During his first missionary journey the Apostle Paul spent some time in Athens. While there, he noticed with great dismay that “the city was full of idols.” He had a dialogue with Jews in the synagogue and with people he met in the marketplace (agora in Greek). In addition, he had a discussion with some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers who objected to Paul’s teaching of “foreign divinities.”
The Epicureans followed the philosophy of the fourth/third century B.C. materialist philosopher Epicurus. In his view the world began by chance, the swerving of atoms into one another. He held that pleasure, that is, freedom from fear and anxiety, was the highest goal of humans. The gods, if they exist, were of no significance to us as we were no significance to them. He wished people to be free from fear of life and death.
The Stoics followed Zeno of Citium who lived at the same time as Epicurus. The words stoic/stoicism come from the Greek word for porch. Zeno and his followers held their discussions at the Stoa Poikile (Painted Porch) in the marketplace at Athens. Several noted ancients, Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, Seneca among others, followed this philosophy. The Stoic was devoted to virtue, was indifferent to matters that did not involve truth and morality and lived at a distance from things in the world that did not carry moral weight. Their theology professed a material god, imminent in the universe. The universe, made of fire, is one of an eternal series that come into existence and then dissolve, making way for another. The Stoic desired to conform to universal Reason that allowed him to achieve inner calm
Paul stands before these philososphers who took exception to the doctrines reagrding Jesus and the resurrection from the dead. These philosophers brought Paul to the Areopagus, (Mars Hill), where an Athenian court regularly met to learn what Paul’s “new teaching” was and meant. Addressing those who had gathered, Paul compliments them for being religious. He mentions the altar in Athens that is dedicated “To the unknown god,” whom he says is the God he worships and proclaims. The Apostle explains that God, who made the world, does not live in temples nor does He need maintenance from human beings, for He has created humans and given them what they need to live. God has allotted dwelling places for humans to live so that they may seek God who is not far away from them. At this point he quotes a Greek philosopher and poet, Empedocles and Aratus to confirm what he has said. He asserts that God cannot be of the substances of silver, gold, and stone. While He has overlooked previous times of ignorance, God is now calling all people to repent. The day will come when the world will be judge by One (Christ’s name is unmentioned in the text) who gives assurance of these things by His resurrection. Some in the crowd mock the idea of the resurrection of the dead.
What do we learn from this text? Paul shows respect for his audience though he is mocked. The respect that we show to others in defense and witness should not be dependent on the attitude of those who oppose us. We should always be respectful (a very difficult thing to do). Paul finds a way to relate to his hearers. He applauds the fact that they are religious (without flattery). He points out the altar to the unknown god in Athens, using this example to speak of the true God whom he represents. He quotes one of their philosophers and one of their poets.
Though most reject what he says, converts are made. Two in particular are mentioned by name. Apologetics and witness naturally go together.
As apologists and witnesses we are to show respect for others. We are to listen for where non-believers are in their lives and what they believe. Paul critiques idolatry without mocking such a belief. We are to do the same with regard to the beliefs of others. We can point out where those beliefs are wrong without making fun of the person who holds them. We are to find ways to identify with others and show that we understand or want to understand their concerns.
Michael G. Tavella
July 15, 2019