Acts (Part 26) - Paul's Areopagus Defense
Paul has been brought before the Areopagus council of Athens to explain his religious views. Their concern was that Greek culture and society would not be threatened by the religious beliefs Paul was promoting. Those with an understanding of the Greek rhetorical arts have recognized Paul’s address to follow elements of traditional structure. Five main elements held the orator’s speech. The exordium provided the introduction. The narratio presented the facts at issue—the nature of the case. The narratio was followed by the confirmatio, the main body of the speech, which offered logical arguments as proof. Next, the counterarguments of the opposing view were answered in the refutatio. Finally, the peroratio summed up the address. Of course, each of these major elements had sub-elements as well. One such sub-element in the narratio was the propisitio, which was a statement providing a brief summary of what the speech was about. Within the confirmatio was the sub-element probatio, which gave test proofs of the arguments.
Rhetorical scholars reviewing Paul’s address generally find it to follow the following outline:
Exordium (introduction) – 17:22b-23a
Propositio (summary) – 17:23b
Probatio (testing proofs) – 17:24-29
Peroratio (summation) – 17:30-31
It is not so important that we all have a working knowledge of classical rhetoric. The point is rather that we can recognize that Paul had a working knowledge of classical rhetoric. Paul knew his audience and presented his apologia in the style that would be best received by them. But as we work our way through his address, we will notice a difference between what he says here and what he had been saying in his prior preaching.
In his introduction, Paul tells the Areopagites that they are very religious. The Greek word translated religious in the ESV is δεισιδαίμων, which is a compound word. The first part of the word has a basic meaning of cowardly. While we usually think of this in a negative connotation, we can understand that the meaning may simply be submissive. In a religious environment, although cowardly does not really describe the atmosphere, we can see an attitude of submission and subjection to the worshipped god. The second part of the word is used of a lower class god and spirits—especially in the New Testament of evil spirits and possessing demons. In the Greek, this word used by Paul could have a positive meaning—pious, religious—or a negative meaning—superstitious. The usual interpretation is to understand Paul trying to win the crowd with a compliment and a clever lead-in with the altar to the unknown god to get the people to think along with him.
But to think of Paul trying to be winsome and conciliatory as he begins this speech seems directly opposed to what Luke had taken the time to describe in verses 16 through 21. Luke presented a hostile environment. Paul was extremely vexed in verse 16 about this subject—about the idolatry all around him. To be so provoked one minute and then turn around the next to compliment them on their religiosity does not seem to be what Luke wants us to see. These men had been ridiculing Paul in the marketplace (17:18). They had accused him of introducing a foreign, strange god, who might be detrimental to Greek society and culture (17:18). And they had dragged him here to the council to answer these charges in a trial of sorts (17:19). This is no friendly invitation to share his thoughts. This council wanted to examine Paul to judge whether his ideas were harmful. And Paul was provoked to anger by their idolatry. So the message Paul brings, although cloaked in the formal speech of the day, was a spirited defense against ridicule and accusation.
Remember that the Areopagites had set Paul in their midst, saying, “You have been accused of introducing a strange god. What do you have to say for yourself?” So Paul’s answer in this introduction is: “Okay, I understand that you all are religious. In fact, you are so religious that you are the ones who have this altar to an unknown god.” In other words, in answering the charge that he is bringing in a foreign god, Paul says that in reality, they have already set up an altar to a foreign, strange god. Paul says, “Don’t accuse me of introducing a foreign god. You have already done that yourself with this altar.” In this way, Paul deflects the accusation so that his defense may start off on a more level playing field.
We have no ruins and very little written about altars set up to an unknown god. It has been surmised that this particular altar is one that could have been established by someone having heard the deeds and exploits of a nation and wanting to honor the god of that nation without knowing the god’s name. It has also been suggested that this altar could have been set up by a Gentile converted to Judaism. Since in Judaism the name of God is considered too holy to be written, the inscription could have been meant to convey that this altar was to the unnamed God—the God whose name cannot be spoken. Whatever the case, Paul uses this altar, not just as a sermon illustration, but rather as part of his defense to counter the accusation that he is the one introducing a foreign god.
At the end of verse 23, Paul presents his propositio—his brief summary of the subject he will discuss. He says, “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.” We will notice in Paul’s address that he follows the conviction he declares in Romans 1—that all people everywhere have been given an innate understanding that God exists. Romans 1:21 states: “They know of God, but they don’t worship him as God.” Further in Romans 1:23, Paul tells us: “They exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal men and birds and animals and reptiles.” This is what Paul saw all about him in the altars and images surrounding the Areopagus that spoke of their idolatry.
What Paul suggests in propositio is that his address will focus on one god—a monotheistic approach rather than the polytheistic assumption of that society. The idea of polytheism is not only that a particular nation had an assortment of gods (as did the Greeks), but the understanding that each nation had its own god. When one nation grew strong over others around it, the thought was that that nation’s god was stronger. Paul immediately counters this kind of thinking indirectly with his first point. He begins in verse 24 in monotheistic tone by saying, “The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands.” Paul’s direct point is that God is not dependent on us for food and shelter.
In just a few statements so far, Paul has deftly deflected their charge against him of introducing a strange god and now has made their system of worship seem illogical. The pagan system of worship sets up temple and sacrifice as the means of satisfying the needs of the god. The activities of sex with temple priestesses and sacrifices, which provided meat for the god, were seen as providing for the god’s two great needs. The temple and altar, therefore, signified those elements of worship. And since they did, Paul points out that the logic is convoluted. How could the god who made everything need people to build a house for him or serve him. It would seem ridiculous that a god powerful enough to create everything and maintain lordship over everything would need humans to satisfy his/her needs. (This is another tie to Socrates, who argued similarly in Plato’s Euthyphro, 12E-15E).
As Paul ridicules the presumed need of a god to have temple and human service, someone may wonder about Paul’s God. Didn’t the God of the Jews have them build a temple for him? Didn’t the God of the Jews set up the Levitical priesthood to serve him? The difference is one of need. In his defense recorded in Acts 7:45-50, Stephen mentions that David asked whether he could build a house for God but Solomon ends up doing it. But then Stephen explains, “Yet the Most High does not dwell in houses made by hands, as the prophet says, ‘Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. What kind of house will you build for me, says the Lord, or what is the place of my rest? Did not my hand make all these things.’” We find that the purpose for God’s temple and service is much different from the purpose involved in pagan worship. God’s temple and service is meant to teach us of our need, not God’s need. And Paul ends his statement by saying that it is God that has given “to all mankind life and breath and everything” (17:25). Paul no doubt was recalling Isaiah 42:5 in this statement: “Thus says God, the Lord, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people on it and spirit to those who walk in it.”
Paul’s next point is a little difficult to see because of the way the Greek has been translated. In the ESV, verses 26 and 27a read as follows:
“And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way toward him and find him.”
In these verses, Paul tells us that God “made from one man every nation of mankind” for two purposes. The first purpose begins immediately with the infinitive phrase “to live.” The second purpose is a bit hidden because the translators decided to avoid the infinitive (although the Greek construction is there). They changed it to “that they should seek.” It would have been much more easily identified if translated simply “to seek.” Therefore, removing for the moment all the other phrases, we find that God “made from one man every nation of mankind” “to live” and “to seek.” Now that we see the construction, let’s examine the phrases.
Paul begins this point by emphasizing the monotheistic idea that one God has created all the nations. The one God had mankind “to live” in determined periods and boundaries. The reference to determined periods and boundaries counters the polytheistic thought that each nation had a separate god or gods. The “determined boundaries” argues that our one God is over all the different nations. And the periods of history that seem to favor one nation over another (Egypt, Babylon, Persia, Greece, now Rome) have nothing to do with separate gods becoming more powerful, but rather with the ordaining control of our one God.
Further, Paul says that God made the nations “to seek” God. But they seek him as those who are blind “that they may feel their way toward him.” And it is here, I think, where Paul has them in rapt attention. He has countered their charge against him. He has shown the illogical construction of their idolatrous worship. They have no answers and merely listen as Paul explains. He touches on something he knows to be true of them (as shown in Romans 1). They understand—deep down within—that the one God exists. God has made that known to everyone. And they follow Paul as he emphasizes their search for God as blindly groping to find him. Paul, in effect, says to them, “You know this!” And he continues by quoting their poets who have spoken of this knowledge. “In him we live and move and have our being” (from a poem by Epimenides). “For we are indeed his offspring” (from a poem by Aratus, Phaenomena 5 – which, by the way, is an argument against idolatry).
Being offspring and being sustained by God are the two ideas that were twisted in pagan worship into sexual immorality and sacrifice to feed the god. That’s why, in the letter from the Jerusalem council in Acts 15, they lay no burden of old covenant form on Gentile Christians but still warn to stay away from idol worship—meals of sacrifice and sexual immorality (15:29).
In verse 29, Paul rounds out his point by tying it to his initial point. Since we are God’s offspring, he says, we ought not to think of God in the inanimate construction of our art and imagination.
“The times of ignorance God overlooked” (17:30). The word “ignorance” is of the same root as the word translated “unknown” in the inscription on the altar. Paul effectively tells them that God is no longer unknown, and the whole world must repent from their warped ways of idolatrous worship. This is Paul’s summation: repent because judgment is coming. In this summation, Paul confronts the ideas held especially by the Epicureans. They thought that the greatest pleasure (the greatest good) was tranquility of mind. Surely if there were a god, that god would maintain tranquility of mind. In other words, that kind of god would certainly not be enraged to execute judgment. But Paul argues the opposite. The one God does demand right worship. And judgment will come upon those in opposition. That judgment will come by an appointed man. And proof of this coming judgment is that this appointed man was raised from the dead (17:31).
Did Paul wish to continue speaking? Was he going to provide the gospel? Up to this point he has not mentioned the name of Christ. He has not even told them about atonement. He has given them basically an Old Testament message of repentance and judgment. But whatever Paul’s plan may have been, the eruption from the crowd at the particular sticking point of resurrection ended any further discussion. Some clamored about the impossibility of resurrection. Others said that they would hear Paul again (not necessarily because they were interested to believe his message, but possibly just to continue examination of whether it would be harmful to their society).
Several points of consideration remain to be examined concerning this non-gospel message. Why did God want it delivered? Why, even though they say they want to hear him again, does Paul immediately leave Athens to go to Corinth (18:1)? This climax of Acts has thought-provoking impacts even for us today.