The Jews and the Agoraioi of Thessaloniki (Acts 17:5)

By Ekaterini G. Tsalampouni
Faculty of Theology
Aristotle University of Thessaloniki
May 2012


Acts 17:1-10 describe the arrival of Paul and his companions to Thessaloniki around 49 CE and the events that took place during their stay in the capital of the province of Macedonia. As it has already been pointed out by many scholars, the narrative follows a certain pattern that is also found in most of the other descriptions of Paul’s visits to various cities of Asia Minor and Greece: the arrival of Paul and his companions to a certain city, Paul’s successful preaching to the population (with a somehow constant variation here, i.e. that of Paul’s ineffective preaching to the Jewish local community, on the one hand, and of the willing acceptance of the gospel by the gentile local population, on the other), and the aggressive reaction of individuals or particular groups within the city (e.g. of the silversmith guilds in Ephesus, of the masters of a young female slave in Philippi but most significantly of the Jews). This common arrangement certainly establishes the unity of the overall narrative of the Acts especially in the second part of the book, where Paul’s activity is narrated, and serves the theological purposes of the book: to tell the story of the spread of the word about God’s kingdom (βασιλεία) from Jerusalem to the end of this world (namely Rome itself) and thus to create a connection between Jesus and his apostles and the Church itself.1

However, three significant points should be stressed. The first is the fact that despite this common pattern, the individuality of each of these descriptions can still be detected. All of these smaller narrative units are sewn into a local-coloured narrative “patchwork” that tells the successful but full of obstacles story of the gospel’s advance in the world. Secondly, these enhancements of the main story-pattern should not always be explained as the redactional intervention of the author who possibly wanted to dress up his narrative with the garment of authenticity. Most of them seem to depict a concrete historical situation and they probably come from the original source material that the author had access to. In fact, one would dare to say, that it is more likely that the common narrative pattern is the result of the author’s redactional reworking of his traditional material in order to make it part of his narrative and theological scheme. On the other hand, the deviating details rather belong to the author’s sources and they still reflect the particular local situation they were produced into. Therefore, and this is the third point, the historical factuality of these pieces of information should not be discarded. They contribute to the reconstruction of the original historical situation, although it is also clear that the focus remains on why and how these details were used by the author. It is, thus, necessary to trace down these bits of historical information and by means of the archaeological and other evidence of this time to try to understand their real historical meaning in order, on a second level, to explain their presence in the text.

The “agoraioi” of Thessaloniki

The case of Thessaloniki and the events that took place there during Paul’s stay are a good example of the above (Acts 17:1-10). The story plot follows the general pattern already described but it is also clear that some of the diverging details are clearly of local pedigree. This is the case of the politarchs (πολιτάρχαι), who according to the epigraphic evidence from Thessaloniki - as well as from other Macedonian cities - were the high officials of many Greek-type cities of the area and had a wide power to act.2 The same could also be said about the reference to the demos (δῆμος), especially when considered in relation to the civic nature of the city. Thessaloniki was a Greek-type city with the status of civitas libera during the Roman period.3

The focus of the present short contribution will be on the description of the events that led to the hasty departure of Paul and his companions from the city and on a small detail that has been usually ignored but which perhaps could illuminate the historical situation and could highlight the purposes of the author’s narrative. These events are described in Acts 17: 5-8: Paul’s success among the gentile sympathizers of the city and especially among some prominent gentile women caused the envy of the Jews who set the city in an uproar and who used (προσλαβόμενοι) some “agoraioi andres” (ἀγοραῖοι ἄνδρες) to bring Jason, the host of Paul and his companions, before the politarchs. Jason was made to pay the bail in order to be released and Paul had to leave immediately the city.

The legal undertone of the whole description has already been underlined by various scholars and most notably among them by A.N. Sherwin-White and Heike Omerzu.4 Two important phrases in the text seem to be legal termini technici. The first one is that of “προαγαγεῖν εἰς τὸν δῆμον,” and more specifically the verb “προαγαγεῖν,” which in its legal use means “to be brought in front of a judge” (cf. Josephus, JW I. 539. 16, 393). Heike Omerzu correctly remarks that “there is no reason to reject the technical meaning of the phrase προαγαγεῖν εἰς τὸν δῆμον because of the context,” which is actually that of the tumult stirred by the Jews.5

On the other hand, almost all interpreters accept the fact that the phrase λαβεῖν tὸ ἱκανὸν is the Greek translation of the Latin legal term satis accipere that correlates to satis dare and is used to denote the payment of security or bail in civil and criminal procedures (see e.g. IPriene 111).6

Although the legal references seem to be clear, most commentators of this passage are hesitant to accept their possible legal significance because of the text’s reference to the tumult instigated by the Jews and the “ἀγοραίονς ἄνδρες.” This detail, of a group of people causing uproar, is a phenomenon well known in the ancient world. Although the verb “ὀχλοποιῶ” (“set in uproar”), which is used in the text of the Acts, is not attested elsewhere, the phenomenon itself is described by ancient writers. The locus classicus that is usually brought up is that of Plutarch’s Aem. Paulus 38.4.7 This text, however, does not seem to solve the problem of the combination of a riot and a legal act.8

Moreover, the way the exegetes understood the word ἀγοραῖος has contributed to depriving it of any possible legal reference. The usual rendering is that of “bad characters from the marketplace” (NIV), “lewd fellows of the baser sort” (KJV), “some ruffians in the marketplaces” (NRS) or more faithfully to the literal meaning of the text “some wicked men from the market place” (NASB) and in the current modern Greek translation of the Greek Bible Society “some vile persons that frequented in the market” (“μερικούς πονηρούς ανθρώπους, από κείνους που τριγυρίζουν στην αγορά”). It is clear that in almost all modern translations of the text the word ἀγοραῖος has a morally negative meaning.

The same holds for almost all commentaries on the book of Acts where the ἀγοραῖοι are clearly understood as people of suspicious moral character who frequent the agora, a place that was usually connected with such vulgar behaviours.9 This meaning of the word is certainly well-attested in the ancient literary texts (e.g. Plato, Protag. Plutarch, De tranquil. ap. Stob. Sermon 58, 375). Moreover, the neutral meaning of the word, which was preferred in some translations, is also attested in the ancient sources: ἀγοραῖος can mean whatever and whichever is related to the ἀγορά (e.g. P.Cair.Masp. 2. 67168.10; P. Ryl. 4. 601; I. Magn. 2).10

Therefore, both translations are legitimate and justified since they rest on ancient evidence. However, as has already been noted, this understanding of the word causes some difficulties regarding the legal undertones of the passage under discussion. The question that seems to have bothered the exegetes is whether a riot could lead to legal action. Interestingly, another passage from the Acts (19:23-40), where the word ἀγοραῖος also comes up (an adjective in plural determining the implied ἡμέραι or κρίσεις), seems to offer some clues. The silversmiths of Ephesus caused a tumult and brought some of the Christians of the city in front of the city magistrates who refused, however, to act legally against them and to refer the rebellious mob to the proconsuls (who had the legal authority) and to their courts. Two points should be stressed here: the legal meaning of the word ἀγοραῖος and the fact that the Roman magistrates and not the demos have the juridicial authority. Although Ephesus and Thessaloniki should not be regarded as identical in their civic status and administration, they both shared some common features, which derived from their place within the Roman administrative system.

Moreover, the examination of ancient literary and non-literary Greek texts leads to the conclusion that the word can also have other meanings besides that of the vulgar, worthless or rogue person. In the ancient sources the ἀγοραῖοι were also the merchants selling their goods in the market (although they are sometimes distinguished from the ἔμποροι).11 More interestingly the ἀγοραῖοι can be the professional lawyers that frequented in the markets and should be distinguished from the orators of the forum.12 In inscriptions they are usually listed among the public officials.13 Their forensic skills were regarded by some philosophers as of inferior quality to that of the rhetoric or the other arts. Significantly the texts characterize them as audacious and shameless, a feature that also appears in Acts 17:5.14 Thus, the rendering of the word “ἀγοραῖοι” as the lawyers, who frequented the agora, could fit very well to the syntactic structure of the phrase “τῶν ἀγοραίων ἄνδρας τινας πονηροὺς»: the πονηροὶ ἄνδρες are only a part of the more general group of ἀγοραῖοι.

This legal connotation of the word in Acts 17:5 was also known to the ancient Christian sources. The itala version of Codex Bezae renders the word as quosdam forenses, i.e. certain lawyers. Surprisingly, the word ἀγοραῖος appears in some rabbinic sources in order to signify the lawyers of the Gentiles (גױם של אגוריאות, agorioth shel goyim). Ammonius in his interpretation of Acts 17:5 describes the ἀγοραῖοι as lawyers of a lower quality.15 The same interpretation is adopted by some scholars of the 19th century.16 The modern interpreters, however, followed Frederick John Foakes Jackson’s understanding of the word as a qualitative genitive instead of as a partitive one, which seems to be syntactically and contextually more appropriate. They also presented the aforementioned text of Plutarch as evidence of their exegetical choice. However, this instance of ἀγοραῖοι does not seem to justify their understanding. Although the word is certainly negatively loaded – like the other words that denote the companions of Scipio (i.e. ἀγεννεῖς = of insignificant origin or δεδουλευκότες = newly made free) – its primary meaning seems to be of a different kind.

Two more arguments in favour of the legal understanding of the word should be mentioned. The first one refers to the political and social status of the city of Thessaloniki in the first centuries CE. Thessaloniki was granted the privilege of a free city (civitas libera) by Octavian and M. Antonius. This privilege actually meant that the city had the right to cut its own coins (only copper) and to enjoy tax immunity and administrative and juridical freedom to some extent. The epigraphic evidence from the city attests that the politarchs played an important role in this system functioning as a bridge between the Roman authorities and the local population and occupying a prominent place in the administrative system of the city. It is highly probable that the politarchs had also some kind of judicial role. Some unpublished epigraphic material from the area seems to point to this direction. If this is the case, the reference to the politarchs and their judicial role in Acts 17,5ff. should not be regarded as a redactional addition by the author of Acts in order to add some credibility to his story. It rather reflects a concrete historical situation in the city.

Furthermore, the socio-political stratification of a Greek city in the Graeco-Roman period should be taken into consideration. Regardless of the possible social mobility and wealth that sometimes were incompatible with the social status in the Graeco-Roman society, only the Roman citizens and the free native citizens of the city had full legal rights. All other free persons that were not natives and did not, therefore, belong to one of the city’s tribes (φυλή) were regarded as foreigners abiding in the city with restricted legal rights. The Jews of Thessaloniki seem to have belonged to this group in their vast majority. It was therefore impossible for them to bring a case against Paul, considering also the fact that he was a Roman citizen, and they probably needed the legal representation of a native lawyer, an ἀγοραῖος. In that case they were in a much better position than the silversmiths of Ephesus who were dismissed because the city assembly had no right to judge their case. In the case of Thessaloniki both obstacles– namely that of the legal representation and that of finding a judge to decide their case ad hoc - seem to have been removed.

This interpretation is also in accord with the particular motif of trial that plays an important role in the two-volume work of Luke-Acts. Significantly, the book of Acts contains a series of incidents that are constructed as trials. This literary motif of trial is, though, of particular theological importance: it relates Paul to Jesus himself and his unjust persecution and trial and builds a parallelism between both of them. This is also made clear by the indictment against Paul in Thessalonica which reminds of that against Jesus in Luke 23: 2 (“They are all defying Caesar’s decrees, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus,” in Acts and “he opposes payment of taxes to Caesar and claims to be Christ, a king,” in Luke). The legal understanding of the whole context of the Thessaloniki-context conforms with the general tendency of the book of Acts to present Paul as the imitator of Jesus Christ and as his follower who continues the work he had began.

It is clear that the original source of Acts 15:5 ff. has undergone a redactional process. Taking into consideration the historical situation in Thessaloniki of the 1st c. as well as the possible validity of our legal understanding of the text one could attempt to discern between the textual layers: to the original layer belong the politarchs, the lawsuit against Jason by the Jews through the agoraioi and a kind of tumult that probably took place. To the redactional one seem to belong the lawsuit against Paul, the exaggerated description of the city riot and the content of the indictment against the apostle, namely the element of a universal rebellion against the emperor himself. Such a crime could be regarded as a crimen majestatis and in no case would be solved by the politarchs or through the payment of bail. However, the author of the passage cleverly preserved those elements that could conform with the presentation of Paul as a suffering follower of Jesus. Although the detail of agoraioi may seem insignificant, it can make the difference. It can strengthen the argument of the existence of a legal motif of trial in the passage describing the Jewish opposition to Paul in Thessaloniki and can also highlight the original circumstances of Paul’s visit to the city.


1 Carl R. Holladay, A Critical Introduction to the New Testament; Interpreting the Message and Meaning of Jesus Christ, Abingdon, Nashville 2005, p. 321.

2 For the duties of the politarchs as well as the epigraphic evidence from Macedonia and other areas see E. Tsalampouni, Macedonia in New Testament Period (Bibliotheca Biblica 23), Thessaloniki 2002, pp. 39-40 (in Greek).

3 See Plinius, Hist. Nat. 4.36: “...Thessalonice liberae conditionis.” Thessaloniki was granted this status by Marc Antony and Octavian after the battle of Philippi (42 BCE).

4 A.N. Sherwin-White, Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament (The Sarum Lectures 1960-1961), Oxford University Press, London 1963, pp. 95-97; H. Omerzu, Der Prozeß des Paulus: Eine exegetische und rechthistorische Untersuchung der Apostelgeschichte (BZNW 115), de Gruyter, Berlin 2002, pp. 177ff.

5 Omerzu, op.cit. 181. Most commentators, however, seem to ignore the legal connotation of the phrase, see e.g. H. Conzelmann, Die Apostelgeschichte (HNT 7), Mohr Siebeck, Tübingen 1963, p. 103.

6 See e.g. the most recent commentary on Acts, R.I. Pervo, Acts (Hermeneia), Fortress Press, Minneapolis 2009, p. 421, n. 28. For the meaning of the term see Sherwin-White, op.cit. p. 95.

7 Plutarch’s Aem. Paulus 38.4: “When, therefore, Appius saw Scipio come to the market-place, surrounded with men of mean rank, and such as were but newly made free, yet were very fit to manage a debate (ἀγοραίους), to gather together the rabble, and to carry whatsoever they designed by importunity and noise ....”

8 See, for example, Conzelmann’s comment on this verse: “προαγαγεῖν εἰς τὸν δῆμον is itself a legal term (to bring before the city assembly). However, it refers here (cf. Acts 17:5) to a mob riot (δῆμος = ὄχλος),” Conzelmann, op.cit.

9 An interesting exception seems to be A. Clark, The New Testament of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, vol. 5, Waugh & Mason, New York 1833, p. 780.

10 Additionally, the gods that are venerated in the agora bear the epithet ἀγοραῖος, as well as the taxes that are paid there (ἀγοραῖον τέλος).

11 E.g. P. Rev. 77,5 (259 BC) = P.Fouad.71.

12 Philostratus, VS 614.

13 IGBulg I2 15(2).

14 See, most notably, Dio Cassius 30-35, fr. 100: “Gaius Titius, an agoraios man who made his living from the law-courts, and who combined excessive freedom of speech with shamelessness.”

15 J. Cramer, Catena in Acta SS Apostolorum, 1838, p. 326.

16 George Burder, A Complete History of the Holy Bible as Contained in the Old and New Testaments. Vol. 2. Woodward Publ., Philadelphia 1808, p. 509; Theoclitos Pharmakidis, Ἡ Καινὴ Διαθήκη μετὰ ὑπομνημάτων ἀρχαίων, vol. 3, Aggelidis, Athens 1842, p. 172.

Comments (1)

Μία πολύ σημαντική ερμηνευτική θέση για τη λέξη "αγοραίος" στον Ελληνιστικό κόσμο!

#1 - Αργυριάδου Αναστασία - 06/30/2012 - 13:44

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