Acts 17October 19, 2020
Amazing things happened when the Apostle Paul went to Athens and spoke to the philosophers there.
KEVIN HARRIS: Hey, welcome to Reasonable Faith with Dr. William Lane Craig. I’m Kevin Harris. We’ve got something special for you today. Yesterday I had a chance to speak at my church and bring a sermon. Usually, when I’m asked to speak, I go to Acts 17. It is kind of my go-to. If you love philosophy and apologetics, this is your go-to chapter in the New Testament. What happens with Paul there on Mars Hill in Athens is just electrifying to so many. I know I can speak for Dr. Craig – he loves this chapter of the New Testament. Today he is going to be speaking on it. We are going to bring you a presentation from Dr. Craig on what happened when Paul spoke before the philosophers in the very cradle of philosophy in Athens as recorded by Luke in Acts 17.
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Here is Dr. Craig speaking on Acts 17.
DR. CRAIG: At the time of the New Testament, Athens was no longer the world power or the hub of intellectual activity that it had been during the era of classical Greece. The only relevance that it has to the New Testament comes through Paul’s visit to Athens recorded in Acts 17 where Paul passes through Athens on his second speaking tour of various Mediterranean cities. Paul with his co-workers Timothy and Silas had fled Jewish persecution in Thessalonica and gone on to Berea. Wanting to avoid the same sort of trouble, the believers in Berea thought it best to get Paul out of town and so they conducted him by ship to Athens where they left him alone. Paul arrived in Athens in the year AD 50. We know this on the basis of the famous Gallio inscription which is preserved at the museum in Delphi. This is a letter from the Roman emperor Claudius concerning Gallio who was the new proconsul of the region of Achaea where Athens and Corinth were located. The letter dates from AD 51 or 52. This letter is extremely important because it provides an external anchor point on the basis of which we can date the events in the book of Acts. Gallio was proconsul for just one year from AD 51 to AD 52. His arrival in Corinth is mentioned in Acts 18:12 when Paul is brought before him. Paul had come to Corinth immediately after his visit to Athens, and he remained there a year and a half. So Paul's visit to Athens took place sometime in AD 50.
Now, what would you do upon arriving in a foreign city all by yourself with a burden to bring the Gospel to these people? Well, Paul had a strategy. He typically went first to the local Jewish synagogue and tried to reason with the Jews there from the Scriptures to convince them that Jesus was the promised Messiah. He would then also seek to evangelize the Gentiles. This was exactly what he did in Athens while waiting for Silas and Timothy to join him.
Acts 17:17 says, “So he argued in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the market place every day with those who chanced to be there.” Notice that in the audience in the Jewish synagogue we have mentioned both Jews and devout persons. These devout persons, or so-called God-fearers, were Gentiles who admired Jewish monotheism but had not actually converted to Judaism themselves. They believed in the God of Judaism but they were not themselves Jewish. Besides reaching out to both the Jews and the Gentile God-fearers in the synagogue, Paul also frequented the Athenian marketplace, or the agora. That was just below Mars Hill as we stood looking up at the Acropolis and down at the agora beneath us. The agora was not merely a center of commercial activity but it was also a forum of social and political exchange. It would be the natural place in which to proclaim the Gospel to the Gentiles.
Those of us who are interested in philosophy cannot help but be intrigued when we read in Acts 17 that in the agora Paul runs into a group of Athenian philosophers. Luke identifies them as Epicurean and Stoic philosophers. Who were these people, and what did they believe? Stoicism was a philosophy that originated around 300 years before Christ. Stoics were materialists and pantheists. They denied that there is any transcendent God, as Aristotle believed. The universe is imbued with a principle of logos, or reason, but this is not a personal mind. There is no immortality, and life should be conducted according to reason rather than the passions. Epicureanism, which also originated sometime after 300 BC, was an atomic materialism; that is to say, everything is composed of material atoms. Epicureans did not necessarily deny the existence of the gods of Greek mythology but they regarded them as material beings too who have no concern whatsoever for human beings. Hence, they are uninvolved in human affairs. Rather than live according to reason as the Stoics advised, Epicureans thought that the pursuit of pleasure was the greatest good in human life and that we should do what we can to maximize our happiness. I take it to be obvious that both of these philosophies were completely antithetical to Jewish monotheism. These Athenian philosophers look down on Paul as a mere babbler. They take him to be a preacher of foreign divinities because he proclaimed the good news about Jesus and the resurrection. The charge of being a herald of foreign or strange divinities is a very serious charge. It is the charge which led to Socrates’ condemnation by the Athenian Council. Because of the plural word “divinities” some commentators have speculated that these philosophers thought that Paul was preaching about a foreign god and his female consort (namely Jesus and “Anastasis” or resurrection). These words have a masculine and a feminine definite article respectively – “the Jesus” and “the resurrection” (or anástasis). Now, while this is a possibility, the word anástasis designating resurrection of the dead would have been well known, and it's hard to imagine how anyone could have misunderstood that Paul was saying that it was Jesus who had been raised from the dead. Even though their words are dripping with condescension, these philosophers are sufficiently curious to conduct Paul to the Areopagus to give him a hearing.
In Greek, Areios Pagos means literally the “hill of Ares,” the Greek god of war (better known to us by his Roman name Mars – hence the designation Mars Hill or the Hill of Ares more properly in Greek). But the Areopagus was much more than just a geographical location. The Areopagus was the name of the city council of Athens which met in the agora and served as a court. It had considerable influence and served to regulate city life, education, philosophical lectures, public morality, and foreign cults. By being brought before the Areopagus, Paul was given the chance to proclaim the Gospel to some of the most influential men of Athens.
Although Paul's address to the Areopagus is often portrayed as a philosophical discourse in defense of the Gospel, I think that this is a mistaken interpretation. While a rhetorical masterpiece, Paul's speech is not a piece of philosophizing nor is it directed primarily at the philosophers who conducted him there. Rather what Paul was so worked up about was pagan idolatry. His speech is mainly a broadside in defense of Jewish monotheism against pagan religion. We see Paul's concern in verse 16 where Luke says that Paul was provoked in his spirit (or deeply disturbed). Why? Because the city was full of idols. This is no exaggeration. When Jan and I first toured the cities of ancient Greece, my overwhelming impression was how utterly permeated ancient Greek culture was with pagan religion. The temples and shrines of gods and goddesses were everywhere. Whole cities were dedicated to these gods and goddesses. Nations actually went to war with one another on the basis of the manic utterances of the pagan Oracles at Delphi. Athens itself was dedicated to the goddess Athena – the goddess of wisdom. According to ancient mythology, both Athena and the god Poseidon had offered to become the patron deity of the city. The ancient Athenians chose Athena and her gift of the olive tree symbolizing peace. The fabulous Parthenon, which is at the high point of the city (the akron polis or “high city” – the Acropolis), was the temple of Athena. It contained within it a gigantic 40-foot statue of Athena in which a man could stand in her hand. Athens took its very name from Athena, the goddess to which the city was dedicated. But Athena's temple, as we ourselves saw, is far from being the only temple to be found in Athens. Temples to other Greek deities were scattered throughout the city. As a monotheistic Jew, Paul was deeply offended by this pagan idolatry. In his ensuing speech standing with the Parthenon towering above him, Paul boldly declares that,
The God who made the world and all things in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made by hands; nor is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything . . . (Acts 17:24-25).
Of course, Paul's proclamation of a transcendent creator is an implicit rejection of Stoic and Epicurean materialism and pantheism, but the target that he has in view is pagan idolatry. He does not philosophize about the world views of Epicureanism or Stoicism. Rather he simply proclaims Jewish monotheism over against pagan religion and lets the chips fall where they may.
Paul was deeply disturbed by the pagan idolatry that he saw all around him in Athens. The rhetorical brilliance of Paul's speech is seen in the fact that he doesn't let on how offensive he finds this idolatry but instead he actually uses it as a bridge to reach his hearers. Somewhat tongue-in-cheek, Paul begins by actually complimenting the Athenian audience on how religious they are. How so? Well, Paul recounts that while walking about Athens looking at the various monuments to the gods and goddesses he came across an altar which bore the inscription “to an unknown god.” The existence of such altars to unknown deities is confirmed by extrabiblical sources. The second century geographer Pausanias in his description of Greece, and the third century Athenian writer Philostratus in his Life of Apollonius, referred to such altars to unknown gods.
What purpose could be served by an altar to an unknown deity? According to the third century writer Diogenes Laertius, such shrines were a sort of safety precaution against offending and so incurring the wrath of some god or goddess that had been overlooked. They were not an expression of religious devotion but motivated by pure self-interest. Jan and I have seen the same sort of thing in contemporary China. To my surprise we found in China numerous shrines and temples dedicated to various gods such as the sea god. These shrines were filled with people making various offerings to these deities. This just astonished me. When I asked someone, “Do these people in 21st century China actually believe that there really exists a god of the sea?” I was told “probably not” but they figure it's best to just cover your bases just in case. The purpose of such sites was not to worship the deities but simply to placate them so as not to incur misfortune. Similarly in Athens, pagan religion was looking out for self-interest in establishing these altars to unknown gods. But Paul somewhat facetiously treats this altar as an expression of the Athenian's religiosity. This makes for a nice satirical opening to his speech which probably provoked a wry smile on the part of the Athenian philosophers who also often rejected such pagan idolatry. He then exploits it to his own advantage: “Therefore what you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you” (Acts 17:23b). Paul claims that he knows and can reveal the true identity of the God who is worshiped in ignorance by the Athenians.
Paul is really holding back here out of deference to his audience. We know from his letters that Paul had a very negative attitude toward pagan religion. In his first letter to the church of Corinth Paul says flatly that what pagans sacrifice “they sacrifice to demons and not to God” (1 Corinthians 10:20). In Paul's view pagan religion was not unknowingly worshiping the true God. If anything, pagans were unknowingly involved in the worship of demons rather than God. But here rather than alienate his audience by a frontal attack upon their religion Paul pulls his punches and seeks a point of common contact with them. With Jewish audiences that point of contact would have been the Hebrew Scriptures. But with a pagan audience in mind that point of contact would not have been available. Perhaps that's why some people mistakenly think that Paul's speech is a piece of philosophical discourse. He doesn't quote the Scriptures. But Paul is not philosophizing here. He is preaching his usual message but he is rhetorically adapting it to his audience's specific needs. In the altar to an unknown god Paul finds a point of contact with his pagan hearers. Paul is saying in effect, “You're right. There is indeed an unknown god whom we should worship, and I am going to tell you who he is.” Paul then launches into a bold proclamation of Jewish monotheism. The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and Earth. Such a transcendent creator is antithetical not only to pagan idolatry but also to Stoic pantheism and Epicurean materialism.
Luke does not record any argument on Paul's part for belief in a transcendent creator. He simply proclaims Jewish monotheism. But in Acts 14 when Paul and Barnabas are mistaken by the inhabitants of Lystra for the Greek gods Zeus and Hermes and the priest of the local temple of Zeus (like the one we saw in the park in Athens) comes out to offer sacrifices to them, Paul and Barnabas begin shouting,
Why are you doing this? We are mortals just like you, and we bring you good news that you should turn from these worthless things to the living God who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them. In past generations he allowed the nations to follow their own ways; yet he has not left himself without a witness, for he has given you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, filling you with food and your hearts with joy (Acts 14:15-17).
Here we see the same transcendent creator described. Paul says significantly that he has not left himself without a witness, and that witness is nature itself. Paul expands on this point in his letter to the church of Rome. There he writes,
Ever since the creation of the world God's eternal power and divine nature invisible though they are have been understood and seen through the things that he has made. So they are without excuse; for though they knew God they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles (Romans 1:20-23).
Here we see not only Paul's true attitude toward pagan idolatry but his conviction that the eternal power and divine nature of God are clearly seen in the created order around us. In dealing with pagan audiences therefore, Paul is willing to argue for the existence of a transcendent creator whose existence is clearly seen in nature. In Paul's view then, pagan idolatry is inexcusable ignorance. In his Areopagus address he goes on to say that God does not live in temples made by human hands, “nor is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He himself gives to all men life and breath and all things” (Acts 17:25).
In contradistinction to the philosopher's view that the world is governed either by chance or by physical necessity, Paul affirms the Jewish view that it is God who, from one man (namely Adam), has created all the peoples of the Earth and has determined the exact times and places that they should live. He says that God did this so that, “they should seek God in the hope that they might feel after him and find him” (Acts 17:27). Although we know from the first chapter of his letter to the Romans that Paul was not optimistic about Gentiles finding the saving knowledge of God through his revelation in nature alone, nevertheless Paul here says that God has created people with such a purpose in mind – that they might search for God and might grope for him and find him. For in contradistinction to Epicurean thinking, God is not distant and removed. In line with Stoic thinking, Paul affirms the immanence of God. He quotes Greek poets in support. He says, “in him we live and move and have our being” – a citation that comes perhaps from the ancient Athenian poet Epimenides. “As some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’” This citation is definitely identified as from the Stoic poet Aratus who happened to be a countryman of Paul also being from Tarsus. Here again we see Paul's rhetorical skill in building bridges to his audience by affirming the Stoics’ doctrine of divine immanence and citing their own sources and yet at the same time undermining Stoicism by affirming as well God's transcendence and sovereignty.
Paul takes a last shot at pagan idol worship by saying that since we are created by God obviously God cannot be something created by us. Now comes the turn of the screw. Returning to his opening theme of ignorance of the divine, Paul says, “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all men everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30). The times of ignorance evidently refer to the time prior to the Gentile's reception of the Gospel message. It's not entirely clear what Paul means when he says that God overlooked the times of ignorance. Does he mean that God excuses those who lived during this time so that they will not be judged? That seems unlikely since in the first and second chapter of his letter to the Romans Paul says that the Gentiles cannot plead ignorance as an excuse. Their ignorance is inexcusable. And that by their hard and impenitent hearts they are storing up wrath for themselves on the day of judgment. So when in Romans 3:25 Paul says that God “in his divine forbearance had passed over the sins previously committed” he probably means that God has stayed his judgment upon these people rather than destroying them immediately. Similarly, we saw that Paul told the polytheists in Lystra that, “In past generations God allowed all the nations to follow their own ways” (Acts 14:16). In this sense God has overlooked the times of ignorance. The unknown God has delayed his judgment upon them giving them scope for repentance.
Up to this point Paul's speech would have been typical for a rhetorically gifted Jew confronted with pagan idolatry. But the reason for the turn of the ages from the times of ignorance to the time of repentance is Jesus. Paul says,
God has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by the man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all men by raising him from the dead (Acts 17:31).
Paul was not preaching an incomplete Gospel of mere Jewish monotheism. Rather, as Luke records, he preached Jesus and the resurrection. Unfortunately, belief in the resurrection of a dead man was simply too much for these Athenian pagans to bear. None of them – whether Stoic or Epicurean or polytheist – believed that such a thing was possible. As N. T. Wright in his massive 800-page study of the resurrection in the ancient world states: in paganism the road to the underworld was a one-way street. Nobody came back.
The ancient world was thus divided into those who said that the resurrection couldn't happen, though they might have wanted it to, and those who said they didn't want it to happen, knowing that it couldn't anyway (Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 2003), page 82).
When early Christians proclaimed that Jesus had been raised from the dead they were therefore declaring something that everyone thought was impossible. So Paul's proclamation of Jesus’ resurrection is greeted with scoffing from his Athenian audience.
Paul's speech in Athens is a showpiece of Christian outreach to a pagan audience. Paul effectively finds a point of contact with the audience that he wants to reach. He employs satirical humor in connecting with his audience. He does not assault their worldview directly but he pulls his punches. He repeatedly appeals to their own customs and their own authors in order to indirectly undermine their views. At the same time he is uncompromising in his clear proclamation of the Christian Gospel.
Let me close by addressing the claim of some that Paul regretted having taken this approach in Athens and so changed his appeal in Corinth. It is said that Paul's outreach in Athens was a failure for no New Testament church was apparently ever established there. So when Paul moved on to Corinth he supposedly abandoned the appeal to the intellect and just preached Christ. This interpretation rests upon Paul's words in 1 Corinthians 2:1-5:
When I came to you, brethren, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in much fear and trembling; and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.
The claim is that having failed in Athens Paul abandoned an approach that appeals to the intellect and instead just preached Christ. I'm convinced that this interpretation represents a drastic misunderstanding of what Paul writes to the Corinthians. In the first place, it is predicated upon the view that Paul's outreach in Athens was a failure because he failed to establish a local church. This allegation strikes me as very unfair. Paul spent a year and a half in Corinth establishing a church whereas he was simply passing through Athens waiting for Silas and Timothy to join him.
Moreover, Luke does not present Paul's Areopagus speech as a failure. Rather he says that some of his audience joined with Paul and became believers, and he singles out among them Dionysius who was himself, incredibly, a member of the Areopagus council as well as a woman named Damaris. To win a member of the Athenian city council itself as well as others was no small success. Whether a church was established in Athens would depend more upon the zeal and perseverance of these early believers rather than upon Paul's brief visit.
But what about what Paul says in his first letter to the Corinthians? I think it's true that Paul would have regarded the worldly wisdom of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers as foolishness. I could well imagine his saying of these philosophers what he writes in 1 Corinthians 1:20-25:
Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.
Paul would not have regarded his proclamation of Jewish monotheism in Athens as any accommodation to the wisdom of the world. Citing Greek poets to undermine the worldly wisdom of the Stoics and Epicureans in no way compromises the Gospel. In fact, in 1 Corinthians 15:33 Paul cites the enormously popular Athenian playwright Menander in support of the point he is making – if the dead are not raised (and then here comes the quotation) “let us eat and drink for tomorrow we die.” So in the Corinthian correspondence itself Paul is quoting these Greek playwrights.
When Paul says in 1 Corinthians that he did not come to Corinth proclaiming the mystery of God in lofty words or wisdom, the point of contrast is not Paul in Athens but Paul's detractors in Corinth. The Corinthian church was riven with divisions, and there were those in Corinth who regarded Paul as a sort of inferior apostle. To these Paul says sarcastically in 1 Corinthians 4, “We are fools for the sake of Christ, but you are wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong” (1 Corinthians 4:10)! In 2 Corinthians 10:10 Paul mentions one of the criticisms of his detractors; they say, “his bodily presence is weak, and his speech contemptible.” In response Paul says,
I think that I am not in the least inferior to these super-apostles. I may be untrained in speech, but not in knowledge; certainly in every way and in all things we have made this evident to you (2 Corinthians 11:5-6).
Paul's detractors regarded him as inferior in eloquence and wisdom. Against these Paul does not mince words. He says, “For such boasters are false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ” (2 Corinthians 11:13).
In saying that his proclamation of the Gospel to the Corinthians was not in lofty words or wisdom Paul is not drawing a contrast with himself in Athens but with these pseudo-apostles in Corinth who prided themselves on their eloquence and wisdom. Paul is repudiating the values of which they boast. Thus those who say that Paul repented of his approach in Athens are guilty of a disastrous misunderstanding of Paul.
If you want to see how Paul himself thought of his approach in Athens it is to the Thessalonian correspondents that you must turn. Recall that Paul had been driven out of Thessalonica just before being spirited off to Athens. When he moved on from Athens to Corinth, Paul wrote to those Thessalonian believers to express his relief at hearing that they had sustained their faith in the face of the persecution. His letters to the Thessalonian church are thus the earliest of Paul's epistles in the New Testament written from Corinth around AD 50-51. In 1 Thessalonians 3:1 Paul mentions his being left in Athens alone while Timothy returned to Thessalonica to see if the believers had endured the persecution. Timothy brought a glowing report to Paul in Corinth, and Paul's letter to these Thessalonian believers is full of joy. Paul's description of the message that he proclaimed in Thessalonica could just as easily been a description of the message he proclaimed in Athens. Paul says it is widely reported,
. . . how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead – Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming (1 Thessalonians 1:9-10).
Here we find the same themes of turning from pagan idolatry, the reality of the true God, the resurrection of Jesus, and the coming day of judgment. The only additional element in Thessalonians is waiting for the return of Christ which Paul couldn't get to in Athens because he was cut off as soon as he mentioned the resurrection. Paul's proclamation in Athens represented his typical approach to a pagan audience, an approach which met with great success in Thessalonica and which he continued to endorse.
In fact, writing later from Ephesus to the church in Corinth, Paul describes his philosophy of evangelism in these words:
To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law . . . so that I might win those outside the law. . . . I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means win some (1 Corinthians 9:20-22).
In his commentary on the book of Acts, Darrell Bock draws out two important practical implications from Paul's Areopagus speech. First, he says, Paul directly engages the current culture. He seeks points of contact with such desires as already exist in the culture. Paul knows his own message and the mentality of the people he seeks to evangelize. Too many Christians know their own message but understand far too little about how and why others think as they do. As John Stott points out, Paul could speak to people in the synagogue, to those in the city square, and to the highly sophisticated. This ability to adapt made him very effective.
Second, he adds, another important observation is that despite being aggravated by all the idolatry he sees around him in Athens, Paul manages to share the Gospel with a generous but honest spirit. The Paul of Romans 1 who speaks of the sad state of society is still able to love and connect with that society in Acts 17. This is also an important lesson. Sometimes we Christians are so angry at the state of our society that all that comes through is the anger and not the love we are to have for our neighbor in need. Paul knows how to confront but he does so honestly and graciously. Both message and tone are important in sharing the Gospel. Here Paul is an example of both.
These very virtues – engagement with culture at all levels and sharing the Gospel in a gracious but uncompromising way – are virtues that we at Reasonable Faith seek to exemplify.