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Bible Commentaries

John Dummelow's Commentary on the Bible

Acts 17

 

 

Verses 1-34


Second Missionary Journey (continued)

1-15. Thessalonica and Berœa.

1. Amphipolis] 32 m. W. of Philippi.

Apollonia] 30 m. W. of Amphipolis.

Thessalonica] now Salonika, was the capital of the province of Macedonia, and an important commercial centre. St. Paul's plan was first to evangelise the seats of government and the trade centres, knowing that if Christianity was once established in these places it would spread through the Empire.

3. Christ] RV 'the Christ,' i.e. the Messiah.

4. Devout Greeks] Not necessarily proselytes, but persons who had given up idolatry, attended the synagogue services, and worshipped the God of the Jews.

5. Lewd fellows] lit. 'certain evil men of the idlers in the marketplace.' Jason] probably identical with the Jason of Romans 16:21, and therefore a Jew. His correct name was probably Jesus or Joshua.

6. The rulers] The Gk. word used here (politarchai, a rare and peculiar one) is proved to be correct by an inscription on an arch, which also contains the names Sosipater, Gaius, and Secundus.

9. Taken security] The immediate departure of Paul and Silas renders it probable that Jason gave security that St. Paul would leave the city, and that the Apostle assented to this undertaking, and was thus prevented from revisiting the Thessalonians: see 1 Thessalonians 2:18.

The Epistles to the Thessalonians, who are represented as mainly a Gentile Church (1 Thessalonians 1:9; 1 Thessalonians 2:14), imply a much longer residence at Thessalonica than three weeks. Acts 17:2, therefore, must be understood to mean that he worked for three weeks among the Jews, and afterwards turned to the Gentiles, among whom he laboured for three or four months.

10. Berea (Berœa)] a Macedonian town of some importance, 50 m. SW. of Thessalonica. To this 'out of the way' place (Cicero) St. Paul retreated, probably for rest and quiet.

14. As it were to the sea] i.e. they pretended to go to the sea (to elude pursuit), and then turned off and went by land to Athens. Others translate simply 'to the sea,' and suppose that St. Paul embarked at Dium and went by sea to Athens.

15. Unto Athens] D adds: 'But he passed by (i.e. did not preach in) Thessaly, for he was prevented from preaching the word to them.' It appears from 1 Thessalonians 3:1 that Timothy and Silas did actually join St. Paul at Athens according to his instructions, but the Apostle being filled with anxiety about the state of the Macedonian Churches which he had just founded, sent them back again to confirm them, and to bring him accurate tidings concerning them. Timothy was sent to Thessalonica, Silas (apparently) to Philippi, so that St. Paul was left alone in Athens. On returning from their mission, Timothy and Silas found that St. Paul had gone on to Corinth, and there they rejoined him (Acts 18:5).

16-34. Athens.

After leaving Berœa, St. Paul entered the Roman province of Achaia, which was at this time a senatorian province, governed by a proconsul, and of which the capital was Corinth. He first visited Athens. Athens, though fallen from its former glory, was still the artistic and philosophic, and, in many ways, the religious, capital of the world. The city was full of temples and altars, and the people so devoted to religious ceremonies and mysteries that they merited the title (whether in a good or bad sense) of 'superstitious' (Acts 17:22). Athens, on account of its illustrious history, was held in honour by the Romans. It was allowed to retain its ancient institutions, but the democracy had long lost all real power, and the affairs of the city were administered by the aristocratic court of the Areopagus (Acts 17:19). Athens was famed for its university, the most renowned in the world, at which a iarge number of students from all parts of the empire were always in residence. As the original home of philosophy, Athens was the headquarters of all the chief philosophic schools. Among its sacred spots were the Academy of Plato, the Lyceum of Aristotle, the Porch of Zeno, and the Garden of Epicurus. The only two philosophies, however, which at this time exercised an important influence upon politics and social life, were Stoicism and Epicureanism, which, for this reason, are singled out by St. Luke for especial mention.

16. Wholly given to idolatry] Xenophon calls Athens 'one altar, one sacrifice and offering to the gods.' St. Paul, as a Jew, would have no sympathy with the artistic beauty of the Athenian statues and temples, but only horror at the superstition which they represented.

17. In the market daily] So Socrates used to sit every day and all day in the market-place of Athens, discussing philosophy with all comers. The market-place, or agora, of Athens afforded a glorious architectural spectacle. 'Here the eye fell on portico after portico, painted by the brush of famous artists, and adorned with the noblest statues. But St. Paul would not have admired these so much as the tower and water-clock of Andronicus, telling out to him the hours of his solitary waiting. This still stands today. The Agora was dominated on its S. side by the abrupt bill of Mars, and the still more impressive heights of the Acropolis. In the Stoa Pcecile he met with the successors of Zeno, the Stoics with whom, as with the Epicureans, he, like a second Socrates, disputed daily' (F. chapter Conybeare).

18. Epicureans and Stoics. At this time Stoicism was the philosophy of the majority of serious-minded people, Epicureanism that of the frivolous and irreligious. The Stoics, so called from the Porch (Stoa Pœcile) at Athens, in which their founder, Zeno of Citium, lectured (about 278 b.c.), had many points of contact with Judaism, especially with Pharisaism. Josephus speaks of the tenets of the Stoics and of the Pharisees as being very similar. The spirit of both was somewhat narrow and austere. Both rejected compromise, believing that a man should suffer persecution and even death rather than depart in the least degree from the path of piety and virtue. Both were devoted to Law, the Pharisees to the Law of Moses, the Stoics to the Law of Nature, which they regarded as an actual code imposed on mankind by the Creator. The Stoics were strong fatalists, denying the freedom of the will; the Pharisees were strong predestinarians. Both believed in Providence, or the rational ordering of the world by an intelligent being, a doctrine denied by the Epicureans. The Pharisees were monotheists; the Stoics approximated to monotheism. They believed in a Divine Reason, or Logos, pervading all things and ordering all things, though (being Pantheists) they regarded it as the soul of the world, rather than as a distinct and transcendent personal Being. They also believed in a future life for man, though not in actual immortality. St. Paul, therefore, decidedly sympathised with the Stoics as against the Epicureans, whose doctrine that the end of life is pleasure, was, of course, highly distasteful to him. Epicureanism was reprobated both by Jews and by serious pagans. Josephus says: 'The Epicureans cast providence out of life, and deny that God takes care of human affairs, and hold that the universe is not directed with a view to the continuance of the whole by the blessed and incorruptible Being, but that it is carried along automatically and heedlessly.'

18. Babbler] lit. 'a picker up of seeds' (like a bird); hence a shallow talker who picks up scraps of information, and retails them at secondhand. And the resurrection] better, and Anastasis.' The Athenians, either in jest or in earnest, seem to have understood Anastasis (the Resurrection) to be a female deity, the wife of Jesus.

19. And they took him, etc.] Some translate, 'And they arrested him and brought him before the court of the Areopagus.' But there is no indication in St. Paul's speech that he was on his trial, or that any judgment was passed upon him (Acts 17:32). We prefer, therefore, the rendering, 'And they took him by the hand, and brought him to the Hill of Ares' (Mars' Hill). The Hill of Ares, or Areopagus, is an eminence situated nearly due W. of the Acropolis. Here, from early times, the Court of the Areopagus met in the open air. The court was not sitting, so that the place was available for a quiet lecture and discussion.

22-32. Paul's speech. It is discreet and to the point. It deals not with the OT., with which his hearers were unacquainted, but with the truths of natural religion, many of which were understood (though only partially) by the Athenian philosophers (cp. the speech at Lystra, Acts 14:15.).

22. Too superstitious] rather, 'more religious' (than other men). Both senses are possible, but the tactful apostle would be more likely to begin his speech with a compliment than with a reproach.

23. Your devotions] RV 'the objects of your worship.'

TO THE UNKNOWN GOD] RV 'To an unknown God.' Several ancient writers mention such altars. Pausanias speaks of 'altars of known (lit. 'named') and unknown gods and heroes.' Philostratus says, 'It is more prudent to speak well of all gods, especially at Athens, where altars are erected even to unknown gods.' At Athens during a plague Epimenides let loose at the Areopagus black and white sheep, and commanded the Athenians to sacrifice 'to the proper god,' wherever the sheep lay down. Often 'the proper god' could not be clearly ascertained, and so an altar was raised to an unknown god. The inscription (as St. Paul probably knew) had a purely pagan meaning; but the phrase was a fine one; it was capable of a higher sense, and in this higher sense St. Paul made it the text of his sermon.

24. Creation was altogether denied by the Epicureans, who regarded the atoms of matter as eternal; and only imperfectly recognised by the Stoics, who were pantheists, and did not regard the Divine Person which shaped the world as distinct from it. The doctrine of creation, as preached by St. Paul, was consequently a strange one at Athens.

26. The Apostle rebukes the narrow pride of the Greeks, who divided mankind into Greeks and barbarians, the latter being of no account. The Stoics, who believed in the spiritual equality of all men, would have agreed with St. Paul in this.

28. A quotation from the 'Phænomena' of Aratus, a Cilician poet. Almost the same words occur in the 'Hymn to Zeus' of Cleanthes. Both these poets were Stoics. St. Paul quotes the Gk. poets again, 1 Corinthians 15:33 and Titus 1:12 but it is not safe to assume that he had any wide acquaintance with Greek classical literature. His Pharisaic training would have made him indisposed to devote serious study to profane literature.

29. The argument probably is: Since we are the offspring of God, in that our souls are immaterial and immortal, we ought to regard the author of our souls as an immaterial and immortal spirit, and not like silver or gold or any material object. The Stoics would have sympathised with this sentiment. Seneca says, 'Thou shalt not form God of silver and gold, a true likeness of Him cannot be moulded of this material.'. 'God is near thee, He is with thee, He is within.'

30. Times of this ignorance] cp. Acts 14:16. Repent] i.e. turn from idolatry. Idolatry was pardonable in the times of ignorance, but now that the True Light has appeared, it is a heinous sin.

31. St. Paul was accustomed, in preaching to the heathen, to lead up to the idea of a judgment to come (Acts 24:25). Hath given assurance] viz. that He will be the Judge. The Resurrection of Jesus is the evidence that He will be the future Judge of the world.

34. Dionysius the Aredpagite] i.e. a member of the Court of Areopagus. As all members of the Areopagus had passed through the office of Archon, Dionysius must have been of high social position. Tradition makes him bishop of Athens, and a martyr. The work 'On the heavenly hierarchy' attributed to him is spurious.

According to this passage Dionysius and Damaris were the first converts made in Achaia (Greece), but, according to 1 Corinthians 16:15, 1 Corinthians 16:17, a Corinthian named Stephanas, who must have been converted later. The explanation probably is that St. Paul regards Athens as a free and independent city, not as part of the Roman province of Achaia.

 


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Bibliography Information
Dummelow, John. "Commentary on Acts 17:4". "John Dummelow's Commentary on the Bible". http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/dcb/acts-17.html. 1909.

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