Copyright © 2003, 2006 by Larry G. Overton
6 And not finding them, they were dragging Jason and certain brothers away to the city rulers, shouting, “These, having unsettled the inhabited earth, have also come here, 7 whom Jason has received. And these all act contrary to the decrees of Caesar, saying there is another king, Jesus.” 8 And they disturbed the crowd and the city rulers on their hearing these things. [Acts 17:6-8. LGO]
In verses six and eight of Acts chapter seventeen, Luke refers to “city rulers.” The Greek term is politarchas [πολιταάρχας], the masculine plural (accusative case) of the noun politarchēs [πολιτάρχης]. It is a compound Greek word, made up of the word for “city” (polis [πόλις]) and the word for “ruler” (archē [α̉ρχή]), so the translation above is quite literal.
What is significant about this Greek title for a public office is that it is found nowhere else in ancient Greek literature; it is unique to this reference. In other words, this word politarchēs is not found in any classical Greek literature; this reference by Luke in the book of Acts is the only literary reference to politarchēs or “city rulers.”
Skeptics for many years used the fact that there was no other known literary reference to this word. In refusing to believe that the Bible was even accurate (let alone divinely inspired), skeptics would allege that Luke made up this word. They would then conclude that this “blunder” on the part of Luke undermined his accuracy, and therefore gave reason to read the writings of Luke in the New Testament with skepticism.
In all probability, many of you reading this Fact Sheet have never heard this excuse for unbelief from those who reject Christianity. And there is a good reason you don’t hear this excuse being used today: it has been proven that Luke was right all along. And the evidence that proved the validity of the Greek term politarchēs was found, not in literature, but in architecture.
The modern city of Thessaloniki (or as it is also spelled, Saloniki) is built on the site of the old city, which can make discoveries of ancient landmarks difficult. However, in 1835, an important discovery was made. On the western side of the city near the mouth of the Axius or Vardar River, an arch spanned the ancient Via Egnatia (“Egnatian Way”). Called the Vardar Arch, it was discovered that one of the marble stones contained the following Greek inscription:
I know, I know…it’s all Greek to you. The significant thing about this inscription is the very first word: Poleitarchountōn, which means, “Those ruling the city…” There, literally carved in stone, is a form of the word that Luke used nearly two thousand years ago. (In 1876, the arch was—Gasp!—demolished. Fortunately, the stone with the inscription was rescued. It is housed today in the British Museum in London.)
What follows the word Poleitarchountōn is a list of names of some of these ancient “city rulers.”
Those ruling the city: Sosipater son of Cleopatra and Lucius Pontius Secundus, son of Aulus Avius Sabinus; Demetrius son of Faustus; Demetrius son of Nikopolis; Zoilos son of Parmenion, also known as Meniskos; Gaius Agilleius Potitus, treasurer of the city; Tauros son of Ammias, also known as Reglus, the Gymnasiun ruler; Tauros son of Tauros also known as Reglus…
Several of the names are familiar to us, names we find mentioned in the NT: Sōpater, Secundus and Gaius. This is of course coincidental, no doubt because of the commonness of the names in question at that particular time. Even so, it is interesting to see the names of Sōsipater, Secundus Publius and Gaius listed in this inscription. These names we associate with Paul and with Macedonia, and even with Thessalonica (see Acts 19:29; 20:4).
Since the discovery of this particular inscription, eighteen others have been found bearing the Greek title politarchēs. The discoveries range in age from the second century BC to the third century AD. Of the nineteen, fourteen refer to city officials in Macedonia, and five of the inscriptions refer specifically to the city of Thessalonica.
Believers prior to the time of these discoveries had no tangible proof that Luke was correct in his use of this unique title. Even so, they stood fast in their faith, knowing that the consistent track record of the Bible was one of accuracy and truth. They figured that if they didn’t have evidence to support the Bible reading (in this case Luke’s use of politarchēs), the facts just weren’t all in. And of course that is just the way things turned out. The skeptics had obviously been speaking out of their ignorance of the facts. The Bible believers were right; the skeptics were wrong.
Once again, scientific discovery (in this case, the science of archaeology) verifies rather than contradicts the Bible. This case of Luke’s exact, historically accurate use of the appropriate term for the time and place mentioned is just one more reason why I trust the New Testament. It is one more example of how reliable a document it is.
And when one considers what this trustworthy Book of books claims for itself, one’s faith is strengthened. I believe just what the Bible claims for itself. I believe the Bible—the 66 books of both the Hebrew Scriptures and the Greek New Testament—to be divinely inspired and inerrant in the original manuscripts.