New Testament 102: What’s going on at the Areopagus (part two)

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).”

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).