The Areopagus and Judgment

01 Mar

The Epicureans and the Stoics took (G1949) Paul and brought (G71) him to the Areopagus (Acts 17:19), which could be thought of as arresting him, for it is the same Greek word used in Acts 16:19 when the owners of the slave girl arrested (took) Paul and Silas and brought them to the magistrates. However, this same word is also used of Barnabas in Acts 9:27 when he took Paul to the apostles. Therefore, we need to be sensitive to the context for the meaning of Paul’s appearance before the Areopagus, for it was a council that judged matters concerning foreign cults, education and public morality. The philosophers’ desire to know about the strange things (Acts 17:19-20) of which Paul spoke in the agora or marketplace, and the fact that there was no flogging or sentencing would argue for an informal inquiry rather than a hostile inquisition.

The Epicureans and Stoics shared chairs in the council and used them to either tell or hear any new thing of interest (Acts 17:21).[1] They wished to hear what Paul had to say in order to satisfy their curiosity. This seems to be the intent, according to Luke. However, they received much more than they had bargained for by taking Paul to the Areopagus. He evaluated their devotions and found them of less importance than what a blind man could understand with his hands in the first century CE. He showed that their own poets, whom they considered authorities worthy of substantiating truth, contradicted their own philosophies, and Paul then pointed out that the one and only God, who created all and through whom all exists, commands everyone everywhere to repent of such willful ignorance (Acts 17:30).

In God’s eyes the glorious cultural past of Athens, for which the city was celebrated all over the empire, was nothing more than times of ignorance! Through it, they had not discovered the divinity of God or the humanity of man. Nevertheless, God, through his magnanimous grace, overlooked their errors and failures (Acts 17:30; cp 14:16) by granting them a new beginning by raising a man from the dead whom he approved (Jesus, unnamed in the text) to judge them (Acts 17:31; cp. Romans 3:23-25). Repentance for the Athenians would mean turning away from the idols which had kept them from any real knowledge of the true God (1Thessalonians 1:9), and waiting for the coming of Jesus to judge world, but keeping them from the coming wrath of God (1Thessalonians 1:10).

The problem is belief in the resurrection in 1st century CE Greece was no more readily accepted than it would be for anyone living in today’s, so-called, scientific cultural tradition. The resurrection of Jesus and the promise of their own resurrection challenged what Athenians had been taught by Apollo, who, upon the occasion of the founding of the Areopagus by Athene, claimed “When the dust has soaked up a person’s blood, once he is dead, there is no resurrection”[2] Paul calls Jesus’ resurrection the assurance or proof of God’s coming judgment (Greek 4102: pistis), which is the same Greek word used elsewhere for faith. In other words, the resurrection must be received by faith, and in so doing one would have the proof of it and escape the coming wrath of God upon the world.

The end of the matter at Athens was mockery (Acts 17:32) and a dismissive “enough for now; perhaps another time.”[3] Nevertheless, this latter group could be expressing a genuine interest in hearing more, but Paul’s “So he departed from them” in verse-33 seems to belie such an understanding. However, some genuine believers did accept Paul’s statements and embraced the Gospel, including one of the Areopagus councilmen, Dionysius. A woman named Damaris,[4] whose presence at the meeting implies a woman of high ranking according to Luke, and others are included. However, Damaris’ distinction, though implied in that her name is mentioned, remains unclear as far as why she would be considered important.

[1] See Demosthenes criticism of the Athenian curiosity in Philippic 1:10 []

[2] Aeschylus, Eumenides 647-648, and the word for ‘resurrection’ (Greek anastasis) in Eumenides is the same as that used by Luke in Acts 17:32 and said to be used by Paul in Acts 17:18; see F.F. Bruce, Paul the Apostle of the Heart Set Free, page 247.

[3] See F.F. Bruce, The Book of Acts, pages 363-364.

[4] There are some authorities who believe Damaris was also a member of the Areopagus council, because Spencer (1997, 173-174) points out that the “Epicureans and Stoics were among the more inclusive philosophical groups who accepted women as both students and teachers in their societies.” See David G. Peterson, Acts of the Apostles, page 504. Others surmise she may have been either a foreign woman dignitary or possibly “of the class of the educated hetairai,” see William Ramsay, St. Paul the Traveler and Roman Citizen, page 194.


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