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with Catholic Commentary by George Leo Haydock

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Acts 17

Paul at Thessalonica. (1-9) The noble conduct of the Bereans. (10-15) Paul at Athens. (16-21) He preaches there. (22-31) The scornful conduct of the Athenians. (32-34)

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Paul at Thessalonica

1 Now when they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where was a synagogue of the Jews:

2 And Paul, as his manner was, went in unto them, and three sabbath days reasoned with them out of the scriptures,

3 Opening and alleging, that Christ must needs have suffered, and risen again from the dead; and that this Jesus, whom I preach unto you, is Christ.

4 And some of them believed, and consorted with Paul and Silas; and of the devout Greeks a great multitude, and of the chief women not a few.

5 But the Jews which believed not, moved with envy, took unto them certain lewd fellows of the baser sort, and gathered a company, and set all the city on an uproar, and assaulted the house of Jason, and sought to bring them out to the people.

6 And when they found them not, they drew Jason and certain brethren unto the rulers of the city, crying, These that have turned the world upside down are come hither also;

7 Whom Jason hath received: and these all do contrary to the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, one Jesus.

8 And they troubled the people and the rulers of the city, when they heard these things.

9 And when they had taken security of Jason, and of the other, they let them go.

The noble conduct of the Bereans

10 And the brethren immediately sent away Paul and Silas by night unto Berea: who coming thither went into the synagogue of the Jews.

11 These were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so.

12 Therefore many of them believed; also of honourable women which were Greeks, and of men, not a few.

13 But when the Jews of Thessalonica had knowledge that the word of God was preached of Paul at Berea, they came thither also, and stirred up the people.

14 And then immediately the brethren sent away Paul to go as it were to the sea: but Silas and Timotheus abode there still.

15 And they that conducted Paul brought him unto Athens: and receiving a commandment unto Silas and Timotheus for to come to him with all speed, they departed.

Paul at Athens

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 in the synagogue with the Jews, and with the devout persons, and in the market daily with them that met with him.

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.

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.)

He preaches there

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.

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;

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 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.

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

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.

The scornful conduct of the Athenians

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

33 So Paul departed from among them.

34 Howbeit certain men clave unto him, and believed: among the which was Dionysius the Areopagite, and a woman named Damaris, and others with them.

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G Haydock's Catholic Bible Commentary

Ver. 2. It was customary with S. Paul to open the Scriptures first to the Jews, (Acts xiii. 46.) and to argue with them from the law and the prophets. Acts xxviii. 23. S. Paul made use of the same passages of Scripture to convince the Jews, as Jesus Christ did on a similar occasion. Mat. Polus.

Ver. 3. That the Christ was to suffer. The suffering of Christ was the great stumbling-block to the Jews, which S. Paul now attempted to remove, by shewing them from the Scripture, that this was one of the necessary characters of the Messias, contained in the prophets. All the other marks were likewise accomplished in Christ. D. Dion. Carth. — And that this is Jesus Christ, whom I preach to you. The transition from an oblique to a direct mode of speech is very common, especially in the holy Scriptures.

Ver. 4. And some of them, that is, of the Jews, in whose synagogue he preached, believed, and of those that[1] worshipped God, that is, of those who adored the only true God, though they had not submitted themselves to circumcision, and to the ceremonies of the Jewish law, and of the Gentiles, that is, of such as till that time had been heathens, and idolaters; so that here three sorts of persons were converted by S. Paul: 1. Jews; 2. worshippers of the true God that were not Jews; and 3. Gentiles. In this book of the Acts, mention is several times made of worshippers, to wit, of God, by which many understand Jewish proselytes: but as they neither were Jews already, nor perhaps ever designed to become Jews, we may distinguish two sorts of the Jewish proselytes. Some were proselytes to the Jewish religion, by a submission to circumcision, and to all the precepts and ceremonies of the Mosaic laws. These are also by some called proselytes of the covenant, being as much Jews as they who had been always so. Others are called proselytes of the gate, or proselytes to the God of the Jews, but not to the religion of the Jews. Of such seems to have been Cornelius, the centurion. Acts x. Lydia, Acts xvi. 14. and Titus Justus, Acts xviii. 7. Such also seems to have been the eunuch of Candace, the queen of the Ethiopians, Acts viii. Naaman, the Syrian, after he was cured of his leprosy, (4 Kings v. 17.) and many others, that lived in Judea, and in other countries. These, therefore, are called worshippers, meaning of the true God, though they embraced not the legal precepts and ceremonies of the Jews. See Monsr. Heure’s Dictionary. Wi.

Ver. 6. Who disturb the city,[2] put it in an uproar. In the ordinary Greek copies, for the city, we read the whole world. Wi.

Ver. 7. Another king. These Jews suppress, with great artifice, their true cause of vexation against the apostles, and change a mere question of religion into one of temporal policy. The accusation of raising up a new power in opposition to Cæsar’s, had been sufficiently refuted and disavowed before Pilate by the author of our religion, and was therefore too gross to be repeated now. My kingdom, says our blessed Saviour, is not of this world. There is no necessary connection between spiritual and temporal power. It is thus that the abettors of persecution are never at a loss for pretexts, when necessary. Mad zeal is not scrupulously nice in the choice of arguments. A.

Ver. 10. Synagogue. In flying from the face of persecution in due season, S. Paul imitated the instruction and example of his master. When his labours are unsuccessful in one place, he renews them in another, and wherever he is, his object is always the same, to announce the truth to the Jews first, then to the Gentiles. D. Carthus.

Ver. 11. These were more noble than those of Thessalonica. According to the common exposition, the sense is, that these of Berœa, were of a more noble and generous disposition of mind, not carried away with envy and malice, like those of Thessalonica. — Searching the Scriptures, or those places of the prophets by which S. Paul proved that Jesus was the Messias, who was to suffer death, &c. Wi. — Daily searching the Scriptures, &c. The sheep are not hereby made judges of their pastors, the people of the priests, and lay men and women of S. Paul’s doctrine. The Berœans did not read the Old Testament (and the New was not then published) to dispute with the apostles, or to sanction his doctrines: but it was a great comfort and confirmation to the Jews that had the Scriptures, to find, even as S. Paul said, that Christ was God, crucified, risen, and ascended to heaven; which by his expounding they understood, and never before, though they read them, and heard them read every sabbath. So it is a great comfort to a Catholic to see in the Scriptures the clear passages that prove the truth of his tenets, and shew the grounds for his hopes. But this by no means authorizes him to be judge of the true pastors of the Church, whom he is commanded by Jesus Christ to hear and obey, and from whom they are to learn the genuine sense of the Scriptures.

Ver. 16. Lactanius ridicules the folly of idolatry in a neat strain of irony, which he introduces by the following verses from Lucilius:

Ut pueri infantes credunt signa omnia ahena

Vivere et esse homines; sic isti omnia ficta

Vera putant, &c.

The poet compares these fools to children. I think them worse; for the latter only take the statues for men, they for gods. Age causes the error of the one, folly of the other. These soon cease to be deceived, but the folly of those lasts and increases always. Lact. de fals. Relig. lib. i.

Ver. 18. Epicurean and Stoic philosophers. The former of these philosophers held as their doctrine, that the Almighty did not interfere by his providence in the government of the world; that the soul did not subsist after the body; and consequently, that there was no future state of retribution. The latter denied that man had liberty of action, and maintained, that all things happened by destiny and fatal necessity. These were the two opposite sects S. Paul had to contend with. Calmet. — The Stoics believed in the immortality of the soul, and came the nearest to the Christian religion: but both Stoics and Epicureans, with all pagan philosophers, denied the resurrection of bodies; hence S. Augustin says, the faith of a resurrection is peculiar to Christians. Estius. — What is it that this babbler[3] would say? A word of contempt, which some translate, this prattler. It is thought to be a metaphor from birds picking up little seeds, or the like, for their food; and to signify, that S. Paul had picked up words and sentences without any solid meaning. Wi.

Ver. 19. To the Areopagus. In this place sat the Athenian judges: but some think that by this word may be here signified, some large hall or court, joining to the Areopagus, where all sorts of people met. Wi. — The Areopagus was the supreme and most famous tribunal of all Greece, before which all great causes were tried. The persons who composed it were much renowned for their wisdom. Cicero, and many other Romans, were ambitious of the honour of being an Areopagite; but the power of Athens being now much diminished, this court had sunk in importance, and was now not much more than the shadow of a great name. Calmet.

Ver. 22. Over-religious.[4] Or very superstitious. To be superstitious, or given to superstition, is commonly taken for a vain and groundless religious worship, but it is also sometimes used in a good sense. And perhaps S. Paul, in the beginning of his speech to so many men of learning, does not so openly blame them for being vainly and foolishly superstitious, but by their inscription, to the unknown[5] God, he takes notice how nice and exact they pretended to be, in not omitting to pay some kind of homage to any god, or gods of all other nations, whom they might not know. For some interpreters think, that by this altar they designed to worship every god of any nation, who was not come to their knowledge: or to worship that great God hinted at in the writings of Plato: or as others conjecture, that God of the Jews, of whom they might have heard such wonders, and whose name the Jews themselves said to be unknown and ineffable. However, from this inscription S. Paul takes an occasion, with wonderful dexterity, with sublime reflections, and with that solid eloquence, of which he was master, and which he employed, as often as it was necessary, to inform them, and instruct them, concerning the works of the one true God, of whom they had little knowledge, by their own fault: that this one true God made the world, and all things in it: that from one man he raised all mankind: that his presence is not confined to temples made by the hands of men, being every where, and in all creatures, preserving them every moment: that in him we live, move, and have our being, or subsist: that it is he, who hath determined the time, limits, or bounds of every empire, and kingdom, and of every man’s life: that this true God, who made, preserves, and governs all things in heaven and on earth, cannot be like to gold, silver, or any thing made by the art, or fancy of men. He puts them in mind that according even to one of their own heathen poets, Aratus, men themselves are the offspring of God, being blessed with a being and knowledge above all other creatures in this world: who by the light of reason ought to seek God, and by considering the visible effects of Providence over the world, and the creatures in it, might come to the knowledge of this one God, the author of all, at least to an imperfect knowledge of him, as men find out things by feeling, or as it were, groping in the dark. He then adds, (v. 30.) that having, as it were, overlooked, and permitted men for many ages to run on in this ignorance and blindness, in punishment of their sins, (this their ignorance of one true God, the author of all things, being wilful and inexcusable) now the same true God hath been pleased to announce to all men, that henceforward they acknowledge, and worship him, that they repent, and do penance for their sins. Wi.

Ver. 23. It may be asked, why they had not implicit faith, worshipping the true, though unknown, God?[5] 1st. because the worship of the true God can never exist with the worship of idols; 2d. because an explicit faith in God is required of all; 3d. because it is repugnant to implicit faith, to admit any thing contrary to it, as comparing this unknown God with the pagan idols; for God to be at all, must be one. Lucan towards the end of his 2d book, hath these words:

———Et dedita sacris

Incerti Judæa Dei.

What, therefore, you improperly worship, that I preach to you, and instruct you in the true worship, far different from what you pay to your strange gods.

Ver. 24. God . . . dwelleth not in temples. He who is infinite cannot be confined to space; nor stand in need of what human hands can furnish. Temples are not for God, but for man. It is the latter who derives assistance from them. The same may be observed of all exterior acts of worship. They are serviceable, inasmuch as they proceed from, or powerfully assist, interior devotion, by the impressions which exterior objects leave upon the soul. The reciprocal action of one upon the other, in our present state of existence, is great and inevitable. A. See c. vii. sup. v. 48. — God, indeed, dwelleth in the temple, yes, and in the soul of the just man, but he is not confined there, as the idols were to their temples. Hence the prayer of Solomon at the consecration of the temple: if heaven, and the heaven of heavens cannot contain thy immensity, how much less this house, which I have erected? God dwelleth there, then, to receive the prayers and sacrifices of the faithful, but not as though he needed any thing. See v. 25. — God is not contained in temples; so as to need them for his dwelling, or any other uses, as the heathens imagined. Yet by his omnipresence, he is both there and every where. Ch.

Ver. 27. Feel after him. Si forte attrectent eum, ei arage pselapheseian. It signifies palpare quasi in tenebris. Wi.

Ver. 28. S. Paul here cites Aratus, a Greek poet, and his own countryman, a native of Cilicia.

Ver. 29. Cherubim, with extended wings, were ordered by God to be made, and placed over the propitiatory; (Exod. xxxvii. 7.) the brazen serpent is declared by Jesus Christ himself to have been a figure of him; therefore to blame the universally received practice of the Catholic Church, with regard to pictures and images, betrays either great prevention, or great ignorance. S. Gregory says: “What writing does for readers, that a picture does for the ignorant; for in it they see what they ought to follow, and in it they read, who know no letters.” And he sharply rebukes Serenus’s indiscreet zeal for removing pictures, instead of teaching the people what use may be made of them. l. ix. ep. 9.

Ver. 30. Overlooked. Despiciens, uperidon. It may either signify looking down on the ignorant world, and so taking pity of it; or rather that God having overlooked, and permitted mankind to go on so long in their sins, now invites them to repentance, by sending Jesus, their Saviour and Redeemer. See the Analysis, dissert. xxxiv. Wi.

Ver. 31. Because he hath appointed a day for judging all men with equity, by the man, to wit, Christ Jesus, a man, and also his true Son, whom he has appointed to be their judge; and by raising him (Jesus) from the dead, he hath made it credible, and given sufficient proofs of this truth, that every one shall rise from death. Wi.

Ver. 32. When they heard of the resurrection of the dead. This seemed so impossible, even to the philosophers among them, that some of them presently laughed, and made a jest of it. Others said, we will hear thee on this another time, and some believed. Wi.

Ver. 34. Dionysius the Areopagite. This illustrious convert was made the first bishop of Athens. The martyrologies say, S. Paul raised him to that dignity. It is the same person, who, observing the convulsions of nature, which paid homage, as it were, to its God, expiring upon the cross, and not knowing the cause, is said to have exclaimed: Either the universe is falling to ruin, or the God of nature must be suffering. It appears from his writings, that he was, previous to his conversion, of the Platonic school. Ven. Bede was mistaken in supposing that he was afterwards the bishop of Corinth, of that name, who so successfully employed his pen for the good of the Church. This Dionysius lived a whole century after the Areopagite. Estius.

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[1] V. 4. De colentibus Gentilibusque. In the common Greek copies, there is no and, but only of the worshipping Gentiles, ton de sebomenon elleuon, but in other copies, kai ellenon.

[2] V. 6. Qui urbem concitant, in the common Greek copies, oikoumenen, orbem: so that this difference might happen in the Latin, by the change of one letter only of urbem, for orbem: but some Greek MSS. have ten polin, civitatem.

[3] V. 18. Semini-verbius, o spermologos, the critics derive it from legein spermata, colligere semina.

[4] V. 22. Superstitiosiores, deisidaimonosterous, from deido, timeo, and daimon. Deisidaimonia is sometimes taken in a good sense for religio, as also superstitio in Latin. See Budæus, and Plutarch apud Scapulam. See also Suidas.

[5] V. 23. Ignoto Deo, agnosto theo. See Corn. a Lapide.