Athens — Part 1

Paul’s Jewish pursuers have chased him out of Berea with their same old deadly threats.  His closest partners in ministry, Timothy and Silas, remain in Berea in spite of the circumstances.  Have you ever become confused over the plethora of gods in Greek mythology?  Paul is about to encounter them.

The City of Athens

Travel to Athens by sea culminated by arrival at Piraeus, the harbor city of Athens, across some five miles of low plains and scattered marshes.  We are some 400 years past the height of Athens’ glory, when the road between them was defended on both sides by a 60-foot high wall.  By Paul’s day the walls were in ruins, their stone blocks having been pirated away for other civic building projects.

Approached from the sea, all of this and more was clearly visible.  The city of Athens itself lay on the plains above the rocky coast and Piraeus, and the Acropolis (the location of the Parthenon, the Temple of Athena, and other buildings involved in the worship of Greek gods), all in the shadow of mighty snow-capped Mount Olympus, purported to be the home of the gods themselves.

Athens was the heart of two aspects of ancient Greece — its religion and its philosophy (unlike Corinth, which was is commercial center).  On entering the city gate, Paul was immediately confronted with statues of Minerva, Jupiter, Apollo, Mercury and the Muses.  At the end of this long, straight street, a right turn brings us into the Agora.  But unlike the agorae of other Greek cities, this is no common marketplace.  Instead it is encompassed by historical monuments, civic buildings, amphitheaters for political discussions, all under the watchful eye of the of the Acropolis on the hill above.  Conybeare and Howson state, “[The Agora] was the center of a glorious public life, when the orators and statesmen, the poets and the artists of Greece, found there all the incentives of their noblest enthusiasm; and still continued to be the meeting place of philosophy, of idleness, of conversation and of business… [The Agora] must not be conceived of as a great market (Acts xvii. 17), like the bare spaces in many modern towns, where little attention has been paid to artistic decoration, — but is rather to be compared to the beautiful squares of such Italian cities as Verona and Florence…” (p. 273).

Athens was the seat of high Greek religion, with places and objects to revere and worship any of the major or minor Greek gods that might be known.  In fact, it extended beyond the figures of historic heroes and mythical gods to the abstract — there were altars dedicated to piety, fame, modesty, energy, persuasion and pity.  Interestingly, it also harbored an element of openly-confessed religious ignorance, having at least one altar dedicated to the worship of any god that might not be known as well.  It was this altar that would form the basis of Paul’s argument in behalf of the One True God — the altar bearing the inscription, “TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.”  This was the public forum of Socrates, Plato, Homer, and of the Stoic and Epicurean schools of philosophy.

A word about these two schools of thought is pertinent before we launch into Luke’s historical account.  Stoicism holds that circumstances are meaningless (there is no good in pleasure, nor evil in pain), that greatness lies in self-denial, that matter and Deity were inseparable (much like Star Wars concept of “The Force”), that the plethora of Greek and all other gods was simply an attempt by this force at self-organization, and that death meant re-absorption into this force.  It held in disdain the statues of the gods as not something to be worshipped, but simple art.  Man lives by Reason, and in doing so, reigns supreme; as an extension of the force behind all things, he is himself a god.  Conybeare and Howson describe it as the Education of Pride, in contrast to Christianity’s School of Humility. (p. 284)

Epicureanism was quite the opposite.  It holds that the world arose by chance, not a self-organizing force, and that the Greek gods had no objective reality, but were just a convenient impression on the weak-minded — no more than the reality of a dream.  Fulfillment was found in consuming the world around them, a cherry ripe for the picking.  In denying the existence of the gods, they had no moral compass or sense of impending judgment.   Conybeare and Howson state, “[The Epicurean's] highest reach was to do deliberately what the animals do instinctively.  His highest aim was to gratify himself.” (p. 285)  At death — nothing.  Epicureanism was best epitomized by  Paul’s statement during his discourse, “eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.”   It was the ultimate materialism, and stands as much opposed to Christianity’s School of Humility as did that of the Stoics, as the Education of Pleasure.

This, then, is the culture and politic that surrounds Paul as he waits alone for Timothy and Silas to rejoin him.  Conybeare and Howson describe what must have been Paul’s frame of mind:  ”He was filled with anxious thoughts concerning those whom he had left in Macedonia, and the sense of solitude weighed upon his spirit.  Silas and Timotheus were not arrived, and it was a burden and a grief to him to be ‘left in Athens alone.‘  Modern travelers have often felt, when wandering alone through the streets of a foreign city, what it is to be out of sympathy with the place and the people.  The heart is with friends who are far off; and nothing that is merely beautiful or curious can effectually disperse the cloud of sadness.  If, in addition to this instinctive melancholy, the thought of an irreligious world, of evil abounding in all parts of society… also presses heavily on the spirit, — a state of mind is realised which may be some feeble approximation to what was experienced by the Apostle Paul in his hour of dejection.”  (p. 279)

Paul Arrives at Athens (Acts 17:15-21)

Please read each of the passages listed below in your own Bible before reading my comments!

v. 15 — Paul had not sailed alone.  This verse tells us that those who conducted him out of Berea to the coast also sailed with him to deliver him safely to Athens.  The implication is that having done so, they returned to Berea, leaving Paul alone in Athens.  Before returning, Paul asked them to tell Timothy and Silas to rejoin him as soon as they could.

v. 16 — Luke certainly can be succinct.  These few words describe what we have taken several paragraphs above to explain in more detail.  The Greek word that describes Paul’s spirit as “provoked” is paroxuneto, a contraction of para (beside) and oxus (sharpen).  While not a literal physical poking as with a goad, it represents the same effect in the emotions — pain of heart as if being poked with a sharp object by someone.  Today we would call it “pangs of heart”.  Paul uses the same word in the Love Chapter (I Corinthians 13:5) to describe what love does not require.  The author of Hebrews also uses this term to describe how believers should remind each other to show love and do good.  Acts 17:16 suggests that as Paul walked the streets, each new idol that came into view  poked him in the eye and produced another heart pang in him.  Today we are surrounded by a material culture with many reminders of its evil and darkness.  Do we feel pangs of the heart when we see them?

v. 17 — Athens was not without a Jewish synagogue, and as was Paul’s custom he began there, among both Jews and God-fearing gentiles.  But between sabbaths he also engaged daily those who came to the Agora which we have previously described in detail.

v. 18 — The two great schools of thought which we described previously had their representatives among those who were in attendance at the Agora, and word eventually got back to their leaders of a man who was talking about something they had never heard before.  Luke is not the only author of that day who describes those in the Agora as having come each  day in hopes of hearing exactly this — something they had never heard before.  It appears that Paul’s open-air message in the Agora was not significantly different from what he preached everywhere — Jesus and the resurrection from the dead.  On the one hand the response was he doesn’t make any sense  (“What are you trying to say, Paul?”), and on the other hand that he was talking about daimonion dokei (lit. “demonic gods”).  These would have fit the Epicurian and Stoic points of view respectively.

vv. 19-21 — They “took him” and “brought him” with what force we do not know, (the lack  of commotion in Luke’s description suggests that Paul went willingly) to the Areopagus.  This site is a rocky hill that sits above the Agora, slightly below the Acropolis.  In classical times 400 years before Paul’s day it was the site of the Greek “supreme court”, an impression which persisted with lesser authority under Rome to Paul’s day.  To the schools of philosophy, it would have represented the ultimate venue and final court of appeal for all things philosophical.  Recall that the Lord had appeared to Ananias to restore Paul’s sight, and that on hearing Ananias fears He had informed him that Paul was “a chosen instrument… to bear My name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel.”  (9:15)  When God makes arrangements, he makes the very best. Here above all other scenes to date was an appearance truly “before the Gentiles.”  This was tantamount to being invited to present his case on The Philosophers Channel with an audience of the Supreme Court in attendance.  These leaders of the various schools of philosophy wanted to hear it from “the horse’s mouth.”  (vv. 19-20)  The passage closes with Luke’s explanation of the motivation behind this occasion — the hearing of something new.

Next blog post — what Paul said to them.  Would his message change from what he usually presented in the synagogue?  He was speaking to a decidedly Gentile audience who had none of the background of Jewish history.  How could he reach out to such people?

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