All is not well as Paul and his cohort Silas write to their converts in Thessalonica. The churches into which they had formed have made quite the impression on their city, which is glorious enough, but the result has been blowback.
If every church is a microcosm, they’re a microcosmopolis, where Jew and gentile share bread and wine like brothers, and pool capital like countrymen, entombed beneath the concrete walkways of an empire that does not co-mingle and will not change. Their affront to the norm has not gone unnoticed. The gosh-dang world is upside down.
Neither has it gone unnoticed by the Synagogue leaders who do not appreciate the threat these early Pauline communities pose to the continued livelihood of their faith community. None too pleased to lose a portion of their Jewish attendants and perhaps the bulk of their “God-fearers,” – (gentiles drawn to the monotheism of the Jewish religion who had attached themselves to the synagogue worship) – they found these egalitarian cultists troublesome. Worse, “not a few of the leading women,” drawn by the teaching of these new missionaries, departed from their assembly. Their influence and financial resources departed with them. The Pauline mission robbed the synagogues of attendants and hegemony, and power, and prestige.
Of course, none of these issues couldn’t be resolved with a smear campaign. Paul and his cronies had constructed a message, said the synagogue leaders, that would naturally appeal to ‘God-fearing’ Gentiles. Like all theological novelties, they went on, it was really a ploy for financial gain. The missionaries who brought the message are, after all, chasing prominence and glory. And they fled the scene once they met opposition – hardly behavior that denotes sincerity.
Well, smear campaigns are never really about misinformation. The particulars of propagandist blather never really have to take root in order to undermine the stability of its target. And the synagogue leaders, having saturated the public square with slanderous accusations, at the very least destabilized what the missionaries had built. Misinformation is an understatement. This was disinformation.
Unsurprisingly, their claims were baseless. In reality, the missionaries had come to teach in Thessalonica on the heels of ‘shameful treatment’ in Phillipi for having preached the same ingratiating gospel, having stirred up the wrath of some of the same ingrate Synagogue leaders. Someone is incapable of handling resistance, but it isn’t the missionaries – who, by the way, the Thessalonians may remember had insisted on working side jobs to support themselves during their stay. In truth, they didn’t make any demands on their converts, although they were certainly entitled to. If they’d been thirsty after renown, they would have acted a bit more like their interlocutors.
As the Thessalonians will also remember, they were “gentle among them, like a mother taking care of her own children,” or “a father with his children, exhorting each one of them.” They had been “holy and righteous and blameless in conduct toward them,” and the only explanation was that “being affectionately desirous of the Thessalonians, they were ready to share with them not only the gospel of God but also their own selves, because they had become very dear to them.” Having been “torn away” geographically, their hearts remained in Thessalonica. These new believers were their glory and joy.
So there was a different reason behind the opposition they had faced. The clergy isn’t what it was. Thoroughly domesticated by an empire that shuns them, this group of foolhardy prigs are the same sort that killed the prophets and crucified the Lord, and in “hindering Paul and Silas from speaking to all the gentiles,” they demonstrate their inability to envision gentiles as full participants in the coming kingdom to be established by the Messiah. Synagogues had amassed a large multitude of ‘God-fearing’ gentiles as partial participants in the life of the community, and they were happy with it that way. Behind their visceral opposition to the missionaries was a Jim Crowesque separate-but-equal-ism in which Greeks and the like, however devout, were best relegated to a second-class citizenship. These punks were at least as reprehensible as the hecklers at Galatia.
In any case, the missionaries had sent Timothy to serve as a temporary overseer, and were delighted to learn that although the new believers in Thessalonica buckled somewhat in response to the onslaught of their antagonists, they weren’t ‘bewitched’ like the Galatians had been.
So, concluding their prayer of exhortation, the missionaries entreat God to reunite them with the churches in Thessalonica, and to knit the new believers together in holy love, and to “establish their hearts blameless in holiness” so that they will be prepared for the return of Christ. They’ve issued a renewed call for holy living, a warning against disregarding God’s call to purity, and a command to remain “in the world.” Faithful as the Thessalonian Christians have remained thus far, one wonders why the missionaries thought this necessary.
As it turns out, the Synagogue leaders – horrified at the thought of losing their relative hegemony over Jewish practitioners and Gentile seekers – sought with some success to turn both the city-folk and government against them. Their brutal treatment of Jason and his household, recorded in Acts 17, was hardly an isolated incident:
“Now when they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, “This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ.”
And some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a great many of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women. But the synagogue leaders were jealous, and taking some wicked men of the rabble, they formed a mob, set the city in an uproar, and attacked the house of Jason, seeking to bring them out to the crowd.
And when they could not find them, they dragged Jason and some of the brothers before the city authorities, shouting, “These men who have turned the world upside down have come here also, and Jason has received them, and they are all acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus.”
And the people and the city authorities were disturbed when they heard these things. And when they had taken money as security from Jason and the rest, they let them go.” (Acts 17:1-9)
It would have been tempting for a relatively new Gentile believer to quietly slide back into her old habits to avoid meeting the same fate. Others, rather than buckling under the pressure of religious and governmental opposition, grew zealous to the point of withdrawing altogether from the life of the city. That the missionaries even needed to remind Thessalonian believers to “aspire to live quietly, and mind their own affairs, and work with their hands…so that they may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one,” is amusing in hindsight. Timothy had encountered a number of well-intentioned believers who, overestimating the imminence of the second coming, had abandoned their jobs and become dependent, quite gratuitously, on the charity of others.
On top of it all, there was concern about whether those who had died would be included in the messianic kingdom at the coming of Christ. The missionaries typically drew out their instruction over the course of several days and weeks, and the religious elites had successfully driven them from the city before they could properly furnish the imaginations of newly proselytized with an accurate conception of how the resurrection of the Son of God would pave the way for their own resurrection.
Further complicating the matter, the proselytes had likely been connected to a strand of Judaism that placed minimal emphasis on the final Resurrection – or ignored it outright – so that when Paul and Silas were prematurely ejected from Thessalonica, the infant churches were left with an incomplete puzzle of sorts. In general, Palestinian Judaism was ‘earthier’ than the acutely Hellenized form that flourished in Alexandria and elsewhere, and whose general impulses would have trickled down into the synagogues of Thessalonica.
Hence, the form of Judaism in which the new converts were versed probably emphasized immortality over resurrection and downplayed the messianic hope, at least tacitly, on the grounds that “the dynamic personality of a messiah has no proper place in such a serene, eternally ordered world,” to quote the celebrated Jewish historian Salo Baron. Having been convinced by Paul and his team that Jesus was God’s messiah, they walked into the new faith carrying over anticipation of a coming “Golden Age, unrivaled in glory, when all peoples would abandon idolatrous practices and join the Jews in the worship of the one God in Jerusalem.” Yet untaught regarding the ‘final Resurrection,’ more than a few among them were concerned about whether those who had died already would be included in the ‘Golden Age’ established at Christ’s return.
As it turns out, they needn’t worry. Just as Christ was resurrected from the dead, Paul insists, so also will those who have died be resurrected at His return. In fact, his whole gospel hinges on it. “The Lord Himself will descend from heaven,” sooner or later, and “the dead in Christ will rise first.” For Paul, this meant the families he’d set ablaze at the height of his career in barbarism, and Stephen, from whose eyes he’d watched the vitality drain with the coats of his murderers strewn across his arms. For myself, it means my grandfather, Homer Chalmus Ellington, and Johnny Cash, to whom I’m supposedly related by marriage. After all this, says Paul, “We who are alive will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.” The imagery is strikingly reminiscent of a pivotal episode in the second book of Samuel:
“Then all the tribes of Israel came to David at Hebron and said, “Behold, we are your bone and flesh. In times past, when Saul was king over us, it was you who led out and brought in Israel. And the Lord said to you, ‘You shall be shepherd over my people Israel, and you shall be leader over Israel’” So all the elders of Israel came to the king at Hebron, and King David made a covenant with them at Hebron before the Lord, and they anointed David king over Israel.
David was thirty years old when he began to reign, and he reigned forty years. At Hebron he reigned over Judah seven years and six months, and at Jerusalem he reigned over all Israel and Judah thirty-three years.
And the king and his men went to Jerusalem against the Jebusites, the inhabitants of the land, who said to David, “You will not come in here, but the blind and the lame will ward you off”—thinking, “David cannot come in here.” Nevertheless, David took the stronghold of Zion, that is, the city of David. And David said on that day, “Whoever would strike the Jebusites, let him get up the water shaft to attack ‘the lame and the blind’ who are hated by David’s soul.” Therefore it is said, “The blind and the lame shall not come into the house.”
And David lived in the stronghold and called it the city of David. And David built the city all around from the Millo inward. And David became greater and greater, for the Lord, the God of hosts, was with him.
And Hiram king of Tyre sent messengers to David, and cedar trees, also carpenters and masons who built David a house. And David knew that the Lord had established him king over Israel, and that He had exalted his kingdom for the sake of His people Israel.” (2 Samuel 5:1-12)
That’s to say, when the Thessalonian Christians meet Christ in the air, it will be like the tribes of Israel ‘meeting’ David at Hebron. They will say, “Behold, we are your bone and flesh,” and welcome Him back for good – “and so we will always be with the Lord.” Soon enough, the fermenting churches will meet their loved ones afresh, and their Savior – no longer as an itinerant healer, but as the promised Messiah – King Jesus, come to take the blood bought world back for Himself.
One couldn’t be blamed for missing that emphasis, though. Two millenia after Paul, disinformation abounds – from the press, certainly, and the academy, probably – and, regrettably, the pulpit.
If you grew up Protestant in the United States of America, you might be under the impression that Paul and his colleagues applied for a grant from the Jerusalem council, built a medium-sized rectangular church building with an impressive white steeple, and prepped their converts with the basics of Christian theology to tide them over while they waited out the rapture. This is taught nationwide in pulpits occupied by Spirit-filled ministers with good intentions and poor theology.
In reality, these Pauline communities remade the world. Apparently his exhortation to live quietly and do honest work for honest wages was sufficient to rouse them out of their retreatist stupor because, together with the scattered Church the world over, the Christians in Thessalonica quietly ushered in the death of the old West where ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ were functions of power and little else, people were only acknowledged as human insofar as they were useful to the State and properly assimilated into the bloody machinery of imperialism, and the order of the cosmos endorsed a thickly stacked caste system whereby the poor and others were resources to be consumed by the nobility – as labour, or entertainment, or, more commonly, as sexual playthings to be brutalized and drank to exhaustion. It is hard to oversell how Paul’s gospel toppled the empire that Aeneas built, but it did exactly that, as generations of his disciples lived together in embodied glory – a communitarian compassion that enfleshed the bones of Moses in their midst. As it turns out, all Christian theology is ‘liberation theology’ if you understand where we came from and toward what we are continually blooming.
So the churches in Thessalonica were a counterculture, so to speak – one so thoroughly contagious that it spread through the streets of Rome like a ravaging disease and devoured the ethos of strength, of ‘manly vitality,’ and sowed the egalitarian spirit that continues in each generation to give birth to itself, each time more mature than before.
Depredation was the rule in the world that crucified the Son of God, and the ages were long, the norms static – it was a world that did not change. Armed with the gospel of the crucified God, the scattered church in Rome and abroad broke apart the pavements and tended the Edenic gardens buried well beneath. Consequently, they grew, albeit slowly, into the world that is, and as we, too, see to these gardens, they will grow, perhaps, somehow, into the world to come. And we will meet the Lord in the air, and say “We are your bone and flesh,” and we will always be with the Lord, because the Resurrection of His blood bought world cannot be undone.