on Acts 17 :18
Certain philosophers of the Epicureans - These were the followers of Epicurus, who acknowledged no gods except in name, and absolutely denied that they exercised any government over the world or its inhabitants; and that the chief good consisted in the gratification of the appetites of sense. These points the Epicureans certainly held; but it is not clear that Epicurus himself maintained such doctrines.
And of the Stoics - These did not deny the existence of the gods; but they held that all human affairs were governed by fate. They did not believe that any good was received from the hands of their gods; and considered, as Seneca asserts, that any good and wise man was equal to Jupiter himself. Both these sects agreed in denying the resurrection of the body; and the former did not believe in the immortality of the soul.
Epicurus, the founder of the Epicurean sect, was born at Athens, about a.m. 3663, before Christ 341.
Zeno, the founder of the Stoic sect, was born in the isle of Cyprus, about thirty years before Christ. His disciples were called Stoics from the Στοα, a famous portico at Athens, where they studied. Besides these two sects, there were two others which were famous at this time; viz. the Academics and the Peripatetics. The founder of the first was the celebrated Plato; and the founder of the second, the no less famous Aristotle. These sects professed a much purer doctrine than the Epicureans and Stoics; and it does not appear that they opposed the apostles, nor did they enter into public disputations with them. Against the doctrines taught by the Epicureans and Stoics, several parts of St. Paul's discourse, in the following verses, are directly pointed.
What will this babbler say? - The word σπερμολογος, which we translate babbler, signifies, literally, a collector of seeds, and is the "name of a small bird the lives by picking up seeds on the road." The epithet became applied to persons who collected the sayings of others, without order or method, and detailed them among their companions in the same way. The application of the term to prating, empty, impertinent persons, was natural and easy, and hence it was considered a term of reproach and contempt, and was sometimes used to signify the vilest sort of men.
A setter forth of strange gods - Ξενων δαιμονιων, Of strange or foreign demons. That this was strictly forbidden, both at Rome and Athens, see on Acts 16:21 (note).
There was a difference, in the heathen theology, between θεος, god, and δαιμων, demon: the θεοι, were such as were gods by nature: the δαιμονια, were men who were deified. This distinction seems to be in the mind of these philosophers when they said that the apostles seemed to be setters forth of strange demons, because they preached unto them Jesus, whom they showed to be a man, suffering and dying, but afterwards raised to the throne of God. This would appear to them tantamount with the deification of heroes, etc., who had been thus honored for their especial services to mankind. Horace expresses this in two lines, 2 Epist. i.:5: -
Romulus, et Liber pater, et cum Castore Pollux,
Post ingentia facta, deorum in templa recepti.
"Romulus, father Bacchus, with Castor and Pollux, for their eminent services, have been received into the temples of the gods."
on Acts 17 :18
Then certain philosophers - Athens was distinguished, among all the cities of Greece and the world, for the cultivation of a subtle and refined philosophy. This was their boast, and the object of their constant search and study, 1 Corinthians 1:22.
Of the Epicureans - This sect of philosophers was so named from Epicurus, who lived about 300 years before the Christian era. They denied that the world was created by God, and that the gods exercised any care or providence over human affairs, and also the immortality of the soul. Against these positions of the sect Paul directed his main argument in proving that the world was created and governed by God. One of the distinguishing doctrines of Epicurus was that pleasure was the summum bonum, or chief good, and that virtue was to be practiced only as it contributed to pleasure. By pleasure, however, Epicurus did not mean sensual and groveling appetites and degraded vices, but rational pleasure, properly regulated and governed. See Good's "Book of Nature." But whatever his views were, it is certain that his followers had embraced the doctrine that the pleasures of sense were to be practiced without restraint. Both in principle and practice, therefore, they devoted themselves to a life of gaiety and sensuality, and sought happiness only in indolence, effeminacy, and voluptuousness. Confident in the belief that the world was not under the administration of a God of justice, they gave themselves up to the indulgence of every passion the infidels of their time, and the exact example of the frivolous and fashionable multitudes of all times, that live without God, and that seek pleasure as their chief good.
And of the Stoics - This was a sect of philosophers, so named from the Greek στοά stoa, a porch or portico, because Zeno, the founder of the sect, held his school and taught in a porch, in the city of Athens. Zeno was born in the island of Cyprus, but the greater part of his life was spent at Athens in teaching philosophy. After having taught publicly 48 years, he died at the age of 96, that is, 264 years before Christ. The doctrines of the sect were, that the universe was created by God; that all things were fixed by Fate; that even God was under the dominion of fatal necessity; that the Fates were to be submitted to; that the passions and affections were to be suppressed and restrained; that happiness consisted in the insensibility of the soul to pain; and that a man should gain an absolute mastery over all the passions and affections of his nature. They were stern in their views of virtue, and, like the Pharisees, prided themselves on their own righteousness. They supposed that matter was eternal, and that God was either the animating principle or soul of the world, or that all things were a part of God. They fluctuated much in their views of a future state; some of them holding that the soul would exist only until the destruction of the universe, and others that it would finally be absorbed into the divine essence and become a part of God. It will be readily seen, therefore, with what pertinency Paul discoursed to them. The leading doctrines of both sects were met by him.
Encountered him - Contended with him; opposed themselves to him.
And some said - This was said in scorn and contempt. He had excited attention; but they scorned such doctrines as they supposed would be delivered by an unknown foreigner from Judea.
What will this babbler say? - Margin, "base fellow." Greek: σπερμολόγος spermologos. The word occurs nowhere else in the New Testament. It properly means "one who collects seeds," and was applied by the Greeks to the poor persons who collected the scattered grain in the fields after harvest, or to gleaners; and also to the poor who obtained a precarious subsistence around the markets and in the streets. It was also applied to birds that picked up the scattered seeds of grain in the field or in the markets. The word came hence to have a twofold signification:
(1) It denoted the poor, the needy, and the vile the refuse and offscouring of society; and,
(2) From the birds which were thus employed, and which were troublesome by their continual unmusical sounds, it came to denote those who were talkative, garrulous, and opinionated those who collected the opinions of others, or scraps of knowledge, and retailed them fluently, without order or method. It was a word, therefore, expressive of their contempt for an unknown foreigner who should pretend to instruct the learned men and philosophers of Greece. Doddridge renders it "retailer of scraps." Syriac, "collector of words."
Other some - Others.
He seemeth to be a setter forth - He announces or declares the existence of strange gods. The reason why they supposed this was, that he made the capital points of his preaching to be Jesus and the resurrection, which they mistook for the names of divinities.
Of strange gods - Of foreign gods, or demons. They worshipped many gods themselves, and as they believed that every country had its own special divinities, they supposed that Paul had come to announce the existence of some such foreign, and to them unknown gods. The word translated "gods" (δαιμονίων daimoniōn) denotes properly "the genii, or spirits who were superior to human beings, but inferior to the gods." It is, however, often employed to denote the gods themselves, and is evidently so used here. The gods among the Greeks were such as were supposed to have that rank by nature. The demons were such as had been exalted to divinity from being heroes and distinguished men.
He preached unto them Jesus - He proclaimed him as the Messiah. The mistake which they made by supposing that Jesus was a foreign divinity was one which was perfectly natural for minds degraded like theirs by idolatry. They had no idea of a pure God; they knew nothing of the doctrine of the Messiah; and they naturally supposed, therefore, that he of whom Paul spoke so much must be a god of some other nation, of a rank similar to their own divinities.
And the resurrection - The resurrection of Jesus, and through him the resurrection of the dead. It is evident, I think, that by the resurrection τὴν ἀνάστασιν tēn anastasin they understood him to refer to the name of some goddess. Such was the interpretation of Chrysostom. The Greeks had erected altars to Shame, and Famine, and Desire (Paus., i. 17), and it is probable that they supposed "the resurrection," or the Anastasis, to be the name also of some unknown goddess who presided over the resurrection. Thus, they regarded him as a setter forth of two foreign or strange gods, Jesus, and the Anastasis, or resurrection.
on Acts 17 :18