In today’s essay we are studying Acts 17:1-21. Thessalonica was about a hundred miles from Philippi. After arriving there, Paul followed his usual custom and began his ministry at the local synagogue on the Sabbath. That ministry lasted three Sabbaths. He preached that the Messiah had to suffer, die, and rise from the dead. And he preached that Jesus was that Messiah (vv. 2-3).
Paul had success. Some of his Jewish listeners believed; many God-fearers became believers; and “not a few” of the leading women of the city believed as well (v. 4). But the response, as usual, was divided. The unbelieving Jews became jealous and decided to recruit a mob of “ruffians” (NRSV) “bad characters” (NIV) to “set the city in an uproar.” The mob looked for Paul and Silas, but couldn’t find them. They expected to find them at the home of a man named Jason, because he had extended hospitality to the missionaries. When they didn’t find them there, they attacked the house and dragged Jason and some other believers before the city authorities (vv. 5-6).
Jason probably was one of the Jewish converts. Although it was Jason and the other believers who were before the authorities, it actually was Paul and Silas who were on trial. The jealous Jews accused them of treason, saying that Paul and Silas were declaring a rival king named Jesus over against the Roman Emperor (vv. 7-8). Ironically, this was the same basic charge that had been leveled against Jesus at his trail. This charge upset the people of the city and the city officials even more (v. 8). But since Paul and Silas were not present, the officials set bail for Jason and the others and let them go (v. 9).
As you can see in verses 10-15, the Thessalonian believers, that very night sent Paul and Silas off to Beroea, a city located about 55 miles or so southwest of Thessalonica. That action headed off any further turmoil in Thessalonica. Once again the missionaries began their ministry at the local synagogue (v. 10). According to Luke, the Jews at Beroea were more receptive to the gospel than those at Thessalonica. And that’s why in verse 11 the NRSV translators used the translation, “more receptive.” But the Greek word literally means “more noble.” Therefore the NIV translators rendered the word “of more noble character.” The idea of this use of the word seems to have been that they were more noble-minded, or open-minded. At any rate, Luke tells us that the Beroeans received the word of God with all eagerness.
Luke also tells us that the Beroeans examined the scriptures every day to see if what Paul and Silas were teaching was true (v. 11). This suggests at least two things. First, it suggests that Paul and Silas were meeting with them daily rather than weekly. And second, it suggests that the Beroeans accepted the Bible, that is the Old Testament, as the word of God. Indeed their commitment to reading and studying the Scriptures, and their practice of verifying the accuracy of what they heard by means of those studies, became the biblical ideal. The adjective “Beroean” rather early on became associated with all Christians who study the Bible thoroughly and impartially in order to verify biblical truth.
The result was quite positive. Many Jews believed, as did “not a few Greek women and men of high standing” (v. 12). But the jealous Jews of Thessalonica heard that Paul was preaching the word of God in Beroea, and they determined to put a stop to it. They traveled to Beroea to stir up the crowds there (v. 13). Therefore the Beroean believers escorted Paul some 300 miles by sea to Athens (v. 14). For the time being, Silas and Timothy remained in Beroea. Since Paul was the primary public speaker, Silas and Timothy apparently were not threatened. After arriving at Athens, Paul instructed those who had escorted him to tell Silas and Timothy to join him at Athens as soon as possible (v. 15).
Athens had long ago lost its political eminence. She now was a free city within the Roman Empire. Athens wasn’t even the capital of the province of Achaia; Corinth was. But her cultural prestige still was unchallenged. In the fifth and fourth, and even into the third, centuries BC, her literature, sculpture, and oratory reached the highest levels of classical culture. Indeed her artistic and literary accomplishments never have been surpassed. The same was true in Philosophy. Athens was the home of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, and Zeno, among others.
Physically, the city was dominated by four hills, two of which became famous. One of these was the Acropolis that was crowned by the Parthenon. And the other was the Areopagus, or Mars Hill, where the Areopagus Court met.
This visit of Paul’s to the city would have been his first. As he went about the city, like everyone else he would have been impressed by the magnificent art; but in his day, all of the statues and temples were symbols of active pagan religions. To give just one example, the glorious Parthenon contained a huge gold and ivory statue of Athena. Despite the beauty of the temples and statues, as Luke tells us, the multitude of idols in the city distressed Paul (v. 16). The word translated “distressed” literally means “roused to anger.” Paul obviously was angered by the overwhelming presence of idolatry.
As always, Paul began his ministry at the Jewish synagogue (v. 17), but nothing positive is said about the experience. Luke simply says he addressed the Jews along with people in the marketplace and certain philosophers. The NRSV translation of the verb as “argued” with them is much too strong in my opinion. The NIV translation as “reasoned” with them is much better. But Luke literally says simply that Paul addressed them.
Two specific philosophies are mentioned in verse 18, namely, Epicureanism and Stoicism. Epicurus (341-240 BC) founded a school in Athens in 306 BC. He taught that human beings should pursue pleasure, especially pleasures of the mind. The object of living, in his view, was to find tranquility, which meant to be free from fear, passion and pain. Contrary to later misconceptions, Epicurus did not recommend a lifestyle that pursued every sort of pleasure and nothing else.
Zeno (340-265 BC) founded a school for Stoicism in Athens in 308 BC. In a way Zeno, like Epicurus, pursued tranquility; but he went about it in a totally different way. Like pantheists, Zeno believed that the world is God. This meant that one had to get oneself in harmony with natural law. And the way to do that was to follow reason in everything. The Stoics interpreted this to mean that one has to do one’s duty to everyone. And one had to be unflappable. This particular characteristic brought a word into our language. We say that one who is not emotional and refuses to let anything bother him or her is a stoic person.
Some of the philosophers asked, “What does this babbler want to say (NRSV)?” Or, “what is this babbler trying to say (NIV)?” The word translated “babbler” literally means, “seed picker.” It was a slang term that carried the image of a bird picking at seeds. The idea was that a “babbler” went about picking up scraps of ideas from here and there and then pretended to be a philosopher.
Others among the philosophers accused Paul of preaching “foreign divinities.” They said that because they never had heard anything like the gospel of Jesus and his resurrection (v. 18). These encounters led to an appearance by Paul before the Areopagus Court. However it does not appear that there was any hostility involved. The philosophers wanted to hear more from Paul and to debate him. We shall take up Paul’s Areopagus sermon in our next essay.