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Studies in the Book of Acts

Acts 17:1-21

The gospel goes into Macedonia and Greece

On to Thessalonica (17:1)

After Paul, Silas and Timothy leave Philippi, they travel west through the next two towns — Amphipolis and Apollonia. If any missionary work occurs there, Luke has no interest in telling his readers about it. Luke simply says that Paul and his company go through these towns. Amphipolis is about 33 miles (53 kilometers) southwest of Philippi, along the Via Egnatia. Apollonia is 27 miles (43 kilometers) west-southwest of Amphipolis.

Luke is hurrying the missionary group to Thessalonica, about 35 miles (56 kilometers) west of Apollonia. Each town is about a horseback day’s journey from the next. Thessalonica (modern Salonika) is the capital of the province of Macedonia, and its largest and most prosperous city. Thessalonica is a large city of perhaps 200,000 people. It has a good location on the Thermaic Gulf. The Via Egnatia is the main street of Thessalonica, and it is still a major thoroughfare of Salonika.

In Luke’s day, Thessalonica is an important link between the rich Macedonian agricultural interior and land and sea trade routes. Paul seems to view Thessalonica as a strategic center from which to preach the gospel in the Balkan peninsula. Paul knows that he does not have to go to all these areas — once he begins a church in one city, the believers themselves will begin spreading the good news to nearby areas. Perhaps that is why Paul just passes through Amphipolis and Apollonia — he knows they will be evangelized from the churches in Philippi and Thessalonica. Paul can later write to the church, saying, “The Lord’s message rang out from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia — your faith in God has become known everywhere” (1 Thessalonians 1:8).

Paul teaches in the largest cities of the Roman world — Antioch, Thessalonica, Corinth, Ephesus and Rome. These cities are seaports and on busy trade routes. Churches established in these cities provide a jumping-off place from which nearby towns and villages in the hinterland will be evangelized.

As his custom was (17:2)

When Paul comes to Thessalonica, he goes into the synagogue “as was his custom” and for “three Sabbath days he reasoned with them [the Jews] from the Scriptures” (17:2). Paul uses a simple strategy in spreading the gospel of God. When he arrives in a new city, he almost always visits a local synagogue. This becomes his regular practice (13:14, 44; 14:1; 16:13, 16; 18:4; 19:8).

A Sabbath in a synagogue is a wonderful teaching opportunity for Paul. Here Jews and devout Gentiles gather to read and interpret the Scriptures — the Old Testament in Greek translation. In such a setting, Paul finds people who already know the true God. They share Israel’s hope for a Messiah and the kingdom of God.

At Thessalonica, Paul is able to speak in the synagogue during three Sabbaths. This is probably only the beginning of a longer campaign in Thessalonica. We learn from Paul’s letter to the Philippian church that he receives financial aid from Philippi on several occasions (4:16). But he is also supporting himself even while he is preaching the gospel in the city (1 Thessalonians 2:92 Thessalonians 3:7-8). This implies that Paul is in the city for some time.

It appears that most of the converts in Thessalonica were originally pagans, not God-fearers who attended the synagogue (1 Thessalonians 1:9). This implies that Paul is teaching pagan Gentiles directly, probably after his three sessions in the synagogue. Most likely, the three weeks in the synagogue are only the beginning of Paul’s work in Thessalonica. Perhaps the synagogue kicked him out after those first three weeks, and he then teaches the Gentiles directly, but Luke doesn’t describe this part of Paul’s mission in Thessalonica.

Reasoning from the Scriptures (17:2-4)

In the synagogue, Paul is “explaining and proving that the Messiah had to suffer and rise from the dead” (17:3). Paul tries to be methodical in his teaching. He “reasons,” “explains,” “proves,” and “persuades” his hearers. What probably surprises, and angers the Jews is Paul’s claim that the Messiah “had to suffer” (17:3). Preaching a suffering Savior who died is not a popular message for most Jews, since they are looking for a heroic Messiah (1 Corinthians 1:22-23).

Paul argues that Jesus fulfills the conditions for a suffering Messiah — which the Scriptures speak of. Thus, he is that Messiah. But to the Jews, Jesus is a criminal and insurrectionist who was executed by the Romans. It’s not surprising that Paul probably lasts only three weeks in the synagogue before being ejected as a heretic, or fool.

The preaching of Paul in the Book of Acts generally and at Thessalonica particularly took the form of a “proclaimed witness” — i.e., a witness to the facts that Jesus of Nazareth is the Christ, that his suffering and resurrection were in accord with the Scriptures, and that through his earthly ministry and living presence men and women can experience the reign of God in their lives. (Longenecker, 469)

In its simplest form, this is the essence of the gospel Paul preaches from the Hebrew Scriptures. He writes later of this “good news”: “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4).

Some of the Jews believe this gospel and join Paul and Silas. As well, so do a number of God-fearing Gentiles who attend the synagogue and a few “prominent women” (17:4). These all become disciples. Once Paul is barred from the synagogue, he turns to teaching the pagan Gentiles. He apparently receives a much more favorable response from them, as Thessalonians implies. It is helpful to read Paul’s two letters to the Thessalonians in connection with this section of Acts. The epistles flesh out Luke’s account of Paul’s stay in the city and put a very human face on his relationship with the converts there.

Jews accuse Paul and Silas (17:5-9)

Paul’s success with the Gentiles both within and especially outside the synagogue ignite the Jews’ jealousy (17:5). Not only is Paul the renegade rabbi stealing converts from their private preserve, he is having unprecedented success in making proselytes from the Gentile community at large. The unbelieving Jews decide it is time to stop Paul’s evangelizing activities. So they “rounded up some bad characters from the marketplace, formed a mob and started a riot in the city” (17:5). The mob is composed of criminal types who hang around the public square with nothing to do but cause trouble. The Jews probably pay them to start a riot. Apparently, their goal is to implicate Paul and Silas in a civil disturbance.

The Jews assume the missionaries are in the home of a convert named Jason. They storm the house but find only Jason and some other believers. (Jason’s home probably serves as a house church, as did Lydia’s.) Some connect this Jason with the individual mentioned along with Luke (Lucius) and Sosipater (16:21) in the letter to the Romans. However, Jason is a common name and any connection can only be speculative.

The Jews apparently hope to bring Paul before the popular assembly of citizens, the Greek demos (17:5). The translation of the NIV, “crowd,” is unfortunate. (See its footnote or marginal reference, “assembly of the people.”) Failing to find Paul and Silas, the Jews drag Jason and some other believers before the city officials, or politarchs. These are the magistrates of Thessalonica, and the title is known from a number of inscriptions.

The Jews bring a charge of disturbing the Pax Romana against Paul and Silas. They claim, “These men who have caused trouble all over the world have now come here” (17:6). (The traditional KJV translation, “turned the world upside down,” although memorable, gives an improper nuance to the Greek.) The Jews don’t have Paul and Silas in hand, so they accuse Jason of being part of the conspiracy by allowing the insurrectionists to use his home as a safe house. The Jews also accuse the missionaries of “defying Caesar’s decrees, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus” (17:7). Naturally, charges of insurrection, subverting the empire, and a plot against Caesar are extremely serious. If they hold up, the missionaries could be executed.

The magistrates of Thessalonica apparently know of the recent troubles in the Jewish community at Rome. These are described by the Roman biographer and historian Suetonius (born c. A.D. 70) as the “constant riots at the instigation of Chrestus” (Life of Claudius 25.4). The continuing tumult forces Emperor Claudius to issue his edict around A.D. 49-50, which tries to expel all the Jews from the city. The Jews of Thessalonica are probably playing on these fears, intimating that similar riots might erupt in their city.

This may have had something to do with the accusation that the missionaries are “defying Caesar’s decrees” (17:7). Perhaps the decrees had to do with prohibitions against public assemblies (including religious ones) or the fomenting of riots — meant to prevent the sorts of disturbances that occurred at Rome. The Jews also accuse the missionaries of saying there is another king, Jesus, instead of Caesar. Perhaps the decrees in question contain oaths of loyalty to Caesar. Preaching Jesus as a rival emperor would violate such regulations.

Of course, the Jews are twisting the meaning of the confession that declared Jesus to be the Messiah and Savior. The Jews are putting a politically inflammatory twist on what is a personal and spiritual confession. (Although Jesus is not a king of this world, the gospel does call people to give greater allegiance to Jesus than to Caesar.) The Thessalonian politarchs are “thrown into turmoil” when the Jews make these accusations (17:8). They don’t want riots in their city, certainly not like the ones at Rome. The politarchs will be held accountable if they allow the violation of any imperial decrees.

But it seems that the magistrates see through the Jews’ plot and recognize the accusations as erroneous. Perhaps the officials recognize the rioters as the ne’er-do-wells of the town square. What’s more, Paul and Silas, supposedly the leaders of the riot, are nowhere to be found.

The politarchs took what they thought to be a moderate and reasonable course of action. They made Jason and those with him post a bond, assuring them that there would be no repetition of the trouble. This probably meant that Paul and Silas had to leave Thessalonica and that their friends promised they would not come back, at least during the term of office of the present politarchs. (Longenecker, 470)

To Berea by night (17:10-15)

The Jews probably continue to look for Paul, so as soon as nightfall comes, the disciples spirit him out of the city and send him to Berea. Once again, Paul is forced to make a hasty and humiliating departure, as he did from Damascus (9:23-25), Jerusalem (9:30), Antioch of Pisidia (13:50-51) and Lystra (14:20).

Berea (modern Verria) is about 50 miles (81 kilometers) west-southwest of Thessalonica. It takes Paul about three days to reach the town. Berea is considered an out-of-the-way place, of little historical or political importance. Paul again goes into the synagogue to preach, but he is given an unusually warm reception by the Jews. Luke presents the Berean Jews as openminded individuals. “The Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica,” he writes, “for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true” (17:11).

The Berean Jews apparently meet with Paul every day (not just on the Sabbath) to examine the Scriptures. Luke implies that they are zealous to understand the truth. If the Jews in Thessalonica took the time to search for and evaluate the promises of the Hebrew Scriptures, they too would discover that Paul was speaking the truth.

Many Jews in Berea believe the gospel, as do some prominent Gentile men and women (18:12). Among the believers is Sopater son of Pyrrhus, who is identified by Luke as being from Berea (20:4). Sopater might be the same person as the Sosipater of Romans 16:21, but there is no way to be sure.

Luke emphasizes that the converted Gentiles are “prominent,” perhaps in social standing. (One can almost catch a purposeful contrast here. The gospel can attract good people, while the Jews must rely on the rabble and riff-raff to foment a fake riot.) However, the antagonistic Jews of Thessalonica learn that Paul is teaching in Berea. They send some agents to stir up the crowds there. The Berean disciples take immediate action and send Paul “to the coast,” down to the sea (17:14). It’s not clear whether his friends put him on a ship bound for Piraeus, the port of Athens, or escort him by land to Athens. A sea journey would make more sense; otherwise Paul would have to travel a long distance over rough roads to get to Athens.

Silas and Timothy remain in Berea, but Paul gives instructions with the returning Bereans that they should rejoin him as soon as possible (17:15). They apparently rejoin him at Athens later, although Luke doesn’t tell us when (1 Thessalonians 3:1). Paul sends Timothy back to Thessalonica (1 Thessalonians 3:2). Silas returns to Macedonia (perhaps Philippi), and then with Timothy rejoins Paul in Corinth (18:5).

Commentators speculate that Paul has not really planned to teach in Athens. Perhaps he would rather follow the Via Egnatia across the Balkan peninsula to Dyrrhachium on the Adriatic, and then cross the sea to Italy — and go to Rome. It may be that political considerations in Macedonia make it impossible for him to continue west. And because of Claudius’ edict expelling Jews from Rome, it is not a good time to visit the city. Whatever his intentions, it’s clear that Paul comes to Athens mainly to escape persecution.

Paul preaches in Athens and Corinth
Acts 17:16-18:17

Paul at Athens (17:16)

Athens has a 1,000 year history of glory when Paul enters its gates. The city is famous as the founder of democracy. It is a literary, artistic and philosophical center. Aeschylus, Epicurus, Euripides, Plato, Socrates, Sophocles, Thucydides and Zeno are part of its heritage.

The Romans conquered Athens in 146 B.C., but they are so impressed with Greek learning that they foster Athens’ continuing dominance in cultural and intellectual matters. Athens continues to function as a free city. She lost her great wealth and pre-eminent position long before Paul teaches there. Athens, while still a great university town, has to live off its history, its reputation, its ancient glory. Its population during Paul’s days is only 10,000.

Teaching in the agora (17:16-17)

Paul is in the midst of an intellectual city, proud of its pagan heritage. Luke tells us that while Paul is waiting for Silas and Timothy, “he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols” (17:16). Paul becomes emotionally troubled by the people’s ignorance of the true God. The Athens of Paul’s day is a city of many gods. Ancient historians such as Livy (History of Rome 45:27) and Pausanius (Description of Greece 1, 14, 1-1, 15, 7) attest to the fact that Athens is filled with religious statues.

“It was said that there were more statues of the gods in Athens than in all the rest of Greece put together and that in Athens it was easier to meet a god than a man” (William Barclay, The Acts of the Apostles, revised edition, The Daily Study Bible Series [Philadelphia: Westminster, 1976], page 130).

Paul continues his usual practice of teaching in the synagogue on the Sabbath day, where he reasons with Jews and God-fearing Greeks (17:16). But he also pursues a parallel strategy of going to the Gentiles on weekdays. Paul reasons “in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there” (17:17). The marketplace is the agora, west of the Acropolis. It is the center of Athenian social life, and serves as its forum and a place where goods are bought and sold. Paul, like certain philosophers were known to do, challenges the crowds with the gospel message.

Stoics and Epicureans (17:18)

Paul soon finds himself confronted by Epicurean and Stoic philosophers who apparently teach in the agora as well. Athens is a home base for these rival schools of philosophy.

Epicurus (341-270 B.C.) said that pleasure is the chief goal of life. “Pleasure,” in his view, is the enjoyment of life that comes with freedom from pain, distressing emotions, superstitions, fears, and anxiety about death. To him the greatest pleasure is the absence of pain, suffering and fear. Today, epicureanism is sometimes confused with hedonism, indulging in physical pleasures without restraint. But that is not what the Epicureans teach in Paul’s day. While they consider pleasure the highest good, it is more of an intellectual detachment from the cares of this life than attachment to physical desire. They know that physical desires can lead to addiction and unhappiness; one of the “pleasures” they seek is simply friendship.

Epicurus and those who followed him do not deny the existence of the gods, but they say the notions held by the multitudes are wrong. The Epicureans argue that the gods are “far off,” with little or no interest in the ordinary lives of people. Epicureans have little motivation to seek after God or to fear his judgments.

The Stoic school of philosophy was founded by Zeno (340-265 B.C.), from Citium in Cyprus. Stoics emphasize human rational abilities, individual self-sufficiency, moral worth and duty. They stress reason and logic as principles that should govern the lives of people. The gods of popular mythology are said to be expressions of this universal Reason. The Stoics are pantheists in that they think of the divine as a kind of “world-soul.”

This babbler (17:18)

It’s clear why the Epicureans and Stoics disagree with the gospel of salvation Paul is teaching in the agora. Thoughtful people rely on these two philosophies to explain the nature of human existence to help them cope with a world of suffering. These two philosophies try to explain the plight of humanity apart from any revelation of God’s purpose. In that sense, the gospel message is a great challenge to them. It brings truth and light regarding humanity’s purpose, and calls into question the usefulness of these philosophies.

To believers in Epicureanism and Stoicism, Paul’s “philosophy” sounds alien and foolish — perhaps even dangerous. It’s not strange, then, that upon hearing Paul speak, some of these philosophers say, “What is this babbler trying to say?” (17:18). The Greek word for “babbler” is spermologos. The word originally described the action of birds picking up grain. It was then applied to scrap collectors searching for junk. Finally, it came to refer to people who sell the ideas of other people without understanding them. The word spermologos describes teachers who have only bits and pieces of learning, but who are trying to sound learned. Or it might refer to busybodies or gossips. Luke Timothy Johnson’s phrase — “the peddler of second-rate religious opinions” — seems to sum up the sense of “babbler” quite nicely here (Johnson, 313).

Paul is contemptuously dismissed by the Stoics and Epicureans as ignorant (1 Corinthians 2:23). Others are less derisive but more perplexed, saying, “He seems to be advocating foreign gods” (17:18). They say this because Paul is “preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection” (17:18). The philosophers seem to misunderstand what he is talking about — the “foreign gods” may refer to a new god (Jesus) and a goddess (Resurrection, or anastasis in Greek). Perhaps these philosophers think that Paul wants to have these “new” deities added to the Athenian pantheon.

To the Areopagus (17:19)

The suspicious philosophers take Paul to a session of the Areopagus. It is the city council of Athens, and in Roman times it is still the chief judicial body of the city. The court has perhaps 30 members, and is considered a select body. Interestingly, the word “Areopagus” survives today as the title of the Greek Supreme Court.

The council probably meets on the 377-foot hill called the Areopagus, or the Hill of Ares or Mars. (Ares, the Greek god of war, was equated with the Roman god Mars.) The hill is just northwest of the Acropolis. The council may meet at the Stoa Basileios, a columned building in the agora, the city center.

The Athenian Areopagus is the town council responsible for culture, education and religion. It also deals with cases of homicide and has oversight of public morals. The Areopagus evaluates the competence of visiting lecturers to speak in their city.

It’s not altogether clear whether the philosophers simply ask Paul to go before the Areopagus or whether they made a citizen’s arrest and force him to go. The way Luke presents the proceeding it appears to be more of a curious inquiry rather than a formal hearing, and much less a trial. Since Luke doesn’t imply the existence of a legal proceeding, it appears that Paul is asked to present his views before a normal session of the Areopagus. But it may be something of a command performance, not to be refused.

Perhaps we can envision the Areopagus meeting in open session like a city council. It hears reports from citizens regarding issues of vital interest to the community. After all, Luke does say that “the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas” (17:21). The Areopagus probably reflects this on-going talk show, and they would be curious to hear Paul’s “new ideas,” even if they seemed strange and far-fetched.

Johannes Munck is probably right when he says, “Curiosity about his teaching, not an accusation made against him, brought Paul and his audience to the Areopagus” (The Acts of the Apostles, The Anchor Bible [New York: Doubleday, 1967], 169). Nevertheless, while this is probably not a judicial hearing, there is an implied threat in being brought before the council.

Josephus gives several examples of Athenians being punished for offending the gods of Athens (Against Apion 2.262-269). Among those recently executed, says Josephus, is “a certain priestess, because she was accused by somebody that she initiated people into the worship of strange gods” (2.267). Even under the best of circumstances, an offer to present one’s views about “strange gods” before the council is not to be taken lightly.

The philosophers’ interest in Paul’s teaching was probably no more than academic, but there may have been just a hint of threat in it, because in Athens the introduction of strange gods, though common enough, was a capital offense if for this reason the local deities were rejected and the state religion was disturbed. (Williams, 303)

Perhaps we should see Paul’s “defense” before the Areopagus as being a kind of preliminary hearing to determine whether charges are to be filed. How he fares before this “grand jury” may determine his fate.

“You are very religious” (17:20-22)

Paul now stands before the Areopagus and the council asks him to speak. “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting?” the Areopagus asks, “You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we would like to know what they mean” (17:20).