Acts 17:16 – 32
While Paul was waiting for them (Silas and Timothy 17:15) in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. So he reasoned in the synagogues with the Jews and the God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there. A group of Epicureans and Stoic philosophers began to dispute 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. 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? You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we want to know what they mean.” (All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.)
Then Paul stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said, “Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and observed your objects of worship, I even foun an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you.
“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else. From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the time set for them and exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each of use. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’
“Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone — an image made by man’s design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead.”
When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but other said, “We want to hear you again on that subject.” At that, Paul left the Council. A few men became followers of Paul and believed. Among the was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others.
I transcribed a rather lengthy text, this time, because of the amount of information about this account and the significance of this passage. Paul has travelled well out of the region of Judaism, though he does start at the synagogue in Athens. Yet, here are “God-fearing Greeks”. Soon he will be invited to teach and debate his ideas which evoke curiosity among the educated, philosophical, and novelty-seeking Greeks.
Though Rome had long ago incorporated the Greek city-states into its territory, as a protectorate state, Athens was still the seat of education. Many of Rome’s chief teachers and writers came from Athens. Roman children either went to Athens to learn, or brought over Greek teachers. Plutarch, who wrote his biographies (“Lives”) of Greek and Roman leaders in 70 ACE (about the time Luke may have been composing the Acts of the Apostles), was a Greek teacher. Just as professors write and publish books on their area of expertise today in order to sell them to the students in their classes, Plutarch wrote these biographies for his students in Rome.
Paul going to Athens was a new step in taking the “good news” from trying to reform Judaism to being a motivational-speaker to everyday Gentiles. Now he was up against the Big-Guns of learning and philosophy in Athens. The narrative names two: the Epicureans and Stoics.
Briefly, for those of you who are philosophy-geeks, Epicureans were materialists, who believed that close observation of phenomenon could lead to a peaceful life. Unlike the hedonistic binge-and-purge orgy set, the believed in moderation. To much (e.g. food, sex, physical activity, etc.) was just as unpleasant and harmful as too little. Thus, quality food, wine, and women were sufficient. Paul’s message of “God who made the world and everything in it” would have caught their attention.
Stoics were those policy-wonks who hung out in the porticos while dissecting the logic of arguments. The steps of those porticos (go back and read that blog from Building a Roman Church) was called the Stoa. They viewed emotion as illogical and not the basis of moral decision-making. Reason was their champion. When Paul went out to the marketplace, he was join the Stoics on their territory, physically and intellectually.
They are intrigued enough with what they have heard Paul say that they invited him to the Areopagus. This was the pinnacle of philosophy in Athens. This is where the brightest and most dynamic philosophers gathered to debate. The only structure higher (geographically) was the temples.
In this fresco, we see Paul teaching at the Areopagus. Through the opening between the columns, see the slightly higher temple. But, with close observation, we notice that this is not a Greek temple with is roofline following the triangle of the front pediment. No, this is a Roman basilica structure, as evident from the raised section on the roof. Greek temples did not have side aisle that allowed for this raise roof structure. Furthermore, as I have written elsewhere, the Roman churches utilized this basilica structure for his largest churches. Thus, in the distance is the Roman Church which Paul is transforming from Greek and Roman society.
Around Paul are many men, who all look at him. The text even lists a woman, Damaris, though I cannot identify any character in this fresco who does not have a beard. In the upper left corner is a statue, one of the idols to gods, which Paul uses as an illustration in his lesson. The statue is standing in the classic contrapposto pose, in which the figure shifts weight to one leg, thereby pushing a hip out, curving the back, and tilting the shoulder and head. The painter cleverly uses this device to turn the head of the statue, such that even the idols to the gods, known and unknown, turn to look and listen to Paul.