|Guest Article: Lita Cosner. Lita is a specialist in New Testament studies and obtained a B.A. (summa cum laude) in Biblical Studies from Oklahoma Wesleyan University in 2008. She received an M.A. (cum laude) in New Testament from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in 2012. Her thesis is titled Jesus the Honorable Broker: A Social-Scientific Exegesis of Matthew 15:21–28. She joined CMI as Information Officer in 2010, and is a prolific contributor to the website, Creation magazine, and the Journal of Creation. You can find more information and articles by Lita at Creation.com.
In modern times, many people try to present the Gospel in ways that will make it seem more attractive to their ‘target audience’. Whether it is the ‘seeker-sensitive’ movement in churches, contextualization in Muslim-dominated countries, or reinterpreting the Bible’s teachings on marriage or creation, people often seem to want to make the Gospel as inoffensive as possible.
Paul’s address to the Areopagus is often cited as a model of ‘contextualization’ of the Gospel—presenting it in a way that is especially crafted to the sensibilities of his audience. In a way, this is correct—Paul did consider the sensibilities of his audience. But his specially crafted message challenged their core beliefs, and aimed to correct the critical errors in their thinking. In the process, he succeeded in offending and alienating most of his audience. This is quite a different approach from that of many people today!
The account of Paul’s time in Athens begins with a statement that “his spirit was provoked him as he saw that the city was full of idols” (Acts 17:16). In Paul’s day, the beautiful statues that many people now admire in museums were actually worshipped in temples as gods and goddesses.
Paul’s response was to go to the local synagogue to teach the Jews and Gentile God-fearers about Jesus the Messiah, as was his normal practice. But he also conversed in the open marketplace, where Greeks would traditionally gather for philosophical conversations and debate. Paul’s letters would show that he was skilled in the sort of structured arguments and rhetorical styles that would be expected in such a place.
But if the structure of Paul’s arguments was familiar to the Athenians, the content certainly wasn’t. Acts says that he was preaching “Jesus and the resurrection” (17:18). The Athenians called him a “preacher of foreign divinities”.
They took him from the informal setting of the marketplace to the formal setting of the Aeropagus—the appropriate place for serious debate where they could judge Paul’s claims. The reason everyone was gathered to hear Paul, Luke tells us, is because “all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new” (17:21). This regional generalization, like “all Cretans are liars” (Titus 1:12), reflects the broader cultural opinion about them. Thucydides said of the Athenians:
No men are better dupes, sooner deceived by novel notions, or slower to follow approved advice. You despise what is familiar, while you are worshippers of every new extravagance. … In a word, you are at the mercy of your own ears, and sit like spectators attending a performance of sophists, but very unlike counselors of a state. 
And commentator F.F. Bruce notes: “The Athenians themselves admitted that their passion for anything new could be carried to excess”. 
That Paul was addressing Epicureans and Stoics is important for understanding why Paul phrased his arguments the way he did. They represented two rival philosophies in Athens in that day. Epicureans were materialists who did not believe in any sort of afterlife. Rather, their highest ideal was found in the combination of tranquility and the absence of pain. They believed that the gods themselves were beings who lived in the empty spaces between the planets, and that their existence was characterized by the Epicurean ideals.
The Stoics, on the other hand, taught self control and determinism—one could not change one’s fate, so the best one could do is refuse to be emotionally influenced by things one has no control over. They believed in a sort of pantheism, and would have denied any meaningful distinction between God and the universe.
Paul was clearly aware of these philosophies, or he would not have been able to formulate such a direct attack on them in his address. It is important to remember that Acts gives us Luke’s summary of Paul’s speech—his actual address to the Areopagus would have been much longer. But Luke gives us the highlights and general structure, and the turns of phrase may be genuinely from Paul.
The unknown god
Paul’s first phrase is generally translated, “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious”. But the word translated ‘religious’, δεισιδαίμων (deisidaimōn), could just as easily have a connotation of ‘superstitious’. And as we will see, this translation fits the overall tenor of his address. “By the end of the speech, the Athenians themselves would have little doubt about Paul’s real opinion of their religiosity.” 
Exhibit A of the Athenians’ superstition was their idol worship. The Athenians had gods for every area of life imaginable, but they were completely ignorant of the true God, who could not be represented by an idol and who did not need their temples and sacrifices.
There are several possible explanations for what the altar ‘to the unknown god’ might have been. Some scholars dispute the existence of such an altar, but F.F. Bruce presents a scenario in which it would be likely for such an altar to exist: “When a derelict altar was repaired and the original dedication could not be ascertained, the inscription, “To the (an) unknown god” would have been quite appropriate.”  Another is that the Athenians were covering all their bases with a generic altar to cover any gods they might otherwise inadvertently neglect. Some claim that Paul is saying that they are worshipping the true God in ignorance through this altar, but nothing could be further from the truth. Paul is driving home the point that they are superstitious and ignorant of the true God.
Paul makes his speech even more offensive when he says, “Therefore what you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you”. He is speaking to the religious, cultural, and intellectual elite, and claiming to know better than they do! This would be particularly galling to the Stoics, who considered it their duty to examine nature because they believed all nature had a ‘divine spark’ in it. Ignorance was something like a ‘cardinal sin’ for them, and that is precisely what Paul is accusing them of. 
Paul establishes that both the Epicureans and the Stoics are wrong. God is neither the universe nor part of the universe; rather, “God … made the world and everything in it” (Acts 17:24). This would have been hard for the Greeks to grasp. As Polhill explains:
Paul began with the basic premise that runs throughout his speech: God is Creator. He referred to God as the maker of the “world” (kosmos), a term that would be familiar to every Greek. The concept of God as absolute Creator, however, would not be so easy for them to grasp. For them divinity was to be found in the heavens, in nature, in humanity. The idea of a single supreme being who stood over the world, who created all that exists, was totally foreign to them. 
Furthermore, the Epicureans were also wrong about God’s non-intervention in the world. In fact, our existence is dependent on God’s continual provision. Paul’s God is not a deistic god who simply created the universe and left it to its own devices: “God is a personal God who not only creates but also sustains everything he has made. This self-sufficient God daily cares for man and for his great creation in the minutest details. God is the source of life, for he gives breath to all living creatures.”  Paul establishes the immanence and transcendence of the Creator God in a sweeping statement that contradicts as much of the Greeks’ beliefs as possible.
Man and his relationship to God
Having countered their core errors about God, he moves on to their errors about man. Historically, the Athenians belonged to the earliest migration into Greece, and they were also the only Greeks on the mainland who had no tradition of their ancestors’ migration. They prided themselves “on being autochthonous—sprung from the soil of their native Attica”.  Paul counters this unfounded exceptionalism with the biblical message that all humanity is descended from one man, Adam. It is speculative, but Paul may have filled out this part of the discourse with details about how God created mankind and how the nations spread out from Babel. It was important for Paul’s argument for the Athenians to know where they came from.
This also has implications for how he wants the Athenians to understand God. “The God whom Paul proclaimed was no local Jewish cult God, He was the one sovereign Lord of all humankind.” 
Paul goes on to explain God’s reasons for providing for humanity: “that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us …” (Acts 17:27). The reason God ordered everything as He did was to enable one to seek God. The Stoics would have agreed with this in principle, but their philosophy said that God could be understood through observation of nature. But we know from Romans 1 that Paul believed that all such general revelation was only sufficient to condemn people, not to save them. And the grammar here expresses strong doubt that this actually happens. As Polhill notes: “There is no question about God’s providence; there is about humanity’s ability to make the proper response.” 
Witness from Greek poets
Luke told us that the Athenians loved discussing new ideas, but Paul now quotes some very old ideas to support his argument. First, he quotes Epimenides who lived in the 7th–6th century BC, long before either the Epicurean or Stoic philosophy was created: “In him we live and move and have our being”. Epimenides was allegedly referring to the Cretans’ claim that Zeus, the king of the Greek pantheon, was mortal. He countered that Zeus was immortal and even the source of their own life. The only record we have of the context of this quote is from the 9th century commentary on Acts by Isho’dad of Merv:
They fashioned a tomb for you, high and holy one,
Cretans, always liars, evil beasts, idle bellies. 
But you are not dead; you live and abide forever,
For in you we live and move and have our being. 
The second quotation is from a Stoic poet named Aratus, who was also referring to Zeus. However, in Stoicism, Zeus is not a personal god, rather, Zeus is the supreme ordering principle of the universe:
Let us begin with Zeus. Never, O men, let us leave him unmentioned. All the ways are full of Zeus, and all the market-places of human beings. The sea is full of him, and so are the harbors. In every way we have all to do with Zeus—for we are truly his offspring. 
Paul is not equating Zeus with the true God by quoting these poets. Neither is he saying that one can gain a true understanding of God from the pagan philosophers. He is, however, appropriating their ideas to make his own point.
If we are God’s children, God must be greater than us, not something we can mold with stone or metal. This polemic against idols is very much like what is found in Isaiah when he protests the utter senselessness of worshipping molded things as if they were gods.
A command to repent
Everything Paul has said to this point has been a foundation that was necessary to establish Paul’s position. He had to cut through the Greeks’ false ideas about God and man to get to the point where the Gospel would make sense to them. And he did not pull any punches, but got straight to the point. He said that God formerly overlooked the ‘times of ignorance’—keeping in mind how offensive it would be for Paul to call his audience ignorant. This is similar to Paul’s statement in Lystra that God formerly “allowed all the nations to go their own way” (Acts 14:16). Bruce claims, “It is implied in these places that the coming of Christ marks a fresh start in God’s dealings with the human race.” 
Paul just argued that God was the Creator and Father of all people. Now he warns that God is also the judge of all people. And He will judge the world through a man—Jesus—whose chosen status was confirmed via the Resurrection. At the end of the discourse, he finally gets back to the key topics that so intrigued the Athenians to begin with—Jesus and the Resurrection.
A message most rejected
There were a variety of reactions to Paul’s message. To most Greeks, the ‘ideal state’ was thought to be a disembodied spiritual existence. They perceived the idea of physical resurrection as impossible, ridiculous, and grotesque. Yet it is a central doctrine, which is why Paul took such a long time to explain and defend it in 1 Corinthians 15. However, this doctrine caused most of his audience to immediately dismiss his claims.
Others said that they would like to hear Paul speak again. Some people would interpret this as positive interest, but we have to remember Luke’s mockery of the Athenians as people who simply wanted to hear new ideas. Christianity is not some lofty philosophy that one can just listen to over and over again—it demands a response.
Only a few people responded in genuine faith. If Paul was contextualizing, he did not do a very good job, because only a few people were interested in hearing more after his first address! Rather, the lesson to learn from Paul’s addresses at Lystra and Athens is that evangelism must start with a correct understanding of the God to whom we must be reconciled.
The reason Paul’s message was so offensive was because it was far removed from and completely opposed to key Greek beliefs about reality. Paul’s offensiveness was necessary and came from undermining the false foundational beliefs the Athenians had about the nature of both God and themselves.
It is easy to see a parallel between Paul’s message and creation evangelism today. It’s often difficult to evangelize people today without telling them some very controversial, even offensive, things about God’s actions in history and their own need to repent from false beliefs, and even false worship. When we share the Gospel, we should expect to be ridiculed by the mainstream culture, because what we are saying runs deeply counter to many things that the culture holds dear.
Therefore, rather than trying to ‘contextualize’ a watered-down message in order to avoid persecution or ridicule, as many do today, one needs to determine what false beliefs people have, and to try to overcome them “with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15).
- Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War 2.38.5, tr. Jowett, B., Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1881.
- Bruce, The Book of the Acts, p. 332.
- Polhill, J.B., Acts, NAC (Broadman & Holman: Nashville, TN, 2001), p. 371.
- Bruce, The Book of the Acts, pp. 335–336.
- Ibid., 336.
- Polhill, Acts, p. 372.
- Kistemaker, S.J. and Hendriksen, W., Exposition of the Acts of the Apostles, BNTC (Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, MI, 1990), p. 634.
- Bruce, The Book of the Acts, p. 337.
- Polhill, Acts, p. 374.
- Ibid., 375.
- Paul cited this in Titus 1:12.
- Cited in Bruce, The Book of the Acts, p. 339.
- Aratus, cited in Bruce, The Book of the Acts, p. 339.
- Bruce, The Book of the Acts, p. 340.