The city of Thessalonica in Macedonia was founded in about 315 BC by King Cassander, ruler of Macedon and rival of the descendants of Alexander’s dynasty, probably on the site of the earlier town of Therma (Strabo, Geography). Named after his wife, princess Thessalonike who was the half-sister of Alexander, the name means “victory of Thessaly,” and is linked to the Greek goddess of victory, Nike. Like the rest of the Macedonian cities, Thessalonike (Thessalonica is the Latin variant) came under Roman control in 168 BC, was made a “free city,” and by the time Paul arrived in about 49 AD, it was the capital and most important city of Macedonia Province (cf. 1 Thessalonians 1:8). Situated on the east-west Via Egnatia and the main north-south route from the Balkans into Achaia (Greece), Thessalonica benefited from its position at a major crossroads and its own harbor in the Thermaic Gulf on the Aegean Sea.
Like many cities of ancient Macedonia, Thessalonica was walled, and these city walls originally built in the 2nd century BC continued to be repaired and used for centuries. During the Roman period, Thessalonica also had the typical urban Roman forum with an impressive Caryatid portico (on display in the Louvre, but replicas at Thessalonica), a bath complex in the southeast, a mint in the northwest, and about 20 shops on the south side. The odeon or small theater at the forum probably dates to the 2nd century AD, and was also used for gladiatorial games. The forum visible today was rebuilt in the 2nd century AD, but probably directly over the previous forum, which in turn seems to have been built over the even earlier Agora as noted in an inscription from 60 BC (Vikers, “Hellenistic Thessaloniki”; “Thessalonica”). Major religious movements such as the cult of Dionysus and the cult of Serapis were practiced in Thessalonica in the Roman period, with evidence coming from the discovery of a Serapium, coins bearing the image of Dionysus, and an inscription mentioning a priest of Dionysus, the god of wine (Talbert, “Thessalonica”; cf. 1 Thessalonians 1:9, 4:3-5, 5:5-7). The worship of Caesar at a temple also occurred in Thessalonica, probably in the western part of the city, and possibly using the same structure as the Serapium (McRay, Archaeology and the New Testament). The Imperial cult is attested by an inscription referring to the temple, a monumental statue of Augustus, and coins honoring Julius and Augustus as divine. There was also a gymnasium and a stadium in use during the Roman period, built in the Hellenistic period, an acropolis built for defense about 55 BC, and monumental city gates according to archaeological investigations, inscriptions, and historical sources about the city. Remains of the ancient harbor are now under Frangon Street near the shore, since like many other Mediterranean harbors, silt caused the waterline to change. The triple arch gateway of Galerius is from the 4th century AD; therefore, it was not present at the time that Paul visited Thessalonica (McDonald, “Archaeology and St. Paul’s Journeys in Greek Lands”).
In about 49 AD, when Paul and his crew departed from Philippi, they traveled westward approximately 95 miles on the Via Egnatia to Thessalonica, making stops at Amphipolis and Apollonia (Acts 17:1). Since there was a synagogue of the Jews in Thessalonica, Paul followed his regular protocol and reasoned from the Scriptures for three Sabbaths, explaining the Gospel of Jesus Christ (Acts 17:1-2). Although the 1st century synagogue building has not yet been unearthed, an ancient inscribed synagogue plaque with lines in both Greek and Samaritan Hebrew, including the priestly blessing of Numbers 6:22-27, was discovered in Thessalonica (Purvis, “The Paleography of the Samaritan Inscription from Thessalonica”). The plaque probably dates to about the 4th century AD, but throughout the Roman Empire, new synagogues were typically built directly over the older synagogues. Another inscription found in Thessalonica, from about 155 AD, mentions a previous synagogue ruler and the city of Thessalonica (Rajak and Noy, “Archisynagogoi”; CIJ 693). These inscriptions demonstrate that there was a synagogue in Roman period Thessalonica that had existed for centuries, probably going back to the 1st century AD or earlier. Based on the available evidence, it is thought that the 1st century synagogue was called Ets HaChaim (“Tree of Life”). The exact location is unknown, but based on where Jews lived in the late Byzantine period, the 1st century structure may have stood somewhere between the forum and the temple of Dionysus, near the city center (Keener, Acts). Through the teaching and reasoning of Paul, some of the Jews, many of the God-fearers, and even certain women of the elite were persuaded of the truth of the Gospel. The Christians in Thessalonica were predominantly formerly pagan idol worshippers, although some of the Jews also believed (1 Thessalonians 1:9-10; Acts 17:4-5). Unfortunately, many of the Jews rejected the message and incited opposition to the Gospel, as others had in many of the cities Paul visited previously.
Soon, these unpersuaded Jews formed a mob with “wicked men” from among the day laborers, loiterers, and those on Cura Annonae (grain dole, an early form of the welfare system in which the administration of the Empire paid for and distributed grain for bread, which along with the gladiatorial games and chariot races, gave rise to the phrase “bread and circuses”) in the marketplace, then started a riot in the city and stormed the house of Jason, a recent convert to Christianity (Juvenal, Satire). The Empire in general, but perhaps also Thessalonica in particular, had a high number of unemployed and people supported by the Imperial welfare system (Cura Annonae), and Paul seems to have alluded to this problem and the benefits of work and financial independence in his letter to the church there (1 Thessalonians 2:9, 4:11; 2 Thessalonians 3:7-12; cf. Acts 18:3 and Ephesians 4:28). In this instance, instead of focusing on religious deviance, the Jews accused Paul and the Christians before the “city rulers” of sedition, supposedly upsetting the Empire, breaking the decrees of Caesar, and swearing allegiance to another king (Acts 17:5-8; 1 Thessalonians 1:6). Because Paul and his team could not be found, the mob brought Jason and other local Christians before the “politarchs.” In the 1st century, Thessalonica was a city ruled by officials called politarch according to Luke, and an inscription from a wall adjacent to the Vardar Gate on the west side of the city was eventually discovered with the title “politarchs” specified as the leaders of the city in Roman period (Acts 17:6). Although the ancient gate was torn down in 1876, the inscription has survived (occasionally on display in the basement of the British Museum). According to inscriptions and ancient historical sources, the position of politarch was an annual magistracy in use by the free cities of Macedonia Province starting in the Roman period, and according to many inscriptions which also agree with the rendering in Luke, there were multiple politarchs (usually 5 at this time and place) in office at once rather than a single ruler (Woodward, “Inscriptions from Thessaly and Macedonia”; Schuler, “The Macedonian Politarchs”; Horsley, “The Politarchs in Macedonia, and Beyond”). It may also be important to note that the majority of the recovered politarch inscriptions have been discovered in Thessalonica, suggesting the continuous use and prominence of this particular position in Thessalonica during the Roman period (specifically the 1st century BC to the 3rd century AD). Further, one of the politarchs mentioned on an inscription from Thessalonica was Secundus, which is the same Latin name as one of the Christians from Thessalonica specified by Luke (Acts 20:4). It is unknown if the politarch and the man in Acts were the same person, but the inscription and the events may date to within about 15 years of each other (Bailey, “Paul’s Second Missionary Journey”). Another politarch noted on at least one 1st century AD inscription from Thessalonica was Aristarchus, who shares the same uncommon name, time period, and citizenship as “Aristarchus, a Macedonian of Thessalonica” that also became a Christian and friend of Paul (Horsley, “The Politarchs in Macedonia, and Beyond”; Acts 27:2, 19:29). Other high profile Roman officials who became Christians are noted in Acts, such as Sergius Paulus and Erastus; therefore it might be expected that some of those named in Acts, and in Thessalonica particularly, were from prominent families of the elite (cf. Acts 17:4).
Beliefs and phrases that Paul taught in Thessalonica, preserved in Acts and the Epistles, could have been twisted by the locals to accommodate their accusations. 1 Thessalonians, which may have been a reply to a letter from the church at Thessalonica, is considered one of the earliest of the epistles in the New Testament. Written by Paul, along with Silvanus/Silas and Timothy, it was probably the second epistle that Paul wrote, just after Galatians, and was composed at Corinth in about 51 AD (1 Thessalonians 1:1, 2:8, 3:1-6; Faw, “On the Writing of First Thessalonians”). Ideas taught in the letter that could have been interpreted by the Romans as subversive or even treasonous include rejecting the worship of “idols,” including the Emperor, worship of the one true God which Romans called “atheism,” prophecy about Jesus returning as King and Lord, and even the reference to a future destruction during a perceived time of “peace and safety” might have been twisted into an alleged threat against the Pax Romana (1 Thessalonians 1:9, 4:15-5:3). The second letter to the Thessalonians, also authored by the trio with Paul as the lead writer, was probably penned soon after the first while still in Corinth (2 Thessalonians 1:1, 2:15). The accusation of sedition rather than religious divergence would have been more powerful and appropriate in a “free city” such as Thessalonica, while in a Roman colony like Philippi which did not even have a synagogue at the time, rejection of Roman polytheism and Emperor worship could have caused serious legal problems. An edict of Emperor Augustus and restated by Tiberius, that forbade prophecy about a ruler, may have been in mind as illegal and treasonous when referring to the Christian belief, taught by Paul, that Jesus Christ would return as king (Dio Cassius, Roman History; Suetonius, Tiberius). This interpretation and use of the law may be why the opposition was moderately successful in their legal claims against Paul and Silas in Thessalonica, while in Philippi and Corinth, the Roman officials seem to have had no legal authority to act against the Christians on the basis of a religious dispute (Acts 17:8-10). However, it was still necessary for Jason and the other Christians to pay a bond or fine before being released, a common legal practice, and Paul was obligated to leave the city and not return at least for a time (1 Thessalonians 2:14-18; Livy, History of Rome).
The church in Thessalonica endured persecution, just as Paul had faced attacks from the Jews that rejected Christ, but over the years, more and more of the people became Christians (1 Thessalonians 1:6). The many Byzantine period churches in Thessalonica, some of which are still standing, demonstrate the positive response to the Gospel that Paul and Silas brought there in the 1st century AD. In particular, the Church of Saint George from around 311 AD, which was converted from an imperial mausoleum connected to the palace after the death of Emperor Galerius, attests to how the early Christian community not only survived but thrived, even before the legalization of Christianity (Davies, “The Macedonian Scene of Paul’s Journeys”).
By the time of the Byzantine Empire, Thessaloniki was the second most important and second largest city behind Constantinople. The city has been continuously occupied for over 2300 years, although its rulers have shifted many times. Various conquests and rebellions over the following centuries resulted in the control of Thessalonica going from the Byzantine Empire to the Latin Empire to the Bulgarian Empire to a local independent republic to the Republic of Venice and finally to the Ottoman Empire, until Greece captured the city in 1912.