Thessalonica, Greece in the Mid-1st Century
Paul wrote his earliest surviving letter around 50 or 51 CE. Though he was probably actually sitting in Corinth when he wrote it all down, the letter is addressed to the Christians in Thessalonica and it talks all about their successes and issues (source, p. 1199).
So what was going on in that town in the mid-1st century?
Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Thessalonica (But Were Afraid to Ask)
Thessalonica was a major city in Greece, which was located in the Northern region of Macedonia. It was founded in 316 BCE by King Cassander of Macedon who named the city after his wife Thessalonike (oh, how romantic!) (source, p. 1200). By 41 BCE, the Roman Empire had taken over, though Thessalonica remained a "free city," which just meant that they could govern themselves as long as the Emperor could keep checks on them (source, p. 1131). How kind.
Economically, the town was kind of a big deal. They were smack in the middle of a major commercial road going from the Adriatic Sea to the Black Sea and had an important seaport right in town (source, p. 64). There would have been a diversity of different people living inside the city—from a small wealthy elite to poor and working class artisans and laborers (source, p. 1200). The city also contained a small Jewish population, which, according to Acts 17, is where Paul made his first stop when he came into town.
He didn't have much luck.
They Gotta Have Faith
Aside from the Jews living in town at the time, most citizens of Thessalonica probably worshipped a variety of Greek, Roman, and Egyptian gods. Paul says that the Christians in Thessalonica "turned to God from idols" (1 Thessalonians 1:9), so the church was probably mostly made up of ex-pagans (source, p. 1202).
Ancient coins from the city call out all kinds of deities: Apollo, Artemis, Athena, Heracles, Dionysus, Poseidon, Pan, and Zeus. Lots of people in town probably even paid homage to the Roman Emperor as a god. Most people probably worshipped some combinations of gods, so there wasn't a whole bunch of pressure to pick the one "best" religion in town. Christianity obviously had other ideas (source, p. 63).
The fact that there were so many gods to choose from meant that religion was a big part of life. Ancient people living in the Roman Empire were expected to pay homage to all kinds of different gods. If everyone took part in these rituals, Thessalonica could maintain economic, political, and social stability. It's just what all decent, upstanding people did. Otherwise, there would be problems. Big problems. (Source, p. 1200.)
Paul's Travels in Thessalonica
Acts of the Apostles gives a brief overview of what happens the first time Paul sets foot into Thessalonica. As Luke tells it, Paul strolls into town and manages to win over some Jewish converts in the synagogue right away. Of course, Paul's letters don't really jive with this since he never mentions any Jewish-Christians in Thessalonica. Acts also says that he converted "many of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women" (Acts 17:4), but no one was "leading" enough to be called out by name in his letter.
Then, according to Luke, he's run out of town by some of the non-believing Jews who've managed to rile up "some ruffians" (Acts 17:5) to go after him. They attack the house of Jason, the guy Paul's been staying with (and who, oddly enough, isn't mentioned in 1 Thessalonians), but Paul is able to slip out of town before they find him. Basically, everyone is all up in arms because they think Paul is "turning the world upside down" and "saying there is another king named Jesus" (Acts 17:6-7). At least he didn't try to tell them that Elvis was the real king.
Though Acts only portrays Paul in Thessalonica for a super short time (maybe a few weeks), it was clearly long enough to educate the people about Jesus, set up a congregation, and even to get his own tent making business up and running on the side (source, p. 62). Paul is good, but even we know he'd need more than a few days to get all that accomplished.
Some Serious Oppression
Paul leaves Thessalonica and is gone for probably around a year. In that time, he knows that the Thessalonians are catching flack for their beliefs (just look what happened to him). He's a little worried that "the tempter had tempted [them] and that [his] labor had been in vain" (1 Thessalonians 3:5). Translation: he's worried that now that the going's gotten tough, they decided not to keep going with the whole Jesus thing.
So he sends Timothy to check the situation out and—thank goodness—the Thessalonians are still keeping the faith. Huzzah! But sadly, things haven't been easy for them. Remember, idol worship was very popular. All the cool kids were doing it. And the Christians were most definitely not part of the in-crowd.
And they would have stuck out like sore thumbs. On major holidays, citizens would gather for big meals where meat and wine that had been dedicated to the gods was offered. Naturally, Christians couldn't eat any of that. They also wouldn't have been able to stop by any of the shrines, light a stick of incense, and say a little prayer for the prosperity of the Roman Empire because Jesus—their new deity—would not have been amused (source, p. 1200).
Yeah, there's some persecution going on. Paul mentions it quite a bit and praises these new Christians for staying strong:
• "You became imitators of us and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit." (1 Thessalonians 1:6)
• "You suffered the same things from your own compatriots as they did from the Jews." (1 Thessalonians 2:14)
• "We sent Timothy[…] to strengthen and encourage you for the sake of your faith, so that no one would be shaken by these persecutions." (1 Thessalonians 3:2-3)
These guys are tough. Shmoop personally would have folded like a house of cards, but that's just us.
Gentile vs. Gentile
Paul's proud about how they've been doing in the face of adversity, but he wants to make sure they keep on keeping on, too. That's why he gives them little instructions to further cement their group identity. He says they're different from all the Gentiles around them who are, apparently, sex maniacs (1 Thessalonians 4:5). He also tells them that as "children of the light" (1 Thessalonians 5:5), they won't be surprised when Jesus floats down from the clouds and starts smiting the wicked. The wicked in town won't be so lucky.
But until that happens, Paul tells them to keep their heads down and not cause trouble: "live quietly, to mind your own affairs […] so that you may behave properly toward outsiders" (1 Thessalonians 4:11-12). Basically, Paul wants them to put their best face forward, so that when they're refusing to join in on the idol-worshipping festivities, people won't think they're godless misanthropes. Sure, the Gentiles will all crumble under the wrath of God, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't be polite to them.
Speaking of the wrath of God (aren't we always?), the environment of persecution is also probably one of the reasons Paul keeps bringing up the second coming of Jesus over and over again. The Thessalonians were in desperate need of some hope for the future. Who better to do that than Jesus (along with angels and trumpets)? Lots of down-trodden people have come up with myths about the destruction of their tyrants (source, p. 1201). Generally, they involve tossing off the shackles of their oppressors so the meek can inherit the Earth. But sometimes it's just as simple as knowing that one day those bullies are gonna be pumping your gas.
Since 2 Thessalonians probably wasn't written by Paul and probably was never sent to the actual Thessalonians, none of this good history stuff we just talked about applies to that letter. Some scholars think that 2 Thessalonians was actually written around 100 CE, but by then, Paul and the original Thessalonian Christians would have been long gone (source, p. 1214).
Though the letter is just pretending to have a Thessalonian setting, it's clear that whomever it's addressed to, they were having some of the same problems as the original Thessalonians. Persecutions hadn't gone away. And that whole end of the world thing still hadn't happened. Like Paul, that anonymous author wants his friends to just keep swimming even in the face of tough times.
We're pretty sure Paul and the original Thessalonians would be down with that.