New Testament 102: What’s going on at the Areopagus (Part One)

There are some moments when you sit in a lecture with our principal Bruce Winter and you just go “aha.” For me, one of these moments came when he was talking about Acts 17, Paul’s speech at the Areopagus. The New Testament is clearly a product of its time and culture. Reading a little bit of Greek philosophy (which for some reason I was last week – actually, it was for a Church History essay) you see how the ideas of Christianity interacted with the ideas of the surrounding culture (and not just in church fathers like Augustine and Clement, but also in the New Testament). Paul is clearly conversant with Greek philosophy – he interacts with, and cites, Stoic and Epicurean ideas while he’s in the marketplace, and later while standing in front of the Areopagus on, or beneath, Mars Hill.

Paul in the Marketplace (Agora)

Garland’s Introducing New Gods suggests that Athens was of vital importance for the introduction of new gods into Greek culture. Gods introduced in Athens would become trendy throughout the region. He suggests the marketplace was the best place to introduce new gods to Athens, because it was the public square. It was the Facebook of the first century. Luke makes a similar statement in Acts 17.

16Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was(AA) provoked within him as he saw that the city was(AB) full of idols. 17So(AC) he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. 18Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also conversed with him. And some said,(AD) “What does this babbler wish to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities“—because(AE) he was preaching(AF) Jesus and the resurrection. 19And they took him and brought him to(AG) the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this(AH) new teaching is that you are presenting? 20For you bring some(AI) strange things to our ears. We wish to know therefore what these things mean.” 21Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.

Paul’s presence in the marketplace piques the interest of the Areopagus – a gathering of the city’s political leaders. Aristotle said the Areopagus was a place for serious discussions (and nothing silly). Athenian politics seems to have been split between the Council of 600, the Areopagus, and the Boule (a representative council of the Demos (citizens)). Each had different roles to play in governing and different responsibilities in the social, economic, religious, and political spheres. The marketplace was the heart of the city. The Bouleterion (the place where the Boule met) was in the middle of the marketplace, and Bruce argues that it is likely the Areopagus actually met there rather than on the rather uncomfortable rocky outcrop Mars Hill (for my reflections from Mars Hill see this post). Garland suggests anybody looking to bring a new God onto the Greek scene could start in no better place than the Agora:

“A convenient forum in which to advertise the benefits of a new god and hence to drum up popular support would have been a public meeting place such as the Agora, the civic, administrative and commercial heart of the city and a popular venue for all those who wished to exchange ideas.”

In his article On Introducing Gods to Athens: An Alternative Reading of Acts 17:18-20 (PDF), Bruce adopts Garland’s research into how new gods were introduced into Athenian culture, and texts about the role of the Areopagus in consecrating and introducing the Imperial Gods into Athens (he follows a guy named Geagan who wrote a book called The Athenian Constitution After Sulla) to conclude that one of the responsibilities of the Areopagus (alongside the Demos and the Council of 600 (it seems, as I’m trying to cobble together a few views, that the Areopagus set the agenda for the Demos and functioned as Athen’s Boule)) was to introduce new gods into the Greek Pantheon (a view supported by ancient literature – including Aeschylus’ Eumenides (see this work by Kauppi), and that Paul was invited before the Areopagus so they could consider adopting his God, and that such an introduction needed to cover certain areas of concern.

Bruce, following Garland (and to an extent the work of a guy named Barnes who established the role of the Areopagus) says these criterion were:

  1. Had there really been an epiphany of the divinity?
  2. Was official recognition to be given?
  3. What divine honours and statues would be appropriate?
  4. When would the annual official feast day be?

Bruce, following Garland, suggests those introducing a god also had to buy consecrated land to build a temple, build an altar for sacrifices and host an annual feast day, he argues that Paul’s presentation before the Areopagus specifically addresses these points. He shows that the Lukan account is laced with terminology to suggest this reading, for example, when the Athenians suggest Paul is a “herald of foreign divinities” the Greek word is the same used for one who introduces new Gods into the Pantheon (it’s also the word used for the priests of the Imperial Cult).