Paul at “The Show”

In the current (August/September 2020) issue of First Things, George Weigel has an article about John Paul II that discusses, in particular, St. Paul’s speech on the Areopagus to the Athenians, which “held a special place in [the pontiff’s] religious imagination.” And, when you think about it, this was indeed an important encounter, almost literally between Jerusalem and Athens. As a well-educated Hellenistic (at least to some extent) Jew, Paul must have appreciated this: He was at “the show,” as the baseball major leagues are now called.

So I reread his speech, and I think the three big points that Paul makes are ones he is smart to have made in this important and early Jerusalem-Athens encounter. Here’s the Acts 17 text (I’ve divided it into three paragraphs corresponding to the three big points I think Paul makes):

[1] 22 So Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus and said, “Men of Athens, I observe that you are very religious in all respects.23 For while I was passing through and examining the objects of your worship, I also found an altar with this inscription, ‘TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.’ Therefore what you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you.

[2] 24 “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 with hands; 25 nor is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all people life and breath and all things; 26 and He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation,27 that they would seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; 28 for in Him we live and move and exist, as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we also are His children.’ 29 Being then the children of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and thought of man.

[3] 30 “Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent,31 because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead.”

The first point is one that Paul can make in a way that flatters the audience: Kudos that you are open to the possibility of another God, and you are also right to sense that something is missing in your theology.

The second point provides the audience a Jerusalem, rather than Athenian, description of divine attributes: This new (to you) God is all-powerful, universal, paternal, and transcendent. It’s not the more limited and imperfect sort of god that you all have had. To sugarcoat this just a bit, Paul quotes some Greek poetry.

It’s the third point that will be the real stretch for the audience, but characteristically Paul does not flinch in making it: You will need to repent, and God has raised your Judge from the dead.

It makes sense that Paul does not quote Scripture to the Athenians; he does that when speaking to the Jews, but what makes sense for one audience doesn’t make sense for others. The Athenians were not atheists, so Paul builds on that commonality, while also clarifying the true nature of God, as indeed is essential. And then, of course, Paul must talk about Jesus.

We learn in the next few verses that Paul loses some, maybe most, of the audience with this Resurrection business, but it’s hard to see how Paul could or would want to avoid this point: It’s the best proof of the Christian deity, and you either believe it or you don’t.

A couple of notes on the verses coming immediately before and after Paul’s speech:

  • Before the speech, Paul was appalled by the Athenian idols — and the Athenian philosophers were intrigued, though not necessarily in a good way, by the novelty per se of Paul’s beliefs.
  • The speech got a mixed reception (Acts 17:32-34). As I indicated earlier, when Paul started to talk about the Resurrection, some in the audience began to sneer — but others wanted to hear more, and some “joined him and believed.”

So perhaps what Luke provides us in Acts is just a synopsis of Paul’s speech, and/or perhaps after this rather short introduction Paul talked more (in some venue or other) about Jesus and the Resurrection to those who were willing to listen. In any event, Paul framed the issue well, building on the willingness of the audience to believe in another god, describing who that God is and how He is unique — and then talking about Jesus Christ to those who would hear. What more could Paul do at The Show?

Addendum:  In his amazing book, The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History, Colin J. Hemer has a very insightful paragraph on Paul’s speech (page 423, footnote omitted): 

The speeches [in Acts] often contain material that is not just primitive but is specifically tied to its ostensible historical setting.  Thus, the Lukan Paul’s dialogue with Stoicism is signalled most obviously by the actual citation of the Stoic poet Aratus of Soli (Phaenomena 5, in Acts 17:28), Paul’s own fellow-Cilician (cf. also Cleanthes, Hymn to Zeus 4).  The nature of God is thus explained against the background of the Athenians’ own terminology, as Paul gently exposes the inconsistency between the transcendent reality to which their thinkers aspired and the man-made images of Athens.  Other points take up issues shared by both groups of philosophers or combines common ground which he may share with one or both. In v. 25 he refers successively to the Epicurean doctrine that God needs nothing from men and cannot be served by them, and the Stoic belief that he is the source of all life (Bruce, Acts, p. 336).  Paul plays off the one group against the other here, for the gods of Epicurus were unconcerned in human affairs, being themselves a part of the cosmos engendered by the fortuitous collision of atoms. There are recurring themes which are aptly directed to the Epicurean, God as Creator and Lord of heaven and earth (v. 24), who gives life to all (v. 25), and who has appointed that man seek him, though he is not distant from any of us (v. 27). This God commands repentance (v. 30) and has appointed a day to judge the world.