In Paul’s second missionary journey a definite pattern emerges. It isn’t so much a pattern of his enemies. If you’re keeping score Luke is remarkably even handed here with respect to the opposition. Sometimes Jews side with Paul or come to faith, sometimes they oppose him and behave badly. Sometimes the Romans are subject to political manipulation and commit injustice, often they are even handed and judicious in the use of their power. What is constant in Paul’s run through the towns of what is today Turkey and Greece is the desire to just make Paul go away.
Sympathy of the Jews and the Romans
I have a lot of sympathy for Paul’s Jewish, Greek and Roman audiences. I am continuously subjected to all sorts of religious appeals, Christian and otherwise. Many of these religious assertions are overt, many more are covert. Everyone has a religious take on this world and an “ought” attached to it. Everyone would like me to in one way or another accept, receive, comply, adopt or promote their agenda. When I read this stories I often ask myself “How would I have responded to Paul coming into my sphere of influence?” I suspect I would have been highly skeptical.
While we might not like the representation of the Jews of Thessalonica as being “jealous”. Just as was the case on the first missionary journey in Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13) the degree of interest and attention given Paul by the wealthy and influential God fearing men and women who had already been sympathetic to the synagogue would naturally have irked the rules of the synagogue. Here the synagogue leaders had done all of the hard work to build credibility and relationships with these potential Jewish converts and Paul swoops in at the last minute, grabs the attention and draws them away to this new brand of Judaism with a rather extreme heretical claim that in this Jesus of Nazareth the resurrection of the dead (as found in Daniel) has already begun. I’d be irked too.
Focus on the Resurrection
In Acts 17 Paul continues his method of focusing on the diaspora Jews and their Gentile “God fearers” as had been gathered by the synagogues. These were of course the natural community of Paul, Silas and Timothy. This was the context that they knew, had been a part of most of their lives, and felt very at home within. The new thing they bring to the conversation is not the Hebrew Scriptures (in Greek), those were already present and accepted, but rather the startling assertion that Jesus of Nazareth is the promised deliverer sent by God and seen through his resurrection from the dead. This assertion not only requires a re-orientation of their theology about the resurrection but also their expectations on what kind of Messiah Yhwh would send for their deliverance. This re-orientation was clearly a central focus of Jesus’ ministry and a central focus of the four canonical gospels we have in our Bibles today. Jesus was not anything like what was anticipated by any faction of the Jewish religious, political landscape so Paul in Thessalonica spends time walking them through the argument.
If no one had bought the argument then the synagogue leaders would have felt vindicated and simply sent them packing without much fanfare, but according to Luke it appears that a good number of the people the synagogue most valued and had hoped would stay and convert permanently were persuaded by Paul. What transpired was again similar to what happened in Pisidian Antioch in Acts 13, a rental mob was arranged to cause a disturbance so that the city officials would have to use their power to solve the problem of the synagogue leaders for them, not unlike what the Jerusalem officials did to Jesus.
Focus on Kingship
As we saw in the case of Jesus, the Jerusalem aristocracy and Pilate, the religious dispute within the Jewish community needed to be translated into something that Roman or civil law would recognize as a threat. In this case, given the fact that Thessalonica was a free city, the tact seemed to be the argument that Paul was promoting Jesus as a replacement emperor instead of the Caesars. There is reason to believe that part of Thessalonica’s political and economic capital was tied up with demonstrating loyalty to the emperor and supporting the cults of dead emperors. Were the charges necessarily spin though?
While both Paul and Peter would in their writings admonish the churches to obey the civil government there can be little doubt that allegiance to Jesus would undercut the full allegiance, civil and religious that the empire demanded. Both Paul and Peter would be killed by the empire, as was Jesus.
The mob attacked Jason’s house, the place where Paul was apparently lodging and Jason had to give the city a financial guarantee that Paul would leave town and cause no more trouble, which he did.
The Less Anxious Synagogue of Beroea
The synagogue of Beroea was apparently of a different sort than Thessalonica. These folks welcomed Paul and decided to carefully examine his argument and test them theologically against the Hebrew Scriptures they already professed. In being remembered by Luke in this way they become a favorite Protestant city, rewarded by being remembered by name through the naming rights for how many small Bible churches around the US today.
Things seem to go well but again, as had happened in Galatia in Acts 13 a group came from Thessalonica to try to keep the Pauline contagion from spreading and started to do the same thing in Beroea. The believers knew the script and so pre-empted the conclusions and got Paul out of the region, all the way down the coast to Athens.
The Upside of Paul’s Message to Diaspora Jewish Communities
The gospel is a strange mixture of an initial “why not give it a try” posture and a deeper, longer term realization that it disrupts our world at a fundamental level.
In the synagogues of both Pisidian-Antioch (Acts 13) and Thessalonica (Acts 17) Paul is given an initial hearing by the synagogue leaders. This makes sense given Paul’s credentials within Judaism and his contextual skill in the Jewish diaspora world. This is his world. He was raised in it and trained for it.
Now Paul with all of his exceptional skills and credentials brings to this world a historical claim (the resurrection of Jesus) combined with a theological reformulation that the Messiah was not a Palestinian military savior of Jews from the broader empire. I can very easily imagine that the specific expectation of a Messiah held by Diaspora Jews who were living in the broader empire would have been different from Jews living in Judea or the Galilee. Paul brings to Thessalonica a message of a suffering Messiah who is not simply a hero of ethnic Jews but a savior for the broader empire. This is a message that would have been deeply attractive not only to Diaspora Jews but even more so to God fearing Gentiles in their midst. Embracing Jesus initially looks like mostly upside.
Disruption for Established Authorities of Many Kinds
Luke makes is clear both in Acts 13 and 17 that jealousy was what motivated opposition to Paul’s message. The content of the message wasn’t the source of opposition, but rather the disruption implied by the content. Paul’s portrayal of Jesus within that context threatened to immediately disrupt the status quo on a practical, institutional level in the short term. This was obvious in the case of the synagogue leaders in Thessalonica. They wished to keep things the way they had it and they didn’t want their routines nor their preferred future disrupted by Paul and his message. The simplest means at their disposal was removal.
Their plan from this premise made perfect sense. Translate their short term goals to the civil authorities and demonstrate how both of their interests in are in alignment. Again, this is not wholly different from the bargain reached between the Jerusalem authorities and the Romans in Jesus’ case. Paul and his believers had not yet amassed the political clout to protect themselves in this context.
The charge the threatened Thessalonian synagogue leaders attach onto is that of politicking for a new future leader, something prohibited by Roman law.
At this juncture in the middle of the first century A.D. it is right to point out that the crime of treason (maiestas) was matter of public law, not Caesarean decree. What decrees, then, could be alluded to here? E. A. Judge has plausibly suggested the reference is to a ban on certain kinds of predictions, particularly predictions that have to do with the change of rulers or that suggest the demise of the current one due to ill health or the like. Tiberius had already issued in A.D. 16 a decree (dogma) prohibiting the practicing of such an art in the cities of the Empire (see Dio Chrysostom 57.15.8). In other words, from a careful analysis of the Thessalonian correspondence one can deduce that Paul could plausibly be charged with violating the decree against predictions of the coming of a new king or kingdom, especially one that might be said to supplant or judge the existing emperor (see 2 Thessalonians 2 and cf. Dio Cassius, Hist. 56.25.5f.; 57.15.8). These charges would be serious if Jews and others could substantiate that Paul’s discourse could be seen as potentially politically subversive.
Thus vv. 8–9 indicate that the officials took this as a serious matter, as did the people listening to these proceedings. The benefactions of the emperor might stop, indeed a city might be censured, if it was known that it harbored “enemies of the Roman order.”
Witherington III, B. (1998). The Acts of the Apostles : A socio-rhetorical commentary (508). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.