Would you have gone to hear Paul again after this?

Signpost for Sunday 25 May 2014, 6th of Easter: Acts 17:22-31; Ps 66:8-20; 1 Pet 3:13-22; John 14:15-21

The Lectionary rather stroppily says, “The reading from Acts must be used every week during Eastertide.” So this week I thought we better have a look at it.

Although Paul’s the one who more than any disciple took Christ to the Gentiles, he only speaks exclusively to a non-Jewish audience twice in Acts (despite the fact that the book is predominantly a report of his wanderings). The first time he’s not so much preaching as talking his way out of an embarrassing situation in Lystra (Acts 14:15-17). Then here he is in Athens and quite deliberately out to ‘convert’ the Greeks.

I’ve heard one or two sermons from vicars who say that this passage shows what a great orator and rhetorician Paul is, how cleverly he takes on the Greek philosophers of the day. They sometimes suggest it’s a good model for what Peter is talking about this week (1Peter 3:15). But it’s not really.

Here we are on the Areopagus, an ancient court of appeal that had become the favourite place for the intelligentsia to hang out. At least two groups of smarty pants were there that day: Epicureans and Stoics. Both schools of thought had been around since about 300 B.C.E. They thought they knew a thing or two.

The ones who call Paul a babbler (Acts 17:18) are almost certainly the Epicureans because they were very much against traditional religion, and one source (Lucian of Samosata who lived 125 – 180 CE) tells us that the Epicureans were keen on exposing religious charlatans.

The Stoics, on the other hand, were the more “religious” ones. They were interested in providence and spiritual matters. (Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus were Stoics.)

So verse 22 would have sounded interesting to some of them and rather sarcastic to others. Then Paul says he knows who their ‘unknown god’ is. And this where it all gets a bit tricky. It may all seem very clever to us, but at least some of these Greeks would have spotted some flawed logic. The concept of a ‘creator deity’ wouldn’t be too much of a problem because it was not unknown in ancient Greece, and the idea that God doesn’t need anything from humans (Acts 17:25) reflects exactly what Euripedes says in ‘Heracles’, apparently. I’ve even discovered that Plutarch wrote, “It is Zeno’s teaching that one should not build temples of the gods.” So far so good.

But then (Acts17:26-27) Paul leads the Greeks a merry dance from ‘one nation of men’ to ‘seeking the one and only god’. Is this still the unknown god? Paul is on a roll and he wants them to roll with him. He’s hoping their minds will jump seamlessly (as he does) from a faint echo of their Platonic notion of the “one” and the “many” to the Judeo Christian notion of the “one man” Adam, from whom the human race descended and the one God whose children we all are.

And now his whole argument pivots on 17:28 and a quote from one of their own poets which ends, “For we too are his offspring.”

Paul doesn’t tell us which poet, but scholars reckon it is probably the Stoic poet, Aratus. They believe Paul is referring to the first five lines of one of the most popular poems at the time, Phaenomena, which translates as this:

“Let us begin with Zeus, whom we mortals never leave unspoken.
For every street, every market-place is full of Zeus.
Even the sea and the harbour are full of this deity.
Everywhere everyone is indebted to Zeus.
For we are indeed his offspring …”

Quite a well-known god, Zeus. I wonder what the Greeks thought. And clearly Paul doesn’t mean Zeus is the same as YHWH.

By the end Paul’s purpose has become clear: he is not revealing the true identity of an unknown god at all. Interestingly Paul picks up only two actual converts – Dionysius and Damaris. He’s usually much more successful than that. He’s certainly way more successful in the Greek city of Corinth, but he does start with the Jewish community there.

I leave the last little surprise to John C. Holbert, Emeritus Professor at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, Texas. He says that far from being a model of how someone might debate about Christianity, Acts 17:22-31 “is nothing less than hegemony, served up as a supposed dialogue. Yet, there can be no real dialogue with those with whom we do not agree unless we can imagine that we have as much to learn from our partners as we have to teach them. I can appreciate Paul’s deep passion for the gospel of Jesus, but in our day of vast numbers of non-Christians and anti-Christians, if we are to find ways to live with one another, we simply cannot follow this way of Paul on the Areopagus. On that way, we will find only bigotry and death, as subsequent Christian history has made all too apparent.”

I tend to agree. How about you?


P.S. You can read more of what John C. Holbert has to say here.


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