The Roman Empire and Paul's Indictment

To best appreciate the indictment against Paul that was made by the jealous Jews of Thessalonica, it’s worth thinking through some of the historical background of the Roman Empire just prior to and around the time that Paul is preaching in Thessalonica.

I think this is a good exercise in part because you may have come away from the text for this week wondering how these accusations got as much traction as they did. After all, Luke does not record any significant miracles done by the hand of Paul in this city. Nor does Paul arrive with a large retinue that may have been mistaken to be an army. At first glance, these accusations may seem to be quite inflated, at least on the surface and from a human perspective. To say that Paul and Silas “had turned the world upside down” and for that to mean anything to the magistrates of Thessalonica there must have been something simmering under the surface that compelled them to act against anyone associated with Paul. Even the charge that Paul was guilty of seditious rhetoric by claiming that there is another king would probably not land a solid blow to these city officials unless there was some background that made this a plausible threat.

Now, to be sure, what Luke records in our text is likely not the entire contents of the accusations against Paul and Silas. Rather, this is the summary of the accusations. Many more words would have been used to build their case for it to be credible enough to induce Jason and the other disciples to pledge that they would send Paul out of town. But even still, some sort of primer for these accusations to be meaningful had to be lurking under the surface.

The simplest place to begin is the edict by the Roman Emperor Claudius around AD 49 to expel the Jews from Rome. The Roman historian Suetonius notes that this happened “at the instigation of one Chrestus.”1 Since Chrestus was a common name, it is likely that it is a reference to Christ, though Suetonius’ distance from the event and unfamiliarity with the issue led to a corruption in the name and an inference that the center of the controversy was present in Rome while Claudius was emperor.2 The point for us is that elsewhere in the Roman Empire around the same time, the same sort of upheaval that has happened in Philippi and now Thessalonica, was happening on account of the gospel message. It seems reasonable to me that the city magistrates would have had at least some awareness of these rumblings.

In addition to this, at the beginning of Claudius’ reign, he responded to an incident in the Egyptian city of Alexandria that sheds some light on the general situation in the Roman Empire. In what Claudius concedes was a “war,” the Greek population of the city and the Jewish residents had been fighting fiercely. After laying out steps to address the issue, he issues an ultimatum to the Jews: “Otherwise, I will by all means take vengeance on them as fomenters of which is a general plague infecting the whole world.”3 If nothing else, this snippet shows that the accusation that Paul had turned the world upside down was not far from something the Emperor himself had said about other Jews just a handful of years ago.

Finally, Macedonia itself was, in the recent past, subject to threats from local rivals to Roman power. Cicero laments the utter lack of security along the major Roman highway through Macedonia some fifty years or so prior to Paul’s arrival.

All of this is to say that there must have been a palpable undercurrent of unease with revolutionary ideas in Thessalonica, especially with the city magistrates. This helps to explain, in my opinion, why, without any extraordinary signs of power, Paul was forced to leave Thessalonica. It also reminds us that the events of the book of Acts were happening in a dynamic environment that subtly influenced them. Though the political happenings of the Roman Empire are only ever raised by Luke when they are important for his own purposes, they were nevertheless in the background the whole time.

In the end, I suppose this is an encouragement to read about the world of the first century because it can greatly enrich your enjoyment of the world in which Paul—and Jesus, and Peter, and so on—lived and preached. None of the events of the Scriptures happened in a vacuum, and though it is not critical to know the environment it can certainly help to bring to life the word of God.

1Suetonius, Alexander Thomson, and J. E. Reed. The Lives of the Twelve Caesars. (Philadelphia: Gebbie, 1889), ch. 25. Retrieved from http://data.perseus.org/citations/urn:cts:latinLit:phi1348.abo015.perseus-eng1:25

2F. F. Bruce, The Book of the Acts, NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), 324.

3Retrieved from http://faculty.history.umd.edu/HLapin/HIST370/ClaudiusPapyrus.pdf

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