While Paul waited for Silas and Timothy at Athens (Acts 17:15), he seemed to have gone on a personal tour of the city and found it a virtual necropolis of idols. Athens had indeed passed its prime and glory of the 5th and 4th centuries BCE. Rome was now the political capital of the world, and Corinth to the south had surpassed it in commercial importance, while Alexandria had outstripped it as a center of culture and learning (perhaps even matched by Tarsus, Paul’s place of birth). Yet, its illustrious past had gained for it the sentimental respect of the world. She was a free city allied to Rome and able to conduct her political affairs according to her wishes, and Athens’ reputation made her the Empire’s museum of Greek culture.
Nevertheless, though we might be free to admire the Athenian sculptures as great works of art, in Paul’s day they were the temples and images of pagan deities. He toured the city and became very irritated with what he had taken in. The Greek word in Acts 17:16 is paroxuno (G3947) and is similar to the stirring of Paul’s and Barnabas’ spirits over Mark in Acts 15:39 (paroxusmos (G3948). There Paul’s spirit brought about his separation from a beloved friend, while here the stirring of his spirit put him in a spirit of debate (dialegomai – G1256; see Acts 17:17). In Acts 17:2 Paul debated (G1256) with the Jews of Thessalonica out of the Scriptures, but in verse-17 Paul’s debate in the synagogue was over what he had seen in his tour of the city. It seems that Paul held his Jewish brethren partially responsible for the condition of the city, namely, that it had given itself wholly to idolatry (Acts 17:16).
Apparently, Paul felt a personal responsibility to God for Athens’ condition. For Paul the truth was not simply something he knew, but something that needed to be passed on; it wasn’t something that one clutched to oneself, as if to own it as a private possession, but something that was continually offered to others who didn’t have such knowledge of the truth.
Paul also took the debate out of the synagogue and into the marketplace of the city and daily there debated with those who met with him, and Athens had no scarcity of folks who were willing to dispute one’s philosophy of life (cp. Acts 17:21). There Paul found several schools of philosophy, but his main competitors were the Stoics and the Epicureans.
The Stoics, being the more pious of the two, took their philosophy from Zeno the Cypriote, but took their name from the painted Stoa (portico) from where Zeno usually taught in Athens. They applauded high ethical standards and devotion to civic duty, but were often noted for their spiritual arrogance. Perhaps their philosophy is best summed up in W.E. Henley’s Invictus especially in the lines: “I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.”
The Epicureans take their name from their founder Epicurus, and consider pleasure the chief end of life—chiefly the pleasure of the mind: tranquility, free from pain, disquieting emotions—especially the fear of death. While they didn’t deny the existence of gods, they maintained the gods took no interest in men.
These were Paul’s main audience, and it was from these schools of philosophy Paul found men willing to take part in his daily debates. Some of them regarded Paul as a religious charlatan, picking seeds or scraps of information from this teacher or that, while others suspected he heralded new divinities (Acts 17:18), for the Greeks had no precedent for resurrection. They saw Paul preaching Jesus and Anastasis (resurrection – G386), perhaps thinking he referred to healing and restoration. They therefore requested that he give an account of his personal standing so they could understand the premise of his argument (Acts 17:19-20).