involved identification with the god, the gift of apotheosis, the achievement of equality [between participants], the relief of guilt and the promise of elimination of threats, [then] a raucous celebration would seem as appropriate as it appeared for Pauline Christians whose violent apocalyptic theology evoked repentance, regeneration and joy.

Jewett quotes Robert M. Evans (Eschatology and Ethics Basel PhD diss, 1967) on the social impact when the Cabiru of Thessalonica was absorbed into the civic cult:

By the time of the first century in Thessalonica, the city-cult had meaning only for those most directly interested in the welfare off the city. Thus the transformation is complete. The Cabiri rose to be identified with the city god of Thessalonica, but in so doing lost their religious value and contact with the lower classes.

Jewett continues:

The cooptation of the figure of Cabirus, whose primary role had been to provide equality, aid and succor for Greeks whose livelihood came from manual labor, left the craftsmen and laborers of Thessalonica without a viable benefactor. The process of propagandistic cooptation of the democratic civic ideals … is here matched by the exploitation of the laborers’ hero by the ruling class in Thessalonica. This cooptation would also have entailed a measure of moralistic domestication, because the orgiastic components of the Cabiric cult would surely have been curtailed by the Augustan establishment. A religious and social vacuum was thereby created, which may have made possible the remarkably rapid acceptance of a new and more viable type of Christian proclamation and piety that offered in a new and more viable form many of the features that had been provided by the now discredited Cabiric cult. This might also help to explain why some of the distinctive excesses of the Thessalonian church were adumbrated by the outlines of the coopted Cabiric piety.

The Romans in Thessalonica included members of the elite class who administered the province on behalf of the empire. While they had their own associations, and were especially concerned with the imperial ruler cult that was served by a temple in honor of Julius Caesar and a program of sacred games, the Romans also participated in cults such as those devoted to Sarapis and Isis. Even when not active in these cults, some Romans were benefactors whose generosity is attested in surviving inscriptions. As city that minted coins for the province, Thessalonica celebrated the cult of the divine emperor on its coins. When Paul arrived in the city, recent coin issues included one struck with the image of Augusust and the legend theos sebastos (“the god Augustus”) on one side, and the image of Claudius on the other:

SOURCE MACEDON, Thessalonica Claudius. 41-54 AD. Æ 21mm (9.26 gm).
TI KLAU KAISAR SEBASTOS GER-M, laureate head of Claudius left
QESSALONEIKE[WN QE]OS SEBASTOS, radiate head of Augustus right (sic)
Jews are thought to have been in Thessalonica from early times, with both Philo (Embassy to Gaius 36/281) and Luke (Acts 17) mentioning their presence in Macedonia. To date no clearly Jewish archaeological remains have been found from the middle of the first century.
The Christian community in Thessalonica happens to be attested by the survival of Paul’s first letter to the church there, and also by the survival of a second letter from Paul to that community (whether or not it is judged to be authentic). On the basis of Acts 17 one might think that Paul’s converts had come from the Jewish community, but it seems more likely that Paul drew his adherents from the wider Greek population in the city — perhaps even converting at least one local private professional association (a koinon) across to the worship of a new patron deity: “Jesus the anointed ruler” (Kyrios Iesous Christos). Crossan and Reed address the question of Paul’s appeal to the Greeks who had gathered around the Jewish synagogue community:

Our proposal is that Paul went to the synagogue not for the Jews, but for those pagan sympathizers, and it is precisely his focus on those semipagan or semi-Jewish sponsors, protectors, and patrons that would obviously have infuriated Jewish synagogue members. Put bluntly, Paul was poaching on dangerous territory, dangerous not just in very abstract theology, but in very practical politics. That could certainly cause serious trouble between Paul and loyal synagogue Jews or even between pro-Pauline and anti-Pauline God-worshippers.
Even though Paul himself never uses the term “god-fearers” or “God-worshippers,” he does make it clear in 1 Thessalonians that those converts had “turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God” (1:9), that, in other words, they were originally pagans. They might have “feared” or “worshipped” the Jewish God, but they did not accept that God fully or follow that God completely. You, Paul would have said to them, are neither Jew nor Greek, and your only salvation now is God in Christ. Because, he would have said to them, you cannot have pagan gods at meals, baths and festivals six days a week and the one true God at the synagogue on the Sabbath. Torah is all or nothing.

Both Acts and 1 Thessalonians acknowledge that Paul had to leave Macedonia to escape persecution. Despite Luke (typically) seeking to blame the Jewish community for the trouble stirred up around Paul, Crossan and Reed note that “it was only provincial Roman and Rome-appointed authorities that could force a flight from Macedonia and into Achaia.” While Luke may be misleading about the complainants, the account in Acts 17 may preserve the actual complaint:

After Paul and Silas had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three sabbath days argued with them from the scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Messiah to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, “This is the Messiah, Jesus whom I am proclaiming to you.” Some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a great many of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women. But the Jews became jealous, and with the help of some ruffians in the marketplaces they formed a mob and set the city in an uproar. While they were searching for Paul and Silas to bring them out to the assembly, they attacked Jason’s house. When they could not find them, they dragged Jason and some believers before the city authorities, shouting, “These people who have been turning the world upside down have come here also, and Jason has entertained them as guests. They are all acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor, saying that there is another king named Jesus.” The people and the city officials were disturbed when they heard this, and after they had taken bail from Jason and the others, they let them go. (Acts 17:1-9, NRSV)

According to Acts 17:7, Paul and his companions are accused of acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor (Claudius) and promoting another king (basileus), named “Jesus.” In other words, Paul is accused of being anti-Roman and promoting an alternative ruler (Kyrios, Lord) whose claims contradicted those of Caesar. In fact, as Crossan and Reed observe, “one of the most striking aspects of 1 Thessalonians is the number of Pauline terms that were religio-political in a world where those two aspects of power were never separated at any depth.”

Terms that we tend to hear as religious vocabulary but which had political meanings in ancient Rome include the following:

  • ekklesia (church, assembly) – citizens of a free Greek city assembled for self-government
  • peace and security (5:3) – a spiritual blessing, or a benefit flowing from good government (cf Pax Romana)
  • kyrios (Lord) – a title used by the emperor
  • kingdom and glory belonging to God (2:12) – or to the emperor?
  • gospel (euangelion) – used in 1:5; 2:2,4,8,9; 3:2, but also for official news from the government
  • parousia (advent, arrival) – used for a visitation by a conquering ruler, or for the arrival of Christ as ruler of the universe (2:19; 3:13; 4:15,17)

Diatribe against the Pharisees

It would be remiss of me to allow this week’s lectionary notes to be published without adding a comment on the denunciation of the Jewish religious leadership that we find in Matthew 23.

Matthew took up the cue provided by the warning against the Pharisees in Mark 112:37–40 and then reshaped a set of seven woes from Q (cf Luke 11:39–52) to create his own diatribe against his rabbinic rivals. As in their material for the Great Sermon, Matthew and Luke differ so markedly that Luz [Matthew 21–28, 94] notes it is no longer possible to reconstruct the original form of this material in Q.

This passage is constructed as a set of seven prophetic denunciations of the Jewish religious leadership: “the Pharisees” and “the (rabbinic) scholars.” The seven woes are introduced by a more general criticism of the hypocrisy of the author’s opponents (23:1–12), and they conclude with a damning indictment of the opponents as bearing blood guilt for all innocent victims in human history (23:34–36). These seven woes form part of a larger section (21:1–25:46) depicting Jesus in controversy with the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem in the final days before his death, and that section itself is part of the larger structure for the Gospel of Matthew.

Matthew’s editorial fingerprints can be found all over this passage. Hypocrite (hypokrites) is a key Matthean term, occurring 13 times in Matthew, once in Mark and twice in Luke. The repeated naming of the opponents as Pharisees and scribes is also typical of Matthew [Pharisees: Matt 3:7; 5:20; 9:11,14,34; 12:2,14,24,38; 15:1,12; 16:1,6,11-12; 19:3; 21:45; 22:15,34,41; 23:2,13-15,23,25,27,29; 27:62; Mark 2:16,18,24; 3:6; 7:1,3,5; 8:11,15; 10:2; 12:13; Luke 5:17,21,30,33; 6:2,7; 7:30,36-37; 11:39,42-43,53; 12:1; 13:31; 14:1,3; 15:2; 16:14; 17:20; 19:39. Scribes: Matt 2:4; 5:20; 7:29; 9:3; 12:38; 15:1; 16:21; 17:10; 20:18; 21:15; 23:2,13-15,23,25,27,29,34; 26:57; 27:41; Mark 1:22; 2:6,16; 3:22; 7:1,5; 8:31; 9:11,14; 10:33; 11:18,27; 12:28,35,38; 14:1,43,53; 15:1,31; Luke 5:21,30; 6:7; 9:22; 11:53; 15:2; 19:47; 20:1,19,39,46; 22:2,66; 23:10]. The general representation of Jesus as a superior (and indeed the only) Torah teacher is also a typical Matthean device.

As a literary form, the “woe” is a form of prophetic denunciation—possibly with origins in deprecatory rituals, but later adapted for prophetic critique of Israel. It is the logical opposite of the beatitude and is attested alongside the beatitude in Jewish writings from the Second Temple period. Jesus is being represented as a prophet proclaiming judgment on the city of Jerusalem and its inhabitants, in the tradition of Jeremiah and Ezekiel.

The historical and religious context of Jews and Christians (including Jewish Christian communities such as Matthew’s readers) in the final quarter of the first century – or possibly the first decade of the second century – helps to locate the conflict and also to identify the “rhetorical register” of the denunciations. Studies on the role played by scribes and Pharisees after 70CE, and their distribution around Palestine prior to that date, also assist in locating these conflict traditions in the post-Easter experience of Jesus’ followers rather than in his own life time.

As canonical text, Matthew projects this conflict back into time of Jesus and gives the conflict an added dimension since the alleged perversity of the Jewish rivals brings about the death of Jesus and also the destruction of Jerusalem.

Perhaps the most significant theological question in this passage is the contribution it has made to the development of Christian anti-Semitism. This is seen especially in the stereotyping of Pharisees as legalistic Jews obsessed with ritual and lacking interior spirituality. The assignment of guilt for all the deaths of the righteous from Genesis onwards has played into accusations of deicide against the Jews.

This “unloveliest chapter in the Gospel” [Viviano, cited by Ulrich Luz, Matthew 21–28, 94] reflects the conflict between the rabbinic communities of post-70CE Judaism and Jewish-Christian groups such as the Matthean community. The bitterness of the rhetoric points to the painful schism happening within Jewish communities around the question of Jesus and his distinctive practice of Torah.

Conflict over deeply-held beliefs is inevitable, as indeed we continue to see in various parts of the Christian churches and also between some major world religions. Such beliefs (including the perceptions we may have of the other) can be very powerful in defining ourselves and our community. The legacy of Jesus as someone who seems to have practised a radically inclusive interpretation of Torah, will not necessarily prevent his followers from bigotry and prejudice. Christian-Jewish relations are especially complex and sensitive, and facing the evil of Christian anti-Semitism is a necessary step in developing a healthy dialogue between the two communities. In particular, negative stereotypes about Pharisees and about the authenticity of Jewish spirituality can poison community attitudes.

On this side of the Holocaust, we have to acknowledge the danger of toxic theology – especially when combined with political and coercive power. When such a combination occurs there is immense social pressure to scapegoat a minority group as the cause of difficulties experienced by the majority. Churches can too easily become implicated in such tensions, but they can also learn from our history and confront popular politics that demonises the other. The religious literacy of the scribe trained for the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 13:52), can serve as a valve to release community tensions rather than, as Matthew seems to have done, to exacerbate them.

Jesus Database

Liturgies and Prayers

For liturgies and sermons each week, shaped by a progressive theology, check Rex Hunt’s web site

Other recommended sites include:

Music Suggestions

See the following sites for recommendations from a variety of contemporary genre:

Share article

Leave a ReplyCancel reply

Exit mobile version