Was Thessalonica a “Gentile” Church?

What was the ‘social setting” of the church at Thessalonica?  Pollhill has a good summary of the usual arguments for the church being primarily Gentile (P&HL, 185).  But this is problematic because Acts tells us that the congregation was formed after a period of time teaching in the Synagogue. In addition, Jews stirred up trouble for Paul out of jealousy – presumably because of his success in their synagogue.

The argument that the recipients of the letters are Gentiles rests on three observations.  First, they are said to have turned “to God from idols.”  Paul would not describe a Jewish convert as “turning from an idol.”   Secondly, 1 Thess 4:1-8 describes some sexual ethics problems in the church.  This would be more typical of a Gentile congregation than Jewish. Thirdly, 1 Thessalonians does not quote from the Old Testament,  although 2 Thess seems to allude to the Hebrew Bible.  If the church were written to a gentile audience with very little synagogue training and knowledge, we would expect few biblical quotations.

So where to these Gentiles come from? If the Gentile converts were God-fearers from the synagogue, then it is also unlikely that they would have “turned from idols” since they were worship God in the synagogue.  In addition, a Gentile God-fearer might be expected to know as much of the Hebrew Bible as a Jewish person.  The fact that the second letter is laced with allusions to the Hebrew Bible makes me think that there are other reasons for the lack in 1 Thessalonians.  Paul was only in the city for a short time and there is no reference to evangelism in the marketplace, but he may have made contacts there which Luke chose not to report.

I think that the answer goes back to the persecution faced by the church.  If they are persecuted for “rejecting Rome,” perhaps some of the “prominent people” Luke mentions in Acts 17:4 left the Christian church and returned to the synagogue, or to secular life.  Those who remained “turned from idols,” specifically the national Roman cult.  Someone like Jason was able to use wealth and power to deal with the court system in the city, so there is at lesat an implication that he was wealthy and connected politically.  Perhaps Jason or other wealthy persons had left  the church by the time Paul writes (suggested by Adolf Deissmann, c.f., Malherbe, 65).

The letter itself seems to praise the church for their strength in persecution, so maybe it is not wise to make too much of this alleged defection of some prominent converts, but it might explain the last of Jewish allusions in the letter.

21 thoughts on “Was Thessalonica a “Gentile” Church?

  1. Phillip,

    as I understand it, there is increasing evidence that God-fearers could simultaneously be devotees of other gods. I think Phil Harland discusses this phenomenon of multiple allegiances, and there is some evidence from the Aphrodisias inscriptions. So, it is possible that God-fearers ‘turned to God from idols’.

    Concerning Jason, he appears in Rom 16 as a Jew and a prominent companion of Paul. It is not clear why he was with Paul in Corinth at this time since his name does not appear in the list of collection delegates in Acts 20:4. Instead Acts 20:4 has another Jew, Aristarchus from Thessalonica. To resolve this problem, I propose that “Aristarchus”, meaning “best leader”, was Jason’s new name/alias. Perhaps Jason was given this name to honor him for his benefactions. Or, perhaps he left Thessalonica and took a new identity and a new name to get around the restrictions that the city authorities had imposed upon him. This is speculative, of course, but there would be parallels with the more assured case of another benefactor, Crispus, who received he name “Sosthenes”.

    So, while 1 Thess says that the readers had turned from idols, there is no contradiction with Acts if we suppose that Jason/Aristarchus had left the city, and that the other converts had been polytheistic God-fearers.

  2. >God-fearers could simultaneously be devotees of other gods

    I will have to look at Harland – do you have a title handy? I browsed his website but nothing jumped out at me. He has some great Artemis photos right now.

    My guess is that a soldier (Cornelius) might have to honor some god / Roma, but I would like to examine the evidence that implies God-Fearers were worshiping other gods. In the mean time, I’ll say it is less likely than for Jews to describe these people as turning from idols.

    Jason in Acts 17 is likely the same as in Romans, but it is hard to be absolutely certain since the name was common. I have a bit of trouble with “Jason = Aristarchus” since Jason can be the hellenized version of Joshua. Your speculation that the new name was given to him works, I suppose, if they are the same person. Aristarchus is a name found among lists of poliarchs in Thessalonica, Jason does seem to have connections, so perhaps they are the same person without a “new name” given in Christ.

    I do not think there is a contradiction, btw. I think that the church addressed in the letter is “very Gentile” as opposed to a mixed congregation.

  3. Interesting. Would it be so problematic for it to be a mixed congregation? Having both Jews and Gentiles in the congregation seems to me to solve all of the issues presented, which leads me to believe I’m missing something…

  4. Nope, I don’t think that you’re missing a thing Nobel. Paul began his founding of the church in a “Jewish Synagogue” (Acts 17.1) for three Sabbath days, or three weeks. This lead to v.4 telling us that “some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, including great number of God-fearing Greeks, as well as a number of leading women.” So it was definitely a mixed congregation.

  5. Let me rehabilitate my initial point. Yes it is a mixed congregation, but the congregation is mercifully free of the problems which we read about in Galatians, and there is very little in the letter which can be described as “Jewish,” especially allusions to the Hebrew Bible so common in the other letters. My point was, “why is the congregation not as mixed as Luke tells us?” One option is that Acts is wrong (but I am not happy with that), a second is that the letter is more Jewish than I (and Polhill, and nearly everyone) makes it out to be. Or, thirdly, since Paul left the Jews became a non-factor in the new congregation. A fourth option, now that a ruminate a bit, is that the new congregation made great inroads into the Gentile community of Thessalonica, and the Jews are less of a factor.

  6. With regards to Thessalonica being a predominantly Gentile Church and few more things can be said. Quoted from above: “Paul was only in the city for a short time and there is no reference to evangelism in the marketplace, but he may have made contacts there which Luke chose not to report.” Paul definitely began his ministry in the Synagogue, but his message was indeed for the Gentiles as well. Simply because there is no mention of his direct ministry in the market does not mean that it did not exist, rather Paul’s ministry in Thessalonica has been one which has been argued in favor of Paul ministering while he literally worked (tent making?) to provide for himself (a theme that is repeated in both I and II Thess.). “It is also quite possible that his workshop was a place of witness for him.” (Polhill 190). With regards to this point, Paul had left his example of working so as not to be a burden on the church. This would mean that he was in fact in the city for quite some time. It is possible that Paul was in the city for quite some time and did a great deal of evangelism with the Gentiles.

  7. The fourth possibility presented by P.Long seems very feasible/possible, especially in light of I Thess. 1:6-8
    “You became imitators of us and of the Lord; in spite of severe suffering, you welcomed the message with the joy given by the Holy Spirit. And so you became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia. The Lord’s message rang out from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia-your faith in God has become known everywhere.”
    The Thessalonian believers were persevering with such strength and reaching out so fervently that all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia had heard of their faith. This is great evidence even from the beginning of the letter that regardless of what the demographics of the initial group were, they were reaching Gentiles, and not a few. Therefore the Thessalonian church would have been predominantly Gentile.

  8. To me the Thessalonian letter does not seem to be very controversial, may its just my upbringing. The beginning of the book shows the quality of the church at Thessalonica, their, ” work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1:3) this would seem to be within the context of the Gentile church Paul mainly dealt with. Also in 1:8, “your faith in God has become known everywhere” seems to point to the overarching truth that Caleb mentioned, that no matter what the demographic of believers were…”The Lord’s message rang out” which was to be commended considering the great persecution endured by the Christian of whatever background.

  9. in looking at the evidence for a predominately Jewish congregation and the evidence for a predominately Gentile congregation, it seems all evidence is constructive. What I mean is that I don’t see any evidence saying that there was a lack of Jews or Gentiles in the congregation. I am curious however, regarding the importance of referenceing the OT in 2 Thessalonians and the lack of references in the 1 Thessalonians. I would think that Paul would reference the OT whereever it helped to make his point regardless of whom he was addressing. We know from 2 timothy 3 that Paul recognized the importance the OT for all believers.

  10. I would agree with Zach on this point. I don’t see either predominately a Jewish or Gentile congregation. From reading 1 and 2 Thessalonians I believe there is a good blend of both. In 1 Thessalonians 5:13 Paul is instructing the church to live in peace with one another. To me I am seeing this as a guide and instruction for Jews and Gentiles to respect each other, and love one another. Especially considering the arguement about table fellowship and circumsicion perhaps Paul is reminding them about the ruling at the Jerusalem council.

  11. Phillip,

    It’s a while since I looked at this issue, and I don’t have the references to hand, but Phil Harland deals with related issues in “Associations, Synagogues, and Congregations” p219-237.

    There are councillors among the God-fearers in the Aphrodisias inscription, and they would have had to participate in public sacrifices (or so I read).

    Was the Jason of Rom 16 the same as the Jason of Acts 17, or what he a Corinthian, as some people suppose? An important question here is how common the name was in Corinth. A search of the online version of the Lexicon of Greek Personal Names suggests that the name may not have been so common in the Peloponnese, but I will have to examine the paper editions in the library to get better spacial resolution of the distribution of Jasons.

    The people who send greetings in Rom 16:21-23 are given in the order that they became part of Paul’s team:
    Titus-Timothy, Paul’s early convert (Gal 2:1-3)
    Lucius, who was probably the Luke who wrote Luke-Acts and accompanied Paul on the 2MJ
    Sosipater, =Sopater of Beroea (Acts 20:4)
    Gaius, = Titius Justus (Acts 18:7), one of the first converts in Corinth
    Erastus, another Corinthian

    So, it seems that Jason came into association with Paul before Paul’s first visit to Beroea. The Jason of Acts 17 fits.

    Anyway, Jason and Aristarchus were both Jews from Thessalonica, and he/they seem to re-appear everywhere except in Thessalonica (Acts 19:29, Rom 16: 21, Acts 20:4, Acts 27:2). Whether they were two people or one, the Gentile character of the church of Thessalonica at the time of 1 Thess is explicable of he/they had left town. There are other examples of Christian benefactors having to leave town. Consider the movements of Prisca and Aquila from Rome to Corinth and then from Corinth to Ephesus. Consider also Crispus-Sosthenes who moved from Corinth to Ephesus at about the same time. So if we ask what happened to the Jewish Christians in Thessalonica, I think we should think in terms of exile rather than re-assimilation into the synagogue.

  12. I agree with Zach and Jed on this one. I don’t think that either Jews or Gentiles are dominant in the Thessolonian congregation. I think that Zach addresses a great point though regarding Paul referencing the OT.

  13. Greetings all I found your blog today and have read everyone’s opinion and understandings and found them to be interesting points. I hope what I have learned may be helpful in this quest to rightly divide the Lords Word. So I present to you some questions and consideration that came to me while trying to answer this for myself.

    First, would we consider Paul or those who wrote for Paul ignorant or educated in writing and grammar? Seeing how Paul was of the highest religious sect, I feel safe in saying that he was educated in both writing and grammar.
    If this be true then its possible we can find the answer in 1 Thessalonians 2: 14-16 where Paul commends the brethren in Thessalonica for there perseverance in persecution. Here in verse 14 Paul makes a distinction in that he says that you have suffered like things of your own countrymen even as they have of the Jews.
    So Paul is telling them they have done well and that they imitate the churches in Judaea which are in Christ, by staying faithful while being persecuted by their own countrymen like those in Judaea had done when being persecuted by their own countrymen the Jews.

    Second, Could not have Paul used better grammar to describe their plight if he were referring a predominate Jewish congregation by stating we have both suffered for our countrymen the Jews. For this cause I believe he deliberately made the distinction between the two because they were indeed different, those in Judaea being predominately Jewish and those in Thessalonica being predominately gentile.

    14 For ye, brethren, became followers of the churches of God which in Judaea are in Christ Jesus: for ye also have suffered like things of your own countrymen, even as they have of the Jews:

    15 Who both killed the Lord Jesus, and their own prophets, and have persecuted us; and they please not God, and are contrary to all men:

    16 Forbidding us to speak to the Gentiles that they might be saved

    • Hi Dale, thanks for the comment. You are correct that Paul was highly educated and selected his words and grammar intentionally. An additional factor is the use of a secretary to help write letters – this was common and one even greets the readers in Romans 16:22. A third factor is that most people would have heard this letter read aloud by a personal representative of Paul, so that reader might be able to explain Paul’s point if there was a misunderstanding.

      My point in this post was that there is a lack of allusion to the OT, which might imply a more gentile congregation. We really do not have a good example of Paul writing to a “mostly Jewish” congregation, like Hebrews or James for example. In both of those letters there are many references to the OT and quite a bit that resonates with Jewish culture, wisdom literature, etc. Paul does that in Romans and Galatians, but not at the rate found in Hebrews or James.

      I think that it is probably the case that there were Jews in all of Paul’s congregations, Galatia is probably the highest percentage, (maybe) Thessalonica is the lowest. This is hard to guess since a Gentile “God Fearer” would know the OT very well, a pagan convert might not understand every allusion, but they will learn over time.

  14. Phillip,
    Thanks for your acknowledgement into my perspective, but I’m curious as to what your opinion would be as to why it would matter if Paul was writing to a predominately Jewish or Gentile congregation in Thessolanica.

    • I think that these kind of background questions matter for interpretation of the text. Biblical Scholars do like to pound out every detail, and the situation of the recipients of a letter is important, although sometimes tedious.

      For example, in 1:9, the people turned from idols. If the context is more Jewish than non, then we have a problem to explain (Jewish people cannot really be described as idolatrous in AD 50). Another example might be the choice of words to describe the meeting of the Lord in the air in 4:13-18. If the congregation is more or less Jewish, I might read that text in the light of the OT and contemporary Jewish lit. But if they are Gentiles, then the Roman background of an Emperor visiting a Roman city might be more appropriate.

      If the congregation is mixed, then there is a curious lack of tension with respect to the Law that appears in Galatians. If they are mostly Gentile, that is not a real problem.

      Those are just a couple of examples off the top of my head….

      • I’m not sure I follow you in your example of the 4: 13-18 meeting the Lord in the air. What significant difference would it make as to what context one would view it in, whether they be OT Jews or Romans either way they have been converted into the new testament gospel. The good news. Therefore those to whom Paul is speaking to is the believers, the born again, those who were in darkness, the blind who can now see by the power of the Holy Spirit. As stated in verses 8 and 9 along with the previous part of this chapter is to both admonish, encourage and defining the living of Christian life. Verse 13 through the end of the chapter is to enlighten them too the correct understanding of the resurrection to the Jews whom in at least one sect didn’t believe in a resurrection and to the gentile who believed in reincarnation, the regeneration from the under world ” isis, set, thor and so on. I perceive that their general perspective view would vary do to their differing cultural and religious believes that is the purpose here in Paul’s writing is to educate, give assurance, strength and confidence to the new converts of the faith.

        So the real gest of my questioning to all concerned is was this letter and / or the second letter written exclusively to the Jews? And is the first letter and the second letter written to the same church?

  15. Hi Dale, I suppose the point is the rhetorical value of the metaphor. People in America “get” a baseball metaphor, while people living in Africa may not. People living in India would be a Cricket metaphor, Americans would be clueless. With respect to the language used 1 Thess 4, the words Paul chose “resonate” with the picture of the highest Roman official visiting a city – you send people out greet them and accompany them in to the city. Perhaps that language has more impact with a generally Gentile congregation than with a Jewish one.

    That is my point, it is a small one.

    You say…”Jews whom in at least one sect didn’t believe in a resurrection and to the gentile who believed in reincarnation…” You are going to have to make a case that Sadducee were active in synagogues, outside of Jerusalem, as far away as Thessalonica. To my knowledge, there is no evidence that Sadducee were active in Diaspora contexts; Pharisees possibly, but they did believe in a resurrection. I also think that you will need to show that the Isis cult had any kind of influence on Thessalonican culture, to the point that there would be anyone in the congregation that was importing that theology into the new Christian movement.

  16. Thanks Philip,

    I think we agree in some regards that whatever culture or religion you were brought in it would almost always if not always influence ones perspective. There are two peoples in the world Jews and Gentiles. If Jewish, the majority would have one of three beliefs. 1 that there is a resurrection, 2 that there is no resurrection 3 that God doesn’t exist and the same holds true for the Gentiles as well. It was stated earlier in the form and reference was made that they, the church in Thessalonica had turned from idols, and an idol is putting ones trust in something other than the one true God and in most cases that is some form of pagan god worship and in which just about all religions in the world believe in some form of afterlife.
    So I would with the full confidence answer that most if not all of those in the church in Thessalonica would have previously fell into one of the three beliefs, and as mentioned earlier Paul was teaching and explaining the true understanding into the hope we have pertaining to life after this life, as everyone well understands at some point we are all going to face physical death here on this earth. Trying to figure out how to escape death is probably man’s greatest constant desired efforts other than desiring to create or be their own god, and these desires I believe are what is to going lead to the great falling away and the revealing of the man of sin.
    Therefore most everyone has some kind of concern as to what happens beyond this life and what will become of them in that domain.
    Most beautifully and simplistic is the gospel to be understood when one is drawn by the Holy Spirit and shown by the scriptures the way. Moreover this is what separates the bible from any other, it is the living word of God, and was applicable in that time, cultures and religions as well as ours. To make one wise in the knowledge of gift of everlasting live through salvation in Jesus the Christ, and to those of the future whenever the appointed time comes.
    I can’t help but see by the evidences made known in this form that the Thessalonica Church was made up of predominately gentile people, but let’s say that’s not so and it was made up predominately of Jews. Would the letter then had referred only to the Jewish part of the congregation? Would Paul have then been deceiving the gentiles of the congregation by teaching them things that didn’t apply to them without making a distinction ? I think not. I also agree with the comment of Paul working in the market place as being a potential avenue to spread the gospel and I would agree with a resounding yes, If I have even the vaguest idea as to Paul’s character towards an opportunity to spread the gospel, it would have been in his work, in walking to and from work, in business transaction and in any other facet of his life perhaps even in resting. So with Thessalonica being a gentile city, Paul and his new converts would have without a doubt proselytized a great many throughout the city.

    Regards Dale

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