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The Thessalonian Christian Community As A Professional Voluntary Association
Richard S. Ascough
Among scholars of the NT there is a growing awareness of the importance of studies of early Christianity that take seriously local peculiarities. Exegetes recognize that NT texts must be read in the light of the social situation to which each was addressed if they are to be properly understood.1 In this article we will attempt to do this by investigating the social makeup of the Thessalonian Christian community. Overall, we hope to show that the Thessalonian Christian community founded by Paul was similar in composition and structure to a professional voluntary association.
I. The Thessalonians as Gentiles
According to Acts 17:1–9 Paul created the Thessalonian church from Jews and God-fearers whom he “stole away” from the synagogue at Thessalonica. Commentaries on 1 Thessalonians generally rely on this account for understanding how the Thessalonian Christian community was formed. However, while there is no denying the connection of early Christianity to first-century Judaism generally, in the specific case of the Thessalonian Christian community, all the evidence suggests that if there were any Jews and “God-fearers” in the congregation their presence was small enough that their Jewish background does not seem to be a factor in the overall ethos of the congregation.
The primary piece of evidence for the Gentile composition of the Thessalonian Christian community comes from 1 Thess 1:9, which indicates that prior to their conversion the Thessalonians had been involved in “worshiping idols,” an unlikely designation for Jews or God-fearers. Elsewhere in the letter Paul gives no special attention to Jewish persons or practices, including synagogue practices, and there is little use of the Hebrew Bible or the LXX.
The depiction in Acts 17:1–9 reflects one of the clear concerns of the writer of Acts—to show how closely tied Christianity is to Judaism. Thus, in Acts Paul always goes first to the Jews but is rejected so turns to the Gentiles. This is not the picture of Paul’s missionary strategy that emerges from Paul’s letters, however, where he clearly identifies himself as the “apostle to the Gentiles” (Rom 11:13).
The primarily Gentile composition of the Thessalonian church is not surprising, given the Macedonian context. A review of ancient literature finds only one clear reference to Jews in Macedonia in the first century CE: Philo’s record of a letter from Herod Agrippa (37–44 CE) to Caligula, which notes that most provinces in Rome’s control include a Jewish population, listing among them Macedonia (Leg. Gai. 281–83). Agrippa’s point, however, is to indicate how widespread Judaism has become. The comments are so general that Agrippa (or Philo in recreating the letter) may simply have affirmed a Macedonian Jewish community with little knowledge to the contrary.
I. Levinskaya provides a more hopeful picture when she concludes that epigraphic evidence from Macedonia “supports the picture we can obtain from the book of Acts.” In reality, the epigraphical evidence is only slightly more informative, and Levinskaya is overly optimistic. For the most part, evidence for a Jewish presence is from the third century CE or later.13 Thus, it is probable that the Thessalonian Christian community was made up of Gentiles.
II. The Thessalonians as Manual Laborers
In 1 Thessalonians Paul is particularly concerned to establish his ethos in the exordium of the letter (1:2–2:12): “You know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake” (1:5). This is elaborated in 2:1–12, where Paul notes his blameless moral conduct (2:3, 5–6, 9–10; cf. 4:1–7), his accountability toward God (2:5; cf. 4:1), and his encouragement and exhortation (2:7–8, 11–12; cf. 4:1, 18; 5:11).14 In the midst of this he emphasizes the nature of his ministry among the Thessalonians:Mnhmoneuvete gavr, ajdelfoiv, to;n kovpon hJmw'n kai; to;n movcqon: nukto;" kai; hJmevra" ejrgazovmenoi pro;" to; mh; ejpibarh'saiv tina uJmw'n ejkhruvxamen eij" uJma'" to; eujaggevlion tou' qeou' (2:9). In using the verb ejrgavzomai, Paul is clearly indicating manual labor. The combination of kovpo" and movcqo" indicates that the labor was physically challenging. Used together, they suggest “fatigue and weariness, hardship and distress.” Paul does not underplay but in fact highlights his own manual labor in the midst of establishing his ethos. Later Paul encourages the Thessalonians to continue to live in a manner pleasing to God “as you learned from us” (4:1) and exhorts them to “work with your hands” (ejrgavzesqai tai'" [ijdiva"] cersi;n uJmw'n [4:11]).
Despite the generally negative attitude toward manual labor in antiquity,in 1 Thessalonians Paul’s language about work reflects a more positive attitude, a clear indication of where to locate the Thessalonians on the social map of antiquity. Paul’s central message in 1 Thessalonians is to reaffirm the Christians at Thessalonica that they are his “glory” and his “joy” (2:20). Throughout the letter Paul suggests that they share his own social level and are themselves manual workers. To be placed in such a low-ranking category as manual worker, if one occupied a higher rank, would represent not praise but denigration and dishonor—certainly it would be grounds to reject Paul and his message. In fact, it would represent a challenge to one’s honor that could not go unanswered; Paul would not gain friends but would make enemies with such bold claims if they were being made among the elite. For Paul’s rhetoric to work the Thessalonians must be among the lower-ranking persons of ancient society. That Paul does not disparage but rather commends work confirms that the Thessalonians are manual workers.
Presumably Paul and the Thessalonians worked at the same trade, or at least trades within the same general area, thus facilitating contact between Paul and the Thessalonians. And it was while at work that Paul preached the gospel and presumably made his initial converts. Thus, the core of the Thessalonian community comprised handworkers who shared Paul’s trade. Unfortunately, Paul does not state the nature of his manual labor in 1 Thessalonians or elsewhere. Acts 18:3, however, suggests that Paul was askhnopoiov". This word has a basic meaning of “tentmaker,” but since tents were made primarily of leather, it could indicate that Paul was more generally a leather worker. As an itinerant worker, Paul probably worked in one of the local shops at Thessalonica. Since Paul was there “night and day,” presumably he would have used the opportunity to share his gospel message with fellow workers and customers, the former being the most likely candidates for proselytizing. Such workers were probably already involved in some form of voluntary association.
III. The Thessalonians as a Voluntary Association
Voluntary associations, groups of men and/or women who gathered together regularly as a result of some shared interest, were widespread throughout Greco-Roman antiquity. There were two primary types of associations. Religious associations organized themselves around the veneration of a particular deity or deities and attracted adherents from the various strata of society. Professional associations were more homogeneous, attracting members from within a single profession or related professions.
Unlike the paucity of evidence for synagogues, there is significant evidence for voluntary associations in Macedonia during the formative period of early Christianity. Inscriptions concerning voluntary associations have been found ranging from Kalliani and Stobi in the south and north of the western part of the province respectively to Philippi and its surrounding villages in the eastern part of the province. The existence of voluntary associations is not limited to urban areas. Although most of the inscriptions come from cities (esp. Thessalonica, Philippi, and Edessa), there are a number of inscriptions from smaller villages, particularly those around Philippi (Reussilova, Proussotchani, Alistrati, Podgora, Kalambaki, Raktcha, and Selian). Most of the inscriptions date to the common era with a number from the first and early second century CE.30
There is quite a diversity in terms of the function of each association, the deity worshiped, the name of either the association or the associates, and the type of officials in the association. The members are generally from the lower ranks of society and in a number of cases are artisans and merchants. Since this is similar to the social location we suggested for the members of the Thessalonian Christian community, we are in a strong position to read 1 Thessalonians in light of the data from the voluntary associations to note similarities and differences between these Macedonian Christian communities and voluntary associations.
Officials and Their Titles
Within the Macedonian voluntary association inscriptions a number of different officials are attested, although there is no consistency in the terms used for these officials. Turning to 1 Thessalonians, we note that there is clearly some leadership in the Thessalonian Christian community. Paul makes reference to unnamed leaders by encouraging the Thessalonianseijdevnai tou;" kopiw'nta" ejn uJmi'n kai; proi>stamevnou" uJmw'n ejn kurivw/ kai; nouqetou'nta" uJma'" kai; hJgei'sqai aujtou;" uJperekperissou' ejn ajgavph/ dia; to; e[rgon aujtw'n (5:12–13). Paul uses a general designation for such leaders as those who are “over” others (proi?sthmi), indicating a group of persons who have a special function within the congregation.
Paul refers to one of the responsibilities of these leaders by using the cognate verb ofkovpo". The noun occurs twice elsewhere in the letter, once for Paul’s manual labor among the Thessalonians (2:9) and once for his work at the formative stages of the community (3:5). It is likely that the leaders at Thessalonica continued with both kinds of activity, manual labor alongside community members and the labor of community formation. If so, the leaders of the Thessalonians are like the leaders of many voluntary associations. They are chosen from within the association itself and carry on with their everyday tasks as workers while having some authority in official meetings of the association. It reflects a willingness on Paul’s part to allow his Christian communities to develop locally and without a preconceived notion of “church leadership” imposed on them. That the leaders in the community are unnamed does not indicate that Paul does not know them so much as that the leadership positions might have rotated on a monthly or yearly basis, as was common in the associations. Paul leaves them unnamed so that the general exhortation will be applicable to any who are in a position of leadership.
Locating the Thessalonian Christian community in the context of the voluntary associations helps explain Paul’s injunction that the Thessaloniansnouqetei'te tou;" ajtavktou" (5:14). Atakto" and its cognates can have various meanings including “moral wrong-doing,” “idleness from work,” and “disorderliness.” Some commentators understand a[takto" in 1 Thess 5:14 to mean “lazy” or “idle” (that is, those who will not work) based on Paul’s injunction in 4:11 and references to the idle in 2 Thess 3:6–11.39 If this is the case, then it is clear that Paul is writing to those whom others in the group could reasonably expect to be working, namely, other workers. Thus, it fits well within the context of a workers’ association, particularly those of the same trade (and perhaps even the same workshop) for whom the lack of a number of fellow workers would require increased output on their behalf and would certainly strain community relations.
A number of scholars, however, understanda[takto" to indicate undisciplined or disorderly actions or persons. The word was used for “standing against the order or nature of God” and in military contexts of those who would not follow commands or who broke rank. The use in 1 Thessalonians suggests to some commentators that some of the Thessalonian Christians have given up working and are trespassing social boundaries because they perceive the parousia to be near. Robert Jewett suggests that they are “obstinate resisters of authority” and turns to 2 Thess 3:6–15 to suggest that they have also given up their occupations and are relying on other members of the congregation for support. He is correct that “[t]here is no evidence in this passage that the motivation of their behavior was laziness,” a false inference, he suggests, from Paul’s own example of his self-sufficiency. However, Jewett does not make a strong case that the a[taktoi are directly challenging the leadership of the Christian community, an inference based on military contexts.
In almost all of the interpretations of this passage the eschatological context of 1 Thess 5:1–11 determines for the interpreter whom Paul addresses as thea[taktoi in 1 Thess 5:14, although almost universally 2 Thessalonians is immediately introduced into the argument.46 The context of 1 Thess 5:12–22, however, and the shift in 5:11 from the probatio to the peroratio, means that Paul’s preceding discussion of eschatology need not frame the discussion of the a[taktoi in 1 Thess 5:14. In fact, 1 Thess 5:12–22 seems to be concerned with internal community relationships, and one cannot simply bracket out the a[taktoi as a separate problem. They are part of Paul’s concern that the members of the community coexist well together, encourage one another (5:11, 14, including the leaders 5:12), are considerate of others (the “fainthearted,” “weak”), and worship God properly, in a context not of personal piety but of communal piety (5:16–22).
With this communal context in mind, we turn again to the voluntary associations. A number of inscriptions show that the voluntary associations often struggled with the problem of disorderly behavior, so much so that legislation was introduced to limit it, and fines and/or corporal punishment were used to enforce the legislation. For example, the second-century CE rule of the Iobakchoi (IG 22 1368; Athens) uses the verb ajkosmevw, a synonym of ajtaktevw, of those who disrupt a meeting:
If anyone begins a fight or if someone is found disorderly (euJreqh'/ ti" ajkosmw'n), or if someone comes and sits in someone else’s seat or is insulting or abuses someone else . . . the one who committed the insult or the abuse shall pay to the association 25 drachmae and the one who was the cause of the fight shall pay the same 25 drachmae or not come to any more meetings of the Iobakchoi until he pays.” (lines 72–83)