The Speeches of Acts, Part 20: Acts 17:16-34

The “Areopagus Speech” of Acts 17:16-34 is the second major speech by Paul in Acts, and the only substantial speech in the book delivered to Gentiles outside of a Jewish (or Christian) context. As such it holds a special place, and is justly famous, though perhaps not nearly so many readers and students of the New Testament are as familiar with this remarkable text as they ought to be. In several important respects, the Areopagus speech is foreshadowed by Paul’s brief address in Acts 14:15-17; the points of comparison will be addressed below. In analyzing the speech, I will be using the same basic pattern and procedure I have adopted throughout this series.

Note: References below indicated by “Dibelius, Studies” are to M. Dibelius, Studies in the Acts of the Apostles, a collection of articles and lectures published in 1951 by Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht: Göttingen (English translation 1956 by SCM Press: London). Dibelius’ landmark study “Paul on the Areopagus” (1939), pp. 26-77, which draws extensively upon the earlier work of E. Norden (Agnostos Theos [1913]), has been especially helpful in locating some of the more relevant references from Greco-Roman literature for background and comparison with details in the Acts narrative.
“Haenchen, Acts” refers to the classic critical commentary by E. Haenchen (English translation of the 14th German edition [1965] by Westminster Press, 1971).
“Fitzmyer, Acts” refers to the commentary by J. A. Fitzmyer in the Anchor Bible (AB) series, vol. 31 (1997).

The basic structure and outline of the speech is as follows:

    • Narrative Introduction (vv. 16-21, esp. vv. 19-20/21)
    • Introductory Address (vv. 22-23)
    • Central (Theological) Declaration (vv. 24-29), in two (or three) parts:
      • The nature of God (vv. 24-27)
        —God vs. Idols—Temple theme (vv. 24-25)
        —God as Creator (vv. 26-27)
      • Relation of God to humankind (vv. 28-29), with a citation (from Greek literature, v. 28) and application (v. 29)
    • Concluding Exhortation (vv. 30-31)
    • Narrative Conclusion (vv. 32-33 + 34)

Narrative Introduction (vv. 16-21)

These verses present the basic narrative, as drawn from historical tradition.

Verse 16 picks up from the narrative in vv. 10-15, where Silas and Timothy are left behind in Berea and Paul has proceeded on ahead; he is in Athens, waiting for them, according to the text of v. 16. The famous city of Athens was at this time only a faint reflection of its glorious past, having decreased considerably in size and importance; however, it remained prestigious, especially as a symbol of intellectual thought, religion and philosophy. This is perhaps the reason why the episode here was given so much prominence by the author, despite the lack of immediate missionary success (vv. 32-34). From a literary (and missiological) standpoint, Athens was, in many respects, the ideal setting to introduce the Gospel as proclaimed to educated, pagan Gentiles.

parwcu/neto to\ pneu=ma au)tou= e)n au)tw=|—the compound verb parocu/nw means “bring along to a (sharp) point”, i.e. stir or provoke (to anger): “his breath/spirit in him was brought to a (sharp) point”; the verb occurs only once (1 Cor 13:5) elsewhere in the New Testament, with the related noun parocusmo/$ used in Heb 10:24 and Acts 15:39 (of the disagreement between Paul and Barnabas).

katei/dwlo$—a compound (intensive) adjective, used only in Christian writings (and only here in the New Testament), indicating (with a bit of hyperbole) “completely (filled) with images”. On religious images (temples, altars, etc) in Athens, see the classical references in Pausanias I.17.1, Strabo 9.1.16, and Livy 45.27.

Verse 17—Mention is made of Paul’s usual missionary practice of attending local Synagogues, where he would have the opportunity to preach and teach to interested Jews and Gentile “God-fearers” (oi( fobou/menoi to\n qeo\n), cf. Acts 10:2, 22, 35; 13:16, 26; (sebo/menoi) 13:43, 50; 16:14; 17:4; 18:7. To this is added discussion with pagan Greeks/Gentiles in the marketplace (a)go/ra).

diele/getokata\ pa=san h(me/ran pro\$ tou\$ paratugxa/nonta$, “he related throughout [i.e. discussed/disputed/argued]… according to each/every day toward [i.e. with] the (one)s he struck [i.e. happened to be] alongside”—in other words, every day, whether in the Syngaogue or Marketplace, Paul used every opportunity to speak with those he came across.

Verse 18—Mention is made of Epicureans and Stoics, representatives of two major philosophical branches (or “schools”) in ancient Greece. It is not clear whether v. 18b qualifies these two groups or whether four segments of the audience are indicated: (1) Epicureans, (2) Stoics, (3) those who are skeptical/mocking, (4) those curious about Paul’s religious ideas. It is certainly possible that the Epicureans are depicted as especially skeptical, while the Stoics would have more legitimate interest. There are definite parallels to Stoic ideas and expressions in the speech which follows (cf. below). Of all the philosophical “schools”, Stoicism probably had the most in common with Hellenistic Judaism and Early Christianity. Philo of Alexandria, whose writings are generally contemporaneous with the New Testament, skillfully combines Stoicism (and Platonism) with Jewish tradition and the text of Scripture.

sune/ballon au)tw|—the Epicureans and Stoics “cast/threw (things) together with him”, that is, they discussed and disputed with Paul, the verb sometimes indicating a heated (or hostile) argument.

spermolo/go$ (“seed-gatherer”)—this idiomatic expression characterizes the skeptical/mocking response to Paul (by the Epicureans?). Concretely, it refers to a bird picking up seeds from the ground, but could also be used as a more general reference to someone collecting junk or scraps. In an intellectual (and pejorative) sense, as here, it describes someone who gathers various ideas and teachings (as his own), but without really understanding them.

ce/nwn daimoni/wn dokei= kataggeleu\$ ei@nai, “he seems to be one bringing a message of foreign daimons“—this is the other response to Paul, more sympathetic (or at least curious), but without a clear understanding of what he was proclaiming. The word dai/mwn (daímœn, neut. daimónion), of uncertain etymology, originally referred to deities or “divine powers” in a general sense (similar to qeo/$ “god”), but gradually came to mean lesser (local) deities—in particular, the supernatural powers which were thought to be intimately connected with daily life. The fate and fortune (good or ill) experienced at the personal or family level—blessing and prosperity on the one hand, disease/death and misfortune on the other—were due to the influence of daimons. Along these lines, the idea of a personal protecting spirit (similar to a ‘guardian angel’) was relatively common. A uniquely intelligent, creative or charismatic person could also be seen as gifted and guided by a daimon (or “genius”, in the fundamental sense of the word). In the monotheistic environment of Judaism (and early Christianity), there was little place for the daimon concept, the term being used almost entirely in a negative sense, for evil or “fallen” celestial beings, unclean spirits (of disease, madness and possession), and so forth. This New Testament usage ultimately is passed down into English in the transliterated word “demon”. The reference here to “strange deities” is reminiscent of the charges brought against Socrates (Plato Apology 24B, Xenophon Memorabilia I.1.1, cf. also Josephus Against Apion II.267)—note below.

The response to Paul is glossed and explained by the author—Paul was proclaiming (“bringing the good message of”) Jesus and the Resurrection. It is possible that the Greek listeners understood a)na/stasi$ (anástasis, “standing up [again]”, i.e. resurrection) as a specific deity (“Anastasis/Resurrection”) along with Jesus.

Verse 19—Paul is taken to the Areopagus ( &Areio$ Pa/go$, “the fixed point [i.e. peak/hill] of Ares”, i.e. “Mars’ hill”), the famous hill NW of the acropolis. In earlier times, the ruling council of Athens would meet on the hill, but in Paul’s day, the council regularly met in the Agora (market-place) at the “Royal colonnade (Stoa\ Basi/leio$)”. In the narrative, it is not entirely clear whether “Areopagus” refers to the council meeting or to the ancient hill itself—the former appears to fit the narrative context better, but the latter is the more dramatic setting (especially if Paul is thought to be addressing a large crowd). It is possible that the author of Acts (trad. Luke) understood (or applied) the setting differently from earlier historical tradition.

e)pilabo/menoi, “taking (hold) upon him…”—the use of this verb could indicate that Paul is being taken into custody for a hearing (before the Council), cf. Lk 20:20, 26; Acts 16:19; 18:17; 21:30, 33, though it need not indicate anything more than that he was taken away to another location, perhaps implying a private setting (Lk 9:47; 14:4; 23:26; Acts 9:27; 23:19). “They led/brought him upon the ‘hill/peak of Ares'”—taken literally, this might mean “onto the hill”, but it could also mean “before the council” (cf. Acts 9:21; 16:9; 17:6; 18:12); some degree of force(fulness) is perhaps suggested by the use of a&gw (“lead [away]”). However, if Paul is being taken before the council, there is no indication of any (criminal) charge; it has been suggested that the Areopagus council served as an official “advisory board” for regulation of public instruction, etc., but this is far from clear, and by no means certain whether (or just how) it would apply to Paul’s situation.

duna/meqa gnw=nai, “are we able to know…?”—on one level this is simply a request by the Athenians (“may we know…”), but the author of Acts surely intends a play on words, i.e. “(how) are we able to know”? The question sets the stage for the introduction of the Gospel (to interested, educated pagans) in the speech which follows. It also establishes the key motif of the knowledge of God.

h( kainh\ au%th h( u(po\ sou= laloume/nh didaxh/, “(what is) this new teaching being spoken by you?”—the adjective kai/no$ (“new”) is parallel to “foreign/strange” (ce/no$) in verse 18, and both will appear again in the verses which follow. The emphasis is on how different and striking the message of the Gospel is within a (pagan) Greek context, compared with the Jewish/Synagogue setting.

Verse 20—”For you are carrying some (thing)s appearing as strange/foreign into our ears…”

ceni/zonta—from the verb ceni/zw (related to ce/no$, above); concretely it refers to one responding to a stranger (i.e. acting as host), but more abstractly means treating/regarding someone (or something) as foreign—that is, the Athenians regard Paul’s teaching and terminology as strange/foreign.

boulo/meqa ou@n gnw=nai, “we would wish to know”—repeating gnw=nai (“to know”) from v. 19, with the emphasis again on knowledge.

ti/na qe/lei tau=ta ei@nai, “(just) what these things wish/intend to be”—the Greek idiom is very different from English (we would say “…what these things mean“); to our ears it almost suggests that the subject of Paul’s discourse has a will and purpose of its own. For a similar use of this (classical) expression, see Acts 2:12.

Verse 21—Here the author interjects a proverbial reference to Athens (cf. Demosthenes Oration 4.10); note again the presence of the ce/no$/kai/no$ motif, referring to strangers (ce/noi) who join with native Athenians in their desire to hear or to speak of “some (especially) new thing” (ti kaino/teron). While this reference could suggest that Athenians are rather vain and fickle, the underlying message (from the larger narrative standpoint of Acts) is that Gentiles (even pagan Greeks) will ultimately be receptive to the new/strange message of the Gospel.

Introductory Address (vv. 22-23)

The use of the expression “standing in the midst/middle of…” (staqei\$e)n mesw|) elsewhere in Acts (1:15; 4:7; 27:21) strongly indicates that Paul is before the Athenian Council rather than in the middle of the clearing on top of “Mars’ hill” (cf. the ambiguity of the reference to the Areopagus, above). For similar use of the vocative address “Men…” (a&ndre$…), see numerous examples in the prior speeches (Acts 1:11, 16; 2:14, 22, 29; 3:12; 5:35; 7:2; 13:15, 16, 26, 38; 15:7, 13). In the remainder of verse 22, Paul praises the Athenians (using a bit of irony and wordplay) for their apparently religious nature, with a practical observation in verse 23—providing an example which sets up the central declaration of the speech.

Verse 22b: “I see/consider [qewre/w] how according to [i.e. in] all things you have more ‘fear of daimons‘ [deisidaimoneste/rou$] (than others do)”

As indicated above, a dai/mwn (daímœn, neut. daimónion) in the Greco-Roman context is not a “demon”, but rather a lesser/local “divine power” or “deity” in the general sense; deisidaimoni/a means “fear of daimons”, cf. the component dei/dw (“to fear / I fear…”). In this respect, fear can be understood either in a proper and pious sense, or in an excessive and misplaced manner—the distinction, one might say, between religion and superstition (see also in Acts 25:29). On the surface, Paul praises their religion (in the positive sense), using a rhetorical technique known as captatio benevolentiae (“capture of good will”), complimentary language designed to gain the audience’s attention. From an early Christian perspective, of course, the (polytheistic/idolatrous) religion of the Athenians actually reflects the “times of ignorance” (v. 30) prior to the proclamation of the Gospel, and the “vain/empty things” (14:15) from which people are to turn away.

Verse 23a: “(In) going through (the city) and looking again (carefully) at your seba/smata, I (even) found a step-platform [bwmo/$, i.e. altar] in which there was written upon (it) ‘to (an) unknown god’…”

A se/basma (sébasma) is an object or work of (religious) fear and awe, i.e. of worship and veneration (cf. on the related verb se/bomai above). Elsewhere in the New Testament, it appears only in 2 Thess 2:4 (note also the verb seba/zomai in Rom 1:25). It may refer to a specific object (i.e. idol/image), cultic action (sacrificial offering) or space (temple/altar), or even to the genuine object of worship (the deity or deities) behind the ritual and material elements. Here Paul uses it in the basic sense of the temples and altars in Athens.

The expression “to (an) unknown god” (a)gnw/stw| qew=|) is perhaps the best-known detail in the entire narrative, but, in some ways, it is among the most difficult to interpret. It needs to be examined on three different levels: (a) the historical background, (b) the context of the narrative, and (c) the way Paul (and/or the author) makes use of it.

(a) The historical background—Based on what is known from classical (and early Christian) sources, there are several relevant strands of tradition upon which the narrative may be drawing. In Pausanias’ Description of Greece I.1.4, mention is made of altars “of gods.. named unknown” (qew=n.. o)nomazome/nwn a)gnw/stwn) among those standing on the way to Athens. Pausanias refers to a similar altar “of unknown gods” (a)gnw/stwn qew=n) at Olympia (V.14.8), and Philostratus in the Life of Apollonius VI.3.5 mentions altars “of unknown divine-powers” (a)gnw/stwn daimo/nwn) in Athens. Note the following possible aspects of such references:

(i) Instances where the particular deity, to whom the altar had been dedicated, was not known; there may not have been an inscription originally. This is indicated by Diogenes Laertius in his Lives of Philosophers I.110 (a story involving Epimenides of Crete), and is probably the best way of reading Pausanias’ reference in I.1.4.
(ii) Altars dedicated to foreign deities; this appears to be the understanding of certain early Christian commentators such as Tertullian (To the Nations II.9, cf. also Against Marcion I.9) and Jerome (Commentary on Titus, 1.12).
(iii) Altars dedicated to ‘unknown’ powers, in the sense of being hidden and mysterious, or, perhaps, which people were unable (or unwilling) to name. There is something of this idea in the story Diogenes Laertius tells (I.110).

(b) The context of the narrative—The narrative in Acts is perhaps best understood according to aspect (iii) above. The author (and/or his underlying tradition) seems to be drawing upon the idea of the large number of altars in Athens, and here we do well to regard the deisidaimoni/a (“fear of divine-powers”) of the Athenians (Acts 17:22) in the full sense of this expression—i.e. they were concerned to provide altars even for strange and unknown deities, lest they offend any divine power unnecessarily. Such religious psychology underlies the context of Apollonius’ advice to Timasion in the account by Philostratus (VI.3.5, mentioned above). It also reflects a basic “superstition”—and ignorance of the true nature of God—which is central to the message in Paul’s speech.

(c) Its use in the narrative—With some clever and ironic wordplay, Paul shifts the meaning of “an unknown deity” (in one of the three senses indicated above) to “the unknown God”. This can be interpreted several ways:

    1. The Athenians recognize that there is at least one “unknown” divine power, in addition to all the more familiar deities—Paul uses this to introduce the (true) God of Scripture and the Gospel to them.
    2. The Athenians effectively believe a hidden deity called “(the) Unknown”—i.e., the true deity which lies behind their flawed and mistaken religious conceptions, and which Paul now reveals to them.
    3. The Athenians’ (errant) religious seeking has led them to erect altars even to strange and unknown deities, an example of the “times of ignorance” (v. 30) which Paul now would dispel with the truth of the Gospel and revelation of the true God.

The narrative context suggests (i), the overall language and tone of the speech indicates (iii), but Paul’s immediate response in v. 23b is closer to (ii):

Verse 23b: “Therefore, the (one) whom you show good fear/veneration [i.e. worship], not knowing [a)gnoou=nte$], this (one) I bring down in a message [i.e. announce/declare] to you”

Again we see the motif of knowledge:

“to an unknown god” = “worshipping (God) without knowledge”

This will be emphasized again in verse 30 with the expression “times of unknowing [a&gnoia, i.e. ignorance]” that characterizes all of Greco-Roman religious history prior to the introduction of the Gospel. Indeed, it is the knowledge of God that is the central theme of the speech, a point brought home clearly (and immediately) in the central theological declaration that follows in verse 24, and which begins emphatically with o( qeo\$… (“The God…”), i.e. the true God.

This declaration (vv. 24-29) will be examined in the continuation of this study in Part 21.

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