Paul in Thessalonica
Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, OP
Paul’s halycon days in Philippi came to an abrupt end. His mission was so successful that the magistrates became anxious. He was making too many converts. One day without the semblance of trial they arrested Paul and his companions, scourged Paul and threw them into prison. That night an earthquake made it possible for the missionaries to escape, but they refused.
Paul’s dignity as a Roman citizen had been offended, and he insisted on a public apology. Reluctantly the magistrates ate humble pie. Not a very Christian attitude, it might be thought, but Paul was fighting for a minimum of de facto recognition of the Jesus movement, which had no legal status. He also wanted to scare the magistrates into keeping hands off the infant church in Philippi.
Nonetheless it was time to move on. Paul had spent a year in Philippi, and there was new missionary territory out to the west. He had only to follow the Via Egnatia, the great Roman road running the width of northern Greece.
Travellers were expected to get from Philippi to Thessalonica (modern Salonika), the capital of the Roman province of Macedonia in three days. It was only 90 miles. I suspect that it took Paul longer. His comfortable life in Philippi would have left him out of training. On the way he passed through two towns, Amphipolis and Apollonia, but he did not stop in either. This was a strategic decision.
Paul had realized that he could not afford to preach in every town and village just because it was there. He had to select places that in addition to absorbing his message could radiate it out. A capital city inevitably attracted business travelers who, if Paul could reach them, would bring the gospel back to their family and friends. Caravans going in all directions furnished security for his letter-carriers.
Paul was not long in Thessalonica when he fully realized how fortunate he had been in Philippi. The soft cushion provided by Lydia and her middle-class friends was completely lacking. He had to work very hard to keep his head above water. “We worked night and day that we might not burden any of you” 1 Thessalonians 2: 9; “we did not eat anyone’s bread without paying, but with labour and toil we worked night and day that we might not burden any of you” 2 Thessalonians 3: 8. The normal artisan laboured only from sunrise to sunset. If Paul had to work at night, it was because he had difficulty in making ends meet.
The further implication is that Paul’s converts, all of whom were pagans, were not able to help him financially. They too belonged to the working class, and had to slave twelve hours a day seven days a week to make a living. There is not the slightest hint of any wealthy patron at Thessalonica. There was no one to host the community, with the result that all were expected to make a contribution to the common meal.
Thessalonian Christians met in tenements, not in villas. The workshop, not the salon, was the scene of Paul’s ministry. He was desperately grateful for the generosity of Philippi, which aided him twice.
Despite these difficulties Paul was lucky in Thessalonica. Even though the working class had little leisure to listen to sermons, Paul’s preaching struck a chord. The god of the working class was Cabirus, a young man who had been unjustly killed, but who would return and reward his followers one day. About a generation before Paul arrived in Thessalonica Cabirus had been incorporated into the official cult of the city. This left the artisans and workers of Thessalonica without a benefactor. They naturally assumed that Cabirus, like other gods, was more responsive to the appeals and gifts of the wealthy. The dispossessed were very conscious of a spiritual vacuum.
Paul’s message filled this vacuum perfectly. Jesus had been murdered as a young man, but he had already risen from the dead and was rewarding his followers here and now. The Thessalonian proletariate desperately wanted to believe what Paul was saying.
It is not difficult to surmise that the hint of a new ‘god’, who would radically transform the situation of the underprivileged, would have been perceived by the municipal authorities as subversive. Before any action could be taken, however, Paul’s converts smuggled him and his companions out to Beroea, a nearby town. When his enemies followed him there, it was decided to move the missionaries to the great safety of a different Roman province. They were sent south by ship to Athens in the province of Achaia.