A Commentary by John Stott
Acts. 17:16-34. 4) What Paul said.
Paul’s evangelistic dialogue with the Jews, God-fearers, passers by and philosophers may well have continued for many days. It led to one of the greatest opportunities of his whole ministry, the presentation of the gospel to the world-famous, supreme council of Athens, the Areopagus. How did this come about? The Epicurean and Stoic philosophers reacted to Paul’s message in two ways. *Some of them* insulted him. They *asked, ‘What is this babbler trying to say?’* (18b). *Babbler* translates *spermologos*, which Ramsay calls ‘a word of characteristically Athenian slang’. Its literal meaning is a ‘seed-picker’, and it is used of various seed-eating or scavenging birds, the rook for instance in Aristophanes’ comedy *The Birds*. Hence the suggested rendering ‘cock sparrow’. From birds it was applied to human beings, vagrants or beggars who live off scraps of food they pick up in the gutter, ‘gutter-snipes’. Then thirdly, it was used particularly to describe teachers who, not having an original idea in their on heads, unscrupulously plagiarize from others, picking up scraps of knowledge here and there, ‘zealous seekers of the second-rate at second hand’, until their system is nothing but a ragbag of other people’s ideas and sayings. Hence this ‘ignorant plagiarist’, ‘this charlatan’ (NEB), ‘this parrot’ (JB), this ‘intellectual magpie’.
*Others (among the philosophers) remarked, ‘He seems to be advocating foreign gods’*, which was one of the charges brought against Socrates 450 years previously. *They said this*, Luke comments, *because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the Resurrection* (18c). The word for *gods* here is *daimonia*, which did not always mean ‘demons’, but could be used of ‘lesser gods’, in this case ‘foreign divinities’ (RSV). It is possible that the philosophers, grasping that the essence of Paul’s message was *ton Jesoun kai ten anastasin (Jesus and the resurrection)* thought that he was introducing into Athens a couple of new divinities, a male god called ‘Jesus’ and a female consort ‘Anastasis’. Chrysostom was the first to make this suggestion, and a number of commentators have followed him. F.F.Bruce goes further and writes: ‘In the ears of some frequenters of the Agora these two words sounded as if they denoted the personified and deified powers of “healing” (*iasis*) and “restoration”.’ It is interesting, as Dr. Conrad Gempf has pointed out to me, that both Paul’s speeches to pagans in the Acts seem to have been occasioned by a misunderstanding. “the Athenians imagine two new gods, while the Lystrans think they are seeing two old ones! Could Luke be warning his readers of the ways in which pagans misunderstand?’
Whatever the precise motive of the philosophers may have been, *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? (19). You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we want to know what they mean’ (20). (All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas)* (21).
The word ‘Areopagus’ means literally ‘the Hill (*pagos*) of Ares (the Greek equivalent of Mars)’, so ‘Mars Hill’. Situated a little north-west of the Acropolis, it was formally the place where the most venerable judicial court of ancient Greece met. For this reason the name came to be transferred from the place to the court. By Paul’s day, although cases were sometimes heard here, the court had become more a council, with its legal powers diminished. Its members were rather guardians of the city’s religion, morals and education, and it normally met in the ‘Royal Porch’ of the Agora. Two questions now face us. First, was Paul brought to the hill, or before the court/council , or both? Various answers are given, but surely the expression that he stood ‘in the midst’ of the Areopagus (22, literally) and later went out ‘from their midst’ (33, literally) would more naturally refer to people than a place. It seems almost certain, then, that he addressed that august senate, and it does not matter much where the meeting took place.
Tomorrow: What Paul said, (Continued).
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of Acts. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.