“The men who escorted Paul brought him to Athens and then left with instructions for Silas and Timothy to join him as soon as possible. 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 the Jews and the God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there.” Acts 17:15-17
Although Paul departed rather quickly from Berea, Timothy and Silas had remained there until they could join Paul. Paul filled his time waiting for their arrival by continuing his missionary purpose to share Jesus Christ with others. But what he encountered in Athens greatly distressed him. Athens was a free, allied city of the Roman Empire and still considered a leading center of learning during the time of Paul. Grand statues to the Roman emperor and other heads of state were located at the Acropolis and throughout the city. Everywhere Paul looked he would have seen a form of idolatry to either famed men or gods. The citizens of this city also valued learning and the discussion of ideas. A group of people from two of the more popular schools of thought, the Epicureans and the Stoics, began to dispute with Paul over his message.
“A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to dispute with him. Some of them asked, “What is this babbler trying to say?” Others remarked, “He seems to be advocating foreign gods.” They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection. 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 want to know what they mean.” (All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.)” Acts 17:18-21
The Epicureans were founded around 307 B.C. and their philosophical and ethical worldview was based on the materialistic atomic theory of Democritus. Pleasure was the chief end in life with the highest pleasure being those of the mind. They sought to be free from both passions and superstitious fear. The Epicurean motto written by Diogenes in A.D. 200 stated; “Nothing to fear in God; Nothing to feel in death; Good [pleasure] can be attained; Evil [pain] can be endured.” This school of thought is at odds with Christianity because of its tendency towards atheism. Epicureanism emphasized the neutrality of the gods and their non-interference with human lives. They also rejected any possibility of an afterlife. “In modern popular usage, an epicure is a connoisseur of the arts of life and the refinements of sensual pleasures, especially of good food and drink, attributable to a misunderstanding of the Epicurean doctrine, as promulgated by Christian polemicists.” (The Basics of Philosophy post by Luke Mastin)
Stoics, on the other hand, were panentheists. They believed that a divine rational ordering principle is in all things and beings. Their name comes from their meeting place, the Stoa Poikile [painted portico] on the northwest side of the Athenian agora. They believed that God’s relationship to the world was seen as analogous to that between the soul and the body. Their goal was “to live in accord with the rational principle that indwelt all things, and so to live according to nature.” They “emphasized the preeminence of the rational over the emotions, believing in self-sufficiency or autonomy as the highest good.” “The philosophy asserts that virtue (such as wisdom) is happiness and judgment should be based on behavior, rather than words. That we don’t control and cannot rely on external events, only ourselves and our responses.” One of the most famous Stoics was Seneca. He was a contemporary of Paul and served as counsel to Nero until his death.
These philosophers take Paul to the Areopagus. The council had subsidized teaching chairs during this time and was comprised of Plutonists, Peripatetics, Epicureans, and Stoics. Greeks didn’t accept the idea of a resurrection from the dead or of a final judgment by a one true God. They wanted to hear more teaching by Paul to understand what he was sharing with their citizenry. The council had the responsibility for maintaining religious customs and order in the city and also acted a a court to dispense verdicts and justice when necessary.
“Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. 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. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you.” Acts 17:22,23
What angle would you choose to persuade another to adopt your belief system and leave their own behind? Paul persuasively chose the course of flattery and acknowledgement. He treated their current systems with respectful interest but closed his opening statement with a hook. In a place where anyone or any god was worshiped, this culture had constructed an altar to worship an unknown one. These types of altars were known in antiquity. Using the term unknown to define the god that they wished to worship could have been used an an expression of doubt, used to avoid misnaming a god and therefore avoid the god’s wrath, or a foreigner unfamiliar with the name of the god. Whatever the identifier indicated, these people wanted to ensure their protection from what they didn’t know.
Questions to Consider
- Was Paul taking a risk by ministering to the people of Athens without his companions with him? Am I afraid to serve God without the assistance of others? Why or why not?
- Do I see any evidence of idols around me? If so, am I greatly distressed by them or have they become part of the fabric of life? Why or why not?
- Do I engage others touting a different message from my own? Do I seek to understand their philosophy? Why or why not? Am I able to offer them the message of Christ?
- Do I embrace the newest ideas or do I evaluate the things that I hear and see against the plumbline of scripture? Why or why not?
- Can I think of any modern day examples of Epicureans or Stoics?