Friday, March 23, 2007

More from Acts

Continuing our journey in Acts, my student is meant to taking us to Thessalonica (17:1-9), but sadly he's taken to his bed with a heavy cold instead. So it falls to me to wrestle with this lovely story.

I have been greatly helped in this by an excellent article by a baptist NT scholar called Justin K Hardin who teaches at Oklahoma Baptist University. His essay 'Decrees and Drachmas at Thessalonica: An illegal assembly in Jason's house' (New Testament Studies 52, 2006 and available on-line at his page on his university's website) makes sense of this story in a way the commentaries up till now haven't.

His argument is that Jason and the other believers are the ones on trial in Acts 17:6-9, not Paul and Silas in absentia - which is kinda obvious if you read it but most of the commentaries suggest it's Paul and Silas who are being tried here. More importantly, Hardin argues that the law Jason has breached has to do with voluntary associations. Because associations were associated with political trouble-making, Julius Caesar and Augustus after him enacted decrees outlawing them unless they had dispensation from the senate in Rome.

Hardin suggests that Jason was prosecuted for holding an illegal voluntary association in his home and was fined and effectively bound over to keep the peace (i.e. don't do it again on pain of losing this sum of money). For this reason Paul and Silas - though notice not Timothy - left pretty sharpish, so as not to put Jason at more risk than he already faced.

It's the first article I've read that tackles this issue of Rome's antipathy to political associations head-on and it's full of good things (if anyone knows of any others, please let me know...).

I'm reminded of the situation in many parts of the world where the followers of Jesus meet in homes and face the wrath of civil authorities if they are discovered. I'm impressed by Jason's commitment, too. He puts his liberty and resources on the line for the travelling missionaries and his Lord, so that the work of spreading the good news of Jesus can continue.

Of course, what this story emphasises again to me is that the followers of Jesus were not seen as a religious movement by their contemporaries but rather as a political one. Jesus is seen as a rival king to Caesar by those who dragged Jason and his friends in front of the beak, suggesting that this had been part of Paul's preaching in the synagogues and elsewhere.

The other thing Hardin's paper does is help with assessing the length of Paul's stay in Thessalonica. Read quickly, Acts suggests that Paul stays barely a month. But in Philippians 4:16 and in 1 Thessalonians, Paul gives the impression that his stay was longer. It seems clear that there is a big time gap between 17:4 and 17:5. It must have taken some time for the jealousies described to form. So many weeks probably elapsed between the missionaries initial preaching, their growing success at attracting converts (the list hinted at in 17:4 wouldn't necessarily have come at once) and the head of steam that built up behind the opposition.

But even more interesting is that Jason is introduced very abruptly. It is clear that when he enters the story in the second half of v5, he is already hosting a gathering of Jesus followers and his neighbours knew it. indeed, he is seen as a key leader in the new movement - hence the raid on his home. Both Roger Gehring in his book on house church and mission and Rainer Riesner's tome on Pauline Chronology make the same case.

Now what angle do I take on Sunday....? There's a sermon in all that, somewhere.

1 comment:

Hazel said...

Whilst I'm obviously very sorry to hear that Ant is unwell and that you have the extra work of preparing for Sunday morning, having just read through your emerging thoughts I'm looking forward to you unpacking this then.