Fairview Baptist Church
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Bailey Sadler Class
SUNDAY SCHOOL LESSON STUDY GUIDE – Fall 2016
Study Theme: Unstoppable
What This Lesson Is About:
focus of this week’s study will examine a model provided by the apostle
communicating the gospel in a diverse culture.
gospel of Jesus Christ can impact any culture.
Engagement (Acts 17:16-18)
Ground (Acts 17:22-23)
For Repentance (Acts 17:30-31)
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.
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,
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.
Ground (Acts 17:22-23)
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.
took place in verses 19-21?
to these verses, what did the men of Athens want to know?
was the “Areopagus”? (See
you think Paul was respectful or arrogant in his opening statement (v. 22)?
Explain your answer!
to verse 23, on what did Paul base his opening statement?
was the unusual observation that Paul had made while passing through the city?
are some false gods people worship in our society today?
on the last part of verse 23, what do you think was common ground for Paul to
begin his sharing the gospel?
you think it is important to find common ground when sharing the gospel?
If so, why?
can we use the things we have in common with others as a gateway to sharing
What principles and practices
can we gain from Paul’s approach to sharing the gospel?
would you describe the example Paul gives us for establishing a foundation for
Lessons in Acts 17:22-23:
need to find some point of contact with our non-Christian friends and
should move toward a clear affirmation of their need for the salvation
available only through a relationship with Jesus.
should avoid inflammatory issues that might turn off our audience early in
For Repentance (Acts 17:30-31)
“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
took place between verse 23 and verse 30?
do you think Paul meant by “having overlooked the times of ignorance” in
was the main point of Paul’s address in verse 30?
you think it is difficult to tell someone they need to repent?
Why, or why not?
on verse 31, what was the reason for Paul’s call to repent?
did Paul point to Jesus as judge (v. 31)?
proof did Paul offer that Jesus was an essential part of God’s salvation plan?
at verses 32-34, what happened after Paul mentioned the resurrection of Jesus?
do these three verses tell us about what we can expect as we share the Good News
are some barriers that keeps many believers from sharing the gospel?
Lessons in Acts 17:30-31:
expects everyone to repent for his or her sins.
people will face God’s judgment.
demonstrated that Jesus is His Son through Jesus’ resurrection from the
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!
on this study, what are the implications for your life?
THE CHOICE IS YOURS, ISN’T IT!
the safest place for a believer is in the CENTER of God’s will.
Outline, Introduction, Discussion Questions, and Conclusion adapted from the
Ventures-Bible Studies for Life; Leader Guide; LifeWay Christian Resources
of the Southern Baptist Convention; Nashville, TN.
Herschel Hobbs Commentary; Family Bible Study; by
Robert J. Dean; LifeWay Christian
Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention; 1 LifeWay Plaza, Nashville,
SOURCE: Advanced Bible Study; LifeWay Christian
Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention; One LifeWay Plaza,
Focal Passage from three different translations of
James Version: Acts 17:16-18,22-23,30-31
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.
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.
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
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.
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:
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."
Living Translation: Acts 17:16-18,22-23,30-31
Acts 17:16-18 (NLT)
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.”
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.
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.”
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
Common Ground (Acts 17:22-23)
Call For Repentance (Acts 17:30-31)
Expositor’s Bible Commentary New Testament: Acts
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
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.
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
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
SOURCE: The Expositor’s
Bible Commentary New Testament; Frank E. Gaebelein; General
Editor; Zondervan Publishing House; A Division of Harper Collins Publishers
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.
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
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
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.
Bible Commentary; by William MacDonald; Copyright © 1995, 1992, 1990,
1989 by William McDonald. Database © 2014 WORDsearch.
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.
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
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).
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.
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
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.
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.
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).
Complete Biblical Library Commentary - Acts. Copyright ©
2009 WORDsearch Corp.; World Library Press, Inc.
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
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.
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.
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 , 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.
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.
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.
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.
(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).
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
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.
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.
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,
(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.
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia; James
Orr, M.A., D. D., General Editor; Parsons Technology, Inc.; Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
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.
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.
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia; James
Orr, M.A., D. D., General Editor; Parsons Technology, Inc.; Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
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.
Ventures-Bible Studies for Life; Leader Guide; LifeWay Christian Resources
of the Southern Baptist Convention; Nashville, TN.
GREEK CULTURE in Paul’s Day
By Gary M. Poulton
M. Poulton is president emeritus and professor of history, Virginia Intermont
College, Bristol, Virginia.
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
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. ♦
Plutarch, Lives of Noble Grecians
and Romans, trans. John Dryden, rev. Arthur Hugh Clough (Chicago:
Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952), 288.
Epistles 2.1.156 in
Horace, Satires, Epistles, Ars Poetica,
trans. H. Rushton Fairclough (Gambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1926),
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,
John B. Polhill, Paul & His
Letters (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1999), 208.
Seneca was a leading Roman Stoic philosopher and tutor to the young Nero.
A Religious History of Athens
By Timothy N. Boyd
N. Boyd is pastor of First Baptist Church, Mulvane, Kansas.
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. ♦
J. W. Roberts, City of Sokrates, An
Introduction to Classical Athens (London:
Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984), 109.
Joint Association of Classical Teachers’ Greek
Course, The World of Athens, An Introduction to Classical Athenian Culture (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1984), 89.
“Religion in Ancient Greece” in International
Standard Bible Encyclopedia, James Orr, ed. (Cedar Rapids: Parson’s
Technology), 2:1297-1305; Roberts, 129.
Joint Association, 102.
Joint Association, 107=114.
T. B. L. Webster, Athenian Culture
and Society (Berkeley & Los
Angeles: University of California Press, 1973), 80-84.
Joint Association, 119.
Webster, 83; Joint Association, 121-122.
Joint Association, 122-123.
and the ATHENIANS
is a freelance writer living in Mobile, Alabama.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Grant, The Founders of the Western World
(New York: Scribners, 1991), 63.
Bruce, The Book of Acts, rev. ed.
(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 331.
Epimenides and Aratus.
By A. O. Collins
A. O. Collins is retired
chair of Christianity Department, Houston Baptist University, Houston,
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
Zaidman and Pantel, Religion in the
Ancient Greek City (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 176-77.
Bowra, C. M., The Greek Experience
(Cleveland: World Publishing Co., 1958), 56-60.
For detailed descriptions of the sights that Paul probably saw, see the
following: Delicostopoulos, 77-88;
Morton, 255-279; and Stephens, 35-50.
Pausanius, “Description of Greece,” i. l.4, also Philostratus,
“Life of Apollonius,” vi 3.5, as quoted by Bruce, 239 and Morton, 273.
The Unknown God
By John Polhill
Polhill is professor of New Testament, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary,
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)
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,
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. ♦
Pausanias, Description of Greece,
Philostratus, Life of Apollonius of
Jerome, Commentary on Titus,
Illustrator; LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention;
Nashville, TN 37234; Spring 1995.
(13.135) What is
the Answer To & Where in The Bible is This Week’s Trivia Question Found:
What priest was the “king of
Last Week’s Question Who is the only Egyptian queen mentioned in the Bible?:
Tahperies; 1 Kings 11:19.