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Bible Commentaries

Cambridge Greek Testament for Schools and Colleges

Acts 17



Verse 1

1. διοδεύσαντες δέ, and when they had passed through. This verb, of rare occurrence in classical Greek, but common in the LXX. (cf. Genesis 12:6; Ps. 88:40; Baruch 4:2, &c.), is found in the N.T. only here and in Luke 8:1. The use of the same words and phrases is a noticeable point in support of the identity of authorship of the two books.

τὴν Ἀμφίπολιν καὶ Ἀπολλωνίαν, Amphipolis and Apollonia. The journey is made to the south and west. Amphipolis was about 33 miles distant from Philippi, along the Egnatian road. It had been a famous place in the time of the Peloponnesian war, and was in St Paul’s time a great Roman military station. Its name was given to it because it was as nearly as possible enclosed by the winding stream of the river Strymon. Apollonia was about 30 miles farther on, in the district of Macedonia known as Mygdonia, and about 37 miles from Thessalonica. The Apostle and his companions appear not to have made any stay in these towns. Chrysostom accounts for their haste thus: πάλιν τὰς μὲν μικρὰς παρατρέχουσι πόλεις, ἐπὶ δὲ τὰς μείζους ἐπείγονται, ἐκεῖθεν καθάπερ ἔκ τινος πηγῆς μέλλοντος τοῦ λόγου διαῤῥέειν εἰς τὰς πλησίον.

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

συναγωγὴ τῶν Ἰουδαίων, a synagogue of the Jews. Apparently at Philippi there had been no synagogue. But Thessalonica may have had a larger Jewish population, and numerous enough to provide and support a building for their religious services.

Verses 1-9


Verse 2

2. κατὰ δὲ τὸ εἰωθός, and as his manner was. On the Apostle’s constant habit of going to the synagogues see Acts 13:5; Acts 13:14, Acts 14:1, &c. The dative case stands after εἰωθός, instead of the genitive, because the verb ἔθω governs a dative.

εἰσῆλθεν πρὸς αὐτούς, he went in unto them. And he was no doubt asked (as on a former occasion Acts 13:15) to offer any exhortation to the people, if he were moved so to do.

ἐπὶ σάββατα τρία, three sabbath days. On which days the Jews would be sure to gather in greater numbers, and for the other days of the week to be less accessible.

Verse 3

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

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

ὅτι τὸν Χριστὸν ἔδει παθεῖν, that it behoved the Christ to suffer. The Messiah, whom the Jews expected, they looked for in New Testament days only as a mighty conqueror who should deliver them from their oppressors. Their wishes had been father to their thoughts, and they overlooked all that spake of the Messiah as the ‘Man of sorrows.’ This portion of the Scriptures it was which St Paul opened.

καὶ ἀναστῆναι ἐκ νεκρῶν, and to rise from the dead. For they, like the disciples themselves in earlier days (John 20:9), ‘understood not the Scriptures (such as Psalms 16:10) that He must rise again from the dead.’

καὶ ὅτι οὗτός ἐστιν Χριστὸς Ἰησοῦς ὃν ἐγὼ καταγγέλλω ὑμῖν, and this (said he) is Christ Jesus whom I proclaim unto you. There is a change in the structure of the sentence from the indirect to the direct form of expression which can be best made intelligible by the insertion of ‘said he.’ Cf. chap. Acts 1:4.

Jesus has fulfilled the prophecies. He has suffered, risen from the dead and ascended into heaven. And we are witnesses to and preachers of this glad tidings.

On the brevity of St Luke’s reports of the discourses which he mentions, Chrysostom notes here: τὸ κεφάλαιον εἶπε τῆς διαλέξεως· οὕτως ἀπέριττός ἐστιν, οὐ πανταχοῦ τὰς δημηγορίας αὐτοῦ λέγων.

Verse 4

4. καί τινες ἐξ αὐτῶν ἐπείσθησαν, and some of them were persuaded. For the Apostle’s teaching was by arguments which they could fully appreciate.

καὶ προσεκληρώθησαν, and consorted with. But it should be kept in mind that the verb is passive. The literal sense is ‘they were allotted to.’ They joined the company of the Apostles, but there was a power which acted on them other than their mere inclination. They were inwardly moved to what they did.

τῶν τε σεβομένων Ἑλλήνων πλῆθος πολύ, and of the devout Greeks a great multitude. These were proselytes of the gate, heathens by birth, but having in part embraced the Jews’ religion (cf. Acts 13:43; Acts 13:50, and Acts 17:17 of this chapter). Such men were likely to join St Paul in greater numbers, for they had not the prejudices of the born Jew.

Verse 5

5. ζηλώσαντες δὲ οἱ Ἰουδαῖοι, but the Jews being moved with envy. This must refer to those who still clung to all the ritual and traditional exclusiveness which had grown up around the Mosaic Law. ζῆλος in its worse sense expresses their anger and dislike at seeing large numbers drawn away from their opinions.

τῶν ἀγοραίων τινὰς ἄνδρας πονηρούς, certain vile fellows of the rabble. ἀγοραῖος, ‘of the rabble,’ is properly the man who having no calling lounges about the ἀγορά, the market-place, in the hope of picking up a chance living, and who is ready for anything bad or good that may present itself. We have no English word sufficiently dignified to use for such a term in translation. ‘Loafer’ comes nearest, but of course is too colloquial. The word ‘lewd’ (A.V. for πονηρούς) meant in old English ‘people,’ but afterwards came to signify [1] ‘the common people,’ and [2] ‘the ignorant and rude among the people,’ which is the sense intended by the A.V. The word nearest akin to ‘lewd’ is the Germ. Leute = people.

ἐθορύβουν τὴν πόλιν, they set the city in an uproar. The Jews in Thessalonica were clearly numerous and influential or they would never have stirred up such a tumult. To help their case they chose (see Acts 17:7) to raise the cry that the new teachers were enemies of the Roman power.

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

αὐτοὺς προαγαγεῖν εἰς τὸν δῆμον, to bring them forth to the people. So that the excited mob might inflict summary vengeance upon them.

Verse 6

6. ἔσυρον Ἰάσονα, they dragged Jason. σύρειν is expressive of considerable violence. It is used (Acts 8:3) of Saul, ‘haling’ men and women and committing them to prison.

On Jason’s conduct, Chrysostom says: θαυμαστὸς ὁ ἀνήρ, εἰς κίνδυνον ἑαυτὸν ἐκδοὺς καὶ ἐκπέμψας αὐτούς.

καί τινας ἀδελφούς, and certain brethren. Hence we find that in these three weeks a Church had been formed, a Christian society established.

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

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

ἀναστατώσαντες, having turned upside down. The word is very rare, used by Aquila and Symmachus, and perhaps in Psalms 10:1 (LXX.), though this is not the reading of the Vatican MS. In N.T. we have it here and Acts 21:38; and Galatians 5:12.

Verse 7

7. οὓς ὑποδέδεκται Ἰάσων, whom Jason hath received, as guests into his house. Thus he would be counted for a sympathizer with their teaching, as most probably he was. For the verb cf. Tobit 7:9; 1 Maccabees 16:15.

οὖτοι πάντες, these all. Implying that Paul and Silas, whom they had not found, would be included in the accusation, if they could be caught.

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

Verse 8

8. ἐτάραξαν δὲ τὸν ὄχλον, and they troubled the people, with language like this, which seemed to speak of insurrection. Thus the mob would be made eager for the punishment of the Apostles.

Verse 9

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

τὸ ἱκανὸν λαβεῖν seems to be a rendering of a Latin expression satis accipere. The Greek phrase is not found elsewhere, but the converse ἱκανὸν ποιεῖν = satis dare, to give security, occurs in Diog. Laert. IV. 50.

Verse 10

10. διὰ νυκτός, by night. The preposition refers to the time within (during) which the action took place.

ἐξέπεμψαν τόν τε Παῦλον καὶ τὸν Σίλαν, they sent away Paul and Silas. The after-conduct of the Thessalonian Jews (see Acts 17:13) shews that they were determined to bring danger on the missionaries. Feeling that this was so, their friends got them out of the way.

εἰς Βέροιαν, unto Berœa. Still the journey is south-west. The old name of Berœa may be recognised in the modern Verria.

εἰς τὴν συναγωγήν, into the synagogue. See above on Acts 17:2.

Verses 10-15


Verse 11

11. εὐγενέστεροι, more noble, εὐγενής is applied first to nobility of birth; but its secondary sense is, as here, nobility of character. The latter ought to be a consequence of the former. Cf. 2 Maccabees 14:42 εὐγενῶς θέλων ἀποθανεῖν, wishing to die nobly. Also see 2 Maccabees 10:13.

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

ἀνακρίνοντες τὰς γραφάς, searching the Scriptures. This is a different verb from that so rendered in John 5:39, which is ἐρευνᾶν. ἀνακρίνειν has the sense of examining and sifting evidence. It was used in Attic law of the steps taken by the lawyers to see whether an action would lie. It is used by the LXX. 1 Samuel 20:12, where our A.V. renders ‘when I have sounded [Heb. searched] my father,’ also in Susanna 51 of Daniel’s examination of the elders.

εἰ ἔχοι ταῦτα οὕτως, whether those things were so. The optative mood implies that they had conceived the possibility in their minds, but still would examine before accepting what was said. Cf. Winer-Moulton, p. 364.

Verse 12

12. τῶν Ἑλληνίδων γυναικῶν τῶν εὐσχημόνων, of honourable women which were Greeks. See above on Acts 13:50.

The adjective Ἑλληνίς agrees in gender with γυναικῶν because it stands before that word in the sentence, but it probably is intended to define ἀνδρῶν too. The Jewish population has been previously described as ready to search the Scriptures. The men as well as the women who are mentioned afterwards were most likely all Gentiles.

Verse 13

13. ὁ λόγος τοῦ θεοῦ, the word of God. This is the language of the author. The Thessalonian Jews would not have called St Paul’s preaching by such a name.

σαλεύοντες καὶ ταράσσοντες τοὺς ὄχλους, stirring up and troubling the multitudes. The figures in these verbs are of a storm at sea where all is stirred up from the depth. The second verb ταράσσω has already occurred in Acts 17:8, and it is probable from this that the trouble in Berœa was produced in the same way as before by the statement that the Apostles were traitors to the Roman power. For the figurative language cf. LXX. Psalms 17:8, καὶ ἐσαλεύθη καὶ ἔντρομος ἐγενήθη ἡ γῆ, καὶ τὰ θεμέλια τῶν ὀρέων ἐταράχθησαν καὶ ἐσαλεύθησαν ὅτι ὠργίσθη αὐτοῖς ὁ θεός. Also Psalms 47:5; Psalms 106:27.

Verse 14

14. εὐθέως δέ, and immediately. As from Thessalonica, so from Berœa, the departure is made with all haste. The charge of conspiring against Cæsar, which was probably put forward everywhere, had a very dangerous effect on the popular mind.

πορεύεσθαι ἕως ἐπὶ τὴν θάλασσαν, to go as far as to the sea. This is to be preferred to the Text. recept. for several reasons. First it has stronger MS. support. And further it agrees better with the history. The A.V. ‘to go as it were to the sea’ represents the ὡς of Text. recept., and would imply that for a while the travellers made as though they were bound towards the sea, but then to baffle pursuit turned and took the land road to Athens. But it is difficult to understand that St Paul would have gone on through Thessaly and all the intervening districts which lie north of Attica, and never have sought an opportunity of preaching the word anywhere till Athens was reached. If however he were conveyed to the sea and took ship and was thus brought to Athens, it is easy to understand that the next place mentioned in the journey is Athens. It is clear too from the whole account of St Paul’s travels, that he was a person who by reason of his infirmities could not easily travel alone. That such a person should have been brought so long a distance by land, where the sea-voyage was so accessible and easy, is hardly to be imagined. It may well be that at the departure from Berœa the design was to wait at the coast till his proper companions could come to him, but that when the sea was reached there was found a speedy opportunity of sailing into Attica, which the Apostle embraced, as his conductors were willing to go all the way with him.

ὑπέμεινάν τε ὅ τε Σίλας καὶ ὁ Τιμόθεος ἐκεῖ, but Silas and Timothy abode there still. For they had played a less prominent part, and therefore were not in such peril as St Paul.

Verse 15

15. οἱ δὲ καθιστάνοντες, and they who conducted. This form καθιστάνω, which is found nowhere else in N.T. in this sense, is the same word as the more usual καθίστημι; and the use of this word conveys the idea that the whole care and ordering of the journey was in the hands of his conductors and not of St Paul. καθίστημι is used of the way in which the Israelites led Rahab and all that belonged to her out of Jericho (Joshua 6:23); also see 2 Chronicles 28:15 of the way in which the Judæan captives were sent back, καὶ ἀνέστησανκαὶ πάντας τοὺς γυμνοὺς περιέβαλον ἀπὸ τῶν σκύλων καὶ ἐνέδυσαν αὐτοὺς καὶ ὑπέδησαν αὐτοὺς καὶ ἔδωκαν φαγεῖν καὶ ἀλείψασθαικαὶ κατέστησαν αὐτοὺς εἰς Ἱεριχώ.

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

ὡς τάχιστα, with all speed. This charge was given because Paul was now to be left alone; and would not readily set about his mission till he had some companion.

Verse 16

16. παρωξύνετο τὸ πνεῦμα αὐτοῦ ἐν αὐτῷ, his spirit was stirred in him. But the stirring was of the sharpest. It was a paroxysm. He was provoked till he could not forbear, could not hold his peace till Timothy and Silas arrived. On this Chrysostom says, οὐκ ὀργὴν ἐνταῦθα, οὐδὲ ἀγανάκτησιν ὁ παροξυσμός, ἀλλὰ διέγερσιν καὶ ζῆλον δηλοῖ, καθάπερ καὶ ἀλλαχοῦ (Acts 15:39). ἐγένετο, φησί, παροξυσμὸς μεταξύ αὐτῶν. ὅρα δε πῶς οἰκονομεῖται καὶ ἄκοντα μεῖναι ἐκεῖ ἐκδεχόμενον ἐκείνους. τί οὖν ἐστι, παρωξύνετο; ἀντὶ τοῦ διηγείρετο. ὀργῆς καὶ ἀγανακτήσεως πόῤῥω τὸ χὰρισμα. οὐκ ἔφερεν ἀλλ' ἐτήκετο.

θεωροῦντος κ.τ.λ., as he beheld the city full of idols. This agrees with the facts. What St Paul beheld was the numerous statues erected, some to one god, some to another. That the city was wholly given to idolatry was the inference from this abundance of idols. The mutilation of the busts of Hermes before the Sicilian expedition in the Peloponnesian war shews how numerous were the statues erected to one divinity only. Time had added many to the number before St Paul’s visit.

With κατείδωλος may be compared κατάδενδρος, κατάκαρπος, κατάκομος, κατάμπελος &c., which all have the notion of ‘abounding with.’

Verses 16-21


Verse 17

17. διελέγετοτοῖς Ἰουδαῖοις, therefore he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews. Going to them first, as sure to find from them sympathy in his horror against idolatry.

τοῖς σεβομένοις, with the devout persons, the proselytes of the gate. See above on Acts 13:50.

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

Verse 18

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

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

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

συνέβαλλον αὐτῷ, encountered him, i.e. met him in disputation, argued with him. The word is used of the Sanhedrin holding a debate among themselves (Acts 4:15) on what was to be done with the Apostles.

τί ἂν θέλοι ὁ σπερμολόγος οὗτος λέγειν; what would this babbler say? i.e. if we would listen to him.

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

ξένων δαιμονίωνεἷναι, he seems to be a setter-forth of strange gods. δαιμόνια, from which comes the English ‘demon,’ was used in classical Greek mostly to denote some inferior order among the divine beings. In the LXX. it is always applied to false gods or evil spirits. Cf. Tobit 3:8, Ἀσμοδαῖος τὸ πονηρὸν δαιμόνιον. It was one of the accusations brought against Socrates, and the charge on which he was condemned, that he introduced new δαιμόνια (Xen. Mem. I. 1, 2: Plato Apolog. 40 A &c.). It has been thought by some that the Athenians, from using this word in the plural, fancied that ‘Jesus’ was one new divinity and Ἀνάστασις another. On the latter notion Chrysostom says, καὶ γὰρ τὴν ἀνάστασιν θεόν τινα εἶναι ἐνόμιζον, ἅτε εἰωθότες καὶ θηλείας σέβειν.

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

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

Verse 19

19. ἐπιλαβόμενοί τε αὐτοῦ, and they took hold of him and, &c. There is no need to suppose that any violence was used or intended. The same verb is used often of taking by the hand to aid or protect (so Mark 8:23; Acts 23:19), and is the word by which the action of Barnabas is described (Acts 9:27) when ‘he took Paul and brought him to the Apostles.’ Moreover the whole context shews that the action of the crowd was in no sense that of an arrest, for we read (Acts 17:33) when his speech was done ‘Paul departed from among them,’ evidently having been under no kind of restraint.

ἐπὶ τὸν Ἄρειον πάγον ἤγαγον, they brought him unto the Areopagus. This was an eminence to the west of the Acropolis at Athens. It was famous in classic literature as the meeting-place of the Athenian council of Areopagus, which took its name from the place where it met. To this hill of Mars (Ares) the philosophers led St Paul, probably at a time when it was unoccupied (though some suppose that the court was sitting), that they might the better hear him away from the bustle of the market-place, and that he might more conveniently address a larger audience.

δυνάμεθα γνῶναι; may we know …? Literally ‘are we able to know …?’ But the literal sense of δύναμαι (especially when used in the first person) was often merged in that of θέλω or βούλομαι. Cf. Luke 11:7, οὐ δύναμαι ἀναστὰς δοῦναί σοι, ‘I cannot rise and give thee,’ where the sense clearly is ‘I don’t want to rise.’ For after importunity the man does rise and do all that is desired. The Stoics and Epicureans were not the people to doubt their own power of understanding anything which St Paul might say to them.

τίς ἡ καινὴλαλουμένη διδαχή, what this new doctrine is which is spoken by thee. The sense of λαλεῖν in N.T. is not unfrequently that of announcing and publishing. The word is also used of messages spoken by God or by His prophets (cf. Luke 1:45; Luke 1:55; Luke 1:70; Luke 24:25; Acts 3:21; Acts 3:24; James 5:10). The Apostle was not speaking to the Athenians about the doctrine (as A.V.), his words were the doctrine.

Verse 20

20. ξενίζοντα γάρ τινα, certain strange things. Literally ‘things striking us as strange.’ The word implies the effect produced on the minds of the hearers. In the middle voice the word occurs in 1 Peter 4:4; 1 Peter 4:12 = ‘to think anything strange.’ The active is found, as here, in 2 Maccabees 9:6, πολλαῖς καὶ ξενιζούσαις συμφοραῖς, ‘with many and strange torments.’

τίνα θέλει ταῦτα εἶναι, what these things mean, i.e. of what nature they are. Cf. above on Acts 17:18.

Verse 21

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

οἱ ἐπιδημοῦντες ξένοι, the strangers sojourning there. The place was famous and hunters after novelty came thither from every quarter.

ηὐκαίρουν. The verb signifies [1] to have a convenient time, and then uniquely here [2] to make leisure for, to give up time to any pursuit. The imperfect tense implies that this was their constant state of mind.

καινότερον. The comparative is noteworthy. The Athenians are by it represented as thirsting ever for something ‘newer still.’ What had been heard at once became stale. This character of the Athenian populace is confirmed by many statements of classical authors. In Thuc. III. 38 Cleon is represented as complaining of his countrymen that they were in the habit of playing the part of ‘spectators in displays of oratory, and listeners to the stories of what others had done’; and a like charge is made more than once by Demosthenes in his speeches on the vigorous policy of Philip of Macedon, which he contrasts with the Athenian love of talk and news.

Verse 22

22. ἐν μέσῳ τοῦ Ἀρείου πάγου, in the midst of the Areopagus. See above on Acts 17:19.

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

κατὰ πάντα ὡς δεισδαιμονεστέρους ὑμᾶς θεωρῶ, in all things I perceive that ye are somewhat superstitious. δεισιδαίμων has two senses: [1] superstitious, [2] religious. The Apostle intends the word in the former sense, but by the comparative he qualifies it in some degree. He implies a degree of blame which perhaps comes nearly to ‘more superstitious than you ought to be.’ His desire is not to offend at first by too stern an expression of blame, but by gently pointing out a fault to lead his hearers into a more excellent way. For a description of the δεισιδαίμων, which exactly answers to our ‘superstitious,’ see Theophrastus, Charact. c. XVII.

κατὰ πάντα means ‘in everything which he had noticed while wandering about their city.’

Verses 22-31


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

Verse 23

23. διερχόμενος γάρ, for as I passed along, through your streets and squares.

καὶ ἀναθεωρῶν τὰ σεβάσματα ὑμῶν, and noticed the objects of your worship, ἀναθεωρέω indicates a full observation. Paul had not only looked at the statues, but had read the inscriptions on them.

σέβασμα = an object of worship is found three times in the LXX. Wisdom of Solomon 14:20, τὸν πρὸ ὀλίγου τιμηθέντα ἄνθρωπον νῦν σέβασμα ἐλογίσαντο, ‘They took him now for an object of worship (A.V. a god) which a little before was honoured as a man.’ So Wisdom of Solomon 15:17 κρείττων γάρ ἐστι τῶν σεβασμάτων αὐτοῦ, ‘himself is better than the things which he worshippeth.’ Cf. also Bel 27.

εὖρον καὶ βωμόν, I found also an altar, i.e. in addition to the multitude of statues and altars to definite deities.

ἀγνώστῳ θεῷ, to an unknown god. This was an altar erected on the occasion of some visitation, the cause of which was not apparent, and which could not be ascribed to any of their existing divinities. We have abundant evidence of the existence in Athens of such altars as that to which St Paul alludes. But the words in which they are described generally run in the plural number, τοῖς ἀγνώστοις θεοῖς. Thus Pausanias (I. i. 4) describing one of the ports of Athens tells us that there were there ‘altars to gods styled unknown,’ and Philostratus in his Life of Apollonius says ‘at Athens there are erected altars for unknown gods.’ There is a like allusion in (pseudo) Lucian’s Philopatris, but it is doubtful whether that is not drawn from this passage of the Acts. And Jerome writing on Titus 1:12 says ‘The inscription on the altar was not, as Paul stated, “To the unknown God” but “To the unknown gods of Asia and Europe and Africa, to unknown and foreign gods.” But, because Paul required to speak of only one unknown God, he used the word in the singular.’ But it is better to suppose that St Paul saw what he says he saw; and as evidence that such an inscription was not improbable, we may quote the Latin inscription found on an altar at Ostia, now in the Vatican, representing a sacrificial group in connexion with the worship of Mithras, the Sun-god of the later Persian mythology (Orelli, Inscr. Gel. II. 5000), ‘Signum indeprehensibilis dei,’ which is a very near approach in Latin to what the Greek inscription to which the Apostle alludes would mean. The word ‘unknown’ must not be pressed into the sense of ‘unknowable’ because of what comes after. Paul says that ‘he is prepared to set forth to them that power which they were worshipping in ignorance.’ So though man by searching cannot find out God, yet he would desire to teach the Athenians, what he says elsewhere, that ‘the everlasting power and divinity of God may be clearly seen through the things that are made’ (Romans 1:20).

ὃ οὖν ἀγνοοῦντες εὐσεβεῖτε, what therefore ye worship in ignorance. This brings out the Apostle’s meaning. He does not intend to reflect on the nature of their worship. But they were offering it in ignorance. This ignorance he proposes to dispel. He accepts their religious character, takes hold on their confession of want of knowledge, and so makes way for his proposal to teach them. They have, he presumes, accepted what he offers, but have not understood all that it means. On this Chrysostom says: ὅρα πῶς δείκνυσι προειληφότας αὐτόν. οὐδὲν ξένον, φησὶ, οὐδὲν καινὸν εἰσφέρω.

τοῦτο ἐγὼ καταγγέλλω ὑμῖν, this set I forth unto you. In his verb the Apostle takes up their own word καταγγελεὺς of Acts 17:18, where they call him ‘a setter-forth of strange gods.’

Verse 24

24. ὁ θεὸς ὁ ποιήσας τὸν κόσμον, the God that made the world. He whom the Apostle set forth was no Epicurean divinity, dwelling apart and in constant repose. Nor was the world a thing of chance, as those philosophers taught, but the handiwork of God, and so were all things in it.

οὐρανοῦ καὶ γῆς ὑπάρχων κύριος, being Lord of heaven and earth, and having for this reason the supreme disposal of all things.

οὐκ ἐν χειροποιήτοις ναοῖς κατοικεῖ, dwelleth not in temples made with hands, of which Athens held some of the most renowned in the world. A special interest attaches to these words as being so like to those of Stephen (Acts 7:48). Paul has taken up the work of him whose martyrdom he formerly abetted.

Verse 25

25. οὐδὲ ὑπὸ χειρῶν ἀνθρωπίνων θεραπεύεται neither is served by men’s hands. θεραπεύειν implies the sort of service yielded by a steward to his master, or a minister to his king, a service in which the superior is not independent of his inferior, and could not well do without him. This is seen in the next clause. God is not like earthly masters and kings. He gives all, and men can only offer to Him themselves in return. Cf. Psalms 50, 51 for like teaching. See also Chrysostom on this verse, λέγων δέ, μὴ ὑπὸ χειρῶν ἀνθρώπων θεραπεύεσθαι τὸν θεόν, αἰνίττεται ὅτι διανοίᾳ καὶ νῷ θεραπεύεται.

ζωὴν καὶ πνοὴν καὶ τὰ πάντα, life and breath and all things. The Apostle in the paronomasia seems to be adapting his style somewhat to his audience. Such similarity of sound was thought to give elegance.

Verse 26

26. ἐποίησέν τε ἐξ ἑνὸς πᾶν ἔθνος ἀνθρώπων, and hath made of one every nation of men. Thus would he bring out most prominently the doctrine of the common Fatherhood of God. It is not merely that men are all of one family and so all equal in God’s eyes, and ought to be in the eyes of one another. When we read ‘they are made of One’ we are carried back to the higher thought of the prophet (Malachi 2:10), ‘Have we not all one Father?’ This was a philosophy not likely to be acceptable to the Athenians, among whom the distinction between Greeks and Barbarians was as radical as that which has grown up in America between white man and ‘nigger,’ or between Europeans and natives of India.

κατοικεῖν ἐπὶ παντὸς προσώπου τῆς γῆς, for to dwell on all the face of the earth. For His children the Father has provided a home.

ὁρίσας προστεταγμένους καιρούς, having determined their appointed seasons. The ‘seasons’ referred to are those which God has ordained for seed-time and harvest, summer and winter, day and night, which are fixed by His decree and make the earth a fitting abode for men.

καὶ τὰς ὁροθεσίας τῆς κατοικίας αὐτῶν, and the bounds of their habitation, i.e. where they can dwell and where they cannot; or, perhaps, where each nation and tribe should dwell.

Verse 27

27. ζητεῖν τὸν θεόν, that they should seek God. This was the lesson which God meant His creation and providence to teach. Men were to behold Him through His works.

εἰ ἄρα γε ψηλαφήσειαν αὐτὸν καὶ εὕροιεν, if haply they might feel after Him and find Him. The world was to be man’s lesson-book, open before all men. In it they could read everywhere of Almighty power and care and love. Thus stimulated, a desire to know more might grow; and by efforts, which the graphic word of the Apostle compares to the exertion of one groping in the dark, more knowledge would come, and at last the full discovery would be made. God would be found. He is the rewarder of them that diligently seek Him.

καί γε οὐ μακρὰν ἀπὸ ἑνὸς ἑκάστου ἡμῶν ὑπάρχοντα, though He be not far from every one of us. And so can reveal Himself according to the measure of the zeal shewn by those who seek Him.

Verse 28

28. ἐν αὐτῷ γὰρ ζῶμεν, for in Him we live, i.e. through or by Him. For ἐν in this sense, see below Acts 17:31.

All our existence is through His care. He must therefore be near unto each of us.

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

ὡς καί τινες τῶν καθ' ὑμᾶς ποιητῶν εἰρήκασιν, as certain of your own poets have said. The expression τῶν καθ' ὑμᾶς in place of the simpler pronoun is like νόμου τοῦ καθ' ὑμᾶς in Acts 18:15. Cf. also Acts 26:3. The words are found in Arâtus, Phaenomena, 5

τοῦ γὰρ καὶ γένος ἐσμέν, ὁ δ' ἤπιος ἀνθρώποισι

δεξιὰ σημαίνει.

They also occur in Cleanthes’ Hymn to Jupiter, 5. Arâtus was a native of Cilicia, and St Paul may in consequence be supposed to have known of his writings as of those of a fellow-countryman. By quoting from their own literature to the Athenians, St Paul illustrates his own declaration that in his labours ‘he became all things to all men.’ Such a quotation was also very well devised for arresting the attention of these cultivated hearers, and winning, it may be, some consideration for the speaker, as also being a man of culture.

τοῦ. Here the article has its original force, and is equivalent to a demonstrative pronoun. See Winer-Moulton, p. 129.

Verse 29

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

Verse 30

30. τοὺς μὲν οὖν χρόνους τῆς ἀγνοίας ὑπεριδὼν ὁ θεός, the times of ignorance therefore God overlooked but, &c., i.e. God has not imputed unto men the errors which they committed in ignorance. But now the case is changed. Men cannot plead ignorance who have heard of Christ. Cf. Luke 12:48.

For the sentiment cf. also Sirach 28:7, μνήσθητιδιαθήκην ὑψίστου καὶ πάριδε ἄγνοιαν, where the A.V. translates (as here) ‘wink at ignorance,’ meaning ‘pass over offences committed through it,’ and so imitate the Most High.

τὰ νῦν παραγγέλλει τοῖς ἀνθρώποις πάντας πανταχοῦ μετανοεῖν, now He commandeth men that they all everywhere should repent. ‘Repentance’ here means the amendment of the lives which they have been leading wrongly through ignorance.

Verse 31

31. καθότι ἔστησεν ἡμέραν κ.τ.λ., because He hath appointed a day, &c. The day of judgment had, in God’s foreknowledge, been long ago appointed. But through Christ the certainty has been made clear to men. Through a knowledge of Christ, who has been raised from the dead, men have learnt that there is to be a general resurrection. Christ is the firstfruits. But Christ has taught (Matthew 25:32) that after resurrection judgment shall come. By the resurrection of Jesus, God has given to men assurance that what Jesus taught is true. Therefore because He foretold and revealed to men the certainty of the judgment, they ought everywhere to repent, for all men shall be judged.

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

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

Verse 32

32. ἀνάστασιν νεκρῶν. See above on Acts 17:18.

οἱ μὲν ἐχλεύαζον, some mocked. So did some (Acts 2:13) on the day of Pentecost. But they were Jews. On Mars’ Hill the mockers were heathens. To the Epicurean this life was all, and the teaching of the Stoic, that all should finally be absorbed into the Godhead, forbade the belief that the dead should rise again. So of these men the Epicureans would most likely be the mockers; the Stoics might be expected to give more heed, and theirs perhaps would be the decision to hear the Apostle again. On this mockery Chrysostom writes: ὅρα αὐτὸν μείζους ἔχοντα πειρασμοὺς παρὰ Ἰουδαίοις ἢ παρ' Ἓλλησιν. ἐν γοῦν Ἀθήναις οὐδὲν πάσχει τοιοῦτον, ἀλλὰ μέχρι γέλετος τὸ πᾶν προυχώρησε, καὶ τοί γε ἒπεισεν. ἐν δὲ Ἰουδαίοις πολλὰ τὰ δεινὰ. οὕτως ἦσαν ἐκπεπολεμωμένοι μᾶλλον.

ἀκουσόμεθά σου καὶ πάλιν, we will hear thee yet again.

Verses 32-34


Verse 33

33. ἐξῆλθεν ἐκ μέσου αὐτῶν, he departed from among them. Clearly being free to go when he pleased, though it may surprise us that he did not remain longer with those who had promised him another hearing. On this Chrysostom says: τί δή ποτε πείσαντος οὕτως αὐτοῦ ὡς καὶ εἰπεῖν Ἀθηναίους, ἀκουσόμεθά σου πάλιν περὶ τούτου, καὶ κινδύνων οὐκ ὄντων ἐπείγεται τὰς Ἀθήνας ἀφεῖναι ὁ Παῦλος; ἴσως ᾔδει οὐ μέγα ὠνήσων, ἄλλως τε καὶ ὑπὸ τοῦ πνεύματος εἰς Κόρινθον ἤγετο. And presently afterwards he adds: οἱ γὰρ Ἀθηναῖοι καίτοι ξένης ὄντες ἀκροάσεως ἐρασταὶ ὅμες οὐ προσεῖχον. οὐ γὰρ τοῦτο ἐσπούδαζον ἀλλ' ὥστε ἀεί τι ἔχειν εἰπεῖν.

Verse 34

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


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Bibliography Information
"Commentary on Acts 17:4". "Cambridge Greek Testament for Schools and Colleges". 1896.

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