Acts 17 – Paul’s address to the Athenians – That moment when God made foolish the wisdom of the world.
Paul in Athens
The Book of Acts tells the story of the early church in Jerusalem, and then follows Paul’s missionary journeys. In chapter 17, Paul addresses the wise, the powerful, and the religious of Athens. What he said there is often misunderstood or misrepresented. This was, however, arguably the moment that Paul would later refer to, saying “God has made foolish the wisdom of the world” (1 Corinthians 1:20).
About the Book of Acts
The Book of Acts, “it is generally agreed”, forms a sequel to the Gospel of Luke, and “most today would agree” that it is written by the same author. This is not to say that the two works necessarily shared precisely the same intended rhetorical force, or even that they necessarily belong to the same genre as one another. The genre of Acts is debated under a long list of potential headings, many of which the author himself would likely not have recognised! It should suffice that this work can be well enough understood by, “loosely associating Luke—Acts with a broad cluster of biographical and historical genres in antiquity” (so Phillips).
Alongside that more generalised category it is helpful to acknowledge that some degree of illocutionary force is presumably intended by it, rather than the work presenting merely a dry historical account. Further, notwithstanding the modern emphasis on objectivity in historical reporting, it would be anachronistic to describe portions of the work as “fiction”, even if they would not meet the modern definition of encyclopaedic reporting, because “fiction” is a designation the author would surely dispute.
The document (The Book of Acts) is addressed to “Theophilus” (1:1), and refers to “the first book” (1:1), which forms a reference to Luke’s Gospel, in which Theophilus is referred to honourifically as “most excellent Theophilus” (“κράτιστε Θεόφιλε” – Luke 1:3). Various theories exist, such as Theophilus being a patron of Luke, but this form of address is consistent with Theophilus being a Roman Governor or other official. Although it is true to say, “We simply do not know” who Theophilus actually was, it is relevant to speculate about it in order best to understand Luke’s authorial intent. For example, if Selby is correct, the whole document may be part of Paul’s defence before a Roman court, which is not a “romantic” notion (Contra Alexander) … if Theophilus is a Christian Roman official, as is implied by Luke 1:4. For our purposes, however, it suffices that Luke is interested in presenting a true account of the events of Paul’s visit to Athens, albeit one with some apologetic force, and he had ample access to Paul’s own account in order to do so.
What’s going on in the Book of Acts around this event?
In casting a “narrative context” for the Athens speech, Gray attempts to characterise Paul’s mission as a “Gentile” one, but then observes that Luke fails to introduce it “auspiciously” in such terms. This is could indicate that it is not Luke who is contriving a “story-world”, but rather Gray himself, and that Luke is more interested in reporting what actually happened than in creating an elaborate literary framework for subsequent millennia of theological analysis by professional commentators such as Gray.
How does this event fit into the broader story?
By the time he reached Athens, Paul had travelled through a substantial part of the Empire. His established pattern was first to go into the synagogue of the town and reason with the Jews there.
In Pisidian Antioch Paul declared, “Since you reject [the Gospel message] … we are now turning to the Gentiles” (13:46), but this marks neither the beginning of his Gentile ministry nor the end of his Jewish one.
Paul’s Gentile ministry had begun in Syrian Antioch (13:1), and had already preached to a Gentile proconsul in Cyprus as well (13:12). He also continued going to the synagogues after Pisidian Antioch. For example at the Iconium synagogue, “the same thing [as at Pisidian Antioch] happened” (14:1), clearly indicating that Paul’s pattern had not changed.
Paul’s rebuke of the Jews at Pisidian Antioch was therefore a declaration of the state of the Gospel proclamation in the World: the Jews were rejecting it, and it was being opened to the Gentiles also, through Paul’s ministry. It was not a point in time at which Paul “changed his missional intent”, as the ongoing story reveals. As his journeys continued…
- Paul looked for “the place of [Jewish] prayer” (16:13, 16) in Philippi,
- a synagogue in Thessalonica (17:1-2),
- and a synagogue in Berea (17:10).
The story then moves to Athens, where Paul argued “in the synagogue with the Jews” (17:17). After Athens the pattern kept being repeated:
After these events Paul went to the capital of the Jewish world, Jerusalem (Acts 21), and only then, the capital of the Gentile world, Rome (Acts 28). Luke’s narrative consistently reveals that Paul was interested both in “Jews and Greeks” (14:1; 18:4; 19:10, 17; 20:21), and Paul also emphasises this repeatedly in his correspondence, even naming this combined concern, “the mystery of Christ” (Ephesians 3:4-6).
Did Paul really say these words?
While it is fair to conclude that Paul’s speech at Athens is some kind of paraphrase, it is not necessary to conclude with Pathrapankal that Luke is the author of the abbreviation, let alone of the speech in its entirety, instead of Paul! It is excessively cynical to discount the likelihood that Paul recounted the events of his Athens visit directly to Luke, and provided his own paraphrase of what he said there. Gangel, citing Hackett, rightly finds that the Pauline “mental characteristics” of the discourse are readily identifiable.
A visit even to modern Athens gives one a glimpse at just how “idolatrous” (v16) the city would have seemed to the eyes of a pious Jew in the First Century.
Simply to approach the acropolis amid all the temples and theatres and the other magnificent and colourful buildings would have been confronting, but the acropolis itself is unmistakably a towering and imposing feature of the city. Within the walls of the acropolis where the Parthenon stands were, in Paul’s day, as many as two hundred life-sized statues. Even the ἀγορᾷ (“marketplace”) where Paul spent much of his time was hemmed by the Temple of Hephaestus and the Stoa of Attalos, and was loomed over by the Erechtheion of Athena and Poseidon, located on that side of the acropolis. One can readily appreciate Paul’s sense of being surrounded and immersed in this culture of what he would interpret simply as idolatry. Whether it was a temple dedicated to some god or just a magnificent public building, Paul may understandably have interpreted the sheer ostentatiousness of all of it in terms of the ominous Babel narrative: “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves” (Genesis 11:4).
The structure of our passage
Paul’s time in Athens is described in a way that can be divided into three sections: Developing the narrative setting for Paul’s speech (verses 16-21), the speech (22-31), and the results of the speech (32-34).
A close look at the text
“While Paul was waiting for them in Athens…” (Acts 17:16-21)
As Paul awaited Silas and Timothy (v15), he spent time in the synagogue and in the ἀγορᾷ (“marketplace”), engaging people in conversation (v17). His first impressions were primarily informed by the proliferation of religious monuments, and this troubled him (v16). His conversations with the locals precipitated a visit to the Areopagus (v19), essentially because of their voracious curiosity for “something new” (v21).
16 While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols.
Luke opens his account of Athens with a note about Paul’s deep inner distress (“Παύλου, παρωξύνετο τὸ πνεῦμα αὐτοῦ ἐν αὐτῷ”) at seeing how prolifically idolatrous (“κατείδωλον”) the city was.
17 So he argued in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and also in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there.
18 Also some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers debated with him. Some said, “What does this babbler want to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign divinities.” (This was because he was telling the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.)
Paul had a message and did not hesitate to share it, whether with the Jews of the synagogue, the devout (“τοῖς σεβομένοις”), or the Epicureans and Stoics.
If a “pattern” of Jewish rejection is being rhetorically maintained by Luke, then it occurs silently by the end of verse 34 in the notable absence of Jewish converts, but the fact that he had no violent rejection at the hand of the Jews in the synagogue is, if it bears any relevance at all, a reason to suspect that Jews possibly were among the audience of Paul’s later speech at the Areopagus. Whatever the case, Luke is silent about any Jewish rejection or acceptance of Paul’s message, and also about the precise makeup of the later Areopagus audience.
Paul’s initial hearers apparently had some trouble reconciling his teachings. Some characterised him as a babbler (“σπερμολόγος”), and others concluded that he was introducing foreign deities (v18). The narrative parallels with legends of Socrates are strong, and Pathrapankal expresses the link well: “Luke can hardly have failed to think of Socrates”.
The accusation of bringing foreign deities may arise from the fact Paul was preaching “τὸν Ἰησοῦν καὶ τὴν ἀνάστασιν” (“Jesus and the Resurrection” – v18), which could be misinterpreted, “Jesus and Anastasia”.
19 So they took him and brought him to the Areopagus and asked him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting?
20 It sounds rather strange to us, so we would like to know what it means.”
21 Now all the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new.
Paul was invited to the Areopagus to clarify his teachings. In contrast to the mob violence which brought Paul before the authorities in Philippi (16:20), at Athens he was politely invited into a privileged place as a teacher.
Had Luke skipped verse 21 we might anticipate a dramatic episode involving many converts, but that expectation is scuttled by presenting the locals and their curiosity in no positive light: they “spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new” (v21). In this, Luke subtly and implicitly allows the reader to bring the “babbler” accusation back on those who first made it (cf v18). As a result, the reader is left to anticipate no huge results from the speech.
“Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said…” (Acts 17:22-31)
Gray rightly points out that Paul was addressing an audience of diverse worldviews, not a “monolithic Gentile audience”. For example, Paul is vexed by the idols he finds in the city (17:16), and refers to extreme religiosity or superstition (“δεισιδαιμονεστέρους”) in his speech (17:22), but the Stoic and Epicurean schools “were united in their antipathy toward anything smacking of superstition” (so Gray). Paul clearly is interacting with more than one set of ideas among his hearers. At least two, and probably three, fairly distinct audiences are in play: The politico-religious establishment, the philosophers, and possibly Jews. Even if there were not Jews in the audience, Paul’s inner perspective is consciously that of a Pharisee in critical dialog with broader Judaism (Acts 23:6; 26:4-6; Philippians 3:4-6), so his remarks reflect this subjective engagement by default. Paul interacts with all three worldviews simultaneously, and often uses one sentence to address more than one group in different ways. It is reasonable to ascribe to someone of his “formidable intellect” the capability to do this, whether deliberately or intuitively.
It may be possible to divide Paul’s speech into two sections: the establishment and interplay of ideas with his hearers’ worldviews (vv22-28), and a polemical attack on them (vv29-31), but this distinction requires qualification. It is subject to a more nuanced observation of how the speech engages multiple implied audiences simultaneously. Paul establishes empathy with, then challenges, and finally refutes, the worldview of each group in different ways. To the religious Paul offers empathy (v23), challenge (vv24-25), and refutation (v29). To the sophists he offers empathy (vv25-28), refutation and challenge (v30). To the Jews he offers empathy (vv24-25), challenge and refutation (v31). Finally, he presents God’s demand explicitly as universal to all groups: “[God] commands all people everywhere to repent” (v30).
As we stood in that same spot on the day we visited and contemplated Paul’s address, I realised that Paul did not pull any of his punches in that speech. In my journal I recorded an expression that came to mind, “Dem’s fightn woyds”.
22 Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way.
It is moot to dispute over the possible connotations of the word “δεισιδαιμονεστέρους” (“very religious”, or “very superstitious”), because Paul deliberately employs it as a multivalent term. For the religious establishment it is a veiled, backhanded compliment. To the philosophers it echoes their own critique of “superstition”, and for the Jews it would be heard as delicious sarcasm. The one word is employed with a variety of rhetorical freight.
23 “… For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.”
In an ostensibly respectful way, in keeping with the Athenians’ own curiosity for “something new” (v21), Paul describes his time in the city as a journey of discovery. He notes a landmark undoubtedly familiar to his hearers, and even if the inscription had been “unknown gods”, it is well within the speaker’s license to say, “I found … an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’” (v23), since the referent is, after all, “unknown”! Paul claims to hold the key to unlocking this ignorance, which is self-professed on behalf of the Athenians in the inscription, and Paul is saying that this is just one, not many gods.
This claim established an empathy with the religious to whom the “unknown god” is presumably important, it perhaps would have amused the philosophers as a clever rhetorical device, and it surely gave any Jews in the audience all they needed to anticipate the next step in Paul’s discourse: the proclamation of the God of Israel, the Creator.
24 The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands,
25 nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things.
By describing the erstwhile “unknown god” in terms that contradict their expectations, Paul directly challenges the worldview of the religious: Their pantheon apparently does live in shrines, and is served by a human priesthood. This includes Zeus, the pantheon’s ‘chief god’, who therefore cannot be Paul’s “Lord of heaven and earth”.
Paul’s description of God is, however, completely agreeable for any Jewish hearers. The Epicureans also would find agreement with the main ideas: “that God is living and can be known, that God is self-sufficient and needs nothing from human beings, and that God does not live in human-built temples”. In one step, Paul has challenged the Athenian religious establishment, and established common ground with both the Jewish and the philosophical audience.
26 From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live,
27 so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us.
28 For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’
Paul states a peculiarly Jewish conviction about the origins of humanity and the providence of God over the nations in verse 26, but it is not antagonistic in the context of proclaiming “an unknown god”.
To the philosophers, the divine generation of life was not novel because Plato’s thought posited a creator-god, who providentially cares, and whose relationship with mankind is immanent. Divine generation was also contemplated in Aristotle’s name in the pseudepigraphical “De Mundo” (“On the Cosmos”), which also discussed the importance of metaphysical “distance” from the divine in terms that may relate to “he is not far from each one of us” (v27). Further, verse 28 is a pair of direct references to poets known to the philosophers. Overall, this section of the speech is a deliberate effort to establish a degree of empathy with the philosophers in the audience, but to argue that Paul “compromised” the Gospel in this speech is to misunderstand the rhetorical force of the monologue. Just as Jesus established some common ground with the Pharisees (Matt 23:2), immediately before launching his withering tirade against them, Paul also establishes some common ground before playing his theological cards.
29 Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals.
In the preceding verse, Paul established some key rhetorical premises, including that “we too are his offspring” (v28), in sympathy with the philosophers. Using this understanding as his basis, he rebukes the religious for what is, in his own Jewish terms, idolatry: “to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals” (v29 cf. Exodus 20:4). In this act he has divided his audience, setting the philosophers against the religious.
30 While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent,
31 because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”
If the philosophers found any joy in being used as Paul’s platform from which to attack the religious it was short lived. In the next breath Paul employed an unmistakably direct insult against philosophers, for whom the pursuit of knowledge is their very definition and mantra: he accused them of “Ignorance” (“ἀγνοίας” – v30). This is not couched in any mitigating terms, either. It is part of a universalised “command” (“παραγγέλλει”) “to repent” (“μετανοεῖν”) of it.
To miss this key point is to misunderstand Paul’s thoughts on “wisdom”. For example, Pathrapankal accuses Paul of employing at Athens the same “eloquent wisdom” that is later disclaimed in 1 Corinthians 1:17. This charge of self-contradiction would be impossible if Pathrapankal had discerned the sharp rebuke that Paul delivered to the Athenian sophists by charging them with “ignorance” (v30), but it is clear that he failed to perceive it, because Pathrapankal’s own paraphrase of the speech tellingly omits this key feature.
Jews in the audience would likely be unaware of a parallel accusation against their fellow Jews of “ignorance” by Peter in Acts 3:17, but “ἀνθρώποις πάντας πανταχοῦ” (“All men everywhere”) could scarcely be more emphatic. It includes all of Paul’s hearers. In fact, any Jews in the audience would have been delighted by Verse 30, but just as Paul had stood briefly with the philosophers to criticise the religious before turning to confront those same philosophers, in Verse 31 he similarly stands with the Jews momentarily with, “[God] will have the world judged…”, before turning the tables on them with the unexpected and scandalous addition, “by a man…” (1 Corinthians 12:3 cf. Psalm 9:6-8; 96:10). Although the mention of the Resurrection is not precisely the same as “Christ crucified”, which Paul later (1 Corinthians 1:23) describes as their “σκάνδαλον” (Literally “scandal”), the Resurrection was nevertheless deeply controversial (cf. Acts 23:6-10), particularly when connected to the scandal of a crucifixion, and presumably this was topic of his earlier conversations mentioned in verse 18.
When they heard… (Acts 17:32-34)
Although there were apparently few converts, Paul’s reception was non-violent, forming something of a contrast with his experiences elsewhere. This is likely something Luke wanted to highlight, whether it forms part of an affirmation for a largely Gentile readership (so Gray), a subtle appeal for clemency in defense of Paul before a Roman court (so Mattill), or simply as a contrast to the, by now anticipated, usual Jewish persecution of Christian proselytism.
The speech is “a work of genius” (so Gangel), but not only “if one adopts the view that Paul was interrupted after verse 31” (contra Gangel). It is not clear that Paul was interrupted prematurely. If Luke presents a paraphrase and there are no narrative cues to the contrary, it is reasonable to assume that Paul presented what he had intended, and had finished at Verse 31.
32 When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some scoffed; but others said, “We will hear you again about this.”
33 At that point Paul left them. 34 But some of them joined him and became believers, including Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris, and others with them.
By the end his speech, Paul had polemically engaged and refuted all non-Christian worldviews in his audience. Not only was his reception in the synagogue and marketplace “less violent” than in other towns, but remarkably also at the Areopagus he was unmolested, even after such a deliberately confronting speech. The worst he suffered was that “some indeed mocked” (“οἱ μὲν ἐχλεύαζον” – v32). Rather than escaping (as in Damascus 9:23-25, Jerusalem 9:29-30, Iconium 14:5-6, Thessalonica 17:10, and Beroea 17:14), being chased out (as in Psidian Antioch 13:50-51), or thrown out (as in Lystra 14:19, and arguably Philippi 16:39), Paul simply left (v33).
There were those who committed to hearing more (v32), and “some” (“τινες”) joined (“κολληθέντες”) Paul in the faith (“ἐπίστευσαν” – v34). This is comparable to his rate of conversion at first contact in most other places.
Commentators speculate what Paul may have meant by, “God has made foolish the wisdom of the world” (1 Corinthians 1:20). It may be that Paul’s encounter in Athens was in his mind when he later penned this:
For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written,
“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”
Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.
– 1 Corinthians 1:18-25
It would be consistent with his sense of vicarious apostleship (2 Corinthians 5:20), that he might consider the Areopagus speech to have been a specific time at which, through the foolishness of Paul’s proclamation (1 Corinthians 1:21), God has done precisely that.
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