Imagination is stirred by Christianity’s brilliant apostle standing before his best-educated audience—at Athens, the center of Greek culture. It is an appropriate part of Acts, which describes more lands and peoples than any other historical book of the Bible. Paul’s missions there contain the physical adventure of travel and the moral excitement of confronting established ways with new truths of a revealed religion. A drama too vivid to be historical? Some scholars think so, but others are deeply impressed with the subtle connections of Acts and cultural realities in the places that Paul evangelized.1 This is especially true at Athens, where the daily life of the city breathes through the lines of Acts 17:16–32. Here are accurate glimpses of the beliefs of its leaders, its informal politics, the life of its marketplace, and the bold testimony of the apostle superimposed on it all.
No letter of Paul is preserved from Athens, but Acts harmonizes intimately with the apostle’s letters to the cities visited before and after: Thessalonica in northern Greece and Corinth in the south. Epistles to both places are notable for recounting plain speaking in the face of skepticism about Christ. Paul told the Thessalonians that the gospel was a divine trust, which he proclaimed not with a view to “pleasing men, but God, which trieth our hearts.” (1 Thes. 2:4.) Paul told the Corinthians that above all he had preached the mission of Christ to them, bearing such “testimony” without elegance of speech. (See 1 Cor. 2:1–3.) Although some see Paul on the opposite course in Athens, such is not the case. For the climax of his message was the call to repentance and the resurrection of Christ. If Paul spoke to the Athenian intellectuals in their own terms, he did so not to flatter them but to expose the weaknesses in their thinking. Because modern intellectuals hold some positions similar to the educated Athenians that heard Paul, his message demands a close look—going behind translated terms and mere names to see the specific problems that the apostle identified and the particular answers he gave. The excitement of the story is preserved by reviewing it in sequence.
Even today it is hard to enter Athens without reverence for the unexcelled skill and taste of its ancient builders. This was not Paul’s reaction, however, since he saw not merely admirable buildings but operating pagan shrines filled with images of the gods and goddesses. His was not a snap judgment, for Paul said, “I passed by and beheld your devotions.” (Acts 17:23.)2 The phrase could be more literally translated: “I have gone throughout the city and looked over your shrines.” Ancient travelers reported doing the same, usually with awe, though one joke ran that it was easier to find a god than a man in Athens. Excavations of the past century have uncovered scores of major temples, altars, and divine statues there.3 The city Paul saw was described in detail a few years later by the pagan pilgrim Pausanius. He walked through the well-preserved temple of Hephaistos in the city center, with its twin statues of the god of the forge and of Athena, whose image was found throughout “her” city. Nearby was a large temple of Ares, and not far away the altar of the twelve gods, generally understood as Zeus and his court of Olympians. Between buildings in this vicinity stood scores of “Herms,” the strange rectangular blocks shaped only with male heads and genitals. An ancient historian said that they existed “in great numbers both in the doorways of private homes and in sacred places.”4 Paul no doubt walked from this area to the high acropolis, which dominates central Athens. To reach its temples, he passed the high outside statue of Athena as war-guardian of the city. In her central temple there, the Parthenon, Paul gazed upward on her forty-foot gold and ivory statue. No city excelled Athens in sheer concentration of divine objects, and Paul was depressed by the sight. All this explains the terse report of Acts that the apostle was “stirred” within because the city was “wholly given to idolatry.” (Acts 17:16.) More precisely the apostle was “provoked” or “irritated” by a city “full of idols.”
Paul always used the Jewish community as a base of operations, and Athens was no exception. He “disputed” or “reasoned” with the Jews in their synagogue—and there also with the “devout persons,” non-Jews who were attracted to the religion and shared its general principles and fellowship. But special preaching situations are added in Athens that are not mentioned in other Greek cities of Paul’s ministry. He also met daily with groups in the “market.” (See Acts 17: 17.) The Greek term is agora, and the Athenian historian or archaeologist immediately feels connotations of the vigorous interchange of ideas that accompanied the business transactions in the public square. It was filled with the religious objects already mentioned, and with tall and long buildings of pillared porches (stoai), some being civic offices. This huge area below the acropolis also contained vendors’ tables between buildings and on covered walkways. Frequented by men of leisure, the agora regularly contained clusters of discussion groups whose subjects ranged from gossip to politics to philosophy. Socrates had been “accustomed to speak in the agora at the tables” to the curious.5 And it rings true that the outsider Luke viewed the Athenian crowd as spending their entire time “in nothing else but either to tell or to hear some new thing.” (Acts 17:21.)
Here Paul did not judge Athens without receiving its sneers back. The crowd’s insolence comes in Athenian idiom when he was called “this babbler,” but the King James Version is not in sharp focus. The label spermologos is literally “seed-picker,” applied to various scavenging birds and moving to the modern Greek meaning of a “gossip.” Paul was then preaching plainly of “Jesus and the resurrection.” (Acts 17:18.) Yet with the carelessness of those who knew too much, some merely laughed Paul off as a peddler of scattered ideas.
There were substantial men in Paul’s audience, philosophers of the Stoic and Epicurean schools. And they were puzzled by Christ and his resurrection—such doctrines were “strange things to our ears.” (Acts 17:20.) A look at their own views shows why. Both schools of thought arose three centuries before Paul in the climate of Greek rationalism and attempted to modify the superstitions of traditional religion. Thus Athens was not wholly idolatrous, a fact that Paul took into consideration as he later addressed his educated audience there. Epicureans took their name from their founder Epicurus, an Athenian of broad experience who founded a school and left his writings to dominate it. He did not deny the existence of traditional gods, but made them irrelevant to life by picturing them as distant and unconcerned with the world. For Epicureans the physical creation was made up of chance combinations of atoms (an earlier concept), and man was as temporary as material objects. Death would bring dissolution and a termination of consciousness. To the Epicurean this was a concept of hope, because troubles and pain would dissolve as death obliterated the individual. Yet there was a nobility in this teaching, for man’s duty in life was to seek maximum pleasure—defined not as sensual pleasure but in terms of the higher joys of life. Such teaching could be perverted, but the philosophers held to moral obligations as a condition of happiness. Thus they would admire Paul’s message of self-control but find personal immortality in the resurrection a jolt to their system of thinking.
The Stoics in Paul’s audience had a history parallel to the Epicureans. Their founder was Zeno, and because he lectured in Athens in the Painted Stoa, his movement was nicknamed “Stoics.” It attracted creative thinkers who added to the concepts of the system. By Paul’s day it was the most popular philosophic movement, with Roman statesmen like Cicero and Seneca adherents to its basic concepts. Stoicism had rejected the pagan gods in favor of veneration of supreme reason, not personified, but seen as permeating the universe—a form of pantheism. Man’s duty was to place himself in harmony with reason and nature, renouncing selfish desires for a virtuous life. Yet the common Stoic view was that souls were less than eternal, perishing in periodic, fiery destructions that would begin further cycles of creation. For instance, the Stoic Epictetus, a freedman-philosopher of Paul’s century, spoke of the divine call to death: “He has thrown open the door and says to you, ‘Go.’ Where? To nothing you need fear, but back to that from which you came, … to the basic elements.”6 As Paul proclaimed a personal Savior and physical resurrection, Stoics would feel sharp differences from their views of God and man.
These skeptical philosophers brought Paul to another gathering: “they took him and brought him unto Areopagus.” (Acts 17:19.) The King James version adds false definiteness by narrating the opening of Paul’s speech there: “Then Paul stood in the midst of Mars’ hill.” (Acts 17:22.) But the above King James terms are italicized to show that they translate the same Greek word, Areios Pagos, either meaning the hill of Ares (or Romanized Mars)—the ancient place of judgment above the agora and below the Acropolis—or meaning the council that originally sat upon that hill. Had the council continued to meet in its traditional site in Paul’s day, it would not matter as much whether one should translate Areios Pagos as the hill or the council, but evidence suggests that the Areopagus judges sometimes changed their location. A source reasonably near Paul’s day notes that “the Council of the Areopagus, when sitting in the Royal Stoa, has itself roped off, is left to itself quite undisturbed, and everyone keeps out of the way.”7 This Royal Stoa has recently been excavated on the outer part of the agora; thus it might be the site of Paul’s speech rather than the hill where tourists see the bronze commemorative plaque.
Although the question is not above debate, a substantial number of good translations are confident that Paul was brought before “the Court of the Areopagus” (New English Bible, Barclay, Wuest), or “the Council of the Areopagus” (Jerusalem Bible, Goodspeed, C. H. Rieu, Phillips, C. K. Williams), or even “the meeting of the Areopagus” (Bratcher). A close reading of the Greek text supports this translation, for when the speech was over Paul “departed from among them” (Acts 17:33) or very literally “departed from their midst” (ek mesou auton). This expression parallels the beginning of the speech, standing “in the midst of” the Areopagus (Acts 17:22, en meso tou Areiou Pagou). If he left their midst at the end, the first understanding of entering “the midst of the Areopagus” should be a group of persons by that name, not the hill.
Paul was a special witness not only to the gentiles as a whole, but even to their leaders in education and political status. In each major Greek location before and after Athens the pattern was similar. At Philippi and Thessalonica, a divided populace heard the Christian testimony and brought Christians before their civic leaders. (See Acts 16:19–21, Acts 17:5–8.) Afterwards at Corinth the same thing happened, with Paul brought to the highest court there, the provincial governor himself. (See Acts 18:12–13.) Luke apparently intended to narrate a parallel at Athens: the philosophers bringing Paul to a formal or informal hearing of the highest civic leaders. In Paul’s day the Areopagus was the municipal council with broad regulatory powers, staffed by upper classes. They would inevitably be concerned with the message that had caused riots in other Greek cities. This body, and the philosophers that brought about the hearing, would merge as an audience accustomed to logic and aware of systems of thought. Paul’s opportunity was great, and he spoke as one knowing both their general convictions and how the gospel message could affect them.
Paul’s opening to the Areopagus audience was a compliment or a mild insult, depending upon the translation taken. The King James renders deisidaimon as “superstitious,” though this adjective means basically “god-fearing” and could also be used in a positive sense of “religious.” Most translations take this latter sense as the intention of the apostle. Josephus called the Athenians “the most pious of the Greeks,”8 which is probably what Paul intended to say to his audience at the outset of a speech notably empathetic with their views. Then the apostle moved to symbolize his message by the altar he had seen with the inscription (literally) “to an unknown god.” (See Acts 17:23.) Though scholars debate trivialities here, such dedications are well known. Pausanius reported the “altar of unknown gods” at the national shrine of Olympia; he had also seen “altars of the gods named unknown” in the Athenian harbor area.9 Perhaps Paul (or even Luke) transformed a dedication to plural gods into commemoration of a single unknown being. The point is not the god but the unknown. When all the ingenuity of ancient mythology was finished, the Greeks were still not sure that they had included all possible divine beings.
Paul’s approach was far more than a trick of rhetoric, for the main point of his speech was the impossibility of knowing the divine without direct revelation. The altar set the theme, and Paul moved to emphasize it with a play on words that the King James translation obscures in the sentence: “Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you.” (Acts 17:23.) “Ignorant” has negative connotations probably not felt in the original speech.10 Paul had named the god of the altar as “agnostos theos,” the adjective before theos (god) prefixed by the negating “a,” making the adjective “unknown.” Next Paul began to declare the true God by applying a similar adjective to the Athenians, agnoountes—their altar proved that they were in an “unknowing” state. And the body of the speech developed that theme.
Athens was a paradox: a showpiece of traditional paganism led by men whose education fostered disbelief in human myths about their gods. Thus Paul’s speech reminded this audience of what they generally knew: that human shrines and statues could not possibly capture the majesty of the true creator; that all move and think through his power—in fact men are his “offspring” (genos), literally of the divine “race” or “class.” (See Acts 17:28.) Paul attributes that concept to “certain … of your own poets,” and the exact wording follows the opening lines of Aratus of Soli (near Tarsus), whose epic on astronomy praised Zeus in Stoic terms as the creator and supporter of men. Cleanthes, a prominent early Stoic, had similarly praised nature’s ruler: “From thee was our offspring; ours alone of all that live, the lot to bear thy likeness.”11 Such concepts were verbally similar to the Christian message of man as the fellow-sharer of God’s kingdom in eternity, though that message went far beyond Stoic pessimism of an after-life. Yet Paul advanced a common point of beginning as he probably gestured toward the magnificent temples and drew the picture of a God who transcended them all.
Thus Paul praised philosophy for going beyond idolatry but characterized its era as one of preparation only. Even the past men “might feel after” God, though Paul definitely does not say that the Greeks had found him. (See Acts 17:27.) Paul used a term once applied to the blind and groping Cyclops in the cave, suggesting a limited reach for something more than the conflicting divinities of mythology. Paul represented God as tolerant even of an era of ignorance that he had “winked at,” one of the more archaic King James images. But the Greek simply says that God “overlooked” such “times of this ignorance.” (See Acts 17:30.) Now the close of the body of Paul’s speech refers back to its introduction. Idolatry and its critic, philosophy, had both arisen in the “times of ignorance.” The second noun parallels the two similar adjectives of the introduction, which stressed the “unknown god” and the “unknowing” Athenians who included such a being in their worship. Paul depicted their city and religion in a period of agnoia—accurately, “ignorance,” but formed again on the model of negating the word for knowledge—a period of “unknowing” or “lack of knowledge.” The concept is stunning for a student of Greek thought, stating that its greatest minds fell short of the mark of really knowing the Creator. Paul simply says that philosophy can grope after God but will not fully find him. The past was preparation for a day of revelation, the climax of Paul’s message.
Some commentators seem to stop here in Paul’s speech without reading his conclusion. They report a “style of address … not congenial to Paul’s temperament.”12 He made fundamental “errors”13 at Athens, chiefly the use of “mere academic argument.”14 It is true that just before Athens, in the synagogue at Thessalonica, the apostle bore plain testimony “that Christ must needs have suffered, and risen again from the dead; and that this Jesus, whom I preach unto you, is Christ.” (Acts 17:3.) It is also true that just after Athens, in the synagogue at Corinth, Paul “testified to the Jews that Jesus was Christ.” (Acts 18:5.) And between? There are three checkpoints at Athens. Paul first entered into the synagogue there and “disputed” with both Jews and Greeks, the identical pattern of the other two synagogues with what must be the identical message. (See Acts 17:17.) Next he moved to the non-Jewish setting of the Athenian marketplace, where many of his hearers were confused “because he preached unto them Jesus and the resurrection.” (Acts 17:18.)
The Areopagus speech followed this. Its content explained new revelation to those with Greek rather than Jewish education. In Jewish synagogues Paul of course said that Jesus was the Christ, because Jews were taught to look for his coming. Yet the strictly Greek audience of Athens knew little or nothing of that. So Paul reasoned in their terms, moving surely to his normal conclusion of Jesus and his resurrection. Except for the Jewish concept of Christ, Paul’s market preaching and Areopagus speech fit the synagogue testimonies of Thessalonica and Corinth. Paul told the educated Athenians that God now commands “all men every where to repent” (Acts 17:30), as he explained the coming judgment and identified the judge. “He will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom he hath ordained” (Acts 17:31), the last term being the practical equivalent of the Jewish concept of “anointed,” which “Christ” meant. And how could one know that? God had “given assurance unto all men” of this message through Jesus—for God had “raised him from the dead.” (Acts 17:31.) With such a powerful witness Paul closed his Areopagus speech.
Interpreters are fond of pointing out that at Athens Paul made few converts, as if that were a valid judgment of his speech. Like Jesus, he sowed the same seed on fertile, weed-strewn, and rocky ground. Converts are named, one of which was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus Council and thus a member of Athenian aristocracy. Others were perhaps moved to investigate, saying that they would hear more later; still others “mocked.” (See Acts 17:32.) Their ridicule was triggered “when they heard of the resurrection of the dead.” (Acts 17:32.) Through Paul’s answer to Greek skeptics at Corinth, one can hear some of the objections: “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?”15 Greek philosophy generally considered flesh as temporary and not possessed by a divine absolute. This Corinthian debate on the resurrection shows that the same obstacles to belief existed in Athens, in Corinth (fifty miles from Athens), or anywhere that an educated person felt he was intellectually above the simple message of a resurrected Savior. In Paul’s world generally he could say that the gospel attracted “not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble.” (1 Cor. 1:26.) What went wrong at Athens was going wrong elsewhere. Was it a failure of testimony? Of missionary method? Or of the response of the intellectual?
It is too simplistic to look for modern altars to unknown gods, but striking admissions that God is unknown are not hard to find. The restored Church has seen the Christian world move from conflicting creeds to an era profoundly doubting any creed. Agnosticism was once anti-Christian, but in a broad sense it has permeated the churches themselves. In a specific sense this word has labeled thinkers who admit that they do not know enough to answer the question of God’s existence. “Agnosticism” is the English adaptation of Paul’s three words: translated as the “unknown god,” the concept of the Athenians worshipping “ignorantly” or the view of Greek philosophy existing in “times of ignorance.” All are fashioned with the Greek root for knowledge preceded by the negating “a.” Agnosticism as a creed is formally accepted by many, but agnosticism as a principle is acted upon widely in modern society, which does not deny God’s existence formally but operates as though he did not exist. Like Paul, those with valid knowledge of God and his plan can generally say to the modern intellectual, “I declare to you the Creator whom you admit you do not know.”
The Son of God, the Savior of the world, once walked on dust and stones and taught men how to prepare for happiness that would not end with death. Thus ancient “times of ignorance” were dispelled. Paul’s final testimony at Athens has not dimmed in relevance, for Christ’s resurrection yet powerfully proves his continuing divine mission as our master teacher for repentance—and our judge for the future day of accountability. Paul had that authentic knowledge, revealed anew to Joseph Smith and modern prophets. What the world is still uncertain of is again declared with certainty.