I hope the labels I put on the background picture this week have been helpful. Each week I try to find something that is at least tangentially related to the scripture readings and is also free for us to use.
This week’s picture, for those who can’t see it, was taken in Athens on the Acropolis looking down at the Areopagus, also called Mars Hill, with the city in the background. We don’t know exactly where Paul was standing in today’s text, but it was somewhere in that picture, or just slightly off to the left of the frame.
The setting is significant. The thoughts and ideas Paul expresses in his speech are theologically important, but, even just within the book of Acts, they aren’t…new. Paul gives a similar speech in Lystra three chapters earlier, in chapter 14.
Athens, in the time of Paul, may have slipped some from its past as the home of Pericles and Socrates, but it is still a major center of learning and culture.
A few verses before the lectionary picks up the text for this Sunday, Paul ends up engaging in debate in the marketplace after beginning in the synagogue. This movement, from Jewish to Gentile space, mirrors the movement of the Good News of Jesus the Christ from Jewish to Gentile audiences, but it also brings to mind the memory of Socrates, who similarly engaged in debates in the market with anyone who showed an interest.
These debates in the market, which our author characterizes as collegial, scholarly debates, and not at all unruly. Indeed, Paul has some natural points of contact with both Stoics, who believed in a universal, transcendent God, and with Epicureans, who had disliked idol worship, particularly sacrifices to idols, since they didn’t seem to do anything.
All this changes when Paul starts to talk about the resurrection. This is too much for the Athenians, who accuse him of being a “babbler” or “seed-picker,” of repeating other people’s old arguments rather than thinking for himself.
They then also accuse him of advocating foreign gods, and so they take him to the Areopagus, named for the Greek Ares, known to the Romans as Mars. The text is ambiguous about the circumstances of Paul’s travel from the market, or agora, to Mars Hill, or the Areopagus. It’s unclear if he was arrested and taken there by some measure of force, or if it was just a…strong suggestion.
The Areopagus itself, as you might be able to tell in the picture, is a rocky hill next to the Acropolis. In fact, in the picture I’ve used, the photographer is standing on the Acropolis—the Parthenon is directly behind our photographer.
The Areopagus was also where the Athenian leadership, something like the city council, would meet. The earlier accusations against Paul, that he was peddling foreign gods and babbling here take on greater force—these aren’t accusations made to dismiss him, but are suggest he is trying to incite something, and is a danger to the civil order.
The council is somewhat more polite, asking him to explain this “new teaching” that sounds “strange.” They may be more curious than hostile, or they may be hoping they only need to give him enough rope to watch him hang himself.
Paul’s speech itself is tailored to his Athenian audience. Unusually, at least for Paul, he does not quote scripture, but does quote Stoic philosophy—either the same philosopher, a stoic named Aratus, twice, or else Aratus once and someone else once. His introduction is tailored to the speech they are expecting him to give—Athens was a polytheistic city, its Jewish population apparently having little influence. So, when someone comes into Athens preaching about a “new God” the question the Athenians ask is not whether to replace their religion with this new one, but whether or not the new God can be added to their pantheon. Toward this, Paul is expected to answer three questions. First, is he a representative of this god. Second, does this God wish to have a home in Athens – and not just a metaphorical home, but an actual shrine somewhere in which the God would live, and third: will this god be beneficial to all Athenians.
Paul’s speech begins with a nod to this expected structure. He opens with an explanation of his process; that he has walked through the city in observation, in learning, and should be recognized as a scholar and not a babbler. He points to the Athenians extreme piety—they are so religious they even make room to worship a God they do not know.
Paul then turns the format on its head. God does not want or need to reside in Athens. God made the world and everything in it and does not live in human built temples or need your sacrifices. This, Paul may hope, will appeal to the Epicureans in the audience. There is no need to add God to the Athenian pantheon. God is already in Athens just as God is in Jerusalem, Rome and everywhere else. Even as Paul was speaking in Athens some 1900 years ago, God was present in this spot where I stand in Romney and in each of the places where you are as you hear this right now.
And, finally, in response to the third question, yes, God was and is beneficial to all Athenians, because whether they know it or not, whether they acknowledge it or not, God gave each of them life and continues to sustain them. Through Adam and Noah, all the world’s people are from God, even those who are ignorant of that fact.
And further, since we are all God’s offspring, an assertion Paul makes by borrowing not the Hebrew scriptures but the philosopher-poet Aratus, who would have been familiar to the Athenian audience, we cannot make God out of or in to stone or metal idols. The created cannot contain or create the creator. God will not be domesticated, and it makes no sense to worship the transcendent and animated God in inanimate objects.
The Athenians are scholars, proud of their culture and learning. Paul tells them that they have been misinformed, but despite that, God wants them to think and to learn. The Resurrection, as strange as it may seem to these Athenians, is the symbol of how far God is willing to go to get through to us. God does not punish ignorance, but sends prophets and ultimately Jesus that we might listen and learn. God gives us the gifts of reason, debate, learning, and yes, even of academia that we might lift ourselves out of ignorance, learn from each other, and so bring ourselves closer to God.