Struggling for the Good News in Thessalonica
Thessalonica, known today as Thessaloníki or Salonika, is a thriving seaport city in northeastern Greece. As a city, it played a prominent role in the history of the first-century Christians, especially in the ministry of Paul, the Christian apostle to the nations.—ACTS 9:15; ROMANS 11:13.
IN ABOUT the year 50 C.E., Paul and his traveling companion Silas came to Thessalonica. They were on Paul’s second missionary journey, their first opportunity to bring the good news about the Christ into what is today Europe.
As they arrived in Thessalonica, the memory of the beating and imprisonment they had suffered in Philippi, the principal city of Macedonia, was no doubt still fresh in their minds. In fact, Paul later told the Thessalonians that when visiting them, he had preached “the good news of God with a great deal of struggling.” (1 Thessalonians 2:1, 2) Would the situation in Thessalonica be more favorable? How would the ministry fare in this city? Would it be fruitful? First, let us take a look at that ancient city itself.
A City With a Turbulent Past
Even the name Thessalonica, derived from two Greek words meaning “Thessalians” and “victory,” implies struggle and fighting. It is commonly believed that in 352 B.C.E., Macedonian King Philip II, father of Alexander the Great, defeated a tribe from central Greece in Thessaly. It is said that in memory of that victory, he gave the name Thessalonice to one of his daughters, who later married Cassander, a successor of her brother Alexander. About 315 B.C.E., Cassander built a city on the west side of the Chalcidice Peninsula and named it after his wife. Thessalonica was buffeted by conflict throughout its troubled history.
Thessalonica was also a prosperous city. It had one of the best natural harbors in the Aegean Sea. In Roman times, it was also located on the famous highway Via Egnatia. Favored with such a strategic location on sea and land routes, Thessalonica was one of the Roman Empire’s trade gateways. Over the ages, the city’s prosperity made it the coveted prize of Goths, Slavs, Franks, Venetians, and Turks. Some of them conquered the place by force and bloodshed. But let us now focus on Paul’s visit, when the struggle for the good news began.
Paul’s Arrival at Thessalonica
When coming to a new city, Paul usually approached the Jews first because their familiarity with the Scriptures provided a basis for discussion and could help them understand the good news. One scholar suggests that perhaps this custom was an indication of Paul’s concern for his countrymen or an effort to use the Jews and the God-fearers as a springboard for his work among the Gentiles.—Acts 17:2-4.
So, arriving in Thessalonica, Paul first entered the synagogue, where “he reasoned with [the Jews] from the Scriptures, explaining and proving by references that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying: ‘This is the Christ, this Jesus whom I am publishing to you.’”—Acts 17:2, 3, 10.
What Paul highlighted—the Messiah’s role and identity—was a controversial issue. The notion of a suffering Messiah was contrary to the Jews’ ideal of a conquering warrior-Messiah. To persuade the Jews, Paul “reasoned,” ‘explained,’ and ‘proved by references’ to the Scriptures—the true marks of an effective teacher.a But what was the reaction of Paul’s audience as he imparted such a wealth of information to them?
A Fruitful but Eventful Ministry
Some Jews and many Greek proselytes, as well as “not a few of the principal women,” accepted Paul’s message. The expression “principal women” is especially fitting, for in Macedonia females enjoyed an elevated social status. They held public office, owned property, enjoyed certain civic rights, and engaged in business. Even monuments were erected in their honor. Just as the Philippian businesswoman Lydia had accepted the good news, there was now also a notable response by Thessalonian women of high rank, likely ladies of good families or wives of prominent citizens.—Acts 16:14, 15; 17:4.
The Jews, however, became full of envy. They enlisted “wicked men of the marketplace idlers and formed a mob and proceeded to throw the city into an uproar.” (Acts 17:5) What kind of people were these? One Bible scholar described them as “the dissipated and the worthless.” He added: “It does not appear that they felt any particular interest in the subject; but they were, like other mobs, easily excited, and urged on to any acts of violence.”
That mixed mob “assaulted the house of Jason [Paul’s host] and went seeking to have them brought forth to the rabble.” Not finding Paul, they turned to the city’s highest level of administration. So “they dragged Jason and certain brothers to the city rulers, crying out: ‘These men that have overturned the inhabited earth are present here also.’”—Acts 17:5, 6.
As capital of Macedonia, Thessalonica enjoyed some autonomy. Part of its self-government was a people’s assembly, or citizens’ council, that handled local public issues. The “city rulers,” or politarchs,b were high officials, duty-bound to keep order and defuse situations that could lead to Roman intervention and loss of the city’s privileges. So they would be disturbed to hear that public peace was threatened by these “troublemakers.”
Then came a most serious charge: “These men act in opposition to the decrees of Caesar, saying there is another king, Jesus.” (Acts 17:7) This, says a commentary, implied “sedition and rebellion” against the emperors, who “would not permit the name of [another] king to be mentioned in any of the vanquished provinces except by their permission.” Also, the fact that Jesus, whom Paul proclaimed as King, had been executed by Roman authorities on the very charge of sedition added to the plausibility of the accusation.—Luke 23:2.
The city rulers were agitated. But since there was no solid evidence and the accused could not be found, “after taking sufficient security from Jason and the others they let them go.” (Acts 17:8, 9) This arrangement could refer to a kind of bail by means of which Jason and other Christians guaranteed that Paul would leave the city and would not return to cause disturbance again. Perhaps Paul was alluding to this event when he mentioned that “Satan cut across [his] path” and prevented him from returning to the city.—1 Thessalonians 2:18.
In view of the situation, Paul and Silas were dispatched by night to Beroea. Paul’s ministry proved fruitful there as well, but this success so enraged his Jewish opponents in Thessalonica that they made the 50-mile (80 km) trip to Beroea to stir up the crowds and fan the flames of opposition. Paul was soon on the road again, heading for Athens, but the struggle for the good news was to continue.—Acts 17:10-14.
The Struggles of a Fledgling Congregation
Happily, a congregation was established in Thessalonica, but opposition was not the only challenge that Christians there faced. They lived in a pagan, immoral environment, and this made Paul apprehensive. How would his brothers fare?—1 Thessalonians 2:17; 3:1, 2, 5.
The Christians in Thessalonica knew that when they stopped taking part in the social and religious activities of the city, they would have to contend with the resentment and anger of their former friends. (John 17:14) In addition, Thessalonica abounded with sanctuaries of such Greek deities as Zeus, Artemis, and Apollo, as well as certain Egyptian gods. The imperial cult was also prominent, and all citizens had to observe its rites. Refusal to participate could be viewed as rebellion against Rome.
Idol worship fostered a climate of flagrant promiscuity. Cabirus, a patron god of Thessalonica; Dionysus and Aphrodite; and Isis from Egypt all had something in common: a highly sexualized worship full of orgiastic rites and revelries. Concubinage and prostitution flourished. Fornication was no sin to the people. Theirs was a society influenced by Roman culture, in which, according to a source, “citizens could draw upon the services of a whole population of men and women whose purpose was to satisfy their every desire—and physicians counseled that such desires ought not to be repressed.” Understandably, Paul admonished Christians there to “abstain from fornication” and to avoid “covetous sexual appetite” and “uncleanness.”—1 Thessalonians 4:3-8.
A Victorious Struggle
Christians in Thessalonica had to put up a hard struggle for the faith. Yet, in spite of opposition, hardship, and a pagan and immoral environment, they were commended by Paul for their ‘faithful work, loving labor, and endurance,’ as well as their contribution to the spreading of the good news far and wide.—1 Thessalonians 1:3, 8.
In 303 C.E., vicious persecution broke out in the Roman Empire against those professing Christianity. A chief instigator was Caesar Galerius, who resided in Thessalonica and adorned it with magnificent buildings. Ruins of some are still standing for tourists to see.
Today, Jehovah’s Witnesses in Thessaloníki preach to their neighbors, often right in front of structures built by that cruel enemy of Christianity. Though there were periods in the 20th century when they carried out their preaching work under harsh opposition, there are now about 60 zealous congregations of the Witnesses in the city. Their efforts show that the struggle to spread the good news that started so many centuries ago is still ongoing and still successful.
a Paul might have referred to what are now Psalm 22:7; 69:21; Isaiah 50:6; 53:2-7; and Daniel 9:26.
b This term was not found in Greek literature. Yet, inscriptions bearing it were uncovered in the Thessalonica area, some dating to the first century B.C.E., confirming the Acts account.
[Map on page 18]
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[Pictures on pages 20, 21]
Top: Thessaloníki today
Above: Arcade and Roman bathhouse in the Agora
Two bottom left images: 16th Ephorate of Prehistoric and Classical Antiquities, copyright Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Tourism
[Pictures on page 21]
The rotunda near Galerius’ Arch; a relief of Caesar Galerius; preaching near Galerius’ Arch
Middle image: Thessalonica Archaeological Museum, copyright Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Tourism
[Picture Credit Lines on page 18]
Head medallion: © Bibliothèque nationale de France; stone inscription: Thessalonica Archaeological Museum, copyright Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Tourism