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St. Paul's Dialogue to the Philosophers


Paul's Sermon to the Areopagus



Introduction


In Acts 17, we read of Paul’s dramatic encounter with the Pagan philosophers and learned men of Athens atop of Mars Hill, or the Areios Pagos (1) as it would have been known to the Greek population. It is one of Paul’s most erudite discourses, in which divine revelation is pitted head to head against human rhetoric.


Let’s begin, however, with a brief historical overview. The Areopagus, as it is known in the English speaking world (though it is also referred to by its Romanized name, Mars Hill), is a rocky outcrop in Athens, situated in the shadow of the Acropolis. However, the name Areopagus, does not only refer to this landmark, but also, in Classical times, to a body of highly respected aristocrats who made up the governing and judicial council of Athens. It is suggested by Prof. Robert W. Wallace, in his book The Areopagus Council to 307 B.C., that criminal trials could have been held on the Areopagus as early as the 7th, or even the 8th century B.C. 


By the 5th century B.C. however, the Areopagus Council had been predominantly deprived of its governing powers by the reforms of democratic movements, particularly those led by Ephialtes. (2) Despite this reduction in political influence, the council remained the primary criminal and religious court in Athens, and its reputation in this role, is extolled by famous orators such as Lycurgus (3) and Demosthenes. (4)


It was before this judicial assembly, that, in 399 B.C., the philosopher Socrates was tried and condemned to death for corrupting the minds of youth by failing to acknowledge the gods of Athens and introducing new deities. (5) 


With this now in mind, we return to Paul’s arrival in Athens and the lead up to his historic discourse to the ‘professional thinkers’, ie the philosophers, scholars and officials of Athens.


Acts 17:16,17 “Now while Paul was awaiting them (Silas and Timothy) at Athens, his spirit was grieved and roused to anger as he saw that the city was full of idols.

So he reasoned and argued in the synagogue with the Jews and those who worshiped there, and in the marketplace [where assemblies are held] day after day with any who chanced to be there.”


It so happened, that Paul was soon discovered in the agora (6) or the city market, by both the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers. (7) Some of them, Luke records as having said, What is this babbler, with his scrap-heap learning, trying to say? I think that this analysis of Paul’s learning, or supposed lack thereof, was a little over hasty. As we are to see, they greatly underestimated this man from Tarsus and the God that stood behind him.


I Corinthians 1:24,25 “But to those who are called, whether Jew or Greek (Gentile), Christ [is] the Power of God and the Wisdom of God. [This is] because the foolish thing [that has its source in] God is wiser than men, and the weak thing [that springs] from God is stronger than men.”


The Speech


Returning to Acts - in verse 19, the philosophers took hold of Paul and brought him to the Areopagus. It is unclear whether Paul himself faced a legal assembly, as Socrates did almost five centuries earlier, or just a crowd eager for debate, but the very presence of Dionysius, named in verse 34 as a judge of the Areopagus, lends possible weight to the first hypothesis.


Acts 17:19-21 “And they took hold of him and brought him to the Areopagus [Mars Hill meeting place], saying, May we know what this novel (unheard of and unprecedented) teaching is which you are openly declaring?

For you set forth some startling things, foreign and strange to our ears; we wish to know therefore just what these things mean -

For the Athenians, all of them, and the foreign residents and visitors among them spent all their leisure time in nothing except telling or hearing something newer than the last.”


This Greek culture, which was centred on a perverse pride of the intellect, saturated much of Athenian society, especially as Athens itself was considered to be the epicentre of learning in the Ancient world. The philosophers of Athens, in their love for learning, pursued their own idea of wisdom and what wisdom could be, unaware that the pursuit of Christ alone provides the good and proper Wisdom for which they craved.


Greek philosophy, despite having influenced Western Christianity in many ways (8), relied heavily on human reason, rather than divine inspiration, and that is where it falls down. A dependence on our own intellect is a form of idolatry, and the Bible has much to say about it. One example can be found in…


Romans 8:6a “Now the mind of the flesh [which is sense and reason without the Holy Spirit] is death.”


Paul officially begins his dissertation to the assembly in verses 23 and 24.


“So Paul, standing in the centre of the Areopagus [Mars Hill meeting place], said: Men of Athens, I perceive in every way [on every hand and with every turn I make] that you are most religious.

For as I passed along and carefully observed your objects of worship, I came also upon an altar with this inscription, To the unknown god. Now what you are already worshiping as unknown, this I set forth to you.”


I think Paul was very astute in using this unknown god as an example to begin his discourse. Famous Greek philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle used the common term theos or a god in their texts to refer to an ambiguous divine ‘figure’. As we have already ascertained, the Greeks did not like things of which they knew little or nothing, so Paul purposely emphasized their own ignorance and proceeded to inform them of a God, that is the one true God, Whom they could know. 


Acts 17:24-27  “The God Who produced and formed the world and all things in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in handmade shrines.

Neither is He served by human hands, as though He lacked anything, for it is He Himself Who gives life and breath and all things to all [people].

And He made from one [common origin, one source, one blood] all nations of men to settle on the face of the earth, having definitely determined [their] allotted periods of time and the fixed boundaries of their habitation (their settlements, lands, and abodes),

So that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel after Him and find Him, although He is not far from each one of us.”


The idea of human purpose that Paul presents here would have seemed strange and alien to the Athenians, who believed that their own gods were remote from the cares of both men and the world. (9) The Greek gods were too preoccupied with living their own hedonistic lifestyle on Mount Olympus to be overly concerned with their human subjects, whereas the God of Paul is presented here as One Who loves mankind and wishes all humans to know Him.


Paul continues, and in what must have been a surprise to his audience, he quotes two Greek poets, Epimenides and Aratus in verse 28…


Acts 17:28 “For in Him we live and move and have our being (10); as even some of your [own] poets have said, For we are also His offspring (11).”


Here, Paul attempts to paint a picture of the Christian God to a centuries-old pagan civilization, using their own literature to confirm his position. Although both these poets were referring to the Greek god Zeus, in using these particular words, Paul chose to approach his audience in way that was familiar to them and so make the Gospel message understandable. It is important to note that he did this without compromising the truth of the Gospel.


Paul then proceeds to rebuke the Greeks, in verses 29-31, for their ignorant reverence to idols.


“Since then we are God's offspring, we ought not to suppose that Deity (the Godhead) is like gold or silver or stone, [of the nature of] a representation by human art and imagination, or anything constructed or invented.

Such [former] ages of ignorance God, it is true, ignored and allowed to pass unnoticed; but now He charges all people everywhere to repent ( to change their minds for the better and heartily to amend their ways, with abhorrence of their past sins),

Because He has fixed a day when He will judge the world righteously (justly) by a Man Whom He has destined and appointed for that task, and He has made this credible and given conviction and assurance and evidence to everyone by raising Him from the dead.”


When Paul reached the end of his dialogue, or was cut short (we do not know which), some of his listeners scoffed at hearing about the resurrection of Christ, while others said dismissively, We will hear you again about this matter. It is at this point we see the hesitancy of the Athenians to accept anything they could not understand or reason with in their minds. Again, in I Corinthians chapter 1, we read…


I Corinthians 1:22,23 “For while Jews [demandingly] ask for signs and miracles and Greeks pursue philosophy and wisdom,

We preach Christ (the Messiah) crucified, [preaching which] to the Jews is a scandal and an offensive stumbling block [that springs a snare or trap], and to the Gentiles it is absurd and utterly unphilosophical nonsense.”


What the Greeks did not understand was that knowledge alone does not constitute wisdom, but that true wisdom is born from a combination of knowledge, experience and Christian faith.


The Greeks were no doubt proud of the human wisdom their philosophers had developed over the centuries preceding Paul’s visit, and as a result, they were reticent to accept a doctrine different to that which they already knew. Paul’s dialogue was not a failure, however, and although no church was subsequently established in Athens, a number of his listeners believed, including a woman named Damaris and the Areopagite judge, Dionysius. (12)



Reconstruction of the Areopagus (foreground), with the Acropolis and Parthenon behind.


Legacy


Now, I ask the question, would Paul liken modern society to the Athenians, if he were to appear amongst us today? Paul would be equally as disgusted by the hedonistic and idolistic culture of our current world as he was of Athens’ temples and shrines nearly 2000 years ago. We live in a neo-pagan world in which the pride of man has reached its climax, so much so that people seek to be glorified above God and aspire to replace Him as creator. 


Paul’s sermon to the Athenians still remains a relevant source of inspiration for Christians today, who have to navigate a similar secular society. We all have a call upon our lives to disseminate the Gospel to the nations, regardless of the consequences in doing so. Paul was not fearful of the Areopagus or the philosophers who challenged him, but instead delivered a divinely inspired message with confidence and courtesy. Would to God that we could do the same if called to do so.


Mark 13:10,11 “And the good news (the Gospel) must first be preached to all nations.

Now when they take you [to court] and put you under arrest, do not be anxious beforehand about what you are to say nor [even] meditate about it; but say whatever is given you in that hour and at the moment, for it is not you who will be speaking, but the Holy Spirit.”


(All scripture is in AMP version, unless otherwise stated)


Notes:


(1).  Areios Pagos - literally translated as Hill of Ares, the Greek god of war. According to Greek mythology, Ares was himself put on trial here for the murder of Halirrhothius, one of Poseidon’s sons.

(2).  Ephialtes (died 461BC), Athenian politician and early leader of democracy.

(3).  Lycurgus (390-325BC), Athenian statesman and iconographer. Quote: “You have in the Council of the Areopagus, the finest model in Greece; a court so superior to others that even men convicted by it admit that its judgements are just.” (Lyc. 1.12)

(4).  Demosthenes (384-322BC), Athenian statesman and political orator.

(6).  Agora (Roman) literally defined as a gathering place or assembly from the Greek ἀγορά  meaning market or a central public place. (Wikipedia)

(8).  See Christian philosophers such as St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas.

(9).  Aristotle’s concept of God - Stanley Sfekas, Ph.D. (heptapolis.com)

(10).  Line 4, Cretica - Epimenides.

(11).  Line 5, Phenomena - Aratus.

(12).  Acts 17:34


Image Credits:

(1). Paul's Sermon to the Areopagus by Raphael (1515) - Wikipedia (Public Domain)

(2). Reconstruction of the Areopagus and Acropolis by Leo von Klenze (1846) - Wikipedia (Public Domain)

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