Why the Jews in Thessalonica Were Jealous of Paul

Apostle Paul preachingThink of Paul in a city like Pisidian Antioch or Thessalonica. He goes into the synagogue where he speaks to a mixed audience of Jews and Gentiles. What? Jews and Gentiles? You bet. The synagogues of the first century had something in common with modern Messianic Jewish congregations. (No, I don’t mean they played Paul Wilbur songs, I mean there was a significant Gentile presence in the Jewish service).

Paul spoke to the “men of Israel” (Jews) and “you who fear God” (Gentiles) and “sons of the family of Abraham” (converts to Judaism, a.k.a. proselytes, no longer counted as Gentiles). Typically the God-fearing Gentiles were so ready for a message that would bring them closer to God and Paul’s news was well-received as God hearing their prayers at last.

-Derek Leman
“Paul Was Too Jewish for the Synagogue, Part 1”
AncientBible.net

I don’t really need another blog to follow, but Derek does mention AncientBible.net on his own blog from time to time, so I peeked in. And, of course, the title of his blog post was too interesting to resist.

Then I started reading what he wrote and it reminded me of my own recent church experience:

So when the question about “the jealousy of the Jews” came up and teacher said this caused “the Jews” to reject Paul’s message about Christ, I piped up and said, “Not all the Jews.” And things went downhill from there.

Even accepting that it was the Jewish leadership of the synagogue and not every individual Jewish person in attendance, one woman in class said that the leadership represented the people, pretty much painting all “the Jews” with a broad brush. Actually, I was thinking of the synagogue in Berea but I figured that I’d missed my window of opportunity in explaining my point and wasn’t going to get another one…that is unless I wanted to start a riot.

I’m not worried that my exposure to traditional Christian doctrine at church is going to change or warp my current opinions, but it was nice to read Derek’s blog post and see that New Testament scholars are discussing these issues and coming to conclusions that are similar to my own.

The genesis of this post was an unexpected adventure at SBL (Society of Biblical Literature) in November in Baltimore. My young friend, David Matthews, and I were there catching all the papers we could in our main fields of interest (his = the Temple, mine = Isaiah). But we couldn’t resist a few “Paul and Judaism” sessions. And one of them was like a Rock Festival of Pure Pauline Goodness . . . an unbelievable chance to hear Paula Fredriksen, Mark Nanos, Magnus Zetterholm, and Pamela Eisenbaum all in one room. It was one of the larger session rooms at SBL, probably with room for 400 people, and it was standing room only.

I know you don’t have to be impressed and certainly I’d like to explore the materials of Fredriksen et al in more detail (although I am reading Nanos’ book The Mystery of Romans right now), but it’s nice to know that “little ol’ me” in Southwestern Idaho isn’t completely off base. It’s easy to get that feeling when you’re the only one in your church who has such “goofy ideas” as Paul being “too Jewish” for the diaspora synagogues.

What is the biggest difference between Paul’s approach with Gentiles and the liberal, laid-back approach of the synagogues? Paul demands that Gentiles who enter into the congregation of Messiah Yeshua should abandon all honor to the gods. These are the last days. The Name of God will be one and the Lord will be king over all the earth (Zech 14:9). The Gentiles will be called by his Name (Amos 9:12). It is time to go up to the mountain of the house of the Lord and learn his ways (Isa 2:2-4). The eschaton (next age) is about to come with Yeshua’s return as the Divine Messiah who brings it all to pass.

CohenI had actually read (I think in Cohen’s From the Maccabees to the Mishnah) that the Gentile God-fearers in the late Second Temple era synagogues may not have entirely abandoned their devotion to the other “gods” in Greek and Roman culture. It presents them in a different light and maybe not as divorced from their pagan worshipping peers as is otherwise believed.

But Paul’s gospel was a kind of conversion, not making Gentiles into Jews, but bringing Gentiles into the covenant promises of Abraham, as citizens of Greater Israel but not Israelites, branches grafted into the Israel tree. And these Gentiles did not have to have their foreskins cut off, but they had to do something much harder — reject the family and city gods and become non-Romans.

This gives new meaning to the words of the Master:

“Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I came to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s enemies will be the members of his household.

Matthew 10:34-36 (NASB)

Since Jesus’ audience at that moment was Jewish, it’s easy to get the impression that he was only saying that believing (in Messiah) Jews would be rejected by their unbelieving (but still faithful to God) Jewish relatives, but when applied to what Derek wrote, the meaning expands to the experience of diaspora Gentile believers as well.

You see, Paul was too Jewish for the synagogue. He turned the world upside down. And he scared the be-Jesus out of the synagogues. Their liberal status-quo with Gentile adherents to the God of Israel had been working. They were good neighbors with the Greco-Roman city. But this crazy, end-times zealot who demanded that Gentiles forsake the city gods and worship one Lord other than Caesar, well, he was going to get the Jews in trouble by making them seem like bad neighbors. And Jewish blood would be spilt. Couldn’t Paul just be a little less like a Pharisee with his zeal for Torah and prophets?

Now let’s go back to the “problem text” I encountered last Sunday:

Now when they had traveled through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. And according to Paul’s custom, he went to them, and for three Sabbaths reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and giving evidence that the Christ had to suffer and rise again from the dead, and saying, “This Jesus whom I am proclaiming to you is the Christ.” And some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, along with a large number of the God-fearing Greeks and a number of the leading women. But the Jews, becoming jealous and taking along some wicked men from the market place, formed a mob and set the city in an uproar; and attacking the house of Jason, they were seeking to bring them out to the people.

Acts 17:1-5 (NASB)

And now, filter that through the paragraph of Derek’s I quoted just above. What were “the Jews” becoming jealous of? Could it be that they were jealous, not just out of concern that too many pagan Gentiles were invading Jewish religious space, but because Paul and his radical teaching of Messiah which included a more strict and absolute rejection of the pagan gods in the diaspora, was rattling too many cages and upsetting the status quo?

When they did not find them, they began dragging Jason and some brethren before the city authorities, shouting, “These men who have upset the world have come here also; and Jason has welcomed them, and they all act contrary to the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus.” hey stirred up the crowd and the city authorities who heard these things. And when they had received a pledge from Jason and the others, they released them.

Acts 17:6-9 (NASB)

ThessalonicaViewing Acts 17 through the handy filter provided by Derek (and thanks to Paula Fredriksen, Mark Nanos, Magnus Zetterholm, Pamela Eisenbaum, and their presentation on Paul), the blurry, fuzziness of the image of the Jewish leadership of the synagogue in Thessalonica (that you see in Church teachings) and the motives for their jealousy comes into sharp focus.

Of course, this is just one short blog post and a very brief summary of what must have been a very rich and densely packed SBL conference session presented by some of the world’s most outstanding experts on Paul. How much can we read into it?

On the other hand, it’s also adding a link to an ever-strengthening chain of evidence that re-frames Paul as zealous for the Torah, zealous for the Messiah, and uncompromising in his devotion to God as a Jew. A man and a Jewish apostle who demanded no less of others what he expected from himself, especially in the rejection of any compromise with pagan gods and the lifestyle surrounding them.

No wonder Paul was always being beaten, jailed, and thrown out of town by both the Jewish and Roman establishments.

Looking forward to Part 2 of this series written by David Matthews.

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