Historical and Political Context (in 1 & 2 Thessalonians)

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The Thessalonian correspondence should be read in the light of what can be known about the political history of Thessalonica. Political developments in the rest of the Greco-Roman world must also be considered. We must reckon with Paul's own background as a diaspora Jew, the existence of a Jewish community in Thessalonica, and the presence of a Jewish minority in the young Thessalonian congregation. In addition, we must give some attention to how this political context would be understood by Paul and by the Jewish population in this community. This essay is designed to sketch the historical and political developments as they impinge on our interpretation of 1 and 2 Thessalonians.

Thessalonica emerged as a politically prominent city during the Greek empire. During the period of Roman dominance, this city grew in its political importance. In what follows, we focus on some key developments locally, provincially, and internationally. These are selected with particular attention to those events deemed especially significant to Christians, both those (like Paul) whose roots lie within Judaism and those Gentiles who turned toward God away from idols to serve the living and true God and to await his Son from heaven (1 Thess. 1:9-10).

The Greek Empire 336 B.C.

The city of Thessalonica and the province of Macedonia feature prominently in the dramatic emergence of the Greek empire in the fourth century B.C. In 336 B.C., Alexander the Great, the son of Philip of Macedon, became king of Macedonia after his father was assassinated. Within a period of five years, Alexander and his armies gained supremacy over the Persian empire. Hellenistic culture and Greek religions were introduced to the subject peoples through the establishment of Greek cities throughout the Mediterranean region, including Palestine. In 323 B.C. Alexander died and the empire was divided among his generals.

316 B.C.

One of Alexander's generals, Cassander, founded the city of Thessalonica and named it in honor of his wife, Thessalonike, the stepsister of Alexander. The earlier city, Therme, and about twenty-five other towns or villages in the area became incorporated into this new city. The Gulf of Thessalonica provided a fine natural harbor for this city, thereby assuring convenient links for commercial, cultural, and military traffic.

167 B.C.

The region of Palestine had also become part of the Greek empire after Alexander's armies won a crucial battle over the Persians at Issus (near Tarsus of Cilicia) in 333 B.C. Greek cities with their theaters, gymnasiums, and schools introduced Hellenistic ideas and practices among the Jews and other peoples in Galilee, Samaria, and Judea. Eventually the encroachment of Greek culture and religion into the Jewish way of life provoked a violent reaction. The Maccabean Revolt, which began in 167 B.C. in Palestine, significantly shaped the collective psyche of the Jewish people, including those living in the diaspora. This revolutionary movement began after the Seleucid king, Antiochus IV Epiphanes of Syria (175-164 B.C.), introduced a policy forcing the Jews and other subject peoples to become Hellenized. This is how the author of 1 Maccabees describes the king's command:

The king sent letters by messengers to Jerusalem and the towns of Judah; he directed them to follow customs strange to the land, to forbid burnt offerings and sacrifices and drink offerings in the sanctuary, to profane sabbaths and festivals, to defile the sanctuary and the priests, to build altars and sacred precincts and shrines for idols, to sacrifice swine and other unclean animals, and to leave their sons uncircumcised.
 (1 Macc. 1:44-48)

A short time later, according to 1 Maccabees, the king's officers "erected a desolating sacrilege on the altar of burnt offering. They also built altars in the surrounding towns of Judah" (1:54). These provocative actions finally incited open revolt, led by the priest Mattathias and his sons from the village of Modein (1 Macc. 2). This uprising eventually succeeded in establishing a period of relative independence for the Jewish people.

Through the festival of Hannukah, the OT book of Daniel, and 1 and 2 Maccabees, the memory of this liberation movement remained alive. This story continued to shape Jewish self-awareness, despite the fact that the kingdom which the Maccabeans established ended in 64 B.C., when the Roman general Pompey conquered Syria, including Palestine. Diaspora Jews, including those in Thessalonica, also remembered this event.

The Roman Empire

Ever since the third century B.C., Rome had become increasingly ascendant in the Mediterranean region. Eventually the Roman empire absorbed all of the area previously ruled by the Greeks.

146 B.C.

Rome came to dominate both Macedonia and Achaia by about 148 B.C. In 146 Macedonia became a Roman province, with Thessalonica as its capital and the center of Roman administration in this region.

64 B.C.

Syria, which included Palestine, came under Roman control. During the next year, general Pompey arrived in Jerusalem and even entered the holy of holies in the temple (Josephus, Ant. 14.54-79 [14.4.1-5]). A lament by the pious Jew who writes the Psalms of Solomon clearly demonstrates the horror felt by the Jewish community in response to this desecration of the temple:

Arrogantly the sinner broke down the strong walls with a battering ram and you did not interfere. Gentile foreigners went up to your places for sacrifice; they arrogantly trampled it with their sandals. (Ps. of Sol. 2:1-2, from Charlesworth, 2:651-652)

42 B.C.

During the Roman Civil War and before the decisive battle of Philippi, the city of Thessalonica publicly supported Mark Antony and Octavian, who defeated Brutus (cf. Shakespeare, Julius Caesar) As a consequence of this support, Thessalonica in 42 B.C. gained the status of a free city, which included immunity from the payment of tribute and the right to establish its own city government. City officials called "politarchs" (Acts 17:6, NRSV note) were named to govern the city. To cultivate continued good relationships with Rome, city officials initiated games in honor of Roman victors, minted coins commemorating Roman emperors, and promoted the civic cult. [Philosophies, p. 364; Religions in the Greco-Roman World, p. 365.]

27 B.C.—A.D. 14

Octavian, later renamed Caesar Augustus, reigned as Roman emperor when Jesus was born (Luke 2:1). A temple of Caesar was built in Thessalonica during his reign. Coins acclaiming Julius Caesar as a god were minted in Thessalonica in about 27 B.C. During this time, the head of Augustus displaced the head of the Greek god Zeus on coins.

A.D. 14-37

Tiberius Caesar ruled as emperor when Jesus conducted his ministry (Luke 3:1) and Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea (A.D. 26-36). Tiberius actively discouraged the cult of the living emperor. In fact, he did not accept divine honors when they were extended to him.

A.D. 37-41

The reign of Gaius Caligula. Up to this point, the emperor was deified only after his death (Julius), or divine honors were accepted with a degree of modesty during the emperor's lifetime (Augustus), or deification and divine honors were resisted (Tiberius). Gaius, however, pursued divinity with vigor and passion. Josephus reports that "Gaius Caesar displayed such insolence at his accession to power that he wished to be thought of and addressed as a god" (War 2.184 [2.10.1]). Josephus goes on to say that Gaius ordered the Syrian governor Petronius to proceed to Jerusalem with an army to install statues of himself in the temple.

From Philo, a contemporary Jew (born ca. 13 B.C.) from Alexandria in Egypt, we have vivid testimony concerning how much this development upset the Jewish people, both in Palestine and throughout the Jewish diaspora. Philo participated in a delegation which sought to intervene directly with the emperor. From The Embassy to Gaius, we cite some emotion-laden excerpts. First, the quotation of a statement by King Herod Agrippa I (A.D. 40-44) concerning the depth of the diaspora Jews' emotional ties to Jerusalem and the temple:

While she, as I have said, is my native city, she is also the mother city not of one country Judaea but of most of the others in virtue of the colonies sent out at various times to the neighbouring lands Egypt, Phoenicia, the part of Syria called the Hollow and the rest as well and the lands lying far apart, Pamphylia, Cilicia, most of Asia up to Bithynia and the corners of Pontus, similarly also into Europe, Thessaly, Boeotia, Macedonia, Aetolia, Attica, Argos, Corinth and most of the best parts of Peloponnese. (Embassy 281)

When news arrived about Gaius's plan to erect a statue of himself in the Jerusalem temple, the people in Alexandria cry out,

Our temple is lost, Gaius has ordered a colossal statue to be set up within the inner sanctuary dedicated to himself under the name of Zeus. (188)

When finally Philo and the other ambassadors from Alexandria manage to present their case to the emperor, they are dismissed as fools. However, their trust in God prevails, even during the mockery of a hearing:

Since we all the time expected nothing else but death, in our deep distress our souls had passed from within us and went forth to supplicate the true God that he should restrain the wrath of the pretender to that name. (366)

Philo does not describe the eventual outcome of this crisis. Josephus, however, reports that Petronius did not implement Gaius's order. Before he could punish his deputy for disobeying the order, Gaius himself was assassinated (War 2.199-204 [2.10.5—11.1]). News of this close call traveled quickly to centers throughout the Mediterranean world where there were Jewish populations. This would undoubtedly have included Thessalonica.

A.D. 41-54

The reign of Claudius Caesar. Claudius reversed the oppressive policy of his predecessor Gaius. He returned to the form of the emperor cult established by Augustus. We illustrate by quoting from Claudius's edict:

Kings Agrippa and Herod, my dearest friends, having petitioned me to permit the same privileges to be maintained for the Jews throughout the empire under the Romans as those in Alexandria enjoy, I very gladly consented, not merely in order to please those who petitioned me, but also because in my opinion the Jews deserve to obtain their request on account of their loyalty and friendship to the Romans. In particular, I did so because I hold it right that not even Greek cities should be deprived of these privileges, seeing that they were in fact guaranteed for them in the time of the divine Augustus. It is right, therefore, that the Jews throughout the whole world under our sway should also observe the customs of their fathers without let or hindrance. I enjoin upon them also by these presents to avail themselves of their kindness in a more reasonable spirit, and not to set at nought the beliefs about the gods held by other people but to keep their own laws. (Josephus, Ant. 19.287-291 [19.5.3])

Even though Jews and other religious groups were granted more freedom than they experienced during the tenure of Gaius Caligula, Claudius also let it be known that there would be limits to such tolerance. As seen in the last sentence of the above quotation, Claudius specifically urges the Jews to be tolerant toward others and not to test the limits of their own privileges. We can readily detect a degree of imperial edginess toward the Jewish populations in the empire.

From the Jewish side, especially in Palestine, restlessness about Roman rule and outrage at any imperial claims of divinity continued to create instability. Josephus recounts that when some young men erected an image of Caesar in the Jewish synagogue of Dora, possibly as a prank, governor Petronius of Syria, wishing to avoid giving the Jews any occasion to proceed with desperate measures, acted quickly to denounce these young men and to remind them of the edict of Claudius (Ant. 19.300-310 [19.6.3]).

Several other crises erupted in Judea during Claudius's reign, when Cumanus served as procurator in Judea (A.D. 48-52). We mention one which could have been fresh in Paul's mind when in A.D. 50 he writes concerning the Judeans, that wrath has come upon them until the end (1 Thess. 2:16). An obscene gesture by a Roman soldier, stationed in Jerusalem during the Feast of Unleavened Bread, led to an open riot (War 2.223-227 [2.12.1]; Ant. 20.105-112 [20.5.3]). When Cumanus sent for troop reinforcements, panic ensued.

When these troops poured into the porticoes, the Jews were seized with uncontrollable panic and turned to fly from the Temple courts into the city. So violently did the dense mass struggle to escape through the exits that they were trodden underfoot and, crushing one another, more than thirty thousand people died. Thus the Feast ended in total distress to the nation and mourning in every household. (Josephus, War 2.227 [2.12.1])

Even if one allows for some exaggeration by Josephus (his parallel account in Ant. 20.112 [20.5.3] estimates the number of deaths at twenty thousand), this was a catastrophe of gigantic proportions. This disaster could easily have led to the deaths of members of diaspora Jewish families on pilgrimage in Jerusalem for the Feast.

Several other catastrophes to strike Judeans might have had a similar impact on diaspora Jews. One was the insurrection led by Theudas in A.D. 44-46 (Ant. 20.97- 99 [20.5.1]; cf. Acts 5:36). The other was the famine in Judea in A.D. 46-47 (Ant. 20.101 [20.5.2]; cf. Acts 11:28). These catastrophes could also have been interpreted as expressions of divine wrath (Jewett, 1986:37-38).

Another event during Claudius's reign undoubtedly sent shock waves throughout the Jewish communities around the Mediterranean. Claudius issued an edict expelling Jews from Rome. This expulsion is mentioned by Luke in an aside about Paul's initial meeting with Priscilla and Aquila:

There [Corinth] he [Paul] found a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had ordered all Jews to leave Rome. (Acts 18:2)

The Roman historian Suetonius also alludes to Claudius's decision to banish the Jews from Rome:

Since the Jews constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he expelled them from Rome. (Claudius 25.4)

This event has generally been dated in A.D. 49, based on the testimony of the historian Orosius, who refers to "the expulsion of Jews by Claudius in his ninth
year" (Orosius, History 7.6.15, cited by Murphy-O'Connor: 130). Some scholars question Orosius' accuracy and posit a date earlier in Claudius's reign, A.D. 41 (Luedemann: 164-171; Murphy-O'Connor: 130-140). However, we continue to locate this event in A.D. 49 because of the more congenial attitude toward the Jews in the edict earlier in Claudius's reign (cited above), the alignment of Acts 18:2 with the historical references in Suetonius and Orosius, and the further corroborative data regarding Gallio (Acts 18:12 and an inscription at Delphi; Faw, 1993:209; Jewett, 1979:36-38).

Likely "Chrestus" in Suetonius's statement means Christ. What kinds of disturbances were instigated because of Christ? The Jewish communities in Rome were divided over whether to regard Jesus as the Messiah. There might also have been differing judgments on the extent to which the Jewish synagogues in Rome should identify with the growing Zealot movement in Palestine and its mood of rebellion (cf. Rom. 13:1-7). Either or both of these issues could possibly have become contentious enough within the Jewish population in Rome to provoke the Emperor Claudius to expel the Jews from the city.

A.D. 54-68

During the reign of emperor Nero, the Zealots and other revolutionaries opposed to Roman rule in Palestine began their open revolt. The Jewish War of A.D. 66-70 culminated in the devastation of the city of Jerusalem and the desecration and destruction of the Jewish temple.

Literature dealing with the historical and political context is voluminous. The above material is based on articles and books such as Donfried, 1985; Bruce, 1977: ch. 21; Hendrix; Jewett, 1986: ch. 7; Puskas: ch. 1; Koester, 1: sect. 1, 6.

Jacob W. Elias