Archives For Athens

I was here once. In Athens that is. Not on the Internet. But only for a day. It’s a great city with a pretty amazing history (and a fairly depressing present).

I love tilt shift.

So Paul’s speech at the Areopagus is an opportunity to introduce a new Gdo to Athens. The God. And it’s not an opportunity he lets slip. He grasps wit with both hands and uses it as a chance to preach the gospel, and in doing so he demonstrates more than a passing familiarity with the philosophy and practices of those he engages with. Bruce says he did this because he had found common ground between inconsistencies in Stoic and Epicurean thought and practice, and similarities between their doctrines and the Old Testament.

“He [Paul] was not borrowing his theology from the philosophical schools for pragmatic purposes.”

Bruce sees his speech before the Areopagus (as do I, as a pretty masterful piece of apologetics, for an article to that effect rather than my notes on his lecture on apologetics see Introducing Athens to God: Paul’s failed apologetic in Acts 17? (PDF), J.D Charles agrees in this article Engaging the (Neo)Pagan Mind: Paul’s Encounter with Athenian Culture as a Model for Cultural Apologetics (PDF)). Other scholars think it’s an apologetic model Paul tried and gave up, feeling a bit disillusioned (this view was made popular by a guy named Ramsay in St. Paul the Traveller and the Roman Citizen (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1895)), or that Paul was actually on criminal trial to determine if his teaching was subversive (see this Google Books reference from Stanley Porter). I think Bruce’s reading actually makes the most sense, only Porter’s criminal trial theory explains the presence in the narrative of Acts, the idea that Paul gave up this sort of apologetic falls over a bit when you observe Paul’s continued engagement with Greek philosophy (see his quote from Epimendes in Acts 17:28 and his other Cretans quote in Titus and the Epimenedes Paradox), and Roman law and culture in his subsequent trials. Plus the narrative of Acts 17 reports converts (so it’s hardly a failure). Some suggest Paul’s resolving to know nothing but Christ (1 Corinthians 2:2) was Paul’s general approach to apologetics and not one particular to Corinth in the light of their issues with idolising gospel preachers as though they were first century orators.

Paul’s Apologetic Method (and the introduction of new Gods)

Paul opens with observations about the culture, and at the same time, points out that the God he is talking about is not a new God, but an Old God…

22 Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.

Then he addresses specific questions the Areopagus sought to answer regarding new gods

24 “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. 25 And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else.

He begins to look at what divine honours might be appropriate or required for such a God (what do you give the God who has everything?).

26 From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. 27so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us.

Then he demonstrates his familiarity with their culture and thinking

28 ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’

This verse actually contains a quote from Epimendes and another from a Aratus, a Stoic philosopher.

Then he again turns to the question of temples and statues

29 “Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill.

And finally, he turns back to the question of what God requires from converts and the proof of God’s epiphany (in this case Jesus and the Resurrection, the gospel he had been preaching)

30 In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. 31 For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”

Bruce suggests Paul makes five affirmations about the knowable God – that he made the world, determined the boundaries of the nations, that he can be sought through general revelation, that idols don’t represent him since we are his offspring, and that all people are called to turn to him or face judgment.

The Stoics, in De Natura Deorum had a sequence to be met in the presentation of new gods: first: prove God exists, second: explain their nature, third: show that the world is governed by them, fourth: show that they care for mankind.

Bruce says:

“The summary in Acts 17 assumes their belief in God‘s existences and His role as the creator of the world who is Lord of heaven and earth, (v. 24a). It affirms He gives life and all things to all his creation, (v. 25b). His providential care is intrinsically bound up with the needs of all mankind, (v. 26). Paul developed his theme on the nature of the known God thus.”

Paul also tackles issues of divine providence, from Bruce:

…in the Athenian speech there are important resonances with the Stoic view of providence. This may well have been Paul‘s most important bridge with that segment of his audience. Balbus sets out what he sees as the Stoic thesis that the world is ruled by divine providence…of the gods‘, only familiarity blinds us to nature‘s marvels.‘ For him providential government of the world can be inferred firstly, from divine wisdom and power,  secondly, from the nature of the world, thirdly from a detailed review of the wonders of nature,  and fourthly from the care of man.

Also, Bruce points out that Paul’s use of the singular “God” rather than “gods” was right down the alley of the Stoics and Epicureans – and elements of his speech to the Areopagus directly attack their understanding of theology.

The Stoics and Epicureans would have had no difficulty with the use of the singular ‘god’, for in one sentence they used the singular and plural interchangeably. For example, Diogenes Laertius speaks of ‘worshippers of god’ as those who ‘have acquaintance with the rites of the gods’ and who know ‘how to serve the gods’.

Much of Paul’s argument also plays on tensions between Stoic and Epicurean thought, in the same way that his argument before the Pharisees and the Sadducees played on tensions between those two groups.

Epicureans believed that God was living, immortal, and blessed – terminology Paul often uses to describe God in his letters. The Epicureans would have found common ground on that point, and further on the point that God could be discovered (and that an unknown God could be made known) because they believed God was knowable and clear to all. They also, importantly, dismissed the idea of God(s) living in temples – they didn’t like anything that looked like superstition, and both agreed that God had no need for human resources.

But the notion of an afterlife was completely foreign to Epicurus (the founder of the Epicureans) who said:

“Death is nothing to us; for the body, when it has been resolved into its elements, has no feeling and that which has no feelings is nothing to us”

Which is probably why the crowd reacted like they did when Paul mentioned the resurrection (in much the same way that the Sadducees reacted in his audience with the Jews).

Bruce thinks Paul was actually calling the Stoics and Epicureans out on social compromise on their philosophies – and offering a better way.

“The Stoic self-contradiction, as Plutarch pointed out, was that they  attend the mysteries in the temples, go up to the Acropolis, do reverence to statues, and place wreaths upon the shrines, though these were the works of builders and mechanics”

Epicurus himself had believed that popular piety was not correct—‘For the utterances of the multitude about the gods are not true preconceptions but false assumptions,‘

Some final thoughts from Bruce:

“Stoicism and Epicureanism in the imperial period had to endorse religious pluralism if they were to maintain their following, given participation in the imperial cult as one of the ways of affirming their loyalty to the empire.”

“No dialogue can be called  Christian‘ that does not possess the five elements expressed in Acts 17. So Paul‘s sermon in Athens was highly pleasing to Almighty God and these essential elements are to be repeated if we are to win the hearts and the minds of our contemporaries who need to believe the gospel.”

J.D Charles agrees (though he spends his time pondering the philosophical nature of Athens):

“Summing up Paul’s rhetorical strategy in Athens, we may note that the Apostle was knowledgeable, dialectical, well-read, relevant, and rhetorically skillful. What particularly strikes the reader is his ability to accommodate himself to the knowledge-base of most Athenians. Viewing Paul’s encounter with Athenian culture as such, we may conclude that his ministry was not a “failure.” Nor is it necessary to assume that his not-too-distant reflections about the power of the cross, recorded in 1 Corinthians 1–2, were penned with a wrong apologetic model (i.e., Athens) in mind.
To the contrary, a more accurate assessment of Paul’s ministry in Athens may be summed up by his own testimony to the Corinthians: “I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more. To the Jews I became a Jew … ; to those without the law, I became like those without the law … I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some” (1 Cor 9:19–22).”

I’m finding all sorts of fun quotes playing around with primary sources. Here’s a quote from Aristotle’s Rhetoric about use of emotion in court proceedings – with a mention of the Areopagus, the council Paul appeared before in Athens in Acts 17:

“The arousing of prejudice, pity, anger, and similar emotions has nothing to do with the essential facts, but is merely a personal appeal to the man who is judging the case. Consequently if the rules for trials which are now laid down some states — especially in well-governed states — were applied everywhere, such people would have nothing to say. All men, no doubt, think that the laws should prescribe such rules, but some, as in the court of Areopagus, give practical effect to their thoughts and forbid talk about non-essentials. This is sound law and custom. It is not right to pervert the judge by moving him to anger or envy or pity — one might as well warp a carpenter’s rule before using it.”

Here’s a picture of Mars Hill.

Image Credit: Me, from our trip to Greece

Now the ever reputable Professor B. Winter tells us (that is, his students) that the Areopagus:

a) did not actually meet on top of Mars Hill (speculative – based largely on its current shape and size (who knows how big it was 2,000 years ago), and the number of people in the Areopagus.
and b) had a function to perform as the gatekeepers for the gods of Greece, the Areopagus basically had a set of rules to govern what gods could and couldn’t be accepted into Greece, and Paul’s presentation in Acts 17 is said to meet those parameters…

It’s interesting that they had a reputation for only talking about essentials, from hundreds of years before Paul, and yet the members of the Areopagus invited him to speak.

“19 And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this(AH) new teaching is that you are presenting? 20 For you bring some strange things to our ears. We wish to know therefore what these things mean.”

It’s also funny how Luke’s view of the Athenians, and possibly, by context and extension, the Areopagus, differs from Aristotle’s:

21 Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.”

Wrapping up Greece

Nathan Campbell —  September 28, 2010

We’re in Turkey today, and for the rest of this week, and possibly have a more reliable in hotel wifi connection, so we’ll see if blogging improves.

We spent a couple of days in Greece touring first century entertainment precincts to get a feel for the cultural life of the citizens Paul addresses in his letters. Roman culture was entertainment heavy. The entertainment, like everything else, was filled with cultural propaganda and designed to reinforce, in the regions, the supremacy of the emperor.

Sport was a massive deal. In fact, the highest paid sportstar of all time was a second century Roman charioteer.

The very best paid of these—in fact, the best paid athlete of all time—was a Lusitanian Spaniard named Gaius Appuleius Diocles, who had short stints with the Whites and Greens, before settling in for a long career with the Reds. Twenty-four years of winnings brought Diocles—likely an illiterate man whose signature move was the strong final dash—the staggering sum of 35,863,120 sesterces in prize money. The figure is recorded in a monumental inscription erected in Rome by his fellow charioteers and admirers in 146, which hails him fulsomely on his retirement at the age of “42 years, 7 months, and 23 days” as “champion of all charioteers.”

His total take home amounted to five times the earnings of the highest paid provincial governors over a similar period—enough to provide grain for the entire city of Rome for one year, or to pay all the ordinary soldiers of the Roman Army at the height of its imperial reach for a fifth of a year. By today’s standards that last figure, assuming the apt comparison is what it takes to pay the wages of the American armed forces for the same period, would cash out to about $15 billion.

Here’s a picture of a first century sporting superstar.

Here’s a reenactment.

Roman bathhouses would have been a hotbed of political and social intrigue – and an important part of the daily routine of the elite. Everyone went to the baths, the time of day you arrived (and the heat of the water) was determined by your social status.

We saw some bath houses at Isthmia, as well as the famous Corinthian Isthmus, which gave the nation controlling the city of Corinth control of trade in the region.

We stopped at Cenchria where we may or may not have walked through the fenced off ruins of a house that may or may not have belonged to Phoebe (a patron of the city who looked after Paul). We looked for some of Paul’s hair, because he had a haircut there as he departed.

Epidaurus has an immaculately conserved theatre, where the acoustics are demonstrably impressive. A tour guide from another group dropped coins in the centre of the circle, and tore paper, and we could hear it sitting in the back row.

In Athens we stood atop Mars Hill, an experience that supports Bruce Winter’s contention that the Areopagus Council probably met in a room in the marketplace rather than on the hill, which was also used for execution by fatal drop.

This is the spot Bruce suggests the council, whose job it was to introduce new gods to Greek life, would have met.

The Acropolis was amazing. Athens was doubtless a city dominated by religion. The Parthenon overlooked the metropolitan sprawl and would have been visible from all corners. The hill was dotted with alters and minor temples, including a small Imperial Cult temple next to the Parthenon, the Romans had a separate marketplace which was home to the architecturally significant temple to Roma, and a public latrine.

Here’s the latrine.

Some pictures from the Acropolis…

The Athenian theatre was renovated by Nero to celebrate his victories in some oratory competitions.

The agora is dotted with religious and political propaganda. Here is another temple, still standing, that overlooks the shopping precinct.

We finished our time in Greece with a spot of souvenir shopping in Corinth.

Capturing the fort Spartan style.

We’re going to wear these helmets to the Presbyterian Assembly when we’re all grown up.

And then caught the slow boat to Turkey.

We’re all feeling slightly more angelic as a result of our time treading the footsteps of Paul.

Turkey feels like being back in the first world, Greece, thanks to the Global Financial Crisis, is a country of empty billboards and layabout retirees sitting in cafes. The economy is stagnant. It feels like a first world country slipping into the third world.