Archaeology and the New Testament (VII)

Mike Willis
Mooresville, Indiana

Luke's Political Terminology

As soon shall be seen, Luke's accuracy in using proper political terms is not a bit behind his accuracy in using accurate geographical references. Before archaeology found artifacts confirming Luke's usage, many scholars doubted his accuracy in regard to political terms employed in the book.

"Luke's use of the word 'politarch' for the rulers of Thessalonica was once thought to be an inaccuracy, but the discovering of seventeen inscriptions at Salonika (modern name of Thessalonica) containing this term shows the accuracy of this usage."1

"Luke quite accurately designated the local officials of Philippi as 'praetors.' While it was customary for the magistrates of Roman colonies to be known as 'duumvirs' rather than 1praetors,' it is clear from Cicero that in educated circles the latter was a courtesy title for the magisterial officials of the colony." 2

Regarding Paul, Luke mentioned "certain asiarchs, who were his friends" (Acts 19: 3 1) in Ephesus. "These are officers like the 'town clerk' and 'temple keeper,' who are now well-known from monuments ... There was only one Asiarch who held office at any one time, and the incumbent was changed every fourth year. There were naturally many ex-asiarchs . . ." 3

"The final item concerns the exact title of the 'chief man' of Malta where Paul was shipwrecked (Acts 28:7). The title appears on two Maltese inscriptions, one in Greek and one in Latin. The 'first man' or protos, in this case was Publius. Like's title is the correct designation of the Roman governor of Malta." 4

Paul at Athens

Although Paul was now in one of the cultural capitals of the ancient world, he was not overcome in ecstasy. Rather, Luke said, "his spirit was provoked within him as he was beholding the city full of idols." 5 After vainly reasoning with the Jews, he began to reason in the market place with the Gentiles. The "agora" was the political, commercial, and social center of the ancient Greek town.

As a result of these discussions, Paul was allowed to address the citizens from the Areopagus. Since both the hilltop and the council were called the Aeropagus, it is uncertain which is intended. Henry J. Cadbury is convinced that Luke's reference is to the council as he says:

"I am not questioning the accuracy of the present name nor am I denying that Acts quite appropriately speaks of Paul as standing in the midst of the Areopagus and delivering his famous address. But the modern traveler who sits there, Testament in hand, and looks wistfully across to the neighboring Parthenon on the Acropolis, 'the glory that was Greece,' must be informed that the Areopagus spoken of was no longer the actual hill of Mars but the court which formerly met there and still bore the name of its earlier place of assembly." 6

However, not all scholars are so thoroughly convinced that the hill of Mars was not what was meant by Luke's comment. Merrill F. Unger comments:

"Since both the hill and court were called the Areopagus, it is not certain which is referred to in Acts 17:19, 22. However, since the hill was the usual place of meeting, it seems more likely Paul's address was delivered there." 7

Since the evidence is inconclusive, no definite decision can be made as to which view is correct.

The opening of Paul's address there in Athens mentions his vexation because of the idolatry in the city even to so great an extent that the Athenians had an inscription "To An Unknown God." "No such inscriptions have yet been found in Athens. The traveler Pausanias and some later literary works, however, speak of unknown gods,' and an altar to unknown gods' was discovered at Pergamum in Asia. Hence there is really nothing strange about the reference which Paul makes."


1. Joseph P. Free, Archaeology and Bible History (Wheaton: Van Kampen Press, 1952), p. 321.

2. R. K. Harrison, Archaeology of the New Testament (New York: Association Press, 1964), p. 40.

3. Merrill F. Unger, Archaeology and the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1962), pp. 262-63.

4. James A. Thompson, The Bible and Archaeology (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdman's Publishing Co., 1968), P. 402.

5. Acts 17:16.

6. Henry J. Cadbury, The Book of Acts in History (New York: Harper and Brothers Publishers, 1955, pp. 52-53.

7. Op. Cit., Unger, p. 237.

8. G. Ernest Wright, Biblical Archaeology (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1957), p. 258.

TRUTH MAGAZINE, XVI: 48, pp. 8-9
October 12, 1972