Now while Paul waited for them in Athens (En de tais Athēnais ekdechomenou autous tou Paulou). Genitive absolute with present middle participle of ekdechomai, old verb to receive, but only with the sense of looking out for, expecting found here and elsewhere in N.T We know that Timothy did come to Paul in Athens (1Th 3:1, 1Th 3:6) from Thessalonica and was sent back to them from Athens. If Silas also came to Athens, he was also sent away, possibly to Philippi, for that church was deeply interested in Paul. At any rate both Timothy and Silas came from Macedonia to Corinth with messages and relief for Paul (Act 18:5; 2Co 11:8.). Before they came and after they left, Paul felt lonely in Athens (1Th 3:1), the first time on this tour or the first that he has been completely without fellow workers. Athens had been captured by Sulla b.c. 86. After various changes Achaia, of which Corinth is the capital, is a separate province from Macedonia and a.d. 44 was restored by Claudius to the Senate with the Proconsul at Corinth. Paul is probably here about a.d. 50. Politically Athens is no longer of importance when Paul comes though it is still the university seat of the world with all its rich environment and traditions. Rackham grows eloquent over Paul the Jew of Tarsus being in the city of Pericles and Demosthenes, Socrates and Plato and Aristotle, Sophocles and Euripides. In its Agora Socrates had taught, here was the Academy of Plato, the Lyceum of Aristotle, the Porch of Zeno, the Garden of Epicurus. Here men still talked about philosophy, poetry, politics, religion, anything and everything. It was the art centre of the world. The Parthenon, the most beautiful of temples, crowned the Acropolis. Was Paul insensible to all this cultural environment? It is hard to think so for he was a university man of Tarsus and he makes a number of allusions to Greek writers. Probably it had not been in Paul’s original plan to evangelize Athens, difficult as all university seats are, but he cannot be idle though here apparently by chance because driven out of Macedonia.
Was provoked (parōxuneto). Imperfect passive of paroxunō, old verb to sharpen, to stimulate, to irritate (from para, oxus), from paroxusmos (Act 15:39), common in old Greek, but in N.T. only here and 1Co 13:5. It was a continual challenge to Paul’s spirit when he beheld (theōrountos, genitive of present participle agreeing with autou (his), though late MSS. have locative theōrounti agreeing with en autōi).
The city full of idols (kateidōlon ousan tēn polin). Note the participle ousan not preserved in the English (either the city being full of idols or that the city was full of idols, sort of indirect discourse). Paul, like any stranger was looking at the sights as he walked around. This adjective kateidōlon (perfective use of kata and eidōlon is found nowhere else, but it is formed after the analogy of katampelos, katadendron), full of idols. Xenophon (de Republ. Ath.) calls the city holē bomos, holē thuma theois kai anathēma (all altar, all sacrifice and offering to the gods). These statues were beautiful, but Paul was not deceived by the mere art for art’s sake. The idolatry and sensualism of it all glared at him (Rom 1:18-32). Renan ridicules Paul’s ignorance in taking these statues for idols, but Paul knew paganism better than Renan. The superstition of this centre of Greek culture was depressing to Paul. One has only to recall how superstitious cults today flourish in the atmosphere of Boston and Los Angeles to understand conditions in Athens. Pausanias says that Athens had more images than all the rest of Greece put together. Pliny states that in the time of Nero Athens had over 30,000 public statues besides countless private ones in the homes. Petronius sneers that it was easier to find a god than a man in Athens. Every gateway or porch had its protecting god. They lined the street from the Piraeus and caught the eye at every place of prominence on wall or in the agora.