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Bible Commentaries
Acts 17

Schaff's Popular Commentary on the New TestamentSchaff's NT Commentary

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Verse 1

Paul at Thessalonica and Berea, 1-14.

Acts 17:1. Through Amphipolis and Apollonia. From Philippi to Amphipolis, some thirty-three miles along the great Egnatian Way, which was a continuation of the Appian Way. Amphipolis was an important military station in the days of Paul; its former name was ‘The Nine Ways,’ from the number of roads which met at this point. The missionary apostle appears to have merely passed through this place and also Apollonia, an unimportant town thirty miles from Amphipolis, and only to have preached at the great maritime city of Thessalonica, which he reached probably on the third day after his departure from Philippi. Thessalonica is thirty-seven miles from Apollonia.

They came to Thessalonica. From very early times this city was famed as a commercial centre. Under its old name, Therma, we read of it in Herodotus and Thucydides. It was rebuilt by Cassander, and renamed after his wife Thessalonica, sister to Alexander the Great. This princess received her name to commemorate a victory won by her father, Philip of Macedon, on the day he received the news of her birth. In the Middle Ages it is celebrated in German poetry under the name of Salneck, an abbreviation of Thessalonica which, with a very slight change, has remained to the present day. Before the building of Constantinople, it was really the capital of Greece and Illyricum, and even now Saloniki is the second city of European Turkey. In the mediaeval chronicles it is known as the ‘orthodox city;’ and during those dark ages when the Barbarians were fast spreading over the provinces of the decaying Empire, this brave merchant city held its own and contributed greatly to the spread of Christianity among the swarms of invading Goths and Slaves who were gradually making permanent settlements in the neighbouring districts. Saloniki, though now a Turkish city, among its 70,000 inhabitants reckons 35,000 Jews and 10,000 Christians! The chief trade is in the hands of its Jewish population, and thirty-six synagogues are said to exist at the present time.

Where was a synagogue of the Jews. The more literal translation would be here ‘the synagogue,’ signifying that the chief not the only synagogue of the district, was placed in this great sea city.

Verse 2

Acts 17:2. And Paul, as his manner was. Cf. Luke 4:16. Paul imitates his loved Master, who, we read, ‘as His custom was, went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day.’

Then as now, the great trading centre of Thessalonica attracted vast numbers of Jews. The synagogue here seems to have been the headquarters of the ‘religion’ for all Macedonia and the adjacent district.

Three Sabbath days. Paul’s invariable custom was in the first instance to address himself to Jews, and only after he had given his message to the chosen people to turn to the Gentile inhabitants of the place. These ‘three Sabbath days’ by no means represent the length of the apostle’s stay at Thessalonica. These three weeks were doubtless devoted to his fellow-countrymen, but Paul must have resided in the great city much longer. We know he left behind him the nucleus of a great and flourishing Christian community, chiefly composed of Gentile converts. We read also how, although Paul worked with his own hands for his support while preaching and teaching there, Philippi in token of its loving friendship twice sent to his necessities (Philippians 4:16); and as the two cities were some hundred miles apart, this would imply a lengthened sojourn on the part of the apostle at Thessalonica.

Out of the Scriptures. When Paul spoke of Jesus to the Jews, it is noticeable he never appealed to His miracles, but always referred them to their own Scriptures, every letter of which they valued as Divine; and then, after calling their attention to this or that well-known and often read type or prophecy of Messiah, he would turn to the life and death of Jesus, every detail of which at least the well instructed of the foreign synagogue well knew, and would ask them, Was not this One after all the Messiah, the Christ?

Verse 3

Acts 17:3. Opening and alleging. Better, ‘opening and setting forth.’ Opening that is, expounding, unfolding their sense. Bengel well expands these words: ‘Ut si quis nucleum, fracto cortice, et recludat et exemptum ponat in medio.’

Paul opened their Scriptures, and then showed them how they contained two great truths the first, that these Scriptures declare the promised Messiah must suffer death and then rise again; and the second, that these Scriptures point unmistakeably to Jesus of Nazareth, who, by His life, death, actions, words, works, sufferings, sorrows, even by His very rejection at the hands of the rulers, was unmistakeably the One alluded to in a hundred passages in the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms.

Is Christ. Better, ‘is the Christ,’ or the Messiah.

Verse 4

Acts 17:4. And some of them believed. The work of Paul in the synagogue was not unsuccessful. The account of the ‘converted’ in this verse probably relates to the Jews and proselytes and devout Gentiles who worshipped with the Jews. In 1 Thessalonians 1:9, Paul alludes to many members of the church in Thessalonica who had evidently been idolaters. This work among the idolaters no doubt took place after the three Sabbaths of Acts 17:2, and before the events related in connection with Jason, Acts 17:5-10.

The devout Greeks. Some of these were proselytes, others religious Gentiles, who, without conforming to all the Jewish rites and customs, worshipped with the Jews in the synagogue services.

Of the chief women. These were the wives and daughters of the principal merchants and influential men of Thessalonica, who were attached as proselytes or simply as religious God-fearing men to the Jewish worship.

Verse 5

Acts 17:5. But the Jews which believed not, moved with envy, took unto them certain lewd fellows of the baser sort. The words ‘which believed not’ do not occur in the older Greek MSS. They were no doubt inserted as an explanation after the statement of Acts 17:4. It was only the unbelieving Jews who tried to compass the destruction of Paul. ‘Certain lewd fellows,’ etc., is better rendered, ‘Some bad men of the rabble.’

The question has been asked why the Jews sought such coadjutors out of Judaea. They were strangers; and to effect such a purpose as that related here, they needed the help of some of the native inhabitants. The word rendered here ‘of the rabble’ ( α ̓ γοραι ́ ων ) is a word not un-frequent in classical Greek. In old Rome they were termed ‘subrostrani.’ Plautus would term them ‘subbasilicani.’ The modern word equivalent would be ‘canaille.’ The loungers who have no definite business, who crowd the market-place and other busy resorts, ready for any piece of business however rough and cruel, are the class here spoken of.

The house of Jason. It has been suggested with some probability that this Jason was an Hellenistic Jew, whose name Jesus or Joshua had been changed into the Greek form ‘Jason’ (see 1Ma 8:17 ; 2Ma 11:23 ). He was possibly a relative of Paul’s (see Romans 16:21). The apostle and Silas very likely lodged in the house of Jason during their stay at Thessalonica.

Verse 6

Acts 17:6. Unto the rulers of the city. Literally, ‘unto the politarchs.’ Thessalonica was a ‘free city’ (urbs libera). This privilege of ‘freedom’ was only bestowed by Rome upon certain favoured cities. In this case it was a reward for the side the city had taken when Augustus and Antony had warred with Brutus and Cassius. Athens also possessed this ‘freedom’ in memory of her ancient greatness.

A ‘free city’ was self-governed. The provincial governor possessed within its walls and circuit no authority. The power of life and death, for instance, so jealously withheld from the Jerusalem Jews, belonged to the local magistrates of a ‘free city.’ No Roman garrison, no Roman ensigns, were seen in the streets. At Thessalonica we find an assembly of the people, and magistrates named politarchs. An inscription still exists over an ancient arch at Thessalonica of a date considerably older than the first century of our era. This inscription contains the names of seven of the Thessalonian magistrates, whom it calls ‘politarchs,’ thus confirming in a strange and striking manner the accuracy of the writer of the ‘Acts’ in using this most rare word in describing the rulers of this city.

These that have turned the world upside down. These strange words, Alford remarks, presuppose some rumour of Christianity and its spread having before reached the inhabitants of Thessalonica.

Verse 7

Acts 17:7. These all do contrary to the decrees of Caesar. It is observable that the complaint did not touch the real ground of discontent, viz. the supposed injury which the teaching of Paul would do to their religion.

Such a charge would never have been listened to; it would have been treated by these politarchs of Thessalonica just as a similar accusation was disposed of by Gallio the proconsul of Achaia (Acts 18:14-16). The Jews here charged Paul and his companion with a political offence of a like nature to the crime of which Jesus was accused before Pilate. It was a vague but not uncommon accusation in those days which charged an obnoxious person with treason against Caesar. The decrees here referred to were the Julian ‘Leges Majestatis.’ The accusation, as we shall see in the next clause, seems to have been based upon certain often-recurring words used by Paul in his preaching at Thessalonica respecting the kingdom of Christ. This appears again and again in his two epistles to this church.

Saying that there is another king, one Jesus. The royal state of Christ’s second advent seems to have been a favourite topic with Paul in his preaching in this city. We gather this from the two epistles to the church of Thessalonica, in which doubtless the salient points of the oral teaching of the great apostle were briefly reviewed. Compare, among many passages, such statements as are found in 1 Thessalonians 2:12; 2 Thessalonians 1:5. Gloag suggests that the title ‘Lord’ so frequently given by Christians to their great Master may have given occasion to the charge, so often apparently repeated, that the disciples of Christ were really asserting His claim to the kingly office.

The title ‘king’ ( βασιλεύς ) was applied by Greeks to the Roman emperor. No Latin, however, termed the Cæsar rex.

Verse 8

Acts 17:8. And they troubled the people and the rulers of the city, when they heard these things. It must be remembered that just at this time the Jews, and more particularly the Jewish Christians, were looked upon with extreme dislike and suspicion by the officials of the Empire. From Rome they had been even temporarily banished, owing to an uproar, possibly between the followers of Jesus and the Jews, very likely occasioned by the jealousy of the Jews, as on the present occasion at Thessalonica. Suetonius tells us strangely of this Roman disturbance, and connects it with one ‘Chrestus,’ no doubt Christ: ‘Judæos impulsore Chresto assidue tumultuantes Roma expulit’ (Suetonius, Claud. 25). The provincial rulers, desirous to show their loyalty to the Emperor Claudius, and in no wise to compromise the cherished privileges of their city, which they knew were only held during the pleasure of the central authorities at Rome, were naturally troubled and anxious. It was this feeling of insecurity which led to Paul’s withdrawal related Acts 17:10.

Verse 9

Acts 17:9. And when they had taken security of Jason, and of the other. Better, ‘of Jason and of the rest,’ ‘the rest’ including those other believers who had been arrested at the time of the tumult. The ‘security’ was most probably a sum of money deposited by Jason, who appears to have been a person of substance, as were very likely some of the others; for these converts among the early Christians in these great Grecian cities were by no means all drawn from the poorer classes. The purpose of this security was to assure the magistrates that there should be nothing done by these eastern strangers contrary to the decrees of Cæsar.

Verse 10

Acts 17:10. And the brethren immediately sent away Paul and Silas by night. All parties in the city were evidently uneasy, although quiet had been restored. The magistrates, dreading a fresh outbreak on the part of these suspected Orientals, and the Christian community knowing the bitter and sleepless hostility of the Jews, determined it was best for the peace and wellbeing of the growing community of believers in Jesus that the great and hated teacher should, for a time at least, absent himself.

Berea. A city of no great fame in history, about sixty miles from Thessalonica. It was a favourite dwelling-place for the Jews. Its modern name is Verria, or Kara-Verria, a corruption of the old appellation, and contains still about 18,000 inhabitants. Paul seems to have had marked success there among the Jewish population; but, strange to say, the name of Berea is never mentioned by him in any of his epistles.

Verse 11

Acts 17:11. These were more noble than those in Thessalonica. Certain expositors of great name, as, for instance, Calvin and Luther, apply these words to the Jews of Thessalonica, translating thus: ‘These were the more noble of the Thessalonians who received the word,’ intimating that the chief men of Thessalonica had joined the Christian brotherhood; but the more probable explanation is that the Berean Jews were of a nobler spirit, less narrowed by national prejudices than their brethren of the larger city. It is worthy of remark that, even in the brief summary of Paul’s work these ‘Acts’ contain, we can see that the great teacher neither expected nor desired that men should be converted to his Master’s creed without first carefully examining it, and the proofs upon which it was based. The genuine, honest spirit of inquiry is ever allied to true gospel teaching. The ‘nobility of soul’ which Paul’s chronicler so highly praised in the men of Berea consisted not merely in their readiness of mind to receive the word, but also in that patient loving spirit of inquiry which led them daily to read the Scriptures to see whether those things Paul told them of were so.

Verse 12

Acts 17:12. Also of honourable women which were Greeks, and of men not a few. To these Jews who accepted the doctrines preached by Paul were added a number of Gentiles, some, of course, proselytes, but most probably idolaters for the most part; and these, the writer of the ‘Acts’ tells us, were men and women of the highest rank among the Greek citizens.

Verse 13

Acts 17:13. They came thither also, and stirred up the people. These short notices in the ‘Acts’ of the steady, unwearied pursuit of Paul from city to city give us a hint at least of that restless bitter hatred with which this great Gentile apostle was regarded by the majority of his countrymen a hate the depth and intensity of which the critical studies of this age is only beginning to fathom.

Verse 14

Acts 17:14. To go as it were to the sea. The accurate translation of the Greek ω ̔ ς ε ̓ πι ̀ κ . τ . λ is simply ‘as far as to the sea;’ the English Version would seem to suggest a feint on the part of Paul and his friends; the Greek its used before a preposition simply denotes the definite intention of the direction ‘to the sea.’ Alford gives some good examples of their use in classical Greek.

But Silas and Timotheus abode there still Silas appears up to this time never to have left his great fellow-missionary, but Timothy was left behind at Philippi; although not mentioned as with Paul at Thessalonica, it is almost certain that he was with his master during a portion at least of the first memorable visit He appears to have been intimately connected with the Christian congregation there, and in both the epistles of Paul to the church of Thessalonica, he is joined in the greeting with Silas and Paul. It has been suggested that Timothy joined Paul again at Thessalonica, bringing with him the contributions and help from the Philippian Christians.

Verse 15

Paul at Athens, 15-34.

Acts 17:15. Brought him unto Athens. The once famous centre of Greek thought and culture, long the dominant power among the varied states of which ancient Greece was made up, whose name and influence at one time was all-powerful in so many rich and flourishing cities round the Mediterranean coast, in Asia as well as in Europe, had become after many vicissitudes a simple provincial city of the province of Achaia in the Empire. Rome, in memory of its past splendid history, had accorded it the privileges above discussed (Acts 17:6) of ‘a free city’ (urbs libera). The general appearance of Athens in the time of Paul must still have been imposing; but long and desolating wars had passed over Athens and Attica. Its old fortifications were in ruins; its commerce had deserted its port; its streets were comparatively empty. There was no life or energy left among her people. Athens, in the days of Paul, preserved nothing but her undying memories and the stately buildings almost, it would seem, imperishable which she had erected in the days of her splendour. The ‘long walls’ so well known in history, which once made the busy commercial Piraeus and Athens one great city, were already in ruins; but the great monuments which the skill and wealth of the old Athenian people had built remained very much as in old times. One fact seems to have made a strange impression upon St. Paul coming from Berea and its bright life and the busy commerce of wealthy Thessalonica.

In this quiet still city of memories, wherever he turned he beheld statues of deified heroes, and temples, and sanctuaries of gods. Every god in Olympus, we read, found a place in the ‘Agora.’ The very public buildings in that city of the dead were sanctuaries. The record house was a temple of the mother of the gods. The council house held statues of Apollo and Jupiter, with an altar of Vesta. The theatre at the base of the Acropolis was consecrated to Bacchus, where the very marble seats were inscribed each with the official name of the priest to whom it was assigned. In truth, this Athens which Paul visited seemed a city of temples whose citizens were the priests. Never, in the long and eventful story of the City of the Violet Crown, as Aristophanes termed it, was Athens so empty of all life as it was at that particular juncture. Its ancient splendour and opulence had completely disappeared after Scylla had swept away its wealth and destroyed the last remains of its old independence. Athens fell lower and lower, owing the scanty remains of privileges to a sentiment of pity for her in her deep degradation.

The great schools which, after she had lost her power in some way, maintained her reputation in the days of Augustus and his immediate successors were rivalled, if not surpassed, by those of Marseilles, Rhodes, and Rome, and other centres of learning and thought. The revival of Athens as the great seat of culture in the Empire, only dates from the time of Nerva. Athens was in the period of its greatest depression when Paul well describes his impression of the famous city: Lifeless, quiet, without trade, a city neither of merchants nor soldiers, full of lifeless objects of adoration, temples and statues, altars and shrines, he saw the city wholly given up to idolatry.

Verse 16

Acts 17:16. His spirit was stirred up in him. The whole aspect of Athens was strangely repugnant to Paul; the great cities he was acquainted with, such as Antioch in the east and Thessalonica in the west, were busy commercial centres, full of life and energy, despising rather, while at the same time practising, idolatry. Indifferentism was what he had been combating, rather than anything like a fervid spirit of idolatry; but here he seemed in a different atmosphere, here idolatry was closely bound up with all the pleasures and the occupations of the citizen, was linked indissolubly with those memories of the past of which the people of Athens were so proud.

The comment of Renan, in the course of a splendid and lifelike picture of the Athens of the first century, on Paul’s indignation at the idolatry of Athens, is singular: ‘Ah belles et chastes images, vrais dieux et vraies Déesses, tremblez, voici celui qui lèvera contre vous le Marteau. Le mot fatal est prononcé, vous êtes des idoles, l’erreur de ce laid petit Juif sera votre arrêt de mort.’ It must be remembered that the brilliant sceptic never takes a fair view even from his own cheerless standpoint of Paul’s character, and here, strangely enough, views him rather as an Iconoclast than as a denouncer of an impure and cursed worship.

The city wholly given up to idolatry. The Greek word rendered ‘wholly given up to idolatry’ ( κατει ́ δωλον ) only occurs in this passage, but is formed after the analogy of other similar compounded words, such as κατάδενδρος , a place full of trees so as to be overgrown by them; κατύμπελος , a place full of vines. The word here would be translated more accurately, ‘full of idols.’ The epithet certainly seems to have been singularly appropriate. Other writers, writing of Athens in a different spirit to Paul, could not help noticing this striking peculiarity in the city. Petronius remarks satirically how at Athens one could find a god easier than a man. Another writes how it was almost impossible for one to make his way through these idols. Pausanias states how Athens had more images than all the rest of Greece put together. Xenophon’s expression is the strongest when he calls Athens ‘one great altar, one great offering to the gods’ ( θεοῑς καὶ ἀνάθημα ). Livy’s remark is also noteworthy: ‘In Athens are to be seen images of gods and of men of all descriptions and made of all materials.’

Verse 17

Acts 17:17. Therefore disputed he in the synagogue with the Jews, and with the devout persons, and in the market daily with them that met with him. Here Paul, no doubt, on account of the intense feeling stirred up by the sight of all this idolatry, slightly deviated from his usual practice of first exclusively addressing himself to Jews and proselytes. At Athens he seems on the Sabbath days to have laboured in the synagogue among his own people; his week days he spent in the famous ‘Agora,’ and in the painted porch or cloister of Zeno the Stoic (the painted porch, Stoa Poecile, was, be it remembered, in the Agora), the spot where in Athens the philosophers, rhetoricians, and others were in the habit of meeting for conversation and discussion.

Verse 18

Acts 17:18. Then certain philosophers of the Epicureans, and of the Stoics. This would be more accurately rendered, ‘of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers.’ Epicurus, founder of the philosophic sect which bears his name, was born in Samos, B.C. 342. The Epicurean, while admitting the existence of gods, regarded them as paying no attention to men and the affairs of this world. They believed in no Providence, in no accountability, in neither reward nor retribution in the life to come. They were virtually Atheists. The real teaching of the masters of the sect was, that a wise man should enjoy to the uttermost the things of this life, for the soul being material was annihilated after death. Epicurus is believed himself to have taught a higher ideal of happiness, but very soon his followers reduced his system to what was in fact a teaching of the grossest sensualism. The world, according to the great Epicurean poem of Lucretius, was only formed by an accidental concourse of atoms, and was not in any sense created or reduced to order by any deity.

Zeno, a native of Cyprus, the founder of the Stoic school of philosophy, lived and taught in the latter part of the fourth century and in the earlier years of the third century before Christ. The Stoics condemned the worship of images and the use of temples, but they in some degree accepted popular mythology by considering the various gods as developments of the universal world-God. These were then Pantheists . they denied any overruling Providence, or, in fact, any interference on the part of Deity in the affairs of the world. Everything was governed by an iron destiny, to which ‘God’ Himself was subject. They believed only in the immortality of the soul by imagining it was ultimately absorbed in Deity; but even this absorption they seem to teach was only to be the lot of the wise and the good. The ideal life, however, proposed to the disciples of Zeno was a far higher one than the Epicurean ideal, a proud self-denial, an austere apathy ( άταραξία ), untouched by human passion, unmoved alike by joy or sorrow, was aimed at by the true Stoic V. Cousin admirably sums up the spirit of the strange philosophy which was far removed from the comprehension of the poor and illiterate, and, in fact, was only admired and followed by a limited number of cultured minds: ‘Le Stoicisme est essentiellement solitaire, c’est le soin exclusif de son ame, sans regard a celle des autres, et comme la seule chose importante est la pureté de l’âme, quand cette purete est trop en peril, quand on désespere d’être victorieux dans la lutte, on peut la terminer comme l’a terminée Caton. Ainsi la philosophie n’est plus qu’un apprentissage de la Mort et non de la vie, elle tend a la Mort par son image, l’apathie et l’ataraxie, et se resont definitivement en un égoisme sublime’(V. Cousin).

What would this babbler say? This word properly denotes a seed-gatherer, such as a sparrow or rook, or bird which frequents streets and market-places picking up seeds. Aristophanes thus uses the word in his Birds, 232: ‘A babbler, one mho picks up bits of news and information and retails them to others.’

He seemeth to be a setter forth of strange gods: because he preached unto them Jesus, and the resurrection. The name of ‘Jesus,’ whom Paul preached, was to them a new name and strange. Many, perhaps the majority, of the hearers mistook the Resurrection’ ( ἀνάστασις ) for the name of a goddess, a word that Paul seems to have used frequently, as he evidently, in that speech of his on ‘Mars’ Hill,’ laid deep stress on this great Christian doctrine. It must be remembered that his audience on this occasion was mainly composed of philosophers belonging to the Stoic and Epicurean schools, in both of which all individual life after death was denied. The Stoic theory of the absorption of certain souls in the essence of the Deity does not contradict this.

Verse 19

Acts 17:19. Brought him unto Areopagus. On this spot, writes Howson (St. Paul), ‘ a long series of awful causes connected with crime and religion had been determined, beginning with the legendary trial of Mars [Ares], which gave to the place the name of “Mars’ Hill.” A temple of this god was built on the brow of the eminence, and an additional solemnity was given to the place by the sanctuary of the Furies (Eumenides) in a broken cleft of the rock, immediately below the Judges’ seats.’ It has been much disputed whether or no Paul was arraigned formally as an accused before the Areopagites on the charge of introducing strange gods into the city, a ‘religio,’ consequently ‘illicita.’ In discussing this question, the powers and functions of the once famous court in the days of Paul must be considered. The position of the Athenian magistrates, in the time of Paul, was one of peculiar difficulty, owing to the hostile attitude of the city in the wars which resulted in the establishment in supreme power of Augustus and his successors. Its privileges as a ‘free city’ were only left to is by the clemency of the emperors, who were unwilling to punish a place which possessed the ‘memories of Athens.’ These privileges, however, were only held during the Caesars’ pleasure. The once famous and powerful Court of the Areopagus at most could only pretend to a jurisdiction over the city and its immediate neighbourhood. It seems, however, to have laid claim to and wielded powers far greater and more comprehensive than a merely local magisterial jurisdiction. Far beyond Athens, the decisions of the Council of the Areopagites in matters connected with law, morals, medicine, religious rites, etc., were received with respectful attention. They seem rather to have exercised the functions of an influential and widely respected academy or university, than the restricted and jealously watched duties of a local criminal court in a suspected privileged city. Before such a body of men Paul was probably courteously invited to set forth at length those ‘strange religious doctrines’ he had been preaching with such marked success in the Macedonian cities of Philippi, Thessalonica, and Berea. The question of the judges, the speech of Paul, and the terms in which his subsequent dismissal by the court is related, in no way bear out the supposition that anything like a formal trial took place that day on the hill of Mars.

Verse 21

Acts 17:21. And the strangers which were there. Although the ancient glory which the schools of Athens enjoyed was a good deal dimmed at this particular time, still the city was the resort of numbers of young Italians and others, for the purposes of education and study.

Spent their time in nothing else, but either to tell or to hear some new thing. Bengel paraphrases thus: ‘New things were ever becoming stale, and newer things were sought for.’ Alford paraphrases the emphatic Greek καινότερον by ‘the very latest news.’ Demosthenes rebukes this insatiable craving of the Athenians after news in the following terms: ‘Tell me whether going up and down the market-place, asking each other, “Is there any news?” is the business of your life.’

Verse 22

Acts 17:22. In the midst of Mars’ Hill, or ‘in the midst of the Areopagus.’ Wordsworth thus describes the place: ‘Sixteen stone steps, cut in the rock at its south-east angle, lead up to the hill of the Areopagus from the valley of the Agora (the “market” ), where Paul had been disputing (Acts 17:17), which lies between it and the Pnyx. Immediately above these steps, on the level of the hill, is a bench of stone excavated in the limestone rock, forming three sides of a quadrangle. There the Areopagites sat ... On this hill are now the ruins of a small church dedicated to St. Dionysius the Areopagite, and commemorating his conversion by St. Paul. The apostle was brought perhaps by these steps of rock, which are the natural access to the summit, from the Agora below, in which he had been conversing, to give an account of the doctrines which he preached. Here, placed as he was in the centre of this platform in the very heart of Athens, with its statues, and altars, and temples of deities around him, he might well say the city was “ crowded with idols.”

Amidst all the memories which were associated with this dread spot, still looked upon, even in the days of decay and partial ruin which had come upon Athens, by the people with superstitious reverence, Paul spoke his famous words, pressing his crucified Master’s strange, sweet doctrines home to the citizens of the great idol city. It was the proclamation of the religion of the future (though they guessed it not then) in the face of the dying religion of the past.

Paraphrase of the Speech.

Ye men of Athens. His first words gracefully expressed the joy he felt at seeing the deeply reverential spirit of the Athenians, for among the almost countless altars of deities he had come upon one with the inscription running round it, ‘To the Unknown God.’ This shrine to the ‘Unknown’ seemed to speak of their wish to pay a homage to some Divine Being whom they felt was near to them, but whose nature and attributes had not as yet been revealed to them. This ‘revelation’ was his high mission, to tell them of that ‘Great Unknown’ whose existence and whose majesty this solitary, nameless altar, at least, showed they suspected.

The God who, as Creator of all, is the true God, seeing He is Lord of all, He, the apostle went on to say, glancing round at the splendid temples about him, dwells in no earth-made house, and needs no earthly service, seeing He provides His creatures with everything. Out of ‘one’ did this true God create the whole human race destined to spread over all the earth, providing for the regular order of the seasons, and appointing their natural boundaries to each race; and all this He did in order that they might in time seek after the Architect of the glorious order of creation, who never forced them, however, to recognise Him as Lord, but left this seeking for the true God to their own free impulse, and waited for their spiritual longings to seek out and find the unseen Spirit God, who all the while was so near the spirit of each man. Had not one of their own poets come very near the discovery of this great truth the nearness of the true God to each one of us?

Seeing, then, the connection between God and man is really so close, the Spirit God so near to each man’s spirit, surely we must never seek for Him in any earthly representation, however beautiful and costly, never in any image hewn by man, be it of marble, of silver, or of gold.

For ages men have missed this lofty truth, the very foundation of all true religion. Is it not surely high time to awake out of this sleep of ages? See how God, for the sake of Jesus Christ (of whom Paul then, or on some previous occasion, had told .them), forgives the past, and, giving a new and clearer revelation, bids men change their lives, and live hereafter as though expecting a resurrection of the body and a day of judgment: strange thoughts to them, but it was no mere ungrounded assertion of his (Paul’s). God had indeed given man an earnest of His purpose eventually to raise the bodies of the dead, seeing He had already raised up from the dead their future judge, Jesus Christ.

In all things ye are too superstitious. The words in the English translation, ‘too superstitious,’ fail to express the graceful courtesy of Paul. It is observable in all the apostle’s letters, whenever he rapidly proceeded to blame, he invariably begins with winning, gentle words (see for a good instance of this practice of St. Paul the Second Epistle to the Corinthian Church). The Greek μονεστέρους English Version, ‘too superstitious’ signifies ‘more than ordinarily reverential.’ The force of the comparative is thus preserved, and also the touch of surprise which evidently was intended to be conveyed by the apostle a surprise stirred up by the unusual appearance of the streets and open places of Athens, literally crowded with altars, shrines, and statues of deities. The word δεισιδαίμων may be translated either as ‘religious ‘or ‘superstitious,’ in a good sense or in a bad sense. The meaning is left to be determined by the context of the passage. Chrysostom employs the word in a good sense, as does Josephus frequently. The usual German translation is Gottesfurchtig.

This characteristic of the Athenian people was often noticed by writers. Thus Sophocles, in the Oed. Col., says they surpassed all the world in the honours they offered to the gods. Xenophon relates how, in comparison with other peoples, they observed twice the number of festivals ( De Repub. Athen.). Pausanias tells us they exceeded all others in their piety toward the gods ( Attic.). Josephus especially mentions that the Athenians were the most religious of the Greeks ( Contra Apion).

Verse 23

Acts 17:23. For as I passed by, and beheld your devotions. This should be rendered, ‘and beheld the things that you worship.’ It does not refer to their devotions, or acts of worship, but to their temples, statues of divinities, shrines, and the like.

TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. The more accurate translation would be, ‘To an Unknown God.’ Philostratus, who wrote A.D. 244, in his life of Apollonius (quoted by Gloag), says, alluding to the unusual reverential spirit of the Athenians: ‘It is more discreet to speak well of all the gods, especially at Athens, where there are erected altars of unknown gods.’ It seems that in the city there were several altars set up in different situations, each with the inscription, ‘To an Unknown God.’ The historical origin of these mysterious shrines cannot be determined. Some suppose they were very ancient; and at length it had been forgotten to whom originally they were dedicated, and that in some religious restoration the words in question had been engraved on the ancient stone. Others have suggested they were set up in some time either of public rejoicing or great calamity, and the civic authorities being uncertain as to the especial deity they had to propitiate Zeus or Poseidon, Athene or Ares erected these altars ‘to the Unknown.’ Diogenes Laertius relates how, when once the Athenians were afflicted with a pestilence, Epimenides stayed the plague by sending white and black sheep from the Areopagus, and then sacrificing them on the various spots in the city where they lay down, to the unknown God who sent the pestilence. Therefore, this writer added, there are at Athens nameless altars.

Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you. Here the more ancient MSS. read neuter forms, ὃ . . . τοῡτο , instead of the masculine forms, ὃν . . . τοῡτον ; these would then be rendered, ‘What therefore ye worship ignorantly . . . this I declare unto you.’ The Athenians, Paul saw, evidently recognised something Divine which ought to be adored outside the known gods. This unknown Deity he proceeded to declare to them.

Verse 24

Acts 17:24. Dwelleth not in temples made with hands. Commentators call attention to the remarkable reminiscence of the dying speech of Stephen before the Sanhedrim, which the Pharisee Saul must have listened to, and which so powerfully influenced his future life. ‘Howbeit the Most High dwelleth not in temples made with hands’ (Acts 7:48-49). These words, uttered in full view of the magnificent fanes of the gods of which Athens was so proud, must have rung with a strange emphasis on the ears of the listening Areopagites.

Verse 25

Acts 17:25. Neither is he worshipped with men’s hands, as though he needed anything. The men of the heathen world loved to spend their wealth on the adornment of the temples of the gods, to whom also they brought costly offerings of food and drink, as though these imaginary eternal beings needed such things. Iliad, i. 37, 38 (Pope’s Version), may be quoted as expressive of the true heathen feeling in this respect:

‘If e’er with wreaths I hung thy sacred fane,

Or fed the flames with fat of oxen slain.’

Paul’s words were the outcome of a mind steeped in the often-repeated reminders and reproaches of the prophets, that the God of Israel was not to be worshipped with sacrifice and incense, but with a pure, noble life. The words of the Psalmist were evidently in his mind: ‘I will take no bullock out of thy house, nor he-goats out of thy folds: For every beast of the forest is mine, and the cattle on a thousand hills. ... If I were hungry, I would not tell thee: for the world is mine. . . . Thinkest thou that I will eat bulls’ flesh and drink the blood of goats?’ (Ps. 1. 9-13). The higher minds among the Epicurean teachers, rising above the popular notion of worship, grasped this lofty conception, which the old Hebrew prophets so nobly set forth, of Deity being above the loves and passions of mortals, dwelling in a sphere far removed from earth and earthly needs. But while the Hebrew teachers used this sublime truth to show the infinite love which, needing nothing from men, could yet stoop to watch over them with a father’s care, and to guide erring feet through the mazes of this life to a higher existence, the Epicurean only seems to have grasped it to show the deserted helplessness of mortals, and the serene selfishness of Divinity. See the lines of the Epicurean Lucretius:

Omnis enim perse Divdm natura necesse est,

Immortal! aevo summi cum pace fruatur.’

Life and breath. The God Paul was preaching to them not merely was the All-Creator but also the All-Preserver. Their very breath, by means of which from minute to minute each mortal lived, was His gift.

Verse 26

Acts 17:26. And hath made of one blood all nations of men. Here Paul definitely asserts that God created the whole human race from one common stock. His reasons for this deliberate assertion of the common brotherhood of men no doubt are to be found in his desire to do away, once and for all, with the prevailing idea that different peoples owed their origin to varied ancestors, either themselves deities or immediately under the protection of some deity. The Athenians, for instance , believed they were sprung from the soil of Attica. The belief that all peoples sprang from one common ancestor Paul knew would do much to eradicate the notion that there were ‘many Gods,’ would assist much in the reception of the great truth of the ‘Fatherhood of God.’ Besides this, Paul probably had in his mind the prejudice with which these haughty Greeks viewed him as a Barbarian Hebrew, a member of a despised oriental race. The beautiful and true conception of the ‘common brotherhood of men’ has in no little degree contributed to the reception of the gospel amid so many different peoples:

‘Then, having met, they speak and they remember

All are one family, their Sire is One,

Cheers them with June and slays them with December,

Portions to each the shadow and the sun.’

F. W. H. Myers.

And hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation. The one true God, different from the impassive selfish deity of the Epicurean schools, was not only the Architect and the Preserver of the universe, but was also the watchful governor of each people. The burning eloquent words of he eastern stranger they were listening to, telling of appointed times to a nation’s prosperity, must have rung strangely and awfully in the ears of these proud Athenians, who lived only on the memories of a past greatness and superiority; while the assertion that Paul’s God determined the bounds of the habitation of peoples, would painfully remind these Greeks that they had long ago reached the boundaries of their habitation and of their influence, which once seemed to promise to be limitless both in the east and west, and that these boundaries every year were being narrowed.

Thus claiming such powers for that God whose messenger he asserted himself to be, Paul warned them indirectly of the danger and folly of rejecting the message of a Being at once so mighty and beneficent.

Verse 27

Acts 17:27. That they should seek the Lord. The older MSS. here read ‘God’ instead of ‘the Lord.’ The design of God’s overruling providence was that men should seek after a knowledge of the Divine Ruler of all things, and also after a living union with this gracious and all-powerful Being. The Greek words, however, which begin the next clause ( εί ἂραγε ), and the mood of the verbs in the sentence, indicate very plainly that the result is doubtful. The speaker on the whole implies in a delicate manner that mankind had missed the mark at which they aimed. This is still more clearly implied by the general exhortation to repentance contained in Acts 17:30 below.

They might feel after him. The Greek word translated ‘feel after’ denotes the action of one blind who gropes after what he desires to find. Paul, says Schleiermacher, represents it ‘as the ultimate purpose of all the great arrangements of God in the world that man should seek Him, He regards man’s noblest aim and perfection as consisting in such seeking after and finding. Let us consider,’ he adds, ‘(1) the great object of our search; and (2) the path which conducts to that object.’

Though he be not far from every one of us. Acts 17:28. For in him we live and move and have our being. ‘ So near is He to all men, if they would but believe it. But the human race would prefer that He should be far distant; it continues to imitate our first parents, who hid themselves from the presence of God in Paradise’ (Gossner quoted by Lange).

The words of Acts 17:28 explain the meaning of the assertion of’ God’s being not far from every one of us.’ On God we must depend every moment for our life. We owe to Him our existence here, and every instant of our continuance in this world; and the apostle in the next sentence appeals to a then well-known saying of a famous writer in proof that this dependence upon and close connection with the Deity was a generally acknowledged fact.

As certain also of your poets have said, For we are also his offspring. The quotation is the beginning of an hexameter’ line taken verbatim from Aratus, a Cilician poet who wrote about two hundred years before Paul’s visit to Athens. The work from which the citation is made was the Phenomena, an astronomical poem. Cleanthes, in his Hymn to Zeus (Jupiter), uses almost the very same words: ‘For we thine offspring are.’ Cleanthes was a Stoic, he lived about the same time as Aratus. There is no doubt that Paul was well read in Greek literature; elsewhere he quotes directly from Menander (1 Corinthians 15:33), from Epimenides (Titus 1:12), besides other expressions in his epistles which are probably ‘memories’ of his studies in Greek poetry and philosophy.

Verse 29

Acts 17:29. We ought not to think that the Godhead is like unto gold or silver or stone graven by art. The Greek word translated by ‘Godhead’ is better rendered ‘Divinity,’ or ‘that which is Divine.’ The thought here is expanded in Isaiah 44:9-20, where the miserable absurdity of supposing that ‘Divinity’ could reside in a block of gold or in a log of wood, however skilfully cast or carved, is set forward with great power. Paul no doubt had the words of Isaiah in his mind here when he gazed with sorrow and amazement at the beautiful idols of Athens. In the words ‘graven by art and man’s device,’ Paul specially alludes to those masterpieces of sculpture in ivory, gold, and marble, which were standing near him on the Areopagus, and in the varied temples and shrines of Athens the Religious.

Click image for full-size version

Verse 30

Acts 17:30. And the times of this ignorance God winked at. The English translation of the Greek word υ ̔ περιδω ̀ ν , winked at, utterly fails to give the sense of the original, which should be rendered ‘having overlooked.’ God now commandeth, etc. God had allowed those ages of ignorance to pass by without any special revelation or stern rebuke. He had sent no express messenger to declare His will to them. He had left them alone to the teachings of nature and the promptings of their own consciences; but now the time of forbearance was over, now He called men to repentance, to a change of mind and heart. Alford remarks that in the word υ ̔ περιδω ̀ ν , having overlooked, ‘ lie treasures of mercy for those who lived in the times of ignorance.’ For the expansion of these thoughts, see Epistle to the Romans, Romans 1:20, etc., Romans 2:12, etc.

Verse 31

Acts 17:31. Because he hath appointed a day in the which he will Judge the world in righteousness. The Greek word translated ‘because’ is better rendered ‘inasmuch as.’ This statement gives the reason why the Heathen world must repent the day of judgment is fixed, and the Judge appointed. If now, after they have been warned, the Heathen still refuse to repent, they will be condemned.

He hath given assurance unto all men, in that he hath raised him from the dead. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is mentioned as showing the possibility of a general resurrection of all men from the dead.

It was the assertion of this fact, that the body would be raised again, which excited the attention of some and the bitter scorn of others in Athens. He had been previously, we read, in the marketplace (the Agora), preaching Jesus and the resurrection; and it was the desire to hear more fully and quietly of this, to them strange and startling doctrine, that the leaders in the various schools of philosophy invited him to address them in the more retired court on Mars’ Hill; but when in his argument he had come to speak of this resurrection, and was proceeding to tell them more of this Jesus who had been dead but now lived and reigned, they interrupted him and firmly but not discourteously adjourned the meeting. They felt, did these Epicurean and Stoic teachers, that if the single instance of Christ’s resurrection was admitted or even allowed to be spoken of before such an assembly as that of the powerful Areopagites, the possibility of rising from the dead would be in a way conceded, and the teaching of these famous schools would be shown to be false.

Verse 32

Acts 17:32. And when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked, and others said, We will hear thee again of this matter. It has been suggested that those that mocked were followers of Epicurus, and that the men who wished to adjourn the question were of the school of Zeno. The Areo-pagites seem to have been divided, some openly mocking Paul and his doctrines; some in doubt seemingly wishing to hear him again, after probably his strange revelation had been discussed in private. The mockers, however, and the men who feared lest their interests should suffer if these new things were publicly taught, prevailed; for in the next verse we read:

Verse 33

Acts 17:33. So Paul departed from among them. We never hear of his visiting Athens again, nor does he ever in any of his subsequently written letters make mention of the beautiful idol city. Meyer suggests that the speech of Paul at Athens contains three divisions: (a) Theology, Acts 17:24-25; (b) Anthropology, Acts 17:26-29; (c) Christology, Acts 17:30. This third division was never developed, but was abruptly brought to a conclusion owing to Paul being requested to defer the rest of his address until some future time. Milman (History of Christianity, vol ii.) beautifully observes upon the effect the apostle’s words must have had upon his philosophic audience: ‘Up to a certain point in this high view of the Supreme Being, the philosopher of the Garden as well as of the Porch might listen with wonder and admiration. It soared indeed high above the vulgar religion; and in the lofty and serene Deity who disdained to dwell in the earthly temple and needed nothing from the hand of man, the Epicurean might almost suppose that he heard the language of his own teacher. But the next sentence which asserted the providence of God as the active creative energy, as the conservative, the ruling, the ordaining principle, annihilated at once the atomic theory and the government of blind chance to which Epicurus ascribed the origin and preservation of the universe.’

It is interesting to remember that Paul was alone at Athens, and that therefore the report of the speech must have been given to the writer of the ‘Acts’ by the apostle himself.

Verse 34

Acts 17:34. Howbeit certain men clave unto him, and believed. There is no doubt that Paul failed in his attempt to found a Christian church at Athens. His stay does not appear to have been a prolonged one. While we possess five of Paul’s letters addressed to Greek cities, two to Thessalonica, two to Corinth, one to Philippi, we have none written to the famous capital. Paul never seems to have revisited the city. Never again, either in the ‘Acts’ or in the contents of any of his subsequently written epistles, do we meet with the name of Athens.

The city of the ‘violet crown’ was one of the last of the great European centres really to accept Christianity. Even after the days of Constantine the Great, Athens was the rallying-point of the dying Pagan party, the last home of the old schools of heathen philosophy (see for an able and picturesque account of Athens in the first days of Christianity, Renan, St. Paul, chap. vii.).

Among the which was Dionysius the Areopagite. This Dionysius must have been a man of power and distinction, for the Areopagites were chosen from the noblest families of Athens. The number of these judges seems to have varied at different periods. Eusebius and other ancient authors relate how this Dionysius subsequently became Bishop of Athens, and according to one tradition suffered martyrdom. The mystical writings attributed to him really belong to another Dionysius who flourished in the fourth century.

And a woman named Damaris. Nothing is known of this Damaris. Considering the seclusion in which Greek women lived, the mention of her name as if she had been present at the meeting on the Hill of Mars is singular. Chrysostom supposes that she was the wife of Dionysius. Stier suggests she was an Hetaira, one of that unhappily famous Athenian sisterhood who like Mary Magdalene was called to repentance.

Bibliographical Information
Schaff, Philip. "Commentary on Acts 17". "Schaff's Popular Commentary on the New Testament". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/scn/acts-17.html. 1879-90.
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