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Bible Commentaries

Cambridge Greek Testament Commentary for Schools and Colleges

Acts 17

Verses 1-99

17:1 9 . Paul and Silas journey through Amphipolis and Apollonia to Thessalonica, where some of the Jews raise an uproar against them and Jason their host

1 . they had passed through ] The verb occurs in N. T. only here and in Luke 8:1 . The use of the same expressions is a noticeable point in support of the identity of authorship of the two books.

Amphipolis and Apollonia ] The journey is made to the south and west. Amphipolis was about 33 miles distant from Philippi, along the Egnatian road. It had been a famous place in the time of the Peloponnesian war, and was in St Paul’s time a great Roman military station. Its name was given to it because it was as nearly as possible enclosed by the winding stream of the river Strymon. Apollonia was about 30 miles farther on, in the district of Macedonia known as Mygdonia, and was about 37 miles from Thessalonica. The Apostle and his companions appear not to have made any stay in these towns.

Thessalonica ] The modern Saloniki ; to the Christians of which place St Paul afterwards addressed the two earliest of his extant epistles. From very early times Thessalonica had been a famous place. Its old name was Therma, and it was called Thessalonica after a sister of Alexander the Great. It is now one of the most important towns in European Turkey, and it played a great part in the history of the Middle Ages as the bulwark of Christendom in the East. It was captured by the Saracens a.d. 904, then by the Crusaders in 1184, and lastly by the Turks in 1430. Even now there is a large Christian element among its population, and a still larger number of Jews.

a synagogue ] The Text. Rec . gives the definite article “ the synagogue,” though it is overlooked in the A.V., and we cannot always be sure that we represent the force of the Greek article by the English one. ( R. V. retains “ a synagogue”). But there was apparently no synagogue at Philippi, and it may very well be that in Thessalonica dwelt the greatest number of Jews and therefore the facilities for their worship had there alone been advanced so far as to secure them a building for their meetings, which would be known therefore as “ the synagogue.”

2 . as his manner was ] See 13:5, 14; 14:1, &c.

went in unto them ] And was no doubt asked (cf. 13:15) to offer any exhortation to the people which he might feel moved to do.

three sabbath days ] Of course the Jews would assemble on that day in greater number, and for the other days of the week be less accessible.

3 . opening ] St Luke (and he only in the N. T.) 24:32 uses this verb of making plain what before was not understood. We may see from that passage what had been St Paul’s work in Thessalonica, “He began at Moses and all the prophets and expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning Christ.”

and alleging ] The more modern use of allege ,=to assert, has somewhat obscured the older English meaning, which was merely “to set forth.” The Greek verb here translated by it signifies primarily “to set out food, &c. on a table,” and then figuratively “to set out arguments,” but without the idea of assertion. St Paul reasoned but only out of the Scriptures. For the English word, cf. Coverdale, Works (Parker Soc.), p. 14, “We will first declare our mind out of Scripture and allege (i.e. set before you ) somewhat more for the better understanding of the matter.”

that Christ must needs have suffered ] Better, “ that it behoved the Christ to suffer ,” i.e. the Messiah, whom the Jews expected, but whom they looked for in New Testament days only as a mighty conqueror who should deliver them from their oppressors. Their wishes had been father to their thoughts, and they overlooked all that spake of the Messiah as the “Man of sorrows.” This portion of the Scriptures it was which St Paul opened.

and risen again from the dead ] Better, “and to rise again from the dead.” For they like the disciples themselves in earlier days (John 20:9 ) “understood not the scriptures (such as Psalms 16:10 ) that he must rise again from the dead.”

and that this Jesus, whom I preach unto you, is Christ ] The force of the words will be improved if “said he” be inserted to introduce the direct address. Read (as R. V. ) “ this Jesus, whom (said he) I proclaim unto you is the Christ .” For He has both suffered and risen again in accordance with the teaching of the Scriptures, and we are witnesses of His resurrection and ascension into heaven.

4 . And some of them believed ( were persuaded )] For St Paul’s teaching was by arguments of which they all were able to form an estimate.

and consorted with ] The notion conveyed by the Greek and by the English so far as its derivation is concerned is of “casting in their lot with the disciples,” deciding to join their community.

and of the devout Greeks ] These were proselytes of the gate, heathens by birth, who had embraced in part the Jewish faith. (Cp. 13:43, 50, and below, verse 17.)

a great multitude ] For these had not the prejudices which clung so close about the born Jews.

5 . But the Jews which believed not ] In the oldest MSS. the last three words are unrepresented in the Greek. These are very likely a gloss which has crept into the later texts, the reader who made it on his margin wishing to note that not all the Jews were adverse to the Apostle.

moved with envy ( jealousy )] They did not like to see numbers of men and women drawn away from their party.

certain lewd fellows of the baser sort ] The Greek is more nearly represented in modern English by “vile fellows of the rabble.” ἀγοραῖος , “of the rabble,” is properly the man who having no calling lounges about the ἀγορὰ , the market-place, in the hope of picking up a chance living, and who is ready for anything bad or good that may present itself. We have no English word sufficiently dignified to use for such a term in translation. “Loafer” comes nearest, but of course is too colloquial. The word “lewd” meant in old English “people,” but afterwards came to signify (1) “the common people” and (2) “the ignorant and rude among the people,” which is the sense intended by the A. V. The word nearest akin to “lewd” is the Germ. leute = people.

set all the city on an uproar ] There is no word in the Greek for “all.” The Jews in Thessalonica must have been numerous and influential to bring about such a tumult, but they preferred to raise (see v. 7) the cry that the new teachers were enemies of the Roman power. This would gain them a larger following.

the house of Jason ] Manifestly the host of Paul and Silas. Beyond what is said of him in the following verses (6 9) we know nothing. The name is found, Romans 16:21 , in a list of those whom St Paul speaks of as his “kinsmen,” but this may be quite a different person. He is most likely to have been a Jew, whose proper name perhaps was Joseph, and Jason, which is Greek, may be only that which he used in his intercourse with Gentiles.

bring them out to the people ] So that the excited mob might inflict summary vengeance on them.

6 . they drew Jason ] The word is expressive of considerable violence. Better, “ dragged .” It is used of Saul (8:3) “haling” men and women, and committing them to prison.

certain brethren ] We see therefore that in these three weeks a congregation or church had been formed.

the rulers of the city ] The title πολιτάρχης is found nowhere in literature but in this chapter. But an inscription connected with this very city of Thessalonica has been preserved on an arch which spans a street of the modern city. It contains some names which occur as the names of St Paul’s converts, Sosipater, Gaius, Secundus, but the inscription is probably not earlier than the time of Vespasian (see Boeckh, Inscr . 2, p. 52, n. 1967). There the title of the magistrates is given in this precise form; a striking confirmation of the truthfulness of the account before us.

the world ] Lit. “the inhabited earth.” A phrase used in later Greek to signify the whole Roman Empire, which then embraced a very large portion of the known world (cp. Luke 2:1 ). It speaks much for the spread of Christianity and its powerful influence, that words like these should come from the lips of enemies.

7 . hath received ] As guests into his house, and therefore he may be counted a sympathizer with their teaching.

these all ] Implying that Paul and Silas, whom they had not found, would also be included in their accusation, if they could be caught.

another king, one Jesus ] So far as this chapter gives an account of St Paul’s preaching, he had drawn the attention of the Jews to the sufferings of the Messiah, but we cannot doubt that he had also spoken of His kingdom. Such language the mob would be urged to seize on, and make it the justification for their uproar. For Thessalonica though a free city was subject to the Emperor.

8 . And they troubled the people ] i.e. spread alarm among them at the prospect of insurrection, and made them eager to punish the Apostles.

9 . And when they had taken security of Jason ] i.e. having made him responsible either by his finding securities to be bound with and for him, or by making him give some deposit as a pledge for his good conduct, they took measures for securing, so far as those at present in custody were concerned, that they should commit no treason.

and of the other] Other is often found in old English as a plural. Cp. Bp. Pilkington’s Works (Parker Soc.), p. 7: “Phinees … punished that wickedness which other winked at.”

10 15 . Paul and Silas sent away to Berea. Noble character of the Bereans. The Jews from Thessalonica follow after Paul, and by reason of their enmity he is conducted to Athens

10 . sent away Paul and Silas ] The after-conduct of the Thessalonian Jews shews that they were resolved to bring the missionaries into danger, therefore their friends sent them secretly away.

Berea ] Still the journey is south-west. The old name of Berœa may be recognized in the modern Verria .

synagogue of the Jews ] See above, v. 2.

11 . more noble ] Applied first to nobility of birth (which is the primary sense of nobilis ), the word in its secondary sense implies, as here, nobility of character.

received the word ] i.e. the word of God. It was the same teaching which had been given to the Jews in Thessalonica. This we see because the Berœans go to the O. T. Scriptures to examine into the truth of what they hear. Here we have a noteworthy instance of the right of private judgment. Even an Apostle’s word is not to be taken for granted. The noble Berœans were ready to listen, and then diligent to examine into the grounds of what was said.

and searched the scriptures ] The word is not the same as in the well-known passage John 5:39 . The present verb has more the sense of examining and sifting evidence. It was used in Attic law of the steps taken by the lawyers to see whether an action would lie.

12 . also of honourable women ] The same word is found 13:50, of the women of Antioch in Pisidia, and signifies that they were of honourable estate, distinguished for their position, influence and wealth.

which were Greeks ] The adjective refers specially to the women, but it probably is intended to define the men too. The Jewish converts had been mentioned as examiners of the Scriptures. The men and women mentioned afterwards were probably all Gentiles.

13 . the word of God ] The Thessalonian Jews would not have termed it so, to such an extent had prejudice and long training in the later Jewish teaching blinded their eyes. When Moses was read there was a vail over their hearts, and they saw not the glory.

and stirred up the people ] In the oldest texts there are two verbs here, “ stirring up and troubling the multitudes .” The first contains the figure of a storm at sea, where all is disturbed down to the very depths, a figure apt enough for the confusion which these men desired to create; the second verb is the same that occurs in v. 8, and it is probable from this that the way in which the trouble was produced here was the same as there, by the statement that the Apostles were traitors to the Roman power. (For the figurative language cp. Isaiah 57:20 .)

14 . immediately ] As from Thessalonica so from Berœa, the departure is made in all haste, so much has the charge of conspiring against Cæsar’s power disturbed the whole people.

to go as it were to the sea ] This rendering of the Text. Rec . conveys the idea that for a while the travellers made as though they would go in the direction of the sea, and then to baffle pursuit turned and took the land road to Athens. But the reading of ἕως for ὡς , which has the support of the most ancient authorities, makes the sense to be “to go as far as to the sea,” and this is to be preferred for several reasons. For it’ is difficult to understand that St Paul would have gone on through Thessaly and all the intervening districts which lie north of Attica, and never have sought an opportunity of preaching the word anywhere till Athens was reached. But if he were conveyed to the sea and took ship and was thus brought to Athens, then it is easy to understand that the next place mentioned in the journey is Athens. It is clear too from the whole account of St Paul’s travels, that he was a person who by reason of his infirmities could not easily travel alone. That such a person should have been brought so long a distance by land, where the sea-voyage was so accessible and easy, is hardly to be imagined. It may well be that at the departure from Berœa the design was to wait at the coast till his proper companions could come to him, but that when the sea was reached there was found a speedy opportunity of sailing into Attica, which the Apostle embraced, as his conductors were willing to go all the journey with him.

abode there still ] Because Silas and Timothy had played a less prominent part and were not in the same peril as St Paul.

15 . they that conducted Paul ] The use of the Greek verb (which is only found here in N. T. in this sense) gives the idea that the whole care and ordering of the journey was in their hands rather than the Apostle’s.

brought him unto Athens ] And of course saw him safely settled where he could wait for his fellow-missionaries, which he seems to have designed to do, without preaching, had not his spirit been roused by the sights he saw.

with all speed ] As at present he was alone, and not able to set about his work so promptly.

16 21 . Paul, provoked by the prevalence of idolatry at Athens, first addresses the Jews and then the Gentiles. Some of the philosophers question him on his teaching, and bring him to the areopagus that they may hear him more at full

16 . his spirit was stirred in him ] But the stirring was of the sharpest. The verb is akin to the noun which in 15:39 is used of the paroxysm of contention between Paul and Barnabas. His spirit was provoked within him, till he could not forbear to speak, could not wait till Timothy and Silas arrived.

when he saw the city wholly given to idolatry ] Better (with R. V. ) “ as he beheld the city full of idols .” This, the marginal rendering of the A. V., appears, from the analogy of similar words, to be the closer meaning, and it agrees somewhat better with the facts. What St Paul beheld was the numerous statues erected some to one god, some to another. That the city was wholly given to idolatry was the inference from this abundance of idols. The mutilation of the busts of Hermes before the Sicilian expedition in the Peloponnesian war shews how numerous were the statues erected to one divinity only. Time had added many to the number before St Paul’s visit.

17 . Therefore disputed ( reasoned ) he in the synagogue ] Going first to the Jews, and naturally expecting sympathy from them in his excitement against idolatry.

the devout persons ] As before, the proselytes of the gate. Cp. 13:50, and above v. 4.

and in the market daily ] One cannot but be reminded of the way in which Socrates some centuries earlier had thus gone about in the same city seizing eagerly on every one who would listen, and trying, according to his light, to shew them higher things, to open their eyes that they might discern between real knowledge and conceit without knowledge.

18 . philosophers of the Epicureans and of the Stoicks ] In St Paul’s day these two systems of philosophy were most prominent throughout the Roman world, and were regarded as conflicting though in many points they bear a strong likeness to one another. Both were the result of a desire to find some better principle for the guidance of man’s moral nature than could be found in the so-called religious systems of Greece and Rome. But before the Christian era much that was best in both schools had sadly degenerated from its pristine character.

The founder of the Stoics was Zeno of Citium in Cyprus. His precise date is uncertain, but he flourished in the century between b.c. 350 250. The first lesson of his teaching was that the highest duty of the philosopher was to practise virtue. For the doing this knowledge was necessary, and the only knowledge that could be relied on was that which was based upon sensation. Reality belonged only to material things such as the senses could appreciate. In this manner the Stoic philosophy became materialist. For though owning the existence of God and of the soul in man, Zeno and his followers spake of these as, in some sense, material. But they termed God the soul of the universe, and taught that all things are produced from him, and will at last be absorbed into him again. And then a new world-cycle will begin and be in all respects like that which went before. So the Stoics were Pantheists. They taught moreover that the universe was governed by unchanging law, that the lot of individuals, and the occurrence of particular events were all uncertain. The care of Providence was for the fabric of the universe, and only indirectly extended to particulars or individuals whose lot was bound up with the unchanging course of fixed law. The Stoics therefore were fatalists. The way in which the individual could make the nearest approach to happiness was by bringing himself, through knowledge, into harmony with the course of the universe. But so unimportant did the individual appear to these philosophers, that suicide was held to be lawful, and at times praiseworthy. They were conscious of both physical and moral evil in the world, and from this men might escape by self-inflicted death. They taught however that, though the virtuous might have to suffer, no real evil happens to them, nor real good to the vicious. Fortified with this thought, the Stoic trained himself to be proudly independent of externals, and to bear evils, should they come, with indifference, and thus he strove to secure undisturbed peace of mind. Materialism, Pantheism, Fatalism and pride, were the features of one of the systems into contact with which St Paul was brought at Athens.

The Epicureans (named from Epicurus, born at Samos b.c. 342) agreed with the Stoics that philosophy should seek to promote the happiness of man, but maintained that this end could be best gained by the pursuit of pleasure. By this language they did not intend profligate pleasure, but a state wherein the body was free from pain and the mind from disturbance. They too made the senses their means of judging of what is pleasure, and so with them man became the measure of all good for himself. Thus the Epicureans were materialists. But differing from the Stoics they taught the world was formed by chance, and that the gods had no concern in its creation. Their gods were described as perfectly happy, dwelling apart and caring neither for the world nor its inhabitants. Thus the Epicureans were practical atheists. With them man might approach to a state of happiness by circumscribing his wants, so that life might be free from care. To restrain the senses was the Epicurean road to happiness, to crush them as much as possible into insensibility was the path of the Stoic. But having such thoughts of the gods, neither system had in any way run counter to the popular theology. By doing so the Stoic would fear lest he should be thought to deny God altogether, while the Epicurean, though thinking all such worship folly, yet felt it too great an interruption to the pleasure which he sought to become an advocate of the abolition of idol worship. So St Paul found Athens crowded with the images and altars of the gods.

What will this babbler say ] Better, What would , &c. The A.V. conceals the fact that will here signifies “meaneth” or “wisheth” to say, “What would he go on to say if we would listen?”

The word rendered “babbler” is not found elsewhere in N. T. In profane writers it is used of birds picking up scattered grain, and then figuratively of men who pick up a living as best they may, and hence are willing to flatter for the sake of what they can get, and so are men without principle or ground in what they say.

a setter forth of strange gods ] The word δαιμόνια here rendered “gods” is the word from which the English “demon” is derived. It was used in classical Greek mostly to denote some inferior order of divine beings. It was one of the accusations brought against Socrates and the charge on which he was condemned that he introduced new daimonia (Xen. Mem . i. 1, 2; Plato, Apol . 40 a &c.). It has been thought by some that the Athenians, by using the plural word, understood that “Jesus” was one new divinity and “Anastasis” (the Resurrection) another. But it is not necessary to suppose this. They might very well speak of a preacher of Jesus as a setter forth of new divinities . For they evidently saw that he had more to say than they had yet heard.

Times seem changed at Athens since the prosecution of Socrates, for it is not anger, but scornful curiosity which prompts the language of the speakers. They do not mean to assail Paul for his teaching, and amid the abundance of idols, they perhaps now would have felt no difficulty in allowing Jesus a place, provided he did not seek to overthrow all the rest of their divinities.

The nature of St Paul’s teaching “in the market-place” has not been mentioned until we are told that it was of “Jesus and the resurrection.” We may take this as a specimen of the way in which the author of the Acts has dealt with his materials. He has not seen it needful here to do more than specify in half-a-dozen words what St Paul had spoken about; and so when we have a report of a speech we need not suppose that he has given, or intended to give, more than a summary of what the speaker said, and, adhering to the subtance, has cast his abbreviated record into such form as best fitted his narrative.

19 . And they took him ] Better, took hold of him . (As R. V. ) But there is no need to suppose that any violence was used or intended. The same verb is used often of taking by the hand to aid or protect (so Mark 8:23 ; Acts 23:19 ), and is the word by which the action of Barnabas is described (Acts 9:27 ) when “he took Paul and brought him to the apostles.” Moreover the whole context shews that the action of the crowd was in no sense that of an arrest, for we read ( v. 33) when his speech was done “Paul departed from among them,” evidently having been under no kind of restraint.

and brought him unto Areopagus ] More clearly expressed if we read “ the Areopagus .” This place, the name of which is translated “Mars’ hill” below in the text and here in the margin of the A.V., was an eminence to the west of the Acropolis at Athens. It was famous in classic literature as the meeting-place of the Athenian council of Areopagus which took its name from the place where it met. To this hill of Mars (Ares) the philosophers led St Paul, probably at a time when it was unoccupied (though some suppose that the court was sitting), that they might the better hear him away from the bustle of the market-place, and that he might more conveniently address a larger audience.

May we know ] The verb here rendered “may” = literally “are we able.” But there is no doubt that its force is well given by the A.V. For the literal force “to be able” often merged itself in that of “to wish” or “to be willing.” Cp. Luke 11:7 , where the verb is translated “I cannot (= I am not able to) rise and give thee,” but the sense is “ I don’t wish to rise,” for after importunity he does arise and do all that is asked. The Stoics and Epicureans were not likely to doubt their own ability to understand all that St Paul might say to them.

what this new doctrine, whereof thou speakest, is ] Better (with R. V. ), “ what this new doctrine is which is spoken by thee .” The sense conveyed by the verb ( λαλεῖν ) is often in N. T. that of announcing or publishing , and the word is not unfrequently used of messages spoken by God or by his prophets (cp. Luke 1:45 , Luke 1:55 , Luke 1:70 , Luke 1:24 :25; Acts 3:21 , Acts 3:24 ; James 5:10 ). The Apostle was not speaking to the Athenians about the doctrine, his words were the doctrine.

20 . strange things ] The original is not an adjective, but a participle, and signifies “something which strikes a person as strange.” So that the effect is indicated which had been produced on the minds of the hearers. The words had filled them with surprise. In the middle voice the word is found 1 Peter 4:4 , 1 Peter 4:12 = “to think anything strange.”

what these things mean ] See above on v. 18.

21 . This verse is a parenthesis explanatory of what has gone before. The audience had been struck with the strange teaching, and that it was strange was enough. Novelty was their life’s pursuit. So without having any regard for the importance of the teaching, they were ready to listen because it was new.

strangers which were there ] The words will bear a fuller rendering, “ strangers sojourning there .” (So R. V. ) The place was famous, and all seekers after novelty came there from every quarter.

spent their time ] More literally “had leisure for.” But the one sense is the complement of the other. If all the time be spent in one way, there is no leisure left for any thing else. But the word has the further sense of “finding a favourable opportunity.” The Athenians could find time for the pursuit of novelty, but for nothing beside. The imperfect tense of the verb also implies that this was their constant state of mind.

either to tell, or to hear some new thing ] This character of the Athenian populace is confirmed by many statements of classical authors. In Thuc. iii. 38 Cleon is represented as complaining of his countrymen that they were in the habit of playing the part of “spectators in displays of oratory, and listeners to the stories of what others had done;” and a like charge is made more than once by Demosthenes in his speeches on the vigorous policy of Philip of Macedon, which he contrasts with the Athenian love of talk and news.

22 31 . Speech of St Paul at Athens

Taking notice of the extreme religious scrupulousness, which had led the Athenians to raise an altar to an unknown God, the Apostle declares to them the God whom alone they ought to worship, and whom as yet they did not know. This God was the Maker and Preserver of all things, and the Father of all men, and He desired to bring all to a knowledge of Himself. Athenian poets had spoken of this Fatherhood of God. Such a God is not fitly represented by graven images, and He would have men cease from such ignorant worship, for he will be the Judge as well as Father of men, and has given proof of the reality of the judgment and of the world to come by the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

22 . in the midst of Mars’ hill ] Better, in the midst of the Areopagus . See on v. 19. There is no need for translating the name in one way there, and in another here.

Ye men of Athens ] The language of the Apostle’s address takes exactly the form which it would have assumed in the mouth of one of their own orators. This may be due either to St Paul’s knowledge of Greek literature, and to his desire, everywhere manifest, to find words acceptable to his audience; or it may be that St Luke giving an abstract of the speech has cast the initial words into a form which Demosthenes would have employed. In the latter case it is no mark of unfaithfulness in the author, who clearly in these ten verses can only mean to give a skeleton of what the Apostle really uttered. St Paul spake at length, we cannot doubt, when he stood in such a place and before such an audience. The historian in the Acts gives the barest outline of what was spoken, and cannot be thought to have meant his words to be otherwise accepted, seeing that what he has given us would hardly occupy five minutes in the utterance.

ye are too superstitious ] The Greek adjective which the Apostle here employs has two shades of meaning,” superstitious,” as in the A. V., and “religious” in a better sense. At the outset St Paul would not wish to give offence, and so the more complementary sense is to be preferred. As the word is of the comparative degree, this sense may be expressed either by “somewhat superstitious” (as R. V. ) or “very religious.” The first would imply only a small shade of the less acceptable meaning, the latter would be an expression of praise of the Athenians above other people. The former is to be chosen, for St Paul did not wish to give praise, but after some slight blame to point out a more excellent way. For a description of the δεισιδαίμων , which exactly answers to what we call “superstitious,” see Theophrastus Charact . c. xvii.

23 . For as I passed by ( along )] The word refers to the whole of the Apostle’s walk about the city.

and beheld your devotions ] Better, “ and noticed the objects of your worship .” (With R. V. ) The verb is that which in the previous verse is translated “I perceive,” only that here it is strengthened by a preposition which gives it the force of “fully observe.” The Apostle had not only seen the statues but read the inscriptions. The noun can only mean “a thing that is worshipped” not “the act of worship” as is the sense of the A. V.

I found an altar ] The Greek has an emphatic conjunction, which might be represented by “ I found also an altar,” i.e. beside other things which I noticed.

TO THE UNKNOWN GOD ] The original has no article and would be correctly rendered “ To an unknown God .” But it is not always correct to omit the article in English because it does not appear in the original: here however it does not influence the meaning. When the altar was erected, it was in consequence of some visitation of which the cause was not apparent, and which could be ascribed to none of the existing divinities. We may conceive the Athenians speaking of the power which caused the visitation either as “an unknown God” or as “the unknown God” whose wrath they would deprecate, and, in an inscription, representing all that was intended without the article. We have abundant evidence of the existence in Athens of such altars as that to which St Paul alludes. But the words in which they are described generally run in the plural number, and speak of “the unknown gods.” Thus Pausanias (i. i. 4) describing one of the ports of Athens tells us that there were there “altars to gods styled unknown ” and Philostratus in his Life of Apollonius says “at Athens there are erected altars for unknown gods.” There is a like allusion in (pseudo) Lucian’s Philo-patris , but it is doubtful whether that is not drawn from this passage of the Acts. And Jerome writing on Titus 1:12 , says “The inscription on the altar was not, as Paul stated, ‘To the unknown God’ but ‘To the unknown gods of Asia and Europe and Africa, to unknown and foreign Gods.’ But, because Paul required to speak of only one unknown God, he used the word in the singular.” But it is better to suppose that St Paul saw what he says he saw, and as evidence that such an inscription was not improbable, we may quote the Latin inscription found on an altar at Ostia, now in the Vatican, representing a sacrificial group in connexion with the worship of Mithras, the Sun-god of the later Persian mythology (Orelli, Inscr. Gel . ii. 5000), “Signum indeprehensibilis dei” which is a very near approach in Latin to what the Greek inscription to which the Apostle alludes would mean. The word “unknown” must not be pressed too far into the sense of “unknowable,” because of what comes after. Paul says that “he is prepared to set forth to them that power which they were worshipping; in ignorance.” So though man by searching cannot find out God yet he would desire to teach the Athenians, what he says elsewhere, that “the everlasting power and divinity of God may be clearly seen through the things that are made” (Romans 1:20 ).

Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship ] The best MSS. give the relative in the neuter. The better rendering therefore is What therefore ye worship in ignorance . (As R. V. ) The A. V. seems to convey the sense that the worship was of an ignorant character: whereas what the Apostle intends to say is not any reflection on the nature of their worship, but only that they offered it in ignorance, and this he was ready to dispel. He accepts their religious character, takes his stand on their own confession that they are in ignorance about God, and so offers his teaching.

him declare I unto you ] Of course in harmony with the previous clause the pronoun is here also neuter. “ This set I forth unto you .” (As R. V. ) In the verb which he employs the Apostle takes up their own word (verse 18) when they said “He seemeth to be a setter forth of strange gods.” It is well that the similarity of word should be retained in the English.

24 . God that made the world , &c.] Better, The God , &c., which is specially needed when the neuter pronouns are read in the previous verse.

This was no Epicurean god, who dwelt apart and in constant repose; nor was the world a thing of chance as those philosophers taught, but God’s own handiwork, and all things in it were of His creation.

seeing that he is Lord of heaven and earth ] And therefore supreme possessor and disposer of all that is therein.

dwelleth not in temples made with hands ] Of which Athens had some of the most renowned in the world. A special interest attaches to these words as being so like those of Stephen (7:48). If true of the temple at Jerusalem, a fortiori , it is true of all Christian churches.

25 . neither is worshipped with ( served by ) men’s hands ] The verb implies the sort of service yielded by a steward to his master, or a minister to his King, a service in which the superior is not independent of his inferior, and could not well do without him. This is seen in the next clause. God is not like earthly masters and kings. He gives all, and men can only offer to Him themselves in return. Cp. Pss. 50, 51 for like teaching.

26 . and hath made of one blood ] All the best MSS. omit the word “blood.” And this seems to bring out more fully what the Apostle desires to dwell on; the Fatherhood of God. It is not that men are all of one family and so all equal in God’s eyes, and ought to be in the eyes of one another. But when we read “they are made of One” we are carried back to the higher thought of the prophet (Malachi 2:10 ), “Have we not all one Father?” This was a philosophy not likely to be acceptable to the Athenians among whom the distinction between Greeks and Barbarians was as radical as that which has grown up in America between white man and “nigger,” or between Europeans and natives in India.

for to dwell on all the face of the earth ] For His children the Father provided a home.

and hath determined the times before appointed ] The word προστεταγμένους has more authority than προτεταγμένους and gives a better sense. The times (rather seasons ) are appointed unto men, but it is not so clear what “before-appointed” could mean. Read “ And hath determined their appointed seasons .” (So R. V. ) The “seasons” referred to are those which God has ordained for seed-time and harvest, summer and winter, day and night, which are fixed by his decree and make the earth a fitting abode for men.

and the bounds of their habitation ] i.e. where they can dwell and where they cannot.

27 . that they should seek the Lord ] The best authorities read “ seek God .” This was the lesson which God meant His creation and providence to teach, that through His works men should see Him.

if haply they might feel after him, and find him ] The world was to be man’s book in which he should read God’s power and love; thus stimulated, a desire to know more might grow, and by efforts, which the graphic word of the Apostle compares to the exertion of one groping in the dark, more knowledge would come, and at last the full discovery would be made. God would be found. He is the rewarder of them that diligently seek Him.

though he be not far from every one of us ] And so can reveal Himself according to the measure of zeal shewn by those who seek Him.

28 . for in him we live ] i.e. through or by Him. All our existence is through His care, therefore He must be near to all of us. The preposition is rendered by in verse 31, “ By that man whom he hath ordained.”

and move ] More literally, are moved . The word does not refer to the motion of persons from place to place, but to those internal movements of the mind and spirit of which the outward actions are the effect. St Paul means that the feelings of men are acted on by God, who speaks to the heart through all nature if men will but hearken. This is the truth of which Pantheism is the caricature.

your own poets have said ] The words are a quotation from Arātus, Phænomena , 5, and are also found in Cleanthes, Hymn to Jupiter , 5. Arātus was a native of Cilicia, and St Paul may in consequence be supposed to have known of his writings as of those of a fellow-countryman. By quoting from their own literature to the Athenians, St Paul illustrates his own declaration that in his labours “he became all things to all men.” Such a quotation was also very well devised for arresting the attention of these cultivated hearers, and winning it may be some consideration for the speaker, as also being a man of culture.

29 . we ought not to think , &c.] As man is of more honour than material things, how far above these must the Godhead be. The Athenians, the Apostle would teach them, had formed not too high but too low a conception of themselves.

30 . And the times of this ignorance ] There is no pronoun in the original, and the conjunctions are feebly represented by “and.” The sense is more nearly conveyed by “Having however overlooked the times of ignorance.” (Cp. Romans 3:25 .) “To wink at” is now used with the meaning of “to connive at.” St Paul, however, only means that God has not imputed to men the errors which they committed in ignorance, but now the case is changed. Men cannot plead ignorance, who have heard of Christ. (Cp. Luke 12:48 .)

but now commandeth ] If the translation of the first clause be taken as above, the conjunction “but” (which has no Greek representative) is not needed. The best Greek text would be literally translated “He now commandeth men that they all everywhere should repent” (as nearly R. V. ). “Repentance” means that they shall amend the lives which hitherto they have lived wrongly through ignorance.

31 . because he hath appointed , &c.] The day of judgment had long ago been appointed in God’s foreknowledge, but through Christ man’s resurrection and immortality have been made more clear. He knows now, who knows of Christ, that the Son of Man has been raised up, as the first-fruits of a general resurrection. The rising of Christ proved Him to be divine and stamped His doctrine as true. But a part of that doctrine is (Matthew 25:32 ) “Before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth the sheep from the goats.” By the resurrection of Jesus, God has given to men assurance that what Jesus taught was true, therefore because of the judgment which Christ foretold, men should repent everywhere, for the whole world shall be judged.

It is worth while to notice how St Paul’s argument advances through its various stages. He speaks first of God as the Creator of the world and of men, and of the ordinances which He has made for man’s abode on earth. Then he argues that all this should inspire men with the thought that as they are more worthy than material things, so God is far exalted above men. This ought to have led them to seek after Him, and even in the darker days those who sought could find Him. But now the days of God’s revelation through nature are at an end. He has spoken through that Son of Man whom the resurrection proved to be the Son of God. Through Him will God judge the world, for which judgment men should prepare themselves by repentance.

It may be that at this point the Apostle’s speech was stopped. Neither party among the hearers would have any sympathy with the doctrine of a resurrection and a final judgment. Had the address been completed, St Paul would have probably spoken in more definite language of the life and work of Jesus.

32 34 . Effect of St Paul’s speech. Some mocked, but others believed

32 . some mocked ] Just as (Acts 2:13 ) did some men on the day of Pentecost. To the Epicurean this life was all, and the Stoic’s teaching, that all should finally be absorbed into the Godhead, forbade the belief that the dead should rise again. So of these men the Epicureans would most likely be the mockers, the Stoics might be expected to give more heed; and theirs perhaps would be the decision to hear the Apostle again. The Greek of the best accepted MSS. makes the last clause run, “ We will hear thee yet again concerning this

34 . Dionysius the Areopagite ] i.e. one of the members of the upper council of Athens. He must have been a man of position and influence, for no one could be a member of this council unless he had filled some high office of state, and was above 60 years of age. Tradition (Euseb. H. E . iii. 4; iv. 23) says that this Dionysius was the first bishop of Athens, and that he was martyred. The works which long circulated among Christians as his compositions, and which even at the time of the Reformation occupied much of the thoughts and labours of such men as Dean Colet, are no doubt forgeries of a much later date than the days of this Dionysius.

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Bibliographical Information
"Commentary on Acts 17". "Cambridge Greek Testament for Schools and Colleges". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/cgt/acts-17.html. 1896.