Paul at Athens
Peter explains why he wrote the book:
Since becoming a Christian aged 20, I was concerned at the way the Gospel of Jesus was being presented. It was too often seen as a self-authenticating truth, with no need to show people it was true. It was like giving the punch-line of a joke but without the story, and it wasn't surprising to me that many people didn't 'get it'. Yet when you really engage with people and address their 'life' questions, Jesus becomes the powerful and fascinating figure he has always been. So it is not that peope have weighed Jesus in the balance and found him wanting. It is rather that they have never really put him on the scales. The aim of my book is to help people do just that.
compulsory reading for all thinking Christians who desire to be interesting, engaging and effective in their witness to Christ
- Richard Cunningham
Richard Cunningham, Director of UCCF:The Christian Unions describes it as a "gem of a book that grips heart, mind and imagination from the first page to the last. It should be compulsory reading for all thinking Christians who desire to be interesting, engaging and effective in their witness to Christ. I commend it wholeheartedly."
William Edgar, Professor of Apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary and Director of the Gospel and Culture Project summarises: "This is a marvellous book", adding that the "treatment of Acts 17, 1 Corinthians, the Sophists, Barth, etc., is masterful."
Bruce Winter, Research Fellow in Ancient History, Macquarie University & former Warden of Tyndale House Centre for Biblical Research, Cambridge says that he was "much impressed by Peter May’s excellent book. He has done a sterling job. I have not read a book which combines the Biblical mandate of reason with ‘gentleness and respect’ so well together. This is essential reading for all Christians."
The following is an extract from Chapter 6 of the book.
Paul at Athens
In the opening paragraph of Escape from Reason, Francis Schaeffer's critique of twentieth-century culture, he wrote this:
If a man goes overseas for any length of time, we would expect him to learn the language of the country to which he is going. More than this is needed, however, if he is really to communicate with the people among whom he is living. He must learn another language – that is the thought-forms of the people to whom he speaks. Only so will he have real communication with them and to them.
When Paul went to Athens (see Acts 17:16-34), he clearly engaged with their thought-forms and beliefs, yet the charge is often made that Paul regretted this approach. His philosophical presentation to the Council of the Areopagus is said to have been 'unsuccessful'. Critics say that he had flattered their intellects and subsequently adopted a very different and more spiritual approach when he moved on to Corinth. Paul's difficulties at Corinth are certainly intriguing, but in order to understand them, we must first examine Luke's account of what happened when Paul spoke to the Athenian philosophers.
Paul was a Roman citizen, born in Tarsus, then the capital of the Roman province of Cilicia, in what is nowadays southern Turkey. This trading centre at the mouth of the river Cydnus is where Cleopatra met and captivated Mark Anthony in 41 BC. Plutarch described the extraordinary scene with multitudes lining the riverbanks as she sailed in, dressed as Venus reclining beneath a canopy of gold. Boys dressed as cupids cooled her with their fans, while silver oars dipped in time to the music of flutes, pipes and lutes. It was also an important intellectual centre, with its own academy. Its library once held 200,000 books and the tutor to the Roman emperor Augustus studied there. By Paul's own account, Tarsus was 'no mean city' (Acts 21:39 KJV)!
We don't know when Paul left Tarsus but he probably began his classical education there, before completing it under Gamaliel in Jerusalem (Acts 22:3). It familiarised him with the teachings of both Epicurean and Stoic philosophers, which equipped him later to engage with the philosophers of Athens.
A memorable event
Why should we believe that Luke presents anything like an accurate summary of Paul's address to the Council of the Areopagus? Firstly, this was not just another talk which Paul gave. This was special. Athens was the intellectual capital of the empire; it was the Oxford University of its day. Here was a strategic opportunity to speak to the movers and shakers of the academic world. Given such an opportunity to speak, who wouldn't remember what he said? And Luke had plenty of opportunity to ask Paul about it. They sailed together to Rome, were shipwrecked on the island of Malta and had to spend the rest of the winter there (Acts 27:1-28:16). Knowing Paul would face trial in Rome, Luke would have been concerned to assemble documentation to be submitted in his defence – and the serious consideration he received at Athens might influence his reception in Rome.
This was special. Athens was the intellectual capital of the empire
Whether Paul was frogmarched from the Athenian marketplace to the Areopagus or had time to collect his thoughts, we do not know. Was he required to seek their approval of his teaching? There is no reference to formalities, a prosecutor, interrogation or a verdict. He seems to have been free to come or go.
Did he have a list of the key points he wished to present, scribbled on the 'back of an envelope', or whatever was the first-century equivalent of a postcard bought in the marketplace? Or did he just remember the headline issues subsequently? We shall unpack the content in a moment, but according to Luke, there were ten clear headings for his talk (Acts 17:22-31).
Paul's ten 'Bullet Points'
- Introductory compliments, verse 22
- The unknown God, verse 23
- The transcendent Creator, verse 24
- The sustaining God, verse 25
- Human unity and equality, verse 26
- Seeking and finding, verse 27
- The immanence of God, verses 27, 28
- Man made in his likeness, verse 29
- Morally accountable, verse 30
- Righteous judgement by the risen Christ, verse 31
Luke intends this to be seen as a model example of how Paul addressed the pagan world
Furthermore, the points that Luke recorded – and wrote as prose – are consistent with Paul's classical education, his theological writings (especially Romans 1-3), the record of his brief address to the pagan farmers of Lystra (Acts 14:14-18) and his deconstruction of ideas raised up against the knowledge of God at Corinth (2 Corinthians 10:5). In the light of these, the broad sweep of his Athenian address feels entirely right!
And let us also be clear that Luke makes no suggestion at all that Paul regretted his approach to the philosophers. Rather, he offers it as a classic example of Paul's preaching to non-Jews, a model for other Christians to emulate (which, indeed, they did). It is his only sermon addressed to non-Jews, which Luke outlined in careful detail. It is clearly not Luke's 'best guess' of what he thought Paul might have said.
That, anyway, is the natural reading of Acts. To imply that Luke recorded his synopsis of the Athenian speech as an example of how not to do evangelism – and then simply forgot to say so – makes Luke look very foolish. It is quite implausible. Surely, Luke intends this to be seen as a model example of how Paul addressed the pagan world.
Now we need to put this address into its context. Paul had already been engaging with both Epicurean and Stoic philosophers in the marketplace and the thrust of what he had been saying to them was focused on Jesus and the resurrection (Acts 17:18ff). This clearly intrigued them. They apparently thought he was advocating more foreign gods, like their popular god Isis from Egypt, and presumably two of them – 'Jesus' and 'Anástasis', where 'resurrection' was assumed to be a Greek name. And it was on this basis that they invited him to give a presentation of 'this new teaching' to the Council of the Areopagus. Here, Paul had the opportunity to give them an ordered presentation of his thinking.
We do not know how many people made up the council. If it was anything like the Roman senate, it would include philosophers, magistrates, lawyers, politicians, administrators and civic leaders. We don't know if this was a formal gathering or whether, like the Roman senate, it included a public audience. It seems that Dionysius was a council member and a woman named Damaris was also in attendance. Anyway, Paul addressed the assembly as 'People of Athens...'.
To appreciate what Paul said, and how it engaged with his hearers, we need to understand a little of what the Epicureans and Stoics actually believed.
for Epicureans ... there was nothing to fear – but there was also nothing to hope for
Epicurus was a Greek philosopher who lived 300 years before Christ. Ethically, he was a 'consequentialist', believing good actions are ones that result in pleasure. This moral code allowed everyone to 'do their own thing' as long as it did not interfere with the happiness of others. People were free to make their own decisions on this basis. As this was their vision for the common good, Epicureans tended to be detached from wider society. They had a reputation for not caring about other people. They believed in gods who were remote and also didn't care, though they were critical of popular, superstitious religion. They did not need these gods and did not think the gods were at all interested in them. Death was the end. They did not believe anything followed it, so they would not be held to account for the way they lived. Consequently, there was nothing to fear – but there was also nothing to hope for. Life was a matter of chance and the aim was to enjoy it while it lasted or until your luck ran out.
Stoicism was propounded by Zeno, who lived at the same time as Epicurus. He saw the material world itself as having a 'soul' which determined, in a fatalistic way, the events of life. God was contained within creation and there was nothing of God outside of it. This 'pantheistic' view encouraged people to come to terms with the way the world is. Contentment could only be found in 'going with the flow' and accepting the way things were. This resulted in an emotionally detached rationalism, and there was no personal God to appeal to.
So both the Epicureans and the Stoics looked down upon the superstitious religious beliefs of the population at large. In modern terms, the Epicureans saw life as a lottery where you take your chances, while the Stoics were fatalists, seeing nature as an impersonal force which determines our destinies. The Epicureans focused on living for pleasure, while the Stoics gritted their teeth and accepted their fate. Superstition, chance and fatalism are common creeds all over the world today.
Paul's opening statements
If you have done any public speaking, you will know how important your opening sentences are. Will they engage with your listeners or antagonise them? Greek orators were expected to start with complimentary comments about each city they visited. Paul had been provoked by the idolatry he had observed in the city, and used that as his starting point, but in a positive way. Instead of attacking them, he affirms and commends them for their interest in religion. It was a tactful start, albeit with a hint of irony. He then skilfully gets underway using one of the objects of their worship, an altar he had observed 'To the unknown god'. This was a great introduction, because it was both intriguing and also underscored his central message that God has, in fact, made himself known.
Paul fundamentally inverted their viewpoint
But the God he was proclaiming was not a man-made god, who lived in a man-made temple. He did not need our help, protection or service. This is the God who made the entire world and everyone in it! He is entirely self-sufficient. He does not need us, but we are utterly dependent on him. This fundamentally inverted their viewpoint. We did not make him but he made us, giving us life, breath and everything. This was not just another demigod for their pantheon, but the God of all gods. Neither was he a regional god, such as Diana of the Ephesians, but the God of everyone because he created everyone.
This meant that all people in every nation have the same origin in creation. But this idea was contrary to their thinking, for the Athenians thought that they were a distinct and superior race, sprung from the soil of Attica, the peninsula of which Athens was the capital. Paul's God made every nation from a common ancestry, allocating their times and places – all the boundaries in which people live. As a result, everyone has an equal standing before God, who has no racial favourites.
So Paul comes alongside their religiosity but distances himself from their central ideas. The reason God made people was not that they might serve him 'as if he needed anything'. They were right to be religious but this inner yearning was given for a purpose – that they might seek after God and personally come to know him. This God of gods, unlike the pantheistic view of the Stoics, is personal and transcends everything he has created. Yet he is not remote. Contrary to the Epicurean view, which held that God was unapproachable, unknowable and disinterested, he is immanent, meaning that he is very close to each of us. Paul illustrated this, not by quoting the Old Testament (such as Isaiah 57:15) but by quoting a poem by Epimenides of Crete (c.600 BC), 'For in him we live and move and have our being.'
Made in his likeness
Instead of quoting Genesis 1, Paul quotes from the Stoic poet Aratus
Paul now makes an appeal to our divine origins. We come from God, God does not come from us nor is he to be found in the material world. 'As some of your own poets have said, "We are indeed [God's] offspring".' Instead of quoting Genesis 1, Paul quotes from the Stoic poet Aratus, who lived around 300 BC, although it may have had a pantheistic meaning for the Greeks. Paul uses it as a stepping stone to confront them with the absurdity of thinking that God is a figment of artistic imagination, like the gold, silver or stone gods that he found all over the city. Not only were these gods made by the art and craft of human design, but the superstitious Greeks believed that the gods became embodied in their artwork and empowered it. As a result it was common for Roman homes across the Greco-Roman empire to have shrines, often with statuettes in miniature temples, at which the owners would pray each day. Gods are not made by people in human likeness, but the creator God made people in his divine likeness. We bear the family resemblance of God. We are his offspring, not the other way around. Their idolatry was the product of ignorance, and the God Paul proclaims calls everyone to turn away from such wilful foolishness and humble themselves before their Creator, who will also be their judge.
Did Paul really introduce the concept of judgement so abruptly? This was surely another 'bullet point' heading that he reported to Luke. Presumably Paul would have developed the idea of us being God's offspring along the lines of the opening chapters of his letter to the Romans (see Romans 1:28-2:16). This would have highlighted the moral otherness of God, revealed to human conscience. He shows no favouritism but calls everyone in every nation to turn away from both folly and wickedness. Why? Because God has revealed himself in the righteous person of Christ, whom he has appointed to be our judge and has assured us of this by raising him from the dead.
Had Paul finished or was he prevented from saying anymore? Presumably there was a great deal he could have said about Christ if he had had the opportunity. It is difficult to imagine that he mentioned the resurrection without describing Christ's death for our sins, which Paul understood to be of central importance (1 Corinthians 15:3-5). Luke's account suggests that the meeting broke up, not because he spoke of Christ's death, but because of Paul's claim that God had raised him from the dead.
If we want to know where we stand before God, we must look long and hard into the face of Jesus Christ
This idea that God will judge the world in righteousness was an altogether novel concept for Greek minds to contemplate. The myths surrounding the Greek gods suggest there was hardly a kind or righteous thought to be found among them. Violent, jealous, greedy and capricious, they inflicted their hatred upon one another in the most unpredictable and shocking manner. There was no integrity, consistency or justice to be found among them. They sulked and schemed against each other and performed the most spiteful revenge. Paul was proclaiming a God who was quite unlike any of the Greek gods. Here was a loving God of upright, consistent moral character, who will call us all to account and judge the entire world with justice. And if we want to know what he is like, we must look at the moral stature of the 'man he has appointed' to carry out that judgement. If we want to know where we stand before God, we must look long and hard into the face of Jesus Christ.
We don't know how long Paul took to unpack these great truths, summarised by Luke in just a few sentences, but his audience had had to come a very long way in a short time! They did not believe that the gods, which they represented with their own artistic skills, had created the universe, nor were they paragons of virtue. They believed that Mother Earth had arisen out of a dark void and created the gods. Now Paul was calling them to face the true and the living God, who created the earth and everything in it, who was calling them all to repentance and faith because they faced a just and righteous judgement before Christ.
These new ideas were quite radical. Not surprisingly, some mocked him, others wanted to hear more, but some believed him and became Christians that day. Here was a stunning address, sensitively shaped for his audience, drawing on Paul's knowledge of their culture, philosophy and literature, engaging deeply with Greek thought but faithfully proclaiming the risen Christ. It was real communication in language they understood.
Paul did not quote the Bible to them; it was an authority they did not recognise
'But surely,' the critics say, 'the results speak for themselves. Hardly anyone was converted at Athens. In fact, they ridiculed him.' (Acts 17:32)
It is true that his message met with mixed results; it always does! It did so in Iconium, Lystra, Thessalonica, Corinth and Ephesus (Acts 14:4-6; 14:19; 17:5; 18:12; 19:23ff). Same message – same results. In Athens, some mocked him – but others were keen to ask him back. 'We want to hear you again on this subject', they said. I have given some pretty awful talks in my life, but when I get invited back, I assume the previous one must have gone down rather well. Furthermore, if I had been bored or irritated by someone else's talk, the last thing I would do is to invite him back. That is like saying, 'Hit me again, please!'
But while some were interested in Paul's address, an unknown number of others were clearly converted, two of whom Luke names. There would be little point in naming them if Luke's readers had never heard of them. The implications are that Dionysius the Areopagite and the woman Damaris were either notable figures in Athens or became prominent workers in the church. Dionysius was probably both those things. Writing 250 years later, Roman historian Eusebius records that Dionysius became the first Bishop of Athens. If that is true, it would justify Luke in recording his name.
Three groups of people, the pantheistic Stoics, the pleasure-seeking Epicureans and the superstitious populace heard Paul's presentation of the Christian God. It engaged with, and yet profoundly disturbed, each of them. Paul did not quote the Bible to them; it was an authority they did not recognise. They were inevitably ignorant of the Hebrew Scriptures and had no access to them. Yet, drawing on their own knowledge of humanity and culture, Paul proclaimed the God revealed in Christ and the Hebrew Scriptures. His audience then fell into three very different groups, each presumably a mixture of the initial groups, some of whom mocked, some of whom wanted to hear more and some of whom became Christians.
Then Paul moved on to Corinth.
 Francis Schaeffer, Escape from Reason (London: Inter-Varsity Fellowship, 1968), p.7.
 Plutarch, Life of Anthony, para 26, p.293. Translated by I.Scott-Kilvert (London: Guild Publishing, 1993).
 Paul Barnett, Paul, Missionary of Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008), p.35.
© 2016 Peter May