Ancient Athens worshipped gods of war, but it didn’t know Jehovah, the “man of war” (Exodus 15:3). Citizens honored their gods on a hill but didn’t ascend the “holy hill of Zion” (Psalm 2:6). No matter when or where Jehovah meets an idol, he wins. So Athens was ripe for judgment.
After they heard his “new doctrine” of Jesus Christ and the resurrection, Epicurean and Stoic philosophers realized that Paul was preaching “foreign gods” (Acts 17:18-19). So they “brought him to the Areopagus” in Athens (17:19). The stage was set for divine judgment. Paul’s speech wasn’t as dramatic as God’s ten plagues on Egypt (Exodus 7-12) or Elijah’s defeating the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel (2 Kings 18). Still, the result was the same – judgment.
Perched on a rocky hill across from the Parthenon, the Areopagus included a high court, temples, and “cultural facilities” (Wikipedia). This high court was the Supreme Court of ancient Athens. Areopagus is Greek for “Ares rock,” after the god of war. Since Ares’ Roman name is Mars, the place is also called “Mars Hill.” In Greek mythology, Ares and Orestes were tried here by the gods for murder. Socrates was also tried and convicted at the Areopagus, in 399 B.C.
The Areopagus’ functions and powers changed over time. In its earliest days, the high court was a council of elders and “exercised the right of capital punishment” (International). In 594 B.C., Solon democratically reformed the Areopagus by stripping them of this right. The high court was still allowed to try and convict people for capital offenses like murder, arson, and “breach[es] of established religious usages” (Thayer). The Areopagus also ensured that laws “were observed and executed by the properly constituted authorities,” tried officials who violated these laws, and raised formal objections to Council and General Assembly resolutions (International). Just as important was the high court’s moral authority. It not only protected worship but also oversaw citizens’ “religious sentiments,” “moral conduct,” and education of young people (ibid.). In 460 B.C., Ephialtes stripped the high court of nearly all its functions. Some powers were restored in 403 B.C., after the Peloponnesian War. The Areopagus was eventually allowed to investigate corruption and perjury as well, but only the Ekklesia had full conviction power.
Was Paul on trial at the Areopagus? Biblical scholars can’t decide. Some commentators argue that he was being given an opportunity to “set forth his opinions on divine subjects” (Thayer), expounding on his conversations in the Agora (Jamieson). Clearly they’re guided by Luke’s observation that the people wanted “to tell or to hear some new thing” (Acts 17:21). Since Epicurean and Stoic philosophers “taught philosophy and religion as a system,” they constantly sought “some new thing in creed and dogma and opinion” (International). These people were also willing to hear Paul again elsewhere, after he had finished his speech (Acts 17:32).
In stark contrast is a Wikipedia article asserting that “preach[ing] a foreign deity in Athens” was illegal. According to attorney John Mauck, “Paul was on trial” and Theophilus, a Roman official, would have seen this event as such (132). Since ‘took’ and ‘brought’ in verse 19 signify “an unfriendly taking hold of” (Barnes 414), the probable charge against Paul was preaching “foreign gods” (Acts 17:18). Mauck argues that Luke wrote Acts as a legal and theological defense in preparation for Paul’s trial in Rome (vi, xix). He appealed to the Areopagus’ “legal authority and prestige” and the fact that its members didn’t “find Paul to be violating the law” in order to “encourage Roman officials to acquit Paul,” since educated Romans considered Greece their “social and intellectual superior” (131-32). That Paul ended his sermon with a note on divine judgment suggests that he and the Christian faith might have been on trial in Athens.
Still, Paul’s presentation of Christianity was itself divine judgment on ancient Greek religion, which glorified earthly life through “the worship of all its most beauteous forms” (Jamieson). Epicureans advocated “prudence as the means and pleasure … the end” of life, with death as “the end of all things” (International). Stoics advocated duty by “living in harmony” with the gods, since “the soul at death was absorbed again into that from which it sprang” (ibid.). Anastasis (resurrection) was to them a “new deit[y]” (ibid.). So when they heard that Jesus Christ had risen from the dead in order to judge the world, some philosophers mocked Paul (Acts 17:31-32). Resurrection required seeing earthly life as vanity, which few people were prepared to do.
Paul’s description of God was also alien to these Greek philosophers, who had populated Athens with thousands of idols. He graciously referred to their altars and poets in his speech, but only in order to “teach a pure, personal, [and] spiritual Theism” (Jamieson). The Athenians’ altar “to the unknown God” Paul proclaimed as one God, “Lord of heaven and earth,” who “made the world and everything in it” (Acts 17:23-24). He doesn’t “dwell in temples made with hands” and isn’t “worshipped with men’s hands” because he doesn’t need anything (17:24-25). Instead of people giving food and drink to idols, God gives them “life, breath, and all things” (17:25). Contrary to “Stoical fate and Epicurean chance,” this God also “determine[s] their pre-appointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings” (17:26, Jamieson). Such statements refuted Stoics’ pantheistic concepts of people containing a divine spark and a never-transcendent God who was the “totality of the universe,” one that they believed had no “beginning or end” (Wikipedia). Paul then used the phrase “we are also his offspring,” written by Greek poet Aratus (c. 315-240 B.C.), to condemn idolatry (Acts 17:28). God isn’t “like gold or silver or stone, something shaped by art and man’s devising” (17:29). So “times of ignorance” are over; people must repent (17:30).
Nearly 2000 years ago, divine judgment came to Mars Hill in the form of Paul preaching one transcendent God who asked sinners to repent because he had raised Jesus Christ from the dead. One day, he said that this Jesus “will judge the world in righteousness” (Acts 17:31). Some people mocked Paul (17:32). Others were willing to hear him again (17:32). Only a few people – Dionysus the Areopagite, Damaris, and others – believed the Word (17:34). Truly, “many are called but few are chosen” (Matthew 22:14). Only a few find the narrow way (7:14).
Sources cited and consulted
Aristotle, Athenian Constitution (Project Gutenberg)
T. D. Barnes, “An Apostle on Trial,” Journal of Theological Studies 22 (1969): 407-19
Riemer Faber, “The Apostle and the Poet: Paul and Aratus,” Clarion 42.13 (1993): n.p.
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia: Areopagus (Blue Letter Bible)
Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown: Acts 17 (Blue Letter Bible)
John W. Mauck, Paul on Trial: The Book of Acts as a Defense of Christianity (2001)
New King James Version (NKJV)
Thayer’s Greek Lexicon: Areopagus (Blue Letter Bible)
Wikipedia: Aratus, Areopagus, Areopagus sermon, Stoicism