Acts 17 - IVP New Testament Commentaries
Witness at Athens
The prevailing philosophies of the West's post-Christian era--secular humanism's scientific empiricism and the New Age pantheistic type of postmodernism--are remarkably similar to the Epicureanism and Stoicism Paul encountered at Athens. Paul's speech becomes a model for how to witness to the educated post-Christian mind, even as it spoke to Theophilus and his fellow seekers with their first-century pre-Christian minds.
When Paul arrived at Athens in the province of Achaia, he came to an anomaly. Though its population was no more than ten thousand and it had been reduced to poverty and submission by its war with Rome (146 B.C.), it was granted the status of a free city in view of its illustrious past. "Accordingly, although the time of her greatest glory was gone forever, Athens could still boast of her right to be called a great center of philosophy, architecture, and art"--and, we might add, religion (Madvig 1979b:352). In fact, what assaulted Paul's spirit was the ubiquitous idolatry (Livy History of Rome 45.27.11). Guarding the entrance to houses and shrines was a square pillar with the head of Hermes, the god of roads, gateways and the marketplace. What Paul met in Athens was "a forest of idols" (Wycherley 1968:619).
Paul is more than greatly distressed, for he experiences a paroxysm in his spirit, a provocation of anger or grief or both, because the glory due to God alone is being given to idols. The Lord reacted the same way to idolatry in Israel (Deut 9:7, 18, 22; Ps 106:28-29; Is 65:2-3; compare Is 42:8), and so should we. Any paraphernalia of false worship should provoke in us such grieving anger that we, jealous for the glory of God and his Christ, reach out and share the good news, which includes a call to repentance (Stott 1990:279).
Paul reaches out in witness not only in the synagogue (17:2, 10; 18:4) but also in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there. "The Athenian Agora [marketplace] was the center of the public and business life of the city, and people met there every day to learn the latest news and to discuss all manner of subjects. . . . Temples and government buildings, shops and offices, and altars and statuary filled the Agora, and stoas and colonnades gave protection against the summer sun and the winter rain and cold" (Finegan 1981:128). John Stott observes that the equivalent today is "a park, city square or street corner, a shopping mall or marketplace, a `pub,' neighborhood bar, cafe, discotheque or student cafeteria, wherever people meet when they are at leisure" (1990:281). We, like Paul, must go to where the people are, and to those settings where serious discussion of ideas, even religious ideas, is natural and expected.
Paul's evangelism again follows the pattern of "reasoning" about Jesus and the resurrection (compare 17:2-3). Epicurean and Stoic philosophers, representatives of two of the three major philosophical schools of thought in Paul's day, react to his message. The Epicureans mock, What is this babbler trying to say? The Stoics are curious: He seems to be advocating foreign gods.
Epicureans, atomic materialists, viewed reality as an endless chance combining and dispersion of atoms. They would find the concept of bodily resurrection laughable (Epicurus Epistle to Menoeceus 123-32). The Stoics, materialist pantheists, identified the divine as the principle of reason pervading all and, in the form of fate, governing all. Because of either their cyclic eschatology (belief that there were periodic conflagrations of the universe after which history simply repeated itself) or their later adoption of the Platonic concept of the soul's immortality, they could not conceive of resurrection (Chrysippus Fragment 625; Bahnsen 1980:11). Luke seems to indicate that they thought Paul was pointing to a female goddess, Anastasis, consort of the male god Jesus (McKay  disagrees, finding no extrabiblical evidence for "Anastasis" as a female deity).
These reactions show us that Paul had proclaimed the simple gospel with integrity to the intellectual sophisticates of Athens. And we must reintroduce post-Christians to Jesus with freshness, without resorting to the traditional formulations they will call the "old, old story." But we must do so with faithfulness, telling it the way it was and is.
Paul's message has created such a stir among the Epicureans and Stoics that they bring him before the Areopagus, Athens's chief legislative and judicial council. This body licensed traveling lecturers, and Paul's hearers want to see whether he should be given freedom to continue to teach. They want to understand this new teaching, for some strange (rather, "surprising, astounding") ideas are coming to their ears.
The Athenians had an ambivalent relation to "foreign gods." On the one hand, they were famous for incorporating alien deities into their pantheon (Strabo Geography 10.3.18). On the other hand, they believed they must stay vigilant lest "new gods" undermine the morals of the state (Stahlin 1967:7). So the issue here is understanding followed by evaluation: is this something good or not?
The fearless and relevant witness that follows models an approach that some Christians in every society must take. They must engage the opinion-makers and shapers of thought and "do battle with contemporary non-Christian philosophies and ideologies and philosophies in a way which resonates with thoughtful, modern men and women, and so at least gain a hearing for the gospel by the reasonableness of its presentation" (Stott 1990:281).
Luke seems to prepare us for the relative lack of positive response to Paul's sermon by portraying Athenians as intellectual dilettantes more than genuine seekers after truth. With skepticism making major inroads in the first century, Athens's intellectual life was characterized by uncertainty, turmoil and lack of progress, so that hunger for and fascination with the new was very strong (Bahnsen 1980:12). The postmodernist phase of the post-Christian era manifests the same tendencies. W. D. Davies, veteran New Testament scholar, wonders, "Is ours one of those situations in which `Things fall apart; the center cannot hold' because there is no one center and often no centers? . . . The new pluralism can often become banal, trivial and pretentious, like a fish in that ocean [of the transcendent] always keeping its mouth wide open, afraid to shut it, and therefore never taking a bite" (1986:58).
With irony Paul gives his assessment of the Athenians. He "sees" (theoreo, in the sense of perceives or understands; 17:16; 21:20; 27:10) that they are very religious (hos deisidaimonesterous). The Athenians' reputation for religious piety is well attested (Pausanias Description of Greece 1.17.1; 1.24.3; Strabo Geography 9.1.16). Hos desidaimonesterous may be understood either negatively as superstitious fear of the gods (Plutarch Moralia 164E-71F) or in a neutral, even positive sense, as the NIV (Aristotle Politics 5:9:15, p. 1315a). Paul puts the ambiguity to good use. In light of verses of 23 and 30, he probably wants to say "they have a religion . . . but it is wrongheaded" (Bock 1991:119). Here we have a respectful recognition of religious endeavors but not an acknowledgment that they lead to true, saving faith. Paul is telling a simple but limited truth and creating a basis for further comment.
Paul now uncovers the Athenians' admitted need: the knowledge of the one true God. As he walked around and observed (literally, "looked at again and again, examined carefully") their objects of worship, he found an altar with the inscription TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. Though there are a number of reports of such altars (Pausanias Description of Greece 1.1.4; 5.14.8; Philostratus Life of Apollonius of Tyana 6.3), only Diogenes Laertes (Lives of the Philosophers 1.110) gives a reason for their origin. Once when Athens was plagued by pestilence in the sixth century B.C. and the city rulers had exhausted all their strategies to abate it, they sent to Crete, asking the prophet Epimenides to come and help. His remedy was to drive a herd of black and white sheep away from the Areopagus and, wherever they lay down, to sacrifice them to the god of that place. The plague was stayed, and Diogenes Laertes says that memorial altars with no god's name inscribed on them may consequently be found throughout Attica. Wycherley proposes, with some archaeological justification, that such altars may also have been raised to appease the dead wherever ancient burial sites were disturbed by the building projects of later generations (1968:621).
Paul now makes his point of contact, saying that what [they] worship as something unknown (literally, "what they worship being ignorant") he will proclaim to them. Those who take these words as expressing both a positive and a negative relation between the religious pagan and the one true God see the positive relation as an ignorant worship of God (Haenchen 1971:521; Talbert 1984:74; Stott 1990:285). No new god is being introduced; it is simply that God's identity is being unveiled to those who admit, if only unconsciously, their ignorance.
And what about those in cultures who have never heard the gospel? Does the "positive" relationship Paul points to mean these ignorant worshipers are saved? Clark Pinnock is agnostic and says Acts 17:23 does not speak directly or decisively to this question (1991:110).
Yet the phrasing of the statement and the immediate context point to the conclusion that there is no such positive relation with the one true God. Paul is stressing the ignorance with which they worship, and this is again a limited point of contact; it is just a way to raise the basic question, Who is God? (Williams 1985:297). If Paul's audience has been worshiping the one true God all along, why is their ignorance culpable, something they must repent of (v. 30; compare vv. 27, 29)? Paul carefully uses the neuter "what" (ho . . . touto) in reference to his starting point: their objects of worship. He is probably making a transition to the subject of the divine nature (to theion, neuter). In so doing Paul stands clear of a direct equation of the unknown god and the one true God (Dupont 1979b:541).
Today we must note where post-Christians admit ignorance and study how the light of God's good news dispels that darkness.
Paul challenges Stoic pantheism and Epicurean materialistic deism by testifying that the God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth (Ps 146:6; Is 42:5). The implication for worship is that God does not live in temples built by hands (1 Kings 8:27; Acts 7:48-50). Interestingly, this was a tenet of Zeno, the founder of Stoicism; Plutarch takes subsequent generations to task for abandoning it in practice (Plutarch Moralia 1034B). In chiastic fashion Paul moves immediately to another implication: God is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Service (therapeuo) is "cultic ministry [and] consists in the bringing of sacrificial fruits and any cultic action which might give the impression that the deity is referred to some human performance" (Beyer 1965:129). God's self-sufficiency is affirmed in the Old Testament (Ps 50:7-15) and developed in Jewish prayer (2 Macc 14:35; 3 Macc 2:9). It was also a tenet of Epicureanism (Lucretius On the Nature of Things 2.650; Philodemus Pros eusebeias fr. 38). Paul brushes aside the necessity, let alone appropriateness, of idolatrous worship servicing the divine nature by affirming that, conversely, it is God who gives all men (NIV has supplied men; the reference could be much more comprehensive--all living creatures) life and breath and everything else (Gen 1:29; 2:7; 9:3; Is 42:5; Acts 14:17).
What good news Paul had for the Epicureans and Stoics living as they did under impersonal chance or inexorable fate! Behind or within reality stands neither of these but rather a gracious, personal Creator, Ruler and Sustainer of all. For modern scientific humanity, living as it does within an impersonal universe that has evolved quite by "chance" from the big bang to the last whimper of a dark and frigid night without starfire, Paul's message is also very good news. And for postmodern humanity this gracious, personal God breaks the bonds of pantheistic "karma."
Paul now concentrates on humankind. He affirms the creation of human beings by a direct act and declares that God's design was for various cultures ("every nation," pan ethnos) to cover the face of the earth in a harmonious patchwork of diversity (Gen 1:28; 9:1, 7; 10:5, 20, 31-32). That harmony is born of God's governance of the time period and the space each culture would inhabit (Deut 32:8; Ps 102:13; Dan 2:36-45; compare Stoics on divine providence--Seneca the Younger De Providentia; see Winter 1993:133-36). While Stoicism looked at humankind in its diversity and urged it to consider itself one community, "even as a herd that feeds together and shares the pasturage of a common field" (Plutarch Moralia 329B), Paul affirms both our unity and our diversity.
God's second design (not necessarily growing out of the first, as the NIV states, but parallel to it) was that men would seek him. In the biblical understanding this is "the thankful and reverent longing of the whole man for God whose goodness he has experienced" (Marshall 1980:288; Ps 14:2; Prov 8:17; Is 55:6; Jer 29:13; Amos 9:12 LXX; Heb 11:6).
Yet sin has interjected itself into the human experience, so that our "seeking" has become "groping" with no certainty of success, even though God is still very much present with us (compare Rom 1:18-32). The NIV's presentation of parallel purposes that men would seek him [God] and perhaps reach out (better "grope") for him and find him turns the qualifier clause about groping into a positive part of God's design. This lessens a main theme of the passage: ignorance of God (groping after him) is morally culpable and must be repented of.
Paul goes on to reinforce human responsibility for failing to seek and find God. He asserts God's presence in terms of our dependence on him. For in him we live and move and have our being. This is the converse of the Stoic pantheistic assertion that the divine spark of Reason, God, is in us (compare Dio Chrysostom Discourses 12.27; Posidonius as quoted in Barrett 1961:65). Paul appeals to the fourth- and third-century Stoic philosopher Aratus for confirmation: We are his offspring (Aratus Phenomena 5). His introductory remark (not a quote as NIV) cleanses the Aratus quotation of both its reference to Zeus and its pantheistic metaphysic (compare Renehan 1979:347; Edwards 1992). What is left is some recognition of the true nature of God, especially what humankind's being made in his image says about the divine nature (Bruce 1988:339). Being his offspring refers only to creation, not salvation, as the subsequent call to repentance clearly shows (Bock 1991:119).
For first-century Epicureans and twentieth-century moderns, the fact that God is the Father of humankind is challenging good news. No longer need we settle for the reductionistic explanation of humankind and its activity. We are not simply a complex interplay of electrical impulses, chemical processes, subatomic DNA and environment. And for Stoics and postmoderns, this good news makes us both less and more than they understand us to be. Pantheism or the "God within" is revealed as false, but in its place is the person made in God's image, living in conscious dependence on God.
As twice before (vv. 24-25) Paul draws implications for worship from these truths about God. His basic line of argument, found often in the Old Testament and Jewish literature, is that if like begets like, it is illogical to suppose that the divine nature that created living human beings is like an image made of an inanimate substance, no matter how valuable (Deut 4:28; Is 40:18-20; 44:9-20; Wisdom of Solomon 13:10; 15:7-17). Since such images are the product of human design and skill, they cannot be analogous to the divine being who made humankind.
This posed a direct challenge to some Stoic thought, which claimed that by following traditional myths of the poets and prophets along with innate reason, the divine spark within, idol-makers could appropriately represent the gods (Dio Chrysostom Discourses 12.44-46, 60). Postmodern thinking influenced by the New Age would find itself similarly challenged.
In "the times of ignorance"--all those past generations from the first human beings until Christ (except Noah's generation, Gen 6:5-8; 9:11-17)--God overlooked humankind's sin, especially false worship. He "overlooked" it not by excusing it or failing to notice it, but rather by not punishing it as it deserved (Rom 3:25; Acts 14:16). Now, however, God commands all people everywhere to repent. Each generation's problem is that their ignorant worship is culpable, rebellious, false worship. God's solution is not to receive more information but to make a radical turn from idolatry to the one true God (Acts 14:15; 26:20). Formerly humankind lived in a sinful ignorance that God in his mercy passed over. Now, after sin has been judged in Jesus' death and resurrection, comes the "day of salvation" in a gospel proclaimed in his name, calling for repentance and promising forgiveness. Today there is no room in God's economy, as Paul preaches it, for so-called B.C. Christians--persons saved without knowledge of Christ and his saving work (contrast Kraft 1979:231).
The call to repentance is urgent because the consequences for not repenting--a final judgment and eternal condemnation--are inescapable. The judgment is definite (he has set a day; Lk 17:24, 30; 21:34-36), universal (he will judge the world, or "whole inhabited world"; Acts 11:28; 17:6), fair (with justice; Ps 96:13) and personal (by the man he has appointed, Jesus; Jn 5:27; Acts 10:42). Though the Greek philosophers might envision a judgment on souls in the hereafter as part of a reincarnation scheme, they find a final judgment, as Paul declares it, incredible (Buchsel and Herntrich 1965:933-34).
The proof Paul offers to establish his argument is Jesus' resurrection. That event, itself established by many "undeniable proofs" (1:3), guarantees the reality of this future event and thus authenticates the urgency of the call to repentance. The resurrection is, then, the linchpin for both potential ways of applying the death and resurrection of the Christ to one's eternal destiny. It establishes both the warning of judgment and the promise of salvation blessings (2:32-33; 5:30-32; 10:40-42).
For the Greeks, and especially the Epicureans, resurrections simply didn't happen. Interestingly, Aeschylus said that at the inauguration of the court of the Areopagus, Apollo stated, "Once he [man] is slain; there is no resurrection" (Eumenides 648). No wonder some Areopagus members, especially Epicureans who saw death as merely a dispersal of atoms, respond to Paul with mockery. And modern empiricists respond to such incredible claims in the same way. Greg Bahnsen's point is well taken (1980:9, 17-22): we will be following Paul's example and spend our energies wisely if we try to help moderns wrestle with the presuppositions that prevent them from even entertaining the possibility of a resurrection, rather than trying to prove its historicity within a modern scientific framework.
The Stoics seem to respond to Paul with jaded curiosity: We want to hear you again on this subject. Though at other times during his missionary witness Paul was able to capitalize on people's genuine curiosity (13:42, 44; 17:2, 11), Luke does not tell us whether Paul ever had opportunity to take the Areopagites up on their request. At the very least, their response delays Paul's licensing and effectively curtails his activity. Paul will encounter such exercises in procrastination again (24:25; 26:28). Procrastination leaves people in their unrepentant state, facing only certain judgment. They must embrace the Savior now if they are to be rescued from wrath later, when he comes as Judge. Postmoderns who delay commitment must watch out lest they procrastinate all the way to the judgment seat of Christ.
But some (tines; NIV's few may be too negative) of Paul's hearers do decide to become followers of ("associate intimately with"; 5:13; 9:26; 10:28) Paul and express saving faith (16:31, 34; 17:12). Luke names Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus council, and Damaris, probably part of the crowd and a foreign-born courtesan, since no Greek women of polite society would have had an opportunity to hear Paul in public (Metzger 1971:459-60, following Ramsay; Polhill 1992:378-79 thinks this is a general summary statement about fruit from witness in synagogue, marketplace and Areopagus, and therefore does not necessarily say anything about Damaris' social status). Luke desires the same believing response from his readers--Theophilus, his fellow seekers and us.