Acts 17:16-21

16 Now while Paul waited for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him when he saw that the city was given over to idols.

17 Therefore he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and with the Gentile worshipers, and in the marketplace daily with those who happened to be there.

18 Then certain Epicurean and Stoic philosophers encountered him. And some said, “What does this babbler want to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign gods,” because he preached to them Jesus and the resurrection.

19 And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this new doctrine is of which you speak?

20 For you are bringing some strange things to our ears. Therefore we want to know what these things mean.”

21 For all the Athenians and the foreigners who were there spent their time in nothing else but either to tell or to hear some new thing.

Paul remained alone at Athens for some time longer, for though he had sent word to Silas and Timothy to “come to him with all speed” (v.15), when Timothy did come to Athens bearing news of the sufferings of the Thessalonian believers, Paul could not bear to keep him but again “thought it good to be left at Athens alone” and sent him back to establish and encourage them in the faith (1 Thessalonians 3:1-5). Considering the distance between the Macedonian churches and Athens, Paul must have spent a considerable period of time at Athens and mostly alone, except as converts were won. Thus did he sacrifice himself for the good of those he had been forced to leave. Finally Timothy, with Silas, rejoined Paul at Corinth (Acts 18:5) bearing good news from Macedonia (1 Thessalonians 3:6-7). — Stam, page 91.

provoked (v.16) — from the same root as the noun for “sharp contention”

saw (v.16) — close observation

given over to idols (v.16) — Athens, as the center of art, philosophy and religion, was full of idols, temples, shrines and altars to all sorts of deities and even to ideas. The Athenians worshiped ideas as well as gods.

With all their vaunted wisdom, the Athenians could not even settle on a god! One worshiped this “deity” and another that. Most worshiped different gods on different occasions. So great was the confusion that Pliny says that in Nero’s time Athens contained over 3,000 public idols in addition to countless idols possessed by individuals. On every hand there were statues to gods and demigods. Practically every “deity” was represented including those “unknown.” Petronius says humorously that it was easier to find a god than a man in Athens, and our Scriptures states that the city was “crowded with idols.” — Stam, page 92.

reasoned (v.17) — repeatedly — using Socrates’ method of question and answer

Gentile worshipers (v.17) — Gentiles drawn to Judaism but not proselytes

marketplace (v.17) — The agora in Athens was filled with art works and lined with painted porticoes where philosophers lectured pupils.

Epicurean (v.18) — Epicurus was born in Samos in 342 B.C., and settled in Athens 35 years later as a teacher of philosophy. He taught that pleasure is the chief end of man, pleasure, i.e. not in the sense of the gratification of each desire as it arises, but in the sense of securing the greatest possible amount of happiness into life when all the interests concerned have been taken into account. He regarded the gods as living a life of calm felicity, far removed from earthly turmoil and disassociated  from all interference with mundane things. He gathered his disciples together in a famous garden for instruction. The Epicureans did not believe in the immortality of the soul; to them man’s existence ceases with death. They were the materialists and utilitarians of Greek philosophy.

Stoic (v.18) — The other great philosophy then prevalent in Athens. The Stoics were followers of Zeno, a native of Cyprus, who flourished about 278 B.C. They were so called because he taught in a painted “Stoa” (portico). The practice of virtue for its own sake was his favorite doctrine, and the great end of existence was considered to be the attainment of a state of mind which is not disturbed by either good or evil, pleasure or pain. He taught the need of mortifying the senses to this end. The Stoics, unlike the Epicureans, were strong believers in a spiritual universe, but were practically pantheists, holding the all-pervasiveness of the divine essence and the final absorption of human spirits into the divine. Their system was also strongly tinged with fatalism. Stoicism was really oriental in origin and represented the contact of eastern influences and doctrines with the world of western classic thought. Zeno himself appears to have sprung from as Asiatic stock. Tarsus, Paul’s birthplace, was a famous center of Stoic teaching. — Walker, pages 373-374.

babbler (v.18) = seed-picker — one who forages (like a bird hunting for seed) for bits of knowledge and imparts them to others with a pretension of intellect

foreign gods (v.18) = lit. “demons.” The word occurs 60 times in the New Testament and is always translated devils except here. It is significant in this connection that demons were behind their idol worship, and that angel spirits are called gods in Scripture because, like the rules of this world, they are supposed to represent God (Psalm 82:1, 6; 86:8; 95:3; 96:4-5; 97:7, 9 etc.) — Stam, page 97


resurrection (v.18) — Since the word “resurrection” is feminine in Greek, they possibly regarded it as the name of a goddess, especially as they were wont themselves to erect statues to Piety, Modesty, and other personified and deified attributes. If so, Paul seemed to them to be preaching about two alien deities, the one “Jesus” and the other “Resurrection.”

Areopagus (v.19) — Standing near the agora, and a little west of the famous Acropolis, was a hill called “Mars’ Hill” (the literal translation of Areopagus), so named from the legend of the trial of the god Mars supposed to have taken place there. Its brow was crowned with a temple erected to that deity. It was approached by a flight of 16 steps. It has been generally supposed that the Athenian philosophers led Paul to this hill as a quiet spot, in order to give him a special hearing. An objection to this view lies in the fact that it was not a convenient place for the gathering of any very considerable audience. The name “Areopagus,” moreover, belonged not to the hill only but to a famous council which was wont to meet there, the members sitting in the open air on stone benches cut out of the solid rock. They were all, at least originally, men who had filled important magisterial offices, being upwards of 60 years of age. Their decisions, alike in matters of state and questions of religion, were regarded with superstitious reverence. Even under the Romans, they retained a good deal of authority and constituted the most august body in the whole of Attica. From the time of Chrysostom at least, it has been suggested that Paul was dragged before this court to stand a sort of trial. While the context does not favor formal judicial proceedings, we may perhaps understand that he was required, as a strange lecturer, to give an account of his doctrine before the court and pass a test as to its character. Paul, so far from acting on the defensive before the famous council, seized the opportunity for setting forth the facts of Christianity before the most learned and aristocratic company which the western world contained. — Walker, pages 375-376.

spent their time (v.21) — repeatedly — “had leisure for”

some new thing (v.21) — the latest intellectual fad

This entry was posted in Acts. Bookmark the permalink.