July 10: Acts 17:16ff; Rom 1:18-32

The next several daily notes are part of a recent study on the Areopagus Speech of Paul in Acts 17:16-34; cf. Parts 20 and 21 of my series on the Speeches of Acts, as well as a supplemental article. One of the passages in the Pauline letters which is often compared with the Areopagus speech is Romans 1:18-32. Both deal with the subject of ‘pagan’ (polytheistic) religion and idolatry prior to human beings receiving the Gospel. It has been argued by a number of critical scholars that the historic Paul (of the undisputed letters) would not have spoken the way the Paul of Acts 17 does, and that the speech (like most of the others in Acts) is a Lukan composition, i.e. primarily a product of the author of Acts (trad. Luke). I have previously noted a considerable number of words, expressions, and concepts in the speech which appear to be foreign or otherwise unattested in the letters. It is possible, however, that this is the result of the different audience—the Pauline letters (undisputed and disputed), along with the remainder of the New Testament books, were all written to and for Christians, while the Areopagus speech is virtually the only example in the New Testament of an address to pagan Gentiles outside of a Jewish or Christian context. There is no clear and simple solution to the question, on objective grounds. But what of the comparison with Romans 1:18-32? Even upon first glance, one notices a substantial difference in orientation; this difference is primarily two-fold:

    • The emphasis is on the impending judgment of God against humankind, brought out clearly at the start in verse 18, with the basis for judgment expounded forcefully in vv. 19-31 and punctuated in v. 32. The idea of judgment is present in the Areopagus speech, serving as the culminating exhortation of 17:30-31, but it is not the main theme of the speech.
    • Romans 1:18-32 deals principally with the immorality of humankind, viewed as a product of human wickedness and a result of idolatry. This is not present in the Areopagus speech at all.

Elsewhere in the letters, Paul’s references to Greco-Roman paganism are all negative, from the standpoint of salvation—the Gentiles once were in darkness, enslaved by idolatry and immorality, but God has rescued them through Christ (cf. Gal 4:8-9; Rom 6:17-19; Col 1:21; 3:7, also Eph 2:2-3). An importance point of emphasis in Romans, of course, is that all people—Jews and Gentiles alike—were slaves to sin in much the same way, whether they lived under the Law or as “sinners”. Typically, Paul refers to idolatry as well from an ethical standpoint, according to its traditional association with licentiousness and immorality (cf. Rom 2:22; 1 Cor 5:10-11; 6:9; 10:7, 14; Gal 5:20; Col 3:5 [also Eph 5:5]). In only four instances (apart from Rom 1:18-32), does he make reference to idols in the context of pagan/polytheistic religion

    • Twice, in brief statements related to the former state of Gentile believers’, before conversion:
      “…how you turned from images to be a slave to [i.e. serve] (the) living and true God” (1 Thess 1:9)
      “You have known that when you were (as the) nations, (you were ones) being led away toward voiceless images, as you might be led” (1 Cor 12:2)
    • In two separate passages related to the question of food sacrificed to idols (1 Cor 8:1-13; 10:14-22)

The first two verses imply a condition of enslavement (“being led away”); the references in 1 Cor 8 and 10 deal more properly with the nature of idolatry. There were two views on this subject in early Christianity:

    1. The pagan deities were identified primarily with their images/idols, by way of polemic distortion, and so regarded as vain or nothing, i.e. they did not really exist. This is the view generally expressed throughout the Old Testament Prophets (including the Deuteronomic history, Deuteronomy–Kings) and in Jewish tradition.
    2. The deities had real existence, but were actually evil/unclean spirits or “demons”. This came to be the predominant view in early Christianity.

Interestingly, Paul seems to express both views in 1 Cor 8 and 10—on the one hand, that the deities and their idols are nothing (1 Cor 8:4-5; 10:19; also Gal 4:8), on the other, that they are “demons” (1 Cor 10:20-21).

A more sophisticated treatment of polytheistic/pagan religion is presented in Romans 1:18-32 and the Areopagus speech, which will be discussed in the next note.

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