Commentary on Acts 17:15, 22
We continue to accompany Paul on his Second Missionary Journey.
After passing through Thessalonica (to whose Christians are addressed two of Paul’s earliest letters) and Beroea (both in Macedonia), Paul’s next destination was Athens, at that time still the cultural centre of the Mediterranean, although political power was now in Rome.
Our reading begins with Paul arriving in the city, with instructions for Silas and Timothy to follow on as soon as possible.
At this time, Athens was really only a shadow of its former self. Some five centuries before Paul it had been at the height of its glory in art, philosophy and literature with a culture which still influences modern life today. In the generations which followed, the city still had a reputation for philosophical thinking and in Paul’s day there was a leading university in the city.
While waiting for his companions to arrive, Paul was quite horrified at the level of idolatry he found in such a supposedly sophisticated city. He was engaged in discussions not only with Jews and other sympathisers but also got involved with Stoic and Epicurean philosophers who found his teaching rather strange. “What is this scavenger trying to say?” they asked. Because of his mention of someone called ‘Jesus’ and terms like ‘resurrection’, they said he sounded “like a promoter of foreign [i.e. non-Greek] deities”. Eventually they invited him to address the Council of the Areopagus, an indication of how seriously they took him even though they found his ideas outlandish.
It should have been a very important venue for Paul. If he could win the Athenians round to accepting the message of Christ, it could have far-reaching effects. The Greeks were famous for their intellectual interests and their love of discussion and debate. As Luke comments rather laconically, “The one amusement the Athenians and the foreigners living there seem to have, apart from discussing the latest ideas, is listening to lectures about them.”
Yet, in a way, it was this passion for discussion of ideas which made the Greeks so outstanding in philosophy and literature. (cf. Bernard Lonergan SJ on the Athenians’ gift for conversation, a source of great intellectual creativity.)
So Paul went to the Areopagus in the heart of the city and spoke to the people assembled there. And it is Paul’s address which forms the main part of today’s reading.
The Areopagus was a hill to the south of the Agora, the central market place of Athens where people gathered. Areopagus also referred to the Athenian supreme council which held its sessions there.
Paul chose as his topic the knowledge of God, a theme very popular in the propaganda of contemporary hellenistic Judaism. The pagans are accused of not knowing God, the proof being that they worship idols. This ignorance, Paul tells them, is culpable, since all are capable of knowing God as creator and controller of the cosmos.
Nevertheless, Paul’s address is in a totally different style from what he had been giving up to this. He makes no explicit mention of the Scriptures; he does not even mention the name of Jesus. He speaks of the Greeks as “scrupulously religious”, although the word he used could also mean “superstitious”, depending on the context. Paul’s meaning will emerge as he speaks. In the context, it is clear that Paul wanted to be complimentary in order to get a hearing.
He tries to go in their door by taking as his cue an altar he saw, dedicated to an “unknown” god. Polytheists (like the Greeks) used to dedicate altars to ‘unknown gods’, in case they incurred the vengeance of gods whose names they did not know. It was a kind of all-inclusive title. While it was a way to make sure that none of the many Greek gods was left unworshipped, it also indicated the level of superstition that co-existed with the Athenians’ much-vaunted intellectualism.
Paul uses the practice for his own ends and also turns back the charge of preaching about ‘outlandish’ gods which people had never heard of. And he goes on to spell out for them just who this ‘unknown’ God really is.
He is the God who made this world and all that lives in it. This idea was common in Greek thought and hellenistic Judaism; it is a form of the old biblical theme found in the prophet Amos (5:21ff) and in Psalm 50:9-13. Paul proclaims a personal Creator in contrast with the pantheistic God of the Stoics.
He is a Lord who pervades the heavens and the earth and is not confined to man-made sanctuaries. Nor does he need the help of any human. On the contrary, it is he who gives life and breath and everything with it.
He made from one the whole human race, meaning that all belong to one family (Athenians, Romans, Greeks, ‘barbarians’, Jews, Gentiles). A belief we assert every time we pray ‘Our Father…’. Through his creation he made his presence evident all over the world, “so that people might seek God, even perhaps grope for him and find him, though indeed he is not far from any of us.” He is the Designer God where nothing is left to mere Chance, as the Epicureans thought.
He even gives two quotations from Greek poets to strengthen his argument.
- “In him [i.e. God] we live and move and have our being.” This quotation is attributed to the poet Epimenides (about 600 BC) who came from Knossos in Crete and is found in his work Cretica.
- “We are his [i.e. God's] offspring” is from the Cilician poet Aratus (about 315 to 240 BC) in his Phaenomen and also found in Cleanthes’ Hymn to Zeus.
Paul also questions the practice of worshipping objects of stone or metal as gods. If we human beings have come from God, how can that God be contained in images of gold, silver or stone – materials which are on a lower level than ourselves? (It is a very different thing – as we have in the Catholic church – to have images representing our God or the saints. They play the same role as family photographs. No one believes that a picture of Uncle Joe is really Uncle Joe.)
Up to this, God had tolerated this practice which was done in ignorance but, with the coming of Jesus, all that has changed. It is time now to ‘repent’ (a word which, as we have already seen, implies a total conversion in our way of living) because God will ‘judge the world with justice’ through the “man he has appointed”, namely, Jesus. And all this, says Paul, is confirmed by Jesus having been raised from the dead.
But at the mention of ‘resurrection from the dead’ some of Paul’s listeners began mocking and others, perhaps with their interest whetted, said, “We must hear you on this topic some other time.” However, it seems clear that their interest was purely on the level of intellectual speculation and not at all on the spiritual or religious. Immortality of the soul was accepted by the Greeks (see Plato’s Dialogues) but not the resurrection of a dead body.
In the Greek world, even among Christians, the doctrine of the resurrection was strongly resisted, as we see in the First Letter to the Corinthians (15:12ff). The Jerusalem Sanhedrists also condemned and attacked this Christian dogma, whereas the Athenians of the Areopagus were content to mock.
Basically speaking, then, Paul’s mission to the Athenians was a dismal failure. From now on he refuses to use the arguments from Greek philosophy. So he writes later on to the Christians of Corinth: “When I came to you, brother and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you, except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor 2:1-2) and a little before that, in the same letter, he had written,
Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. (1 Cor 1:20-24).
From now on he would rely only on the power of the Gospel message.
In spite of this, there were some converts made in Athens. Among these was Dionysius the Areopagite. The Jerusalem Bible notes: “Luke’s readers must have known him. He became the subject of legend, especially since the 5th century when an author (the ‘pseudo-Dionysius’) published various mystical writings under his name. Later legend identifies him with St Denys, the first bishop of Paris (3rd century)” or even that he was bishop of Athens.
Another convert mentioned was Damaris. The NIV notes: “Some have suggested that she must have been a foreign, educated woman to have been present at a public meeting such as the Areopagus. It is also possible that she was a God-fearing Gentile who had heard Paul at the synagogue.”
From Athens, Paul continued south to Corinth. He would have gone there either by land along the isthmus, a distance of about 80 km (50 miles) or else by sea from Piraeus, the port of Athens, to Cenchrea, the port of Corinth, on the eastern shore of the isthmus of Corinth.
Corinth had been rebuilt by no less a person than Julius Caesar and became capital of the Roman province of Achaia (southern Greece). Its population was largely Roman and Latin-speaking but it was a lively commercial centre which attracted people of all nations. There was also a considerable Jewish colony. The immorality of the city was proverbial even by the standards of the day.
Paul does not seem ever to have ever returned to Athens. But, once again, we see that God’s ways are not our ways. Once again we see how Paul is turned in a different direction from what seemed the obvious way to go. His next stop will be Corinth, a city, on the face of it, which – compared to sophisticated Athens – was not at all promising, given its reputation for lewdness and immorality.
On the positive side, we should look carefully at how Paul presented his message in a language that would make sense to his hearers. He did not dilute or compromise his message but he did try to express it in language that would give an opening to an audience totally unfamiliar with the Jewish scriptures. This is something we need to remember whether we are bringing our message to a culture which has never heard the message before or to one which has lost it.
Much of our preaching, it has to be said, is to the converted and not to those who have not heard the message or have only heard it in distorted forms.