On Mars Hill
Paul stood in the middle of the market place, watching the busy crowds milling around him. There was evidently something very special going on, he thought to himself; judging by the garlands and flowers decorating the many statues of gods and goddesses surrounding him, it must be connected with their idolatrous religion. He turned and looked up towards the summit of the Acropolis, where the fortyfoot gold and bronze figure of Pallas Athene, the virgin goddess of Athens, gleamed and flashed in the sunlight. His gaze took in the breath-taking loveliness of the Parthenon behind the statue. Jew that he was, he shunned the beauty of buildings and images and despised the Athenians for their idolatry and their worship of the creations of men's hands. His spirit was stirred within him; a paroxysm of revulsion shook his inner being. The silver trumpets sounded on the still air and the shouting concourse formed itself into an orderly procession, climbing the ascent to the Parthenon where they would pay their respects to Athene the beautiful goddess of wisdom and of war, protector of the city which bore her name and which it was said she had made her own.
He looked round the now deserted marketplace, averting his eyes quickly from the exquisite flower-crowned figure of Irene, nymph of springtime. He rested them for a moment with distaste upon the grim visage of Pluto, god of death and the underworld; turning then to meet the cold austere stare of the bearded and venerable Zeus, father of the gods and goddesses, ruler of the Universe. And his soul within him rebelled at the idolatry of Athens. The hardships of the past few weeks were forgotten and again the zeal of his God burned in his heart, that he might turn these people from the darkness of their ignorance and bring them into sonship with the living God.
Paul had been in Athens, alone, for about a week. He was waiting for Silas and Timothy to join him so that they might resume their missionary work. It was only about five weeks previously that the little party had left Philippi, following the events of the earthquake and the conversion of the Philippian jailer. From Philippi they had travelled, with brief stops at Amphipolis and Apollonia, a hundred miles to Thessalonica, the capital city of Macedonia. Three weeks in this city had been productive of good results; a number of responsible Jews and a considerable company of Gentiles accepted the faith, including at least three men, Aristarchus, Secundus and Jason, who later on were to figure in evangelical work far removed from Thessalonica. Aristarchus, in fact, ultimately became a fellow-prisoner with Paul at Rome (Col. 4. 10). But the unbelieving Jews had raised a riot and brought Paul's activities to the notice of the civil authorities under the false accusation of sedition, that Paul was preaching another king, other than Caesar, "one Jesus".
Although the city magistrates here manifested a more justly impartial attitude than had their counterparts at Philippi, the brethren judged it expedient to smuggle Paul out of the city before harm befell him. So the little party had trudged fifty miles to the small out-of-the-way town of Berea where they had found a band of earnest Jews and pagans manifesting so exceptional a degree of readiness to listen, and care to verify Paul's message by the written word of God, that their name has been proverbial for true Bible study ever since. They "received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the Scriptures daily, whether these things were so" (Acts 17.11). One of those converted at this time in this little town was Sopater, who later on served with Paul in the wider field. But again the relentless animosity of Paul's enemies followed him; the Jews of Thessalonica tracked him down to Berea and so leaving Silas and Timothy to care for the newly formed community there, Paul was hurried to the sea coast and put on board ship for Athens.
Standing now in the agora, the market square or central place or concourse of the city, he was in the very midst of the "wisdom of this age". Rome was the political capital of the world, but Athens was its cultural centre. Here foregathered the wise men, the philosophers, the scientists, all who had something to contribute to the sum of human knowledge. This was the city, of all cities, where Paul might expect to use his education and his gifts of logic and argument to the best advantage in debate with the most intellectual men he was ever likely to meet. He had already had some discussions with the Jews in the synagogue and with others in the market place. Every day of that short week had been spent in some such activity but so far little or nothing had been gained. Now he turned his attention to the upper crust of Athenian society, those who, living upon the labours of their slaves, "spent their time in nothing else but either to tell or to hear some new thing". So he found himself entangled with "certain philosophers of the Epicureans and of the Stoics" (Acts 17.18-21).
Of the many schools of thought claiming adherents in Greece perhaps these two were the most prominent. They were something of the nature of religious sects but they were more like modern rationalist societies than believers in a form of religious faith. The Epicureans were the adherents of Epicurus, a materialistic philosopher who lived in Athens in the early part of the fourth century B.C. Whilst not actually denying the existence of the gods, he claimed that no god existed who was concerned with the welfare or happiness of mankind. The universe, he taught, had come into existence by chance and subsisted without any controlling hand. Pleasure was the chief good and pain the chief evil; men should do good for the sake of good and not because there was any Divine purpose at work in their lives. It is easy to perceive how Paul resisted this hopeless creed. He would be no more tolerant of the Stoics. Stoicism was founded in the fourth century BC by a Greek thinker, Zeno, who established a school in Athens where the tenets of his system were inculcated. The philosophy he propounded represented God as an impersonal driving force pervading the universe and keeping it in operation. The soul of man at death is absorbed into a kind of universal mind that is really the mind of God so that there is no personal future life. The duty of man is to live as righteous and upright a life as possible but he has to do this in his own strength for there is no Supreme Being working to help him. Here again the message Paul had to proclaim brought him into violent conflict with the surmising of such philosophies.
The result was that the Epicureans and Stoics brought Paul to the court of the Areopagites to have an orderly presentation of his doctrines put forward for their consideration, and this was the highlight of the Apostle's experience in Athens. "You bring some strange things to our ears", they said. "We wish to know therefore what these things mean" (Acts 17.20 RSV) This was not just a question of finding a suitable rostrum from which Paul could deliver his discourse. The Areopagites were the supreme judges in Athens of all matters affecting public order and moral issues, with especial emphasis upon religious matters and any open blasphemy against the gods of Greece. The judges had power to order very severe punishments should those arraigned before them be adjudged offenders against the moral or religious code. It is very possible therefore that Paul was, at least in part, on trial for his preaching and if what he had to say was ruled offensive to the Athenian code the least he could expect was summary expulsion from the city.
The nine judges, the wisest and most venerable men in Athens, took their seats, prepared to give close and serious attention to the discourse about to be given. The philosophers who had invited Paul to court , for nothing was of compulsion, all was done in a courteous and dignified manner, gathered together near the speaker. Behind them, and surrounding the central group, a number of curious professors, students, priests and priestesses, a few soldiers, and a crowd of Greek and Jewish city-dwellers, all ready to give quiet attention to what the stranger had to say. Nothing less like the tumultuous riots and prejudiced magistrates Paul had experienced in the provincial towns of Greece could be imagined. This was an orderly concourse and the speaker was to get a fair hearing.
The Court of the Areopagites was held in the open air, on the summit of a rocky eminence known as the Areopagus, or "Mars' Hill". As Paul stood up to commence his exposition, he found that his position afforded a superb view of almost the entire city of Athens. In front of him, across a shallow valley, rose the commanding height of the Acropolis with the gigantic statue of Pallas Athene in the forefront as though challenging him. Paul was about to deny the reality of the goddess. A little to the left rose the magnificent Temple of Zeus the supreme god of Greece. Paul was to say that Zeus was no god at all. Just below him, on the lower slopes of the Acropolis, he looked upon the marble walls and cedar roof of the Odeon, the theatre of Athens. There five thousand spectators at a time could watch the actors presenting the plays of the great dramatists and tragedians of the past, plays which survive and are still presented in our own day. Paul was going to demonstrate something far nearer to truth than the themes of many of those plays. Away in the distance, far to the right, he could just discern the bare rock face which in modern times has become known as the 'prison of Socrates'. Well-read man that he was, Paul could hardly have failed at that moment to reflect that in this same place, five centuries previously, Socrates, the greatest of the Greek philosophers, was condemned to death by the judges. That was for preaching strange gods and a new moral code, and allegedly corrupting the youth of Athens with his teachings. Now Paul himself was going to preach a 'strange God' and a new moral code, and brand all the gods of Greece as the imaginations and creations of men's minds and hands. Would he too be condemned and rejected? He must have wondered for a moment.
"Men of Athens" the clear voice rang out over the heads of the attentive multitude. "I perceive that in every way you are very religious". The AV "too superstitious" is a wildly inaccurate translation. The word means much given to piety or religious observance. That opening statement was a courteous acknowledgment of an evident fact, the devotion of the Greeks to their gods. In Paul's day most Romans were cynical about their religion in the extreme and the worship of the gods in Rome was perfunctory and a mere formality. In Greece it was different; Paul found an attitude here much more closely resembling the devotion to religious worship with which he was familiar among his own people and he gave his hearers full credit for that.
"For as I passed along, and observed the objects of worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, 'To an unknown god.'" The Greek text does not have the definite article here although in many such cases the article is to be understood. It is rather uncertain therefore whether the inscription was "to the unknown God" or "to an unknown god". No such altar has been discovered among the antiquities of ancient Athens but several plaques inscribed "To unknown gods", in the plural, have been found. The precise inscription matters little; it is the use Paul made of it which is significant. "What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you." In that masterly statement Paul absolved himself from the possible charge of preaching strange gods in Athens by showing that they themselves already admitted the existence of a God unknown to them. That same God was now to be declared to them. One can imagine the grave judges leaning forward, their attention caught and held by this unexpected approach. "The God that made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by man, nor is he served by human hands as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all men life and breath, and everything". This is basic Christian doctrine, the supremacy of God from whom life and all things proceed. The universe did not just happen by chance; neither was it always in existence. Scientists today tell us that it had a beginning; there was a time when the universe did not exist. God made it, said Paul, and because He began to create at a time when not one particle of the universe had come into existence, He Himself is of necessity outside that creation. He does not dwell in any place men can reach or observe. The Greeks believed that the gods dwelt on the top of Mount Olympus, just across the bay from Thessalonica. In later ages men have pictured God as dwelling somewhere in the starry heavens or in a golden land far away in the recesses of outer space. We know now that God cannot be thought of as dwelling anywhere within this material order of things. The world in which the angels stand in the Divine Presence and carry out their duties and activities, is on another plane of being, another 'wavelength', as it were. Paul must have known that, when he told the Corinthians that they could attain that world and that resurrection only by means of a 'change', an instantaneous transition from one world to another; flesh and blood, the animal man, he wrote, can never as such enter the Kingdom of Heaven.
"He made from one" (not "of one blood" as AV) "every nation of men to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their habitation". This was strong meat indeed for the cultured Greeks. They prided themselves on being a superior race to the rest of mankind; the gods had especially favoured them and they stood on a higher plane than the barbarians of other nations around them. Not so, says Paul, all men are from one source. It is impossible not to realise that he was referring to the Biblical story of the first human pair. Paul believed in the story of Eden and the Fall with all his heart, and his whole understanding of the Divine purpose for man was based upon that story. God made all men out of one, from one, and He has fixed both the time span of history and the limits beyond which man cannot go in his constant seeking for fresh fields to explore. It is commonly considered that Paul intended here to indicate that God is responsible for the territorial boundaries of nations. It is questionable whether the expression really does mean that, for those boundaries are by no means "fixed limits" in the sense demanded by this verse. Perhaps Paul rather meant that man, by his nature, is confined within a particular part of God's whole creation, that part which we know as, and have called, the material universe. No matter how far man may yet range in his spacecraft and rocket ships he will never, as man, get outside this material universe. The Greeks believed they could under certain conditions pass into the presence of the gods in their fleshly bodies. Paul makes it plain in his letter to Corinth that only by the clothing of the identity, the real person, with a new and spiritual body, a "house from heaven", may we cross the boundary and enter into the presence of God. Such are adapted to the conditions of that other world,
"That they should seek God yet he is not far from each one of us, for 'In him we live and move and have our being'; as some of your poets have said, 'For we are indeed his offspring'". This was a new thought to his hearers. They had never thought of God as being near and accessible to them. Zeus was a remote and unapproachable deity; when he did deign to visit the earth there was usually trouble rather than blessing. Not that the Greeks were alone in this conception of God. In much later times too many Christians have looked upon the Most High as a God of wrath and vengeance, one to be feared and propitiated rather than loved and served. Paul saw deeper than that. He knew God as one seeking by all means possible to recover His erring children to Himself, even to the extent of giving "his only-begotten Son that whosoever believeth should not perish but have everlasting life". The believing is necessary if the everlasting life is to be given, for life comes only from God and it is in Him that we live and have our being. Paul explained that also. All life is of God and all life depends upon God. Therefore, says Paul, we are the children, the offspring of God, and with another of his strokes of genius he quoted them their own poets to support his point. The two Greek writers to whom Paul referred at this time are Aratus and Cleanthes. Aratus was a native of Cilicia, Paul's own country. Cleanthes was a leading member of the Stoics in Athens. Both lived three centuries earlier. It is true that they referred to men as being the offspring of Zeus their own god, but Paul was able to use their writings to demonstrate that the idea of men looking to God as to a Father was not unknown even among themselves. "Forasmuch then as we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Deity is like unto gold, or silver, or stone, graven by art and man's device." The word translated Godhead in the A. V. was used in Greek to denote the Divine nature generally and is better rendered Deity or Divinity. Because we are living, intelligent beings, and God, being our father, is greater than we are, it is absurd to liken him to images made by the hands of man. "And the times of this ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent; because he has appointed a day in the which he will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom he has ordained, whereof he has given assurance unto all men in that he has raised him from the dead."
This was the climax of Paul's discourse. In the execution of his purpose God had in ages past suffered men to go their own ways and make to themselves gods in their own image and likeness as they chose. Now there was to be a change. With the appearance of Jesus Christ, the Light of the world, there opened a new phase of the Divine purpose. The way to reconciliation with God was manifest through faith in Christ. A 'people for God's name' was to be called and chosen from among the nations and prepared for use as the Divine instrument in the conversion of men in the final age of human history, the age of the Second Advent. So, said Paul, in appointing that day in which He will judge the world in righteousness, He has also appointed its ruler. It is He who lived, and died, and whom God raised from the dead, thus giving assurance to all who believe that His promise will be fulfilled. "Repent and be converted; believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved." That was the point to which Paul was working; whether he ever got thus far is perhaps problematical for at the mention of a resurrection from the dead the spell was broken. The wise men of Greece could listen thoughtfully whilst Paul debated the nature of God, but when it came to future life by a resurrection from the dead, most of them dismissed the whole thing as fantastic nonsense. Some mocked; but some, more serious perhaps, offered somewhat half-heartedly to have another session on the matter. But for the present the audition was at an end. The Aeropagites, the nine judges, evidently ruled that there was nothing in the new doctrine to which Athenians could reasonably take offence, and Paul was free to go where he liked and prosecute his mission as he pleased.
The Apostle must have been bitterly disappointed. Of all the apostles he was the one best fitted by education and natural talent for this opportunity of preaching Christ to the wise men of this world in the intellectual centre of world learning. He had been fully equal to the occasion, speaking to them in the manner to which they were accustomed and showing himself their equal in learning and in eloquence. He had demonstrated to them how they themselves, unknowingly, had been feeling towards some such understanding of God as he now expounded. Whilst he kept to the well-tried paths of human reasoning and logical argument they listened. When he introduced the realm of faith they turned away. "For they stumbled at that stumbling-stone." Small wonder that Paul left Athens for Corinth determined, as he told the Corinthians later on, "to know nothing among you save Jesus Christ, and him crucified". "We preach Christ crucified" he said, "unto the Greeks foolishness, but unto them which are called, the power of God and the wisdom of God".
The effort was not altogether in vain. One of the judges, Dionysius the Areopagite, was sufficiently impressed with Paul's preaching to accept his message and become a believer. There was a woman named Damaris ‑ who she was and what position she held in public life is not stated, but she believed ‑ and a few others. What happened to them afterwards is not known, for they are not mentioned again in the New Testament. No local church was formed, or if it was, no mention was made of that either. Paul never went back to Athens. He revisited, in after years, the other scenes of his ministry in Greece but never Athens. How strange that the very city where no open opposition to his work and message was aroused, where the highest levels of local society were prepared to give him serious consideration, where by all the rules of human reasoning he should have experienced notable success, proved to be the place which appears to have yielded least. So, without waiting any longer for Silas and Timothy, Paul left Athens and took his journey to Corinth.
(To be continued)