Paul and the Great Philosophers

Acts 17: “Luke is taking Paul to where he must meet the ancient philosophies head on: Athens. This is a different team. You can’t just say what you say in the synagogue, or even what you said in a hurry in Lystra. This demands a different game plan, a different strategy. Luke is building us up for a big set piece, one of the classic scenes in the whole book. Athens is a major showdown between the new young faith and the old, established, tried and tested philosophies of the Western world, which still, in various modern guises, dominate people’s thinking. Until we’ve thought through this confrontation, we are not ready for the global contest.

But the request for Paul to speak at the Areopagus, the highest court in the city, set on a rock from which one could look down on the famous market-place and across to the still more famous Acropolis with its spectacular temples, was not as friendly and innocuous as it sounds. It wasn’t a matter of, ‘Well, here’s an interesting fellow; let’s see what he has to say.’ It contained a double veiled threat. ‘This man’, they said, ‘seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities.’ Well, yes, in a sense, though that was based on their misunderstanding of the fundamental content of Paul’s message, which was Jesus and the resurrection. Resurrection, which in Greek is anastasis, seems to have sounded to them like another god, or rather, since the word is feminine, a goddess: Jesus and his female consort! Who on earth are they? ‘What is this word-scatterer trying to say?’ (The term ‘word-scatterer’ is full of contempt: this man who scatters words all over the place like a jackdaw picking up interesting things and dropping half of them on the way back to his nest.)

In particular, the charge of ‘preaching foreign divinities’ was the charge, famously and classically, on which Socrates, the greatest philosopher of all time, had been tried and condemned. Athens may have been interested in new ideas, but divinities from elsewhere could easily get you into trouble. Serious trouble. Especially if someone proclaiming them was starting a secret society with mysteries only open to the initiates. ‘Are we permitted to know’, they asked with veiled and sarcastic threat, ‘what this new teaching is all about?’ Are you allowed to tell us these secret doctrines, or are they only for those you will collect into a dangerous little gang? In other words, you’d better get your philosophy sorted out, or we have other questions we may want to ask as well. Are you a danger to our state? Paul is thus given the chance of a lifetime, but also a multi-layered challenge which will stretch his theological and rhetorical skills in quite a new way.”

Tom Wright, Acts for Everyone, Part 2: Chapters 13-28 (London: SPCK, 2008), 84–85.

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