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Bible Commentaries
Acts 17

Ellicott's Commentary for English ReadersEllicott's Commentary

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Verse 1


(1) Now when they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia.—The two cities were both on the great Roman roads known as the Via Egnatia. Amphipolis, formerly known as Ennea Hodoi, or the Nine Ways, was famous in the Peloponnesian War as the scene of the death of Brasidas, and had been made, under the Romans, the capital of Macedonia prima. It was thirty-three Roman miles from Philippi and thirty from Apollonia, the latter being thirty-seven from Thessalonica. The site of Apollonia is uncertain, but the name is, perhaps, traceable in the modern village of Polina, between the Strymonic and Thermaic Gulfs. A more famous city of the same name, also on the Via Egnatia, was situated near Dyrrhacium. It seems clear that the names indicated the stages at which the travellers rested, and that thirty miles a day a somewhat toilsome journey for those who had so recently been scourged) was, as with most men of ordinary strength, their average rate of travelling. It would seem that there was no Jewish population to present an opening for the gospel at either of these cities, and that St. Paul, therefore, passed on to Thessalonica.

Thessalonica, where was a synagogue of the Jews.—The city, which had previously borne the names of Emathia, Halia, and Therma, had been enlarged by Philip of Macedon, and named after his daughter. It was situated on the Thermaic Gulf, and had grown into a commercial port of considerable importance. As such, it had attracted Jews in large numbers. The MSS. differ as to the presence or absence of the Greek article before “synagogue,” but, on the whole, it is probable that we should read, “the synagogue,” that which served for the Jews of the neighbouring cities, who were not numerous enough to have one of their own. The old name survives in the modern Saloniki, and there is still a large Jewish population there.

Verse 2

(2) Paul, as his manner was . . .—What we read of as occurring in the Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13:14-15), was, we may believe, now reproduced. That he was allowed to preach for three Sabbaths in succession, shows the respect commanded by his character as a Rabbi, and, it may be, by his earnest eloquence. Though he came with the marks of the scourge upon him, he was as fearless as ever, speaking the gospel of God “with much contention,” “not in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Ghost, and in much assurance” (1 Thessalonians 1:5). And with this boldness there was also a winning gentleness, “even as a nurse cherisheth her children” (1 Thessalonians 2:7). And not a few Gentiles “turned from idols to serve the living and true God” (1 Thessalonians 1:9).

Verse 3

(3) Opening and alleging.—The latter word is used in the sense of bringing forward proofs, and the two words imply an argument from the prophecies of the Messiah, like in kind to that at the Pisidian Antioch. In the intervals between the Sabbaths, the Apostle worked, as usual, for his livelihood, probably, of course, as a tent-maker (2 Thessalonians 3:8).

That Christ must needs have suffered.—Better, that the Christ, as pointing to the expected Messiah, the Anointed of the Lord, whom all Jews were expecting, but whom they were unwilling to recognise in the crucified Jesus. The argument was, therefore, to show that prophecy pointed to a suffering as well as a glorified Messiah, and that both conditions were fulfilled in Jesus.

Verse 4

(4) And some of them . . .—Obviously but a few in comparison with the “great multitude of the Greek proselytes of the gate. The Thessalonian Church was predominantly Gentile, some, apparently, won from idolatry without passing through Judaism (1 Thessalonians 1:9). Some good MSS., indeed, express this, by reading, devout persons and Greeks.

Of the chief women not a few.—These, like the women in the Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13:50), had probably come previously under Jewish influence. Here, However, they were attracted by the higher teaching of the Apostles.

Verse 5

(5) The Jews which believed not.—The latter words are wanting in many MSS., as “filled with envy” are in others.

Certain lewd fellows of the baser sort.—The word “lewd” is used in its older sense, as meaning vile, worthless. At a still earlier stage of its history, as in Chaucer and the Vision of Piers Plowman,

[“How thou lernest the people,
The lered and the lewed, “] i. 2100.

it meant simply the layman, or untaught person, as distinct from the scholar. The “baser sort” answers to a Greek word describing the loungers in the agora, or market-place, ever ready for the excitement of a tumult—the sub-rostrani or turba forensis of Latin writers. Men of such a class, retaining its old habits, are found even among the Christian converts in 2 Thessalonians 3:11, “working not at all, but busybodies.”

Assaulted the house of Jason.—The ground of the attack was that he had received the preachers as his guests. The name was locally conspicuous as having belonged to the old hero of the Argonautic expedition, and to the tyrant of Pheræ. It is probable, however, that St. Paul would, in the first instance, take up his abode with a Jew, and that Jason, as in the case of the apostate high priest of 2Ma. 4:7, was the Greek equivalent for Joshua or Jesus.

To bring them out to the people.—Thessalonica was a free Greek city, and the Jews accordingly in the first instance intended to bring the matter before the popular ecclesia or assembly.

Verse 6

(6) Unto the rulers of the city.—The Greek term here, politarchæ, is a very peculiar one, and occurs nowhere else in the New Testament, nor, indeed, in any classical writer. Aristotle, whose Politics well-nigh exhausts the list of all known official titles in Greek cities, does not mention it, although he gives an analogous title (Politophylakes) as found at Larissa and elsewhere (Pol. v. 6). An inscription on an arch that still spans (or did so till quite lately) one of the streets of the modern city Saloniki, shows it to have been a special official title of that city, and St. Luke’s use of it may, therefore, be noted as an instance of his accuracy in such matters. The inscription is probably of the date of Vespasian, but it contains some names that are identical with those of the converts in the apostolic history, Sosipater (“Sopater,” Acts 20:4), Gaius (Acts 19:29), and Secundus (Acts 20:4). It would seem from the inscription that, as with the Archons of Athens, there were seven magistrates who bore the title.

Verse 7

(7) These all do contrary to the decrees of Cæsar.—Thessalonica, though a free city, was yet under the imperial government, and the Jews therefore appeal to the emperor’s decree, probably to the edict of Claudius (Acts 18:2), as at least showing the drift of the emperor’s policy, even though it was not strictly binding except in Rome and the coloniæ. This, however, might prove an insufficient weapon of attack, and therefore they add another charge, to which no magistrate throughout the empire could be indifferent. (See Notes on Luke 23:2; John 19:12.) The preachers were not only bringing in a relligio illicita, but were guilty of treason against the majesty of the empire; they said there was “another King.” It is clear from the Epistle to the Thessalonians that the Kingdom of Christ, and specially His second coming as King, had been very prominent in the Apostle’s teaching (1 Thessalonians 4:14; 1 Thessalonians 5:2; 1 Thessalonians 5:23; 2 Thessalonians 1:7-8; 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12), and this may have furnished materials for the accusation.

Verse 9

(9) And when they had taken security of Jason.—The Greek noun, probably used as an equivalent for the Latin satis accipere, in common use in legal language, is a technical one (literally, the sufficient sum) for the bail which Jason was required to give for the good conduct of his guests, and for their readiness to meet any charge that might be brought against them. It is clear from 1 Thessalonians 1:6; 1 Thessalonians 2:14, that St. Paul and Silas were not the only sufferers. The Gentile converts were exposed alike to the violence of their own countrymen and to the malice of the Jews. How anxious he was to visit and comfort them is seen from the fact that he made two attempts to return, before or during his stay at Corinth (1 Thessalonians 2:18).

Verse 10

(10) Sent away Paul and Silas by night unto Berea.—Timotheus apparently remained behind, partly to help the Thessalonian converts under their present trials, partly to be able to bring word to St. Paul as to their condition. At Berœa Paul and Silas were alone. The city lay to the south of Thessalonica, not far from Pella, on the banks of the Astræus, and still retains its name in the modern Kara Feria, or Verria. It has now a population of 20,000. Here also there was a Jewish population, but the city was a far less important place commercially than Thessalonica.

Verse 11

(11) These were more noble than those in Thessalonica.—The word for “noble” (literally, well-born, as in 1 Corinthians 1:26) had. like most words of like origin (such, e.g., as the Latin ingenuus), a wide latitude of meaning. Here it stands for the generous, loyal temper which was ideally supposed to characterise those of noble origin. This was the quality which the Apostle and the historian admired in the Berœans. They were not the slaves of prejudice. They were ready to believe in the gospel which St. Paul preached as meeting their spiritual wants; and so they came to the study of the proofs, which the preacher “opened and alleged,” with a temper predisposed to faith. On the other hand, they did not accept their own wishes, or the Apostle’s assertions, as in themselves sufficient grounds of faith. With a quick and clear intelligence they searched the Scriptures daily to see whether they really did speak of a Christ who should suffer and rise again. The Berœan converts have naturally been regarded, especially among those who urge the duty, or claim the right, of private judgment, as a representative instance of the right relations of Reason and Faith, occupying a middle position between credulity and scepticism, to be reproduced, mutatis mutandis, according to the different aspects which each presents in successive ages.

Verse 12

(12) Therefore many of them believed.—The narrator dwells with satisfaction on the fact that at Berœa there were many Jewish as well as Gentile converts. Among the latter there were, as at Thessalonica, women of the upper class.

Verse 13

(13) They came thither also, and stirred up the people.—To the unbelieving Jews of Thessalonica the conversions at Berœa were simply a cause of offence. It is apparently with reference to this that St. Paul says of them that “they please not God and are contrary to all men, forbidding us to speak to the Gentiles” (1 Thessalonians 2:15).

Verse 14

(14) To go as it were to the sea.—The English version conveys the impression that the movement was a feint in order to baffle the pursuers. Many of the better MSS., however, give “as far as the sea,” and this is probably the meaning even of the reading followed by the Authorised version. The absence of any mention of places between Berœa and Athens, (as, e.g., Amphipolis and Apollonia are mentioned in Acts 17:1), is presumptive evidence that St. Paul actually travelled by sea, and rounding the promontory of Sunium, entered Athens by the Piræus. He had been accompanied so far by some of those who had escorted him from Beræa, but when they too went back, he was, we must remember, for the first time since the commencement of his missionary labours, absolutely alone. His yearning for companionship and counsel is shown in the urgent message sent to Silas and Timotheus to come “with all speed” (literally, as quickly as possible). As far as we can gather from 1 Thessalonians 3:1-3, Timotheus came by himself to Athens, probably after the scene at the Areopagus, and was sent back at once with words of counsel and comfort to those whom he reported as suffering much tribulation.

Verse 16

(16) His spirit was stirred in him.—The verb is the root of the noun from which we get our “paroxysm,” and which is translated by “sharp contention” in Acts 15:39. Athens, glorying now, as it had done in the days of Sophocles (Œdip. Col. 1008), in its devotion to the gods, presented to him, even after seeing Tarsus and Antioch, a new aspect. The city was “full of idols;” Hermes-busts at every corner, statues and altars in the atrium or court-yard of every house, temples and porticos and colonnades, all presenting what was to him the same repulsive spectacle. He looked on the Theseus and the Ilissus, and the friezes of the Centaurs and Lapithæ on the Parthenon, as we look on them in our museums, but any sense of art-beauty which he may have had (and it was probably, in any case, but weak) was over-powered by his horror that men should bow down and worship what their own hands had made. The beauty of form which we admire in the Apollo or the Aphrodite, the Mercury or the Faun, would be to him, in its unveiled nakedness, a thing to shudder at. He knew too well to what that love of sensuous beauty had led in Greek and Roman life (Romans 1:24-27), when it had thrown aside what, to a Jew, were not only the natural instincts of purity, but the sanctions of a divine command (Genesis 9:22).

Verse 17

(17) And in the market daily.—To teach in the synagogue, and to gather the devout persons, i.e., the proselytes to whom the Law had been a schoolmaster, leading them to Christ, was after the usual pattern of St. Paul’s work. The third mode of action, disputing in the market-place, the agora, which in every Greek city was the centre of its life, was a new experiment. He saw, we may believe, others so disputing; teachers of this or that school of philosophy, with listeners round them, debating glibly of the “highest good,” and the “chief end” of life, and man’s relation to the One and the All. Why should not he take part in the discussion, and lead those who were apparently in earnest in their inquiries to the truth which they were vainly seeking?

Verse 18

(18) Certain philosophers of the Epicureans, and of the Stoicks.—The two schools were at this time the great representatives of Greek thought. The former took its name from its founder, Epicurus, who lived a long and tranquil life at Athens, from B.C. 342 to 270. As holding their meetings in a garden, which he had left by his will in trust as a place of study for his disciples, they were sometimes known as the School of the Garden, and as such were distinguished from those of the Porch (Diog. Laert. Epic. c. 10). His speculations embraced at once a physical and an ethical solution of the problems of the universe. Rejecting, as all thinking men did, the popular Polytheism, which yet they did not dare openly to renounce, he taught that the gods, in their eternal tranquillity, were too far off from man to trouble themselves about his sorrows or his sins. They needed no sacrifices and answered no prayers. The superstition which enslaved the minds of most men was the great evil of the world, the source of its crimes and miseries. The last enemy to be destroyed was with him, as in our own time with Strauss, the belief in an immortality of retribution. A man’s first step towards happiness and wisdom was to emancipate himself from its thraldom; the next was to recognise that happiness consisted in the greatest aggregate of pleasurable emotions. Experience taught that what are called pleasures are often more than counterbalanced by the pains that follow, and sensual excesses were therefore to be avoided. Epicurus’s own life seems to have been distinguished by generosity, self-control, and general kindliness, and even by piety and patriotism (Diog. Laert. Epic. c. 5). But as no law was recognised as written in the heart, and human laws were looked on as mere conventional arrangements, each man was left to form his own estimate of what would give him most pleasure, and most men decided for a life of ease and self-indulgence; sometimes balanced by prudential calculations, sometimes sinking into mere voluptuousness. The poetry of Horace presents, perhaps, the most attractive phase of popular Epicureanism; the sense which has come to be attached to the modern word “Epicure,” as applied to one whose life is devoted to the indulgence of the sense of taste, shows to what a depth of degradation it might sink.

In the world of physics, Epicurus has been claimed as anticipating some of the results of modern science. The ideas of creation and control were alike excluded. Matter had existed from eternity, and the infinite atoms of which it was composed had, under the action of attractive and Tepelling forces as yet unknown, entered into manifold combinations, out of which had issued, as the last stage of the evolution, the world of nature as it now lies before us. The poem of Lucretius, De Rerum Naturâ, may be regarded as the grandest utterance of this negative and practically atheistic system, but its real nobleness lies chiefly in its indignant protest against the superstition which had cast its veil of thick darkness over all the nations.

It may be well to give one or two characteristic examples of each of these phases. On the one side we have the ever-recurring advice of the popular poet of society to remember that life is short, and to make the most of it:—

“Quid sit futurum cras, fuge quærere: et,
Quern Fors dierum cunque dabit, lucro
[“Strive not the morrow’s chance to know,
But count whate’er the Fates bestow

As given thee for thy gain.”]—Hor. Od. i. 9.

“Sapias, vina liques, et spatio brevi

Spem longam reseces. Dum loquimur, fugerit invida

Ætas. Carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero.”

[“Be wise, and let your wines flow clear,

And as you greet each short-lived year,

Curb hope’s delusive play:

E’en as we speak, our life glides by;
Enjoy the moments as they fly,

Nor trust the far-off day.”]—Od. i. 11.

The student of Scripture will recognise an Epicurean element of this kind in one of the two voices that alternate in the Book of Ecclesiastes, “It is good and comely for one to eat and to drink, and to enjoy the good of all his labour that he taketh under the sun all the days of his life” (Ecclesiastes 5:18. Comp. also Ecclesiastes 3:19; Ecclesiastes 8:15; Ecclesiastes 9:7). It appears as the avowed principle of the evil-doers in the Apocryphal Book of Wisdom which, as probably the work of a contemporary writer, represents the impression made by the dominant Horatian phase of Epicureanism on a devout and thoughtful Jew:—

“Our time is a very shadow that passeth away . . . Come on, therefore, let us enjoy the good things that are present . . . Let us crown ourselves with rose-buds before they are withered . . . Let none of us go without his part of our voluptuousness.”—Wis. 2:5-9.

There is a nobler ring, it must be owned, in the bold language in which Lucretius sings the praises of Epicurus:—

“When this our life lay crushed before men’s eyes
Beneath the yoke of Faith, who from on high
With horrid aspect frightened mortal hearts,
It was a Greek, himself a mortal too,
Who first had courage to lift up his eyes
And to her face withstand her. Tales of gods,
And thunderbolts from Heaven, with all their threats,
Were impotent to stay him. . . .

. . . . So at last

Faith in its turn lies trampled under foot,
And we through him have triumphed over Heaven.”

De Rer. Nat. i. 67-80.

We can understand how St. Paul would assert, as against this school of thought, the personality of the living God, as Creator, Ruler, Father; the binding force of the law written in the heart; intuitive morality as against mere utilitarianism; the nobleness of a hero-soul raised above pleasure, and living, not for itself, but for others and for God. And in so teaching them he, in this respect differing from the mere professor of a higher philosophy, would point to the Resurrection and the Judgment as that which should confound the pleasure-seeker by giving him tribulation and anguish, and should assign glory and immortality to the patient worker of righteousness. (Comp. Romans 2:7-9.)

The Stoics—who took their name, not from their founder (Zeno, of Citium in Cyprus), but from the Stoa pækilè, the painted porch, at Athens, adorned with frescoes of the battle of Marathon, where Zeno used to teach—presented a higher phase of thought. Josephus (Vit. c. 2) compares them with the Pharisees, and their relation to the moral life of heathenism at this time presented many features analogous to those which we find in the influence of that sect in Palestine. They taught that true wisdom consisted in being the master, and not the slave, of circumstances. The things which are not in our power are not things to seek after, nor shrink from, but to be accepted with a calm equanimity. The seeker after wisdom learnt, therefore, to be indifferent alike to pleasure or pain, and aimed at an absolute apathy. The theology of the Stoics was also of a nobler kind than that of Epicurus. They spoke of a divine Mind pervading the universe, and ordering all things by its Providence. They recognised its government in the lives of nations and individual men, and probably reconciled, as the Pharisees did, their acceptance of its decrees with a practical belief in the freedom of the individual will. In the Manual of Ethics, by Epictetus, under Nero, and the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, we see how the slave and the emperor stood on common ground. In Seneca, we see now often the Stoics spoke in the accents of Christian ethics. Many of the Stoics were sought after as tutors for the sons of noble families, and occupied a position of influence not unlike that of Jesuit confessors and directors in France in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The main drawbacks were (1) that in aiming at apathy for themselves they shut out sympathy with others as disturbing their tranquillity; (2) that in striving after an ethical perfection in the strength of their own will they anticipated the position of the Pelagians in the history of the Christian Church; and (3) that, as with the Pharisees, the high ideal was often but a mask for selfish and corrupt lives. They, also, were too often “hypocrites,” acting a part before the world to which their true character did not correspond. In the language of the satirist—

“Qui Curios simulant et Bacchanalia vivunt.”
[“They pose as heroes, and as drunkards live.”]

—Juvenal, Sat. ii. 3.

It is evident that there would be many points of sympathy between the better representatives of this school and St. Paul, but for them also the message that spoke of Jesus and the Resurrection—of God sending His Son into the world to be first crucified and then raised from the dead—would seem an idle dream, and they would shrink from the thought that they needed pardon and redemption, and could do nothing true and good in their own strength without the grace of God.

What will this babbler say?—Better, What might this babbler mean? The Greek noun, literally seed-picker, was primarily applied to a small bird of the finch tribe. The idle gossips of the agora picking up news, and, eager to retail it, the chattering parasites of feasts, were likened by the quick wit of Athenian humourists to such a bird as it hopped and chirped. So Zeno himself called one of his disciples, who had more words than wisdom, by the same contemptuous name (Diog. Laert. Zeno, c. 19). The philosophers, in their scorn of the stranger who was so ready to discuss great questions with any whom he met, applied the derisive epithet to him.

He seemeth to be a setter forth of strange gods.—This was, it will be remembered, the precise charge on which Socrates had been condemned (Xenoph. Memor. i. 1, § 1). In his case it rested on his constant reference to the dæmôn, the divine monitor who checked and guided him, in whose voice he heard something like the voice of God; but the secret of his condemnation by his countrymen was to be found less in what he actually taught than in the questions with which he vexed their inmost soul, and made them conscious of ignorance or baseness. The questions of St. Paul, as he reasoned “of righteousness, temperance, and judgment to come,” were equally disturbing.

Because he preached unto them Jesus, and the resurrection.—The verb implies continuous action. This was the ever-recurring theme of his discourses. It is possible that with the strong tendency of the Greek mind to personify all attributes and abstract thoughts, St. Paul’s hearers saw in the word Anastasis (= Resurrection) the name of a new goddess, representing the idea of immortality, to be worshipped in conjunction with Jesus, and therefore they used the plural and spoke of his bringing in “strange gods.” So temples and altars had been dedicated to Concord, and the history of Athens told how Epimenides had bidden them erect two altars to Insolence and Outrage (Cicero, De Leg. ii. 11), as the two demons by whom their city was being brought to ruin. What startled them in the Apostle was that he taught not only the immortality of the soul—that had entered into the popular mythical belief, and had been enforced with philosophical arguments by Socrates and Plato—but the resurrection of the body. In 1 Corinthians 15:35 we see the character of the objections raised to this doctrine, and the manner in which St. Paul answered them.

Verse 19

(19) They took him, and brought him unto Areopagus.—The name may stand either for the Hill of Mars, simply as a locality, or for the Court which sat there, and was known as the Court of the Areopagus, and which, as the oldest and most revered tribunal in Athens, owing its origin to Athena, and connected with the story of Orestes and the worship of the propitiated Erinnyes (the Avengers) as the Eumenides (the Gentle Ones), still continued to exercise jurisdiction in all matters connected with the religion of the state, and numbered among its members men of the highest official rank. It had originally consisted only of those who had filled the office of Archon and were over sixty years of age. Its supreme authority had been in some measure limited by Pericles, and it was as the organ of the party who opposed the ideas of freedom and progress of which he was the representative, that Æschylus wrote the tragedy of the Eumenides, in which the divine authority of the Court was impressed upon men’s minds. Here, however, the narrative that follows presents no trace of a formal trial, and hence it has been questioned whether the Apostle was brought before the Court of the Areopagus. Unless, however, there had been some intention of a trial, there seems no reason for their taking him to the Areopagus rather than to the Pnyx or elsewhere; and the mention of a member of the Court as converted by St. Paul’s preaching, makes it probable that the Court was actually sitting at the time. The most natural explanation of the apparent difficulty is, that as the charge of bringing in “strange deities” was one which came under the jurisdiction of the Areopagus Court, the crowd who seized on St. Paul hurried him there, not presenting a formal indictment, but calling for a preliminary inquiry, that his speech accordingly, though of the nature of an apologia, was not an answer to a distinct accusation, and that having heard it, the Court looked on the matter as calling for no special action, and passed to the order of the day.

May we know . . .?—The form of the question, courteous in semblance, but with a slight touch of sarcasm, is eminently characteristic in itself, and shows also that there was no formal accusation, though the words that followed suggested the thought that there possibly might be materials for one. What had been said was “strange” enough to require an explanation.

Verse 20

(20) Thou bringest certain strange things.—The adjective stands for a Greek participle, things that startle, or leave an impression of strangeness.

Verse 21

(21) For all the Athenians and strangers.—The restless inquisitiveness of the Athenian character had been all along proverbial. In words which St. Luke almost reproduces, Demosthenes (Philipp. i., p. 43) had reproached them with idling their time away in the agora, asking what news there was of Philip’s movements, or the action of their own envoys, when they ought to have been preparing for strenuous action. The “strangers” who were present were probably a motley group—young Romans sent to finish their education, artists, and sight-seers, and philosophers, from every province in the empire.

Some new thing.—Literally, some newer thing; as we should say, the “very latest news.” Theophrastus (c. 8) uses the self-same word in describing the questions of the loquacious prattlers of society, “Is there anything new? . . . Is there anything yet newer?

Verse 22

(22) Paul stood in the midst of Mars’ hill.—Better, Areopagus, as before. The Court sat in the open air on benches forming three sides of a quadrangle. A short flight of sixteen steps, cut in the rock, led from the agora to the plateau where the Court held its sittings. If it was actually sitting at the time, the temptation to have recourse to it, if only to cause a sensation and terrify the strange disputant, may well have been irresistible. As the Apostle stood there, he looked from the slight elevation on the temple of the Eumenides below him, that of Theseus to the east, and facing him on the Acropolis, the Parthenon. On the height of that hill stood the colossal bronze statue of Athena as the tutelary goddess of her beloved Athens, below and all around him were statues and altars. The city was “very full of idols.”

Verse 23

(23) I perceive that in all things ye are too superstitious.—Better, I observe you as being in all things more fearful of the gods than others. It is not easy to express the exact force of the Greek adjective. “Superstitious” is, perhaps, too strong on the side of blame; “devout,” on the side of praise. The word which the Athenians loved to use of themselves (theosebês, a worshipper of God) exactly answers to the latter term. This St. Paul will not use of idolators, and reserves it for those who worship the one living and true God, and he uses a word which, like our “devotee,” though not offensive, was neutral with a slight touch of disparagement. The deisidaimôn is described at some length in the Characters of Theophrastus, the La Bruyere of classical literature (c. 17), as one who consults soothsayers, and is a believer in omens, who will give up a journey if he sees a weasel on the road, and goes with his wife and children to be initiated into the Orphic mysteries. Nikias, the Athenian general, ever oppressed with the sense of the jealousy of the gods, and counter-ordering important strategic movements because there was an eclipse of the moon (Thucyd. vii. 50), is a conspicuous instance of the deisidaimôn in high places. The Stoic Emperor, Marcus Aurelius (Meditt. i. 16), congratulates himself on not being such a deisidaimôn, while he gives thanks that he has inherited his mother’s devotion (theosebes) (i. 2). The opening words would gain, and were perhaps meant to gain, the ears of the philosophers. Here, they would say, is one who, at least, rises, as we do, above the religion of the multitude.

As I passed by, and beheld your devotions.—Better, as I passed by, and was contemplating the objects of your worship. The English word appears to have been used in its old sense, as meaning what the Greek word means—the object, and not the act, of devotion. So, Wiclif gives “your mawmetis”—i.e., “your idols.” Tyndale, Cranmer, and the Geneva version give “the manner how ye worship your gods.” The Rhemish follows “Wiclif, and gives “your idols.”

I found an altar with this inscription, TO THE UNKNOWN GOD.—The Greek of the inscription has no article, and might, therefore, be rendered TO AN UNKNOWN GOD, as though it had been consecrated as a votive offering for benefits which the receiver was unable to assign to the true donor among the “gods many and lords many” whom he worshipped. So interpreted, it did not bear its witness directly to any deeper thoughts than those of the popular poly-theism, and stands on the same footing as the altars TO UNKNOWN GODS, which are mentioned by Pausanias (i. 1-4) as set up in the harbour and streets of Athens, or to the description which Theophrastus gives (as above) of the deisidaimôn as asking the soothsayers, after he has had a disquieting dream, to what god or goddess he ought to pray. Greek usage, however, did not require the use of the article in inscriptions of this nature, and the English translation is quite as legitimate as the other, and clearly gives the sense in which St. Paul understood it. Taking this sense, there come the questions, What thought did the inscription express? To what period did it belong? A story connected with Epimenides of Crete, who, as a prophet of great fame, was invited to Athens at a time when the city was suffering from pestilence, is sometimes referred to as affording a probable explanation of its origin. Diogenes Laertius (Epimen. c. 3) relates that he turned sheep loose into the city, and then had them sacrificed, where they stopped, to the god thus pointed out, i.e., to the one whose image or altar was nearest to the spot, and that “altars without a name” were thus to be seen in many parts of Athens; and it has been supposed that this may have been one of these altars, erected where there was no image near enough to warrant a sacrifice to any known deity, and as Epimenides is stated to have offered sacrifices on the Areopagus, that such an altar may have been standing within view as St. Paul spoke. Against this view, however, are the facts (1) that the narrative of Laertius names no such inscription as that of which St. Paul speaks, and rather implies that every victim found the god to whom it of right belonged, or else that the altar was left without any inscription; (2) that St. Paul’s language implies that he had seen the inscription as he walked through the city, and not that he looked on it as he spoke; and (3) that it is hardly conceivable that such an altar, standing in so conspicuous a place from the time of Epimenides, would have remained unnoticed by a thinker like Socrates. Jerome (on Titus 1:12) cuts the knot of the difficulty by stating that the inscription actually ran, “To the Gods of Asia and Europe and Africa, to unknown and strange Gods.” It is possible that he may have seen an altar with such words upon it, and that he rushed to the conclusion that it was what St. Paul referred to; but it is not likely that the Apostle would have ventured on altering the inscription to suit his argument in the presence of those who could have confuted him on the spot, and his words must be received as indicating what he had actually seen.

A passage in the dialogue of Philopatris, ascribed to Lucian, where one of the speakers swears “by the Unknown God of Athens,” is interesting: but, as written in the third century after Christ, may be only a reference, not without a sneer, to St. Paul’s speech, and cannot be adduced as evidence either as to the existence of such an altar or its meaning. An independent inquiry based upon data hitherto not referred to, will, perhaps, lead to more satisfactory conclusions. (1) The verbal adjective means something more than “Unknown.” It adds the fact that the Unknown is also the Unknowable. It is the ultimate confession, such as we have heard of late from the lips of some students of science, of man’s impotence to solve the problems of the universe. It does not affirm Atheism, but it knows not what the Power is, which yet it feels must be. (2) As such it presents a striking parallel to the inscription which Plutarch (dc Isid. et Osir.) records as found on the veil of Isis at Sais: “I am all that has been, and all that is, and all that shall be; and no mortal hath lifted my veil.” Whether that inscription expressed the older thoughts of Egypt may, perhaps, be questioned. Plutarch gives it in Greek, and this probably indicates a date after the foundation of the monarchy of the Ptolemies (B.C. 367), possibly contemporary with Plutarch (A.D. 46-140). (3) Still more striking, if possible, is the parallelism presented by an altar found at Ostia, and now in the Vatican Museum. It represents what is known as a Mithraic sacrificial group, connected, i.e., with the worship of Mithras, the Sun-god of later Persian mythology, a winged figure sacrificing a bull, with various symbolic emblems, such as a serpent and a scorpion. Underneath appears the inscription (Orelli, Inser. Gel. ii. 5, 000)—


It will be admitted that this expresses the same thought as the inscription which St. Paul quotes; that it is the nearest equivalent that Latin can supply for the “Unknown and Unknowable” God. The frequent recurrence of Mithraic groups in nearly all museums, generally without any note of time, but, in the judgment of experts, ranging from the time of Pompeius to that of Diocletian, shows the prevalence of this Sun worship throughout the Roman world during the early period of the empire. We have found an interesting trace of it in Cyprus. (See Note on Acts 13:14.) We may see its surviving influence in the reverence shown by Constantine to the Dies Solis in the general observance of that day throughout the empire. Other inscriptions, also in the Vatican Museum, such as SOLI DEO INVICTO (Orelli, i., 1904-14), show its prevalence. Our own Sunday (Dies Solis), little as we dream of it, is probably a survival of the Mithraic cultus, which at one time seemed not unlikely, as seen from a merely human standpoint, to present a formidable rivalry to the claims of the Church of Christ. It is, at least, a remarkable coincidence that the Twenty-fifth of December was kept as the festival of Mithras long before it was chosen by the Western Church for the Feast of the Nativity. It is true that De Rossi, the great Roman archæologist, in a note to the present writer, gives the probable date of the inscription in question as belonging to the second or third century after Christ; but the Mithraic worship is known to have prevailed widely from a much earlier period, and the church of San Clemente, at Rome, where below the two basilicas have been found the remains of a Christian oratory turned into a Mithraic chapel, presents a memorable instance of the rivalry of the two systems. On the whole, therefore, it seems probable that the altar which St. Paul saw was an earlier example of the feeling represented by the Ostian inscription, and may well have found its expression, with a like characteristic formula, among the many forms of the confluent polytheism of Athens. Plutarch (Pompeius) speaks of the worship of Mithras as having been brought into Europe by the Cilician pirates whom Pompeius defeated, and as continuing in his own time.

Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship.—Better, as expressing the connection with the inscription, What therefore ye worship not knowing, that declare I unto you. The better MSS. give the relative pronoun in the neuter. It was, perhaps, deliberately used, as St. Paul uses the neuter form for “Godhead” in Acts 17:29, and a cognate abstract noun in Romans 1:20, to express the fact that the Athenians were as yet ignorant of the personality of the living God. That any human teacher should have power and authority to proclaim that “Unknown God,” as making Himself known to men, was what neither Epicureans nor Stoics had dreamt of. The verb “declare” is closely connected with the term “setter forth,” of Acts 17:18. He does not disclaim that element in the charge against him.

Verse 24

(24) God that made the world . . .—The masculine form of the pronoun and participles throughout the sentence presents an emphatic contrast to the neuter pronoun of the previous verse.

Seeing that he is Lord.—Better, He, being Lord.

Dwelleth not in temples made with hands.—We note with special interest the reproduction of the thought which the then persecutor had heard from the lips of the martyr Stephen. (See Note on Acts 7:48.) As asserted of the Temple at Jerusalem, it had at that time, even though it was quoted from a Jewish prophet, driven the Pharisee Saul into the frenzy of fanaticism. Now, having learnt the lesson as regards that Temple, he proclaims the truth as applicable à fortiori to all temples raised by human hands. It is obvious that this truth places the sacredness of Christian churches on a ground entirely different from that which influenced the minds of Jew or Greek in regard to their respective temples. Churches are holy, not because God dwells in them, but because they are set apart for the highest acts of the collective life of the congregation of His people. In those acts men hold communion with God, and so the Church is for them all, and more than all, that the Tabernacle of Meeting (this, as meaning the place where man met God, rather than Tabernacle of the Congregation, being the true rendering of the Hebrew term; comp. Exodus 29:42) was to the Israelites of old. Romish theory and practice, in presenting the consecrated wafer in pyx or monstrance, or carrying it in procession, as an object of adoration, revives the old Pagan view which St. Paul disclaims.

Verse 25

(25) Neither is worshipped with men’s hands, as though he needed any thing.—Literally, as needing anything in addition. The previous words had struck at a false theory of temples, this strikes at a false theory of worship. Men have to think of God as the supreme Giver, not as requiring anything at their hands but justice, mercy, and truth. Both Jewish and heathen writers had borne their witness of the same truth: David had said, “Thou desirest not sacrifice; else would I give it” (Psalms 51:16), and the Latin Epicurean poet had written of the Divine nature, that it was—

“Ipsa suis pollens opibus, nihil indiga nostri,
Nec bene promeritis capitur, nec tangitur ira.”
[“Strong in itself, it needeth nought of ours,
Is neither won by gifts, nor moved by wrath.”]

Lucret. ii. 649-50.

The passage is found also in some editions in i. 61, 62.

Life and breath.—If we can draw a distinction between the two words, the first may be held to mean the higher element of man’s life, the latter that which he shares, by virtue of his organization, with other animals. Stoics and Epicureans would, probably, both of them, so far, accept a teaching which echoed much that was taught in their own schools.

Verse 26

(26) And hath made of one blood all nations of men.—Literally, every nation. The previous verses had given what we may venture to call St. Paul’s Philosophy of Religion. This gives his Philosophy of History. And the position was one which no Greek, above all, no Athenian, was likely to accept. For him the distinction between the Greek and the barbarian was radical and essential. The one was by nature meant to be the slave of the other. (Aristot. Pol. i. 2, 6.) In rising above his own prejudices of fancied superiority of race, the Apostle felt that he could attack, as from a vantage-ground, the prejudices of others. He naturally accepted the truth as it was presented to him in the Mosaic history of the Creation; but the truth itself, stated in its fullest form, would remain, even if we were to accept other theories of the origin of species and the history of man. There is a oneness of physical structure, of conditions and modes of life, of possible or actual development, which forbids any one race or nation, Hebrew, Hellenic, Latin, or Teutonic, to assume for itself that it is the cream and flower of humanity.

Hath determined the times before appointed.—The better MSS. give simply, “the appointed seasons.” Few words, even in St. Paul’s teaching, are more pregnant with significance. They justify all that the wise of heart have said as to the “manifold wisdom of God,” as seen in history and in the education of mankind. The special gifts of character of each race—Hebrew thought of God, Greek sense of beauty, Roman sense of law, Teutonic truthfulness, Keltic impulsiveness, Negro docility—have all their work to do. All local circumstances of soil and climate that influence character come under the head of the “bounds of men’s habitation.” All conditions of time—the period at which each race has been called to play its part in the drama of the world’s history—come under the head of the “appointed seasons.”

Verse 27

(27) Should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after him, and find him.—The word for “feel after” expresses strictly the act of groping in the dark. From the Apostle’s point of view, anticipating in part the great Theodikæa—the vindication of the ways of God—in the Epistle to the Romans, the whole order of the world’s history was planned, as part of the education of mankind, waking longings which it could not satisfy, leading men at once to a consciousness of the holiness of God and of their own sinfulness. The religions of the world were to him as the movements of one who climbs

“Upon the great world’s altar stairs,
That slope through darkness up to God;”

who can only say—

“I stretch lame hands of faith, and grope,

And gather dust, and chaff, and call
To what I feel is Lord of all,

And faintly trust the larger hope.”

Their ritual in all its manifold variety was but as the inarticulate wailing of childhood—

“An infant crying for the light,
And with no language but a cry.”

—Tennyson, In Memoriam, liv.

The “if haply” expresses the exact force of the Greek particles, which imply a doubt whether the end had been attained in its completeness. The altar to the Unknown and Unknowable was a witness that they had not been found. “The world by wisdom knew not God” (1 Corinthians 1:21). It had not got, in the language of another poet of our own, beyond

“Those obstinate questionings
Of sense and outward things,
Fallings from us, vanishings;”

which are as the

“Blank misgivings of a creature
Moving about in worlds not realised.”

—Wordsworth, Ode on Immortality.

Though he be not far from every one of us.—Better, and yet He is not far. The speaker appeals, as he does in Romans 2:15, to the witness borne by man’s consciousness and conscience. There, in the depths of each man’s being, not in temples made with hands, men might find God and hold communion with him. It was natural, in speaking to the peasants of Lystra, to point to the witness of “the rain from heaven and fruitful seasons.” (See Note on Acts 14:17.) It was as natural, in speaking to men of high culture and introspective analysis, to appeal to that which was within them rather than to that which was without. But it will be noted that he does not confine that witness to the seekers after wisdom. God is not far from every one of us.” St. Paul accepts the truth which St. John afterwards proclaimed, that Christ is the “true Light that lighteth every man that cometh into the world.” (See Notes on John 1:9.) The writer of the Book of Deuteronomy (Deuteronomy 30:11-14) had asserted a like truth when he taught Israel that “the word was not in heaven, or beyond the sea,” but “in thy mouth and in thine heart, that thou mayest do it.” At this point the Stoics, we may believe, would recognise the affinities which St. Paul’s thoughts presented to their own teaching. The Epicureans would be more and more repelled by this attack on the central position of their system.

Verse 28

(28) For in him we live, and move, and have our being.—Better, we live, and are moved, and are. Each of the verbs used has a definite philosophical significance. The first points to our animal life; the second—from which is derived the Greek word used by ethical writers for passions, such as fear, love, hate, and the like—not, as the English verb suggests, to man’s power of bodily motion in space, but to our emotional nature; the third, to that which constitutes our true essential being, the intellect and will of man. What the words express is not merely the Omnipresence of the Deity; they tell us that the power for every act and sensation and thought comes from Him. They set forth what we may venture to call the true element of Pantheism, the sense of a “presence interposed,” as in nature, “in the light of setting suns,” so yet more in man. As a Latin poet had sung, whose works may have been known to the speaker, the hearers, and the historian:—

“Deum namque ire per omnes

Terras que tractusque maris, ccelumque profundum,
Hinc pecudes, armenta, viros, genus omne ferarum,
Quemque sibi tenues nascentem arcessere vitas,
Scilicet hinc reddi deinde ac resoluta referri,
Omnia; nec morti esse locum sed viva volare
Sideris in numerum atque alto succedere cælo.”
[“God permeates all lands, all tracts of sea,

And the vast heaven. From Him all flocks and herds,
And men, and creatures wild, draw, each apart,
Their subtle life. To Him they all return,
When once again set free. No place is found
For death, but all mount up once more on high
To join the stars in their high firmament.”]

—Virg. Georg. iv. 221-225.

In the teaching of St. Paul, however, the personality of God is not merged, as in that of the Pantheist, in the thought of the great Soul of the World, but stands forth with awful distinctness in the character of King and Judge. Traces of like thoughts are found in the prophetic vision of a time when God shall be “all in all” (1 Corinthians 15:28), the discords of the world’s history harmonised in the eternal peace.

As certain also of your own poets have said.—The quotation has a special interest as being taken from a poet who was a countryman of St. Paul’s. Aratus, probably of Tarsus (circ. B.C. 272), had written a didactic poem under the title of Phenomena, comprising the main facts of astronomical and meteorological science as then known. It opens with an invocation to Zeus, which contains the words that St. Paul quotes. Like words are found in a hymn to Zeus by Cleanthes (B.C. 300). Both passages are worth quoting:—


“From Zeus begin; never let us leave

His name unloved. With Him, with Zeus, are filled
All paths we tread, and all the marts of men;
Filled, too, the sea, and every creek and bay;
And all in all things need we help of Zeus,

For we too are his offspring.”

—Aratus, Phænom. 1–5.


“Most glorious of immortals, many-named,

Almighty and for ever, thee, O Zeus,
Sovran o’er Nature, guiding with thy hand
All things that are, we greet with praises. Thee
’Tis meet that mortals call with one accord,

For we thine offspring are, and we alone

Of all that live and move upon this earth,
Receive the gift of imitative speech.”

—Cleanthes, Hymn to Zeus.

The fact of the quotation would at once quicken the attention of the hearers. They would feel that they had not to deal with an illiterate Jew, like the traders and exorcists who were so common in Greek cities, but with a man of culture like their own, acquainted with the thoughts of some at least of their great poets.

We are also his offspring.—We too often think of the quotation only as happily introduced at the time; but the fact that it was quoted shows that it had impressed itself, it may be, long years before, on St. Paul’s memory. As a student at Tarsus it had, we may well believe, helped to teach him the meaning of the words of his own Scriptures: “I have nourished and brought up children” (Isaiah 1:2). The method of St. Paul’s teaching is one from which modern preachers might well learn a lesson. He does not begin by telling men that they have thought too highly of themselves, that they are vile worms, creatures of the dust, children of the devil. The fault which he finds in them is that they have taken too low an estimate of their position. They too had forgotten that they were God’s offspring, and had counted themselves, even as the unbelieving Jews had done (Acts 13:46) “unworthy of eternal life.”

Verse 29

(29) Forasmuch then as we are the offspring of God.—One consequence from the thought of son-ship is pressed home at once. If we are God’s offspring our conception of Him should mount upward from what is highest in ourselves, from our moral and spiritual nature, instead of passing downward to that which, being the creature of our hands, is below us. Substantially asserting the same truth, the tone of St. Paul in speaking of idolatry is very different from that which we find in the older prophets (1 Kings 18:27; Psalms 135:15-18; Isaiah 44:9-20). He has, as it were, studied the genesis of idolatry, and instead of the burning language of scorn, and hatred, and derision, can speak of it, though not with tolerance, yet with pity, to those who are its victims.

The Godhead.—The Greek term is neuter, and corresponds to the half-abstract, half-concrete forms of the “Divine Being,” the “Deity.”

Gold, or silver, or stone.—The first word reminds us of the lavish use of gold in the colossal statue of Zeus by Phidias. Silver was less commonly used, but the shrines of Artemis at Ephesus (see Note on Acts 19:24) supply an instance of it. “Stone” was the term commonly applied to the marble of Pentelicus, which was so lavishly employed in the sculpture and architecture of Athens.

Verse 30

(30) And the times of this ignorance God winked at.—Better, perhaps, overlooked, the English phrase, though vivid, being somewhat too familiar, and suggesting; strictly taken, not merely tolerance, but connivance and concurrence. The thought is one in which St. Paul manifestly found comfort. He sees in that ignorance a mitigation of the guilt, and therefore of the punishment due to the heathen world. The past history of the world had shown a prætermission of the sins, for which, on the condition of repentance, men were now offered a full remission. (See Note on Romans 3:25.) In thus teaching he was reproducing what our Lord had taught as to the servant who “knew not his Lord’s will,” and should therefore be beaten, but with “few stripes.” (See Note on Luke 12:48.)

And now commandeth all men every where to repent.—At this point the feelings of both Stoics and Epicureans would almost inevitably undergo a change. The latter might regret the mistakes he had made in his search after the maximum of enjoyment, but a change such as the Greek for “repentance” implied—new aims and purposes, loathing of the past and efforts for the future—was altogether alien to his thoughts. From the Stoics, as measured by Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, better things might perhaps have been expected, but the doctrine of Necessity, which entered largely into popular Stoicism, blunted their sense of responsibility. They accepted the consequences of their actions with a serene apathy; for the most part, they gave thanks, as the philosophic Emperor did, that they were not as other men, and that the events of their life had led them to an ethical completeness; but the idea of abhorring themselves, and repenting in dust and ashes, had not as yet dawned on the Stoic’s thoughts. (Meditt. i. 1-16.)

Verse 31

(31) Because he hath appointed a day.—Here the speaker would seem, to both sets of hearers, to be falling back into popular superstition. Minos and Rhadamanthus, and Tartarus and the Elysian Fields,—these they had learnt to dismiss, as belonging to the childhood of the individual and of mankind,—

“Esse aliquid Manes et subterranea regna
Vix pueri credunt.”. . . .
[“Talk of our souls and realms beyond the grave,
The very boys will laugh and say you rave.”]

—Juvenal, Sat. ii. 149.

The Epicurean rejected the idea of a divine government altogether. For the Stoic, to quote a line from Schiller,—

“Die Welt-geschichte ist das Welt-gericht,”
[“And the world’s story is its judgment day, “]

and he expected no other. The thought of a day of judgment as the consummation of that history, which was so prominent in St. Paul’s teaching, was altogether strange to them.

By that man whom he hath ordained.—Literally, by a man. Who the man was, and what proof there was that he had been raised from the dead, were questions either reserved for a later stage of teaching, or interrupted by the derision of the hearers. Up to this point they had listened attentively, but that the dead should be raised again seemed to them—as to the Sadducean, to the Greeks generally—absolutely incredible (Acts 26:8; 1 Corinthians 15:35).

Verse 32

(32) Some mocked: and others said, We will hear thee again.—The word “mocked” implies look and gesture, as well as words, of derision. (See Note on Acts 2:13.) We may venture to assume that the mockers were found chiefly among the Epicureans, and that the inquirers, perhaps putting off the inquiry to a “more convenient season,” were Stoics, who wished to hear more from a teacher with whom they found themselves in sympathy on so many points of contact with their own system. Whether they carried on their inquiry we are not told. The words that follow imply a certain indignation on the part of the Apostle. He would not stay to expose the name or the work of his Lord to the jests of scoffers.

Verse 34

(34) Certain men clave unto him.—The word implies practically both companionship and conversion. There was an attractive power in the Apostle’s character that drew men unto him.

Dionysius the Areopagite.—As the constitution of the Court of the Areopagus required its members to have filled a high magisterial function, such as that of Archon, and to be above sixty, the convert must have been a man of some note. According to a tradition, ascribed by Eusebius (Hist. iii. 4, iv. 23) to Dionysius, Bishop of Corinth, he became Bishop of Athens. An elaborate treatise on the Hierarchy of Heaven, Cherubim, Seraphim, Thrones, Dominations, and the like, is extant under his name, but is obviously of much later date, probably of the fourth or fifth century. The legend of the Seven Champions of Christendom has transformed him into the St. Denys of France. A church dedicated to him stands on the Areopagus of modern Athens.

Damaris.—Chrysostom says that she was the wife of Dionysius, but this is obviously only a conjecture.

And others with them.—The contrast between this and the “great multitude,” the “many” at Thessalonica and Berœa, is very significant. Not less striking is the absence of any reference to Athens in St. Paul’s Epistles. Of all the cities which he visited, it was that with which he had least sympathy. All that can be said is that he may have included them among “the saints which are in all Achaia” (2 Corinthians 1:1) in his prayers and hopes. It would almost seem as if he felt that little was gained by entering into a discussion on the great questions of natural theology; and therefore he came to Corinth, determined to know nothing “but Jesus Christ, and Him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2).

Bibliographical Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Acts 17". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/ebc/acts-17.html. 1905.
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