Acts 17 – Who was Jason?

After Paul spends some time in Thessalonica, including three Sabbaths teaching in the local synagogue, The Jews stir up trouble, form a mob and rush to Jason’s house in order to bring Paul and Silas before the city officials. When the do not find Paul and Silas they drag Jason before the officials and make their accusations against Paul, pointing out that “Jason welcomed them.” Jason posted bond and was released (Acts 17:5-8).

Jason suddenly appears in the story in Acts 17 as Paul’s host in Thessalonica. Jason is a common Greek name and it is possible some Jews used it as a rough equivalent to Joshua. One of the rival high priests prior to the Maccabean Revolt was named Jason. This is usually explained as an example of Hellenization, rather than using the Hebrew name Joshua, he uses a Greek equivalent, Jason. It is impossible to know if the Jason in Acts 17 is Greek or Jewish simply from his name.

Since he hosts Paul, Silas, and Timothy in his home, commentaries often assume he was prosperous. But this may not be the case. In Acts 18:3 Paul stayed and worked with Aquila and Priscilla. As tent-makers they may have rented a workshop and lived in rooms attached to the workshop. Jason’s situation may have been better in Thessalonica; if he was a craftsmen with several storerooms he could have hosted several people in his home. For an illustration of the range of homes for early Christians, see Peter Oakes, Reading Romans in Pompeii (Fortress 2009).

On the other hand, Jason was able to post bond not only for himself but also for Paul and Silas (17:9). In the oft-quoted opinion of A. N. SherwinWhite, “What is happening to Jason is clear enough: he is giving security for the good behaviour of his guests, and hence hastens to dispatch Paul and Silas out of the way to Beroea, where the jurisdiction of the magistrates of Thessalonica was not valid” (Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament (Oxford, 1963], 63). Although we have no clue how much was required, that he could make any sort of payment is an indication he had some wealth.

I would also suggest Luke hay be drawing a parallel between Lydia in Philippi and Jason in Thessalonica. Both respond to the Gospel and host Paul’s ministry team in their homes. Luke often uses pairs of similar stories, one featuring a female and the other featuring a male. For example, in Acts 9:32-43 Peter heals Aeneas and raises Tabitha from the dead. Perhaps Luke gives us two examples of relatively wealthy patrons who host Paul in their homes and continue to host the church after Paul leaves the city.

Is Jason the same person Paul mentions in Romans 16:21? He refers to a Jason along with Sopater “my kinsmen.” The noun συγγενής can refer to a relative, but this can be as broad as saying “fellow Jew” (Keener, 3:2550). It is likely Romans was written from Corinth during the three months Paul stayed in Corinth in Acts 20:2-3. In 20:4 Luke indicates Paul was accompanied by Sopater of Berea and Aristarchus and Secundus from Thessalonica. Although this is possible, but since Luke is ready to identify a relative of Paul in Acts 23:16, it is more likely this Jason is not a relative of Paul. He is likely a Jew or God-fearing Gentle who heard Paul’s preaching in the synagogue and was among those who joined Paul and Silas (17:4).

That Paul and Silas are forced out of Thessalonica leaving Jason with a financial burden is an issue which likely haunted Paul. One of the main themes of 1 Thessalonians dealing with the charge Paul was a huckster who came to Thessalonica for personal gain and left Jason in financial and legal danger.

Acts 17:1-9 – Paul and the Empire in Thessalonica

After a successful time in the synagogue in Thessalonica, charges are made against Paul before the local Roman authorities (Acts 17:1-9). The charges against Paul are significant: he is accused of “defying the decrees of Caesar” and “advocating another king, Jesus.”  Given the recent history of Thessalonica, these are dangerous charges indeed.

Augustus-Caesar-StatueFirst, Paul and his companions are troublemakers. This could be standard rhetoric, although it does seem that wherever Paul goes there is trouble. But Rome did not particular care for trouble-makers. In fact, this phrase (οἱ τὴν οἰκουμένην ἀναστατώσαντες οὗτοι) literally means the ones who are turning the world upside down.” C Kavin Rowe uses this phrase as the title for his excellent book subtitled “Reading Acts in the Graeco-Roman Age.” As he points out in his chapter on Acts 17, to “turn the world upside down” is a grave accusation in the Roman world (p. 96). Luke used the phrase later in Acts to describe the revolutionary activities of the Sicarii, actions that will result in the Roman destruction of Jerusalem (Acts 21:38). It is possible to take this phrase not as “they are troublemakers” but rather as “they are rebels against the Roman Empire.”

Second, they subvert the decrees of Caesar. In 1 Thess 1:9 Paul says that the congregation has “turned form idols.” Obviously any pagan Gentiles saved during Paul’s time in the city would have turned from whatever idols they worshiped. But this “turning from idols” must have included the Roman cult.  If this is the case, then turning from the Roman cult could be understood as an act of disloyalty.  It is possible then that Gentile God-fearers still participated in some form of official cult, despite worshiping in the synagogue.

Third, they advocate another king, Jesus.  In 1 Thess 4 and 5 Paul clearly teaches that Jesus is coming back in power and he will establish his own glorious kingdom (1 Thess 2:19, for example).  This could easily be understood in terms of a change of emperors, that the empire of Rome was about to be supplanted with the empire of Jesus. It is clear, at least for Kavin Rowe, that “the figure to whom King Jesus is juxtaposed is beyond a doubt the Roman emperor” (p. 99).

Fourth, Paul’s preaching of the gospel challenges the truth of pax Romana. In 1 Thess 5:3, Paul says that when Jesus returns, it will be at a time when people are saying “peace and safety,” but they will in fact be destroyed.  Peace and security is exactly what was promised by the Empire, pax Romana meant that the empire was a safe and peaceful place to live.  Paul says there that the peace of Rome is an illusion.

All of this points to the radical nature of Paul’s gospel from a Roman perspective.  After the Jerusalem Council, we are well aware of how radical the gospel is from a Jewish perspective.  But now we see how dangerous the idea of Jesus can be from a Roman imperial perspective.  Paul is declaring that Jesus is the Real King and that his empire of peace is going to overwhelm the so-called peace of Rome.  This alternative way of viewing the world provoked violent reactions from Rome.

The Social Status of the Thessalonians

What was the ‘social setting” of the church at Thessalonica?  John Polhill 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.”   Second, 1 Thess 4:1-8 describes some sexual ethics problems in the church.  This would be more typical of a Gentile congregation than Jewish. Third, 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 least 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, Thessalonians, 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.  This is also the point where the letter is most challenging to the modern church.  If attending Church cost social status or hurt the ability to earn a good wage, or even hold a job in the community, would people still be interested in attending church? I suppose with many younger people choosing not to attend church it might not make much of a difference.

The Thessalonians endured economic persecution and remained faithful, I suspect the American church would shrink dramatically.

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.