A Timeless Approach on a Modern Mars Hill
It is nearly the beginning of the apostolic era. We see Peter and John preaching the gospel in various ways to Jews and Gentiles alike. Signs and miracles are performed, and the believers increase in number each day. In the midst of these events, Paul becomes one of those believers after his encounter with Jesus on the Damascus road. Paul becomes notorious for his convincing arguments against the Pharisees rather than his persecution of Christians. It is shown in Acts that Paul is capable of casting out demons just like Peter and John, but it seems in his most well known preaching God works through Paul’s words rather than actions; specifically his speech on Mars Hill. Is there a reason for how he approaches this crowd? Was Paul correct in his tactics and more importantly, is this the way in which we should confront our complex society? In the passage titled Paul in Athens, I will explain the contextual background of life in Athens, demonstrating its correspondence with our modern society. I will also break down and analyze the passage into several parts while offering an interpretation of the more difficult parts. Finally, I will argue why this particular form of public preaching is useful in the world we live in today.
Paul in Athens
To better understand the context of the passage, I’ll provide some background information on the city known as Athens. Athens, Greece is still a city in our modern world, and we are able to look back on history with more sources than just the Bible because it is still around today. In Paul’s time, Athens was a powerhouse of culture, philosophy, and religion. Its philosophies and insight into our world still influences us today. Names like Socrates and Plato are well known even among those who rarely study them. Plato’s ‘Analogy of the Line’ is used by many Christian apologists to describe the physical world as less real compared to the spiritual realm. It is safe to say Paul’s message here involved the risk of failing to make a case and losing his chance to witness to a historically relevant group of people. These people and their lifestyles were spread across the spectrum. As we will see in the passage, Athens was extremely religious. The meeting place of their council is called the Areopagus, which the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines as “Latin, from Greek Areios pagos (literally, hill of Ares), a hill in Athens where the tribunal met”. Ares is the god of war, and the entire council of the Areopagus was created to settle matters of law, religion, and philosophy. From now on I’ll refer to the rock as Mars Hill and the people as the council, as the Greco-Roman period altered the names of the gods but kept most of the mythology in tact. When the passage says Paul’s “spirit was provoked within him” when observing all the idols, we begin to understand just what kind of place this is. Athens is a pantheistic society filled with hand made idols to worship. Another major factor in their society was philosophy. The city was such a hotspot for all kinds of religion and philosophical ideas that it was difficult to discern between them. The main philosophies of that time fell under two groups, the Epicureans and the Stoics. The Epicureans believed “the purpose of philosophy and the highest goal in life was pleasure”, but in the long-term sense. Moderation was key in ensuring long lasting happiness and freedom of the soul, though many failed to embody the long-term and lived for the present. On top of this, they believed that all things were made of atoms, and the gods that created the atoms were not interested in human affairs. Stoicism was also a fairly new but popular school of thought. Stoics followed more strict guidelines in moderation, but ultimately saw no purpose for a relationship with God or the “Cosmic Reason” because everything was part of the divine and there was no free will apart from maybe that of suicide when things went poorly. What these and many other philosophies and religions had in common was that the pantheon of gods were separate from material humans. There were a plethora of idols and altars for the religious and a number of schools for the intellectual thinkers. One could either have faith in the idols that would bring good fortune and protection or live their own lives free of judgment in the pursuit of their own happiness. We can see that Athens in this time was indeed a home of intellectual and religious scholars that regarded pantheistic gods as the standard, and by no means considered they would ever hear the counter cultural message Paul speaks to them on Mars Hill.
 Paul Copan and Kenneth D. Litwak, The Gospel in the Marketplace of Ideas (USA: InterVarsity Press, 2014), 13.
 "Aereopagus." Http://www.merriam-webster.com.
 Paul Copan and Kenneth D. Litwak, The Gospel in the Marketplace of Ideas (USA: InterVarsity Press, 2014), 29.
 New American Standard Bible. Lockman Foundation, 1995. 614.
 Paul Copan and Kenneth D. Litwak, The Gospel in the Marketplace of Ideas (USA: InterVarsity Press, 2014), 33.
 Paul Copan and Kenneth D. Litwak, The Gospel in the Marketplace of Ideas (USA: InterVarsity Press, 2014), 34.
Preaching to the Culture
Before I can give an answer as to whether or not Paul was correct in his approach, we have to know what happened prior to his ending up in Athens. Paul, Silas, and Timothy were preaching to the Bereans when some of the Jews nearby incited riots among the crowds. Paul, who was likely the most well known of the missionaries there was sent off to Athens to escape the Jews. From the co-text, we can tell Paul’s quick trip was not anticipated as part of his journey. Being in Athens at that time was not part of the original plan. When Paul arrives in Athens, “His spirit was being provoked within him as he was observing the city full of idols”. The first verse itself sparks the question, what prompted Paul to feel this way? The New American Standard Bible refers to his spirit being provoked. The New International Version refers to Paul as being distressed by seeing the idols. Was Paul led by the spirit to speak to the people of Athens or was this of his own volition? We see that Paul begins preaching in the market place, or the “agora”. The agora was a place surrounded on all sides by monuments, altars, temples, stoa (historical archive), and was a “popular meeting place for discussions and cultural activities, attracting jugglers, sword swallowers, beggars, fishmongers and philosophers.” Paul is in the heart of the Athenian culture, and for quite some time. Days went by and Paul continued to preach. Had he not been prompted by the Spirit’s discernment, he may not have acted the bold way he did. One would think that with all the various beliefs in the city, one new idea wouldn’t make much of a difference. However, the listeners responded by asking, “What would this idle babbler wish to say?” Others, “He seems to be a proclaimer of strange deities.” Paul’s teachings spread throughout the agora and eventually reached the council. His statements were so radical that he was seized and brought to the council on Mars Hill, where Paul gives his remarkable speech. It’s no coincidence that the events prior led to this encounter with the council.
Though the audience seems interested in what Paul will say (“the Athenians and the strangers visiting there used to spend their time in nothing other than telling or hearing something new”), Paul was actually in danger of losing his life yet again. Joshua W. Jipp explains it best:
“While it is true that Athens took an active role in promoting new cults throughout the Greek world, one must not underestimate the sense in which Athens could be hostile to foreign deities. Josephus, for example, commends the Athenians for their punishment of those who propagate new cults. He claims that the Athenians inflict “an inexorable penalty on any who uttered a single word about the gods contrary to their laws”. Anaxagoras barely escaped being executed by the Athenians because of his belief that the sun was a god”.
As we can see here, the introduction of new deities is a life-threatening situation for the one introducing them. What is even more dangerous is the fact that this is perhaps the most radical of all the teachings they have heard. Since when does a monotheistic god come down in human form to grant salvation and is interested in a relationship with his creation? He first tells the council he “observe[s] that [they] are religious in all respects”. This is a line for all the ages.  Jipp, Joshua W. "Paul’s Areopagus Speech of Acts 17:16–34 as Both Critique and Propaganda." Journal of Biblical Literature 131, no. 3 (2012): 572.
 New American Standard Bible. Lockman Foundation, 1995. 614.
 Schnabel, ECKHARD J. "CONTEXTUALISING PAUL IN ATHENS: THE PROCLAMATION OF THE GOSPEL BEFORE PAGAN AUDIENCES IN THE GRAECO-ROMAN WORLD." Religion and Theology: 12/2/05, 173.
Examining the Speech
In Exodus we see that Aaron builds a golden calf for the Israelites when Moses ascends the mountain. In Paul’s time there are innumerable hand fashioned idols and the people essentially worship the philosophical lifestyles they practice. Today we idolize just about anything that gives us instant gratification. It doesn’t have to be an item we pray to, anything we put before God falls under this category. Why does Paul address them this way? The Greek word for ‘religious’ used here can be interpreted as pious or negatively superstitious. To some scholars like Jipp this is seen as a possible insult when it seems the best way to start his speech is by finding common ground. My interpretation is that Paul gives a backhanded compliment to the council. Knowing Paul’s character when put in positions that shame or harm him, he tends to become irate rather than humble which leads me to believe that it suits him well to give an ambiguous remark to his audience that could be common ground but also is a jab at their belief system. Paul builds a bridge to connect with the council and references an idol that says “to an unknown god”. Paul goes on to say that the unknown god is actually God of the entire universe. This could be looked at several ways. First, the idol itself is God, but we know that is not the case. Second, the unknown god is the true manmade god, and third, there is a god that they are unaware of who is actually the god of everything. I’m inclined to think the latter as Paul goes on to claim “He Himself gives to all people life and breath and all things”. The man made idols are worthless because they are materials created by God. Paul continues by saying that all men are appointed a time and a place in which they are born so they might seek God. This shows that in some manner God controls our whereabouts so that we can find him. It begs the question of to what extent do we have free will over our lives? What about those who don’t hear of Jesus? We do know that God judges fairly and we cannot control where or when we are born in the first place. I see this verse as a way of showing that because we do not have control over our origin, he is gracious enough to put us in a position where we can seek him. I also believe the times of ignorance refer to the fact that there was little revelation as to who God was outside of the Jewish community. Now that Jesus has been introduced to the world, there is no room for ignorance. ‘The way, the truth, and the life’ has been revealed to mankind and everyone will be held accountable.
A few men mock Paul, others inquire further, and a few repent and believe. Paul has converted a few and spread the gospel, but was he correct in arguing with rhetoric? As we know, the Athenians are an intellectual people, should not Paul have tried performing miracles instead? The point is that if we are to minister to others, we should identify and connect with them. This applies to the modern day Mars Hill we live in today. I don’t believe Paul made a mistake in using the same tactics his audience preferred; rather it helped get his point across. We should seek God on his own terms and, without compromising the gospel, minister to society in ways they can understand.
 Jipp, Joshua W. "Paul’s Areopagus Speech of Acts 17:16–34 as Both Critique and Propaganda." Journal of Biblical Literature 131, no. 3 (2012): 576.
© 2018 Chase Chartier