From Philippi, Paul, Silas and Timothy traveled southward, passing through the cities of Amphipolis and Apollonia. Amphipolis was situated on a hill by the river Strymon and about 30 miles (c. 50 kilometers) southwest of Philippi. Roughly about the same distance to the southwest of Amphipolis lay Apollonia. Paul and his companions do not appear to have done any preaching in these two cities. They traveled over 35 miles (less than 60 kilometers) to the west, arriving at Thessalonica, in which city the Jews had a synagogue. (17:1; see http://bibleplaces.com/amphipolis.htm and http://bibleplaces.com/thessalonica.htm for pictures of and comments about Amphipolis and Thessalonica.)
As was Paul’s usual custom on the Sabbath, he entered the synagogue. For three Sabbaths he discussed the Scriptures with those who had assembled, “explaining and establishing that Christ had to suffer and to rise from the dead.” Based on the quotations that are found elsewhere in the book of Acts (2:25-28, 34, 35; 8:32-35; 13:33-37), he likely referred to the words of Psalm 2:7; 16:8-11 [15:8-11, LXX]; 110:1 [109:1, LXX], and Isaiah 53:2-12. Based on the holy writings, Paul then identified Jesus as the foretold Messiah or Christ concerning whom he had been speaking to them. (17:2, 3)
Some of the Jews who had listened to Paul were convinced on the basis of the evidence he presented from their holy writings, and they cast in their lot with him and Silas. Many of the Greeks (Hellenists) or non-Jewish God-fearers who assembled with the Jews in the synagogue also became believers. Additionally, “not a few of the prominent women” accepted the good news about Jesus Christ. (17:4; see the Notes section.)
The Jews who refused to believe became “jealous.” Apparently this was because they saw many non-Jews accepting the message that Paul proclaimed. Therefore, contrary to what these Jews would have wanted, the believing non-Jews did not choose to become Jewish proselytes. The jealous Jews became hostile and got some ruffians from among the idlers who were standing or sitting around in the marketplace or public square to join them in stirring up the populace to take mob action against Paul and Silas. Thinking that Paul and Silas would be there, the mob headed for Jason’s house. The intent of the mob was to seize Paul and Silas and to bring them out “to the people,” probably meaning an assembly of citizens for handling public affairs. They forced themselves into Jason’s house. (17:5) Not finding Paul and Silas, “they dragged Jason and some brothers” (believers) out of the house and took them to the city officials (politarchs). An inscription from the second century CE that was found at Thessalonica (Salonika), along with other officials, mentions six “politarchs.” The politarchs functioned as an administrative council in the city. (17:6)
Before the city officials, the mob shouted, “The [men who] have upset the world are now here, whom Jason has taken in. And all of them act in opposition to the decrees of Caesar, claiming someone else, Jesus, to be king.” With this lying fabrication, the mob represented Paul and Silas and other believers as extreme troublemakers who had no regard for law and order and were guilty of sedition by advocating Jesus Christ as a rival king. (17:6, 7) When the crowd and the city officials heard the baseless accusations, they were incited against the believers. To be released, Jason and the other believers had to provide “sufficient security” or post the required bond or bail. It may be that the city officials required Paul and Silas to leave Thessalonica, and that security was taken to assure this condition would be met. (17:8, 9)
Recognizing the danger, the “brothers” (believers) acted without delay. “Immediately by night” and so under the cover of darkness, they sent Paul and Silas to Beroea, a city situated about 40 miles (c. 65 kilometers) southwest of Thessalonica. As apparent from verse 14, Timothy left Thessalonica with Paul and Silas. (17:10)
Evidently on the first Sabbath upon arriving at Beroea, Paul, Silas and Timothy went to the synagogue. (17:10) In disposition, the Jews of Beroea proved to be of a nobler or more favorable disposition than those in Thessalonica. They responded with great readiness to the message about the Lord Jesus Christ. Daily, they checked the sacred writings to see “whether these things were so,” that is, the things being told to them about Jesus. (17:11)
Based on what they heard and their personal examination of the holy writings, many of the Jews became believers. Also among those who embraced the good news about Jesus Christ were “not a few of the prominent [euschemosýne] Greek women and also men. The Greek designation euschemosýne describes a person who enjoys a high standing or a good reputation or who is prominent or noble. According to Codex Bezae (Cantabrigiensis), among the numerous Greeks who became believers were prominent men and women. (17:12)
When hostile Jews in Thessalonica came to know that Paul was proclaiming “the word of God” (the message that focused on the Lord Jesus Christ) also in Beroea, they decided to go there. Upon their arrival, they incited the “crowds,” stirring up the populace of Beroea against Paul. (17:13) The “brothers” (fellow believers) sent Paul off, escorting him as far as the sea, but Silas and Timothy stayed in Beroea. (17:14) The fellow believers who had accompanied Paul from Beroea continued with him all the way to Athens and then returned to Beroea after receiving instructions from Paul to tell Silas and Timothy to join him as quickly as possible. (17:15; see the Notes section.)
This condensed version of developments is somewhat obscure, and it is difficult to determine the exact sequence of events here and in relation to Paul’s letters. Possibly Athens was the intended destination, but Paul and the believers who accompanied him (likely out of concern for his safety) may not have known whether at that particular time they would be able to obtain passage on a ship to Athens. Transportation by sea would have been preferable, for an overland route from Beroea to Athens would have required walking more than 200 miles (well over 300 kilometers). Whether the journey was made by sea or overland, however, cannot be ascertained from the way the account reads in the majority of manuscripts. After the believers who escorted Paul returned to Beroea, Silas and Timothy may then have left for Athens to join Paul. Concerned about what fellow believers in Thessalonica were facing on account of the hostile Jews who had stirred up trouble there and in Beroea, he may then have decided to send Timothy to Thessalonica and Silas to another city in Macedonia. (1 Thessalonians 3:1-3) Then, after Paul left Athens and had begun to proclaim the good news about Jesus Christ in Corinth, Silas and Timothy arrived from Macedonia. (17:14, 15; 18:5)
While waiting for Timothy and Silas to join him, Paul noticed the many images in the city. The beautifully fashioned representations of the various deities did not arouse in him feelings of admiration for the exceptional artistic skill of the artisans. Recognizing the idols as representations of non-existent gods and goddesses, Paul experienced a disturbing upheaval within himself. “In his spirit” or disposition, he became deeply troubled or irritated. (17:16; see http://bibleplaces.com/athens.htm and http://bibleplaces.com/athensacropolis.htm for information about and pictures of Athens. )
In the synagogue on the Sabbath, he spoke to Jews and God-fearers there, sharing with them the message about the Lord Jesus Christ. At other times, from day to day, he conversed with individuals whom he found in the marketplace. (17:17)
It was there that some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers started to debate with him. Certain ones mocked him, saying, “What is this scrapmonger [spermológos] trying to say?” The Greek expression spermológos literally means “seed picker,” and so these ridiculers were describing Paul as someone who picked up scraps of information from various places and then repeated them in an unsophisticated manner. (17:18; see the Notes section.)
Others expressed the thought that he seemed to be the proclaimer of foreign “divinities” (daimónion). They drew this erroneous conclusion because Paul declared the good news about “Jesus and the resurrection [anástasis].” They appear to have assumed that Jesus was a divinity and Anástasis a female divinity. The Greek word daimónion can designate a “demon” or evil spirit but is not limited to this meaning. In many contexts, the term applies to a divinity or a semi-divine being between humans and gods and goddesses. (17:18)
Paul was taken to the Areopagus. If the Greek preposition epí here has the significance of “on,” then the reference would be to the rocky hill known as the Areopagus (Ares’ [Mars’] Hill) to the northwest of the Athenian Acropolis, where the impressive temples were located. Originally, on the Areopagus, the governing council of the independent city state of Athens had its seat, and the council also came to be known as the Areopagus. Under Roman rule, the governing authority of the council came to be limited, and it is commonly believed that the council met in a building located in the marketplace of the city. Religious matters came under the authority of this council. Since the context does not restrict the meaning of the preposition epí to “on,” one cannot determine whether Paul was led before the council or to the hill. Whatever may have been the case, he was given the opportunity to explain what the Athenian philosophers perceived as “new teaching,” meaning “strange” or “foreign” teaching. (17:19; see the Notes section.) In their view, some of the things he said sounded strange to them, and they wanted to know what his teaching was all about. The manner in which they expressed themselves suggests that they had serious reservations about the message Paul was proclaiming. (17:20)
Nevertheless, they were curious, and curiosity was a typical Athenian trait. Athenians and foreign residents in the city would customarily spend time in relating or listening to something new. (17:21) Centuries earlier, the people of Athens were already known for their undue interest in things novel. The Greek historian Thucydides (fifth century BCE), in his History of the Peloponnesian War (III, xxxviii, 5), quoted Cleon as saying that the Athenians were easily victimized by “newfangled arguments” (“novelty of speech”). In the fourth century BCE, the Athenian orator and statesman Demosthenes censured his fellow Athenians for their idle curiosity. “There is nothing, men of Athens, more vexing at the present time than the way in which you detach your thoughts from affairs, and display an interest only so long as you sit here listening, or when some fresh item of news arrives; after that, each man goes home, and not only pays no attention to public business, but does not even recall it to mind.” (Fourth Philippic, section 1) On another occasion, he referred to “rumor-mongers” or “fabricators of tales” (logopoioúntes) in Athens as the worst of “all fools.” (First Philippic, section 49)
Standing in the “midst of the Areopagus,” Paul is quoted as using a form of the expression deisidaímon when telling the “men of Athens” what he had observed “in all things” (“in every respect” [NAB]; “in every way” [NRSV]; “in everything” [REB]) about them. As a comparative compound word, deisidaímon literally can signify “more demon revering,” but with the designation “demon” having the meaning of “deity” or “divinity.” In a bad sense, the term could mean “superstitious.” In this context, however, Paul seemingly described the Athenians as having notable reverence for deities. Similarly, the first-century Jewish historian Josephus (Against Apion, II, 12) referred to the Athenians as the “most pious” or devout (eusebés) of the Greeks. (17:22)
Paul backed up his conclusion about the people of Athens by calling attention to his having found among their objects of veneration an altar on which the words agnósto theó (“to an unknown God”) had been inscribed. The Greek expression consisting of just two words may not necessarily have been the entire inscription. Ancient Greek writers confirm the existence of altars in Athens that are associated with the words “unknown” and “gods” or “divinities.” Philostratus, in Life of Apollonius of Tyana (VI, 3), wrote, “It is a much greater proof of wisdom and sobriety to speak well of the gods, especially at Athens, where altars are set up in honor even of unknown gods.” In the Description of Greece (I, i, 4), Pausanias stated, “The Athenians have also another harbor, at Munychia, with a temple of Artemis of Munychia, and yet another at Phalerum, as I have already stated, and near it is a sanctuary of Demeter. Here there is also a temple of Athena Sciras, and one of Zeus some distance away, and altars of the gods named Unknown.” (17:23)
The expression “unknown god” implied that a god other than those known in Athens did exist. On this basis, Paul introduced this “unknown god” whom the Athenians unknowingly were venerating as the God whom he was announcing to them. (17:23)
The apostle identified God as the one who “made the world and everything in it.” As the Creator of everything, he is the “Lord of heaven and earth” and “does not dwell in handmade sanctuaries.” (17:24; see the Notes section.) As the Lord or Owner of everything, he does not need anyone to attend to him or to give him anything, but he is the one who gives “to all life and breath and everything.” In this way, Paul revealed the true God to be the source and sustainer of all life. (17:25)
“Out of one,” that is, one man, one stock or, according to another manuscript reading, “one blood,” God made “every nation of men.” By implication, therefore, Paul indicated that all humans share a common link to the Creator. Moreover, God purposed for humans to reside on “all the face of the earth” or on the vast areas of land. He determined beforehand “the times and the limits of the dwelling” of the human race. The “times” could refer to the seasons, with the respective cycles of growth and harvest, summer and winter, heat and cold. (Genesis 1:14; 8:22; Psalm 74:17) Geographical features, including mountains, oceans, seas, lakes, streams and rivers, determine where humans are able to live, and these natural boundaries may be the divinely set limits. A number of translations represent the words to mean that God fixed the “times” or epochs of nations and the boundaries of the land area they would occupy. “He made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live.” (NRSV) “He determined their eras in history and the limits of their territory.” (REB) It appears more likely, however, that the Athenians would have understood the reference to “times” and “boundaries” as applying to seasons (as in 14:17) and to the natural boundaries that govern human habitation. (17:26)
Because God is the Creator who sustains life and who has fixed the seasons and provided land areas suitable for human habitation, he is the one whom people everywhere should seek, wanting an approved relationship with him. The act of “groping for him” suggests that, although humans may not know God, they have an internal sense that he exists. The “groping” is an attempt to find him, with the possibility of actually doing so. To indicate that God can be found, Paul added that he is “indeed not far away from any one of us.” (17:27)
This is the case, as Paul went on to explain, because “in him [God], we live and move and exist, as also some of your poets have said, ‘For we also are his offspring.’” This appears to be a quotation from the Stoic poet Aratus (third century BCE) with reference to Zeus (toú gár kaí génos eimén). With the exception of a different form of the verb for “we are” (eimén in Phaenomena 5 but esmén in Acts), the wording is identical. (17:28)
On the basis that humans are God’s offspring, Paul reasoned that those whom he addressed should not think that God is like a representation of gold, silver or stone that an artisan might fashion. (17:29) Such a view of God reflects “times of ignorance” that he formerly overlooked, but he is now telling “men” or people everywhere to repent. The time had come for people to turn from their idolatrous practices to the true God, repenting of their former ways of worship and making a complete break from the past. (17:30)
Stressing the need for positive action, Paul called attention to a future time of judgment. God set a day for judging earth’s inhabitants “in righteousness” or according to a flawless standard of justice. To do the judging, God has appointed a “man.” Regarding this divinely appointed one, Paul is quoted as using the words pístin paraschón, literally meaning “faith having furnished.” The expression “faith having furnished” apparently signifies “having provided a basis for faith.” It was by raising the designated “man” from the dead that God assured that there would be a coming judgment. The resurrection of the “man” who would function as judge guaranteed that humans would likewise be raised from the dead and so, as resurrected persons, could then be judged. (17:31; see the Notes section.)
When hearing about the resurrection, certain ones scoffed. Among them doubtless were the Epicurean philosophers. Others appear to have been open to hearing more about the subject, saying, “We will hear you again concerning this.” (17:32; see the Notes section.)
Paul departed from the midst of Athenians whom he had addressed. Whether he had actually been able to complete his remarks or whether the outbreak of mockery did not permit him to finish cannot be determined from the account. Some men did join Paul, having become believers. Among them was “Dionysius the Areopagite,” a member of the Athenian council. Besides other believers, there was a woman named Damaris, doubtless a prominent woman and not necessarily a native Athenian. One Greek manuscript describes her as tímia, which could signify “respected,” “highly regarded,” “esteemed,” or “honored.” (17:33, 34)
In verse 4, a number of manuscripts add kaí (“and”) before “Greeks,” which would indicate that besides God-fearing non-Jews, Greeks who previously had not worshiped the true God became believers.
According to the expanded text of verse 15 in Codex Bezae (Cantabrigiensis), Paul and the believers who escorted him seem to be represented as taking an overland route. This manuscript says that “he passed by Thessaly” (the region to the south of Macedonia) on account of not having been permitted to proclaim the “word” to them.
Based on writings from the first century BCE, one can get some idea of the kind of reasoning Paul encountered when speaking to the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers. (Verse 18) It is likely that the Epicurean philosophers were the ones who ridiculed him. This appears to be evident from an example of the argumentation of an Epicurean found in Cicero’s On the Nature of the Gods (Book I, ix, x). “What reason, again, was there why god should be desirous of decking the world, like an ædile, with figures and lights? If he did so in order that he himself might be better lodged, it is clear that for an infinite amount of time previously he had been living in all the darkness of a hovel. And do we regard him as afterwards deriving pleasure from the diversity with which we see heaven and earth adorned? What delight can that be to god? And if it were a delight, he would not have been able to go without it for so long. Or was this universe, as your school is accustomed to assert, established by god for the sake of men? Does that mean for the sake of wise men? In that case it was on behalf of but a small number that so vast a work was constructed. Or was it for the sake of the foolish? In the first place there was no reason why god should do a kindness to the bad, and in the second place what did he effect, seeing that the lot of all the foolish is undoubtedly a most miserable one? The chief reason for this is the fact that they are foolish, for what can we name as being more miserable than folly? and the second is the fact that there are so many ills in life that, while the wise alleviate them by a balance of good, the foolish can neither avoid their approach nor endure their presence.
“As for those who declared that the world itself was animate and wise, they were far from understanding to what kind of figure it is possible for the quality of rational intelligence to belong, a point on which I will myself speak a little later. For the present I will not go farther than to express my astonishment at the dulness of those who represent an animate being, that is immortal and also blessed, as round, because Plato says that there is no shape more beautiful than that. Yet I find more beauty in the shape either of a cylinder, a square, a cone, or a pyramid. And what kind of life is assigned to this round divinity? Why, a kind which consists in his being whirled along at a rate of speed, the like of which cannot even be conceived, and in which I do not see where a foothold can be found for a steadfast mind and blessed life. Why, again, should not that be considered painful in the case of god, which would be painful if it were evidenced to the slightest extent in our own bodies? For the earth, since it is a part of the world, is also of course a part of god. But we see vast tracts of the earth uninhabitable and uncultivated, some through being parched by the beating of the sun’s rays, and others through being bound with snow and frost owing to the distance to which the sun withdraws from them; and these, if the world is god, must, since they are parts of the world, be respectively described as glowing and frozen members of god!” (Translated by Francis Brooks)
The Stoic philosophers likely would not have been the ones who ridiculed Paul. The following is an example of how the Stoics reasoned. (Cicero’s On the Nature of the Gods [Book II, xxx, xxxi]): “I assert, then, that the universe, with all its parts, was originally constituted, and has, without any cessation, been ever governed by the providence of the gods. This argument we Stoics commonly divide into three parts; the first of which is, that the existence of the gods being once known, it must follow that the world is governed by their wisdom; the second, that as everything is under the direction of an intelligent nature, which has produced that beautiful order in the world, it is evident that it is formed from animating principles; the third is deduced from those glorious works which we behold in the heavens and the earth.
“First, then, we must either deny the existence of the gods (as Democritus and Epicurus by their doctrine of images in some sort do), or, if we acknowledge that there are gods, we must believe they are employed, and that, too, in something excellent. Now, nothing is so excellent as the administration of the universe. The universe, therefore, is governed by the wisdom of the gods. Otherwise, we must imagine that there is some cause superior to the deity, whether it be a nature inanimate, or a necessity agitated by a mighty force, that produces those beautiful works which we behold. The nature of the gods would then be neither supreme nor excellent, if you subject it to that necessity or to that nature, by which you would make the heaven, the earth, and the seas to be governed. But there is nothing superior to the deity; the world, therefore, must be governed by him: consequently, the deity is under no obedience or subjection to nature, but does himself rule over all nature. In effect, if we allow the gods have understanding, we allow also their providence, which regards the most important things; for, can they be ignorant of those important things, and how they are to be conducted and preserved, or do they want power to sustain and direct them? Ignorance is inconsistent with the nature of the gods, and imbecility is repugnant to their majesty. From whence it follows, as we assert, that the world is governed by the providence of the gods.
“But supposing, which is incontestable, that there are gods, they must be animated, and not only animated, but endowed with reason — united, as we may say, in a civil agreement and society, and governing together one universe, as a republic or city. Thus the same reason, the same verity, the same law, which ordains good and prohibits evil, exists in the gods as it does in men. From them, consequently, we have prudence and understanding, for which reason our ancestors erected temples to the Mind, Faith, Virtue, and Concord. Shall we not then allow the gods to have these perfections, since we worship the sacred and august images of them? But if understanding, faith, virtue, and concord reside in humankind, how could they come on earth, unless from heaven? And if we are possessed of wisdom, reason, and prudence, the gods must have the same qualities in a greater degree; and not only have them, but employ them in the best and greatest works. The universe is the best and greatest work; therefore it must be governed by the wisdom and providence of the gods.
“Lastly, as we have sufficiently shown that those glorious and luminous bodies which we behold are deities — I mean the sun, the moon, the fixed and wandering stars, the firmament, and the world itself, and those other things also which have any singular virtue, and are of any great utility to humankind — it follows that all things are governed by providence and a divine mind.” (Translated by C. D. Yonge)
In verse 19, Codex Bezae (Cantabrigiensis) indicates that they took hold of him “after some days” and refers to them as “inquiring and saying” upon bringing him to the Areopagus.
While Epicurean philosophers would not have agreed with Paul’s reference to God as the Creator (in verse 24), other Athenians would not have objected. In On the Nature of the Gods (II, xxxvii), Cicero represents one of the debaters as arguing against the Epicurean view that life came into existence by chance. “He who believes this, may as well believe, that if a great quantity of the twenty-one letters, composed either of gold, or any other material, were [repeatedly] thrown upon the ground, they would fall into such order as legibly to form the Annals of Ennius. I doubt whether chance could make a single verse of them.”
Codex Bezae (Cantabrigiensis) identifies the “man” (in verse 31) as Jesus.
The Epicureans had no belief in a future life and would have dismissed the possibility of resurrection; others among those who heard Paul believed in the immortality of the soul. (Verse 31) The writings of Cicero and Pliny the Elder reveal the contrasting views about the possibility of future life.“The things that are told of the immortality of the soul and of the heavens [are not] the fictions of dreaming philosophers, or such incredible tales as the Epicureans mock at, but the conjectures of sensible men.” (Cicero’s The Republic, VI, iii) A fragment of Book V of Cicero’s The Laws, however, does not express the belief in the immorality of the soul as certain. “Let us deem ourselves happy that death will grant us either a better existence than our life on earth, or at least a condition that is no worse. For a life in which the mind is free from the body and yet retains its own powers is god-like; on the other hand, if we have no consciousness, at any rate no evil can befall us.” (Translated by C. W. Keyes)
Among those who heard Paul’s words and resorted to ridicule (verse 32) must have men who regarded the possibility of future life after death much as did Pliny the Elder. In his Natural History (VII, 56), he wrote, “All men, after their last day, return to what they were before the first; and after death there is no more sensation left in the body or in the soul than there was before birth. But this same vanity of ours extends even to the future, and lyingly fashions to itself an existence even in the very moments which belong to death itself: at one time it has conferred upon us the immortality of the soul; at another transmigration; and at another it has given sensation to the shades below, and paid divine honours to the departed spirit, thus making a kind of deity of him who has but just ceased to be a man. As if, indeed, the mode of breathing with man was in any way different from that of other animals, and as if there were not many other animals to be found whose life is longer than that of man, and yet for whom no one ever presaged anything of a like immortality. For what is the actual substance of the soul, when taken by itself? Of what material does it consist? Where is the seat of its thoughts? How is it to see, or hear, or how to touch? And then, of what use is it, or what can it avail, if it has not these faculties? Where, too, is its residence, and what vast multitudes of these souls and spirits must there be after the lapse of so many ages? But all these are the mere figments of childish ravings, and of that mortality which is so anxious never to cease to exist. It is a similar piece of vanity, too, to preserve the dead bodies of men; just like the promise that he shall come to life again, which was made by Democritus; who, however, never has come to life again himself. Out upon it! What downright madness is it to suppose that life is to recommence after death! or indeed, what repose are we ever to enjoy when we have been once born, if the soul is to retain its consciousness in heaven, and the shades of the dead in the infernal regions? This pleasing delusion, and this credulity, quite cancel that chief good of human nature, death, and, as it were, double the misery of him who is about to die, by anxiety as to what is to happen to him after it. And, indeed, if life really is a good, to whom can it be so to have once lived?
“How much more easy, then, and how much more devoid of all doubts, is it for each of us to put his trust in himself, and guided by our knowledge of what our state has been before birth, to assume that that after death will be the same.” (English translation edited by John Bostock and H. T. Riley)