This article discusses the city of Athens in the days of the apostle Paul. It does so in order to provide some context ot its analysis of Acts 17:16-34.

Source: The Monthly Record, 2002. 7 pages.

The Agnostic City

Walking around in a strange city can be a fascinating experience. If that city is the cultural capital of the world, the effect could be overwhelming. On almost every street there would be something new and exciting — towering architecture, magnificent sculpture, awe-inspiring temples and great centres of learning. Such a city was Athens when the Apostle Paul visited it in AD 50 — Athens, the city of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, and birthplace of ancient democracy. That visit is recounted in Acts 17:16-34, which Hans Conzelmann describes as “the most momentous Christian document from the beginnings of that extraordinary confrontation between Christianity and Philosophy which was destined to determine the entire history of the West”.

The City Speaks🔗

However, before Paul confronted Athens, Athens confronted him. Before the great missionary to the Gentiles spoke to the city, the city spoke to the missionary. And it spoke not nobility, education, art and culture, but idolatry. Athens at this time was, in fact, full of idolatry of the grossest kind — statues, images of all the Greek gods and goddesses, and altars for their worship. When Paul observed this greatest of all wickedness — the putting of the created thing in the place of the Creator — and the resultant degradation, “his spirit was stirred within him”. The Greek verb used is a very strong one. It is the word from which we get our word “paroxysm”, but means literally “was sharpened”. In other words, the experience of being surrounded by the staggering array of artistry, philosophy and superstition far from dulling Paul’s senses, sharpened them and heightened his spiritual awareness. He was pained and angered by what he saw, and moved with compassion to do something to help the Athenians — so wise, yet so ignorant; so rich in culture, yet so poor in spirit.

But what could he do? He had neither political power nor artistic ability. However, he did have freedom of speech, he understood Greek thought and culture, he spoke Greek fluently and he had news for the Athenians! In Athens there was a place just made for him — the market-place, the Agora, and a ready-made audience, because the Athenian liked nothing better than to listen to and talk about the latest ideas. “What’s new?” could have been their motto. The Agora was the place where they loved to meet informally and debate the issues of the day.

New Doctrine🔗

It was in the Agora that the city spoke to Paul for the second time, this time in the very vociferous form of the Stoic and Epicurean philosophers as they debated with him. These men were mildly sarcastic about Paul. They called him a “babbler”, literally a “seed picker” or sparrow — Athenian slang for someone who picked up bits and pieces of philosophy. They were also rather confused as to Paul’s teaching. They seemed to think that he was trying to introduce two new gods to the already overcrowded Greek pantheon. “Jesus and the Resurrection” would have sounded in their ears as “Iesous and Anastasis” —“The Healer” and his consort “The Restorer”. However, they were interested enough in Paul’s “new doctrine” to ask him to appear before the Council of the Areopagus and explain his philosophy in more tranquil surroundings.

The Areopagus was the most venerable institution in Athens, and although its influence had been greatly reduced by the rise of democracy, it still retained authority in matters of religion and morals. It was natural that Paul’s new teaching should be heard and discussed by such a body. It took its name from the Hill of Ares (god of war, Latin name “Mars”), the original meeting place of the Council, but by 1st century AD it usually met in the Stoa Basileios (Royal Porch) right beside the Agora. Thus it came about that the first great missionary to the Greek world addressed some of the greatest Greek minds of his day. We cannot but sense the drama of the situation as Luke tells us, “Paul then stood in the meeting of the Areopagus and said, Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious.” It does not seem that Paul is here insulting the Athenians by calling them “superstitious” (AV). He was merely stating the fact that they were very reverent to the gods (or spirits), although the word does have a certain ambiguity in that it can be used in favourable and unfavourable senses depending on one’s viewpoint. It would have made the audience all the more curious to hear what he really meant.

Paul quotes as evidence for his assessment of Athenian society the fact that in his tour of the city he had noticed an altar with the fascinating inscription “TO THE UNKNOWN GOD”. That there were indeed such altars in Athens is confirmed by several ancient writers. One informs us that Epimenides from Crete put an end to a plague in Athens by setting up altars to unknown gods. It is interesting that in his speech Paul quotes a line from a poem by Epimenides — “For in him we live and move and have our being”, as well as a line from Aratus, Paul’s fellow countryman from Cilicia — “For we are also his offspring”. By the inscription and the words of the poets, the city spoke to Paul yet again.

Paul Listens🔗

It is obvious that when the city spoke, Paul listened, because his speech before the Areopagus is the classic statement of Christianity to the Greek mind in terms it could understand. Before we can speak to the city as effectively as Paul did, we must first listen as carefully as Paul did to the voice of the city.

What did Paul learn from the city? First, he learned that the city was sunk in idolatry. Idolatry is the worship of what is seen, the form, the image, and this was the most obvious characteristic of Greek religion (as indeed of almost every other religion the world has known except true Christianity and the religions derived from it — Judaism and Islam). Idolatry is not only an obvious characteristic of such religion, it is an essential characteristic. The idolatry of Athens, although ostensibly the worship of supernatural gods and goddesses, was in reality the worship of the natural processes upon which the city depended and of aspects of the human society of the city. The gods and goddesses are all gods and goddesses of something — of the sky, the moon, harvest, love, war etc. Greek religion, although having its roots in remote antiquity, had, in the great flowering of Greek civilisation, philosophy and drama in the 5th century BC. become inextricably bound up with the distinctively Greek idea of the polis. To the Greek, the polis (which we translate rather inadequately as “city” or “city-state”) was the community in all its corporate life and activity. What was worshipped in the idolatry of the Greeks was, perhaps at a popular level the gold, silver or stone of the idol, but at a deeper level, the natural or social processes that the particular idol represented and which were vital to the city.

We can see that our modern humanistic society is not far removed from the idolatry of Athens. When man is the measure of all things, Nature, Society or Man himself is deified. The survival of modern science beyond the rejection of Christianity which gave it birth, is probably to be explained by the virtual deification of nature and scientific theory, and these gods can become just as hideous as some of their ancient counterparts. When the god Medical Science combines with the god Personal Convenience, the resultant destruction of unborn babies in needless abortions is just as horrific as the sacrifice of children to the Canaanite god Molech. And when the god of Political Necessity is added as it was in Nazi Germany, the atrocities of ancient idolatry almost pale into insignificance. In this context we ought to beware of quasi-religious language being used more and more in politics at the present time. “Hope for this country” and “spiritual recovery” most certainly do not lie in any political policy.


The second way the city of Athens spoke to Paul was in the person of her philosophers. These were the contemporary representatives of the Greek philosophic endeavour. The Greeks were concerned with discovering the unity that lay beneath the surface complexity of the world. But they had a problem. Was the One personal, moral and therefore limited, because evil also exists? This was Plato’s position. Or was the One impersonal, unlimited and therefore amoral, as Aristotle held? In popular religious myth there was the same problem. On the one hand there were the gods like Zeus, personal, manlike and limited; on the other hand Fate (Ananke) impersonal but unlimited. By the time Paul came to Athens, the impersonal had won. Both Stoics and Epicureans held, in different ways, that man was caught in the impersonal process of the world.

The Stoics believed that the unifying factor in the universe is an impersonal but rational Fate, which they called Logos (Reason), and which they usually identified with god. The Stoics, therefore, were pantheists, believing there is nothing of god outside the processes of nature. In consequence they held that man should live consistently with Reason, being self-sufficient and unbending. These views have obviously many parallels in modern times, from the Marxist determinist view of history, to the determinism of behaviourist psychology and the thinking of the man who says “whatever will be, will be”.

The Epicureans, by contrast, believed that whatever role the gods may have had in creating the world, they no longer have any interest in it. The force that now sustains the universe is the totally impersonal, random movement and combination of atomic particles. Man is formed of these particles and when they dissolve at death, he ceases to exist. Therefore a man should just seek his own happiness. Again this has a strangely modern ring. Biologists like Francis Crick emphasise that chance is the governing factor in evolutionary development. The punter too believes in Luck. It is interesting to notice that neither Stoicism nor Epicureanism differed significantly from popular religion in their emphasis on man being part of the impersonal processes of nature.

Agnostic Athens🔗

The altar to the unknown god also gave its mute witness to the need of Athens. Here, if ever, was a cry from the heart of the city. None of the gods, nor even all the gods together, were sufficient. The gods of the Epicureans were too remote and their materialism too pessimistic; the Logos of the Stoics too blind, too impersonal. There was a cry for someone to fill the void, but as to the identity of that someone, Athens was agnostic. As Paul said elsewhere, “the world by wisdom knew not God” (1 Corinthians 1:21). The Greek may have felt this was but a small gap in his knowledge, but it was a fatal flaw in his whole philosophy. He had set up his own mind as the measure of all things, and as long as he did so he could never make the greatest discovery of all. Similarly, Greek humanism and agnosticism never produced science. The Greek set his preconceived wisdom above even the accurate observation of nature. The modern scientific movement began only when, as a result of the Reformation’s rejection of Aristotle, men like Francis Bacon began to “read the book of God’s works in creation”.

In the poets, however, Paul could detect a more positive note. The poems quoted were talking of Zeus as the supreme being in Greek pantheism, which even in its noblest expressions fell far short of Biblical revelation. However, Paul here reminds us of an important truth, as he says in Lystra, “God has not left himself without witness” (Acts 14:17). Because God has made man and placed him in a revelational environment, he will at times speak truth in spite of his sinfulness, and in spite of his own mistaken philosophy.

We ought to remember, then, that all truth is God’s truth, and develop the awareness to recognise it, welcome it and use it wherever it comes from. To do that we must first listen.

All my conclusions concerning Paul in Athens (Acts 17:16-34) are based on the assumption that what he says there is consistent with the rest of Pauline thought, and is therefore an example of how God wants us to preach the Gospel in the agnostic city. However, that assumption is challenged from two different directions, but both challenges are based on the same misconception — that Paul is here changing the Gospel to suit his hearers. Some would view this as being most praiseworthy. We need to modify the Gospel today, they say, so that “scientific man” will understand and accept it. Others, while totally disassociating themselves from such conclusions, would agree that Paul modified his message in Athens, but they hold that, disappointed with the results, he reverts soon afterwards to preaching “Christ crucified” in Corinth (Acts 18:5, 1 Corinthians 1:23, 2:2).


If it is true that Paul changed the Gospel in Athens, this has profound consequences for either our theology or our evangelism. However, I believe it is a serious misconception to think that Paul accommodates Christian truth to Greek thought in order to impress his hearers. We must consider carefully what he did and did not change.

First, it is clear that Paul does not quote directly from the Scriptures as he did in his sermon in Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13:16-41). But how much does this prove? After all there are many passages in Pauline literature where he does not quote directly from Scripture (e.g. Romans 1:18-32) and, at any rate, his speech in Athens is full of Old Testament emphases and even expressions (e.g. see Isaiah 42:5, 40:18ff, Deuteronomy 4:7, 10:14, 32:8, Psalm 50:10-12, 96:13, 1 Kings 8:27, Job 12:10, Malachi 2:10 etc.).

The reason for non-quotation of Scripture is not hard to find. Whereas in Pisidian Antioch Paul was speaking to Jews in a Synagogue, here in Athens he was speaking to Greeks who neither knew nor cared for Scripture. There was no advantage to be gained in quoting the Old Testament. What Paul was changing was his approach, not his content.

Similarly, Paul’s quotation of the Greek poets Epimenides and Aratus does not in any way imply that he was modifying the Christian Gospel. Rather, this is completely in line with his belief that men “hold the truth in unrighteousness” (Romans 1:18). A sinful human being is still capable of stating a particular truth, albeit in an immoral or erroneous context. Again we see that what Paul changed was his method. His quoting Greek poets in the synagogue would have been as unhelpful as quoting Scripture to the Areopagus Council.

Christ Crucified🔗

It is also argued that the actual content of Paul’s speech in Athens differs markedly from what he preached in Pisidian Antioch and what he taught in Corinth. But surely this is only of significance if what he says in Athens, contradicts what he says elsewhere. To be sure, before the Areopagus he speaks of God as the Creator and Judge, and of man as God’s special creature, but he does the same in other passages including Acts 14:15-17 and Romans 1:18-2:16. And the latter passage can hardly be regarded as an experimental stage in his thinking, but rather as the mature reflection of the great apostle writing by inspiration of the Holy Spirit. It is a mistake to imagine that Paul would have preached the Gospel in a stereotyped fashion. He preached the particular aspects of the whole council of God which he knew to be relevant to his particular audience. The Jews required to know that Jesus is the Christ, whereas the Greeks required to know why they needed the Christ.

All this may be granted but the criticism remains — why does Paul not preach Christ crucified in Athens? There are several possible answers apart from the unacceptable (and unnecessary) one that he was deliberately leaving out any reference to the cross, so as not to give offence.

  • First, it is possible that Luke is giving a summary of Paul’s main arguments and not recording every statement.
  • Second, it is almost certain that Paul was interrupted when he mentioned the resurrection (v. 32) and he did not have the opportunity to speak of the cross to the Council as a whole.
  • But, third, in what we do have of his speech, Paul clearly speaks of Jesus as the man whom God has appointed to deal with sin, and whom God has raised from the dead (v. 31). Now resurrection must be preceded by death. And God’s appointing implies the crucial role of this man in our destiny. Thus all the elements of the Gospel are present in Paul’s last sentence. “Christ and him crucified” is the climax of his preaching in Athens as surely as in Pisidian Antioch and Corinth.


There remains, however, the argument that Paul, disappointed with the results of a more philosophical approach in Athens, reverted to preaching “the simple gospel” when he arrived in Corinth. But, first, why should Paul have been disappointed? We are told that quite a number of people followed Paul and believed as a result of his preaching (v. 34). It is specifically mentioned that one of the members of the Areopagus Council, Dionysius, believed. This was cause for rejoicing not disappointment. We could even go so far as to say that such disappointment would be displaying ingratitude to God. A present-day evangelist would hardly be disappointed if his preaching in a University resulted in the conversion of one of the professors!

Second, a careful exegesis of 1 Corinthians 2:2 reveals that Paul is not at all saying that he changed his preaching when he came to Corinth, rather the reverse. Literally, he says, “I did not decide to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified”. In other words Paul is saying, “I did not change my message when I came to Corinth. I continued to preach Christ crucified.” This fits in with the whole of his argument in 1 Corinthians 1 and 2. He is not comparing his preaching in Corinth with his preaching in Athens, but God’s wisdom with man’s wisdom. And man’s wisdom rejected God’s wisdom in Corinth as in Athens (Acts 17:32, 18:6).

In addition we may remark that if Paul in Athens was modifying the Gospel so as not to offend his hearers, he made a very bad job of it. He mentioned the two things most likely to offend Athenians. First, he referred to the unity of the human race (v. 26). But the Athenians held that they were uniquely different from all other races. They believed themselves to be autochthonous — sprung from the soil of their native Attica. Secondly, he talks of the resurrection of Jesus (v. 31). Now resurrection was more offensive to his hearers than crucifixion.

Aeschylus  in  the  Eumenides, describing the founding of the Areopagus, has the god Apollo say, “Once a man dies and the earth drinks up his blood, there is no resurrection”. The Greeks considered the body a hindrance to true life. Therefore, it is apparent that Paul is certainly not tailoring the Gospel to suit the Athenians.


Let us now consider the particular content of Paul’s address to the Areopagus. He emphasises the three basic areas of Christian truth — concerning God, man and salvation. What is of special interest to us here is that Paul does not begin his presentation of the Gospel with the cross or even with man’s moral failure, but with the Christian view of God and man. This is not an isolated case, but seems to have been his regular method of presenting the Gospel to those unfamiliar with Biblical truth (see Acts 14:14-17 and Romans 1:18-25). It seems to me that this is logical and should be the normative approach for us today as we speak to the person unfamiliar with the Bible. It is because God is what he is and man is what he is that sin is so deadly and the cross so glorious. The doctrines of God and of man must be priorities in our evangelism and the education of our children.

In the teachings of the Stoics and Epicureans Paul was confronted with two distorted truths concerning God. The Epicureans stressed the transcendence or “otherness” of God (or the gods) from the created world to the extent that the gods had no interest in the world or man. There was no prospect of any personal relationship with an unknowable god. The Stoics, on the other hand, were pantheistic. They held that God is totally immanent in the world in the sense that there is nothing of him outside it. He is only the rational “soul” of the cosmos. It is vital for us to discover how Paul dealt with these ideas as they have been revived in our own day. At a popular level, the deistic idea of a God who set the world going like clockwork and then retired, still persists. In more sophisticated circles the pantheism of eastern religion or Hegelian philosophy exerts enormous influence. What is common to all these is the depersonalisation of God. “God” is simply a word to describe what we do not understand about the world, or at any rate it is impossible for man to have a personal relationship with “God”.

Personal God🔗

Paul says three things about God. He stresses his true transcendence, his true immanence and that he is truly personal as well as unlimited. God is transcendent because he created the world (v. 24). He is not dependent on the cosmos or on man for his existence, his plans or his power. Rather the universe and the human race depend utterly on him (vv. 24, 25). The urgent expression of the sovereignty of God required today is not primarily against Arminianism but against pantheism in all its forms.

God is also immanent in his creation. He has not wound it up and left it. He is continuously at work in the universe sustaining life (vv. 25, 28), and out-working his sovereign purposes (vv. 26, 27). However, Paul’s main thrust is that God is personal. He is not talking of a blind impersonal force but a knowing personal Spirit. He creates (v. 24), he plans (v. 26), he purposes (v. 27), he commands (v. 30). Impersonal forces, principles or ideas do none of these things. Only the living God of biblical revelation is both unlimited and personal.

Image of God🔗

Paul next states another fundamental principle of Christianity. This personal God created his unique “offspring”, the human race, to have a personal relationship with himself (vv. 26-28). There are four elements in this.

First, the human race is one race (v. 26). God made all nations of men from one individual (Adam). This is the only adequate antidote to racism, whether in its ancient Athenian form or its modern Nazi, Fascist or apartheid forms. There are not different races, black, white, Aryan or Jewish. There is one race with one common ancestor, Adam. Neither evolutionism nor humanism has such a radical answer to racism. Rather, the seeds of racism lie in both.

Second, human beings are God’s offspring (v. 29). As we have seen, Paul is here using the language of Greek poets. If he had been talking to a Jewish audience, we know exactly what OT passage he would have quoted — “God created man in his own image” (Genesis 1:27). The unique relationship of God to man is such that it can only be described in terms of the father-child relationship (see Genesis 5:1-3). As the child bears the likeness of the father, so man bears the likeness of God. Part of this likeness, moral integrity, was lost at the Fall and only in Christ is it renewed (Colossians 3:10, Ephesians 4:24, Romans 8:29). But we have perhaps too long overlooked the aspect of the image of God that Paul emphasises in Athens — the continuing likeness, even in fallen man. Paul’s whole argument concerning the foolishness of idolatry is based on the fact that man himself continues to be the image of God. No other image is required. No material, impersonal image is adequate. This is not an isolated Biblical reference to the continuing image of God in man — see Genesis 9:6, 1 Corinthians 11:7, James 3:9.

How can sinful man bear any resemblance to God? The answer surely lies not in man’s moral failure, but in his metaphysical constitution. When he sinned he became neither animal nor devil. He remained man. The relevant passages, particularly Genesis 1:26, 2:18-20, 9:1-6 and Psalm 8, all stress man’s unique dignity over against the animal creation. And it is precisely in man’s difference from the animal that we see his God-likeness — in his abilities to create, to choose, to speak, to love — in fact, in his person-hood.

This Biblical truth urgently requires to be emphasised again today. Materialistic science tells us that we are only complicated biological machines, and modern industrial technology says that we are not very good ones, at that. The slogan “hand-built by robots” may seem amusing to some, but not to the man whose job the robot took. In society’s eyes he is of less value than the machine. He may well ask whether his life is worth living. Such a man needs to hear this element of the Gospel — “don’t worry, you’re worth more than many silicon chips!”

Reason for Living🔗

Paul’s third emphasis is that man was created and his life ordered by God for a particular purpose — to seek God and find him (vv. 26, 27). Man’s raison d’être is “to glorify God and enjoy him forever” — to enjoy a permanent personal relationship with the personal Creator. This is another key statement in the presentation of Christian truth. Man’s life is not meaningless. He has a reason for living — to love his unlimited personal Creator.

However, fourthly, the lamentable fact is that man has failed to seek God. Instead, in his now distorted creativity he has invented substitute gods (v. 29). This is the greatest of all evils — worshipping the creature instead of the Creator (Romans 1:25). For this man is culpable, and God is surely going to bring him to justice (v. 31). Thus Paul stresses yet further essential ingredients of the Gospel — the seriousness of sin and the certainty of judgment.

Paul now reaches the climax of his address with the good news of God’s mercy. His words are few, but three important features stand out. God has appointed a man to deal with our sin; he has given objective proof of this by raising him from the dead; and therefore he commands all people everywhere to repent (vv. 30, 31). In Athens as elsewhere, Paul’s preaching centres on “Jesus and the resurrection” (v. 18), and all true Gospel preaching must climax there. The materialistic twenty-first century has no more hope beyond death than the Stoics or Epicureans had. People desperately need to hear again of the One who has conquered sin and death. As in Athens, there will be those who will mock or procrastinate as they cling to their cold blind idols, rather than bow to the only God there is. But by God’s grace, there will also be a Dionysius, a Damaris and others with them.

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