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There was a time when sincere religion was widely practiced in the Western world, and even if an individual didn’t truly believe, he or she would usually at least pay lip service to and show respect for the Christian faith in general. Knowledge of the Bible was widespread (taught in schools), often quoted in literature, and nearly everyone had sufficient education in the Bible that they could appreciate and understand even subtle allusions to the same.
That time has long since ceased to be. We live in an increasingly secularized and post-modern world, in which (theoretically) we have a diversity of thought and opinion, all of which is considered “authentic” to the persons holding those views. Instead of some form of Christianity holding sway, we have a multitude of religious beliefs from a variety of sources, and many people who profess to have no religion whatsoever. Biblical literacy is at an all time low. In fact, our world has become much more like that of ancient Rome, which had massive pluralism, a bewildering variety of gods and goddesses, philosophies who reinterpreted the gods as principles of nature and metaphors of various types, and in which the state expected certain norms of behavior in conformity to its rule, the lines which no one could cross despite the vast amount of diversity in other areas.
In Acts 17:16-34, we have the apostle Paul preaching the gospel in this context, in ancient Athens. Athens had long since fallen from her glory days and become the equivalent of a “university city” a city in the Roman Empire where people traveled to learn philosophy and rhetoric. What I would like us to consider is not only the fact that Paul courageously proclaims the gospel but precisely how he does so. His sermon here is quite different from those he preaches when in a Jewish context, and those differences are highly significant and provide a model for the church’s interaction with the modern world in which we find ourselves. We will look at how the apostle Paul and his message is initially perceived, and then how Paul responds to those perceptions. I give the passage in full in the UASV but have put in bold specific vocabulary and phrases to be discussed. The vocabulary involved, quite different from what the rest of the NT uses, is quite significant and helps us better understand what Paul is doing in this passage. So let’s dig a little deeper!
Acts 17:16-34 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
Paul at Athens
16 Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols. 17 So he was reasoning in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Gentiles, and in the market place every day with those who happened to be there. 18 And certain ones of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers were conversing with him. Some were saying, “What would this idle babbler wish to say?” Others, “He seems to be a proclaimer of strange deities,” because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection. 19 And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? 20 For you are bringing some strange things to our ears; so we want to know what these things mean.” 21 (Now all the Athenians and the strangers visiting there used to spend their time in nothing other than telling or hearing something new.)
Paul Addresses the Areopagus
22 So Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus and said, “Men of Athens, I observe that you are very religious in all respects. 23 For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription: ‘To the unknown god.’ Therefore, what you are unknowingly worshipping, this I proclaim to you. 24 The God who made the world and all things in it, he being Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands, 25 nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. 26 and he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation, 27 that they should seek God, if they might grope for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us, 28 for by him we have life and move and exist, even as some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are also his offspring.’
29 Being then the children of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and design of man. 30 Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent, 31 because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the inhabited earth in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”
32 Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked, but others said, “We will hear you concerning this also again.” 33 So Paul went out from among them. 34 But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them.
Our text sets the scene well. Paul has arrived in Athens, sees that the city is “idolatrous” (κατείδωλον, kateidōlon) and sets about to correcting that deficiency. He not only interacts with Jews in the city, but significantly with everybody else as well, and this catches the attention of the philosophers, particularly the Stoics and Epicurians, who are sufficiently intrigued to pursue what Paul is saying further. The vocabulary they use in response gives us great insight into how they perceive Paul and his message. How do they describe Paul?
He is a “babbler. The Greek word is σπερμολόγος, spermologos, originally used to describe birds hunting for seeds, in this context a ‘word-picker.” It’s generally pejorative, and implies a kind of random approach, combining words in a way that doesn’t make much sense. This is the word’s only occurrence in the NT.
He is a “preacher of foreign divinities.” The Greek for preacher here is καταγγελεύς, katangeleus, simply a herald who announced the games or one who proclaims anything. I suspect it also might be pejorative, but the word doesn’t appear in enough contexts to be sure, and it could also likely be simply a neutral term. This word also only appears here in the NT. Here the object is ξένων δαιμονίων, xenōn daimoniōn “strange divinities.” This also is not the normal word for “gods” or idols” used in the NT, but in the broader Greek literature, we see it used quite frequently in this general sense.
So what are these philosophers doing? They are interpreting Paul and his message through their own grid, their own worldview, steeped in pagan literary associations and philosophy. This leads them to an essentially negative view of what Paul is saying, though they are sufficiently intrigued to want to understand more. It’s the same in our time – we cannot assume that our hearers will hear what we want them to hear when we proclaim the gospel. They may, and often will, hear it in their own context putting it through the filters of their own worldview.
Paul’s response is nothing short of brilliant. He essentially turns the tables on them, using vocabulary and literary citations familiar to his audience, yet reinterpreting them into the biblical worldview. Let’s have a look.
Paul first describes the Athenians as “very religious.” The Greek is δεισιδαιμονεστέρους, deisidaimonesterous. This is a nicely ambiguous well-chosen term that can mean either “very devout” in a positive sense or “very superstitious” in a more negative sense. The Athenians almost certainly took it as positive, but there’s still that underlying idea that the religious pursuits of the Athenians are very wrong, and that correction is in order. It makes a very nice lead in to the main points that Paul wants to make.
“Objects of worship” translates one Greek word, σεβάσματα, sebasmata. The normal NT term for these would be “idols” (εἴδωλα, eidōla) which throughout the Bible carries a universally negative sense. The term Paul uses is strictly neutral and so would be heard by the Athenians.
As he wanders about the city, Paul finds something truly fascinating, an “altar… to an unknown god.” This of course reflects the thoroughly pagan worldview of a multitude of gods (actually many more than the usual pantheon reflected in the Greek mythology usually read today, which are really sanitized versions for children).
Do you see what Paul is doing? By using ambiguous and neutral terminology, a language familiar to those he’s addressing, he avoids directly offending his listeners while at the same time establishing a connection with them. Further, he is not reactive, but interactive. In line with Jesus’ prayer that his followers be in the world but not of it, Paul wastes nothing. He engages and seeks understanding without approving precisely so that he can engage his interlocutors (a person who takes part in a dialogue or conversation) fully.
Paul then enters into his main argument beginning with creation. This kind of approach would be familiar his audience, most of whom would be familiar with Hesiod’s Theogony and with Homer’s epic poems, which provided the mythological framework for their version of the world’s creation and various facts about the gods and their lineage. Paul essentially demythologizes the subject and focuses on the truth of the creator, the implied obligations between humanity and the one true God as creator, culminating in redemption (which is a form of re-creation).
But our focus here is not so much on the exact argument Paul uses, and as important as that is another full article (indeed whole books) could be devoted to it. Here we are looking at how Paul establishes and validates his connection with his audience. Above I mentioned his audience’s familiarity with the Greek poets. Paul, however directly quotes two different poets with which his audience was likely familiar. “In him we live and move and have our being” is likely a quote from a poet named Epimenides, about whom we actually know very little. The second, “For we are indeed his offspring” hails from the poet Aratus, line 5 from his work on astronomy called the Phaenomena. These poets are later than Hesiod and Homer and are not widely read even by classicists these days, but they were very popular to the ancients contemporary with Paul. Paul’s use of these poets supplies a yet deeper connection. He not only proves that he is conversant in their literature, but also that he can cite content that supports his point. While we have no context for the Epimenides fragment, it is clear that Aratus in lines 1-5 id referencing Zeus (and the comparison means it is probable that Epimenides was doing so as well). Has Paul then cited out of context? Not so much. In the developed philosophy of the time, Zeus is often used in a sense which approaches the monotheism of the biblical writers, more as the divine principle and “prime mover” than the practically (to us) cartoon version of the earlier poets and mythographers. Paul’s audience here would be fully conversant with this.
So what are the takeaways here? We see that Paul is not like many of his Jewish contemporaries in their outright rejection of pagan culture. Paul fully engages that culture without entering into it as a practitioner. This understanding enables him to communicate on a deeper level with his audience in the Areopagus, and we see a few verses later that the Spirit grants him a certain measure of success. How fully engaged are we with our culture? Do we have sufficient understanding that we can communicate with non-Christians on that deeper level, or do we essentially hide in our Christian subculture and expect those around us to come to use and understand the way we use our language and vocabulary? Can we really effectively speak the language of the larger culture around us? Doing so is an essential element in sharing the gospel, and it is incumbent on Christians to learn to do so. Paul became all things to all people so that he might win some. Can we do any less?