Online Bible Commentary
This New Doctrine
Acts 17:16 Now while Paul waited for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him when he saw that the city was given over to idols. 17 Therefore he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and with the Gentile worshipers, and in the marketplace daily with those who happened to be there. 18 Then certain Epicurean and Stoic philosophers encountered him. And some said, "What does this babbler want to say?" Others said, "He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign gods," because he preached to them Jesus and the resurrection. 19 And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, "May we know what this new doctrine is of which you speak? 20 For you are bringing some strange things to our ears. Therefore we want to know what these things mean." 21 For all the Athenians and the foreigners who were there spent their time in nothing else but either to tell or to hear some new thing. (NKJV)
The time is about A.D. 50. Paul is on his second missionary journey. Paul is now in Athens, Greece. He is alone, waiting for the arrival of Silas and Timothy from Berea, Macedonia where they are helping to start a church.
While Paul waited on the others to arrive he was “provoked”, burdened, by all the idols in the city (v. 16). The Greeks had a “god” for every need in life. It is said that there were more idols in Athens than men.
Paul wasted little time in beginning his ministry in Athens. He continued to work hard and long hours sharing the Gospel. He preached in the synagogue to the Jews and Gentiles who had converted to Judaism (v. 17a).
When he wasn’t doing that he would preach in the “marketplace” to the general population (v. 17b). Here he would encounter a different audience than the synagogue, those who took part in idol worship.
In the marketplace, Paul was approached by “Epicurean and Stoic philosophers” (v. 18a). These were the supposed elite of Athens, which was the cultural center of Greece, known for its fine arts and education. These were Athenians who had plenty of time on their hands. They were the wealthy, the business owners, and the retired. They spent their days debating one another in the marketplace about all kinds of subjects.
The Epicureans were followers of the Greek philosopher Epicurus. Epicurus taught that achieving pleasure should be the primary purpose in life, instead of gaining knowledge or wisdom. Their pleasure was derived from sensuous activities, such as partaking of fine food and wine, but not over indulging in anything. Epicurus was celibate and a vegetarian, but he did not impose that upon his followers.
Epicureans’ emphasis was on friendships as the basis of a satisfied life. They believed in gods who did not involve themselves in their lives. There religion was probably closest to Buddhism.
The Stoics believed that they should seek after wisdom. They believed that this could best be achieved by remaining stoic, free from expressing any intense emotions.
Stoics submitted themselves to natural law and would not allow themselves to be controlled by pleasure or pain. They believed that wisdom could be attained through the use of reason or logic. Stoics were pantheistic, believing in many gods.
As the Epicureans and Stoics listened to Paul share the Gospel they concluded that he was nothing more than a “babbler” who was proclaiming “foreign gods”, gods different than their own (v. 18b). They took Paul to Mars Hill where the “Aeropagus”, similar to our Supreme Court, met (v. 19a).
Paul was not being tried but simply being given a platform for him to formally present his case in the presence of the members of the court and the crowds that would gather there. There, they asked him "May we know what this new doctrine is of which you speak (v. 19b)?
They wanted to hear more about the “strange things” they were hearing (v. 20). The “Athenians and foreigners” met on Mars Hill for this express purpose, just “to tell or hear about some new thing” (v. 21).
So Paul possessed this new doctrine that these elitists wanted to hear. Was this curiosity or did it signify that their belief system was not giving them peace? Peace is what everyone searches for, but not all find. Peace can only be found in a relationship with Jesus Christ.