Paul’s Speech on the Areopagus, delivered in Athens, is a dramatic tour de force of the New Testament. With remarkable fluency, Paul thinks on his feet and weaves together his knowledge of philosophy, literature, history, and culture. To appreciate it fully, let’s first travel much further back in time to consider the origins of the altars bearing the inscription agnosto theo (“the unknown god”), which Paul noticed on his visit and used as a springboard for his address – and which archeologists discovered 2000 years later!
What happened 6 centuries before Paul arrived in the beautiful, proud city-state of Athens, is that it lived through a great epidemic. Nobody knew about masks or social distancing then, I don’t think. Instead, believing that they had angered its gods, the elders offered sacrifices to each of them. (Which “gods” of our time have we tried to appease during COVID?) Nothing worked though. The High Priestess then advised them to seek a prophet of Zeus called Epimenides, who lived on Crete. He proposed a creative solution: each morning, they were to follow the sheep and offer a sacrifice wherever the sheep lay down. Since at that time of day the sheep would be very hungry, they shouldn’t normally be resting; so this would indicate particularly sacred locations (“thin,” as discussed last week!). Did this work? As most epidemics do, it did eventually abate. But the legend of an unknown, merciful God found outside the temples remained.
Epimenides went on to write poetry that became so famous as to be studied centuries later by respectable Jewish scholars, including Paul – who then had the audacity and erudition to quote this and other poets to the Athenians of his own time. He came to Athens as part of his 2nd journey around Syria, Cyprus, Asia Minor, and Rome in the 50s AD. A few market chats upon arrival got him roped into defending his idea on the Areopagus, a prominent rock outcropping northwest of the city (Rock of Ares to the Greeks, Mars Hill to the Romans). Originally a homicide court, it became the place to discuss philosophy, religion, and law, as the Athenias liked to do. In Paul’s times, the debates drew primarily the Epicureans and Stoics, who believed in the existence of one God above all gods, but thought of him as too lofty to be involved in the material world.
While preaching about the deities outside the Greek pantheon was illegal, in defending his ideas on the Areopagus, Paul rose to the occasion (pun intended!). He noticed all these altars to the unknown God, which not only reminded him of the myth about the plague but brought to mind Epimenides’ poem to Zeus that he quoted: “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.” As it turns out, the turn of phrase much beloved by us Anglicans comes from an ancient worshiper of Zeus! Paul follows this quote with, “we too are his [Zeus’] offspring”, from the 3rd century BC stoic poet Aratus. An economical speaker, with these few quotes Paul engaged his audience and completed quite a theological feat. First, he showed them that his “new” God was the one who had once saved, knew and loved Athens, before they knew him. Second, he refuted the Stoic teaching that God is too sacred for the ordinary world by reminding them that they once found him outside the temples and that even their own stoic poet already had this idea. And third, he expanded Aratus’ idea, asserting that all people – not only Hercules and other such demi-gods – are the offspring of this one, true, loving, and immortal God. To this audience, to be thus named “children of God” might have implied a greater privilege and responsibility than it does to us, since their whole societal order depended on family and inheritance. Before oikos became a yogurt brand, it was their term for this!
Some of the Athenians were deeply moved by Paul’s erudite, yet gentle message, and joined the earliest followers of Christ. Wouldn’t we all benefit from hearing and delivering messages that pair wisdom with compassion – perhaps, as our biological and spiritual mothers whom we celebrate this weekend learn to do! Without compassion, wisdom is an “empty gong”, and vice versa. May we make it a priority to consider the full story of a person to whom we seek to offer advice, religious or otherwise. May we cultivate sincere interest in the experiences of others, both of suffering and grace. From time to time, we all find that our own substitute “gods” – medicine, beauty, youth, money, ideals – turn against us, like all gods of their pantheon failed the Athenians. It’s ok to admit that sometimes, we might mistake the artwork for the artist, so to speak, and search for God in the wrong places. Could we look back on our own life histories, and note such times when God did act on our behalf, even if we didn’t know where to find him? Like the Athenians did, may we learn to acknowledge him the moment we find him, even if we don’t know everything about him. Yes, we strive to reflect, synthesize, discern God’s activity, deepen our understanding of the meaning of life and vocation, and develop our personal theology. But in the fullest essence, our God, the Spirit of Truth, will always remain unknowable – or s/he would be too “small” to worship! Amen.
- Do you respect erudition in other people, or do you sometimes find that is causes resistances in you? Consider the situations in which you experienced either of these reactions – was there something else about the encounter that might have contributed to your perception?
- Do you have an interest in expanding your erudition, and how might you do so? What would be the value in doing that?
- In his speech on the Areopagus, Paul referenced an episode in the history of Athens when the city suffered an epidemic and its priests thought that they had angered a deity. When faced with our own difficulties, do we sometimes feel that God is against us? When you hear your friends’ complaints, do you feel impatient with their seeming “lack of trust”? When things go well, to whom do we tend to attribute our good fortune — our efforts or God’s providence, or a combination of these?
- In interacting with others, do you lean towards wisdom or compassion; giving “feedback” or empathy?
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