Exegesis of Acts 17: 16-34

17:16 While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols. 17 So he argued in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and also in the market-placeevery day with those who happened to be there. 18 Also some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers debated with him. Some said, ‘What does this babbler want to say?’ Others said, ‘He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign divinities.’ (This was because he was telling the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.) 19 So they took him and brought him to the Areopagus and asked him, ‘May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? 20 It sounds rather strange to us, so we would like to know what it means.’ 21 Now all the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new.

22 Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, ‘Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. 23 For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, “To an unknown god.” What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. 24 The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, 25 nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. 26 From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, 27 so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. 28 For “In him we live and move and have our being”; as even some of your own poets have said,

“For we too are his offspring.”

29 Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. 30 While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31 because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged 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 When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some scoffed; but others said, ‘We will hear you again about this.’ 33 At that point Paul left them. 34 But some of them joined him and became believers, including Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris, and others with them.

(Acts 17: 16-34)

          This is “the fullest example of Paul’s missionary preaching to a certain kind of Gentile audience” (Witherington III, 1998, 511) giving us the best opportunity to see how Paul engaged with a specific Gentile audience. Our passage starts with Paul at a loose end in Athens, waiting for his companions; Timothy and Silas (Fitzmyer, 1998, 603). Whilst doing so he seems to have wondered, observing the city (Barrett, 2004, 827). 

          Athens was “the very naval of what was even in Paul’s day viewed as the ‘golden age’ of Greek culture and the location of unnumbered artistic marvels” (Pervo, 2009, 424)’ It was also, the home of Socrates and the adopted home of Zeno and Epicurus (Bruce, 1988, 329) giving it quite some credence. However despite this, it had none of the political power it once had (Witherington III, 1998, 513). However, considering Paul’s response (v 16), I doubt he was overly impressed with this “golden age”, or “artistic marvels”. One rendering of this verse picks up on the root of the word κατείδωλον to make a case for translating it a “veritable forest of idols”, a reading which picks up on the scale well (Barrett, 2004, 827). However, a reading that I think picks up on both the scale and the disgust for Paul is “the effluvia of idolatry” (Pervo, 2009, 424). Παρωξύνετο could mean a range of things, including pity for the failings of polytheism (Pervo, 2009, 426), but in the Septuagint it is used at God’s extreme anger at the idolatry of the chosen people, suggesting that Paul was furious with what he saw (Witherington III, 1998, 512). I think this latter translation is most likely. Just in case we were in any doubt, Luke uses Είδωλον (idols), a term that in classical usage “already denotes a lack of genuine existence, since it is employed for lifeless souls, for shadowy and deceptive images”, and was therefore preferred by Jews as both a differentiation with the true God, and as an attack on polytheism (Klauck, 2000, 75–76).

          Paul does his normal thing of going to debate in synagogues, but this time also headed to the Agora to reason with those that were there, which was not unusual in Athens (Pervo, 2009, 424-425). It is here that Paul runs into Epicurean and Stoic philosophers (v19) who begin to debate with him. They were clearly not impressed with his rhetoric, calling him a σπερμολόγος – metaphorically “a bird-brain devoid of method” (Pervo, 2009, 427). They also seem to misunderstand, thinking he is preaching polytheism. Luke explains that it was because Paul was preaching Jesus and the ἀνάστασιν (resurrection), whom they presumably understood to be Jesus’ female pair (Witherington III, 1998, 514; Barrett, 2004, 831; Fitzmyer, 1998, 605). It is even possible that they misheard ‘Jesus’ (Ἰησοῦς) as ‘healing’ (ἴασις), and therefore thought Paul was preaching divinized healing powers (Bruce, 1988, 331).

          Stoics and Epicureans were not the only philosophical schools in Athens and it therefore begs the question; why are they specifically mentioned? It is possible that they were the most influential at the period, particularly stoicism (Wright, 2013, 212), and engaged in what “one could call in modern language pastoral care” and therefore they were “the only serious rivals to Christianity in this field.” (Klauck, 2000, 77; Witherington III, 1998, 514). This may be behind Paul’s speech, but I think the reason that Luke singles them out here is to point us towards interpreting the speech through Stoic Philosophy (Barrett, 2004, 829).

          The Areopagus’ identity is greatly debated. Does Luke refer simply to the place i.e. Ares’ Hill (more commonly known as Mars’ Hill), or more specifically, to a council? (Pervo, 2009, 428; Witherington III, 1998, 515). Although the former is possible, most commentators tend to side with the latter (Pervo, 2009, 428; Witherington III, 1998, 515; Fitzmyer, 1998, 605-606; Winter, 2004, 4). However, there is a distinct lack of information about the role of the Areopagus council in this period (Winter, 1996, 89), but it seem likely that Paul is there for further discussion, not a trial (Klauck, 2000, 79). Before we hear Paul’s speech we are warned that the Athenians curiosity may not be as positive as it first seems, and that they may not take Paul as seriously as they ought, being only interested in curiosities (Pervo, 2009, 425; Witherington III, 1998, 517; Fitzmyer, 1998, 606).

In the speech we find that Paul critically assumes the assumptions of his audience whilst not compromising or hiding his own beliefs, meaning that in the end we find Hellenistic, Jewish and Christian thought. He particularly takes Stoic thought, which was the default position of the day  (Pervo, 2009, 430-431; Wright, 2013, 212). We even find Paul using an elevated style of prose[1], using “the idiomatic πίστιν παρασχὼν” within the expected rhetoric formula of Exordium, including Captatio Benevolentiae (22-23), Propositio (23b), Probatio (24-29) and Peroratio, including Insinuatio (30-31). The only thing missing is narration which Luke covers in v 18-19 (Pervo, 2009, 425, 432; Witherington III, 1998, 518). This is seemingly not an approach taken in the Agora, but perhaps he changes style for a more classically educated audience. Whatever the reason, what is clear is the “use of points of contact, familiar ideas and terms, in order to make a proclamation of monotheism in its Christian form”. (Witherington III, 1998, 518, 524).

Possibly the most famous part of this speech is Paul’s declaration’s about the Unknown god, which Paul used as a means “to meet the audience where they are”, which incidentally is how Paul first encountered Jesus (Pervo, 2009, 425). Paul was quite insistent that he was not introducing new gods, but rather “declaring the nature of the God whose presence they had already recognised with the erection of an altar to him.”(Winter, 1996, 89). This might be an attempt to avoid the fate of Socrates (see below), or simply to find a starting point from which to speak. Much is said regarding the use of the singular, ‘god’, as although a similar descriptions have been found in Pergamum, this was probably plural (Pervo, 2009, 433; Klauck, 2000, 82; Witherington III, 1998, 521), as well as literary evidence, such as Jerome’s “correction” in his commentary on Titus 1.12; Epist. 70 ad magnum (Pervo, 2009, 433; Witherington III, 1998, 522). However, lack of evidence is not the same as evidence. The fact that no altar with a singular inscription has yet to be found doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, and literary evidence is often vague, with the plural possibly referring to the alters, not the gods (Witherington III, 1998, 520-521). There are a number of plausible reasons how this statue could exist, including simply that it was an Ex Voto inscription (Pervo, 2009, 433) to a deity the benefactor didn’t know (Witherington III, 1998, 523). It was also known that when statues were damaged in war or disaster, they would be repaired and re-used. But what if the statue and inscription were so damaged as to be unrecognisable? Is it not reasonable to imagine that the statue might be rededicated “TO AN UNKNOWN GOD”? (Bruce, 1988, 336; Witherington III, 1998, 522). It is also suggested that the argument over God/gods inscription is misplaced as Paul’s hearers would happily use either interchangeably (Winter, 2004, 5) In fact, stoic pantheism saw itself as a modern version of pantheism, viewing what others saw as different deities as different facets of one God (Wright, 2013, 217), a clear foundation for the introduction of Paul’s monotheism. Is it perhaps this that Paul was playing on here? Whatever the reason, the intent is clear: they confessed their ignorance of the divinity, so Paul would tell them the truth (Bruce, 1988, 336).

In vv 24-29 we see Paul express some natural theology (Barrett, 2004, 840; Witherington III, 1998, 511, 523). Paul expresses a Jewish view but using Greek philosophical language; note for example the use of κόσμον (Pervo, 2009, 434; Witherington III, 1998, 525). The concepts were not unknown to the philosophers either. Contrary to most English translations, v 26 is vague. One what? (Witherington III, 1998, 526). Most translations render it as one man, i.e. Adam, which would fit the context. However, if Paul being deliberately vague here in order to interest the Stoics (Klauck, 2000, 85) with their cyclical view of history, possibly referring to the one deity whom starts and ends each cycle? (Wright, 2013, 215-216). It was also this cyclical view of history, along with Deuteronomy 32:8 (Witherington III, 1998, 527) that may have been behind Paul’s comments on times (καιροὺς) and boundaries (ὁροθεσίας). Whichever way the audience heard it, the point was the same: God made everything, and ordains nations and history (Pervo, 2009, 436), so is not in need of human temples, statues, or service.

Paul then walks us to his conclusion: this happened, “so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us.” Here is grace from God, that he has differentiated the nations and the cultures, that the Gospel might be preserved and people might find God (Kitamori, 1965, 128-129). Ψηλαφω (grope) has the sense of the fumbling of a blind person, or in the dark. The irony being that although God is not far, being omnipresent, humans fumble in the dark to find him (Witherington III, 1998, 528-529). This might be Paul’s attempt at drawing back from a full natural theology, before he expresses his conclusion around Jesus (vv 30-31). We must not forget that for Paul, learning how to translate information about the world coherently is not enough by itself. Rather, “the one God of Abraham is a god of revelation” (Wright, 2013, 1360. Italics original). For now however, Paul still continues with the conclusion from his natural theology by quoting [Pseudo]Epimenides[2] (Bruce, 1988, 339-340), a poem originally to Zeus (Witherington III, 1998, 529-530), followed by a famous quote from Aratus of Soli, a notable Stoic (Pervo, 2009, 439). “The function of the … quotations here is to cite an authority recognized by one’s audience to support one’s point.” (Witherington III, 1998, 530). This leads to us asking who the authority is that the modern Japanese would recognise.

          Paul’s conclusion therefore is obvious (Fitzmyer, 1998, 611): Since god made everything, including us as his children, how could he possibly be made of material crafted by humans? This is where Paul moves from natural theology to revelation, and to being at odds with the philosophers. Ignorance was over looked before, but now, due to the full revelation in Christ, “it is inexcusable” (Bruce, 1988, 340). Natural theology is not enough, as what is needed is a “conversion to a new worldview, not merely additional knowledge” (Witherington III, 1998, 531). Not merely to add God to the pantheon, or to call the pantheon by a new name, but rather that everyone μετανοέω, turning away from the idols and towards the true God. For time was not cyclical but linear, and judgement is coming by a man [“the son of Man” / Jesus] (Bruce, 1988, 341), which was proved by his resurrection.

Ironically, the resurrection that gets Paul dragged before the council for judgement, is the same the achieves the judgement of all before God (Witherington III, 1998, 530). Yet it is also the concept that makes some of the hearers scoff. The concept of resurrection was rejected by Apollo in the Eumenides, “after the dust has absorbed a dead man’s blood, there is no resurrection.” (Aeschylus, 458 BCE, 647–648). It is unlikely that people had this consciously in mind, but were probably influenced by it (Witherington III, 1998, 532; Bruce, 1988, 343). It is uncertain whether those that requested to hear more were genuine, or giving a polite snub – either way, Paul leaves them (Pervo, 2009, 441-442). Perhaps Paul meant to leave this role to the church that was founded in Athens? For despite Luke’s warning in v 21, at least some became follower, including some notable people: Dionysius the Areopagite, a mystery woman, Damaris, who one assumes was known to the original hearers of Acts. (Pervo, 2009, 426; Witherington III, 1998, 532-533; Winter, 2004, 1)

          Throughout this passage it becomes increasingly clear that we are meant to be viewing Paul as a Socratic figure, with Luke having him mimic the great philosopher (Pervo, 2009, 426). Paul was accused of proclaiming foreign gods (v19) and proclaiming strange things (v21) the same crime for which Socrates was executed (Xenophon, 1923, 1.1.1; Pervo, 2009, 425; Witherington III, 1998, 516-517). Paul also began his speech with Ἄνδρες Ἀθηναῖοι (Men of Athens),which, in this form, is reminiscent of Socrates (Plato, 1966, 17a; Barrett, 2004, 834). Paul even discusses some similar themes that Socrates had famously addressed. Compare for example Acts 17:25 with Euthyphro 12E-15E (Plato, 1966b; Witherington III, 1998, 525-526). All this sets Paul up as being able to stand of equal footing with the intellectuals of his day, even in Athens, and excels over Socrates, walking out of the Areopagus, where one Socrates was executed (Witherington III, 1998, 514; Klauck, 2000, 94-95). However, this conclusion is clearly a latter editorial gloss from Luke for the benefit of his readers and not the intentional work of Paul. I must therefore discount this from my application.

          Klauck (2000, 94) concludes from this passage that due to the interaction with limited characters in the narrative, this model,

cannot be transposed to the context within which Acts was read and used…Luke does not in the least intend the event in the past, which is awakened to life by being narrated, to function in his own days as a model for preaching to Greek Philosophers. Rather, it is intended to strength the self-assurance of his Christian readers. But even if his final conclusion is correct, what does he think Luke is strengthening his readers for? Surely, now that his readers are confident that they are not “philosophically backward” (Klauck, 2000, 94), and their faith holds up in this context, they are being spurred to go an emulate Paul, perhaps not in Athens, but in their own Greco-Roman contexts. “It is hard to doubt that Luke sees this speech in Acts 17 as something of a model for how to approach educated pagan Greeks”. (Witherington III, 1998, 533; cf. Bruce, 1988, 334–335) But even if a model can’t be found, at the bare minimum this text says that the faith is sound, so go and tell it. After all, Acts concludes with, “Let it be known to you then that this salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles; they will listen.” (28:28).

[1] Pervo (2009, 432) concludes that Paul failed in this task. However I think this is impossible to conclude from this snippet of the speech, edited by Luke.

[2] Same quatrain quoted in Titus 1:12. (Bruce, 1988, 339)

An extract from my Masters dissertation “Compare and contrast how the Apostle Paul engaged with Greco-Roman culture in mission, with how Christians might engage with the Japanese today.”