Paul’s speech to the Greek philosophers in Athens takes up a space of just 11 verses, yet it has occupied theologians and missiologists for decades. There is hardly a book on missions that does not use this story to support a variety of views on missiological theory and practice.
Back in 1974 when I first heard about contextualization, Acts 17:23-34 was one of a few verses used to justify the then novel theory of contextualization. Now the story is used to justify the approach that the Quran can be used as a bridge to the Bible.
Would Paul be pleased to be interpreted this way?
To adequately answer this question, we need to look at the normal pattern of the ministry of Paul.
The story begins back to Acts 13 in Antioch.
Paul and Barnabas were sent by the Holy Spirit on their first missionary Journey. Everywhere they went we find them in the Synagogue preaching and proclaiming the good news of Jesus(1).
From beginning to end Paul and Barnabas experienced opposition and hardships. Before their return to Antioch Paul was stoned and dragged outside the city and thought to be dead.
The speech at Areopagus occurred toward the end of the second missionary journey. This time Paul and Barnabas expanded their work much further reaching all the way to Athens. At one time in the journey, they were joined by Timothy and Silas. Again all along they faced violent persecution. Paul and his companions were beaten and jailed. When the persecution turned life threatening the brothers whisked Paul to Athens where he waited for Silas and Timothy to catch up with him.
In every city where Paul went, we do not see him backing off, slowing down, or softening his message. He continued to preach boldly fully aware of the dangers facing him. His third and even fourth missionary journeys were no different. Paul gives us the reason why: “I only know that in every city the Holy Spirit warns me that prison and hardships are facing me.” (Acts 20:23)
Amazingly after being beaten severely, Paul enters Athens, and again he begins to fearlessly and boldly “disputes” with the Jews and Gentiles alike in the synagogues and the market place. He was unbending and unstoppable. He never waned in his zeal, nor was he curtailed by persecution.
As he waits for reinforcement from Silas and Timothy whom he left behind, Paul is seen walking around and finds something exceptional about Athens. It is filled with idols and shrines more than all the Greek cities he had visited before. Unlike many today who are fascinated by the Mosques in Muslim cities, Paul is so distressed by them that we see him incensed and eager to change the atmosphere. Acts 17:17 starts with the word “so.” He was distressed by what he saw, “so” he reasoned with the Jews and the Greeks in the Synagogue and in the market places.
The Greek philosophers heard about this man and they showed up in the market place to “dispute” with him. Notice their first impressions of him:
- They called him a babbler, not a compliment to his eloquence.
- They viewed him as one who was advocating foreign gods, namely Jesus.
- They found his teaching as “new”
- They accused him of “bringing some strange things.”
The Holy Spirit then puts this between brackets: (All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.) So if they were accustomed to new ideas, why were they challenging him and disputing with him?
Let us examine what Paul did and did not do to draw accurate conclusions that are in line with the immediate and broader contexts of the story.
What Paul did:
1) Acts 17:16- Paul was disturbed by the idolatry. As he walked the streets of Athens, Paul was “greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols.” Are we disturbed by all the mosques we see everywhere?
2) Paul brought a new and different message. “You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears.” (Acts 17:20) This shows that even before he delivered his speech, Paul was viewed as bringing something strange and different. They thought Jesus was a new god. They did not view him as starting from where they were.
3) Paul called the stoics and Epicureans demonic or superstitious (Î´ÎµÎ¹ÏƒÎ¹Î´Î±Î¹Î¼Î¿Î½ÎµÏƒÏ„ÎµÏÎ¿Ï…Ï‚, deisi-daimon-esterous; possessing a fear of demons). There is no indication that he has affirmed their beliefs and used them as a bridge.
4) Paul called the Greek philosophers ignorant. He used the word “Î±Î³Î½Î¿Î¹Î±Ï‚” (ignorant, not knowing) translated accurately in the KJV. “Now what you worship in ignorance, I am going to proclaim to you.” (Acts 17:23) He later, in verse 30 said: “In the past God overlooked such ignorance….”
5) Paul took issue with their idolatry. Athens was filled with temples, yet Paul said, “the Lord… does not live in temples built by hands.” (V24) He had compassion on them yet was disturbed by, and attempted to correct their idolatry. Many are fascinated with Islamic practices and the mosque. They even encourage converts to remain in the mosque. Paul took issue with the Greek deities and idols. “we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone — an image made by man’s design and skill.” (Acts 17:29)
6) Paul called them to repent: “In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.” (Acts 17:30) Here he tells them that their ignorance (notice here that the translation in the NIV is accurate. In Greek the word for ignorance is Î±Î³Î½Ï‰ÏƒÏ„Ï‰ it is from the same root as Î±Î³Î½Î¿Î¹Î±Ï‚ in verse 23, above.) He called them to repentance from their ignorance and idolatry.
7) Paul introduced another new, strange, and contradictory teaching: The resurrection. “For he has set a day when he will judge the world by raising him from the dead.” (V31) Some of them responded by mocking him (V32). This was his one opportunity to win them to himself and open more dialog with them. Why would he cut to the chase and talk about something so controversial if he were a “Common Ground” strategist?
8) Paul had a mixed reception.
a) “Some of them sneered”
b) “…but others said, ‘We want to hear you again on this subject.’”
c) “A few men became followers of Paul and believed.”
If Paul’s message was not confrontational and aimed at causing them to feel bad about their false religion, it would not be reasonable to expect repentance.
9) The story ends with a number of them actually believing and “following Paul” This can only mean that they joined the group he belonged to, namely the church. This is evidenced in the entire book of Acts from the day of Pentecost to the end of the book. He never encouraged people to remain in their dark system, be it Jews or Greeks.
What Paul did not do:
The analysis above shows us what Paul did. But it is equally important to consider what he did not do.
1) Paul did not approve of Greek philosophy. He did not encourage the Stoics and Epicureans to read their literature in order to find Jesus or to discover redemptive analogies in their literature. He quoted poets to introduce his biblical message. What he quoted was not extensive, and was probably common language. The writings of the poets are not the same as religious or sacred writings. Would Paul have quoted the Qur’an? Maybe, maybe not. If he did, he might only have quoted a short verse or two. My understanding of Paul causes me to think that he would not have quoted the Qur’an because it claims to be the word of God. The poets did not make such claim.
2) Paul did not use common ground to build bridges of trust. If Paul quoted a line or two from Greek poetry, he did so only to support his position not to give the impression that he approves “the truths” in their worldview. Some who promote an insider movement approach use this text to propagate an irenic approach to Muslims. Taken in its entirety, Paul’s speech was not irenic. On the contrary, though compassionate throughout, it was confrontational and polemic. He was correctional from beginning to end. He confronted their belief system on several fronts.
3) Paul did not claim to be one of the Stoic or Epicurean philosophers. He had a clearly different identity. They were confused about his teachings, but not about his identity. He did not pretend to agree with them on most issues that he raised. In fact, from the beginning to the end of his speech he was attacking their presuppositions about God, temples, Jesus and the resurrection.
4) Paul used a line from Greek poetry but he did not establish his arguments based on the body of philosophical literature. He argued only from the Bible. His speech contains messages about the Creation, God’s sustaining the universe, God’s sovereignty over his creation, God’s purpose in scattering the nations, God’s provision of salvation through Jesus Christ, the death and resurrection of Jesus. He further warned the Greeks from God’s judgement and called them to repentance. It is one thing to quote a verse or two from the Quran, it is another to quote a large number of verses. By doing so we run the risk of directly or indirectly validating the Quran, something Paul certainly would never do.
The speech Paul gave at the Areopagus has been used to justify some missiological practices that are clearly not biblical. Paul has been made to say just the opposite of what he actually said in his speech. While he was compassionate toward the Greeks he never gave them the impression that their worship had any merit. He was clear that the philosophers worship out of ignorance and that God would not approve of their idolatry. He preached the message of Salvation in Christ alone and a number of them refused but others believed.
1 Acts 13:5 “they proclaimed the word of God in the Jewish synagogues.”
Acts 13:32 “We tell you the good news:”
Acts 13: 43 “many of the Jews and devout converts to Judaism followed Paul and Barnabas.”