October 26, 2013

The Apostle Paul and Thessaloniki

By Panagiotis Melikides, Theologian

On October 26th our Church celebrates the memory of Saint Demetrios, who, along with Saint George, are among the most beloved saints. Saint Demetrios, as we all know, is the patron saint of the city of Thessaloniki. If Philippi was the first European city to accept the message of the Gospel from the Apostle Paul, the Church of Thessaloniki was the first to accept the two first epistles from the Apostle to the Nations and are also the oldest New Testament texts. Thus in today's message we will very briefly look at how this city was Christianized by the Apostle Paul.

We will first note two basic things regarding the tactics the Apostle followed in his missionary work and which he implemented in the case of Thessaloniki. First of all, the Apostle chose cities renowned for their important geographical location and for their commercial traffic, which means they were not only numerous, but because of their importance they were visited by several foreigners for various reasons (traders, professionals, etc.). In this way the Gospel message could be diverted from the city-hub to other areas. His second tactic was to first preach in the Jewish synagogues. We should not forget that Israel was God's chosen people so that through them mankind could prepare for the coming of the Messiah. Moreover, the Old Testament that was read and interpreted in the synagogues was a "pedagogue to Christ", by which, theoretically speaking, the local Israelites of the diaspora would easier accept the message of the Gospel.

It would be useful, I think, to see briefly what were the synagogues. First, synagogues appear after the destruction of the first Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem (586 BC), but as a place of worship they began to grow after the destruction of the second Temple by the Romans in 70 AD. In the synagogue was read, as already noted, the Scriptures (the Old Testament) and it was interpreted. Also, in addition to reading and interpretation there was also prayer. The head of the synagogue is the rabbi, who is not a priest but a teacher (which is the meaning of the word "rabbi").

To better understand the actions of the Apostle Paul we should keep in mind that Macedonia and, therefore, Thessaloniki, were completely conquered by the Romans in 146 BC. It had the privileges of a free city and the right to self-government led by the so-called "civic militia", the existence of which is known through the book Acts of the Apostles. The civic militia as higher magistrates were elected by the people, and were in administration and accountable to the Roman praetor who had been based in this city. The demographic composition of the city was composed mainly by Greeks, Romans and Jews. It would be superfluous to mention the importance of Thessaloniki, as an important and major urban center of the time.

So when the Apostle Paul arrived in Thessaloniki after Philippi, he first preached, according to his tactic, in the synagogue of the city. Acts refers to him preaching on three consecutive Sabbaths, explaining to the Jews that Jesus had to be crucified and rise from the dead, and that this Jesus is the Messiah (Acts 17:2-3). The results were dismal. Only a few Jews believed in the preaching of Paul, while the majority of those that did respond were pagans. Among these first Christians were: Aristarchus, Gaius and Secundus. Tradition (although this is not generally accepted) considers Aristarchus to be the first bishop of Thessaloniki.

The great success of the work of the Apostle Paul enraged the Jews, who went to the home of Jason who was hosting the Apostle. They did not find the Apostle Paul there, but they arrested Jason and some believers who were at his house at the time, and they were led to the civic militia. The accusations made, according to Acts 17:7, were the following: "They are all defying Caesar’s decrees, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus." After paying bail Jason was eventually released. After all these things Paul escaped by night for the city of Beroia.

It is a fact that the Apostle loved the Christians of Thessaloniki very much. Thus, in 51 AD, while in Corinth for missionary purposes, he sent his first epistle to the Thessalonians. This epistle is the first text of the New Testament written, and it responds to issues faced by the Christian community, but the issues raised by the divinely-inspired words of the Apostle to the Nations are definitely timeless and relevant to all people everywhere no matter what times they live in.

Source: Ekklesiastiki Paremvasi, "Απόστολος Παύλος καί Θεσσαλονίκη", October 2008. Translated by John Sanidopoulos.