Paul’s encounter with the Stoic and Epicurean philosophers at Mars Hill, described in Acts 17: 16-34, has been the subject of more scholarly attention than any other passage in Acts. (Witherington, 511; Peterson, 486). Because Paul’s audience was educated and unconnected to a synagogue, he delivered the gospel message to them in a way found nowhere else in the New Testament. The passage is therefore extraordinary and has profound implications for the missional church.
This essay will first examine the text, with an emphasis on those passages with the most significant missional implications. It will then suggest that Paul’s speech may present a viable model for initiating the presentation of the gospel in contemporary Western contexts.
While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. So he reasoned in the synagogue with both Jews and God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there. A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to debate with him.
Initially it is important to note that, unlike when he addressed audiences in the Athenian synagogue, in debating the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers Paul could appeal to no obvious common religious heritage or beliefs. Yet their worldviews would not have been entirely antithetical to Paul’s ethics. Epicureans and Stoics were “the two most vigorous dogmatic philosophical schools of the era, who could be counted on to take opposing positions on most issues.” (Pervo, 425). Both Epicureans and Stoics, however, emphasized virtue and right behavior. Epicureans believed gods were far removed from human existence and they ridiculed religious piety, but they urged enjoyment of life and believed that life was best enjoyed by doing what is wise and right. (Gaventa, 248; Balge, 191). Likewise, Stoics believed that the highest pleasure could be attained by doing one’s duty, that acting reasonably was one’s highest duty, and that through cultivation of virtue, humans can achieve their greatest goals. (Balge, 191; Gaventa, 248). Both Epicureans and Stoics were “highly principled in regard to ethical and civic duties.” (Witherington, 514).
Some of them asked, “What is this babbler trying to say?”
The Greek word spermologos (rendered “babbler” in the NIV) is difficult to translate. Literally it means “someone who picks up seeds” or “seed gatherer.” Among the English words used to try to capture its meaning in context are “dilettante” (Witherington, 515), “scavenger,” “third-rate journalist,” “show off” (Bock, 562), and “a bird-brain devoid of method.” (Pervo, 427). It seems to have been “a disparaging characterization of a person who hangs around in public places gathering scraps.” (Gaventa, 248).
Others remarked, “He seems to be advocating foreign gods.”
This remark would clearly have been understood to be a reference to Socrates. (Witherington, 515). Introduction of foreign divinities (xenon daimonion) was a capital offense in Athens, and was the very crime for which Socrates had been put to death. (Pervo, 425).
They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.
Although the text does not explicitly say so, it is possible that the audience interpreted the reference to anastasis (resurrection), a feminine noun in Greek, as a female divinity, perhaps the companion to a male God “Jesus.” (Gaventa, 249). Commentators as early as St. John Chrysostom have understood this to be the case. (Martin, 215). Bock disagrees with this interpretation, however, arguing that Paul would not have been that unclear. Instead, he argues, “Paul preaches a new religion with ideas like resurrection and so in the listeners’ view discusses ‘foreign divinities’.” (Bock, 562).
Then they took him and brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus, where they said to him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we would like to know what they mean.”
Obviously the Athenians were intrigued by Paul’s “new teaching” and “strange ideas.” The Greek translated here as “strange ideas” (xenizonta) suggests something foreign. “The combination of the new and the unknown sparks curiosity.” (Bock, 563). Paul’s audience expresses a desire to learn more about what his teaching means. This, of course, is the initial result every evangelist should desire.
(All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.)
The intellectual curiosity of Athenians is attested to by ancient literature. Chance cites the following from the novel Chaereas and Callirhoe:
When they were all alone they debated where to sail to. One of them said: “Athens is nearby….” And they all liked the idea of making for Athens. But Theron did not like the inquisitive ways of the town. “Look, are you the only people who don’t know what busybodies they are in Athens? They’re a nation of gossips, and they love lawsuits. There’ll be hundreds of nosey parkers in the harbor wanting to know who were are and where we got this cargo we’re carrying. Nasty suspicions will seize hold of the malicious minds—and it’s the Aeropagus straightaway, in Athens, and magistrates who are more severe than tyrants.
Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious.
The question of how the word deisidaimonesterous (rendered as “very religious” in the NIV) should be translated and understood has been vigorously debated by scholars. It might properly be translated as “too superstitious” and be understood to be negative and critical. (See e.g. Witherington, 520). Beginning a speech with a compliment directed to the audience (a “captatio benevolentiae”), however, was a common rhetorical device of that day. (Parsons, 245; Chance 308). Given that Paul’s speech as a whole seems designed to find common ground with the audience, it seems unlikely that he would begin it by insulting them. Rather, the conclusion that Paul was genuinely complimenting their religiosity (even though misdirected) seems more reasonable. (Bock, 564; Cf. Peterson, 494). Indeed, extra-biblical sources attest to the reputation of Athenians as religious people. (Gaventa, 250). The word seems best understood, therefore, to indicate Paul’s respect for the Athenians’ “groping for God,” albeit hindered by their ignorance. (Bock, 564, Cf. Witherington, 534).
For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.
To support his conclusion that the people of Athens are “very religious,” Paul cites as evidence an altar to an “unknown” god. “Even in their use of idols, Paul recognizes an attempt to grope after God….Their idol to the ‘unknown god’ allows Paul to open the door for discussing the one true God of creation.” (Bock, 564). Commentators as early as Chrysostom have concluded that the Greek worship of an “unknown god” anticipated the full revelation of the true God. (Martin, 216). Striking a balance between condemning their idolatry and connecting with them on common ground, Paul announces that he will describe for the Athenians the God who they have been worshipping in ignorance. (Witherington, 523).
The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands.
Paul makes no reference to the history of Israel in his speech. Given that his audience was composed of Gentiles with no connection to a synagogue, this is sensible and understandable. Rather, Paul puts emphasis on God as Creator. (Pelikan, 197). As he does throughout his speech, Paul joins language which would have been familiar and theologically acceptable to his audience with references which would point ultimately to his evangelical message. So, for example, he says God created the cosmos, using a Greek term for the universe that would have been familiar to them, but immediately joins it with a reference to the Hebrew biblical notion of “lord of heaven and earth.” (Witherington, 525).
And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth;…
Paul makes God as Creator the central point of his argument, and he stresses the unity and commonality of humanity. The Greek pan ethnos anthropon (rendered here as “all the nations”) might more accurately be translated as “every race of people” or “every human ethnicity”. We must avoid the temptation to read into the words the contemporary notion of a nation-state, which did not exist at that time. Rather, ethnos is better understood as “ethnicity,” connoting people with a common language, culture, identity and history. (Pervo, 423). Notably, although “the creation of humankind is described without reference to Genesis or to any mythic account,” (Pervo, 436), Jews would have recognized here a reference to Adam. But Paul says literally that ex henos God made all nations, and Greek pagans would likely have understood Paul to be referring to “one blood” (as the Codex D manuscript and some English translations, such as the KJV, actually say) rather than from one unique human being. Paul employs here a double entendre that allows him to make his point consistently with the philosophical worldview of either audience. (See Parsons, 246-47). Greeks generally considered themselves superior to other races and ethnicities and would have been resistant to the idea that they descend from a common ancestor of “inferior” races and ethnicities. Paul’s words undermine the notion of any Greek racial superiority or ethnic exclusivity. (Peterson, 497; Witherington, 526).
…and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands.
There is considerable controversy over the precise meanings of the words translated here as “times” and “boundaries.” Translated as above, in the NIV, “the underlying notion would be that countries rise and fall in political power and dominance.” (Pervo, 436). Unlike God and his creation, nations have no permanence. But the alternative translation, “he established orderly seasons and boundaries,” would have resonated well with Paul’s audience, whose worldview included the idea that the existence of seasons was evidence of the existence of God. (See Parsons, 247).
God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us.
God’s purpose in creating all of humanity from one common source and in establishing seasons and boundaries was to draw humanity to him. Essentially Paul is arguing to his audience that “God is immanent or present with us in the created order, in a spiritual and personal sense” (Peterson, 499), a notion that would have been familiar and acceptable, particularly to the Stoics. The Greek word pselapheseian suggests the image of a blind person, groping in the dark. God is near and those who seek and reach out for him (or grope for him) may find him, Paul argues. Scholars have debated the question of whether Paul’s speech abandoned argument from revelation in favor of natural theology. (See Pervo, 429). An appeal to the authority of revelation would, however, been almost certainly unavailing with an audience which had no respect for it. Paul chose instead to appeal to evidence they might appreciate and understand, without in any way compromising or sacrificing the fuller truth.
‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’
Remarkably, Paul supports his argument by quoting the ancient pagan poets Epimenides and Aratus. This is particularly remarkable in light of the fact that both poets were addressing the Greek supreme god Zeus. (Peterson, 499). As Witherington writes: “From a rhetorical point of view the function of the quotations here is to cite to an authority recognized by one’s audience to support one’s point. It would have done Paul no good to simply quote Scriptures, a book the audience did not know and one that had no authority in the minds of these hearers.” (Witherington, 530). Although Paul alludes to Scripture, he does not quote it. Instead, he moves seamlessly from an implied reference to the God of Israel to the deity known and worshipped by Greeks as their supreme god. (Pervo, 438). Both quotes would have been theologically acceptable to Paul’s pagan audience, while possessing the potential to direct them toward the fuller truth that Paul seeks to share. The first quote would be heard as “an affirmation of divine immanence,” a concept accepted by the pagans as well as by Paul. (Chance, 311). The second might have been heard by the audience to refer to the pagan notion that humans were in some sense divine, while Paul would have intended it as a reference to the imago Dei. As he does brilliantly throughout his speech, Paul expresses truth using words and rhetoric acceptable to his audience, in order to create common ground from which to build.
Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill.
Cleverly, Paul uses a verse from a pagan poet (“we are his offspring”) to challenge the idolatry of the Athenians. Since we are all God’s offspring, Paul argues, we should not imagine that God is like something made by human hands. (Parsons, 248). Interestingly, Paul here uses the neuter for the divine, another significant cultural concession to his audience. (Pervo, 432).
In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.
In light of their intellectual pride, Paul’s reference to the ignorance of the Athenians is bold. But he hinges the charge on their own words—citing their poets and the admission that they worship a God who is, in their own words, “unknown” to them. Paul’s rhetorical technique brilliantly enables him to deliver a pointed critique and attempt to redirect their thinking and address their ignorance, while doing so using language that is culturally respectful. The Greek verb hyperorao, from which the translation “overlooked” comes, is a New Testament hapax. While it can be interpreted as “scorn,” (as it often is in the LXX), it means “overlook”, “ignore” or “disregard.” (Bock, 569; Peterson, 502). Paul announces that although God has ignored such ignorant behavior in the past, now he has commanded that all people “repent” (metanoein). His audience, of course, would not have understood that word as we do today, but rather would have understood him to be saying literally that God now commands that the people of the world change their minds, or to turn and go in a different direction. As Pervo puts it, Paul “calls for a universal change of heart.” (Pervo, 440). After showing the Athenians their error, Paul did not proceed to announce their condemnation, but rather announced an opportunity to emerge from their ignorance and turn to the new direction God commands.
For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed.
Paul proclaims that God has appointed a man to judge the world (ten oikoumenen) with justice (dikaiosune). Although the statement arguably is an implied threat of punishment to those who refuse to repent, interestingly, “(s)oteriology is present only insofar as deliverance depends on human initiative in repenting. Divine grace is limited to the overlooking of ignorance. Determinism (which would have been congenial to Stoics) is absent.” (Pervo, 440).
He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”
“The resurrection is God’s attestation about Jesus to all people,” (Bock, 570) and Paul makes it the climax of his speech, even though he could be sure the notion would be shocking to his audience. Note that Paul does not identify Jesus by name and does not identify him as anything other than a man (andri). He is not referred to as “son of God.” There is no reference to his crucifixion, or the idea of atonement. Calvin went so far as to insist that Paul must actually have said much more about Jesus, and that the text is a mere summary of his speech. (Pervo, 440). But according to the text, Paul merely says that this man will judge the world “with justice” and that God has given proof of that by raising the man from the dead. The only thing cited by Paul as evidence of the man’s authority to judge the world, is that God raised him from the dead. Interestingly, the word translated here as “proof” is pistin, which is normally translated as “faith.” Thus, an alternative reading of this passage is that, through the resurrection, God has provided faith to everyone, a universalist suggestion which would fit well with Lukan theology. (Witherington, 511-12; Cf. Peterson, 503)
When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, “We want to hear you again on this subject.”
Epicureans did not believe in an afterlife and Stoic teaching on the afterlife was ambiguous. (Gaventa, 253). The resurrection of the dead, however, was no more believable to an educated unbelieving audience then than it is today. It is therefore perfectly understandable and unsurprising that some of Paul’s audience “sneered” at the suggestion. What is remarkable, however, is that some asked to hear more on the subject.
At that, Paul left the Council. Some of the people became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others.
That fact that some of the people became believers is crucial and is not sufficiently emphasized in some commentaries. Some characterize the speech as a failure, noting that there is no evidence of a continuing church in Athens. (Balge, 196) Others question the accuracy of the claim. (Pervo, 442; Bock, 571-72) But Luke seems plainly to announce that in the aftermath of Paul’s speech and the events surrounding it, some became believers—a particularly remarkable result given that these were not Jews or God-fearers.
MARS HILL IN THE 21ST CENTURY
Viewed as a successful attempt to introduce Jesus to a culture completely devoid of him, Paul’s speech is rich with implications for the missional church, particularly in the contemporary West. Pervo describes the speech as “an experiment in missionary theology” which “continues to challenge Christian thinkers.” (Pervo, 430). Paul “takes up prepositions of his audience with genuine respect but not uncritically and without masking his own presuppositions or compromising his views.” (Ibid.) Unlike other speeches recorded in Acts, Paul’s speech at Mars Hill contains no reference to the history of Israel, no direct quotations from Scripture, only an indirect reference to Jesus, and no mention of the crucifixion or atonement. (See Galenta, 247). Perhaps most remarkably, the authority cited by Paul to support his argument is pagan poetry originally addressed to the Greek god Zeus. For evidence of their religiosity, Paul points to one of their own pagan temples and argues that they are already worshipping the true God, even though his name and complete identity is not known to them. The speech is so unlike anything else found in the Biblical record of Paul’s preaching that some scholars dispute its legitimacy. (Peterson, 486). But while it undeniably differs significantly from passages such as Romans 1, the differences can be attributed to the audiences being addressed. Speaking to an audience of Jews or “God-fearing” Gentiles, Paul would naturally appeal to the authority they recognized. Likewise, when challenging the practices of Christians, Paul would naturally appeal to Christian authority. Such appeals and arguments would have been futile and nonsensical to the philosophers on Mars Hill. Instead, rather than be combative or confrontational, Paul was creative and culturally accommodating, choosing to use language and arguments designed to draw their interest to his message.
Paul’s ultimate response to the pagan philosophers is, of course, Jesus and the resurrection. (Peterson, 491). But Paul first established common ground with his audience, using terms and ideas that would have been recognizable and familiar to them, before turning his argument to Jesus and his resurrection. The Athenian philosophers resisted the notion that a dead man could be brought to life. Contemporary unbelievers will as well. Of course, the resurrection is essential to the gospel and the message cannot be delivered without it. But Paul chose not to lead off with that argument. Having done so would have lost his audience. Instead he made the resurrection the climax of his case, building to it without first alienating or offending his audience. In so doing, he assured that at least some of them would be sufficiently interested to want to hear more.
Importantly, in beginning his discourse, Paul chose not to pick a theological fight, or batter his opponents with doctrine and Scripture. Instead, he stressed God as Creator. He emphasized the essential unity of humanity through God. By citing to pagan poets and an inscription on a pagan temple, he demonstrated that the basic core truths of his faith could be found in religious traditions other than his own. He portrayed God as having been tolerant of imperfect worship and ignorance, but nevertheless wanting a universal change of heart. Paul emphasized that God will bring justice to all of creation, and that he uses one man as the vehicle to do so. He proclaimed that God gave proof/faith of this truth by the resurrection of that man, an action which only God could perform, and an action which is akin to that of creation.
God “is not far from any one of us,” Paul tells his audience. In Athens then, as in the unbelieving world now, groping attempts to find God can be perceived within the prevailing idolatry and philosophies. Indeed, turning those misdirected searches toward God is the challenge of the 21st Century missional church.
The text identifies three things about Athens in those days that are easily recognizable in the contemporary secular West: there is rampant idolatry, a high value is placed on knowledge and people are fascinated by the latest ideas. (See Peterson, 488). Paul recognized in the idolatry of the Athenians a groping search for God, and he presented his message in a way that resonated with the intellectual curiosity of the audience and their attraction to “new” ways of thinking. Perhaps these same approaches would be persuasive with educated people of the contemporary West.
Contemporary “philosophers” of the non-Christian worldview may not physically gather in one location to debate new ideas as they did in Athens, but in our “information age” there is a constant and ongoing debate pitting competing worldviews against one another. Whether it is in a classroom, a workplace, a pub, or an internet message board, a believer who desires to enter that debate will have no difficulty finding opportunities to do so.
How might Paul’s speech at Mars Hill serve as a model for “debate” with today’s pagan philosophers? Obviously there are many potential audiences and settings within which such an attempt might occur. The following scenario will imagine one such potential encounter.
PAUL IN ASHEVILLE
Paul loved visiting Asheville. The small city, nestled in the mountains of North Carolina, seemed to him like a cultural oasis. Its streets were lined with bookstores, art galleries and dozens of vegetarian restaurants serving locally-grown, organic food. At night music filled the air and at all hours the streets teemed with young people wearing sandals and tie-dyed shirts. It seemed to Paul that the most commonly spoken and written words in Asheville were “peace” and “love.”
But Paul was also great distressed by the town. While the shops and restaurants were filled with images and icons of Eastern and new age religions, there was no evidence of any Christian presence at all. It seemed to Paul that Jesus must not be welcome there.
Paul loved talking with the local artists and the modern-day hippies during his visits. Whenever he felt the opportunity, Paul mentioned the good news of Jesus and the resurrection. It saddened him that doing so usually brought awkward silence and an end to the conversations.
During one visit, however, Paul was at the local Farmer’s Market, talking with a few of the local restaurateurs who had come to buy fresh produce. During a discussion of how best to cook fresh kale, Paul mentioned in passing that he and his wife operate an organic farm. When someone asked what had led them to organic farming, Paul responded that it was their passion for “creation care.” Although he heard a few snickers, a young woman in the group asked, “What do you mean by ‘creation care’? I’ve never heard that term before and it sounds interesting.” (Paul knew that many in Asheville spent their time doing little other than talking about and listening to the latest ideas).
“One of the things I like best about Asheville is how spiritual the people here are,” Paul responded. “Everywhere I look in this town I see references to peace and love. I saw a particularly striking piece of sculpture on the way over here that was inscribed: LOVE IS THE ANSWER. I couldn’t agree more. Love IS the answer. But what is ‘love’? That is the question that led me and my wife to our passion for creation care.”
“We came to realize that there is a supreme source of peace and joy that transcends and flows over the whole universe,” Paul continued, noticing a few heads nodding as he did. “It nourishes our gardens and it nourishes our souls. There is nothing of any real value that can be made by human hands. At best those things are just poor attempts to create some impression of the real thing. The piece of sculpture I mentioned is beautiful, but it only suggests love. It isn’t love itself.”
“We came to realize that love orders the seasons and determines the boundaries of our human lives. All of humanity has a common source. We are all brothers and sisters. And our origin is love itself. Love created us, love binds us together, and love sustains us. As John Lennon put it, ‘All you need is love.’”
“Therefore, if all we need is love, and if love is the answer, then we must put our trust in love, and not in things made by the hands of humans. To quote a Grateful Dead lyric, ‘There is a fountain that is not made by the hands of men.’ So we went back to the farm to help us connect with the maker of those kinds of fountains—the kind that produce living water, which quenches thirst forever.”
“We came to realize that what whole world needs is a universal change of heart, and that love can be the source of that,” Paul continued, noticing that so far, for the first time in his many Asheville discussions about God, he had not lost anyone’s attention. “Love showed us that the world is going in the wrong direction, chasing after false gods. The world is seeking love in vain, but it’s like a blind man groping in the dark for it, even though love is not far from each one of us.”
“Like many organic farmers who share our values, my wife and I call what we do on our farm ‘creation care.’ We are not creators. At best, we can poorly imitate true creation. Instead, we are caretakers of a little slice of creation, which has been entrusted to us by love.”
“So what is love? God. God is love. And we have come to know that a man appointed by God is bringing justice to the whole world. God gave faith to the universe when she raised this man from the dead.”
Paul noticed that several of his listeners had turned away, put off no doubt by the “G” word. At the mention of resurrection, a few had even sneered at him. But Paul also noticed that a young woman who had begun to turn away, stopped and looked back when he used the word “she” to refer to God. It was the woman who had first asked him the meaning of “creation care.” As most of the people walked away, the woman remained, along with a few others, looking at Paul as if waiting for more. After a few moments of pregnant silence, the young woman spoke up, “I’d like to hear more about this sometime.”
“Sure,” Paul replied. “There’s nothing I enjoy talking about more. What’s your name?”
“Damaris,” she answered.
Paul’s method on Mars Hill seems particularly well-suited to evangelism in the contemporary West. One can easily imagine scores of situations like the fictional Asheville episode. As Michael Frost and Alan Hirsh argue convincingly:
It is absolutely vital for the gospel to be incarnated into the thousands of subcultures that now exist in our complex, postmodern, tribalized, Western contexts. It is vital that these multiform people and subcultures encounter Jesus from within their own cultures and from within their own communities, for only there can they truly comprehend him. It is now critical for the sake of the gospel itself that these people experience salvation in a way that does not dislocate them from their organic groups but rather allows them to encounter Jesus in a way that is seamlessly connected with life as they have come to understand it through their own histories and experiences.
(Frost and Hirsch, 40). Paul’s speech at Mars Hill, and the speech of my fictional Paul at the Asheville Farmer’s Market, sought to incarnate the gospel into the subculture of the audience, building on common ground by using language and concepts with which the audiences were comfortable, but without sacrificing or compromising the essential truth of the gospel.
The Athenians called Paul “spermologos.” As discussed above, the term was meant pejoratively, suggesting that he was a mere poser, using whatever philosophical lingo he had picked up from others to try to pass himself off as someone more profound and learned than he truly was. The Athenians captured this concept with the image of a seed-gathering bird.
The image of a seed-gathering bird brings something entirely different to my mind, however. The image it brings to my mind is far truer to what Paul really was.
In the rural countryside cedar trees commonly grow along old fence-lines. In fact, if a pasture has been there long enough, so many cedar trees will be growing along the old fence line that the fence itself will become obscured and the trees will become the de-facto fence. Cedar trees grow along fence lines because birds which have eaten the cedar seeds light on the fence, passing the undigested seeds (along with some fertilizer) onto the ground beneath them. In this way the birds bring trees to life by scattering and fertilizing seeds. They take what would otherwise have smothered in the shade of a mature cedar and deliver them to a place where they will prosper and grow. It seems to me that is what Paul did at Athens and throughout the Greek-speaking world of his day. He was a spermologos—a Word seeder– in the best and proper sense. May we all be.
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