Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Burning Cultural Bridges: Paul in Athens, Acts 17:22-30

The next passage containing a “repentance” word is a little more difficult to explain in terms of a fundamental change of behavior. It is also, by nearly all commentators’ estimates, central to a proper understanding of evangelism in a Gentile-dominated world, although there are extreme differences between commentators regarding what it implies for evangelism. Thus, this passage demands care and attention to understand exactly what Paul was trying to say. Moreover, Paul’s statement in verse 30 that God now commands all people everywhere to “repent” is at the heart of his message. It appears, at first, to be speaking only of a change of beliefs. However, for the reasons discussed below, more than mere belief is involved—the command Paul proclaims is that his hearers must repent of their worship of their self-made gods and their own philosophical ideas and worship practices surrounding them. Stated a little differently, he is commanding them to repent of creating gods they believe they can manipulate, and to start serving the one true God who created them. He is commanding a change in the religious part of their behavior, with radical practical consequences.

This conclusion leads to the further conclusion that Paul was not advocating syncretistic acceptance of the practices of other religions to “win” their adherents to a neutered “Christianity.” Rather, he made use of limited parts of Greek religious and philosophical writings, familiar to his audience, to convince them to repent of those beliefs and the practices that accompanied them in favor of faith in the true God alone.

Recalling the context, Paul had come to Athens alone, after being forced within the space of a few weeks to flee first Philippi, then Thessalonica, then Berea, because of opposition to his message. Acts 16:12-17:15. Once in Athens, “his spirit was provoked within him as he beheld the city full of idols.” Acts 17:16 (WEB). Athens, by all accounts, had numerous idols and shrines. Indeed, some ancient authorities indicate that, by the First Century, Athens—which had passed its prime economically and politically and had a declining population—had more statutes of gods than it had citizens. However, all of the deities in the Greek mythological pantheon had at least three things in common. First, while each deity was thought to have some degree of control over some part of the natural world, none of them—not even Zeus—had created it. Second, all of the Greek gods were conceived of as having very human moral weaknesses, and, indeed, as being aligned in parties that were in a state of continuous intrigue and hostility against each other (hostilities in which innocent, helpless mortals were often caught, to their own hurt). Third, it was believed that deities could be appeased and propitiated by worship and sacrifice, and thus manipulated to do what their worshippers wanted done, or at least to get out of the way of what their worshipers wanted to do—though propitiating one god might anger another. As John Span (p. 558) wrote, the heart of the Greek religion was “‘I give in order that you may give.’ In other words, I, the human worshiper, give in order that you, the god, may give to me.” In this selfish aspect, Greek mythological religion was similar to much modern human religion, and even to much that is today falsely preached in the name of Christ.

Paul, who was raised as a strict Jew, a monotheist who hated all foreign gods, now committed to Christ, had an immediate and violent reaction against the idolatry he saw in Athens. As several commentators point out, the word translated “provoked” in verse 16 is parōxuneto--Paul had a paroxysm, a fit. As a result of his fit of revulsion at seeing the city given to idols, though alone in Athens Paul went to the synagogue, and then to the marketplace (which was also the location of the largest number of idol statues in the city) to reason with those who would hear him. As verse 18 indicates, Paul’s message brought him into conversation (or debate) not only with Jews and traditional Greek polytheists, but also with Epicurean and Stoic philosophers. Both the Epicureans and the Stoics accepted the traditional Greek pantheon and myths, at least in a formal sense, but built upon them very different views of the universe and humans’ place or duty in it.

For their part, the Epicureans adopted Democritus’ atomistic, materialistic view of the cosmos, and taught that even the gods were essentially material—and perishable—collections of atoms. While they, thus, allowed for the existence of gods that should be worshiped as such, the Epicureans’ gods were far removed from the lives of humans, living in a “void of space,” and had no real interest in them. To the Epicureans, “pleasure” was the chief end in life. Their founder, Epicurus, defined “pleasure” not as hedonism but as “freedom from pain in the body and disturbance in the mind,” that is “a life of tranquility, free from pain, disturbing passions, and superstitious fears (including in particular the fear of death).” (As quoted by Sewell, at 9). As Sewell also notes, by the First Century of our era, the early Epicurean pursuit of “pleasure” as freedom from pain, passion and fear had largely degenerated into hedonism. Because life itself, including the human soul, was believed to be only a temporary collection of atoms that would dissipate back into nature after death, Epicureans believed in neither the immortality of the soul nor the possibility of a physical resurrection of the body. They would have mocked and dismissed as ignorant a teacher who proclaimed resurrection, but would not have been repulsed by him.

The Stoics, likewise, were materialists, and believed that everything—including the gods and human souls—were composed of some form of matter. In contrast to the Epicureans, who were atomists, the Stoics were panentheists, believing in an impersonal divine ordering principle that was in all things and beings. Early Stoic literature calls this ordering principle the Logos (“word”, or, better, in this context, “reason”), but later it is generally referred to as physis (“nature”). The goal of life is to discover and live in accord with this rational ordering principle. Stoics often identified this ordering principle with Zeus, but, in doing so, did not ascribe to it a personality. To the Stoics, both gods and souls were composed of a more refined form of matter than the material universe, and thus might be immortal. However, the Stoics viewed the physical body as the prison of the soul, which we escape to return to nature after death, and thus would have been morally offended by a teacher who proclaimed a physical resurrection (to continued imprisonment!).

After Paul had debated the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers in the marketplace for an unstated number of days, the philosophers still were unable to understand how his teaching fit within their philosophical systems. Some thought he was a “babbler”—a person who picks up seeds of knowledge from others, like a small bird flitters about finding seeds, and repeats them (v. 16b). Others thought he was preaching “new gods” (plural)—perhaps thinking he was saying Jesus and Resurrection were gods to whom a new shrine should be built (v. 16c). In either event, he was a potential threat to either the established local philosophical schools or the established local shrines, and his message had to be investigated. He was asked to appear before the Areopagus, the collection of philosophers who formed the city council under Roman rule as a semi-independent city.

There is some disagreement among the commentators whether this invitation was a friendly invitation Paul could have declined or a formal summons, but it hardly matters. Paul actually did appear before the Areopagus, and presented them a formal address. In this address, it will be noted, he challenged all of the religious presuppositions of the traditional polytheists, Epicureans and Stoics and made a clear presentation of the resurrection of Jesus as the basis of our faith:

You men of Athens, I perceive that you are very religious in all things. 23 For as I passed along, and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription: ‘TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.’ What therefore you worship in ignorance, this I announce to you. 24 The God who made the world and all things in it, he, being Lord of heaven and earth, doesn’t dwell in temples made with hands, 25 neither is he served by men’s hands, as though he needed anything, seeing he himself gives to all life and breath, and all things. 26 He made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the surface of the earth, having determined appointed seasons, and the boundaries of their dwellings, 27 that they should seek the Lord, if perhaps they might reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. 28 ‘For in him we live, and move, and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are also his offspring.’ 29 Being then the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold, or silver, or stone, engraved by art and design of man. 30 The times of ignorance therefore God overlooked. But now he commands that all people everywhere should repent (metanoein), 31 because he has appointed a day in which he will judge the world in righteousness by the man whom he has ordained; of which he has given assurance to all men, in that he has raised him from the dead.

Acts 17:22-30 (WEB).

There are two different general lines of commentary about this speech. One line of commentators emphasizes the neutrality of Paul’s language, his citation of the altar to the unknown God, and his quotations from the Greek poets Epimenides of Crete and Aratus, as showing we should “build bridges” to our audience (particularly in cross-cultural evangelism), by showing acceptance of as much of their religious and cultural background as we can without sacrificing the Gospel. Other commentators, by contrast, point out that Paul’s “neutral” language is really ambiguous and can be read as deliberate irony and that Paul expressed no approval of the Greek poets’ underlying message but instead used the quotations to challenge his hearers’ religious and philosophical presuppositions. On study of the passage, as explained below, my conclusion is closer to the second set of commentators. Paul built bridges all right, and then promptly burned them to make his point.

Paul’s speech begins neutrally enough: he makes an observation about the Athenians. He observes that they are “very religious.” However, the word he uses for “very religious,” deisidaimonesterous, is ambiguous. Its range of meaning runs from “very religious,” which the Athenians would have regarded as a virtue, to “very superstitious” or “irrationally afraid of daemons” (the large class of lesser spirits, both good and evil, that the Greeks posited as filling the void between gods and humans). So, as Span points out, already in the first sentence of his speech the council would not have known whether to salute or stone Paul.

Paul then gives as an example of his point about the Athenians’ extreme religiosity (or superstition) his observation that they even had an altar to an “unknown” (agnōstō) god (v. 23). Commentators are generally in agreement that the altar to an “unknown” god was associated with a plague during the 6th Century, B.C., which was not helped by offerings to other gods. Therefore, according to the legend, the Athenians, directed by an oracle, sent a message to the Cretan hero Epimenides. Epimenides instructed them to bring a flock of hungry sheep to Mars Hill, release them, and have shepherds watch to see if any laid down instead of seeking pasture outside the city. They were to mark the locations where the sheep laid down, and sacrifice them there. Athens followed Epimenides’ instructions, and the plague ended. An altar to this “unknown” god—the god the Athenians had missed in building their pantheon—was constructed at each of the locations where a sheep laid down, although it is possible only one of these altars was still in existence in Paul’s time, 600 years later. The Athenians apparently never attempted to discover the true identity of this “unknown” god. It was good enough for their purposes that they had been able to manipulate this god, to appease him or her and escape the plague.

However, Paul declares that he wants to tell them about this “unknown” god, after first reminding them that they worshiped this god in self-confessed ignorance (agnoountes). The first thing he tells them about the true God, the one of whom they were ignorant, is that, unlike any of the deities in their pantheon, the true God created the heavens and the earth. (Even Paul’s choice of the very Jewish, Old Testament term “the heavens and the earth,” for the material universe, emphasizes this). The material universe did not pre-exist the current batch of gods, as in Greek mythology. God was not merely the rational world soul immanent in the universe and co-existent with it, as in Stoic philosophy. Nor was the true God a finite part of the universe, a mere collection of atoms, as in Epicurean philosophy. Rather, God pre-existed the heavens and the earth, exists independently of them, and created them. Thus, Paul’s first statement about the true God denied the fundamental tenets of all three systems of religious thought then common in Athens. He built a bridge with his observation of the altar to an “unknown” god, then promptly burned it by telling them of a God they could not possibly reconcile with their own preconceived religious thinking.

But it gets worse. Paul’s next two statements deny the heart of the Athenians’ views regarding their relationship with their gods. Pagan gods live in temples built by men to contain them and are served by cultic rituals and sacrifices in those temples. The true God, by contrast, does not live in a temple built by human hands (v. 24b) and is not served by human hands (v. 25a). Pagan gods have needs men can provide, and can therefore be manipulated by our sacrifices and cultic acts in service of their needs. The true God needs nothing (v. 25b), and thus cannot be manipulated by our acts of worship. Indeed, far from our being able to provide anything to meet God’s needs, it is God who gives us life, breath, and everything we have (v. 25c).

Verses 26 through 28 are an exercise in deliberate irony. Paul is subtly mocking Athenian religion and the Greek view of their own cultural dominance. The Greek gods were associated with cities, different cities collectively serving different sets of gods out of their pantheon. They also conceived of their gods as territorially going with them wherever they conquered territory and started to establish their culture—and Alexander the Great had conquered a huge territory that included Judea and Galilee. Greek gods thus, territorially, went with Greek conquests and cultural dominance. By contrast, in verse 26 Paul declares that it was the true God, the God the Athenians did not know, that made from one man all nations and determined the territorial and temporal bounds of their habitation. God made all nations out of one man--Adam--and no culture was "superior." Moreover, the division of the nations, their spread and decline, was done by God for his own purposes. Thus, it was not Alexander who carried the Greek gods throughout a huge area, it was the true God who determined that Alexander would conquer his empire and spread Greek language and culture throughout it! Greek cultural dominance thus did not imply the superiority of their gods. The true God had his own purpose in it.

Irony reaches a peak in verses 27 and 28. According to verse 27, the purpose behind God’s activity determining the times and places of human nations is that people will seek the true God, and possibly “reach out” or “grope” after (psēlaphēseian) him and find him. The picture painted by Paul’s words is that of a blind person groping about on the floor looking for something (compare Isaiah 59:10, LXX). Several commentators also point out that the verbs translated “reach out” or “grope” and “find” are in the little-used optative mood, and that the optative mood implies a wish that is very unlikely to be fulfilled. Thus, the full force of verse 27 is that people who have made their own gods may grope blindly after the true God, but all of their groping will probably not find him.

But the true irony is this: God is not far from any one of us. (v. 27b). Contrary to what all of the religious philosophies then current in Athens (and in the modern world!) taught, God is not distant and uninterested. He is near. Indeed, “in him we live and move and have our being.” (v. 28a). Here Paul builds, and promptly burns, another cultural bridge by quoting a poem ascribed to Epimenides—the same Epimenides to whom the altar to the unknown god was ascribed. Epimenides, though speaking originally of Zeus, stated that “in him we live and move and have our being.” Thus, even one of the Greeks’ own poets told them that God is near, not distant and unconcerned. Therefore, they had no reason to be groping after him blindly. The reason human groping is unlikely to find God is that we are looking for gods we can contain and control. We are looking for gods of our own making. We have blinded ourselves to the true God, whom we can neither contain nor control. So we cannot, on our own, find the true God to whom we have blinded ourselves, even though he is all around us.

Paul then takes his point one step further by building, and burning, another bridge, this time by quoting the Greek poet Aratus, who had written, again of Zeus, that “we are his offspring.” Paul applies this directly to the true God. God is not only nearby, all around us, but we are also his offspring about whom he is concerned. Paul then argues (v. 29), that, because we are God’s offspring, we should not think God is like an idol we can make for ourselves. If we are God’s offspring, he made us, came before us, and we could not possibly have made him. Moreover, since we could not make ourselves by our own art and design, by our own skill—it took God to do that—how can we possibly think that we can create God by our own skill?

At this point, Paul calls for action on the part of his hearers. In the past, God overlooked their ignorance—agnoias, the very state the inscription on one of their altars proclaimed. But now God calls all men everywhere to repent of this willful ignorance. The subject of the entire speech thus far has been that the Athenians were willfully ignorant, blinding themselves to the true God who was all around them so that they could follow gods and philosophies of their own making. The repentance Paul is calling for is, therefore, logically to turn away from the gods they had made for themselves, and the philosophies that supported them, to seek the true God.

Then, in verse 31, Paul provides his hearers two motivations to seek the true God. The first motivation is the coming day of judgment, on which God will judge the world through the man he has appointed—Jesus, although Paul does not name him. The second motivation is that God has proven what Paul has said by raising that man from the dead.

This was the end of Paul’s speech. There is some indication in verse 32 that, when Paul mentioned the resurrection—a concept some of his hearers would have found offensive—the Council cut him off (“some of them sneered, but others said we want to hear you again on this subject”). Certainly Paul did not make a complete presentation of the Gospel on this occasion; indeed, he didn’t even mention the name of Jesus. But the point of the presentation he actually made was that the Athenians needed to repent of their entire manner of worship and all of the mental constructs and cultic practices surrounding their worship. He called for a radical change in their way of life.


This list includes only resources available online.

Acts 17 - IVP New Testament Commentaries

Georges Houssney, “Analysis of Acts 17”

John Span, "The Areopagus:A Study in Continuity and Discontinuity," St. Francis Magazine 6(3):517-582 (June 2010)

Alida Leni Sewell, “Paul at Athens: An Examination of His Areopagus Address in the Light of its Historical and Philosophical Background”

Wikipedia, "Unknown God"

Wikipedia, “Greek Mythology.”