The three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.
Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.
My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy have omitted — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.
Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.
Paul in Athens
16 Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols. 17 So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. 18 Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also conversed with him. And some said, “What does this babbler wish to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities”—because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection. 19 And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? 20 For you bring some strange things to our ears. We wish to know therefore what these things mean.” 21 Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.
My past two posts explained the first part of Acts 17: Paul’s establishing churches in Thessalonica and Berea.
These were important developments, as Paul wrote letters to the Thessalonians, who became very devout Christians. Berea appears in the Bible only this one time, but the Bereans are good Christian role models because, even before their conversion, they read Scripture regularly and properly discerned it.
As my posts explain, Paul, Silas and Timothy had to leave Thessalonica, where they were persecuted. The mob from that city then travelled to Berea to persecute the three again. Silas and Timothy stayed in Berea for a time, until Paul received a divine command to summon them to Athens, where Bereans had escorted him.
As Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was overcome by the idolatry that pervaded the city (verse 16). Even though Paul was well versed in Greek philosophy, he found the sheer number of idols disturbing.
John MacArthur reminds us (emphases mine below):
Now I want us to set the picture, it’s a man and a city. It’s a simple thing. One man against one city. Look at the man. Let’s see what kind of a man he was. He was a Jew. And as a Jew he was beyond just being a Jew he was a Pharisee, a Hebrew of the Hebrews, a student of the great teacher Gamaliel. He was expert in the law, he was expert in ceremonies, he was a leader,-..he was a teacher, he was an expert in the Old Testament. Beyond being a Jew he was a Roman, he was a Roman citizen. And with his Roman citizenship came that kind of special skill in secular affairs that belonged to the Romans, that special knowledge of the military and of politics. Beyond that he was a Greek, not by virtue of his heritage but by virtue of his environment, he was raised in a place called Tarsus which was tremendously influenced by Greek culture. He was a Hellenistic man, he was exposed to Greek art and Greek philosophy. And so he had all of the bests of all of the worlds. He was a man who was cosmopolitan in every sense. And adding to those particular things he had a brilliant and keen mind. He had an intense commitment to the cause he believed in. He was a tireless pursuer of any goal that he set. He was a matchless orator. He was a fearless preacher. He was a brilliant question and answer dialogue man. He was well read, he was well travelled. He was an extraordinary man.
MacArthur gives us a glimpse of Athens’ supremacy at the time, even though it was under Roman rule by then:
… some historians said Athens at the time of Paul was the intellectual center and the university of the world. The minds of that part of the world congregated in Athens. In fact, it was such – it was such a proud city that it even called its university The Eye of Greece and the Mother of Arts. And Athens offered a home, incidentally, to almost every god in existence. In a place called the Pantheon they had a god for everything. They had every god there and every public building in Athens was a shrine to a god. The record house, for example, like the Hall of Records today, was dedicated to the Mother of gods. The Council House housed a statue of Apollo and Jupiter and everything was religious. As I told you last week, some comments were made such as – You can easily find a god in Athens rather than a man. Gods were everywhere. And it was a pagan city in the fullest sense, super cultured. And all of its art had false deities in mind, great monuments were built, great beautiful buildings were built as tributes to gods. Apart from its religion was its tremendous philosophical bent. Socrates and Plato were from Athens. Athens was the adopted city of Aristotle, Epicurus who founded the Epicureans and Zeno who founded the Stoics. And here was the great mind of the world as it were. And from it came the directions that resulted in the activities of other parts of the world. So Athens was some city. Masterpieces of architecture, masterpieces of art, sculpture, the greatest orators who ever lived gave orations in Athens.
As he always did, Paul went to the synagogue to preach and he also went to the marketplace every day to discourse (verse 17). The Greek word for marketplace is agora. Matthew Henry has more …
He entered into conversation with all that came in his way about matters of religion: In the market–en te agora, in the exchange, or place of commerce, he disputed daily, as he had occasion, with those that met with him, or that he happened to fall into company with, that were heathen, and never came to the Jews’ synagogue.
… as does MacArthur:
The marketplace is interesting, it’s the word agora, and in the towns in those times they had a center place, maybe a large area, court kind of a thing, you know, the public buildings were there, the temples were there and around this big area would be a colonnade. And in the colonnade would be little shops and farmers would even bring on the outside areas their cattle in and any goods they’d raised on the countryside and it was a big marketplace. And in the middle area philosophers would walk around with their little groups, you know, and there was always a group of people in the agora, many different kinds, you know, there were peripatetic teachers, philosophers, magicians, hucksters, you know, step right up, folks – that kind of thing, sleight of hand artists.
Paul could debate with the most educated of men, and did so with the Stoics and Epicureans he encountered (verse 18).
Henry explains the Epicureans’ philosophy:
The Epicureans, who thought God altogether such a one as themselves, an idle inactive being, that minded nothing, nor put any difference between good and evil. They would not own, either that God made the world or that he governs it; nor that man needs to make any conscience of what he says or does, having no punishment to fear nor rewards to hope for, all which loose atheistical notions Christianity is levelled against. The Epicureans indulged themselves in all the pleasures of sense, and placed their happiness in them, in what Christ has taught us in the first place to deny ourselves.
MacArthur tells us:
… they got their name from Epicurus who was a philosopher in Athens who has started this movement. He was born in about 342 B.C. so he was long dead and this is like 400 years later but his movement is still going great. Now Epicureans just to give you a little identification believed – 1. that everything happened by chance. They believed everything happened by chance. There was no real reason or rhyme for anything and nobody was running the show. They were the rationalists, see. Second thing, death was the end of everything. You died and that was it. Three, there were gods, they believed in all the gods but they figured the gods were remote and didn’t get involved and didn’t care. Now if you believe everything happens by chance and death is the end of everything and nobody up there cares then the fourth principle of Epicureans is very easy, – pleasure is the main purpose in life. Translated into the modern day – grab all the gusto you can get – you only go around once. See. Which is a very, – which is a beer version of existentialism. Pleasure is the chief end of men. Listen if you believe everything happened by chance and everything was random and you believed that death was the end of everything and you just went into the grave and it was over and you believed that there weren’t any gods who cared what you did, you’d be an Epicurean too, wouldn’t you? Atheistic rationalism ends up in pleasure is the chief end of men. Grab it here, grab it now, do your own thing, live it up. This is ancient existentialism.
Henry describes Stoicism as follows:
The Stoics, who thought themselves altogether as good as God, and indulged themselves as much in the pride of life as the Epicureans did in the lusts of the flesh and of the eye; they made their virtuous man to be no way inferior to God himself, nay to be superior. Esse aliquid quo sapiens antecedat Deum–There is that in which a wise man excels God, so Seneca: to which Christianity is directly opposite, as it teaches us to deny ourselves and abase ourselves, and to come off from all confidence in ourselves, that Christ may be all in all.
MacArthur has this:
… the Stoics. They were the nice guys. They weren’t out each for themselves. They were sort of the humanitarian bunch. They believed, first of all, that everything was God … You know what pantheism is? It’s atheism. If everything’s God, nothing’s God. So everything is God. Secondly, everything is the will of God. No matter what happens in the will of God wills it. They were fatalists. See. The will of God [is] everything. And they believed every so often the world disintegrated and then started all over again. It goes through that cycle every so many years. And, of course, for them believing that everything was God, everything was sort of divine and they were Gods and they had to act like Gods and they had to treat everybody else like Gods.
The one attribute that both commentators left out about Stoicism is actually a good one: the lack of extreme emotion — no tears, no anger, no complaining.
Some of the Stoics and Epicureans were interested in conversing with Paul (verse 18). While some called him a babbler, others were intrigued by what they understood to be a foreign deity and a resurrection.
Henry explains ‘babbler’, which has always had negative connotations as someone spouting whatever comes into his head:
Some called him a babbler, and thought he spoke, without any design, whatever came uppermost, as men of crazed imaginations do: What will this babbler say? ho spermologos houtos–this scatterer of words, that goes about, throwing here one idle word or story and there another, without any intendment or signification; or, this picker up of seeds. Some of the critics tell us that the term is used for a little sort of bird, that is worth nothing at all, either for the spit or for the cage, that picks up the seeds that lie uncovered, either in the field or by the way-side, and hops here and there for that purpose–Avicula parva quæ semina in triviis dispersa colligere solet; such a pitiful contemptible animal they took Paul to be, or supposed he went from place to place venting his notions to get money, a penny here and another there, as that bird picks up here and there a grain. They looked upon him as an idle fellow, and regarded him, as we say, no more than a ballad-singer.
MacArthur says the babbler is a gutter-sparrow, or guttersnipe:
It was referred to a gutter-sparrow. The gutter-sparrows, you know, they go around and pick up little bits and pieces and scraps of stuff and, you know, that’s how they live. And so this common term which really refers to gutter-sparrows became used for paupers who prowled around the marketplace, parasites who lived off what they could pick up. And it was translated into the philosophy thing and what they were saying was, – Paul, you’re not telling us a philosophy you’re nothing but a philosophical seed-picker. You’ve picked up bits and pieces of philosophy and religion and slapped it all together and you’re trying to pawn it off as knowledge. See. It’s like calling him an eclectic in a negative sense. What an uneducated babble you’re trying to pawn off, bits and scraps of all kinds of random philosophies and religions being passed off as information that is true. And so they mocked him.
As brainy as these fellows were, they did not understand the truth of Christ and the Resurrection, but interpreted both as new gods. Henry gives us the Greek expression:
Ton Iesoun kai ten anastasin, “Jesus they took for a new god, and anastasis, the resurrection, for a new goddess.” Thus they lost the benefit of the Christian doctrine by dressing it up in a pagan dialect, as if believing in Jesus, and looking for the resurrection, were the worshipping of new demons.
But, don’t Christians run into similar opposition today? It’s a pity this passage isn’t in the three-year Lectionary. MacArthur gave the sermon I’m citing in 1973 at his church in southern California. Even then, atheism was rife, but, of course, it’s always been around. Atheists continue to give the same objections they always have:
You know, it’s an old story with Christianity but everybody who really believes the Bible and really preaches it at one time or another runs into the mockers who say you’re … intellectually not with it, you – you just, I mean, that’s old wives tales, that’s for old ladies and little kids that believe that Christianity bit. I mean, we intellectuals[,] we’re past that. You know, I get that when I go on a college campus. And I don’t pose to be an intellectlual. But, you know[,] you always hear well, you know Christianity is not even intelligent, well, it’s not even reasonable all that stuff in [the] Bible.
One of the reasons I keep writing Forbidden Bible Verses is to show the truth of the Scripture to those who doubt it. (The other is to learn it better myself.)
But I digress.
The interested philosophers took him to the Areopagus to give him an audience for his ‘new teaching’ (verse 19). There is much to unpack in that verse.
First, Areopagus, translated into English, is Mars Hill. Ares was the Greek god of war. Mars was the Roman god of war. Pagus means hill.
The Areopagus was the most important and most learned place in Athens, as Henry describes. Furthermore, it was the place where new gods could be approved. The philosophers thought Paul would put forward a new deity for approval:
… it was the town-house, or guildhall of their city, where the magistrates met upon public business, and the courts of justice were kept; and it was as the theatre in the university, or the schools, where learned men met to communicate their notions. The court of justice which sat here was famous for its equity, which drew appeals to it from all parts; if any denied a god, he was liable to the censure of this court. Diagoras was by them put to death, as a contemner of the gods; nor might any new god be admitted without their approbation. Hither they brought Paul to be tried, not as a criminal but as a candidate.
Secondly, anything ‘new’ in Athens at that time was seen as intriguing and novel (verse 21). Enquiring minds wanted to know. This is why we call current affairs and any recent information ‘news‘.
Paul explained the risen Christ to them in words they could understand, i.e. from a pagan perspective. More on that next time.
Next time — Acts 17:32-34