Acts 17: New American Commentary

5. Establishing Churches in Thessalonica and Berea (17:1–15)

Paul, Silas, and Timothy proceeded from Philippi to the major seaport city of Thessalonica some 100 miles distant (vv. 1–4). Thessalonica was then (as now) the second largest city in Greece, with a population estimated at 200,000.46 It was founded in 315 b.c. by Cassander on the site of ancient Therme and named for his wife, who was a step-sister of Alexander the Great. When the Romans first took over Macedonia in 167 b.c., it was made capital of one of the four divisions. It became the seat of government for all of Macedonia in 148 b.c. when that region was reorganized into a single province. As a reward for siding with Antony and Octavian in the battle of Philippi, Thessalonica was given the status of a free city in 42 b.c., which meant that it had local autonomy. Its government consequently followed more the Greek than the Roman pattern of administration, as is reflected in the text of Acts. At Thessalonica Paul was perhaps intending to follow the pattern of establishing himself in and working out of the major population centers, a pattern clearly pursued in Corinth and Ephesus later. In this instance his mission was cut short by strong opposition (vv. 5–9).

From Thessalonica the three missionaries went to Berea (vv. 10–15). Their reception was more favorable, but Paul was again forced to leave because of opposition aroused by Jews who had come from Thessalonica. Overall, in the description of Paul’s ministry in these two cities, a familiar pattern of initial acceptance and rising opposition repeats itself. At Thessalonica the Jews initiated the resistance to Paul’s witness, as was the case at Pisidian Antioch (13:50) and Iconium (14:2) on his first missionary journey. At Berea the opposition was instigated by Jews coming from Thessalonica, just as previously Jews from Antioch and Iconium initiated his difficulties at Lystra (14:19). There is also a reminiscence of the experience at Philippi, as the case against Paul was presented before the city magistrates (17:6; cf. 16:20). This would happen again at Corinth (18:12), and perhaps the appearance before the Areopagus is to be seen in this light (17:19), although almost certainly in this instance not as a formal trial. In these appearances before the local officials, the Lord’s words at the time of Paul’s conversion were very much fulfilled: he was Christ’s witness before the Gentiles and their rulers (9:15). In the consistent opposition Paul’s ministry encountered, the remainder of the Lord’s words were also fulfilled: Paul suffered for the sake of the name of Jesus (9:16).

Paul’s ministry in Thessalonica is told with the utmost economy. The basic pattern of initial witness in the synagogue is set forth (vv. 1–4). The pattern continues with the picture of the opposition to Paul (17:5–9), this time filled out by the significant role played by Jason. The summary of the work in Berea is even briefer (17:10–15). From a literary perspective, Luke assumed the preceding Thessalonian narrative and did not repeat. For instance, he did not repeat the method of Paul’s witness in the synagogue (17:2–4). He could assume the reader would know that the same basic procedure was followed at Berea. What was different at Berea was the response of the Jews there, and this was what he elaborated (17:11).

(1) Acceptance and Rejection in Thessalonica (17:1–9)

1When they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a Jewish synagogue. 2As his custom was, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, 3explaining and proving that the Christ had to suffer and rise from the dead. “This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Christ,” he said. 4Some of the Jews were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a large number of God-fearing Greeks and not a few prominent women.

5But the Jews were jealous; so they rounded up some bad characters from the marketplace, formed a mob and started a riot in the city. They rushed to Jason’s house in search of Paul and Silas in order to bring them out to the crowd. 6But when they did not find them, they dragged Jason and some other brothers before the city officials, shouting: “These men who have caused trouble all over the world have now come here, 7and Jason has welcomed them into his house. They are all defying Caesar’s decrees, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus.” 8When they heard this, the crowd and the city officials were thrown into turmoil. 9Then they made Jason and the others post bond and let them go.

17:1–3 The journey from Philippi to Thessalonica followed the Via Egnatia through the cities of Amphipolis and Apollonia. Each of these cities was about a day’s journey apart when traveling by horseback. Luke gave no time frame; and if the company traveled by foot, one would have to assume the 100-mile journey took more than three days and that there were other stopping places than the two major towns Luke designated on their itinerary.

Amphipolis was some thirty miles southwest of Philippi. Formerly capital of the first division of Macedonia and a “free city,” it was important for its strategic position, controlling access to the Hellespont and the Black Sea.47 It would have been a significant place for witness, but Luke did not indicate that Paul carried on any mission there or anywhere else along the route to Thessalonica. He simply indicated these as stopping places, Appollonia being the next mentioned, some thirty miles from Amphipolis and thirty-eight miles from the final destination of Thessalonica.

Once arrived in Thessalonica, Paul followed his usual pattern of beginning his witness in the synagogue. This continued on three successive Sabbaths (v. 2).48 This is the only time reference in the Thessalonian narrative, but one would assume from Paul’s Thessalonian correspondence that his initial ministry in Thessalonica was of somewhat longer duration.49 The pattern of Paul’s synagogue preaching as indicated in vv. 2–3 is very much that of the preaching to Jews in the earlier portions of Acts. It consisted primarily of scriptural pointers to Christ from the Old Testament. Luke described this as reasoning with them from the Scriptures.50 This is further elaborated as “explaining” and “proving” that the Messiah must suffer and rise from the dead.51

17:4 “A large number” of the Thessalonian Jews were persuaded by Paul’s Old Testament expositions (v. 4), some also of the “God-fearing” Greeks who attended the synagogue. Among the latter group were a number of prominent women. That Luke singled out the influential female converts in the Macedonian congregations (cf. 16:14 and 17:12) is very much in keeping with inscriptional evidence that in Macedonia women had considerable social and civic influence.52 One should also note the prominence of Silas in this section, particularly in connection with the synagogue witness (vv. 4, 10). He is usually in the background, with the focus being on Paul. It could be that in mentioning him in these synagogue contexts, Luke wanted to remind us of his connection with the Jerusalem church and the Jewish-Christian endorsement of Paul’s mission.53

17:5 Verses 5–9 depict the opposition to Paul’s ministry in Thessalonica initiated by the Jews. They are described as being “jealous,” perhaps at the number of God-fearing Gentiles whom Paul was attracting away from the synagogue and into the Christian community. The Gentiles’ presence in the synagogue probably gave the Jewish community a degree of acceptance in the predominantly Gentile city and probably also some financial support. One should not, however, get the impression that it was always the Jews who opposed Paul. In chaps. 16–19 there is an equal balance between opposition initiated by Jews and that begun by Gentiles.54 Even in this instance, it was ultimately the Gentile populace who opposed Paul. Beginning with the gang of ruffians who hung around the marketplace,55 the Jews succeeded in rousing the Gentiles into mob action against Paul and Silas.56

At this point Jason entered the picture. We know nothing more about him than his role in this scene. Evidently Paul and Silas had been lodging with him. Consequently he probably was a convert and may have been a Jew since Jason was a name often taken by Diaspora Jews.57 It is also possible that he shared Paul’s trade. Later in Corinth Paul stayed with Aquila and Priscilla, who were of the same trade as he (18:3). In any event, the crowd did not find the missionaries at Jason’s. Possibly they had learned of the riot and had fled elsewhere.

17:6–7 So Jason served as Paul’s proxy and was dragged before the city officials (v. 6). Luke’s description is very accurate, using the term “politarchs” for the officials, which is the precise term that occurs for the local magistrates in inscriptions uncovered in Macedonia.58 Three charges were leveled against the Christians. The first was directed against Paul and Silas: they “caused trouble all over the world.” This was a rather nebulous charge—“troublemakers.”59 The second was directed against Jason: he was harboring these troublemakers. The third was directed against Paul and Silas and, by implication, Jason as their host. They were said to be “defying Caesar’s decrees.” This was a dangerous charge. To defy Caesar would be pure sedition. But what decrees were they defying? Probably the final clause in v. 7 is to be seen as an explanation of the charge. They were claiming that there was another king than Caesar—Jesus. This was virtually the same charge leveled at Jesus (cf. Luke 23:2–4; John 19:12, 15). Jesus claimed a kingdom not of this world, and Paul and Silas spoke of the same. But to a Roman, the charge sounded very much like a breach of the oath of loyalty that every person in the empire was required to render to Caesar.60 The magistrates had to take note of this charge.

17:8–9 The magistrates showed a great deal of discretion in handling the charges. They evidently did not take the charge of sedition too seriously, but they were quite aware of the commotion and were responsible for maintaining order. They evidently decided, much like the Philippian magistrates, to preserve law and order by banning the troublemakers from the city. Jason was required to post bond, depositing a sum of money that would be forfeited should there be any sequel to the civil disturbance. That meant the absence of Paul and Silas. Paul may have been referring to this ban in 1 Thess 2:18 when he spoke of “Satan’s hindrance” to his returning to the city.

(2) Witness in Berea (17:10–15)

10As soon as it was night, the brothers sent Paul and Silas away to Berea. On arriving there, they went to the Jewish synagogue. 11Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true. 12Many of the Jews believed, as did also a number of prominent Greek women and many Greek men.

13When the Jews in Thessalonica learned that Paul was preaching the word of God at Berea, they went there too, agitating the crowds and stirring them up. 14The brothers immediately sent Paul to the coast, but Silas and Timothy stayed at Berea. 15The men who escorted Paul brought him to Athens and then left with instructions for Silas and Timothy to join him as soon as possible.

When the three missionaries left Thessalonica, they also left the Egnatian Way, the route they had been following since they first landed in Macedonia at Neapolis (16:11). This main east-west highway went northwest of Thessalonica to Dyrrachium on the Adriatic. It was the main land route to Rome. At Dyrrachium travelers would take a boat across the Adriatic Sea to Brundisium in southern Italy and from there north to Rome. It has been suggested that Paul might have entertained the idea of taking this route to Rome even as early as this point in his missionary career.61 In his Letter to the Romans (15:22) he spoke of his having “often” been hindered in coming to them. The hindrance at this time may well have been the news that the emperor Claudius had expelled all the Jews from Rome (18:2). Whatever the case, Paul headed in another direction at this time, going southwest to Berea and well off any main thoroughfare.

17:10 About fifty miles from Thessalonica, Berea lay on the eastern slopes of Mt. Vermion in the Olympian mountain range. In a somewhat remote region, Berea was the most significant city of the area, having been capital of one of the four divisions of Macedonia from 167–148 b.c. It evidently had a sizable population in Paul’s day. The journey from Thessalonica began in the nighttime because of the hasty departure. By foot it would have taken about three days.

17:11–12 On arriving in the town, the witness began, as it had in Thessalonica, in the synagogue. The Jews of Berea, however, were of a different breed. Luke described them as being “more noble” than the Thessalonians. He used a word (eugenesteros) that originally meant high born but came to have a more general connotation of being open, tolerant, generous, having the qualities that go with “good breeding.”62 Nowhere was this more evident than in their willingness to take Paul’s scriptural exposition seriously. They did not accept his word uncritically but did their own examination of the Scriptures to see if they really did point to the death and resurrection of the Messiah as Paul claimed (cf. 17:3). This was no cursory investigation either, no weekly Sabbath service, as at Thessalonica. They met daily to search the Scriptures. No wonder so many contemporary Bible study groups name themselves “Bereans.” The Berean Jews were a “noble” example.63 And many of them found out for themselves that Paul’s claims were true and so believed (v. 12). Many Greeks also believed, not just men but prominent Macedonian women as well, just as in Thessalonica (cf. v. 4). Some of these may have been worshipers of God attached to the synagogue. Some may not have been. One would assume that Paul would not neglect his witness to Gentiles of pagan background even in a situation like Berea, where the synagogue was so unusually open to his message.

17:13–14 This ideal situation did not last forever. It was soon broken by Jews from Thessalonica who heard of Paul’s successes in Berea. They stirred up “the crowds” in the city against Paul, evidently not the Jews of the city but the general Gentile populace, just as they had done at Thessalonica. Evidently this time the main attack was on Paul, the primary preacher of the word (v. 13), since Silas and Timothy did not have to leave town with him (v. 14).

That Paul had to flee Berea and finally wound up in Athens is clear. How he got there is another question. If one follows the Western text of Acts, he traveled to Athens by sea.64 The generally most reliable manuscripts, however, have Paul going “as far as the sea.” This is followed by the NIV, which translates “to the coast.” A third group of manuscripts (the Byzantine text) reads that Paul was sent “as to the sea.” This latter text has been followed by a number of commentators who argue that Paul was using a “diversionary tactic,” making as if to go by sea but then hurrying down to Athens by the coastal road. Even the “as far as” text could also allow for his not taking a boat but rather following the coastal road to Athens. It is obviously not a serious matter in any event.

17:15 Of more significance is the question of when Timothy and Silas joined Paul in Athens. First Thessalonians 3:1f. indicates that Paul sent Timothy to Thessalonica from Athens. This leads many scholars to argue that Luke must have been in error in seeing Paul as traveling to Athens alone; Timothy was with him and was then sent from Athens back to Thessalonica. Obviously both Luke and Paul may have been right, each giving only part of the picture. Paul may have traveled to Athens alone, summoning Timothy and Silas to join him there as soon as possible (Acts 17:15). They did so, and then Paul dispatched both from Athens, Timothy to Thessalonica (1 Thess 3:1) and Silas to parts unknown. One can never be dogmatic about any such harmonization for which the text itself gives no specific warrant, but the possibility of some such simple solution guards against overhasty conclusions about the unreliability of a text. In any event, Timothy and Silas did finally join Paul in Corinth (Acts 18:5).

6. Witnessing to the Athenian Intellectuals (17:16–34)

Paul’s brief visit to Athens is a centerpiece for the entire book of Acts. The scene revolves around Paul’s famous address before the Areopagus (vv. 22–31). This is preceded by an introductory narrative that portrays the “Athenian scene” in vivid local color (vv. 16–21). This narrative is very much keyed to the content of the speech and provides the framework for its major themes. The same is true for the conclusion of the Athenian narrative (vv. 32–34), which is primarily a conclusion to the speech. As a whole, one can scarcely speak of an Athenian “mission.” Although there were several converts and a fellowship may well have grown out of Paul’s ministry there, Luke did not dwell on this or mention the establishment of a church in Athens. It would be a mistake, however, to see Paul’s Athenian experience as a “maverick” episode. The opposite is true. The central item, the speech on the Areopagus, is the prime example in Acts of Paul’s preaching to Gentiles. The only other example is the brief sermon at Lystra (14:15–17), which is itself almost a precis of this one. In the following narrative Paul works among Gentiles for eighteen months in Corinth and for nearly three years in Ephesus, but no example of his preaching is given. The reason quite simply is that it has already been given—in Athens, in the very center of Gentile culture and intellect.

(1) The Athenians’ Curiosity (17:16–21)

16While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. 17So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there. 18A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to dispute with him. Some of them asked, “What is this babbler trying to say?” Others remarked, “He seems to be advocating foreign gods.” They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection. 19Then they took him and brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus, where they said to him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? 20You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we want to know what they mean.” 21(All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.)

In Paul’s day Athens was but a shadow of its former glory in its “golden age” in the fourth and fifth centuries b.c. Corinth was now the leading city of Greece commercially and politically. Even Athens’ native population had dwindled, estimated at some 5,000 voting citizens. But this was considerably augmented by the nonnative population, particularly the artists, the students, and the tourists. And there were the buildings and the works of art, mute testimony to its former grandeur. This is not to say that Athens was no longer an important city. It was still considered the cultural and intellectual center of the Roman Empire, and it is in this perspective that Luke portrayed it.

17:16 Athens was known the world over for its magnificent art and architecture. The art, however, characteristically portrayed the exploits of the various gods and goddesses of the Greek pantheon, and most of the impressive buildings were temples to the pagan gods. For Paul, Jew that he was with his strong monotheism and distaste for graven images, the scene was most unappealing. The NIV is too gentle in saying that he was “greatly distressed” (v. 16). The Greek word Luke used is much stronger (paroxynō). We get our word “paroxysm” from it. Paul was “infuriated” at the sight. Ancient descriptions testify that the marketplace was virtually lined with idols, particularly the “herms,” the monuments to Hermes with the head of the god on top.65 For Paul a thing of beauty was decidedly not a joy forever, particularly when it embodied so distorted a view of divinity.

17:17 Paul evidently stuck to his usual pattern of missionary preaching. On the Sabbath he reasoned with the Jews, evidently following the same method of scriptural proof that Christ was Messiah as he used at Thessalonica (v. 17). But during the week, on a daily basis, he bore his witness in the agora, the famous marketplace and hub of Athenian life. There he got his most pronounced response, especially from some of the philosophers. The Epicureans and Stoics were among the leading schools of the day,66 and they serve as representatives of the confusion caused by Paul’s preaching.

17:18 Epicureans were thoroughgoing materialists, believing that everything came from atoms or particles of matter. There was no life beyond this; all that was human returned to matter at death. Though the Epicureans did not deny the existence of gods, they saw them as totally indifferent to humanity. They did not believe in providence of any sort; and if one truly learned from the gods, that person would try to live the same sort of detached and tranquil life as they, as free from pain and passion and superstitious fears as they.

The Stoics had a more lively view of the gods than the Epicureans, believing very much in the divine providence. They were pantheists, believing that the ultimate divine principle was to be found in all of nature, including human beings. This spark of divinity, which they referred to as the logos, was the cohesive rational principle that bound the entire cosmic order together. Humans thus realized their fullest potential when they lived by reason. By reason, i.e., the divine principle within them which linked them with the gods and nature, they could discover ultimate truth for themselves. The Stoics generally had a rather high ethic and put great stock on self-sufficiency. Since they viewed all humans as bound together by common possession of the divine logos, they also had a strong sense of universal brotherhood. The mention of these schools is not incidental. Paul would take up some of their thought in his Areopagus speech, particularly that of the Stoics, and thoroughly redirect it in line with the Creator God of the Old Testament.

It was not particularly complimentary when the philosophers dubbed Paul a “babbler.” They used a colorful word (spermologos), “seed-speaker,” which evoked images of a bird pecking indiscriminately at seeds in a barnyard. It referred to a dilettante, someone who picked up scraps of ideas here and there and passed them off as profundity with no depth of understanding whatever.67 They could not understand Paul’s concept of resurrection at all. Epicureans did not believe in any existence after death, and Stoics believed that only the soul, the divine spark, survived death.68 So what was this idea of a bodily resurrection (anastasis)? “He must be speaking of a new goddess named resurrection (“Anastasia”) along with this new god Jesus he keeps talking about” (author’s paraphrase).69 How ironical that they were making Paul into a polytheist like themselves. Before the Areopagus he would eliminate such thinking with his clear monotheistic exposition of God the Creator.

17:19–20 Verse 19 has provoked one of the most lively discussions surrounding Paul’s Areopagus address. Was Paul tried before a formal Athenian court named Areopagus, or did he deliver a public address from a hill known as the Areopagus? The NIV has already solved the problem by translating “a meeting of the Areopagus,” which is a clear opting for the first possibility. The Greek is not so unambiguous, merely stating that the Athenians took hold of Paul and led him “to the Areopagus.” The Areopagus was both a court and a hill, due to the fact that the court traditionally met on that hill. The term Areopagus means hill of Ares. Ares was the Greek god of war. The Roman equivalent god was Mars, hence the KJV “Mars’ hill” (17:22).

This hill was located beneath the acropolis and above the agora. From ancient times a court met there that decided on civil and criminal cases and seems to have had some jurisdiction in matters of religion. Since it traditionally met on the Areopagus, it came eventually to be known by the name of the hill, just as for us Wall Street would designate either the street or the stock exchange. So the name will not help in deciding whether Paul gave a public lecture on the hill or made a formal appearance before the court. Although many scholars advocate the public lecture view,70 several factors tip the scale toward the possibility that Paul appeared before the Athenian court. First, there is quite possibly a conscious parallel between Paul’s experience and the trial of Socrates. According to Plato (Apologia 24B), Socrates was accused of “introducing [epispherōn] other new gods.” Paul likewise was described as “introducing” (eisphereis, v. 20) “strange ideas,” which in v. 18 are described as “foreign gods.” If Luke intended the parallel, he likely saw Paul also as appearing before the court.71 Second, that one of Paul’s converts was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus (v. 34), is all the more likely if Paul appeared before that body. Finally, one should note that throughout Acts Paul appeared before the leading magisterial bodies—the magistrates of Philippi, the proconsul at Corinth, the Roman governors at Caesarea, the Jewish Sanhedrin, the Jewish King Agrippa, and finally, at least in anticipation, the Roman emperor. It would fit the pattern well if he appeared here before the venerable Athenian court.

It is probably erroneous to see it as a trial in any formal sense. Paul was not formally charged. Once finished he made an easy exit—there were no deliberations. Perhaps it was nothing but a more-or-less public hearing of the new teacher to satisfy the curiosity of the philosophers who led him there.72 It probably was not even on the hill of Ares where Paul spoke. The evidence is that in his day the Areopagus met in the Stoa Basileios or Royal Portico in the northwest corner of the agora.73 This would be all the more natural since the portico frequented by the philosophers, whom Paul had just encountered, was adjacent to the Royal Portico.

17:21 Luke ended his narrative introduction to Paul’s speech in an “aside,” which refers to the insatiable curiosity of the Athenians (v. 21). Their love for novel ideas was proverbial. Perhaps the most telling quip was that of Demosthenes, who remarked how the Athenians were going about the city asking for the latest news at the very moment when the armies of Philip of Macedon were knocking at their door.74 Luke’s remark is quite ironical. The Athenians had accused Paul of being the dilettante (v. 18), an accusation much more pertinent to themselves. Their curiosity had a beneficial side, however. It set the stage for Paul’s witness.

(2) Paul’s Testimony Before the Areopagus (17:22–31)

22Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. 23For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you.

24“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. 25And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else. 26From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. 27God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. 28‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’

29“Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by man’s design and skill. 30In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. 31For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead.”

No text in Acts has received more scholarly attention than the ten verses of Paul’s speech before the Areopagus. Debate has particularly raged over whether the core thought of the speech is that of the Old Testament or of Greek philosophy.75 How one answers that question will very much determine how one views the total argument of the speech. For instance, those who maintain the basically philosophical background to the speech often see its main thrust as being the knowledge of God as perceived through nature. The concluding references to the resurrection and judgment are seen as a sort of afterthought that does not coordinate well with the main speech. The gist of the speech is, however, thoroughly rooted in Old Testament thought throughout. The main theme is God as Creator and the proper worship of this Creator God. The language often has the ring of Greek philosophy, for Paul was attempting to build what bridges he could to reach the Athenian intellectuals. The underlying thought remains thoroughly biblical.

The sermon can be divided into five couplets that follow a more-or-less chiastic structure (an A-B-C-B-A pattern). Verses 22–23 introduce the main theme—the ignorance of the pagan worship. Verses 24–25 present the true object of worship, the Creator God, and the folly of idolatrous worship with temples and sacrifices. Verses 26–27 deal with the true relationship of human beings to their Creator, the central theme of the chiasm. Verse 28 provides a transition, capping off the argument of the relationship of persons to God and providing the basis for a renewed attack on idolatry in verse 29. The final two verses return to the original theme. The time of ignorance was now over. With revelation came a call to repent in light of the coming judgment and the resurrection of Christ.

The “Unknown God” (17:22–23)

17:22 Paul’s opening remark that he had observed the Athenians in every respect to be “very religious” has often been described as a capitatio benevolentiae, an effort to win the favor of his hearers and thus secure their attention.76 Such introductions were a standard device in Greek rhetoric, and Paul probably did have some such intention. He surely did not wish to alienate his audience at the very outset. The term he used for “religious” (deisidaimonesteros), however, had a definite ambiguity in current usage. It could be used in a positive sense for one who was very devoted to religious matters. It was also used with a negative connotation for those who were overly scrupulous, even superstitious, in their religious observance. The context in which the word is used determines which connotation it has.77 Perhaps Paul deliberately chose the ambiguous word. For the Athenians his remark would be taken as commending their piety. For Paul, who was already fuming at their idolatry (v. 16), the negative connotation would be uppermost in his mind. By the end of the speech, the Athenians themselves would have little doubt about Paul’s real opinion of their religiosity.

17:23a As so often in the speeches of Acts, Paul began his discourse with a point of contact with his audience. In this case it was the altars Paul had already observed in the city (v. 16). One in particular caught his attention. It was dedicated “to an unknown god.” This gave him the perfect launching pad for his presentation of monotheism to the polytheistic and pantheistic Athenians. Piety had no doubt led the Athenians to erect such an altar for fear they might offend some deity of whom they were unaware and had failed to give the proper worship. Paul would now proclaim a God who was unknown to them. In fact, this God, totally unknown to them, was the only true divinity that exists.

It has often been discussed whether Paul took a certain degree of “homiletical license” in his reference to the inscription “to an unknown god.” Jerome thought so, arguing in his Commentary on Titus (1:12) that there were altars in Athens dedicated to “unknown gods” and that Paul had adapted the plural “gods” to the singular “god” in light of his monotheistic sermon.78 Pagan writers also attested to the presence of altars “to unknown gods” but always in the plural. For instance, the Traveler Pausanias, writing in the middle of the second century a.d., described the presence of altars to gods of unknown names on the road from Phalerum to Athens and an altar “to unknown gods” at Olympia.79 Written in the third century, Philostratus’s Life of Apollonius of Tyana also refers to these Athenian altars “to unknown gods.”80 There is thus ample literary evidence that Paul did not fabricate his allusion, that there were in fact such altars in Athens. Whether they were invariably inscribed in the plural or whether there was one dedicated to a single “unknown god” remains an open question. Even should Paul have made an adaption, as Jerome alleged, it would have been a small matter. The Athenians would have understood his allusion, and Paul scarcely wanted to expound on gods in the plural. This was precisely what he wanted to deny, as he introduced the Athenians to the one true Creator God.81

17:23b Verse 23b sets the tone for the remainder of the speech. There is a play on the concept of ignorance. To worship an unknown (agnōstō) god is to admit one’s ignorance. If he is unknown to you, you are then in total ignorance of his true nature. Thus Paul said, “What you worship in ignorance [agnoountes], this I proclaim to you” (author’s translation). Two things should be noted. First, Paul referred to “what” they worshiped, not “who” they worshiped. Their worship was totally wrongheaded. They did not know God; they didn’t worship him at all. Their worship object was a thing, a “what,” and not a personal God at all. Second, there is a strong emphasis on ignorance, on not knowing. For Greeks, as for Stoics, ignorance was a cardinal sin. The greatest virtue was to discover truth through pursuing the divine reason within oneself. Not to live in accordance with reason, to live in ignorance, was the greatest folly imaginable. Paul accused them of precisely this ignorance, this sin.82 He would return to this theme in v. 30 with his call to repentance. The time had arrived when such ignorance of God was wholly without excuse.

The Creator God (17:24–25)

17:24–25 Paul began with the basic premise that runs throughout his speech: God is Creator. He referred to God as the maker of the “world” (kosmos), a term that would be familiar to every Greek. The concept of God as absolute Creator, however, would not be so easy for them to grasp. For them divinity was to be found in the heavens, in nature, in humanity. The idea of a single supreme being who stood over the world, who created all that exists, was totally foreign to them.83 This was indeed an “unknown god.”

Once granted the premise that God is Creator, two things follow. First, God “does not live in temples built by hands.” This is a thoroughly biblical thought. Compare Solomon’s similar remark at the dedication of his temple (1 Kgs 8:27) and Stephen’s critique of the Jerusalem temple (Acts 7:48–50). The more philosophically minded Athenians would have had no problem with this, however. Plato advocated a religion based on worship of the heavenly bodies as being superior to that observed in earthly temples, and Zeno and Seneca both scorned temples.84 The philosophers also would have had no problem with Paul’s second critique of human worship, “He is not served by human hands” (v. 25). Paul’s qualifier, “as if he needed anything,” would particularly have resonated with them. It was a commonplace of Greek philosophy to view divinity as complete within itself, totally self-sufficient, totally without need.85 And they would have agreed with Paul also that the divinity is the giver of “life and breath and everything else.”86 But there was a world of difference between the philosopher’s pantheism and Paul’s strict monotheism.

Every statement Paul made was rooted in Old Testament thought. The idea of God’s being the granter of life and breath, as indeed the entire point of vv. 24–25, can be found in passages like Isa 42:5 and Ps 50:7–15.87 It is not the philosophical concept of a divine immanent principle that pervades all nature and humankind. It is the biblical concept of a sovereign Creator God who stands above his creation and to whom humanity as creature is ultimately responsible. Such a God could not be enshrined in human temples or manipulated by human cult. Much of the conceptuality may have struck a responsive chord with the Athenians. Paul probably was struggling to communicate the gospel in terms understandable to them. But on the basic premise there was no compromise. There is but one sovereign God, Creator of all. To know him they must abandon all their other gods. Otherwise he would remain to them the “unknown god.”

The Providential God (17:26–27)

These verses form the center of the speech. As such, they should be central to Paul’s argument, and they are. They contain two emphases: (1) God’s providence over humanity and (2) human responsibility to God. The two verses comprise a single sentence in the Greek text. The sentence consists of a main clause (“From one man he made every nation of men”) and two subordinate purpose clauses. The thought thus runs: God made humanity for two purposes: (1) to inhabit the earth (v. 26) and (2) to seek him (v. 27). The dominating thought is thus still that of God as Creator.

17:26a God “made” every human nation. There is the added nuance, however, that he made every nation “from one man.” The reference is most likely to Adam, and the emphasis is on the universality of humankind’s relationship to God. Although there are many nations, though they are scattered over the face of the earth, they are one in their common ancestry and in their relationship to their Creator. One can see the significance of this in an address before Gentiles. The God whom Paul proclaimed was no local Jewish cult God. He was the one sovereign Lord of all humankind.

17:26b The precise meaning of verse 26b is somewhat problematic. To what do the “times” (kairoi) refer? They could either refer to the seasons or to historical epochs. The same ambiguity exists in the term “exact places where they should live.” Does this refer to the habitable areas of the planet or to the boundaries between nations? If Paul was talking of seasons and habitable zones, he was pointing to God’s providence in nature.88 If the reference is to historical epochs and national boundaries, the emphasis is on God’s lordship over history.89 In either instance Paul’s point would be the same—the care and providence of God in his creation. These statements do seem to contain an underlying thought of “natural revelation.” Much as Paul argued in Rom 1:18–20 and in the speech at Lystra (14:17), God made himself known in some sense by the works of his creation.90 All people, Gentiles included, have experienced this and to that extent are responsible before God. This led to the climactic statement about seeking God in v. 27.

17:27 Verse 27 gives the second purpose of humankind in God’s creation—“that men would seek him.” The idea of seeking God is common in the Old Testament,91 but that does not seem to be the background here. For the Old Testament writers, the call to “seek God” was always made to those within the covenant community, to Israel to whom God had already made himself known. In the present context it is a call for Gentiles for whom the true God is “unknown.” The connection is with the preceding verse and its emphasis on God’s providence in his creation. God’s purpose in all this is stated as his desire that people might seek him and find him. The Stoics would have been in complete agreement. They would have argued that the divine principle was to be found in all of nature and that one should strive to grasp it as fully as possible through cultivating reason, that part of divinity that dwelt in one’s own human nature. They firmly believed that through the proper discipline of reason one could come to a knowledge of divinity. Paul would not have agreed. Even a knowledge of God from nature would still not be a human attainment but a revelation of God in his works. But Paul was not confident in the human ability to grasp such a natural revelation. Perhaps that is why he used the optative mood in v. 27, a mode of Greek grammar that here expresses strong doubt. God created humans, Paul said, so they might seek him and just possibly grope after him and find him. He had his doubts. People likely would not discover God in this fashion, even “though he is not far” from them. There is no question about God’s providence; there is about humanity’s ability to make the proper response. There is also no question about God’s purposes. God did create humans “to seek him.” This is the proper response of the creature. The responsibility of humanity is the worship of God.92

The Worship of God (17:28–29)

17:28 Verse 28 is transitional, linking up with the theme of God’s proximity in v. 27b and providing the basis for the critique of idolatrous worship in v. 29. It also serves the rather unique function of providing the “scriptural base” for the speech. In this instance it isn’t a matter of Scripture at all but rather a quote from a pagan philosopher.93 Scripture would have been meaningless to the Athenians. Paul still continued to address them as much as possible in their own terms. Some argue that two quotes from Greek poets are in v. 28, but more likely the verse contains only one. The phrase “in him we live and move and have our being” seems to have been a more or less traditional Greek triadic formula.94 Paul surely did not understand this in the Greek sense, which would emphasize the pantheistic view of the divinity residing in human nature. His view was that of v. 25: God is the giver of life and breath and all that is. Through God the Creator people live and move and have existence. The second statement is introduced as the quote from the Greek poets. It is generally agreed that the quote is found in the Stoic poet Aratus of Soli, who lived in the first half of the third century b.c. Aratus may himself have been quoting a hymn to Zeus from the poet Cleanthes, which would perhaps explain Paul’s plural reference to “some of your poets.” For Aratus “we are his offspring” referred to Zeus and to humanity’s sharing in the divine nature. In the context of Paul’s speech, it referred to God and to humanity’s being his creation.

17:29 In v. 29 Paul returned to his earlier critique of artificial worship with which the speech began (vv. 24–25). Earlier he had critiqued temple and cult. Now he attacked idolatry. The attack was based on the previous statement that humans are God’s offspring. The idea is that of people being made in God’s image. If humankind is the true image of God, the work of God’s hands, it follows that no image made by human hands can render proper homage to God. If humanity is like God, then God is not like gold or silver or any such material representation. Only the creature can express the true worship of the Creator, not the creation of the creature, not something made by human design and skill.

Here Paul spoke very much in the line of the Old Testament critique of idolatry.95 The Stoics would have agreed. They too saw idolatry as the folly of popular religion. But if they truly understood Paul’s teaching of the one true Creator God, they would have realized that they too were idolaters. In their attempt to reach the divine through their own striving, in their view that the divine indwelt their own human nature, they had transgressed the relationship of creature to Creator. If they had genuinely accepted Paul’s major premise that God is Creator, they would have had to acknowledge their own self-idolatry, their own need for repentance.

The Judgment of God (17:30–31)

17:30–31 Paul now directed his attention to the Athenians, returning to the theme of ignorance with which he began. They were guilty of ignorance. All their acts of piety were in vain, for they did not know or worship the one true God. In his forbearance God formerly “overlooked” such ignorance (cf. 14:16; Rom 3:25). The times of forbearance had now ended because their ignorance had now ended. Now they knew the one true God through Paul’s proclamation. He was no longer an “unknown God”; and should they continue in their false worship and fail to acknowledge his sole lordship of heaven and earth, their sin would no longer be a sin of ignorance but a high-handed sin.

Only one course was open—repentance, a complete turnabout from their false worship and a turning to God.96 The concept of repentance must have sounded strange to the Athenians. Even stranger was Paul’s warning of God’s coming day of judgment (v. 31).97 Strangest of all was his reference to the resurrection of Christ. Paul’s train of thought was clear enough. God is the one true God and should be acknowledged by his creatures. All people must ultimately stand before God and give an account for their relationship to him. God appointed “the man” who would carry out this judgment. (The “man” was Christ, “the Son of Man,” in his role as judge; cf. Dan 7:13f.) God clearly demonstrated this truth by the miracle of raising him from the dead. Just as Peter had pointed to the resurrection as proof to the Jews that Jesus is Messiah, so to the Gentiles Paul pointed to the resurrection as proof that he is the coming judge of all humanity. Paul had reached the climax of his testimony and made his appeal. He may have had more to say, but he had said enough to convict at least one Areopagite (v. 34). In any event, with the mention of resurrection the jeering started, and Paul’s speech ended (v. 32).

Commentators often have said that the Paul of the epistles would never have preached the Areopagus sermon because its thought would have been alien to him. Such is not the case. The appeal to a “natural revelation” is certainly present in Rom 1:18–32 even though the application differs. More significant are passages like 1 Thess 1:9–10, where Paul summarized his preaching to the Gentiles at Thessalonica. There the elements are strikingly the same as in the Areopagus speech: turning from idols to a living God, the return of the Son from heaven, the resurrection, the wrath to come. This is almost a summary of the appeal in Acts 17:29–31.

What of course is unique in the Areopagus speech is its appeal to Greek philosophical thought. Paul was attempting to build bridges with the intellectuals in Athens in the hope of winning some (cf. 1 Cor 9:19). He used their language, quoted their poets, and sought to reach them in terms they would understand. As such his speech in Athens became a model for the Christian apologists who later attempted to present the faith to the pagan intellectuals of a later day.98 It should be noted that Paul never compromised the basic Christian principles of God as Creator and Judge and the resurrection of Christ. In the end these were the most difficult concepts for the Athenians to grasp, but there could be no accommodation on these. Bridge building is essential in Christian witness, particularly when addressing different cultures, as missionaries must often do. Paul’s Areopagus address provides both a precedent and a pattern for this essential task.99

(3) The Mixed Response (17:32–34)

32When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, “We want to hear you again on this subject.” 33At that, Paul left the Council. 34A few men became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others.

17:32–33 Epicureans believed in no human existence after death. Stoics believed that only the immaterial spirit survived death. To Greeks the idea of a body surviving death did not make any sense—even a transformed body. So many in the Areopagus simply scoffed at Paul’s reference to the resurrection. As so often with the preaching of the gospel in Acts, however, the response was mixed. Others wanted to “hear [him] again.” There is no reason to see this response as anything but genuine. They were not convinced by Paul, but they were still willing to give him further hearing. At this point the scoffers must have had the majority, for Paul did not tarry before the Areopagus but left the assembly (v. 33).

17:34 There was a third response to Paul’s witness in Athens, however. A few people responded in faith.100 At least one of these, Dionysius the Areopagite, seems to have been converted by Paul’s address before the council. Another convert is mentioned by name—Damaris. It is significant that of the two believers designated by name, one is male and the other female. One cannot fail to observe the prominence of women in Paul’s Greek congregations of Macedonia and Achaia. We have no further reliable tradition on either Dionysius or Damaris. Some later writings under the name of Dionysius the Areopagite exist, but these are the product of a fifth-century Christian monk writing pseudonymously under the name of the New Testament character. Later traditions that Dionysius became the first bishop of Athens have no reliable basis.101 Neither do we know anything more of Damaris. Chrysostom saw her as Dionysius’s wife, but this is probably purely conjectural on his part.102 The “others” who are mentioned as converts in v. 34 may have resulted from Paul’s larger witness in the synagogue and agora of Athens rather than from his address before the Areopagus. The same may have been true of Damaris.

The well-worn sermon idea that Paul totally abandoned his efforts to preach to intellectuals after his experience in Athens is a misreading of both Acts and 1 Corinthians. Luke did not present Paul’s Areopagus sermon as a failure. The Arepoagus council consisted of about thirty members according to the best evidence. If Dionysius were the only convert from the address, one out of thirty is scarcely negligible, particularly when addressing skeptical intellectuals!103 And the first chapter of 1 Corinthians is not an anti-intellectual manifesto. It is a rather profound exposition of revelation and reason and still challenges the best minds. Paul’s determination to preach the crucified Christ was only confirmed by his Areopagus experience. He never did otherwise than major on the center of the gospel, the death and resurrection of Christ. The climax of the Areopagus speech was the resurrection, and it received the predictable response—to the Greeks, folly (cf. v. 32; 1 Cor 1:23).

Endnotes

46 Since the ancient city lies beneath modern buildings, it remains largely unexcavated. See McDonald, “Archaeology and St. Paul’s Journeys,” 21–24.

47 For a full treatment of Amphipolis, see R. Riesner, “Amphipolis,” BK 44 (1989): 79–81. For a description of all Paul’s Macedonian mission points, see O. F. Meinardus, St. Paul in Greece (Athens: Athens Publishing Center, 1972).

48 The plural form sabbata regularly occurs in the NT for a single Sabbath day. This is the only occurrence in the NT where it is unambiguously used of more than one Sabbath. See Beginnings 4:202–3.

49 It was long enough for a church to be established and leadership appointed (1 Thess 5:12). It was of sufficient duration that Paul received financial support from Philippi “time and again” while in Thessalonica (Phil 4:16). Evidently he took up his trade and supported himself as well during this period (1 Thess 2:9). Most of Paul’s converts in Thessalonica seem to have come out of paganism, judging from 1 Thess 1:9, which would indicate a more extensive Gentile witness than one might gather from Luke’s highly compressed account.

50 Luke used the terminology of formal rhetoric, the art of persuasion. Paul appealed to the reason of the Jews and persuaded them with scriptural demonstrations. See D. W. Kemmler, Faith and Human Reason: A Study of Paul’s Method of Preaching as Illustrated by 1–2 Thessalonians and Acts 17, 2–4 (Leiden: Brill, 1975).

51 That the Scriptures point to the suffering of Christ is a common theme in Luke-Acts: Luke 24:26, 46; Acts 3:18; 26:22f. Cf. 1 Cor 15:3f.; 1 Pet 1:11. The servant psalms of Isaiah would have comprised a major part of these OT proofs of the passion of Christ.

52 See E. Harrison, The Interpretation of Acts (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1986), 280. The Western text habitually makes the women “wives” of prominent men (here and in v. 12) rather than those with significant status in their own right. See B. Witherington, “The Anti-Feminist Tendencies of the ‘Western’ Text in Acts,” JBL 103 (1984): 82–84.

53 See B. N. Kaye, “Acts’ Portrait of Silas,” NovT 21 (1980): 13–26.

54 Twice by Jews (17:5–7; 18:12–13), twice by Gentiles (16:19–21; 19:24–27) in formal accusations before the authorities. See R. C. Tannehill, The Narrative Unity of Luke-Acts (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1990), 2:209.

55 Greek ἀγοραίος, the ill-bred, coarse class; loafers who frequent the marketplace.

56 First Thessalonians 2:14–16 carries this dual picture of the combined Jewish (“who drove us out”) and Gentile (“your own countrymen”) opposition in Thessalonica.

57 As the equivalent of Ἰησοῦς (Jesus/Joshua).

58 See F. F. Bruce, Commentary on the Book of Acts, NIC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977), 314. There seem to have been five locally elected magistrates in Thessalonica in Paul’s day. They were responsible for law enforcement. Legislature was in the hands of the local citizens, referred to as the dēmos. This term occurs in v. 5, but there it seems to be virtually equivalent to “crowd” and is so translated by the NIV.

59 The verb for “causing trouble,” ἀναστατόω, can mean to stir up sedition, be a political agitator. In light of the third charge, that may be the implication here.

60 See E. A. Judge, “The Decrees of Caesar at Thessalonica,” RTR 30 (1971): 1–7.

61 Bruce, “St. Paul in Macedonia,” 351f.

62 See F. W. Danker, “Menander and the New Testament,” NTS 10 (1963–64): 368.

63 See J. Kremer, “Einführung in die Problematik heutiger Acta-Forschung anhand von Apg. 17, 10–13,” Les Actes, 11–20.

64 E. Delebecque, “Paul à Thessalonique et à Béreé selon le Texte occidental des Actes (xvii, 4–15),” RevThom 82 (1982): 605–15.

65 For very thorough descriptions of the Athenian idols and temples, see O. Broneer, “Athens ‘City of Idol Worship,’ ” BA 21 (1958): 2–28 and G. T. Montague, “Paul and Athens,” TBT 49 (1970): 14–23.

66 Together with the Cynics, Stoics and Epicureans represented the most popular philosophies of the day. Epicureans received their name from their founder Epicurus, who lived from 341–270 b.c. Stoicism was founded by the Cypriot Zeno (ca. 335–263 b.c.) and was named for the stoa or colonnade in the agora where Zeno had taught.

67 Robinson fails to convince in his argument that “seed” and “word” are to be derived from Paul’s preaching the parable of the sower in the agora (M. A. Robinson, “SPERMO-LOGOS: Did Paul Preach from Jesus’ Parables?” Bib 56 [1975]: 231–40).

68 G. D. Kilpatrick, “The Acts of the Apostles, xvii.18,” TZ 42 (1986): 431f.

69 P. H. Menoud, “Jésus et Anastasie (Actes xvii, 18),” RTP 32 (1944): 141–45.

70 A. Ehrhardt, The Acts of the Apostles: Ten Lectures (Manchester: University Press, 1969), 97f.; Haenchen (Acts, 519, n. 1), who likens the hill to “Hyde Park”; W. G. Morrice, “Where did Paul speak in Athens—on Mars’ Hill or before the Court of the Areopagus? (Acts 17:19),” ExpTim 83 (1972): 377f.

71 Socrates, however, did not appear before the Areopagus but rather the court of the “King Archon,” a special jury. See Beginnings 4:212.

72 Ramsay sees the council acting in its role as regulator of public lecturers (St. Paul the Traveller, 245–48). B. Gärtner sees Paul as being taken before the “education commission” of the court (The Areopagus Speech and Natural Revelation [Uppsala: Gleerup, 1955], 52–65).

73 C. J. Hemer, “Paul at Athens: A Topographical Note,” NTS 20 (1974): 341–50. For the view that the court still met on the hill in Paul’s day, see T. D. Barnes, “An Apostle on Trial,” JTS, n.s. 20 (1969): 407–19.

74 Cited by Bruce (Acts: NIC, 352) with other similar contemporary allusions to the Athenian inquisitiveness.

75 The work by E. Norden, Agnostos Theos (Stuttgart: Teubner, 1923) argued for a thoroughly philosophical background to the speech. This approach has been subsequently modified and developed by such scholars as M. Dibelius, “Paul on the Areopagus,” Studies in the Acts of the Apostles (London: SCM, 1956); H. Conzelmann, “The Address of Paul on the Areopagus,” Studies in Luke-Acts (Nashville: Abingdon, 1966), 217–30; M. Pohlenz, who argued for a Stoic background (“Paulus und die Stoa,” ZNW 42 [1949]: 69–104); H. Hommel, who defined the Stoic background more narrowly as the thought of Poseidonius (“Neue Forschungen zur Areopagrede Acts 17,” ZNW 46 [1955]: 145–79); and Hommel, “Platonisches bei Lukas: Zu Act 17:28a (Leben-Bewegen-Sein),” ZNW 48 (1957): 193–200. B. Gärtner’s Areopagus Speech and Natural Revelation argues that the background to the speech is thoroughly that of the OT. W. Nauck sees the background in the Hellenistic Jewish missionary preaching (“Die Tradition und Komposition der Areopagrede,” ZTK 53 [1956]: 11–51). F. G. Downing notes the similarities between Acts and Josephus in addressing paganism (“Common Ground with Paganism in Luke and in Josephus,” NTS 28 [1982]: 546–59). Like Gärtner, A. M. Dubarle argues a thoroughly OT background (“Le Discours à l’Aréopage [Acts 17:22–31 ] et son Arrière-plan Biblique,” RSPT 57 [1973]: 576–610).

76 The piety of the Athenians was often noted by contemporary writers. Cf. Sophocles (Oedipus Tyranus 260), “Athens is held of states the most devout,” and Pausanias 1.17.1, “The Athenians venerate the gods more than others.” See Conzelmann, Acts, 140.

77 H. A. Moellering, “Deisidaimonia, a Footnote to Acts 17:22,” CTM 34 (1963): 466–71.

78 For a thorough treatment of the evidence for altars to the unknown gods, see Beginnings 5:240–46.

79 Pausanias 1.1.4 and 5.14.8.

80 Life of Apollonius 6.3.5. By putting this reference to the altars together with another reference from a far-removed context in Life of Apollonius, which referred to the philosopher’s having preached against idolatry in Athens, Norden argued that the Apollonius tradition provided the base for the Areopagus sermon (Agnostos Theos, 35–56). This view has been almost universally rejected by scholars. See P. Corssen, “Der Altar des unbekannten Gottes,” ZNW 14 (1913): 309–23.

81 Norden’s view that the “unknown god” should be seen as the unknowable, inscrutable high god of the Gnostics (Agnostos Theos, 56–83) has also been generally rejected. E. des Places argues similarly (though rejecting the Gnostic thesis) that Paul intended his phrase to refer to the “unknowable” God, which would have appealed to Greek piety (“ ‘Au Dieu Inconnu’ [Act 17, 23],” Bib 43 [1962]: 388–95). Paul, however, was arguing the opposite—God could be known, had made himself known through revelation, not through human reason.

82 H. Kulling, “Zur Bedeutung des Agnostos Theos: Eine Exegese zu Apostelgeschichte 17, 22–23,” TZ 36 (1980): 65–83.

83 See H. P. Owen, “The Scope of Natural Revelation in Rom. I and Acts XVII,” NTS 5 (1958–59): 133–43.

84 For a thorough treatment of the philosophers’ critique of temples, see E. des Places, “ ‘Des temples fait de main d’homme’ (Actes des Apôtres 17, 24),” Bib 40 (1959): 793–99.

85 See R. Bultmann, “Anknüpfung und Widerspruch,” TZ 2 (1946): 410–11. Cf. Euripides, Hercules 1345f.: “God, if he be truly God, has need of nothing.”

86 Cf. Seneca, Epistles 95.47: “God seeks no servants … he himself serves mankind.” For other parallels from the philosophers, see E. des Places, “Actes 17, 25,” Bib 46 (1965): 219–22.

87 For the view that vv. 24–25 are based on Isa 42:5, see E. Fudge, “Paul’s Apostolic Self-Consciousness at Athens,” JETS 14 (1971): 193–98.

88 This is the position of Dibelius, “Paul on the Areopagus,” 30–32. A similar position is taken by W. Eltester with the difference that he sees the “boundaries” not as habitable zones but as the boundaries of the creation account, the “firmament” or boundary between the earth and the watery chaos (“Schöpfungsoffenbarung und natürliche Theologie im frühen Christentum,” NTS 3 [1957]: 93–114).

89 See Gärtner, Areopagus Speech and Natural Revelation, 146–51.

90 For a discussion of the relationship between Rom 1 and Acts 17, see the commentary on 14:14–18.

91 Cf. Isa 55:6; 65:1; Ps 14:2; Prov 8:17; Jer 29:13.

92 R. F. O’Toole, “Paul at Athens and Luke’s Notion of Worship,” RB 89 (1982): 185–97.

93 J. Calloud notes that the Greeks often viewed their poets as inspired (“Paul devant l’Aréopage d’Athenes: Actes 17, 16–34,” RSR 69 [1981]: 209–48).

94 Those who argue that it is a quotation attribute it to Epimenides of Crete, basing this on a reference in the ninth-century Syriac commentary of Ishodad of Merv, who may have been dependent on Theodore of Mopsuestia. The poem of Epimenides consists of a hymn of Minos to his father Zeus. Minos attacks his fellow Cretans as being liars for building a tomb for Zeus, but Zeus is very much alive, and Minos praises him with the words “in thee we live and move and have our being.” It is interesting that the tradition of Cretans being liars in Titus 1:12 seems to come from this same poem of Epimenides. Pohlenz (“Paulus und die Stoa,” 101–4) gives a rather strong case for questioning the Ishodad tradition. For the argument that the statement is based on Euripides, Bacchae, see P. Colaclides, “Acts 17:28A and Bacchae 506,” VC 27 (1973): 161–64.

95 Cf. Deut 4:28; Ps 115:4–8; Isa 40:18–20; 44:9–20; Song of Songs 3:10–4:2; 5:7–16.

96 E. des Places, “Actes 17, 30–31,” Bib 52 (1971): 526–34; J. Dupont, “Le discours à l’Aréopage,” Nouvelles Etudes, 410–23.

97 A. J. Mattill, Jr., argues that the occurrence of μέλλω in v. 31 implies an imminent judgment (“Näherwartung, Fernerwartung, and the Purpose of Luke-Acts: Weymouth Reconsidered,” CBQ 34 [1972]: 281–83).

98 H. Gebhardt shows how the second- and third-century Christian apologists developed the same basic arguments as in the Areopagus speech (“Die an die Heiden gerichtete Missionsrede der Apostel und das Johannesevangelium,” ZNW 6 [1905]: 236–49).

99 See K. O. Gangel, “Paul’s Areopagus Speech,” BibSac 127 (1970): 308–12.

100 Verse 34 is rather clear evidence that ἄνδρες is not gender specific in Acts because Damaris is included in the relative clause dependent upon it. The sentence runs literally: “Some people joined him and believed, among whom were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris” (the NIV “men” should be translated “people”).

101 For these traditions see Eusebius, Church History 3.4.11 and 4.23.3.

102 The name Damaris is otherwise not found in first-century Greek literature. Some old Latin manuscripts read Damalis at v. 34, which was a common name and meant heifer. Some commentators want to see Damaris as a courtesan or dancing girl. Evidently this conjecture is based on the assumption that she was converted as a result of Paul’s Areopagus address and that no respectable Greek woman would have been present in the agora or in any public gathering unaccompanied. This fails to recognize that v. 34 is a summary of Paul’s total ministry in Athens—not just the Areopagus speech. For the interesting suggestion that Damaris may have had an Egyptian background (from Egyptian T’-mr, “beloved one”), see J. G. Griffiths, “Was Damaris an Egyptian? (Acts 17:34),” BZ 8 (1964): 293–95.

103 See J. H. MacLean, “St. Paul at Athens,” ExpTim 44 (1932–33): 550–53.

 John B. Polhill, Acts, vol. 26, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1992), 358–379.


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