The Areopagus was the location of Paul’s defence against the charge of introducing a foreign deity into Athens. It is therefore an important site from the perspective of Biblical history. Visitors clamber up onto the Areopagus because they like to give physical context to Paul’s trial and his speech as recorded in the Bible. Some like to reflect on its content. However, Pauls’ interactions with the Athenians in the marketplace prior to his being led away to the Areopagus are just as interesting. What was Paul thinking in the marketplace? And how did Paul’s beliefs lead to conversations that offended the Athenians and his ultimately being led away to the Areopagus?
Who was Paul?
Paul, as is well known, was formerly Saul of Tarsus. He was commissioned following his conversion to take Christianity to the non-Jewish nations. Paul was a formidable intellectual. He was born a Jew but with Roman citizenship, probably inherited from his father. Paul was educated in Jewish history and trained in Law under the tutelage of Gamliel to serve in the Jewish court as a Pharisee. These characteristics were important during his interactions with the Greeks both in the agora (marketplace) and on the Areopagus. Alternatively, he may have been tried alongside the Areopagus. You can read about the role of the Areopagus in our post What was the Areopagaus?
Paul in the Agora Near the Areopagus
The account of Paul’s visit to Athens is recorded in the Bible at Acts Chapter 17. The account tells us that around 50 AD Paul had just arrived from Thessalonica and Beroea and was waiting for the arrival of Timothy. Paul was an evangelist, and so what better way to use his time and what better place to start engaging with the population of Athens than to mingle in the Jewish Synagogue and the agora. The ancient Greek agora was littered with both idols and temples that characterised Athenian mythology and religion. Paul viewed the idols as profane and religiously worthless. He used their proliferation throughout both the city and the agora as a lever to draw Athenians into a discussion of his own beliefs.
Paul was raised and educated a Jew and was therefore monotheistic. The Athenians were polytheistic and known for being the most religious of the Greeks. Paul was no stranger to idols but in Athens they were more numerous than he expected. He drew attention to the excess of idols during his speech on the Areopagus. He also drew attention to the Athenians’ need for an idol of an ‘unknown god’, indicating that they feared offending a god they hadn’t yet identified. It was indicative of their general fear of their gods.
The account tells us that Paul became irritated in the agora, but perhaps the number of idols may not have been the primary source of his irritation. After all, his readiness to eat meat from the marketplace in Corinth that had already been sacrificed to idols showed his complete disdain for them. So what may Paul have been thinking?
The Sources of Paul’s Irritation in Athens
Firstly, in preparation to becoming a Pharisee, Paul would have studied and would have become very familiar with the ‘Books of Moses’ in the Bible, also known as the Pentateuch. The first three commandments on the stone tablets given to the nation of Israel on Mt Sinai relating to idols would have been branded into Paul’s consciousness. Consequently, the extent and nature of the idolatry in Athens would have offended his own beliefs and would have proven to be impossible to reconcile. Nevertheless, during his speech on the Areopagus he explained the idolatry away as ignorance and sought rather to establish the credentials of his own God.
But there may have been an even more profound source of Paul’s irritation. Paul would have been very knowledgeable about, and would have had a profound belief in, Moses’ description of the flood in Noah’s time. Paul would also have been aware of the circumstances that preceded it. He wasn’t alone there. Other first century biblical Jews, namely Jesus, Peter and Jude also referred to the flood as an historical event. Secondly, it would have been impossible for Paul to have missed seeing the city’s largest temple, The Olympieion (The Temple of Zeus), during his stay in Athens.
So how might these observations have driven both his thinking and his responses to the presence of the Greek gods in the Agora? Why did their presence annoy him?
Moses described in Genesis Chapter 6 the occasion when angels left heaven, took on the flesh of men, consorted with the women on earth and as a result fathered a violent offspring. This offspring was referred to as the ‘Nephelim’. This term equates to ‘giants’ and ‘fellas’, that is, ‘fellers of men’. Moses referred to that offspring as ‘the ancient heroes, men of fame’. It wasn’t a compliment. It was just that these hybrids dwarfed conventional humans in size and strength. They were, according to Moses, one of the prime reasons why God brought the flood. These belligerent, oversized bullies and their violence had to go. Paul would have known the account, would have thought about it, and would have believed it.
But how, in this context, is the Olympieion relevant? The intriguing fact is that Athens also had its own flood legend. The enormous monument known as the Temple of Zeus was built to honour Zeus for delivering Greece from its deluge. You can read about it in our post about the Roman ruins in Athens.
And so we try to penetrate Paul’s thinking. Was Paul only annoyed by the number of idols he saw in the agora? Was he irritated by the fact that the honour due to his own God was being dissipated between what he believed to be worthless stone objects? Or was he thinking that the same spirits who had rebelled in the time of Noah and who were not allowed to return to their original domain had now embedded themselves in Greek religion and were manifested as the Greek gods? A horrible thought for Paul that for centuries the Greeks, like others, had unknowingly been hosting and worshipping fallen angels. And here he was right amongst them. It would certainly explain why Paul referred to the Athenians as ‘given more to superstition of the deities’ (Lit: reverent of the demons) than other Greeks, considering the violence and chaos the gods promoted in Noah’s day. It would also explain why the Athenians felt it necessary to erect a statue to the ‘unknown god’ on the Areopagus to prevent any consequences that might have eventuated from insulting one. And it would certainly explain the historically violent and amoral behaviour of the Greek gods over the centuries, as criticised by Euripides. If that is what Paul was thinking, then no wonder he was disturbed.
Beliefs Lead to Paul’s Defence on the Areopagus
The account which led to Paul’s defence on the Areopagus relates that he had previously escaped a mob and possible trial in Thessalonica because he preached Jesus as a King. A Roman decree demanded that no one could worship a foreign deity unless publicly allowed, particularly if it could be interpreted that the foreign deity could be a challenge to the authority of Caesar.
Our reading of the account tells us that Paul repeated the message in the Athens agora, along with an explanation of the resurrection. The content of his explanations raised curiosity in the minds of some and concern in others. The latter group equated preaching about foreign deities with threatening the security of the state. The Greeks knew no distinction between religion and the state. Paul was ushered to the Areopagus by the Stoic and Epicurean philosophers, Jews and others, some of whom who were eager to hear the new teaching. It was the nature of the Athenians. But if it was just interest in Paul’s beliefs that attracted attention, the conversations and debates would have continued in the agora because that is where the philosophical schools were located. The fact that he was presented for trial before the magistrates on the Areopagus meant that he had to defend against the charge of bringing a new deity into Athens. That was a risk because an Athenian court had already condemned one famous individual for ‘neglect of the city gods and the practice of religious novelties’. He was Socrates.
Paul’s Defence on the Areopagus
Pauls’ defence on the Areopagus amidst its statues, altars and temples to an audience comprising representatives of the law, philosophers and others who were learned and embedded in Athenian culture, was courageous and tactful. His speech did not undermine their religion, gods, or beliefs in mythology, but rather introduced them to the God they were missing;
“we ought not to think that the Divine Being is similar to gold or silver or stone sculptured by human art and conception, like something sculptured by the art and contrivance of man. Therefore, God overlooking the times of such ignorance…”
Paul’s speech skilfully avoided the claim of his introducing a foreign deity into Athens by introducing the Athenians to the identity of their ‘unknown god’ – the God that mattered to Paul. His speech is recorded in the Book of Acts 17:23-31.
Paul’s speech resulted in his being mocked by some; others expressed an interest in hearing more; and some became believers, including Dionysius, a judge of the court of the Areopagus. And Paul didn’t end up like Socrates.
Final Words on How Did Paul’s Beliefs Led Him to the Areopagus?
Only a few rock benches remain on the Areopagus now as does a bronze plaque on which is engraved Paul’s speech in Athens. Visitors sit on the uncomfortable limestone reading his speech from the bible, perhaps seeking to engineer an association with the man, the place and the time. But the rock is not a talisman. It was what was said here, who said it, and most importantly, about whom it was said that was significant. Paul, a Jew with Roman citizenship, educated in Law, instructed by Gamaliel, a former member of the Sanhedrin, was someone who could compete with the formidable Greek intellectuals. Whether our interest in Paul’s trial on the Areopagus as recorded in the Bible is historical or religious, we start to understand why it was he who was chosen to challenge the nations with a new teaching and beliefs.
Finally, be careful when you visit. The weathered limestone surface of the Areopagus is now worn smooth after enduring years of friction from the feet of we tourists and is extremely slippery. It is a five star resort for ankle-breaking. Ascend the Areopagus via the ancient steps but use the safer modern staircase to come down.
Site Information provided by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism
Pausanias, Description of Greece 1. 17 – 29
Translated by W. H. S. Jones
Acts Chapter 17