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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Thessalonica

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(Θεσσαλονίκη, now Salonika)

Thessalonica was a large and important Macedonian city, whose original name of Therme, derived from the hot springs found in the vicinity, was preserved in the Thermaicus Sinus, the bay at the head of which the city stood. Refounded by Cassander about 315 b.c., it was named after his wife Thessalonica, the sister of Alexander the Great. ‘He pulled down the cities in the district of Crucis and on the Thermaic Gulf, collecting the inhabitants into one city’ (Strabo, VII. fr. [Note: fragment, from.] 21). The site was well chosen alike for defence and for commerce. Rising in tiers of houses from the sea-margin to the top of rocky slopes, and surrounded by high white walls, the city presented a striking appearance from the sea. Receiving the products of the vast and fertile plain watered by the Axius and the Haliacmon, it was the most populous city in Macedonia (Strabo, VII. vii. 4) and had a large share in the commerce of the aegean. Under the Romans it became the capital of one of the four districts into which Macedonia was divided, and afterwards the virtual capital of the whole province. It was made a strong naval station, and during the first Civil War became the headquarters of Pompey and the senate. Having afterwards favoured the side of Octavian and Antony in the struggle with Brutus and Cassius, it was rewarded by being made a free city of the Empire. Cicero, who spent seven months of exile in it, was struck by its central position, the Thessalonians seeming to him ‘positi in gremio imperii nostri’ (de Prov. Consul, ii. 4).

With unerring judgment St. Paul chose Thessalonica as the scene of one of his missionary campaigns. He must have seen its strategic importance. If his aim was to establish Christianity in the governing and commercial centres of the Empire, in order that the light might radiate over the widest areas, his choice of Thessalonica was justified by an immediate and signal success. From the Christians of this city the word of the Lord sounded forth like a trumpet (ἐξήχηται) not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but ‘in every place’ (1 Thessalonians 1:8).

As a civitas libera Thessalonica enjoyed autonomy in all internal affairs. It was the residence of the provincial governor, but in ordinary circumstances he exercised no civic authority. The city was ruled by its own magistrates, who were known as politarchs (Acts 17:6). Luke’s accuracy in the use of political terms is here strikingly illustrated. The term πολιτάρχαι is not found in any classical author, though the forms πολιάρχοι and πολιτάρχοι occur; but the inscription on a marble archway, probably erected in the time of Vespasian and still spanning a street of modern Thessalonica, begins with the word ΠΟΛΙΤΑΡΧΟΤΝΤΩΝ, which is followed by the names of seven magistrates. As part of its constitution Thessalonica had no doubt a senate and public assembly, but it is not clear whether the people (δῆμος) to whom an attempt was made to bring out Paul and Silas was the regular public meeting, as W. M. Ramsay thinks (St. Paul the Traveller and the Roman Citizen, London, 1895, p. 228), or the disorderly mob. In a free city even the canaille of the forum-οἱ ἀγοραῖοι-liked to feel that they had a semblance of power, and their passions could easily be played upon by flattering and panic-mongering demagogues.

But St. Paul’s real enemies in Thessalonica were his own compatriots, who had been attracted to the city as a busy mart of commerce. Evidence of the presence of Jews in Macedonia is to be found in Philo’s version of an Epistle of Agrippa to Caligula (de Virtut. et legat. ad Caium, 36). Their numbers and influence in Thessalonica are indicated by the ‘great multitude’ of Greeks who had accepted the Jewish faith (Acts 17:4), as well as by the case with which they made the city crowd the instrument of their will. St. Paul went to the synagogue of Thessalonica, doubtless a splendid one, according to his custom (κατὰ τὸ εἰωθός; cf. Luke 4:16), his rule being to go ‘to the Jew first’ (Romans 2:9-10). His preaching and reasoning on three successive Sabbaths-or perhaps during three whole weeks (σάββατα)-ended in the inevitable quarrel between Jew and Jewish Christian. Luke’s succinct narrative might be supposed to imply that St. Paul’s work in the city did not extend beyond the synagogue, and that Jewish intrigues compelled him to leave at the end of three weeks; but that can scarcely be the historian’s meaning. Time must be allowed for the conversion of a large number of the Gentile population of Thessalonica, for the founding of an important and influential church, and for the Christians of Philippi, 100 miles distant, sending St. Paul their gifts ‘once and again’ (Philippians 4:16). The Apostle himself recalls a fruitful ministry among the Thessalonians, in which he ‘dealt with each one’ not publicly but privately, ‘as a father with his own children’ (1 Thessalonians 2:11), till he had formed the nucleus of a Christian church. This quiet house-to-house work could not be compressed into three weeks. Ramsay thinks that St. Paul’s residence in Thessalonica probably lasted from Dec. a.d. 50 to May 51 (St. Paul the Traveller, p. 228). J. Moffatt’s suggestion of a month or two (Expositor’s Greek Testament iv. 3) seems barely sufficient.

As the hostile Jews of Thessalonica knew that they could not silence St. Paul by fair means, they resorted to foul, getting the rabble of the forum to do the work of which they personally were ashamed. The accusation which was trumped up against the Apostle amounted to high treason (Acts 17:7), and resembled the charge that had been levelled against Jesus Himself (John 19:12; John 19:15). There was hypocrisy in the indictment. The Messianic hope cherished by every devout Israelite was counted no crime, yet the actual proclamation of ‘another king, Jesus,’ is set down as an act of open rebellion, and the Jews of Thessalonica, like those of Jerusalem, have no king but Caesar. Though only the most ignorant of the populace took the charge seriously, and the politarchs soon satisfied themselves that it was baseless, yet laesa maiestas was much too grave a matter to be dealt with lightly.

Tacitus says that already in the reign of Tiberius ‘the charge of treason formed the universal resource in accusations’ (Ann. iii. 38), and in course of time it became more and more common. The mere suspicion of maiestas was many a man’s ruin. Pliny the younger says in his panegyric of Trajan that nothing enriched the exchequer of the prince and the public treasury so much as the charge of treason, ‘singulare et unicum crimen eorum qui crimine vacarent’ (Paneg. 42).

The magistrates of Thessalonica saw that they had to demonstrate their loyalty to the Empire. As the peace of the city had been disturbed, the angry passions of the ‘wild beast’ aroused, and a dangerous state of public feeling created, they felt justified in binding over the Apostle’s friends-Jason and others-to keep the peace, and in the circumstances this could be done only if those friends advised the man who was the innocent cause of the disturbance to leave the town. Against the verdict of civic prudence it was vain to protest, but St. Paul evidently continued to chafe long under the ingenious device which made the honour of his friends a barrier between him and the work he had so successfully begun. It was such subtlety, and not the hatred of the mob, that made him think of the devices of Satan (1 Thessalonians 2:18).

The Christians of Thessalonica must have endured some persecution after he tore himself away from them. They imitated the Judaea n churches in patient suffering (1 Thessalonians 2:14). It was three or four years before St. Paul could return to Macedonia (1 Corinthians 16:5), and he certainly would not fail to visit the capital, unless its gates were still shut against him. Members of the church of Thessalonica whose names are known are Jason, Gaius, Secundus, Aristarchus, and perhaps Demas. In post-apostolic times the gospel made rapid progress in Thessalonica, which became one of the bulwarks of Eastern Christendom, winning for itself the name of ‘the Orthodox City.’ It has now a population of 130,000, of whom 60,000 are Sephardic Jews, speaking a corrupt form of Spanish, called Ladino.

Literature.-W. M. Leake, Travels in Northern Greece, London, 1835; Murray’s Handbook to Greece, do., 1900, 822-833.

James Strahan.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Thessalonica'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdn/t/thessalonica.html. 1906-1918.

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