The Agora
Bible Commentary

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Acts 17

Act 17:1

PASSED THROUGH: Sw Luk 8:1: prob including some time preaching in each city. Also sw Gen 13:7 LXX: Abraham surveying the Land of Promise.

AMPHIPOLIS: "Mentioned once in the NT (Acts 17:1). This city was visited by Paul on his second missionary journey. It was called Amphipolis ('surrounded city') because the site on which it was located was enclosed on three sides by the Strymon River which curved around it, the east side being open. According to Thucydides, a wall protected this E side, and it was strengthened and enlarged at various times. He mentions that the town was valuable for 'the timber that afforded for ship building'... The coins of Amphipolis during Paul's time frequently depict Artemis Tauropolis riding on a bull, indicating the close contact the area had with Asia, being located only three miles from the Mediterranean. No archaeological work has been carried on as yet at Amphipolis (which reaches back to the 1st century AD), though a Byzantine-period Christian complex has been discovered" (WyE).

APOLLONIA: "Apollonia of Mygonia in Macedonia was one of the dozen or so towns of this name in the ancient world... There were three Macedonian towns of this name. The one referred to in Acts 17:1 was situated south of Lake Bolbe.

"According to Strabo, Cassander took the people from Apollonia, as well as other surrounding cities, and settled them in Thessalonica when he built that town for his wife (daughter of Philip of Macedonia) and named it after her... The apostle Paul passed through Apollonia in his second missionary journey as he traveled the Egnatian Way from Philippi to Thessalonica, a distance of c 85 miles. It was c 34 miles from Philippi to Amphipolis, 21 from Amphipolis to Apollonia , and 30 from Apollonia to Thessalonica. The whole district of Macedonia was much more fertile and prosperous than the region around Athens. The economic importance of this area is not generally recognized, but is quite obvious to the modern traveler. Adequate rainfall accounts for the lush aspect of this region. Apollonia (modern Pollina) is still settled by a small handful of people" (WyE).

THESSALONICA: Thessalonica was built on the site of the ancient town of Therma; its original name was derived from the hot springs ("thermae") which still exist in the region. It became a place of some importance when rebuilt and renamed by Cassander, a general under Alexander the Great who claimed Macedonia for his own when the Grecian Empire was broken up at Alexander's death. (The city was named by Cassander in honor of his wife, the daughter of Philip of Macedon and sister to Alexander the Great.) Beginning, then, about 300 BC, Thessalonica rapidly became one of the leading cities of the region of Macedonia (in northeastern Greece -- the area which also included Philippi, Amphipolis, Apollonia and Berea).

When, in 167 BC, the Romans took over Macedonia, Thessalonica became one of the four regional capitals, and later, after a reorganization, the capital city of the whole province. Thus it was successively a center of Greek culture and politics, and a Roman administrative center. If we add to this the inevitable Jewish contingent to be found in commercial centers and seaports, we have in Thessalonica a very volatile mix of three distinctive, and often mutually antagonistic, cultures.

In 42 BC, Thessalonica became a "free city", that is, one where the local inhabitants had their own government and rights of citizenship (compare the way Paul speaks of his hometown Tarsus -- Acts 21:39; 22:27,28). The local magistrates were called "politarchs", a title that appears in Acts 17:6,8 and is attested in inscriptions discovered at the site. Luke's every use of technical terms for various local rulers and dignitaries, and hence his reputation as a flawless historian, has by now been confirmed from secular sources.

Under the government of Rome the city continued to advance in prosperity; its prominent location, on the Via Egnatia, or Egnatian highway, was a primary cause of its commercial success. Cicero wrote of the Thessalonians as "placed in the lap of the Empire." The Via Egnatia carried traffic across from the Aegean Sea on the east to the Ionian Sea on the west, where it connected with sea crossings to Italy and Rome. This may explain, at least on geographical terms, the words of Paul: "From you sounded out the word of the Lord not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but also in every place" (1Th 1:8).

In Thessalonica many ways met, both literally and culturally. From this center it was likely, as Paul saw it, that the word of the Lord would have "free course (ie, 'run' or 'speed on') and be glorified" (2Th 3:1).

The site of the city also was fine and commanding. It rose from the harbor like an amphitheater, covering a sloping hill from which one might look out toward the southwest, over the Thermaic Gulf and toward the Aegean Sea. On the opposite shore of the gulf, on the horizon rose fabled Olympus, home of the Greek "gods".

Act 17:3

THE CHRIST HAD TO SUFFER: "It was necessary" (Mat 26:39).

Act 17:4

AND NOT A FEW PROMINENT WOMEN: In Thessalonica, a cosmopolitan city, women enjoyed a relatively great freedom.

Act 17:5

"Just as at Antioch, Iconium, and Lystra, the Jews who did not believe the gospel were incensed at the Gentiles' response to Paul's preaching and with his direct approach to them. So they stirred up a riot. Their plan was to bring Paul and Silas before 'the assembly of citizens' and 'the politarchs' on a charge of disturbing the Pax Romana by preaching a 'religio illicita' [illegal religion] and by advocating another king in opposition to Caesar" (EBC).

Vv 5-9 explain 1Th 2:18: "Satan stopped us."

SOME BAD CHARACTERS FROM THE MARKETPLACE: "Agoraios": "the market folks, who sat and sold things in the market, and were generally of the meaner and vulgar sort, as the word may signify; or who stood idle in the market place, squandering away their time in an idle manner, not caring to work, and so were fit persons, and who could easily be gathered together, for such service as the unbelieving Jews employed them in; or they were a sort of officers and servants, that attended courts of judicature, and cited persons thither, and assisted in the business done there, and who were commonly men of profligate and abandoned lives" (Gill).

Act 17:6

...But when they could not find the missionaries at Jason's house -- evidently because Jason and some others who believed their message had hidden them away -- they dragged Jason and some other Christian brothers before the 'politarches'.

CITY OFFICIALS: "Politarches": This Greek word is only found here and in v 8. However, archaeological finds at Thessalonica show that this is precisely the word that was used to describe the rulers in Thessalonica.

JASON: Gr for Joshua; probably a Diaspora Jew who became one of Paul's first converts at Thessalonica.

CAUSED TROUBLE: "Anastatoo": to sigh deeply: cp Act 21:38; Gal 5:12. To disturb, trouble, upset, or even cause a rebellion.

Lit, "who have turned the world upside down" (AV). That unusual phrase may have been used with reference to what had been heard about happenings at Philippi -- two men shut up, then a violent earthquake bringing city buildings to the ground. Or did those Jews mean that their world was being turned upside down by a message which proclaimed that Jews were no longer a nation of special religious privilege? The grace of God was now offered freely to Gentiles also. (They may have heard Paul using such Scriptures as Eze 21:27 and Isa 29:16,17 with reference to the rejection of Jewry.)

Act 17:10

BEREA: "A city of southern Macedonia in the district of Emathia. The region about Berea was watered by the Haliacmon. A few miles to the se this river left the Olympian range and flowed into the Thermaic Gulf. Berea was c 50 miles sw of Thessalonica, the chief metropolis of Macedonia at this time; 30 miles south of Pella, the birthplace of Alexander the Great; and c 20 miles west of the Thermaic Gulf. Leake... describes the town as beautifully situated and states that its modern name is Verria. In NT times it was evidently a prosperous city with a Jewish colony.

"Paul and Silas found their way to Berea when pressure forced them out of Thessalonica (Acts 17:10). They had hoped to return to Thessalonica, but since this was not permitted (1Th 2:18), they made their way to Athens, where Timothy later met them. Apparently Paul and Silas had a rather brief stay in Berea, but it cannot be exactly determined how many days they were there. Ramsay, however, conjectures that Paul and Silas stayed in Berea some months (PTRC 234). The Jews in Berea were more open minded than those in Thessalonica, listening eagerly to Paul's message and studying the Scriptures to see if what he said was really true (Acts 17:11).

"Finally, Paul and Silas were forced to leave Berea due to rabble-rousers who stirred up the people against these apostles (Acts 17:13-14). Acts 20:4 mentions that Sopater, one of Paul's close friends and fellow travelers, was from Berea" (WyE).

Act 17:11

A wonderful example (cp Prov 25:2; Joh 5:39). "Test everything" (1Th 5:21). They exemplified: (1) open minds; (2) recognition of need; (3) searching minds; (4) daily application; and (5) enthusiasm.

Act 17:14

Timothy was evidently summoned by Paul from Philippi (Act 16:40).

Act 17:16

WHILE PAUL WAS WAITING FOR THEM: Poss ill health has forced a cessation of activity.

GREATLY DISTRESSED: "Roused to anger" (Vine).

Act 17:17

There seems to have been no response from the synagogue in Athens, not even persecution. This suggests the enervating influence of worldly wisdom and decadence, prevailing in Athens.

Act 17:18

See VL, Christ's resurrection, reality.

EPICUREAN: "The Epicureans taught that the supreme good is pleasure or happiness (Gr 'hedone': cp Engl 'hedonist'); but it is the pleasure of the mind and the entire life, not the indulgence of momentary whims and instincts. Consequences of all actions should be considered before indulging in the activity. Epicurus was not a sensualist as is often charged. He denied providence, miracles, prophecy, and immortality, though modern writers claim he was not an atheist. Epicurus repudiated astrology and taught that religion was superstition; that to be happy one must be delivered from the fear of the gods" (WyE).

STOIC: "The name was derived from stoa (porch) at Athens where Zeno lectured. The most influential philosophy of the Hellenistic period, it embraced elements of the Socratic, Aristotelian, and Cynic schools, Essentially it was a rational pantheism though with rare approximations to monotheism. In Stoicism God was not a personal Being but a spiritual force or soul-power immanent in men and things. He was given many names -- Logos or Reason, Nature, Providence, divine Spirit et al. His substance was the whole world and the heavens. An elaborate pantheon was developed to agree with God's total immanence. The highest good was to follow reason or virtue, suppress the emotions, and conduct oneself according to what nature wills. In the end there was reabsorption into the world Soul, but no individual immortality" (WyE).

BABBLER: Gr "spermologos". Primarily an adjective, it came to be used as a noun sig a crow, or some other bird, picking up seeds (sperma, "a seed," lego, "to collect"). Then it seems to have been used of a man accustomed to hang about the streets and markets, picking up scraps which fall from loads; hence a parasite, who lives at the expense of others, a hanger on. Metaphorically it became used of a man who picks up scraps of information and retails them secondhand, a plagiarist, or of those who make a show, in unscientific style, of knowledge obtained from misunderstanding lectures. Ramsay points out that there does not seem to be any instance of the classical use of the word as a "babbler" or a mere talker. He finds in the word a piece of Athenian slang, applied to one who was outside any literary circle, an ignorant plagiarist (Vine).

"A word originally used of birds picking up grain, then of scrap collectors searching for junk, then extended to those who snapped up ideas of others and peddled them as their own without understanding them, and finally to any ne'er-do-well" (EBC). Vincent has "seed-picker." Findlay has "cock-sparrow".

FOREIGN GODS: Gr "xenon daimonion". The Greeks thought that Jesus and the resurrection ("Anastasis") were two human spirits which Paul had deified.

ADVOCATING FOREIGN GODS: "A preacher of foreign divinities" (RSV). The Greeks reserved the word "god" ("theos") for members of the original pantheon. Other, lesser "gods" were called "demons"!

Act 17:19

AREOPAGUS: "Philosophers of Athens brought Paul to the Areopagus to hear an explanation of his teachings. Areopagus (Acts 17:19) is the equivalent of Mars Hill (Acts 17:22), for Mars was the Roman name for the god of war and Ares the Gr name. Actually Areopagus could signify a 377-foot hill in Athens nw of the acropolis, or the name of the venerable council which traditionally had met on the hill. By Paul's day the council did sometimes meet in the marketplace, or 'agora', but the Gr (of Acts 17:19) prob should be translated 'up to' and seems to signify that this meeting took place on the hill. Acts 17:19 prob ref to the hill and Acts 17:22 to the council (' in the midst of Mars hill' is an impossible rendering of the Gr)" (WyE).

Act 17:21

The philosopher's corner in Athens was like a great "supermarket" of the "gods"!

Act 17:22

// Isa 45: Yahweh versus the false "gods"!

Vv 22,23: The KJV of Paul's speech to the Athenians has some rather misleading translations: Paul did not really insult his audience by calling them "too superstitious" (KJV); instead, he won a sympathetic hearing by remarking that they were "very religious". Furthermore, the word translated "devotions" does not mean religious services; rather "sebasma" signifies "object of worship". Nor should it be supposed that Paul was so rude as to say, "Whom you IGNORANTLY worship" (v 23, KJV); instead, the RSV rightly has: "Whom ye worship as UNKNOWN".

VERY RELIGIOUS: Gr "deisis" (to fear) and Gr "daimonion" (demon). Paul makes no reference to a personal devil, but to their belief in deified departed human spirits.

Act 17:23

ALTAR: "Thusiasterion" is that on which one offers a thusia, a sacrifice or offering. Accordingly, it may describe either the altar of burnt offering or the altar of incense. But in this, the only place where the NT refers to a pagan altar, a different word, "bomos" (that to which one ascends), is employed. The LXX is not consistent in this distinction.

TO AN UNKNOWN GOD: "Later the second-century geographer Pausanias (Description of Greece 1.1.4) and the third-century philosopher Philostratus (Life of Apollonius Tyana 6.3.5) were to speak of altars to unknown gods at Athens, by which they meant either altars to unknown deities generally or altars to individual unknown gods. But while there is insufficient evidence for us to know the number of such altars at Athens or what their dedicatory inscriptions were, it is not surprising that Paul came across such an altar in walking about the city. Paul used the words of the inscription to introduce his call to repentance" (EBC).

See Lesson, Unknown God. Possibly, an oblique ref to Yahweh, the God of Israel, whose name would not typically be spoken at all by devout Jews.

Act 17:24

God supplies all things for His creation: Psa 104:24-30; 145:15,16. He is absolutely supreme: Acts 14:15; Isa 66:1,2; Eze 18:4; Job 41:1; Heb 3:4; Dan 4:17; Psa 83:18; Mic 4:13; Eph 4:6; Rev 4:11; Jer 27:5; Psa 22:28. God is a glorious spirit being: John 4:24. All life is in His hands: Eccl 12:7; Psa 104:29,30.

AND DOES NOT LIVE IN TEMPLES BUILT WITH HANDS: Prob while saying this, Paul pointed to the majestic Parthenon, which towered above them.

Act 17:25

AND HE IS NOT SERVED BY HUMAN HANDS: "Served" is Gr "therapeuo": to wait upon menially -- as the "priests" cleaned and polished the images of their "gods"!

Act 17:26

FROM ONE MAN HE MADE EVERY NATION: "Contrary to the Athenians' boast that they had originated from the soil of their Attic homeland and therefore were not like other men, Paul affirms the oneness of mankind in their creation by the one God and their descent from a common ancestor" (EBC). Lit, Paul is saying that all nations are the descendants of Adam, and Noah (Gen 9:20; 11:8). But, spiritually, he is saying all men may be created "from one blood [the shed blood of Christ!]", and thus made one (new) creation, no matter to which nation they belong!

THE TIMES SET FOR THEM: God rules (Dan 4:17; Heb 11:2). He has set times (Psa 102:13), until... (Luk 21:24): ie, a predetermined end to man's ascendancy.

THE EXACT PLACES WHERE THEY SHOULD LIVE: "The bounds of their habitation" (AV). "From these the maritime peoples spread out into their territories by their clans within their nations, each with its own language" (Gen 10:5). "When the Most High gave the nations their inheritance, when he divided all mankind, he set up boundaries for the peoples according to the number of the sons of Israel" (Deu 32:8).

Act 17:27

REACH OUT: "Pselaphao": to manipulate, ie, verify by contact; to grope, as a blind man! Figuratively, to search for.

Act 17:28

FOR IN HIM WE LIVE AND MOVE AND HAVE OUR BEING: From a quatrain attributed to the Cretan poet Epimenides (c 600 BC), which appeared first in his poem Cretica and is put on the lips of Minos, Zeus' son, in honor of his father: "They fashioned a tomb for thee, O holy and high one -- the Cretans, always liars, evil beasts, idle bellies! But thou art not dead; thou livest and abidest for ever, for in thee we live and move and have our being."

WE ARE HIS OFFSPRING: From the Cilician poet Aratus (c 315-240 BC): "It is with Zeus that every one of us in every way has to do, for we are also his offspring" -- which is also found in Cleanthes' (331-233 BC) earlier Hymn to Zeus. "By such maxims, Paul is not suggesting that God is to be thought of in terms of the Zeus of Greek polytheism or Stoic pantheism. He is rather arguing that the poets his hearers recognized as authorities have to some extent corroborated his message. In his search for a measure of common ground with his hearers, he is, so to speak, disinfecting and rebaptizing the poets' words for his own purposes. Quoting Greek poets in support of his teaching sharpened his message. But despite its form, Paul's address was thoroughly biblical and Christian in its content" (EBC).

To whom was Aratus the Cilician poet referring? See Lesson, Unknown God.

Act 17:31

See VL, Christ's resurrection, reality.

"O Lord God in heaven above, merciful and gracious Father, what can we render to Thee for Thy goodness? Thou hast appointed a day in which Thou wilt judge the world in righteousness by Jesus Christ! Blessed be Thy holy name. We shall all be judged before his tribunal and not man's. Then the hidden things of men shall be brought to light, and their secret thoughts shall be unveiled, to their justification or reproof! Thou God seest us all, for all hearts are open before Thee! If Thou beholdest any thing in me displeasing in Thy sight, let me fall into Thy hands, and not into the hands of those who thirst for my destruction! Grant me patience to endure their unrighteousness, and by fidelity and perseverance to overcome the iniquity of their doings; and may the word of the truth concerning the hope of the glorious gospel of Jesus be established in these countries; and may those who now oppose it, in ignorance and unbelief, find mercy of Thee, repenting of their waywardness, and purifying their hearts by faith, that they may be accepted when the Lord comes! 'Forgive them, for they know not what they do'; and may we all at length find an abundant entrance into the kingdom of the future age, to the glory of the great Immanuel's name! Amen! Amen!" (Prayer of JT, quoted in Prot 175,176).

Act 17:34

DIONYSIUS, A MEMBER OF THE AREOPAGUS: Or simply "the Areopagite" in AV. As "the Areopagite" he was a prominent citizen, being one of the 12 judges forming the highest council. Allegedly eminent in Athens for literary ability (SB 14:175). His name is the same as the pagan god of wine and revelry(!).

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