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This Sunday School Study Guide is provided free of cost for personal study and as an aid for Sunday School teachers.  It contains copyright material and may not be reproduced in any form for sale, without permission from the copyright holders.  


 

Bailey Sadler Class

SUNDAY SCHOOL LESSON STUDY GUIDE – Fall 2016

 

Study Theme:  Unstoppable Gospel

What This Lesson Is About:

Week of:

Lesson Title:

The focus of this week’s study will examine a model provided by the apostle Paul for communicating the gospel in a diverse culture.

 

Oct. 16

Unstoppable Mission

 

Oct. 23

Unstoppable Message

 

Oct. 30

Unstoppable Love

 

Nov. 06

Unstoppable Opportunities

 

Nov. 13

Unstoppable Courage

X

Nov. 20

Unstoppable Impact

 

Nov. 27

Give Thanks—Anyway!

 

LIFE IMPACT:

The gospel of Jesus Christ can impact any culture.

FOCAL PASSAGE:

Acts 17:16-18,22-23,30-31

LESSON OUTLINE:

I.    

II.

III.

Engagement (Acts 17:16-18)

Common Ground (Acts 17:22-23)

Call For Repentance (Acts 17:30-31)

THE SETTING:  

Paul was on his second missionary journey, accompanied by Silas and Timothy.  They ministered in Thessalonica and Berea, tow cities in Macedonia (northern Greece).  Paul left Silas and Timothy in Berea and traveled alone to Athens, a famous city in Achaia (southern Greece).  While Paul waited for his co-workers to arrive, he noticed the religious and cultural situation in Athens.  He followed his pattern of starting with the Jewish audience in each town (17:1,10,17), but he soon was invite dot speak to a gathering of the intellectual leaders in Athens.  Although Paul did not compromise his message about Jesus with this Gentile audience, he clearly adopted a different strategy, or approach, as he engaged this non-Jewish culture (1 Cor. 9:19-23).

SOURCE: Advanced Bible Study; LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention; One LifeWay Plaza, Nashville, TN.

INTRODUCTION:

America is a very diverse country: culture, ethnicities, worldviews, and preferences.  Nevertheless, most of us tend to gravitate toward people, who are like us.  The gospel, however, is for more than people “just like us.”  The gospel speaks to any culture at any time and in any place.

SOURCE: Advanced Bible Study; LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention; One LifeWay Plaza, Nashville, TN.

I.

Engagement (Acts 17:16-18)

16 While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, his spirit was troubled within him when he saw that the city was full of idols. 17 So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and with those who worshiped God and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. 18 Then also, some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers argued with him. Some said, “What is this pseudo-intellectual trying to say?” Others replied, “He seems to be a preacher of foreign deities”—because he was telling the good news about Jesus and the Resurrection.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  1.   What picture does the word “diversity” paint for you?

  2.   What do you enjoy most about our diverse culture?

  3.   What do you fear most about it?

  4.   Why can the gospel of Jesus Christ impact any culture?

  5.   What prompted Paul to call for the people of Athens to repent (v. 16)?

  6.   What do you think infuriated him the most about the idolatry in Athens?

  7.   Why do you think Paul went to the synagogue when he first arrived in Athens (v. 17)? 

  8.   To whom did Paul feel led to witness about salvation offered to all through faith in Jesus Christ (vv. 17-18)?

  9.   What do you think prompted Paul to go to the marketplace to witness to those who happened to be there (v. 17)?

10.   Who were the “Epicurean” and “Stoic” philosophers (v. 18)?  (See Digging Deeper for details.)

11.   Why do you think they were specifically mentioned as being witnessed to by Paul?

12.   Do you think the values taught by the Epicureans (pleasure and materialism) and the Stoics (human reason and self-sufficiency) are still in play in the reasoning of people in our culture today?

13.   What examples of either do you see in our society?

14.   Do you think idolatry is rampant in our society today, and if so, what troubles you the most about it?

15.   Where are the logical places for us to go to engage with diverse groups of people?

16.   How would you describe the role of the Holy Spirit in preparing Paul to engage with such a diverse audience?

17.   What do you think is the biggest barrier a believer may face when engaging diversity in our culture today?

18.   What two lessons can we learn from Paul about engaging our diverse culture?

 

Lasting Lessons in Acts 17:16-18:

1.  Christians should be aware of the characteristic beliefs and trends in our contemporary culture.

2.  We should witness, and be prepared to witness, for Christ to many different audiences.

3.  We must commit ourselves to engaging our diverse world rather than merely criticizing what we do not like about it.

4.  We could pinpoint specific target groups that our church or Bible study group will try to engage.

 

II.

Common Ground (Acts 17:22-23)

22 Then Paul stood in the middle of the Areopagus and said: “Men of Athens! I see that you are extremely religious in every respect. 23 For as I was passing through and observing the objects of your worship, I even found an altar on which was inscribed: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. Therefore, what you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you.

  1.   What took place in verses 19-21?

  2.   According to these verses, what did the men of Athens want to know?

  3.   What was the “Areopagus”?  (See Digging Deeper.)

  4.   Do you think Paul was respectful or arrogant in his opening statement (v. 22)?  Explain your answer!

  5.   According to verse 23, on what did Paul base his opening statement?

  6.   What was the unusual observation that Paul had made while passing through the city?

  7.   What are some false gods people worship in our society today?

  8.   Based on the last part of verse 23, what do you think was common ground for Paul to begin his sharing the gospel?

  9.   Do you think it is important to find common ground when sharing the gospel?  If so, why?

10.   How can we use the things we have in common with others as a gateway to sharing Jesus?

11.   What principles and practices can we gain from Paul’s approach to sharing the gospel?

12.   How would you describe the example Paul gives us for establishing a foundation for witnessing?

 

Lasting Lessons in Acts 17:22-23:

1.  We need to find some point of contact with our non-Christian friends and co-workers.

2.  We should move toward a clear affirmation of their need for the salvation available only through a relationship with Jesus.

3.  We should avoid inflammatory issues that might turn off our audience early in our relationship.

 

III.

Call For Repentance (Acts 17:30-31)

30 “Therefore, having overlooked the times of ignorance, God now commands all people everywhere to repent, 31 because He has set a day when He is going to judge the world in righteousness by the Man He has appointed. He has provided proof of this to everyone by raising Him from the dead.”

  1.   What took place between verse 23 and verse 30?

  2.   What do you think Paul meant by “having overlooked the times of ignorance” in verse 30? 

  3.   What was the main point of Paul’s address in verse 30?

  4.   Do you think it is difficult to tell someone they need to repent?  Why, or why not?

  5.   Based on verse 31, what was the reason for Paul’s call to repent?

  6.   How did Paul point to Jesus as judge (v. 31)?

  7.   What proof did Paul offer that Jesus was an essential part of God’s salvation plan?

  8.   Looking at verses 32-34, what happened after Paul mentioned the resurrection of Jesus?

  9.   What do these three verses tell us about what we can expect as we share the Good News about Jesus?

10.   What are some barriers that keeps many believers from sharing the gospel?

 

Lasting Lessons in Acts 17:30-31:

1.  God expects everyone to repent for his or her sins.

2.  All people will face God’s judgment.

3.  God demonstrated that Jesus is His Son through Jesus’ resurrection from the dead.

 

 

CONCLUSION:

We continue to live in a culture in which people voice false, secular philosophies that are empty of the life answers but influence others.  Idols of gold and silver made by hand largely have been replaced by money, institutions, promises, and ideals based on human reason alone.  Those things should be as detestable to believers as handmade idols, for they too deny the one true God of Scripture and often relegate Jesus only to being a good teacher or holy man, but not divine.  Very few communities are exempt from such influences.  Therefore, this study is extremely relevant to our day.  As believers, we are challenged to stand courageously for our faith in Christ, even if and when any one of us has to stand alone.  The preaching of the gospel will make a difference, for its impact cannot be stopped.

So when it comes to spreading the gospel, are you a stopping point, or are you a spearhead?  Are you reluctant to step out in front to lead the charge or are you always on point?  On a scale of 1 (stopping point) to 10 (spearhead), rate yourself when it comes to spreading the gospel?  Where do you stand?  If you need to raise your rating, ask God’s Holy Spirit to provide you with the guidance you need for moving to the forefront for sharing the gospel.  He will provide you with all you need, if you are serious!

Based on this study, what are the implications for your life?  THE CHOICE IS YOURS, ISN’T IT!

REMEMBER, the safest place for a believer is in the CENTER of God’s will.

 

Lesson Outline, Introduction, Discussion Questions, and Conclusion adapted from the following sources:

SOURCE: Life Ventures-Bible Studies for Life; Leader Guide; LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention; Nashville, TN.

SOURCE: The Herschel Hobbs Commentary; Family Bible Study; by Robert J. Dean; LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention; 1 LifeWay Plaza, Nashville, TN.

SOURCE: Advanced Bible Study; LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention; One LifeWay Plaza, Nashville, TN.

 

FOCAL PASSAGE: 

Focal Passage from three different translations of God’s Word:

King James Version: Acts 17:16-18,22-23,30-31

 Acts 17:16-18 (KJV)

16 Now while Paul waited for them at Athens, his spirit was stirred in him, when he saw the city wholly given to idolatry. 17 Therefore disputed he in the synagogue with the Jews, and with the devout persons, and in the market daily with them that met with him. 18 Then certain philosophers of the Epicureans, and of the Stoicks, encountered him. And some said, What will this babbler say? other some, He seemeth to be a setter forth of strange gods: because he preached unto them Jesus, and the resurrection.


 Acts 17:22-23 (KJV)

22 Then Paul stood in the midst of Mars' hill, and said, Ye men of Athens, I perceive that in all things ye are too superstitious. 23 For as I passed by, and beheld your devotions, I found an altar with this inscription, TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you.


 Acts 17:30-31 (KJV)

30 And the times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commandeth all men everywhere to repent: 31 Because he hath appointed a day, in the which he will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom he hath ordained; whereof he hath given assurance unto all men, in that he hath raised him from the dead.

 

New King James Version: Acts 17:16-18,22-23,30-31  

  Acts 17:16-18 (NKJV)

16 Now while Paul waited for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him when he saw that the city was given over to idols. 17 Therefore he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and with the Gentile worshipers, and in the marketplace daily with those who happened to be there. 18 Then certain Epicurean and Stoic philosophers encountered him. And some said, "What does this babbler want to say?" Others said, "He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign gods," because he preached to them Jesus and the resurrection.


 Acts 17:22-23 (NKJV)

22 Then Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus and said, "Men of Athens, I perceive that in all things you are very religious; 23 for as I was passing through and considering the objects of your worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. Therefore, the One whom you worship without knowing, Him I proclaim to you:


 Acts 17:30-31 (NKJV)

30 Truly, these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent, 31 because He has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained. He has given assurance of this to all by raising Him from the dead."

 

New Living Translation: Acts 17:16-18,22-23,30-31   

Acts 17:16-18 (NLT)

16 While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was deeply troubled by all the idols he saw everywhere in the city. 17 He went to the synagogue to reason with the Jews and the God-fearing Gentiles, and he spoke daily in the public square to all who happened to be there. 18 He also had a debate with some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers. When he told them about Jesus and his resurrection, they said, “What’s this babbler trying to say with these strange ideas he’s picked up?” Others said, “He seems to be preaching about some foreign gods.”


 Acts 17:22-23 (NLT)

22 So Paul, standing before the council, addressed them as follows: “Men of Athens, I notice that you are very religious in every way, 23 for as I was walking along I saw your many shrines. And one of your altars had this inscription on it: ‘To an Unknown God.’ This God, whom you worship without knowing, is the one I’m telling you about.


 Acts 17:30-31 (NLT)

30 “God overlooked people’s ignorance about these things in earlier times, but now he commands everyone everywhere to repent of their sins and turn to him. 31 For he has set a day for judging the world with justice by the man he has appointed, and he proved to everyone who this is by raising him from the dead.”

 

 (NOTE:  Commentary for the focal passage comes from four sources: The Expositor’s Bible Commentary New Testament,Believer's Bible Commentary,The Complete Biblical Library Commentary,” and “The Moody Bible Commentary,” and is provided for your study.)

 

Lesson Outline — “Unstoppable Impact” — Acts 17:16-18,22-23,30-31

I.

II.

III.

Engagement (Acts 17:16-18)

Common Ground (Acts 17:22-23)

Call For Repentance (Acts 17:30-31)

COMMENTARY:

The Expositor’s Bible Commentary New Testament:  Acts 17:16-18,22-23,30-31

At Athens

Paul’s coming to Athens appears to have been intended primarily to escape persecution in Macedonia. It seems to have been no part of his original plan to preach at Athens. When called to Macedonia, he had apparently planned to follow the Via Egnatia all the way to Dyrrhachium, then cross the Adriatic to Italy, and so to Rome. When writing the Christians at Rome some six or seven years later, Paul speaks of having often planned to visit them but being unable to do so (Rom 1:13; 15:22-23). Provincial action in Macedonia appears to have thwarted his plans for a continued mission in Macedonia, and news of Claudius’s expulsion of the Jewish community in Rome (A.D. 49-50) would have caused him to change his plans.

Now Paul was in Athens, under circumstances not altogether what he would have planned. He was waiting for Silas and Timothy to come before beginning his mission in Athens. But the rampant idolatry he saw around him compelled him to present the claims of Christ to Jews and “God-fearing” Gentiles in the synagogue on the Sabbath and to whoever would listen in the agora (marketplace) on weekdays. As with Jeremiah (cf. Jer 20:9), “the word of God” burned within Paul like a fire in his bones, and he could not keep silent.

Inauguration of a ministry

17:16.  Athens is five miles inland from its port of Piraeus, which is on the Saronic Gulf, an arm of the Aegean Sea stretching fifty miles between Attica and the Peloponnesus. It is situated on a narrow plain between Mount Parnes to the north, Mount Pentelicus to the east, and Mount Hymettus to the southeast. Said to have been founded by Theseus, the hero of Attica who slew the Minotaur and conquered the Amazons, Athens was named in honor of the goddess Athena. When the Persians tried to conquer Greece in the fifth century B.C., Athens played a prominent part in resisting them. Though completely destroyed at that time, it quickly recovered and its fleet, which contributed decisively to the defeat of the Persians, became the basis of a maritime empire. Athens reached its zenith under Pericles (495-429 B.C.); and during the last fifteen years of his life, the Partheon, numerous temples, and other splendid buildings were built. Literature, philosophy, science, and rhetoric flourished; and Athens attracted intellectuals from all over the world. Politically it became a democracy.

But Athens had attained eminence at the expense of its allies in the Delian Confederacy. Many of them in dissatisfaction turned to its rival Sparta, and the Peloponnesian War (431-404 B.C.) put an end to the greatness of Athens. Culturally and intellectually, however, it remained supreme for centuries, with such figures as Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, and Zeno living there. In 338 B.C. Philip II of Macedonia conquered Athens, but the conquest only served to spread Athenian culture and learning into Asia and Egypt through his son, Alexander the Great. The Romans conquered Athens in 146 B.C. They were lovers of everything Greek, and under their rule Athens continued as the cultural and intellectual center of the world. Rome also left the city free politically to carry on her own institutions as a free city within the empire.

When Paul came to Athens, it had long since lost its empire and wealth. Its population probably numbered no more than ten thousand. Yet it had a glorious past on which it continued to live. Its temples and statuary were related to the worship of the Greek pantheon, and its culture was pagan. Therefore Paul, with his Jewish abhorrence of idolatry, could not but find the culture of Athens spiritually repulsive.

17:17.  men oun (NIV, “so”) introduces a new scene, perhaps tying together Luke’s introduction (v. 16) with his source material (vv. 17ff.). Though apparently not wanting to begin a mission in Athens till Silas and Timothy came from Macedonia, Paul could not keep from proclaiming the Good News about Jesus the Messiah when he attended the synagogue on the Sabbath. There he “reasoned” (dielegeto) with the Jews and God-fearing Gentiles. He also continued his presentation in the agora every day (kata pasan hemeran) to all who would listen.

The agora lay west of the Acropolis. It was the forum and marketplace of the city and, therefore, the center of Athenian life. The commercial sections included the large Stoa of Attalus, stretching along the eastern side and flanked by a number of smaller colonnades on the northern and southern sides. The western side consisted of important public buildings: the circular Tholos, or office and dining room of the Prytaneum; the Bouleuterion, or senate house; the Metroon, or official archives, before which stood the temple of Ares and statues of the eponymous heroes of the city; the temple of Apollo Patroon; and the Stoa Basileios.

17:18.  Athens was the home of the rival Epicurean and Stoic schools of philosophy. Epicurus (342-270 B.C.) held that pleasure was the chief goal of life, with the pleasure most worth enjoying being a life of tranquillity free from pain, disturbing passions, superstitious fears, and anxiety about death. He did not deny the existence of gods but argued in deistic fashion that they took no interest in the lives of men. The Cypriote Zeno (340-265 B.C.) was the founder of Stoicism, which took its name from the “painted Stoa” (colonnade or portico) where he habitually taught in the Athenian agora. His teaching centered on living harmoniously with nature and emphasized man’s rational abilities and individual self-sufficiency. Theologically, he was essentially pantheistic and thought of God as “the World-soul.”

Epicureanism and Stoicism represented the popular Gentile alternatives for dealing with the plight of humanity and for coming to terms with life apart from the biblical revelation and God’s work in Jesus Christ. (Post-Christian paganism in our day has been unable to come up with anything better.) When the followers of Epicurus and Zeno heard Paul speaking in the agora, they began to dispute (syneballon, Iit., “to converse,” but also “to engage in argument”) with him. Some in their pride declared him to be a spermologos (“babbler”)—a word originally used of birds picking up grain, then of scrap collectors searching for junk, then extended to those who snapped up ideas of others and peddled them as their own without understanding them, and finally to any ne’er-do-well. Others, however, thought Paul was advocating foreign gods, probably mistaking Anastasis (“resurrection”) for the goddess consort of a god named Jesus.


Paul’s address before the Council of Ares

17:22-23.  Paul does not begin his address by referring to Jewish history or by quoting the Jewish Scriptures, as he did in the synagogue of Pisidian Antioch (cf. 13:16-41). He knew it would be futile to refer to a history no one knew or argue from fulfillment of prophecy no one was interested in or quote from a book no one read or accepted as authoritative. Nor does he develop his argument from the God who gives rain and crops in their season and provides food for the stomach and joy for the heart, as he did at Lystra (cf. 14:15-17). Instead, he took for his point of contact with the council an altar he had seen in the city with the inscription Agnosto Theo (“To an Unknown God”). Later the second-century geographer Pausanias (Description of Greece 1.1.4) and the third-century philosopher Philostratus (Life of Apollonius Tyana 6.3.5) were to speak of altars to unknown gods at Athens, by which they meant either altars to unknown deities generally or altars to individual unknown gods. But while there is insufficient evidence for us to know the number of such altars at Athens or what their dedicatory inscriptions were, it is not surprising that Paul came across such an altar in walking about the city. Paul used the words of the inscription to introduce his call to repentance.

Many critics have asserted that all the speeches in Acts—particularly that to the Areopagus—are Luke’s free compositions, showing what he thought Paul would have said. Certainly, as with every precis, Luke edited the missionary sermons of Paul in Acts; he must also be credited with some genius for highlighting their suitability to their audiences (cf. Introduction: The Speeches in Acts). But for one who elsewhere said he was willing to be “all things to all men” for the sake of the gospel (1Cor 9:20-22), Paul’s approach to his Areopagus audience is by no means out of character. On the contrary, in his report of this address, Luke gives us another illustration of how Paul began on common ground with his hearers and sought to lead them from it to accept the work and person of Jesus as the apex of God’s redemptive work for humanity.


17:29-31.  The climax of the address focuses on the progressive unfolding of divine redemption and the apex of that redemption in Jesus Christ. Being God’s offspring—not in a pantheistic sense but in the biblical sense of being created by God in his image—we should not, Paul insists, think of deity in terms of gold, silver, or stone. All that idolatrous ignorance was overlooked by God in the past (cf. 14:16; Rom 3:25) because God has always been more interested in repentance than judgment (cf: Wisdom 11:23: “But you have mercy on all men, because you have power to do all things, and you overlook the sins of men to the end that they may repent”). Nevertheless, in the person and work of Jesus, God has acted in such a manner as to make idolatry particularly heinous. To reject Jesus, therefore, is to reject the personal and vicarious intervention of God on behalf of man and to open oneself up in the future to divine judgment meted out by the very one rejected in the present. And God himself has authenticated all this by raising Jesus from the dead.

SOURCE: The Expositor’s Bible Commentary New Testament; Frank E. Gaebelein; General Editor; Zondervan Publishing House; A Division of Harper Collins Publishers

 

Believer's Bible Commentary: Acts 17:16-18,22-23,30-31

17:16.  While waiting for them at Athens, Paul was deeply burdened by the idolatry of the city. Although Athens was the center of culture, education, and fine arts, Paul was interested in none of these things. He did not occupy his time with sightseeing trips. Arnot comments:

It was not that he valued marble statues less, but living men more.... He is not the weak but the strong man who regards immortal souls as transcendently more important than fine arts.... Paul did not consider idolatry picturesque and harmless, but grievous.

17:17, 18.  He reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and with the Gentile worshipers, whereas in the marketplace he preached to all who would listen. It was in this way that he came in touch with some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers. The Epicureans were followers of a philosopher named Epicurus , who taught that pleasure and not the pursuit of knowledge is the chief end of life. The Stoics were pantheists who believed that wisdom lay in being free from intense emotion, unmoved by joy or grief, willingly submissive to natural law. When these two schools of philosophy heard Paul, they considered him a babbler (Greek, "seed-picker") and a proclaimer of foreign gods, because he preached to them Jesus and the resurrection.


 17:22.  Standing in the midst of the court, Paul delivered what has come to be known as the Mars Hill Address. It must be remembered in studying this address that he was speaking to Gentiles, not Jews. They did not have a background in the OT, so he had to find some subject of common interest with which to begin. He began with the observation that the Athenians were very religious. That Athens was indeed a religious city was well attested by the fact that it was reputed to have more idols in it than men!

17:23.  When he thought of the idols he had seen, Paul was reminded of an altar with this inscription: TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. He found in that inscription a point of departure for his message. The apostle saw in the inscription the recognition of two important facts. First, the fact of the existence of God, and second, the fact that the Athenians were ignorant of Him. It was then a very normal and natural transition for Paul to enlighten them concerning the true God. As someone has said, he turned the wandering stream of their piety into the right channel.


 17:30.  Having exposed the folly of idolatry, Paul goes on to state that for many centuries God overlooked the ignorance of the Gentiles. But now that the revelation of the gospel has come, He commands all men everywhere to repent, that is, to do an about-face.

17:31.  This is an urgent message, because God has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Lord Jesus Christ, the Man whom He has ordained. The judgment referred to here will take place when Christ returns to earth to put down His enemies and begin His Millennial Reign. The positive assurance that this will take place is found in the fact that God raised the Lord Jesus from the dead. Thus Paul leads up to his favorite theme, the resurrection of Christ.

SOURCE: Believer's Bible Commentary; by William MacDonald; Copyright © 1995, 1992, 1990, 1989 by William McDonald. Database © 2014 WORDsearch.

 

The Complete Biblical Library Commentary: Acts 17:16-18,22-23,30-31

With Timothy gone back to Thessalonica and Silas sent to minister elsewhere, Paul determined to wait in Athens. His stay there is important for it gives us an example of how Paul witnessed to those who had no background in Scripture study.

17:16. Athens was famous for its Acropolis and all its temples. Some 600 years before Paul's time it was a world leader in art and philosophy. By this time, however, it had lost its former glory. It was no longer politically important. Its old leadership in culture and education had been taken over by Alexandria in Egypt. Other new centers such as Ephesus, Antioch, and Tarsus far surpassed it as educational centers. It had lost its drive and creativity. It was filled with curiosity seekers and with philosophical speculation that was without depth. Yet it still nurtured the memory of its past. Its temples were still beautiful examples of the best in Greek architecture. But everywhere Paul looked the city was full of images. Alongside the intellectual snobbery of Athens was the most degrading and immoral idolatry.

Paul did not look at the idols as glorious examples of Greek art. He was disturbed by them. His spirit was provoked (almost "angered") within him. All this idol worship made him realize all the more that "the world by wisdom knew not God" (1 Corinthians 1:21).

17:17. As always, Paul first went to the synagogue on the Sabbath Day and preached to the Jews and the godly Gentiles. But he was concerned about the rest of the Gentiles too. Their idolatry aroused him to give himself to the proclamation of the gospel as never before. He took every opportunity to speak to groups and to individuals about Jesus and the Resurrection. Throughout every day he carried on discussions with every person he met, especially in the marketplace (the agora, the civic center).

17:18. Among those who met him in the marketplace were some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers, and they engaged him in a discussion.

Epicureans were followers of Epicurus (342-270 b.c.). Epicurus taught that nature is the supreme teacher and provides sensations, feelings, and anticipations for the testing of truth. By feelings he meant pleasure and pain. These he said could be used to distinguish between good and evil. He also taught that the gods were incapable of wrath, indifferent to human weakness, and did not intervene or participate in human affairs. Thus, he denied the possibility of miracles, prophecy, and divine providence. In the beginning Epicurus meant "real happiness" by pleasure. At first, his followers merely sought a quiet life free from fear, pain, and anger. Later, some made sensual pleasures the goal of life.

Stoics were followers of Zeno of Citium (335-263 b.c.). Zeno believed in a creative power and made duty, reason (or accordance with divine reason), and self-sufficiency the goal of life. He encouraged his followers to accept the laws of nature and conscience and to be indifferent to pleasure, pain, joy, and grief.

Some of these philosophers were quite contemptuous of Paul's gospel and called him a "babbler," literally, "a seed-picker." This term was also used as slang for parasites and ignorant plagiarists who would gather information from a variety of sources and try to market it as their own system of knowledge. Then, because Paul preached the good news of Jesus and the Resurrection, they said he seemed to be proclaiming not merely strange gods, but foreign demons. They sneered at the gospel as a foreign religion contrary to all they believed.


 17:22. Standing in the midst, not of the hill, but of the Council of the Areopagus, Paul wisely began in a positive way. As at Lystra, he took the people where they were and tried to lead them into spiritual truth.

The translation (KJV) that says they were "too superstitious" sounds as if he was intending to insult them. Though the Greek words can bear that meaning, it is better to translate them here with the meaning of "very religious," in the sense of being very respectful to their gods. This was not a statement they would react against. They might have even considered it a compliment.

17:23. Then Paul used an inscription on an altar in Athens to give him an opportunity to speak about the one true God in contrast to their many gods. During his walks around Athens he had come across this inscription, "To the Unknown God." In their desire to be sure they did not slight or overlook some god, the Athenians had erected this altar. This was evidence that Paul was not preaching something contrary to the laws of Athens. He could tell them about the God who was unknown to them.

Paul did not mean by this that their worship was acceptable to God. God seeks those who will worship Him in spirit (and in the Spirit) and in truth, not in ignorance and empty forms. Actually, the Greeks did not feel close to any god. Like those who go to the heathen temples today, they would go from god to god, from altar to altar, hoping that somehow one of them might help them. Thus, in spite of their education and highly developed culture, these Greeks were badly in need of the gospel.

Paul used words here that carry another connotation. The word worship can mean serving or worshiping one who has a right to your service and worship. The word ignorantly often implies willful ignorance that is, therefore, guilty before God. Romans 1:18-32 shows that the Gentiles are guilty because they once knew God, but they turned from Him, refused to give Him glory and thanks, and became full of empty and unreal imaginings so that their foolish hearts were darkened through moral defect. The implication in Paul's letter to the Romans is that they took God off the throne, put self on the throne, and soon were worshiping gods of their own making, gods they thought they could manipulate to do their will.


 17:30. All of this idolatry showed their ignorance of what God is really like. The times (time periods) of this ignorance God, in His mercy and longsuffering, overlooked. But now He (through the gospel) was announcing to all human beings everywhere that they should repent. They should change their minds and attitudes toward God by turning to Him through Christ and the gospel.

This does not mean those idolaters of past ages were saved. The Old Testament indicates idolatry came into existence after the Flood, probably by the time of the Tower of Babel (Babylon). At least it seems the Tower of Babel became the model for the temple towers or ziggurats of Babylonia. But, though their idolatry was sin and deserved to be judged, God did not bring the judgment day in the time periods between the Flood and Christ.

17:31. Paul said the Gentiles must no longer look to their images as gods, for a judgment day is coming. Repentance is therefore imperative. God has indeed appointed a day in which He will judge the earth in righteousness by a Man whom He has revealed and designated as Judge. (Compare Daniel 7:13; John 5:22, 27.)

That the day is actually coming and that there will be no escape from it, God guaranteed to all by the fact that He raised that Man (Jesus) out from among the dead. The fact that God raised Jesus from the dead shows He is deity and His teachings are true. He will be the Judge and will judge in righteousness (Isaiah 9:7; 11:4).

SOURCE: The Complete Biblical Library Commentary - Acts.  Copyright © 2009 WORDsearch Corp.; World Library Press, Inc.

 

The Moody Bible Commentary: Acts 17:16-18,22-23,30-31

The Witness at Athens

At Athens Paul faced the blind wisdom of pagan philosophers. Paul was alone but not intimidated because he was zealous for the honor of God and confident of the power of his gospel message.

17:16. Paul's first observation was distressing. Being provoked is the verb paroxuno, "greatly disturbed." suggests that Paul was incited to jealousy for the Lord because of the pervasiveness of idolatry. Instead of worshiping the Lord as the only true God, the Athenians were bowing down to lifeless idols. It was this inward anger that motivated Paul to proclaim Christ.

17:17. He preached in the synagogue and the marketplace to anyone who would listen. It is obvious that Paul believed that Jesus Christ was unique and that those who worshiped other gods needed to turn to the living God.

17:18. Paul confronted two of the more popular philosophies in the Roman Empire, Epicureanism and Stoicism. The Epicureans believed in pursuing a life free from pain. They held to the existence of the gods, but thought that the gods were completely detached from humanity, as any interaction with people would disturb them and, true to Epicurean doctrine, the gods had a blessed and undisturbed existence. Epicureans believed the soul was material, though composed of finer atoms than the body, and would deteriorate upon death. There was thus no room for the theory of an afterlife. Because they prized an imperturbable life, they rejected the idea that one could anger the gods or face punishment or judgment from them since those concepts would disturb one's thoughts and disrupt life—which explains their strong reaction to Paul's mention of the resurrection and future judgment. It is misleading to call them hedonists in the modern sense. Their concept of pleasure involved avoidance of disturbances in life rather than crass self-indulgence. The pursuits of wanton amusements could be counterproductive to a happy life (for a summary of Epicureanism as it intersected with Ac 17, see N. Clayton Croy, "Hellenistic Philosophies and the Preaching of the Resurrection [Acts 17:18, 32]," Novum Testamentum 39 [1997], 21-39). The founder of Stoicism was Zeno (342-270 B.C., from Cyprus). Stoics believed that God permeated all things, and that what was rational in humankind was the manifestation of God. Theologically they would be considered pantheists. According to Stoics, Reason or the Logos controlled the universe, but people were responsible for their voluntary actions. They rejected the Epicurean philosophy of pleasure and instead stressed virtue.

17:18. After conversing with Paul, the Epicureans and Stoics concluded he was a babbler and proclaimer of strange deities. Babbler refers to someone who picks up bits and pieces of information and then proclaims them as if he were an expert on the topic (Bock, Acts, 561-62). The charge Paul was a teacher of strange deities meant he was talking about gods they did not understand.


 17:22-23.  Paul's introductory comment that the Athenians were very religious was a commendation rather than a criticism, since he hoped to convince his audience to listen to his message. He connected with the Athenians by referring to an altar erected TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. It is probable there was more than one altar to an unknown god in Athens, but Paul influenced his audience with this comment to have them focus on one God by referring to only one altar (Bock, Acts, 565). Paul proceeded to make known the god they worshiped but by their own admission did not know.


 17:27-31. In v. 27 Paul revealed the point of his observations about God in vv. 23-26. As the sovereign creator, God intends for men and women to seek him. The verbs grope and find are in the optative mood, which suggests finding God through human effort is only a remote possibility. The word picture suggested by grope is a blind man fumbling around to find his way (Bock, Acts, 567). This implies that, though God is near, it is highly unlikely the Athenians would find Him because their strategy was flawed. While a considerable amount about God can be apprehended from an objective consideration of creation (cf. the comments on Rm 1:18-32), Paul would make it clear that full comprehension of God requires the augmenting truth of the gospel, the proper response of repentance, and recognition of the validity of the resurrection and authority of Jesus Christ (cf. Paul's concluding words in vv. 30-31). Without these additional elements, God will not be found.

The statement in Him (God) we live and move and exist (v. 28) probably comes from the Greek poet Epimenides (philosopher, poet, and seer from Crete, c. 600 BC), in a poem entitled Cretica. The same poem is quoted in Ti 1:12. The reference to children of God is an allusion to a statement by another Stoic poet, Aratus. This is not pantheism. Paul argued that if men and women are living beings made in the image of God, then God is a living being. He is not a man-made object of wood or stone (v. 29). These two references to Greek poets do not mean Paul endorsed their view of God, but he had no qualms about using pagan poets to support his argument if some of what they had written coincided with revealed truth.

Having established common ground with the Athenians, Paul stressed the need for them to repent in view of coming judgment. Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance (v. 30) does not mean ignorance is excusable. God's mercy was the reason that in the past He did not usually pass judgment in this life on mankind even though they deserved it. In other words, He did not always bring temporal destruction upon an idolatrous people as an act of judgment for their sin. Now, however, because they knew about God, they could plead ignorance. If they refused to repent, they would suffer eternal punishment. In speaking to Gentiles, the call to repent means to turn from lifeless idols to faith in the living God (1Th 1:9). Polhill writes, "The times of forbearance had now ended because their ignorance had now ended. Now they knew the one true God through Paul's proclamation. He was no longer an 'unknown God'; and should they continue in their false worship and fail to acknowledge his sole lordship of heaven and earth, their sin would no longer be a sin of ignorance but a high-handed sin" (Acts, 376).

Paul did not mention Jesus Christ by name, but declared the resurrection proved He has the authority to judge. Though Paul did not give the exact time of judgment, it is on a fixed day, meaning it is certain. That Jesus will judge the world in righteousness means that his judgment will be just.

SOURCE: The Moody Bible Commentary; by Michael Rydelnik and Michael Vanlaningham; © 2014 by The Moody Bible Institute of Chicago. Database © 2015 WORDsearch.

 

DIGGING DEEPER: Key Word(s)

Epicurean (v. 18)—The Greek philosopher Epicurus taught that pleasure and materialism were the highest priorities. While not denying the existence of gods, Epicureans believed them to be unengaged and unconcerned deities.

EPICUREANISM (ehp i cyoo ree’ an ihssm): A school of philosophy which emerged in Athens about 300 B.C.

The school of thought was founded by Epicurus who was born in 341 B.C. on the Greek island of Samos. Epicurus founded his school (The Garden) in Athens. Around him he gathered his students and refined his philosophy. Epicurean thought had a significant impact on the Hellenistic world and later, Rome. Paul met Epicureans as he preached about Jesus and the resurrection in Athens (Acts 17:18).

Epicurean philosophy centered on the search for happiness. Pleasure is the beginning and fulfillment of a happy life. Often today, Epicurus’ ideas are distorted. Many think he proposed a life of sensual pleasure and gluttony. This concept is far from his philosophy and his own life-style. To Epicurus happiness could only be achieved through tranquillity and a life of contemplation. The goal of Epicureanism was to acquire a trouble-free state of mind, to avoid the pains of the body, and especially mental anguish. Epicureans sought seclusion from worldly temptations. Epicurus taught that a man should not become involved in politics or affairs of the state. These activities simply served to distract one from the life of contemplation.

He believed in gods, but he thought that they were totally unconcerned with the lives or troubles of mortals. Still, according to Epicurus, it was appropriate to worship the gods because it leads to happiness.

Even though Epicurean thought focused on the search for happiness and advocated withdrawal from the world’s affairs, it was by no means an egoistic philosophy. Friendship was a very important aspect of the philosophy. Indeed, friendship was seen as the best attribute of society. A true Epicurean was willing to give one’s own life for a friend. The ideal society was a group of like minds living together. Epicureans believed in equality. Both slaves and women were received as equals at the school.

The Epicurean quest for happiness left little time for concern for afterlife. Epicureans believed in living happy and dying happy. Death did not concern them. They believed that death should be met with a serene mind. In death, the soul is asleep and can no longer be disturbed.

Epicurean philosophy remained popular for several centuries even though it had many opponents, especially the Stoics. Its long-lasting popularity was due, in large part, to the changes that the Hellenistic Age generated. The traditional Greek emphasis on the individual was submerged in the great, more impersonal empires of the Hellenistic period. To counteract that trend the Epicureans taught friendship and a determination to find individual happiness.

Epicurean philosophy continued to have a significant impact on ancient civilization for several centuries after the death of Epicurus. Its influence waned considerably after the emergence of Christianity.

SOURCE: Holman Bible Dictionary; General Editor, David S. Dockery; Holman Bible Publishers; Nashville, Tennessee.

Stoic (v. 18)—Stoics held that the divine principle (logos) was present in all things, including human beings, and held the universe together. They argued that reason and self-sufficiency were of highest importance.

STOICS   (Στωϊκοί, Stōïkoí):

1. Origin and Propagation:

The name was derived from the Stoa Poikile, the painted porch at Athens, where the founders of the school first lectured. This school of Greek philosophy was founded at Athens circa 294 BC by Zeno (circa 336-264 BC), a native of Citium, a Greek colony in Cyprus. But the Semitic race predominated in Cyprus, and it has been conjectured that Zeno was of Semitic rather than Hellenic origin. His Greek critics taunted him with being a Phoenician. It has therefore been suggested that the distinctive moral tone of the system was Semitic and not Hellenic. Further color is given to this view by the fact that Zeno's immediate successors at the head of the school also hailed from Asia Minor, Cleanthes (331-232 BC) being a native of Assos, and Chrysippus (280-206 BC) of Soli in Cilicia. Several other adherents of the system hailed from Asia Minor, and it flourished in several Asiatic cities, such as Tarsus and Sidon. In the 2nd century BC the doctrine was brought to Rome by Panaetius of Rhodes (circa 189-109 BC), and in the course of the two succeeding centuries it spread widely among the upper classes of Roman society. It reckoned among its adherents a Scipio and a Cato, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius, as well as the freedman Epictetus. The most adequate account of the teaching of the Greek Stoics has been preserved in the writings of Cicero, who, however, was a sympathetic critic, rather than an adherent of the school. The system acquired its most lasting influence by its adoption as the formative factor in the jurisprudence of imperial Rome, and Roman law in its turn contributed to the formation of Christian doctrine and ethics.

2. Metaphysics and Religion:

The main principles of Stoicism were promulgated by Zeno and Cleanthes, and Chrysippus formulated them into a systematic doctrine which became a standard of orthodoxy for the school, and which permitted but little freedom of speculation for its subsequent teachers. Whatever may have been the Semitic affinities of mind of Zeno and his followers, they derived the formal principles of their system from Greek antecedents. The ethical precept, "Follow Nature," they learnt from the Socratic school of Antisthenes, the Cynics. But they followed the earlier philosopher Heraclitus in defining the law of Nature as reason (logos), which was at once the principle of intelligence in man, and the divine reason immanent in the world. This doctrine they again combined with the prevalent Greek hylozoism, and therefore their metaphysics inclined to be a materialistic pantheism. On the one side, Nature is the organization of material atoms by the operation of its own uniform and necessary laws. On the other side, it is a living, rational being, subduing all its parts to work out a rational purpose inherent in the whole. As such it may be called Providence or God.

While the Stoics rejected the forms and rites of popular religion, they defended belief in God and inculcated piety and reverence toward Him. Their pantheism provided a basis for Greek polytheism also alongside of their monism, for where all the world is God, each part of it is divine, and may be worshipped. Another consequence of their pantheism was their attitude to evil, which they held to be only apparently or relatively evil, but really good in the harmony of the whole. Therefore they bore evil with courage and cheerfulness, because they believed that "all things worked together for good" absolutely.

3. Sensationalist Epistemology:

The materialistic trend of their metaphysics also comes out in their epistemology, which was sensationalist. The human mind at its birth was a tabula rasa. Its first ideas were derived from sensations, the impressions made by the external world upon the soul, which they also conceived as a material body, though made of finer atoms than the external body. Out of these sense-impressions the mind built up its intuitions or preconceptions, and its notions, which constituted its store of ideas. It is not clear how far they attributed originative power to the mind as contributing some factor to the organization of knowledge, which was not derived from experience. The Stoic system is never consistently materialistic, nor consistently idealistic. Most of its terms are used in a dual sense, material and spiritual.

4. Ethical Teaching:

But its ethical teaching shows that the main trend of the system was spiritualistic. For its crown and climax was the ethics. The Stoics did not pursue knowledge for its own sake. They speculated about ultimate problems only for the practical purpose of discovering a rule of life and conduct. And in their ethics, the great commandment, "Follow Nature," is interpreted in a distinctly idealistic sense. It means, "Follow reason," as reason inheres both in man and in the universe as a whole. It is submission to Providence or the rational order of the universe, and the fulfillment of man's own rational nature. The life according to Nature is man's supreme good. How actual Nature could be the ideal good that man ought to seek, or how man was free to pursue an ideal, while he was bound in a system of necessity, were fundamental paradoxes of the system which the Stoics never solved. They summed up their moral teaching in the ideal of the sage or the wise man. His chief characteristic is ataraxy, a calm passionless mastery of all emotions, and independence of all circumstances. He therefore lives a consistent, harmonious life, in conformity with the perfect order of the universe. He discovers this order by knowledge or wisdom. But the Stoics also defined this ideal as a system of particular duties, such as purity in one's self, love toward all men, and reverence toward God. In Stoic ethics, Greek philosophy reached the climax of its moral teaching. Nowhere else outside Christianity do we find so exalted a rule of conduct for the individual, so humane, hopeful and comprehensive an deal for society.

5. Relation to Christianity:

When "certain .... of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers encountered" Paul at Athens, and when, after the apostle had spoken on Mars' Hill, "some mocked; but others said, We will hear thee concerning this yet again" (Acts 17:18, 32), it is no improbable inference that the Epicureans mocked, while the Stoics desired to hear more. For they would find much in the apostle's teaching that harmonized with their own views. Paul's quotation from the classics in his Athenian speech was from the Stoic poet, Aratus of Soli in Cilicia: "For we are also his offspring." His doctrine of creation, of divine immanence, of the spirituality and fatherhood of God, would be familiar and acceptable to them. His preaching of Christ would not have been unwelcome to them, who were seeking for the ideal wise man. Paul's moral teaching as it appears in his Epistles reveals some resemblance to Stoic ethics. It is possible that Paul had learnt much from the Stoic school at Tarsus. It is certain that subsequent Christian thought owed much to Stoicism. Its doctrine of the immanent Logos was combined with Philo's conception of the transcendent Logos, to form the Logos doctrine through which the Greek Fathers construed the person of Christ. And Stoic ethics was taken over almost bodily by the Christian church.

SOURCE: International Standard Bible Encyclopedia; James Orr, M.A., D. D., General Editor; Parsons Technology, Inc.; Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

The Areopagus (v. 22)—This “hill of Ares” was above the marketplace (agora) and beneath the Acropolis in Athens. It was a meeting place where lectures were given and also the site of a prestigious court that judged civil, criminal, and even some religious cases.

The Areopagus:

The Areopagus, or Hill of Ares, was the ancient seat of the court of the same name, the establishment of which leads us far back into the mythical period long before the dawn of history. This court exercised the right of capital punishment. In 594 BC the jurisdiction in criminal cases was given to the archons who had discharged the duties of their office well and honorably, consequently to the noblest, richest and most distinguished citizens of Athens. The Areopagus saw that the laws in force were observed and executed by the properly constituted authorities; it could bring officials to trial for their acts while in office, even raise objections to all resolutions of the Council and of the General Assembly, if the court perceived a danger to the state, or subversion of the constitution. The Areopagus also protected the worship of the gods, the sanctuaries and sacred festivals, and the olive trees of Athens; and it supervised the religious sentiments of the people, the moral conduct of the citizens, as well as the education of the youth. Without waiting for a formal accusation the Areopagus could summon any citizen to court, examine, convict and punish him. Under unusual circumstances full powers could be granted by the people to this body for the conduct of various affairs of state; when the safety of the city was menaced, the court acted even without waiting for full power to be conferred upon it. The tenure of office was for life, and the number of members without restriction. The court sat at night at the end of each month and for three nights in succession. The place of meeting was a simple house, built of clay, which was still to be seen in the time of Vitruvius. The Areopagus, hallowed by the sacred traditions of the past, a dignified and august body, was independent of and uninfluenced by the wavering discordant multitude, and was not affected by the ever-changing public opinion. Conservative almost to a fault, it did the state good service by holding in check the too rash and radical younger spirits. When the democratic party came to power, after Cimon's banishment, one of its first acts was to limit the powers of the Areopagus. By the law of Ephialtes in 460 the court lost practically all jurisdiction. The supervision of the government was transferred to the nomophulakes (law-guardians). At the end of the Peloponnesian war, however, in 403 its old rights were restored. The court remained in existence down to the time of the emperors. From Acts 17:19, 22 we learn that it existed in the time of Claudius. One of its members was converted to the Christian faith (Acts 17:34). It was probably abolished by Vespasian.

SOURCE: International Standard Bible Encyclopedia; James Orr, M.A., D. D., General Editor; Parsons Technology, Inc.; Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Extremely religious (v. 22)—The Greek word for religious is a compound of two words meaning “fearful” and “a god.” This ambiguous word can mean either extremely dedicated (pious) or highly superstitious.

SOURCE: Life Ventures-Bible Studies for Life; Leader Guide; LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention; Nashville, TN.


 

 

ADDITIONAL BACKGROUND READING:

 

GREEK CULTURE in Paul’s Day

By Gary M. Poulton

Gary M. Poulton is president emeritus and professor of history, Virginia Intermont College, Bristol, Virginia.

T

HE APOSTLE PAUL spent almost three years of his ministry (AD 50-53) in Greece.  Yet the land he traveled through was no longer the Greece of the Classical Age (479-323 BC).  The city-states of Athens and Sparta no longer dominated Greece.  That power had been replaced by the power of Imperial Rome.  The Romans conquered Greece in 146 BC.  By the time of Paul, Greece was a Roman province.  Athens had taken a backseat to Corinth, which had become the administrative capital of the province and the commercial center of Greece.

The traveler can stand today on Mars Hill where Paul most likely addressed the Athenians and reflect on Greece of that day.  We can see from Acts 17:22-29 and the Letters to the Corinthians that Greece made a major impact on Paul.  Roman Greece was very different from earlier Greece—although some traditions endured.  The Greeks and the Romans had a somewhat “love-hate” relationship.  As early as 181 BC, the distinguished Roman senator, Cato the Elder, warned his fellow Romans that reading Greek philosophers and adopting Greek ways would rob Romans of their traditional values of strength, discipline, and patriotism.  He taught such actions would make Romans weak and soft.1  Later during the time of Augustus, the Roman poet Horace would write that “Greece, the captive, made her savage victor captive.”2

In Paul’s day, Greece was no longer a political and military power; it was much different than it had been in the Classical Age.  Cities in Achaia were much smaller.  For instance, the ancient geographer, Strabo, reported that the once important city of Thebes “was then little more than a village.”3  Still Greece played an important role during the days of Imperial Rome.  Greece remained a crossroads between the eastern and western sections of the Empire.  Corinth resumed its position as a commercial port city and Athens gained new notoriety as a university city.  Plato’s Academy still flourished and young men, especially from Rome, came to acquire some knowledge of philosophy and rhetoric.  Cicero, the noted Roman lawyer and later consul, seeking to study philosophy and perfect his speaking technique, visited Athens on his way to Rhodes.  Emperor Augustus visited Athens three times and paid the city proper respect because of its glorious heritage.

In many ways Athens and Greece as a whole prospered under Roman rule.  Under the Roman Empire, Greek landowners felt safe.  Roman governors would not tolerate any rebellion from within and Greece no longer needed to fear foreign invasion.  Athens was proclaimed a free city (not subject to Roman taxes) and enjoyed a large degree of autonomy and independence from the Romans.  “The city was often patronized by the Roman leaders.  Julius Caesar began a new agora, which was extended by Augustus.  The latter built new temples there to Ares and Demeter as well as an impressive Odeion (lecture and music hall) . . . . In Paul’s time, the emperor Claudius added the monumental flight of marble steps which leads up to the main entrance to the acropolis.”4

As a result of his many benefices, the people of Greece probably regarding Claudius even more highly than did those in Rome.  Not long after Paul, Nero also undertook numerous construction projects including an effort to build a canal across the Corinthian isthmus.  In the first century AD, Hadrian went to even greater lengths to show his respect for the Greeks.  The Romans were not alone in helping to beautify Athens; many rulers in the Empire wanted to have their monument or statue in the city.

The Athens that Paul saw was still a bustling city.  Athenians lived in the open and daily gathered in the agora to conduct business or exchange the latest gossip.  The agora was also the place where many philosophers congregated.  Stoics, Cynics, and Epicureans regularly gathered in the agora and espoused their different philosophies.  Cynics questioned whether knowledge was attainable.  Epicureans wished to attain a state of detachment: a life free of pain and stress, whereas Stoics believed all living things possessed the divine principle of life (the logos).  “They say this spark of divinity as the cohesive rational principle that binds the entire universe together.”5  People gathered around the speakers seeking either to be enlightened or entertained.

The city was also the location of many religions and cults.  Of course, the Roman gods were well represented with their temples and statues, as well as more traditional Greek gods and those from the near East—such as the cult of Mithras or the Egyptian religion of Isis.  Paul often encountered pagan cults during his travels.  His comments in the marketplace and before the philosophers in Athens, comments about Jesus and the resurrection aroused curiosity and caused Paul to be brought before the council at the Areopagus.  This council served as the city’s main governing body as well as a court.  While before the Areopagus, Paul spoke of their altar to the “Unknown God.”  Favoring peace and stability, the Romans were generally tolerant of foreign gods and cults.  What the Romans saw as toleration, allowing many gods and philosophies, though, indicated a spiritual vacuum to Paul.

Paul spent a relatively brief amount of time in Athens, but he spent more than a year in Corinth.  Corinth, located about 50 miles south of Athens, had been witness to the best and worst of Rome.  The city had taken the lead on trying to block the Roman conquest of Greece.  It had paid for its resistance by having the city razed and its inhabitants sold into slavery.  After being mostly deserted for a century, Julius Caesar had it rebuilt and repopulated with his veterans and some freedmen.  In 44 BC, the Roman colony, Laus Julia Corinthiensis, was established.  Roman colonies were centers of Roman presence and influence.  They were to be “mini-Romes” and they were to means by which Romans could impose new mores, culture, manners, behavior, and morality on the native people.  One would think that since Greece was far more cultured than many parts of the Empire that this would not have been the case there.  One the contrary, recent analysis indicates that Corinth was more or less a conventional Roman colony.  Doubtless, it was a cosmopolitan city.  As in the case of Antioch, Corinth had as many Greeks and Jews in its streets as Romans.  Latin was originally the official language, but before long it would be replaced by Greek.

Corinth became the capital of the Roman province of Achaia.  As the provincial and commercial center of Greece, Corinth prospered.  Under the Empire about a third of the 30 or more provinces were ruled by the Senate and two-thirds directly by the emperor.  The senatorial provinces were ruled by a pro-consul or governor appointed by the Senate for a year.  He oversaw the collection of taxes on land and incomes, acted as the chief judge, and conducted the administration with a fair degree of honesty and efficiency.  The graft, extortion, and exploitation of native populations, the blot of provincial rule under the late Republic, were not largely things of the past.  Roman law was in force in Corinth. 

Pro-consul Lucius Junius Gallio, brother of Seneca,6 heard charges against Paul.  Corinthian Jews accused the apostle of persuading men to worship God contrary to the law.  The pro-consul did not pursue charges against Paul.  Instead, he invoked the imperial policy of freedom of speech.  Paul’s Roman citizenship no doubt helped him as well.  Gallio chose to see the issue as one between Jews and not as a challenge to Roman religions.  This is a good example of effective Roman justice.

Paul would have noticed some major differences between Athens and Corinth.  Corinth was more populous and prosperous but it lacked the intellectual and creative atmosphere of Athens.  Corinthians were interested in making money, not in participating in esoteric philosophical debates.  Situated on the strategic isthmus of the Saronic Gulf, people of all races and nationalities passed through the city.  Corinth was also a city of myriad religions and cults.  Yet, it retained its reputation as a city where a person could find or purchase almost every sin or vice.  The skyline of Athens was dominated by the cultural and religious sites housed on the acropolis.  Corinth had its own notable geographic landmark, the Acrocorinth.  In earlier days, tradition held that a large temple to the goddess Aphrodite that housed a thousand sacred prostitutes was atop the Acrocorinth.

Although Greece will always hold a special place in the history and development of the Western world, by the first century it had forever forfeited its place as an important and powerful nation.  But that is not to say that it did not play a key role in the development of Christianity.  Paul’s experiences in Greece caused him to collect his thoughts and convey to a number of nascent churches some basic tenets of the Christian faith.  Being exposed to different philosophies and religions, Paul defended his faith in such a way that it helped lead to Christianity’s future growth.

1.  Plutarch, Lives of Noble Grecians and Romans, trans. John Dryden, rev. Arthur Hugh Clough (Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952), 288.

2.  Epistles 2.1.156 in Horace, Satires, Epistles, Ars Poetica, trans. H. Rushton Fairclough (Gambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1926), 409.

3.  David Gill and Conrad Gempf, eds., The Book of Acts in its First Century Setting, vol. 2, The Book of Acts in its Graeco-Roman Setting (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 437-38; see Strabo, Geography, 9.2.5.

4.  John B. Polhill, Paul & His Letters (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1999), 208.

5.  Ibid., 209.

6.  Seneca was a leading Roman Stoic philosopher and tutor to the young Nero.

SOURCE: Biblical Illustrator; LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention; Nashville, TN 37234; Vol. 37, No. 1; Fall 2010.

 

A Religious History of Athens

By Timothy N. Boyd

Timothy N. Boyd is pastor of First Baptist Church, Mulvane, Kansas.

B

Y THE TIME THE APOSTLE Paul reached the city of Athens on his second missionary journey, the classical gods of Athens had been firmly entrenched for 1500 years.  No doubt, the religious history of Athens goes back even further.  It was a treasury of buildings, statuary, and customs that reached far into the past.

The origins of these gods are lost to us.  It can be surmised that the gods familiar from Greek mythology came out of both the Indo-European background and Mediterranean context that produced the Greek race.  These origins were agrarian in nature and probably involved magical procedures to secure good crops, fertile flocks, and even human fertility.1

As Athenian (Greek) religion developed, followers transferred the early magical processes to gods who seemed more super-human than divine.  These gods became more sophisticated as the culture of Athens became more mature.  The Athenians (an other Greeks) developed a pantheon of many gods led by the Olympian leader Zeus.  Yet they did not believe Zeus was the creator.  Zeus had won his authority over the other gods by forcing his way to power over older gods such as Night (Nux), Void (Chaos), and Earth (Gaia).  Greek gods did not seem to have high moral character.  They could be capricious.  They were limited in power (especially the lesser gods).  They struggled among themselves and with humanity.  Often certain gods would favor one particular city or another.  Athens is named for its patron goddess, Athena.2

Athenian religion  was concerned with practical day-to-day living.  The relationship of an Athenian to the gods was similar to the relationship of a subject to autocratic nobility.  Their gods were to acknowledged.  Their favor was to be sought in the endeavors of life.  But there was no expectation that the gods loved mankind or had its best interest in mind.

Even though religion was pervasive in Greek life, it did not have the same impact on the people in terms of morality and eternity that Christianity and Judaism had.  There was no “Bible” in Athenian religion even though the writings of Homer and Hesiod were held in high regard.  No document laid down an authoritative code of morality or religion.  There was no professional priesthood in Athenian religion although some priests came from certain Athenian families (for example, the Eumolpidai provided the high priest of the cult of Demeter at Eleusis).  Most priests were chosen by popular choice and served a limited time.  Priests were also not viewed as having special holiness above the ordinary citizen, thus they had no exaggerated authority.3

The Athenians did not have a concept of sin, repentance, and redemption.  They did understand that one could bring about the gods’ displeasure.  Neglecting the gods, which would bring their wrath, could do this.  It could also be done by the crime of murder, which brought the pollution of bloodguilt on the person committing the crime and on the city as well.  The gods’ wrath in this case could only be stayed by purification or banishment of the offender.  In this society, which was oral in its orientation, the breaking of an oath that was guaranteed by the gods could bring down divine wrath.4

The Athenians did believe their gods communicated with them.  They believed their gods spoke though dreams although these dreams could be deceitful.  They believed the gods communicated most authoritatively through oracles.  The oracle at Delphi was the most famous in Greece but was certainly not the only one.  The messages brought by the oracles were often ambiguous, which made them subject to interpretation.  The oracles were not primarily predictive.  In most cases they attempted to give practical advice to those who came to them.  Magic was believed to be another means by which the gods could communicate with mankind.  The Athenians further believed the gods spoke through divination.  A seer was anyone who seemed gifted in interpreting signs.  Some seers were associated with families that were famous for producing these gifts (Melampides, Iamides, and Telliades, for example).5  Others were from more ordinary backgrounds.  The most common means of divination involved the observation of the flight of birds and the inspection of the entrails of slaughtered animals.  Seers were especially interested in viewing the liver, which was believed to be the source of blood and life.6

The Athenians also understood that to respond to these gods was necessary.  Worship for the Athenians was the means by which the favor of various deities could be ensured or the disfavor turned aside.  Worship centered on various shrines associated with particular deities.  Often a temple was built in these sacred areas intended as houses for the deity to occupy.  Sacrifice and other forms of worship occurred outside the temples.  As the apostle Paul said, by his time Athens was filled with shrines and temples (Acts 17:16-34).

Worship occurred at both a private and public level.  Individuals offered prayers and petitions to the gods, often in conjunction with a business venture or some other important event.  Individuals could also offer sacrifices.  Sacrifices could be of grains, fruits, or animals.  In the ordinary sacrifice, those sacrificing consumed part of the sacrifice and believed they were socializing and drawing closer with the deity.  There were other sacrifices in which a whole animal was sacrificed.  This was done when it was believed that the gods were angry and that their favor needed to be won back.  Individuals also participated in acts of purification, which involved ritual acts such as a washing of the hands in order to remove some defilement.  Purification was usually involved in most other acts of worship.  An individual might also take part in a ritual of supplication, which involved humbling oneself and approaching and touching the altar of a god.  This was done by someone needing protection.7

Many of the same activities done in worship on the individual level were also part of the public expressions of worship.  Prayer, sacrifice, and purification were all important components in public aspects of worship centered on various festivals.  The Athenian calendar was filled with these  festivals.  At least half of the days of the year boasted at least one festival of some type.  Many of the festivals offered contests in athletics, art, drama, and poetry.  These festivals functioned in much the same way as our national holidays.  They were also a way to demonstrate the wealth and culture of the city.8

Most festivals involved sacrifices, which often were the climax of the festival.  Many festivals involved processions in which sacred objects or ritual offerings were paraded around the city.9  These festivals obviously developed and became more complex through the centuries.  As the intellectual life of Athens grew, many citizens likely viewed these as a form of civil religion, not devout beliefs of the heart.  Thus Paul found a city in which religion was tightly tied to the entire life of the city.  But there is doubt as to the heartfelt commitment of the people to these gods.

One of the major festivals was the festival of Panathenaia, which took place every year in the Athenian month of Hekatombaion (June-July).  This festival celebrated the relationship of the city to its namesake, the goddess Athena.10

The festival of Apatouria was another major festival the various families celebrated at their family shrines.  The purpose was the transition of children to family member status.  It also involved the presenting of new brides to the family.  And the family remembered the deaths of relatives.  This festival suggests that there was a highly important social  component alongside any religious meaning.11

Special mention needs to be made of the festivals associated with the Eleusinian mysteries.  The lesser mysteries were celebrated in Anthesterion (January-February).  The greater mysteries or more in-depth sharing of secret knowledge occurred in Boedromion (August-September).  The origins of these festivals focused in the worship of Demeter and the fertility of the land.  Eventually, however, these mysteries came to hold an emphasis on the continuation of the soul and eternal life.  Of all the rites practiced by the Athenians, these came the closest to the early Christians’ experience.12  In these practices Paul had some common ground with his audience at the Areopagus.  However, in most of the Athenian practices, Paul was facing an entrenched civil religion. 

1.  J. W. Roberts, City of Sokrates, An Introduction to Classical Athens  (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984), 109.

2.  Joint Association of Classical Teachers’ Greek Course, The World of Athens, An Introduction to Classical Athenian Culture  (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 89.

3.  Roberts, 120-121.

4.  Arthur Fairbanks, “Religion in Ancient Greece” in  International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, James Orr, ed. (Cedar Rapids: Parson’s Technology), 2:1297-1305; Roberts, 129.

5.  Joint Association, 102.

6.  Roberts, 130.

7.  Joint Association, 107=114.

8.  T. B. L. Webster, Athenian Culture and Society  (Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1973), 80-84.

9.  Joint Association, 119.

10. Webster, 83; Joint Association, 121-122.

11. Joint Association, 122-123.

12. Roberts, 135-138.

SOURCE: Biblical Illustrator; LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention; Nashville, TN 37234; Fall 2001.

 


 

PAUL and the ATHENIANS

By Terry Ellis

Terry Ellis is a freelance writer living in Mobile, Alabama.

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AUL’S SECOND missionary journey took him to Athens, and while waiting for Silas and Timothy to rejoin him, he engaged in his usual apostolic activity.  He spoke first in the synagogue and the market-place.  His message provoked such interest that he was taken to the Areopagus for an official hearing (Acts 17:15-19).   At that point, the gospel had reached the venerable center of philosophical discourse.  Looking into the background of that great city and understanding some of its history and influences helps us better understand Paul’s approach and more accurately assess the impact of his ministry in Athens.

The City of Athens

People settled into the region that became Athens before 3000 BC.  Athens was most likely named for Athene, the goddess of wisdom.  During the Classical Period,1 the city rose to prominence among the Greek city-states for its leadership in forming an alliance among the cities.  This alliance offered protection against future Persian encroachment and retaliation for past Persian invasions.2  Corresponding to this time was a cultural awakening in sculpture, literature, politics, and oratory that continues to influence to the present day.  So consistently impressive was Athens’ reputation that even in military defeat the conquerors granted the city special favors and recognition.  Most significantly, Rome allowed the city to remain free after conquering it in 146 BC.

The dominant physical characteristic of the city was the Acropolis, a stony hill rising nearly 500 feet above sea level.  The large hill’s flat top accommodated many beautiful temples, with the crowing architectural feature being the Parthenon.  A smaller hill to the northwest of the Acropolis was the Areopagus, named for the Greek god Ares.  This bare granite out-cropping overlooked the agora, or public marketplace where Paul initially engaged other citizens.  More than merely a place, the Court of the Areopagus was also an ancient institution where elders met to consider matters related to religion and morals.  Although by the first century AD this ruling body met elsewhere, the Court of the Areopagus still served as a place for an official hearing for a man like Paul.3

Philosophically, Athens was the home of Socrates and Plato, and “the adopted home of Aristotle, Epicurus, and Zeno.”4  The last two in this list were founders respectively of Epicureans and Stoics, the schools of thought with whom Paul argued in the agora.  The Athenians were especially well-known and well-qualified for this kind of debate, Athens being the center for both philosophy and rhetoric.

One of the more telling details of Luke’s account of Paul’s experience there is the philosophers’ dismissal of Paul as a “pseudo-intellectual” (Acts 17:18, HCSB).  This descriptive translation of the Greek word spermologos (often translated “babbler”) indicates the haughty disdain of the Athenian elites.  The word literally means a gatherer of seeds and described someone who collected and sold refuse.  When referring to a speaker, it was a slang term of derision indicating an intellectual lightweight.

Luke’s own commentary on the philosophers is even more telling, for they “spent their time on nothing else but telling or hearing something new” (v. 21, HCSB).  They apparently were not interested in hearing the gospel with its claims of the truth.  For these philosophers, a pursuit for the ultimate truth became secondary to their desire to hear something new.  Their quick rejection of the resurrection, however, brings into question whether or not they really did want to hear something new.  They had reached a point where they simply excelled at saying little or nothing with precision.  Though some dismissed him, Paul apparently did impress enough Athenians for them to invite him to a more formal address at the Areopagus.

Paul at the Areopagus

Without question, the surroundings influenced Paul to some degree.  At the Areopagus his speech represented his attempt to adapt to the intellectual climate of Athens and address his audience with a form and content that would most effectively communicate the gospel.  While we do not need to engage in a verse by verse commentary on the speech, we should consider two of its important features.

First, Paul exhibited no hostility toward his audience, but sought a starting point of affirmation and hopeful expectancy.  Far from being intimidated by his surroundings, Paul rose to the occasion, demonstrating the breadth and depth of his education as well as his sensitivity to his audience and surroundings.  He used a form and content with which they would have been familiar.  He spoke respectfully, and gave his presentation of the gospel “with gentleness and respect” (1 Pet. 3:16, HCSB).

Second, Paul’s Areopagus speech was thoroughly Christian.  His quoting two of their poets5 did not dilute the gospel but served as an appropriate way to gain a hearing.  The Areopagus speech provides the clearest window we have to Paul’s missionary strategy of tailoring his method without altering the message (1 Cor. 9:19-23).  While the speech clearly sounds like typical, fine, Greek oratory, it still retains the classic elements of the gospel.

Although we do not find Jesus named in Paul’s sermon on Mar’s Hill, we may assume that at least some in the crowd knew of whom Paul spoke.  He had identified Jesus in his earlier agora discussions (Acts 17:18), and by the time he mentioned the resurrection in his Areopagus speech, we may assume that at least some hearers knew of whom Paul spoke.  The Areopagus speech also contains other points of traditional apostolic preaching such as monotheism, rejection of idolatry, sin as a universal problem, the inevitability of judgment, and a call to repentance.

Paul’s Impact in Athens

Assessing Paul’s influence in Athens is difficult, for we are rendering verdicts on the basis of silence.  For example, we have no evidence of a church in Athens during the apostolic age, a rather revealing fact.  Luke recorded the names of two converts, “Dionysius the Areopagite, [and] a woman named Damaris” (v. 34, HCSB).  Apparently the response in Athens lacked the numbers, leadership, or zeal to begin a new church as Paul was able to do elsewhere.

Some of the tepid response certainly was due to the nature of the audience.  The two philosophic schools represented, the Epicureans and Stoics, each had reasons for rejecting Paul’s message.  Of particular challenge to the Epicureans would have been the idea of a God who was genuinely concerned for people and sent His own Son into the world.  They were practical atheists and believed the gods were completely uninterested in humanity.  The Stoics had a greater number of intellectual affinities with Christianity, but would have objected to any opposition to their conviction that an individual could be completely self-sufficient.  Paul preached a day of judgment for sins and the personal need for a savior.  Stoics believed they could meet all their needs and were not concerned with such issues.  Both schools of thought would have objected to the notion of a resurrection of the body, the very point that led some of them to mock Paul.

The lack of popular appeal in Athens is certainly not a reflection of Paul’s effectiveness in presenting the gospel.  Most likely, the limited visible affirmation is a reflection of the dullness of the Athenians.  Their commitment to learning led them to a centuries-long pursuit of truth.  Ironically, when the highest truth came to them, they were dull to it.  Their endless speculation and fondness for something new had created a stony soil in which the seed found no place to root.

1.  Dates vary for this period, aggregating around the 6th-4th centuries BC.  Michael Grant focused on the early 5th century to Alexander’s rise (336 BC) and notes “Never in the history of the world has there been such a multiplication of varied talents and achievements within so limited a period.”  The Classical Greeks (New York: Scribners, 1989), xi.

2.  Michael Grant, The Founders of the Western World (New York: Scribners, 1991), 63.

3.  F. F. Bruce, The Book of Acts, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 331.

4.  Ibid., 329.

5.  Respectively, Epimenides and Aratus.

SOURCE: Biblical Illustrator; LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention; Nashville, TN 37234; Winter 2000-01.

 

Athens’s gods

By A. O. Collins

A. O. Collins is retired  chair of Christianity Department, Houston Baptist University, Houston, Texas.

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OU ARE A STRANGER in a large metropolitan city, one of the greatest in the world, a center of culture, beauty, and influence.  Alone, you wait for the arrival to trusted friends.  Uncertain as to how long it will be, and with time on your hands, how would you spend your days?  sleeping? watching TV? Griping about their delay?  Wouldn’t you seize the opportunity to visit the historic sites? meet the people? Learn about their ways?

In the first century the Christian missionary Paul faced such a choice and opportunity.  Escaping from Berea to avoid a possible riot, he had been escorted to Athens, where he waited for his companions Silas and Timothy to arrive.  Unsure of how long he would have to wait, this newcomer, all alone and conscious of his Christian mission, decided to experience firsthand this amazing and interesting city of culture and intellect.

The Greek Concept of gods

For the Greeks, a belief in gods came about from the effort to explain the world around them, including the existence, passions, and problems facing human beings.  Although the gods were numerous, there was an underlying concept that they were embodiments of some sort of specific and divine unity.1

The invisible could be understood best in the form of the visible.  Unlike the Egyptians, who created gods in half-human and half-animal forms, the Greek gods were made in the likeness of the harmonious human body, the ultimate in beauty.  The gods were believed to share the same qualities as humankind, yet were more resplendent, wise, and impressive.  Like human beings, they had been born, but unlike humans, they never aged, never died, and possessed infinite power.  Names of the gods remained constant and their functions were the same, connected with regular tasks or critical occasions.  However, a few gods were confined to one locality.2

Because the gods deserved respect and needed to be worshiped, earthlings needed to get the god’s attention so that their requests for help could be heard and answered.  Sacrifices, feasts, and communal meals were means of religious expression. 

Greek religion had no creeds, no scriptures, and no theology.  Greek gods were not concerned with moral values.  Because conduct was based on what the populace accepted, worshipers did not care what the gods might think about right and wrong.  Their perceived power made the gods objects of worship.

Generally, each god and goddess was identified with particular temples, altars, and festivals.  Among the Athenians, certain gods stand out as most important.  Zeus, the supreme ruler-god over the sky and nature in general, was worshiped in many festivals and within households.  His queen, Hera, concerned herself with family life and children.  Apollo was identified with inspiration, light, song, prophecy, and the soul.  Aphrodite concentrated on enchantment, fertility, and physical desires.  Artemis presided over the world of untamed creatures outside the human domain.  Hermes looked after the herds and flocks and was characterized by craft, mischief, and guild.  Dionyus was identified with wine, festivity, revelry, and intoxication.  Poseidon controlled the sea, the storms, and initiated the earthquakes.  Ares was the god of war and combat.  Aesculapius was associated with medicine and healing.  But especially important for the city of Athens was Athena, who had given the city its olive tree, designated as sacred by a thunderbolt hurled by Zeus.  Intelligence and learning were her areas of special concern.3

The Athens of Paul’s Day

In the first century, although Rome was master of the known world, Athens stood out as the cultural center of Hellenism, rivaled only by Alexandria, Egypt.  Gone was its place of prominence of the fifth and fourth centuries BC.  Corinth had replaced it as the capital of Attica.  Commercial activities and military power had shifted elsewhere.  The excitement of creativity was not present.  Basking in the glories of the past, the city was the center and custodian of philosophy, drama, architecture, sculpture, and other arts.  Tourists thronged the “polis” it view the preserved antiquities and ruins of former days and participate in festivals honoring the gods.  Teachers and philosophers, along with inquiring students, crowded the marketplace.  Mental curiosity and arrogance characterized the citizenry and visitors who loved to question and argue, telling and hearing novel things.

Athenian Religion in Paul’s Time

By Paul’s time, gods had lost the place of honor they enjoyed earlier.  Athenians had an inherited religion, one to be cherished for its beauty and impressive rites, to be held on to only because of its cultural identity.  Ceremonies and festivals were held, but observed out of tradition and habit.  Serious doubts and an intellectual restlessness characterized the populace, fueled by the many philosophical theories then in vogue.

Among the popular schools of thought were Stoicism and Epicureanism.  Although the Stoics recognized some sort of divine existence as a part of creation, the primary principle of the universe was reason.  Emphasizing a fatalistic approach to life, one was to live in this pantheistic world exercising a rigid self-sufficiency and self-control, not worrying about what might be beyond.  On the other hand, Epicureans considered earthly existence as something to be enjoyed to the fullest.  If gods did exist, they were so far removed that they could not be or cared not to be involved with the affairs of humankind.  Highly materialistic in their thinking, Epicureans considered pleasure as humanity’s ultimate goal, not necessarily sensualism, but a concerted attempt to live a happy life free from fear, pain, and disturbing passions.

Paul’s Tour of Athens

Arriving by sea from Macedonia, Paul probably landed at Athens’s thriving port, Piraeus, four miles distant.  Following the celebrated Panathenaic Way, with its multiple shrines to the gods, he entered the world’s “university city.”

According to Acts 17:17, one of Paul’s first stops was the synagogue where he met with local Jews and God-fearers.  Evidently, due to their lack of support and interest, he decided to spend his days in the marketplace, the Agora.  In this governmental, commercial, and social center of the city were located column-lined walkways (Stoa) and numerous structures dedicated to the gods, among them Artemis, Apollo, Zeus, Athena, and Ares.

Overlooking the city was the Acropolis, with its Parthenon, one of the world’s architectural masterpieces.  The statue of Athena, over 29 feet high, dominated the area, signifying her responsibility for the protection, safety, harmony, and well-being of her subjects.  Adjacent and nearby structures honored other gods, among them Zeus, Poseidon, Aphrodite and Aesculapius.  Next to the Parthenon was the Areopagus, dedicated to the god Ares.  The Areopagus was the site of philosophical discussions.4

While Paul wandered through the Agora one day, an altar to “an unknown god” captured his attention.  Because they were afraid that some god had been neglected, Athenians had expressed their longing for “Another.”  Evidence that such an altar existed in the Athens marketplace has been confirmed by the first-century traveler Apollonius of Tyana.5

True to his missionary call and mandate, Paul dared to introduce the real God to the loafers and intellectuals around him.  To them, however, he was merely a “seed-picker” or “babbler,” not making good sense.  Today he would be compared to one who went about the streets picking up cigarette butts or rummaging through garbage dumpsters.  Nevertheless, a group called the Areopagites, made up of influential leaders who supervised itinerant speakers, were impressed favorably enough to invite him to speak to them further.  Maybe in some ordered speech he would be able to put these scattered mutterings together.

Paul’s Speech to the Areopagites

In Acts 17:22-34, Luke summarized Paul’s sermon to the Athenians.  Possibly speaking from the Areopagus and looking down on the city, Paul commended them for their religious zeal, meanwhile asserting that they were worshiping a god whom they did not know.  Seeking to introduce them to the unique one true God who had revealed Himself in the creation around them, Paul even quoted from one of their Stoic poets (Acts 17:28).  In contrast to their Athenian gods, the Source and Sustainer of all creation could not be compressed into works of human hands.  Neither did He depend on what His creatures could do for Him.  As part of His creation, they could discover He was closer than they realized.  In fact, God had made known His love to them through Someone who had been raised from the dead; and judgment was ahead for those who failed to accept this privilege of relationship with Him.

Response to the sermon was varied.  Some sneered and laughed.  Others were interested enough to want to listen to him later.  Only a few believed.  Today many people consider Paul’s visit to Athens a failure, but his message contrasting the impotent gods of Athens to the Almighty  Creator-God stands out as one of the greatest sermons of all time.  As a native Greek recently expressed it, “They had developed their intellect to an incredible degree, but at the expense of the heart.  They lacked the power of love and devotion.”6  Through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, Athenians could experience grace and love, precious qualities totally lacking in their gods of stone and marble.                                              Bi

1.  Zaidman and Pantel, Religion in the Ancient Greek City (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 176-77.

2.  Bowra, C. M., The Greek Experience (Cleveland: World Publishing Co., 1958), 56-60.

3.  Ibid., 68-69.

4.  For detailed descriptions of the sights that Paul probably saw, see the following: Delicostopoulos, 77-88; Morton, 255-279; and Stephens, 35-50.

5.  Pausanius, “Description of Greece,” i. l.4, also Philostratus, “Life of Apollonius,” vi 3.5, as quoted by Bruce, 239 and Morton, 273.

6.  Delicostopoulos, 88.

SOURCE: Biblical Illustrator; LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention; Nashville, TN 37234; Winter 1998-1999.

 


 

The Unknown God

By John Polhill

John Polhill is professor of New Testament, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky.

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HEN Paul REFERRED TO THE IDOL inscribed “To an unknown god” (Acts 17:23), he was not just using a clever attention-getting ploy.  He was striking at the heart of the Athenians’ religious problem.  Their idolatry was the most conspicuous evidence of both their spiritual piety (17:22) and poverty.

The Second Commandment condemns idolatry (Ex. 20:4,23), and Paul shared the prophets’ contempt for worshiping gods crafted by people (Isa. 40:18-19; 44:9-20; Ps. 115:4).  The irony is that the Athenians “knew” many gods, but the one true God was totally “unknown” to them.

In Paul’s day Athens was literally peopled with idols to the Greek gods.  Its religious center was the Acropolis, the high hill that overlooked the city.  On its summit stood the Parthenon, a temple dedicated to Athena, the patron goddess of the city.  The frieze work on the sides of the temple depicted the various gods of the Greek pantheon, and inside stood a 40-foot image of Athena made of gold and ivory.  Another statue of the goddess stood outside the temple.  Especially famous was the frieze of the temple that depicted Athena and Poseidon contending over who would rule the city.  Athena offered oil and Poseidon salt, since he was god of the sea.

The Acropolis was crowded with temples, shrines, and statues to the gods. There was a shrine in a cave dedicated to the Erinyes, the spirits of the underworld, and one to Hecate, the goddess of the netherworld.  Another shrine was devoted to Demeter, the goddess of grain.  The Acropolis had a temple to Zeus, the ruler of the gods, and a statue of Hermes, the messenger of the gods.  On seeing these, Paul may have been reminded of the time when the Lystrans attempted to worship him as Hermes and Barnabas as Zeus (Acts 14:12).  The Acropolis also held a temple of Aphrodite, the goddess of love and a sacred precienct to Asklepios, the god of healing.

On the slope of the hill was an area dedicated to Dionysus, the god of wine and revelry and the patron god of the theatrical arts.  This precinct contained the main theater of Athens, where the plays of such greats as Sophocles and Euripides were performed.  On the lower slope stood the ancient Areopagus, an area where in ancient times a council met with major governing responsibilities.  By Paul’s day the council’s powers were more limited, and no longer met on the hill but in a building in the agora, the marketplace.  It was still known as the Areopagus for the hill where it had originally met.  Areopagus literally means “hill of Area.”  Ares was the god of war, and his temple stood at the foot of the hill.  Paul gave his address on “the unknown god” before this venerable council of the Areopagus.

Paul disputed with the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers in the agora (17:18).  The agora was the hub of the city.  Not only was it the commercial center of the city, but the major government buildings were located there.  It too had its share of temples.  There were temples to Athena as the patron of the weavers, to Hephaistos as patron of the blacksmiths, and to Apollo as the patron god of the musicians.  Lining the streets of the agora were numerous statues of famous Athenians and, above all, of the gods.  In Paul’s day, the council of the Areopagus met in a building adjacent to the agora.  Perhaps there is where Paul gave his sermon.

The Greeks had many gods.  They were to be seen everywhere in their temples and statues.  The irony was that the Greeks did not know the only true God.  So Paul began his Areopagus speech by pointing to their altar inscribed “to an unknown god.”  Paul now sought to make this unknown God known to them.

The altar inscription Paul mentioned has not yet been discovered in the extensive archaeological excavations at Athens.  There are references by ancient Greek writers to such inscriptions.  A second-century Greek geographer wrote that there were “altars of the gods named unknown” along the road which led to nearby Phaelerum.1  Another writer quoted a popular Greek philosopher of the first century who described the piety of the Athenians by noting that they even had statues in honor of “unknown gods.”2  The fourth-century Christian scholar Jerome observed that there were altars inscribed to “unknown gods” (in the plural) in the Athens of his own day.  He suggested that Paul adapted the inscriptions to his own purpose of expounding on the single true God.3

There is no evidence for any cult of an “unknown god.”  What purpose would such altars inscribed to unknown gods have had?  Perhaps they had been provided to appease any god whom the Greeks may have failed to give his or her proper due.  They had so many gods, gods over every phenomenon in nature and over every human activity.  They may have feared that some god may have been left out in their numerous idols and temples, some god of whom they were unaware.  So they provided that god, the unknown one, with an altar.  Paul seized the opportunity.  Yes, there was a God unknown to them, the only one who exists, the Creator of all.

Many of the Greek philosophers listening to Paul would have shared his antipathy toward idolatry.  Idols were the religion of the common people, not the intellectuals.  Philosophers often spoke of divinity in terms of the “unknowable.”  They believed that one could not portray the divine, could not really name the divine spirits by their real names, could not fully know them in their true being.  For the human mind, the gods were ultimately “unknowable.”  Some thought like this may have led the Greeks to erect altars to the unknown, unknowable god. 

But the true God is knowable.  He has revealed Himself in Jesus Christ.  He has shown Himself in the works of His creation.  It was this “known” God Paul attempted to introduce to his audience at the Areopagus.  Typical of the philosophers were the Stoics, who believed that the divine spirit was to be found in all of nature.  They held that humans have a divine spark within them.  For Stoics, to discover the divine was to discover oneself, to lay hold of the immortal, divine spirit they believed to be found within each person.  Paul sough to show that nothing could be further from the truth.  God is not to be found in us, but over us.  God is Creator of all that exists.  He stands above His creation, not in it; and He judges His creatures (17:31).

Finally, the philosophers were like the common people with their idols.  They looked for God within themselves and ultimately made God in their own image.  That is the problem with all idolatry.  It reverses the order of creation.  It worships the creation instead of the Creator and ultimately makes God in its own image (see Rom. 1:18-23).  The beautiful statues of the gods in Athens were mute testimony to the wrongness of their religion.  Crafted by the finest artists, they were representations of the human form, of gods made in the image of human beings (17:29).  The reverse is true.  Humans were crafted by God in His own image.  And they reflect that image only when they acknowledge God as Creator and submit themselves to His will and rule over their lives through Jesus Christ.  The Creator God—this is the only true God, the God whom we know through Jesus Christ. 

1.  Pausanias, Description of Greece, 1.1.4.

2.  Philostratus, Life of Apollonius of Tyana, VI.3.5.

3.  Jerome, Commentary on Titus, 1:12.

SOURCE: Biblical Illustrator; LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention; Nashville, TN 37234; Spring 1995.

 

BIBLE CHARACTER TRIVIA

 

(13.135) What is the Answer To & Where in The Bible is This Week’s Trivia Question Found:  What priest was the “king of peace”?  Answer Next Week:  

Last Week’s Question Who is the only Egyptian queen mentioned in the Bible?:    Answer:  Tahperies; 1 Kings 11:19.