Acts 17:16-34

Acts 17:16-34

16 Now while Paul waited for them at Athens, his spirit was stirred in him, when he saw the city wholly given to idolatry. 17 Therefore disputed he <G1256> in the synagogue with the Jews, and with the devout persons, and in the market daily with them that met with him.

G1256 διαλέγομαι dialegomai (d̮iy-a-le’-ğo-mai) v. to say thoroughly, i.e. discuss in exhortation, preach unto, reason with, by extension an argument.

Verses 16 and 17 are a complete statement, and as such, the idolatry spoken of, is within the synagogue and being practiced by the Jews. The beliefs of the “converted” Greeks was creeping into the assembly of believers.

Starting in the Fertile Crescent with the Assyrians, Akkadians and Sumerians; these were the most ancient of civilizations and they practiced polytheism. They established a system consisting of a chief male deity, a creator type, with a subordinate male and female god representing the sun and moon with many lesser gods and goddesses representing planets and nature. This continued with the complex system of Egyptian polytheistic beliefs and rituals which were an integral part of ancient Egyptian society. It centered on the Egyptians’ interaction with many deities who were believed to be present in, and in control of, the forces of nature.

From Egypt we move to the Greeks by way of Ptolemy and Alexander the Great adopting the Serapis and the renaming of many lesser gods and goddesses. In the 4th century BC, Egypt became a Hellenistic kingdom under the Ptolemaic dynasty (305–30 BC), which assumed the pharaonic role, maintaining the traditional Greek religion and building or rebuilding many temples. The Greek ruling class renamed many of the gods and goddesses after merging the two societies.

As Rome came into contact with foreign cultures, and conquered them, foreign religions increasingly attracted devotees among Romans, who increasingly had ancestry from elsewhere in the Empire. As the Romans extended their dominance throughout the Mediterranean world, their policy in general was to absorb the deities and cults of other people rather than try to eradicate them, since they believed that preserving tradition promoted social stability.

One way that Rome incorporated diverse peoples was by supporting their religious heritage, building temples to local deities that framed their theology within the hierarchy of Roman religion. Inscriptions throughout the Empire record the side-by-side worship of local and Roman deities, including dedications made by Romans to local gods.

The emperors promoted the Imperial cult around the empire, as well as, imported mystery religions were generally practiced alongside the official religion. Rejection of the state religion was tantamount to treason. This was the context for Rome’s conflict with Christianity.


A new line of thinking is recorded with the word ‘Then’….

18 Then certain philosophers of the Epicureans, and of the Stoicks, encountered him. And some said, What will this babbler say? other some, He seemeth to be a setter forth of strange gods: because he preached unto them Jesus, and the resurrection.

19 And they took him, and brought him unto Areopagus, saying, May we know what this new doctrine, whereof thou speakest, is?

20 For thou bringest certain strange things to our ears: we would know therefore what these things mean.

This encounter has nothing to do with the first 2 verses. These were not followers of YHWH, nor did they have belief in Jesus Christ. These are the polytheistic members of the community and is a diverse crowd of both residents and non-residents of Athens as stated in the next verse.

21 For all the Athenians and strangers which were there spent their time in nothing else, but either to tell, or to hear some new thing.

By the time Saul/Paul arrives in Athens there has already been more than 4 centuries of discourse among the Greeks about politics, religion, societal issues and the sciences. The people were deeply steeped in the writings of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Pythagoras, and a multitude of other high minded people.

1 Corinthians 1:22-23 “For the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom: But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness.”

22 Then Paul stood in the midst of Mars’ hill, and said, Ye men of Athens, I perceive that in all things ye are too superstitious.

The person known as Areopagus, who gave himself the name, is displaying his connection to Areios Pagos, better understood, this area is known as Mars’ hill here in scripture and also as The Hill of Ares. Mars is the male god of war to the Romans and Ares is the Greek god of War and their devotion to these gods was based in the success of conquest by the armies of those in control. Since the Romans were in control at the time of Luke’s writing he records Mars Hill in this text.

23 For as I passed by, and beheld your devotions, I found an altar with this inscription, To The Unknown God. Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you.

24 God that made the world and all things therein, seeing that he is Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands;

25 Neither is worshipped with men’s hands, as though he needed any thing, seeing he giveth to all life, and breath, and all things;

The worship of the gods of Greece and Rome, again being very complex, involved a wide array of gifts to be presented in homes, temples and in the public square. Dionysus in the Greek is also known as Bacchus, the name adopted by the Romans. Their belief is those who partake of his mysteries are possessed and empowered by the god himself.

The cult of Dionysus is also a “cult of the souls”; his maenads (female followers) feed the dead through blood-offerings, and he acts as a divine communicant between the living and the dead. Often the maenads were portrayed as inspired by Dionysus into a state of ecstatic frenzy through a combination of dancing and intoxication and often handling or wearing snakes.

The goal was to achieve a state of enthusiasm in which the celebrants’ souls were temporarily freed from their earthly bodies and were able to commune with Bacchus/Dionysus and gain a glimpse of and a preparation for what they would someday experience in eternity.

The rite climaxed in a performance of tearing a bull (the symbol of Dionysus) apart with their bare hands, an act called sparagmos, and eating its flesh raw, an act called omophagia; having symbolically eaten his body and drunk his blood, the celebrants became, in their belief, possessed by Dionysus.

This is why we see the instructions of Acts 15:29, as well as, the major quarrel over eating meat sacrificed to idols in the Epistles.

26 And hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation;

27 That they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after him, and find him, though he be not far from every one of us:

28 For in him we live, and move, and have our being; as certain also of your own poets have said, For we are also his offspring.

29 Forasmuch then as we are the offspring <G1085 ‘genos’: related, kindred, nation, generation> of God, we ought not to think that the Godhead is like unto gold, or silver, or stone, graven by art and man’s device.

This section, verse 26-29, is not about the creation event of Adam and Eve. This is about the atonement of the repentant sinner. The term “one blood of all nations” is very same position of Romans 10:12 “For there is no difference between the Jew and the Greek: for the same Lord over all is rich unto all that call upon him.” Saul/Paul is telling the people that the god they had no knowledge of before is in-fact the one true God. The reason their Greek statues, offerings and elaborate building had no power over the Roman conquest is that they really are not gods at all.

30 And the times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commandeth all men everywhere to repent:

To “wink at” means “to overlooked their actions” as they were not apart of the Hebrew nation previously. This is validated by two witnesses, Saul/Paul and Hosea. Hosea 2:23 “And I will sow her unto me in the earth; and I will have mercy upon her that had not obtained mercy; and I will say to them which were not my people, Thou art my people; and they shall say, Thou art my God.” And in Romans 9:25-26 “As he saith also in Hosea, I will call them my people, which were not my people; and her beloved, which was not beloved. And it shall come to pass, that in the place where it was said unto them, Ye are not my people; there shall they be called the children of the living God.”

31 Because he hath appointed a day, in the which he will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom he hath ordained; whereof he hath given assurance unto all men, in that he hath raised him from the dead.

32 And when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked: and others said, We will hear thee again of this matter.

The people mocked at the idea that any other ‘god’ had the power of resurrection. “From Pythagoras, Orphic elements entered into the philosophy of Plato, and from Plato into most [all] later philosophy that was in any degree religious.” ~ Bertrand Russel (1947). History of Western Philosophy. George, Allen and Unwin. p. 37.

The Sadducees were a sect of Jews that was active in world during the lives of both Jesus and Paul. They were upper social and economic echelon of Judean society and practiced a Hellenistic form of Judaism. As a whole, the sect fulfilled various political, social, and religious roles, collected tribute from Jews in the Diaspora and regulated the relations between the Jews and the Romans.

According to Josephus, the Sadducees believed that the soul is not immortal; there is no afterlife, and did not believe in resurrection of the dead, but believed in the traditional Jewish concept of Sheol for those who had died. This is the topic of debate with the followers {both original Jews and Greek converts} with the citizens of Athens.

33 So Paul departed from among them.

34 Howbeit <G1161 means “In fact”> certain men clave unto him, and believed: among the which was Dionysius the Areopagite, and a woman named Damaris, and others with them.

This is an “Oh Wow!” statement. The word clave means to keep company with the person. As stated earlier the Romans made foreign gods inclusive into their own religious practices for political reasons. Stating that Dionysius believed is not far fetching, but there too, it is not inclusive of repentance. Repentance is “the turning away from the prior and seeking fully the new path.”

Dionysius the Areopagite is a Bishop of the Roman Byzantine Church. It is derived from the god Dionysus and the area of the Empire in which he was stationed. The Empire exercised a secondary level of control through the religious hierarchy. Dionysius the Areopagite was a judge at the court Areopagus in Athens and carried out the position of authority at the discretion of Rome.

This entire exchange is about syncretism or the mixing of pagan occultic worship with the faith in Jesus Christ. We see this today when the “church” organizes Christmas and Easter celebrations as well as recognizing Valentine’s Day or Halloween. (See the separate posts concerning these on this website)

When will the “church” learn to teach the fullness of the Word of God so the people will not drift back into paganism and idolatry?



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