The Speeches of Acts, Part 21: Acts 17:16-34 (continued)

The first two sections—the Narrative Introduction (vv. 16-21) and the Introductory Address (vv. 22-23)—were discussed in Part 20 of this series; here I will be studying the remainder of the speech.

Central Declaration (vv. 24-29)

These verses, representing the core of the speech, serve the same role as the central kerygma (Gospel proclamation) and Scripture citation/application found in the prior speeches of Acts. Here, in a speech addressed to (pagan) Greeks, we find instead a fundamental theological proclamation—on the true nature of God. This declaration is in response to, and contrasted with, the religious/superstitious deisidaimoni/a (“fear of divine-powers”) of the Athenians which Paul has noted in his introductory address (vv. 22-23). In particular, Paul has drawn upon their practice of erecting altars to “unknown gods” (sg. “[an] unknown god”, v. 23) as a way of introducing to them a new (and different) understanding of God (v. 23b). Verse 24 begins immediately with o( qeo\$ (“The God…”).

I would divide this (theological) declaration into two parts: (1) The nature of God, and (2) The relation of God to humankind.

(1) The Nature of God (vv. 24-27)

Again, it is possible to break this down further: (a) the true God vs. Idols, vv. 24-25, and (b) God as Creator, vv. 26-27.

(a) The true God vs. Idols (vv. 24-25)—These verses declare the nature of the true God, identifying God (o( qeo\$) as:

“the (One) having made the world [ko/smo$] and all the (thing)s in it”

This first premise—that the true God is Creator of the universe—will be expanded in vv. 26-27; the second, related, premise follows:

“this (One) belongs as Lord of heaven and earth”

The demonstrative pronoun ou!to$ (“this [one]”) indicates that it is specifically the God proclaimed by Paul—YHWH, the God of Israel and the early Christians—who is Creator and Lord of the universe. For a similar use of the demonstrative “this (one)” (referring to Jesus) in the Gospel kerygma of the prior speeches, see Acts 1:11; 2:23, 32, 36, etc. The verb u(pa/rxw literally means “begin under”, but in customary Greek usage it covers a fairly wide range of meaning, such as “to be (present)”, “to belong”, “to exist”, and so forth; I have rendered it above as “belong”, but the phrase could just as easily be translated simply “this (One) is Lord of heaven and earth”. The third premise builds upon the first two, as the last of three steps in v. 24, and for which there are three corresponding steps in v. 25; note—

    • (He is) the (One) having made the world and all the things in it (24a)
      • this One is Lord of heaven and earth (24b)
        • he does not dwell in shrines made with (human) hands (24c)
        • he is not attended/served by the hands of men (25a)
      • (he is) not looking to receive (a single) thing [i.e. is in need of nothing] (25b)
    • He is giving life and breath and all things to all (things/people) (25c)

We move from the outer ring (God as Creator and life-giver) to the inner (worship of God), the central proposition of v. 24c-25a reprising a Temple-motif found earlier in Acts in the speech of Stephen (cf. 7:39-50). In both speeches there is a notable contrast between God the Creator (whose hands made all things) and Temples/Idols (made by hands), with repeated use of xeir– (“hand-“) and the verb poie/w (“make”)—see esp. 7:40-41, 43-44, 48, 50; 17:24-26. While the connection between the Jerusalem Temple and idolatry in Stephen’s speech is somewhat surprising (and problematic), here in Paul’s speech the anti-Temple theme relates to the more obvious critique of pagan religion. Paul (and/or the author of Acts) could easily have quoted here the same passage from Isa 66:1-2 cited in Acts 7:49-50. The closest we come to a Scripture citation in the Areopagus speech is a likely allusion to Isa 42:5 here in vv. 24-25.

The anti-Temple motif, with its corresponding rejection of sacrificial offerings, is tied to a very specific idea: that the true God is not in need of anything. Derived from the basic concept of God as the all-powerful Creator, this idea is actually relatively rare in the Old Testament (e.g. Psalm 50:9-12), becoming more common in Hellenistic Jewish thought—cf. 2 Macc 14:35; 3 Macc 2:9ff; Josephus Antiquities VIII.107-8, 111ff (on Solomon’s dedication of the Temple). For similar sentiments in Greco-Roman literature and philosophy, see Euripides Heracles l. 1345 and Fragment 968; Zeno of Citium in Plutarch Moralia 1034B (“On Stoic Contradictions” 6) and Clement of Alexandria Stromateis V.76 (chap. 11); and Seneca, Letters 41:1-3; 95:47-50.

For God as maker and preserver of the ko/smo$, see e.g. Gen 1:1; 14:19, 22; Exod 20:11; Psalm 146:6; Isa 42:5; Wisdom 9:9; 11:17; 2 Macc 7:23, 28; Philo On the Creation 2.7-12; On the Special Laws I.81. For the specific expression “Lord of heaven and earth”, see Tobit 7:18; Luke 10:21 (also Gen 14:19).

(b) God as Creator (vv. 26-27)—specifically, Creator of human beings:

e)poi/hse/n te e)c e(no\$ pa=n e&qno$ a)nqrw/pwn
“and he made out of one all (the) nation of men”

The expression pa=$ e&qno$ could mean “every nation” or “all (the) nation” (i.e. the entire nation), the latter seeming much more likely in context (cf. the use of pa=$ in 2:36; 3:9, 11). This, of course, relates to the creation account in Gen 1:26ff, but stated in a more abstract and philosophical manner—i.e., from a single person (e)c e(no\$) God made the entire human race. This is followed by two purpose clauses, each governed by an infinitive:

    • katoikei=n (“to put down house”, i.e. to dwell)… v. 26
    • zhtei=n (“to seek”)… v. 27—specifically, to seek God

The first indicates the establishment of human society, the second, religion.

(i) Society—This is seen as developing within the confines of God’s providential control over the natural world. Human beings come to dwell (“put down house”) upon all the face of the earth (e)pi\ panto\$ prosw/pou th=$ gh=$). God the Creator governs the world by marking out and determining (o(ri/sa$):

    • “(the) arranged times/seasons” (prostetagme/nou$ kairou\$)
    • “the marked-out limits” [i.e. boundaries] (ta\$ o)roqesi/a$) for their dwelling

There is some question as to the precise meaning of these expressions, but kairo/$ most likely refers to the natural seasons of the year, and o)roqesi/a to the natural boundaries in the physical world (i.e. mountains, rivers, desert, sea, and so forth). This pairing is also found in Psalm 74:17; and, with regard to the boundaries of human settlement, cf. Deut 32:8.

(ii) Religion—simply put, “to seek God”, or (more literally) “to seek the God” (zhtei=n to\n qeo\n), i.e. the one true God. The theme of “seeking God” is common in the Old Testament Prophets (Amos 5:6; Isa 55:6, et al), though here it corresponds to what we would call “natural religion” (and “natural revelation”); for an interesting reference to seeking God in the context of idolatry, cf. Deut 4:28-29. Of the many relevant passages in Hellenistic Judaism and Greco-Roman philosophy, see e.g., Wisdom 13:6; Philo On the Special Laws I.36; Cicero On the Nature of the Gods 2.153. An interesting clause follows:

“if, indeed, they might touch/feel (about) him and find (him)”

The verb yhlafa/w often has the connotation of exploring by touch, even as far as feeling or groping about (like a blind person). For a use of this verb in a somewhat similar context, see Philo On the Change of Names §126. The statement concludes with the clause:

“and yet (truly) he is present (and) not far from each one of us”

On the existential use of the verb u(pa/rxw, cf. verse 24b above; here it indicates presence, qualified by the expression “not far from” (ou) makra\n a)po). This idea of God’s immanence is relatively rare in the Old Testament (note e.g. Psalm 145:18; Jer 23:23), being expressed more precisely in Greco-Roman and Hellenistic-Jewish thought—cf. Josephus Antiquities VIII.108; Dio Chrysostom Oration 12.28; 30.26; Seneca Letter 41.1; 120:14, etc. We find two somewhat parallel concepts in the New Testament: (a) of the kingdom of God (and salvation) ‘coming near’ (Lk 10:9, 11; 21:28, 30-31; Rom 13:11), and (b) of believers approaching or drawing near to God (James 4:8; Heb 4:16; 7:19, 25; 10:1, 22; 11:6; Eph 2:13), but nothing quite like this statement in Acts (perhaps the nearest example being Paul’s citation of Deut 30:14 in Romans 10:8). It is a powerful theological expression, and one which would likely have appealed to Stoics and other educated Greeks in the audience.

(2) The Relation of God to Humankind (vv. 28-29)

Interestingly, instead of a citation from Scripture, here Paul quotes from a Greek poet (Aratus); the citation is in verse 28, with a brief exposition/application in verse 29. This section can be divided:

    • Theological statement (v. 28a)
    • Citation from Greek literature (v. 28b)
    • Exposition/Application (v. 29)

Theological statement (v. 28a)—”for in him (e)n au)tw=|) we live (zw=men) and we are moved (kinou/meqa) and we are (e)sme/n)”. This triadic formula sounds like it could have been taken straight out of Greek philosophy, but, as of yet, no convincing specific parallel has been found. For a detailed argument that it derives from Epimenides of Crete, see K. Lake in The Beginnings of Christianity V, pp. 246-251 (Additional Note 19) and Dibelius, Studies pp. 48-51. Is there any special significance to the order of the verbs?—”we live” (zw=men) and “we are” (e)sme/n) would seem to be parallel expressions, life and being (existence), with the passive “we are moved” (kinou/meqa) set in between. The use of the verb kine/w is particularly suggestive of the Stoic concept of God as Mover (who himself is not moved)—see, for example, Chrysippus in the Eclogues of Stobaeus I.8.42; Philo On Allegorical Interpretation I.6 (cf. Dibelius, Studies, 48). The centrality of God with regard to life and being would be consistent both with the panentheistic philosophical context of the speech and the overall Christian message. The verb za/w (“live”), along with the related noun zwh/ (“life”), often are used in the New Testament in the sense of spiritual/eternal life, and are typically predicated of human beings (believers) in this way; here, of course, ordinary physical/material life is meant. The use of “in him [i.e. God]” (e)n au)tw=|) is even more unusual; Paul often speaks of believers as being “in Christ” (e.g., Rom 8:1; 12:5; 16:7; 1 Cor 1:30; 15:22, and many more instances), but not of human beings as “in God”—believers are “in God” but only insofar as they are “in Christ” (Col 3:3), and note also this frequent Christological sense in the Gospel and Epistles of John.

Citation from Greek literature (v. 28b)—this is introduced “as some of the (verse-)makers according to you [i.e. your ‘poets’] have declared…” The citation is generally recognized as coming from the opening lines of the popular astronomical and meteorological treatise (in hexameter verse) Phaenomena by Aratus (c. 310-240 B.C.). A contemporary of Zeno, Aratus appears to have been influenced by early Stoic thought, as reflected in this his major surviving work. “Let us begin from Zeus…” (e)k Dio\$ a)rxw/mesqa), so opens the poem, telling how all things are “full” (mesto/$) of him—streets, marketplaces, seas and harbors—”and we all need Zeus” (de\ Dio\$ kexrh/meqa pa/nte$). This leads into the statement of line 5a:

tou= ga\r kai\ ge/no$ ei)men
“for we are of (his) lineage”

This is the portion Paul cites (tou= ga\r kai\ ge/no$ e)smen). The word ge/no$ literally means something which has “come to be”, i.e., from or out of someone—”we have all come to be from him”. In ancient mythological-philosophical thought, human beings (or, at least, their spirits/souls) were often viewed as being the offspring of the gods in a metaphysical sense. This is foreign to the context of Israelite/Jewish monotheism, where God (YHWH) was only the Father of human beings in a symbolic sense, in terms of family relationship, or as the Creator. Paul (and/or the author of Acts) is here drawing on the pagan philosophical understanding, a fact which has caused some difficulty for commentators (cf. below). For similar (Stoic) language and thought, see Cleanthes’ Hymn to Zeus ll. 3-5; Dion of Prusa Oration 12.27; 30.26. According to ancient sources, Aratus was from Cilicia (possibly Tarsus), which increases the likelihood that the historic Paul would have been familiar with his work. The same line from Aratus was apparently used by Aristobulus (fragment 4), cf. Eusebius’ Preparation for the Gospel 13.12.3ff.

Exposition/Application (v. 29)—Paul builds upon this premise (“then being [the] lineage [ge/no$] of God…”), turning it into a (decisive) argument against idolatry (worship of God through images):

“(therefore) we ought not to regard the Deity [to\ qei=on] to be like gold or silver or stone (with the) cut-mark of man’s production and inspiration”

The substantive neuter adjective qei=on refers to God/Deity in the more general sense (used only here in the New Testament); it is another example of accommodation to the understanding of a (pagan) Greek audience. The argument against idols, however, is more squarely within Old Testament and Jewish tradition, e.g. Deut 4:28; Isa 40:18; 44:9-20; Wisdom 13:10; 14:7ff; 15:7-17; and note Acts 19:26. It is interesting the way this traditional Israelite/Jewish polemic identifies the pagan deities precisely with their images, even though no intelligent pagan would have believed that the deity was nothing more than the image itself. The purpose of this distortion was almost certainly to emphasize that the pagan deities did not really exist. Early Christian tradition, on the other hand, operating with the confines of Greco-Roman paganism, tended to take a different approach, regarding the deities as real (evil) spirits (i.e. “demons”). Though Paul occasionally echoes such belief (1 Cor 10:20-21), here, in the Areopagus speech, the Old Testament Prophetic view (that the pagan deities are nothing) is implied (cf. also 1 Cor 8:4; 10:19). The word xa/ragma refers to a “mark” cut into material (including impressing or branding); elsewhere in the New Testament it is only used in the book of Revelation for the “mark of the beast”.

Concluding Exhortation (vv. 30-31)

As with most of the prior speeches in Acts, this is an exhortation to repent (metanoei=n, “have a change of mind”); this is emphasized with a pair of contrasting clauses:

    • V. 30a—me\n (‘on the one hand…’): “God has overlooked the times of unknowing [a&gnoia, i.e. ignorance]”
    • V. 30b—nu\n now (‘on the other hand’), things (are thus): “he brings along a message to all men (in) all places to repent”

It may be helpful here to track the various instances of the knowledge/knowing motif in the speech:

    • “may we know…?” literally, “are we able to know [gnw=nai]…?”—request by the Athenians (v. 19)
    • “we wish to know [gnw=nai]…”—a more direct request (v. 20)
    • the altar ‘to an unknown [a)gw/stw|] god’ (v. 23a)
    • “what you worship, unknowing [a)gnoou=nte$], I announce to you…” (v. 23b)
    • this period of pagan worship as “times of unknowing [a)gnoi/a$]” (v. 30)

For the theme of ignorance (and use of a&gnoia) earlier in Acts, see 3:17; 13:27; on the idea of human’s failure to perceive and understand God properly (prior to the Gospel), cf. Rom 1:20-23; 1 Cor 1:21. Verse 30 here is a more precise statement of what was previously said by Paul in the short address at Lystra (14:15-17, v. 16); it also reflects the situation indicated in verse 27. The “overlooking” (u(peridw\n, vb. used only here in the NT) of the nations’ past ignorance (and idol-worship) is a sign of God’s patience and graciousness.

The exhortation (and with it, the speech) concludes dramatically with an announcement of God’s impending judgment. This is an important aspect of early Christian preaching, and it is worth highlighting each element in the verse here:

    • e&sthsen h(me/ran, “he has set (up) a day”—that is, a time when God (and/or his representative) will appear to bring judgment on the world; this is referred to in Scripture and tradition as the “day of the Lord (day of YHWH)”.
    • me/llei kri/nein, “he is about to judge”—this indicates the common (and widespread) Jewish and early-Christian view that end was near and God’s judgment imminent.
    • th\n oi)koumen/nh, “the occupied/inhabited (world)”—i.e., all people, nations, and civilizations, the entire world
    • e)n dikaiosu/nh|, “in justice”—or “with justice”, according to the justice/righteousness of God, and by which the ‘righteousness’ of human beings would be measured.
    • e)n a)ndri\, “in/by a man”—key ‘Western’ manuscripts (D and Vulgate MSS) add  )Ihsou= (Yeshua/Jesus) in order to avoid ambiguity and misunderstanding; some commentators continue to be troubled by the lack of a specific reference to Jesus, but note a somewhat similar use of the demonstrative pronoun ou!to$ (“this [one]”) for Jesus elsewhere in the speeches of Acts (cf. above). There may also be an echo here of the Jewish/Semitic “Son of Man” concept and language, so familiar from the sayings of Jesus. The specific Greek expression indicates judgment in the presence of a (human) judge.
    • w!| w%risen, “whom he [i.e. God] has marked-out”—on earlier use of the verb o(ri/zw in this context (of God appointing/designating Jesus), see Acts 2:23; 10:42, the latter reference being very close overall to this verse.
    • pi/stin parasxw\n pa=sin, “holding alongside a trust for all (people)”—this is a different sense of pi/sti$ (“trust”) than we typically see in the New Testament (where it means “faith/belief” in God and/or Christ); here it might be rendered as “assurance”, “proof”, or something similar, i.e. God demonstrating his trustworthiness.
    • a)nasth/sa$ au)to\n e)k nekrw=n, “causing him [i.e. Jesus] to stand up out of the dead”—this statement that God raised Jesus from the dead is, of course, a fundamental Christian tenet and component of Gospel preaching, appearing prominently in most of the prior speeches of Acts.

Narrative Conclusion (vv. 32-34)

Verses 32-33 provide the main conclusion, with a two-fold reaction to the speech, similar to that in verse 18:

    • me\n (‘on the one hand’) some of the people joked/mocked (e)xleu/azon)
    • de\ (‘on the other hand’) some of the people said “(perhaps) we will hear you about this again”, indicating genuine interest or merely a polite refusal (as opposed to mocking)

The speech began with Paul standing “in the middle/midst of them” (v. 22), and now it concludes stating that he “went out of the middle/midst of them”, providing a precise frame to the speech within the narrative. A conclusion to the narrative itself is added in verse 34, which indicates that there was at least some positive response to Paul’s proclamation, and even a few converts (two of which, Dionysios and Damaris, are named).

For many of the references above, as well as other relevant citations from the Old Testament, Jewish and Greco-Roman literature, see Dibelius, Studies, pp. 26-77; Haenchen, Acts, pp. 517-26; Fitzmyer, Acts, pp. 603-13.

Additional Note—Any careful student or reader of the New Testament will likely have noticed a number of details in the Areopagus speech which are a bit unusual—in terms of language, style, and points of emphasis—when compared with the letters of Paul. Indeed, the speech contains several concepts and expressions which are virtually unique in the New Testament, having more in common, it would seem, with Greek philosophy (Stoic thought, in particular). This has led a good many critical commentators to question whether the historic Paul could have (or would have) spoken this way. Due to the sensitivity and difficulty of this question, I will be addressing it in a supplemental article.

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