I don’t suppose this question has ever particularly troubled you (leave a comment if it has) but it has bothered me.
We’ve recently begun studying the book of 1 Thessalonians and so I’ve been boning up. The majority of my reference books and commentaries (not all of them mention population) all quote a similar figure. They (Thomas & Mayhue for example) think that Paul, Silas & Timothy would have found a city of around 200,000. The figure is just simply stated. So you just have to accept that they know what they’re talking about.
Even now that’s still a sizeable town but in the ancient world that was huge. The current city of Thessaloniki is still the second largest in Greece (after Athens) and has a greater urban population of just over one million but the city itself is still only around 320,000.
Now Thessalonica was a significant city. A key port, and on a key trading route between Rome and the East, it was the capital of the providence of Macedonia.
However, if you believe Rodney Stark you get a very different figure. Stark thinks Rome had a population of 450,000 and Alexandria 250,000, could Thessalonica be almost as big?
In short no.
In Cities of God Stark does an analysis of how Christianity reached the cities of the Empire and gives his analysis of the populations of the major cities.
The actual populations of ancient cities are very difficult to determine. Back then, even local officials probably had only crude estimates, although probably not as crude as some used by historians for generations, which accounts for the many extraordinary variations in the figures offered by reputable scholars. Did Rome have a million residents or only 200,000?
Cities of God p.34
However Stark believes that as a result of recent attempts to more accurately reconstruct ancient populations from archaeological evidence his figures, while not precise, are more accurate. So what does he say about Thessalonica?
Which, I think you’ll agree is quite a difference. Now Stark doesn’t actually give any more information for tracking down the facts than my commentaries or reference books.
For my money, I think Stark is probably closer, although probably on the conservative side.
Photo by Classical Languages