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Paul and the Greek Poets

25 Feb

Much has been said concerning Luke having Paul quote the Grecian poets to make a point for Christianity, believing that in his speech in the Areopagus Paul at least praises some knowledge the pagans have concerning God. Could this be true of the man who wrote the first chapter of Romans? In a word, “no” but the real question is: does Luke really say what his critics believe they understand about Paul’s speech in the Areopagus in Acts 17?

In Acts 17:28 Luke has Paul say: “‘For in him we live, and move, and have our being;’ as certain also of your own poets have said, ‘For we are also his offspring.’” Here Paul is quoting two Greek poets. The first is thought to be the Cretan poet, Epimenides, one of the seven sages of Greece, but we do not have this line extant in any of his works, but we do have it quoted in a ninth century Syriac work of Isho’dad:[1]

They fashioned a tomb for thee, O holy and high one –
The Cretans, always liars, evil beasts, idle bellies!
But thou art not dead; thou livest and abidest forever;
For in thee we live and move and have our being.

Paul in Acts 17:28 quotes the fourth line above and in Titus 1:12 he quotes the second, but notice that Luke could not have meant that Paul’s quoting Epimenides meant that he agreed with his conclusion. He no more agreed that “in God we live and move and have our being” than he agreed with him that the mortal named Zeus wasn’t dead and buried. The point is that the Athenians would have recognized the poet as one of their own authorities, and Paul’s conclusion in Acts 17:29 was valid on that account. However, on the lips of a Jew like Paul this statement about our life and personal identity could have the sense of in God’s strength or by him (i.e.in or through his power)—we live and move and have our being, because as Paul tells us in Acts 17:25 all living beings are dependent upon him.

The second quote from an Athenian poet is “for we are his offspring”. Is Luke saying we are gods ourselves? No, he is not, but he has Paul use this poet’s words to show that the Athenians willfully rejected those they recognized as authorities as evidenced in the objects of their devotions. If they truly believed they were the offspring of the gods, it would be incongruous to believe they were made of gold or silver and couldn’t move, for at the very least they would be intelligent creatures, just as we are—if we were their offspring.

On the lips of a Jew such as Paul, this quotation could mean we are God’s children by means of his being our Creator and our being created in his image. In such a case, how could whatever we form with our hands be that which formed us, or how could our imagination ever come close to knowing his form? Truly, such a practice is groping in the dark as blind men (Acts 17:27).

Far from trying to identify with or compliment the struggle of his listeners, Paul was, in fact, chastising them and unveiling their errors, for which, by the way, they had no retort but to mock (Acts 17:32). Paul rejected the Epicurean philosophy which believes God is far away and unconcerned with humanity in that he claimed God isn’t very far from any of us (Acts 17:27). Yet, this is far from supporting the pantheistic Stoic philosophy, which taught God was in everything and is known thereby, for although God can be known in his creation, even showing his almighty power (Romans 1:20), this does not mean by any stretch of the imagination that God’s will, saving grace and love for mankind can thus be known through such natural knowledge. Rather, Paul had to proclaim this truth to them.

Their philosophies were bankrupt as far as knowing God is concerned and willfully so, for not only did they know about the existence of God (cp. Acts 17:23), but they never really sought after such a great God, as evidenced in their devotion to other gods. Moreover, when that God was proclaimed unto them, they most willfully rejected him and mocked (verse-32), showing their rejection of the truth was not unlike the undignified response of the Thessalonian Jews. Both rejected the truth out of hand. The Jews willfully rejected the truth for the status-quo without offering a good reason in the Scriptures to support their stand. And, in the case of the Athenian philosophers, they had no logical reason why they rejected the truth and continued to do those same things they had always done, although the authorities they respected exposed the error of their ways!

 


[1] See F.F. Bruce The Book of Acts page 359.

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