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In Acts 17 we read:

16 While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. 17 So he reasoned in the synagogue with both Jews and God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there. 18 A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to debate with him. Some of them asked, “What is this babbler trying to say?” Others remarked, “He seems to be advocating foreign gods.” They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection. 19 Then they took him and brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus, where they said to him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? 20 You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we would like to know what they mean.” 21 (All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.)

I've heard several reasons Paul was called a 'Babbler':

  • His language was incomprehensible. (Babble as a onomatopoetic reference to the sound of his words) (But this doesn't make sense if they invite him to debate).
  • He had lots to say, (more than they expected) and the rush of ideas sounded like 'babble' (Babble as an 'overwhelming' term).
  • The ideas were so foreign they sounded like rubbish (Babble as derogatory term).

My question is: Why is Paul called a 'babbler' in Acts 17?

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    For the English side, "babble" almost exclusively means "nonsense" today but when lexicons like Liddell-Scott were produced 100 years ago it also meant "irrational" or "gossip"; see e.g. 1828.mshaffer.com/d/word/babble – fumanchu Jan 5 '16 at 20:36
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Short answer

The greek word translated as "babbler" in Acts 17:18 is a piece of Athenian slang, meaning: "an empty speaker, an ignorant, a vulgar plagiarist", commonly used to define those bad preachers of the rabble, from the street-corners of the market place.

For Paul as a man, it's an insulting word. For Paul as a preacher, it's a diminishing word.


Long answer

You need to look at the original word if you want to have an accurate definition, especially in historical books, like Acts, where you need to check the historical context in which the word is applied.

The word itself in the original Greek language is spermologos (σπερμολόγος Strongs nt 4691). In Thayer's Greek Lexicon we read (emphasis mine)

[...] hence, beggarly, abject, vile (a parasite); getting a living by flattery and buffoonery, Athen. 3, p. 85 f.; Plutarch, mor., p. 456 d.; a substantive, ὁ σπερμολόγος, an empty talker, babbler (Demosthenes, p. 269, 19; Athen. 8, p. 344 c.): Acts 17:18

So we can see that the word, in this context, has the meaning of "an empty speaker", which is a pejorative label for a preacher or a public speaker. But further researching has led me to Abraham J. Malherbe's Light from the Gentiles: Hellenistic Philosophy and Early Christianity, p. 213, where we read:

The first question, using the pejorative σπερμολόγος, effectively ranks him [Paul] with the no-good street preachers of the day as described by Dio Chrysostom: they post "themselves at street-corners, in alleyways, and at temple-gates, pass around the hat, and play upon the credulity of lads and sailors and crowds of that sort, stringing toguether rough jokes and much babbling [σπερμολόγος] and that rubbish of the marketplace." (Dio Chrysostom, Or. 32.9)"

With this reference, it becomes clear that σπερμολόγος is being used in a very pejorative way, meaning "an empty speaker" and equating Paul with bad street preachers of the time.

We also have a good definition of this term in Parsons-Culy's Acts: A Handbook on the Greek Text

σπερμολόγος. According to Louw and Nida, this term may refer either to (1) a person "who acquires bits and pieces of relatively extraneous information and proceeds to pass them on with pretense and show" (thus, "ignorant show-off, charlatan"), or (2) a person "who is not able to say anything worthwhile in view of his miscelaneous collection of tidbits of information" (thus, "foolish babbler"). Barret suggets that the expression refers to a person who has stolen ideas from other and used them as his own.

Conclusion

After all the research, I can agree with R. J. Knowling, from Expositor's Greek Testament, when he mentions a Sir W. M. Ramsay's article, where is written that

"there is no instance of the classical use of the word as a babbler or mere talker, and [that] he sees in the word [σπερμολόγος] a piece of Athenian slang, [...] applied to one who was quite outside any literary circle, an ignorant, vulgar plagiarist".

  • 1
    Thanks for the answer (and welcome!). You might already know it, but it would be worth adding the online Liddell-Scott-Jones to your lexical tools. It's more authoritative and up-to-date than the venerable (but dated) Thayer. For example, here's the σπερμολόγος entry. Hope that helps! – Dɑvïd Jan 9 '16 at 9:50

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