Today I’ll take a break from our recent focus on the gospels and turn to one of the greatest tours de force of the New Testament: St Paul’s “Speech on the Areopagus”. Delivered to the citizens of Athens, this is his most dramatic, and most fully recorded, public address (Acts 17). Paul’s impressive ability to think on his feet, and the fluency with which he weaves his knowledge of philosophy, literature, history, and culture into the argument, all contribute to the impact of this sermon. But to gain a better understanding of the material on which Paul draws to construct it, we will need to travel much further back in time. In fact, you’ll find it interesting that the background story to this episode echoes the spirit of our present time. For in the 6th century BC., the beautiful, proud city-state of Athens was struck by an interminable plague.
After the elders of the city had offered a sacrifice to each of the gods in its pantheon to no avail, they consulted its High Priestess. She said that she did not know which god was taking its anger out on the city, but that they should go down to the island of Crete to seek a certain prophet of Zeus, called Epimenides. Epimenides arrived in Athens bearing a creative solution. He advised that they follow the flocks of sheep early in the daytime and offer a sacrifice in each place where the sheep would lie down to rest. This would be an unusual behavior for the sheep in the mornings, the time when they are most hungry, and would thus indicate places that were particularly sacred. Within a week, the area around the city became dotted with the altars bearing an inscription agnosto theo (“the unknown god”) – and, the plague abated! Many of these altars have since been discovered by the modern-day archaeologists. Epimenides returned to Crete, where he produced several poetic works that became so famous as to be studied even 6 centuries later by respectable Jewish scholars -- including our Apostle Paul.
Paul’s visit to Athens was part of what we call his “2nd missionary journey”. Last week, one of our readings was about the stoning of Stephen, the first Christian martyr. This occurred while Paul (then Saul) was still extremely hostile to the newly emerging Christian movement. Shortly afterwards, Paul was converted, visited Jerusalem, then spent a few years tucked away safely in his home-town of Tarsus, in modern-day Turkey. Meanwhile, persecution in Jerusalem grew, and the early believers dispersed over the nearby Mediterranean areas. So in the 50s CE, Paul left Tarsus and went off on a series of three journeys that took him all around Syria, Cyprus, Asia Minor, and Rome. Athens was supposed to be a place of relative safety for Paul after he’d just stirred up some conflict in Thessalonica and Berea (as described earlier in Acts 17).
However, even in Athens, it doesn’t take Paul very long to provoke a controversy. Just a few market-square conversations, and he gets himself half-invited/half-forced to speak publicly about his doctrines: partially to defend himself, as preaching about the deities not found in the Greek mythology was illegal, and partly because the Greeks valued “spending their time discussing the latest ideas”. This often took place in this area called “Areopagus” -- a prominent rock outcropping located northwest of the city, also known by its Roman name as the Mars Hill. In classical times, it functioned as the homicide court, and since then it remained an important place to discuss philosophy, religion, and law. The people who brought Paul there were Epicurean and Stoic Greek philosophers (cf Acts 17). Both the Epicureans and Stoics believed in the existence of one God above all gods, but considered this God to be too lofty for a direct involvement with the fate of our world.
On the Areopagus, Paul rises to the occasion (pun intended!). But what I find so impressive is that he does so without contempt. First, he takes notice of all these altars to the unknown God, which probably reminds him of the myth about Epimenides and the plague. Once his mind turns to Epimenides, Paul recalls a piece of his writings. In this poem, Epimenides gives these words to the first king of Crete: “They fashioned a tomb for you [Zeus]… but you are not dead: you live and abide forever, for in you we live and move and have our being.” Isn’t it neat that a beloved turn of phrase we often use in our Anglican prayers comes from a poem written by an ancient worshipper of Zeus?
Paul immediately follows this quote with another one, also supposedly recognizable to his audience: “we too are his offspring”. This is from Aratus, a 3rd century BC Stoic poet, who might have been born in Paul’s birth-city, Tarsus. This line is found in the opening invocation of Aratus’ poem on astronomy: “let us begin with Zeus, whom we mortals never leave unspoken. For every street, every market-place is full of Zeus. Even the sea and the harbor are full of this deity. Everywhere everyone is indebted to Zeus. For we are indeed his offspring ...”. In doing so, Paul, first, used the subject matter familiar to the Athenians, and second, impressed them with his erudition. An economical preacher, in just a few sentences, he has managed to establish three key things. First, he showed that he had understood their altars to the unknown God to be built out of desperation, not simply “to cover all their bases”. The God whom he has now brought to them, 6 centuries later, was not some “foreign god” but the one who had already intervened once to bring help in the affairs of Athens – the God who knew and loved them even before they knew him by name.
Second, Paul suggested that rather than looking for such a God inside their temples made by human hands, they may encounter him on “every street and market-place”. In doing so he contradicted the Stoic teaching that moving towards God necessitated rising above the things of the world.
And third, comes Paul’s most drastic claim, albeit the one already asserted by the ancient poets whom he quoted: that all people, rather than mythological demi-gods, are the offspring of this one, true, loving, and immortal God. I should note that for those gathered on the Areopagus, to be named “the children of God” might have implied a much greater privilege and responsibility than it does to us. In the Greek world, the children ensured the continued existence of what was called the oikos: the “family”, including its people, property, name, and societal standing. The oikos was integral to the order of life in ancient Greece. So, if we are God’s heirs, then all that God does in the world and that belongs to him would be passed down in time through us. And because this God is immortal, so is his oikos: as Jesus said in our Gospel reading, “because I live, you also will live”.
To summarize, Paul does some remarkable things with just a couple of quotes that he knew would strike the right chord with his audience. To do so, he draws on the wealth of his education, as well as his sincere desire to meet his listeners just where they are in their spirituality. It is no wonder that some of the Athenians were deeply moved by this erudite, yet gentle message, and became his followers. It also speaks to us today, doesn’t it?
In his speech, Paul reminds the Athenians of just one example from their history when they had to look for God outside their shrines - most of us can think of such times in our own lives. When all hope was lost, when the gods of our philosophy had turned against us, and when no one could tell what we’d done to deserve this. Even in times such as these, the Athenians did manage to find a God who cared for them, albeit in places where they least expected him to show up. They knew to acknowledge him the moment they found him, even though they did not know his name. Could we look back on our own life histories, and note such times when God acted on our behalf -- unbeckoned, unexpected, and perhaps even unknown to us in those moments? Paul said, “God overlooks the times of human ignorance”. But it is up to us to reflect, synthesize, discern God’s activity in our lives, deepen our understanding of the meaning of life and vocation, and further develop our personal theology. In doing so, may we create a well-spring of spirituality to fuel our gratitude and sustain us in times of sadness. May we also learn to share our insights by first acknowledging the experiences of others with interest and grace.