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Scholarly Studies and Discussion of Fundamental Doctrines and Life Issues
Gentiles   Laborers   Association

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 a skhnopoiov". 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 Thessalonians eijdevnai 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 of kovpo". 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.

Internal Relationships

Locating the Thessalonian Christian community in the context of the voluntary associations helps explain Paul’s injunction that the Thessalonians nouqetei'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, understand a[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 the a[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)


Community     Conclusion





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In lines 136–46 ajkosmevw is used again in a similar context. Anyone who causes a disturbance at a meeting is indicated by an official through the touch of a quvrso" and is signaled to leave the feast. Should one so designated refuse to leave, a special category of “bouncers” (i{ppoi) was in place to remove such persons physically, who then also became liable to the same punishment stipulated earlier for those who fight.

In the regulations of the mysteries of Andania (IG 5/1 1390 [96 BCE]) there is a section entitled “Concerning the Disorderly” (ajkosmouvntwn), which reads

And whenever the sacrifices and mysteries are celebrated, let everyone keep silent and listen to the things announced. And let the officers flog the disobedient and those who live indecently and prevent them from (participating) in the mysteries. (lines 39–41)

Such inscriptions give some indication of the type of disturbances that could occur at a meeting (fighting, disruptions of order and ceremony, abuse of others), along with guidance on how to deal with such (fines and floggings). We agree with Jewett and others that a[taktoi indicates that some in the Thessalonian Christian community are disorderly. However, this is not a challenge to the leadership from a “breakaway” group but involves disruptions and disturbances in the context of worship. Paul’s injunction “see that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all,” following his “be patient with them all” (including the a[taktoi) indicates that verbal admonishing should suffice to stem disorderliness, rather than fines and flogging.

In 1 Thess 4:11 Paul encourages the Thessalonians filotimei'sqai hJsucavzein. In doing so he uses a term frequent in voluntary association inscriptions but he gives it a different nuance. The verb filotimevomai and the cognate noun filotimiva are often used in the voluntary association inscriptions in contexts not of “living quietly” but of competition between members. It is most often used for the competition and rivalry for honor within the group itself.

The quest for honors was promoted as a means to encourage members to contribute more and more lavishly to the social practices of the association. For example, in IG 22 1263 (Piraeus, 300 BCE) the secretary of an association is honored with the erection of a statue, “so that also the others shall be zealous for honor (filotimw'ntai) among the members, knowing that they will receive thanks from the members deserving of benefaction.” In the second century CE at Athens an association of male friends (e[ranon suvnagon fivloi a[ndre") proclaimed “let the association increase by zeal for honor” (aujxanevtw d[e;] oJ e[rano" ejpi; filoteimivai" [IG 22 1369]). For Paul, in contrast, the “quest for honor” is found in a community of mutual coexistence, not a life of competition with one another for honor.

Thus, although there are some similarities between the Thessalonian Christian community and the voluntary associations, Paul also reflects a desire for a community ethos different from that found in the associations. Yet it is still significant that Paul uses voluntary association language to produce this different community ethos. Paul uses association language self-consciously to encourage a different type of social control (without fines or floggings). This suggests that the Thessalonian Christian community shares the same discursive field as the associations and is best placed within that field. That is, despite these differences in community relationships, they are still analogous to the voluntary associations.


IV. Further Implications for Community Structure

The context of the voluntary associations raises an intriguing possibility concerning Paul’s comments in 1 Thess 1:9b, where he conveys to the Thessalonians the report that he has heard about them from others; pw'" ejpestrevyate pro;" to;n qeo;n ajpo; tw'n eijdwvlwn douleuvein qew'/ zw'nti kai; ajlhqinw'/. Most interpreters of 1 Thessalonians seem to understand the second person plural in 1:9b as a reference to individual conversion experiences initiated by Paul’s preaching. !Epistrevfw literally means to “turn” or “turn back.” It can be used with an ethical sense of obligation to do something that one has been asked or required to do (which can be acted upon or ignored) or in the religious sense of turning to a deity. In the LXX it is found particularly in the phrase ejpistrevfein . . . kuvrion (qeovn). Although it is rare in Paul, he does use it for conversion experiences in 2 Cor 3:16 (turning to the Lord, a citation from Exod 34:34) and in Gal 4:9 (for Christians turning back to idols). The word ejpistrevfw “is a suitable word to express the change from one faith to another.”

Thus, it is possible that Paul is referring to the collective experience of an already formed group of Thessalonians. If Paul did preach among workers of the same trade (as we have suggested), they were undoubtedly part of a professional association of “handworkers” of the same trade and were thus involved in “idolatrous” worship. Rather than envision a scenario in which a number of individuals were converted by Paul over time, a picture encouraged by the usual reading of Acts, we could imagine that over time Paul manages to persuade the members of the existing professional association to switch their allegiance from their patron deity or deities “to serve a living and true God.” In  this case 1 Thess 1:9b would be better paraphrased “you all turned (collectively) to God from idols.”

The introduction of a new deity to a collective, family-based and/or guild based association is attested in a few cases in antiquity (e.g., SIG3 985; IG 10/2, 255). However, old allegiances die hard, and it would take some time for former patron deities to be replaced by a new deity, if ever, since in associations there would be no need for an exclusive switch—more than one deity could be worshiped. For this reason there is no clear example of a voluntary association converting to the worship of a new deity accompanied by the disregarding of earlier allegiances. That the Thessalonians have done so stands out as unique—perhaps this is the reason they have been noted among other believers and that they have become a paradigm for imitation (1 Thess 1:7–9).

We may also explain the lack of analogues in antiquity as a result of the aggressive missionary impulse of Pauline Christianity, with its monotheistic demands, being a unique feature in antiquity—other groups were not concerned with converting individuals or groups. Groups that did undertake the worship of another god often broke away from earlier deities slowly, as they were not faced with the same monotheistic demands that Paul’s Christianity brought with it. While it is true that the text does not indicate the turning of an entire group to the veneration of Jesus, neither does it indicate what is assumed by most—individual conversions. The possibility of a group “conversion” should not be discounted too quickly.

Another intriguing possibility arises from the suggestion that the Thessalonian Christian community was formed as a professional association of “handworkers,” perhaps tentmakers or leather-workers. If this were the case, we would expect that the group would be composed primarily of males, since women would not be members of an association of artisans in a trade dominated by males, even if they worked in the same occupation. Most interpreters do not read 1 Thessalonians this way, but rather see the group as including both men and women.

However, there are some indications in 1 Thessalonians that the community is made up primarily of men. Clearly, there is no indication of women in the community, and no advice is given to women, children, or families. Most telling, however, is Paul’s command to each member of the community: eijdevnai e{kaston uJmw'n to; eJautou' skeu'o" kta'sqai ejn aJgiasmw'/ kai; timh'/, mh; ejn pavqei ejpiqumiva" kaqavper kai; ta; e[qnh ta; mh; eijdovta to;n qeovn, to; mh; uJperbaivnein kai; pleonektei'n ejn tw'/ pravgmati to;n ajdelfo;n aujtou' (4:4–6). This passage has created much difficulty for commentators. Any interpretation rests on the precise meaning of skeu'o" in the context of this passage. Quite literally the word means “vessel, tool, utensil” but is probably being used euphemistically by Paul. Three suggestions have been put forth: “wife,” “body,” and “male genitalia.”

This latter position is summarized by Wanamaker: “it seems better to understand skeu'o" as connoting the human body in its sexual aspect, that is, as a euphemism for the genitalia.” This is how it is used as a translation for ylk in the LXX of 1 Sam 21:5, where David assures the priest of Nob that “the young men’s vessels are holy” in response to a question about whether they have kept themselves from women.72 It is also attested in such uses in nonbiblical Greek.

The passage itself is clearly placed in the context of sexual misconduct, with Paul enclosing his words with references not only to aJgiasmov" (4:3, 7) but also to porneiva (4:3) and ajkaqarsiva (4:7), the latter two often used in contexts of sexual immorality.74 Karl Paul Donfried places the text within the larger cultic context of Thessalonica:

All of this suggests that Paul is very deliberately dealing with a situation of grave immorality, not too dissimilar to the cultic temptations of Corinth. Thus, Paul’s severe warnings in this section, using the weightiest authorities he possibly can, is intended to distinguish the behavior of the Thessalonian Christians from their former heathen and pagan life which is still much alive in the various cults of the city.

The interpretation of skeu'o" as “genitalia” seems to be the one that best takes account of the textual data. However, one cannot simply assume that although the pronouns used are masculine, the instruction to control (kta'sqai) the genitalia “would apply equally to women.” The understanding of sexuality in antiquity seems to mitigate this. In the understanding of the ancients’ “ideology of sexual hierarchy,” it was assumed that “at the masculine end of the scale stood strength and control, at the feminine end weakness and vulnerability.” As Dale Martin points out with respect to 1 Cor 7:36–38,

Paul’s exclusive address to the young man thus reveals his assumption of the male-female hierarchy of strength. He addresses the one who has power, the  man, and delegates to him the responsibility for doing what needs to be done in the woman’s best interest (at least according to Paul’s point of view). The weaker of the two, the woman, cannot be relied upon to make a decision for herself.

Women were assumed to be more easily consumed by desire and more willing to give in to it. Control in such situations rested with the male. Because of their own physiology, women lacked the ability to control their own sexual desires. Thus, when Paul speaks of controlling the genitalia (skeu'o"), he would be addressing the males, who physiologically were thought to have the ability to do so.

That the Thessalonian Christian community is primarily a group of males finds some support in a recent essay by Lone Fatum. Fatum begins by noting that both 1 Thessalonians and the audience to which it is addressed are “defined by androcentric values and social conventions and organized in terms of the patriarchal structures so characteristic of urban society in Graeco-Roman Antiquity.” She uses 1 Thess 4:3–8 to show how exclusively male is Paul’s exhortation in the letter. Although she understands skeu'o" as “wife,” she notes that “the power to interpret gender and to administer sexuality” was “generally accepted as a male prerogative.”

Fatum draws back from arguing that the community was only males—“Historically we may assume, of course, as stated already, that women were among the converts in Thessalonica.” She points to Acts 17:4 but immediately shows that one cannot rely on the veracity of the Acts account. She reasons that women in the community are embedded in the lives of men such that when Paul addresses the Thessalonians “they are not among the brothers of Christ; individually they are not members of the new community.” As such, they are “invisible in Christ” and “their socio-sexual presence among the brothers is, virtually, a non-presence.”

If it is the case that the Thessalonian Christian community was primarily composed of males, then this particular community was atypical among Christian communities known from Paul’s letters, such as those at Corinth, Philippi, and Rome.

V. Conclusion

In this article we have argued that the Thessalonian Christian community was similar to a professional voluntary association. To do so, we illustrated some of Paul’s language in 1 Thessalonians by reference to the typicalities of association language. We saw that some of the community features of the Thessalonian Christian community find ready analogies in the voluntary associations.

Overall, this helps us to understand better, and often in new ways, both Paul and his practices, and the practices and structure of the groups to which he writes. Although there is no single association inscription that has all the features of 1 Thessalonians (and thus no single association that is exactly the same), the comparative process reveals that on the social map of antiquity the type of group structure that the Thessalonians would have assumed, and the type of group that outsiders would have assumed that they were, was that of a voluntary association. That is, the Thessalonian Christians would appear to outsiders as a voluntary association and they would function internally as one. Paul’s letters show that he is aware of associations and writes within this discursive field. Although he does not disapprove of the way the Macedonian Christian communities are formed, he attempts to make strategic adjustments to how they have configured themselves. In so doing his starting point is voluntary association language.

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