Jefferson Vann comments on Paul’s speech at the Areopagus recorded in Acts 17.
The Greeks call the place Areopagus: the peak of Ares. The Latin name for Ares is Mars, so many refer to the Areopagus as Mars Hill. It was not just a convenient place for a crowd to gather. Many serious crimes had been tried in the high court that met there. In Acts, Luke seems to downplay that fact, but when Paul was taken there by a group of philosophers, there was potential for the meeting to go horribly wrong.
The Seed Picker
I draw the title for this article from the question posed by those philosophers in Acts 17:18.
Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also debated with him. Some said, “What is this ignorant show-off trying to say? ” Others replied, “He seems to be a preacher of foreign deities” — because he was telling the good news about Jesus and the resurrection (CSB).
The word this modern version translated “ignorant show-off” is rendered “babbler” in the KJV. It literally translates as “seed picker.”1 It was no compliment. That derogatory word conjured up the image of birds stealing seeds that a farmer was trying to plant. It was used of beggars and gossips. Paul was already playing to an antagonistic crowd before he even set foot on the hill.
But didn’t it make a difference that Paul was preaching good news? Probably not. Every political, economic and religious tenet may seem good news to its adherents. But others can feel threatened by such preaching. After all, the Romans had brought devastation and death to the empire while proclaiming the “good news” of Pax Romana.
There is also the real danger of being misunderstood from the outset. Such was the case in Athens. The word had already spread that Paul wanted to add two new deities to the pantheon: a god named Jesus and a goddess named Anastasis.2
So, the Areopagus was going to be a tough gig for Paul. He had been run out of town elsewhere, and he had no guarantee that Athens would treat him any better. He didn’t even have his support team with him. He had left Thessalonica in a hurry, and his coworkers Silas and Timothy had yet to catch up with him. Paul was alone and playing to a hostile crowd.
Finding Common Ground
Acts 17:22-23 (CSB)
22 Paul stood in the middle of the Areopagus and said: “People of Athens! I see that you are extremely religious in every respect. 23 “For as I was passing through and observing the objects of your worship, I even found an altar on which was inscribed: ‘To an Unknown God.’ Therefore, what you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you.
The group who organized this meeting was not composed of common pagan plebeians and slaves who asked no question beyond how they could placate their household gods. These men were a bit higher on the social scale. They were philosophers who would have given some lip service to their culture’s fascination with idolatry, but they would not have identified it as a major issue for them.
If Paul had wanted to find some common ground— some epistemological tenet which he shared with his audience, this would definitely not be it. As a Jew, Paul found all aspects of idolatry repulsive. He would have regarded the idolatry of the Jewish nation as the reason for their exile. God had warned them for centuries through the prophets but they persisted. He finally gave them over to the pagan nations they had been trying to emulate.
So, what kind of rhetorical tactic was this? Paul had no intention of joining these defiled pagans in their idolatry. Why does he bring this subject up?
He is not establishing an epistemological common ground. He is introducing three new concepts into the discussion, and doing so in such a way that (he hopes) they will not be immediately rejected. The reason these concepts will be seen as such new ideologies is that all three of them presuppose a world in which the divine realm can act within history, making dramatic sweeping change that cannot be rejected or resisted by humanity. Paul needed to talk like a Jew and be understood by Gentiles. The Jews grew up with stories of a God who intervened in history to rescue his people and change their destiny. This God would even intervene to save a single person. To the Gentiles, this was nonsense. The gods were too busy fighting among themselves to have any plan for world history. And they certainly were not interested in the affairs of a single human soul. The epicurean tried to eke out as much happiness as he could in spite of an indifferent pantheon. The stoic tried to offset his misery through personal discipline. Neither had any real hope of divine intervention.
Was Paul being a bit dishonest in claiming to introduce an unknown god to this crowd? Not at all. What he had to say about Yahweh was unknown to them. It was the piece of the puzzle that made the entire jumbled mass of pieces understandable.
The God of the Bible
Acts 17:24-25 (CSB)
24 “The God who made the world and everything in it — he is Lord of heaven and earth — does not live in shrines made by hands. 25 “Neither is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives everyone life and breath and all things.
Paul’s first challenge to this difficult crowd was to introduce them to the God of the Bible. If there were any Jews other than Paul present in the Areopagus that day, their first impulse would probably have been to stand up and cheer. But then they might have stopped short of that when they realized that Paul had not specifically said he was referring to the God of Israel. One can imagine the revulsion they might have felt when they considered the implications of this omission. The Jews believed that there was one God over all nations, but they believed that access to God was only through their Bible and conformity to their culture. Paul is not saying either of those things. He is not promoting the Torah, nor is he espousing the works of the Torah (like circumcision and sabbath keeping). Paul is saying that everyone has access to God simply by being human.
The Gentiles on the hill would have been flabbergasted as well— for different reasons. What Paul said about God sounded very similar to what the crazy emperors had been saying about themselves. Maybe no one really believed those preposterous claims, but it was not healthy at all to admit it. Paul apparently did not care about the political ramifications of his teaching. But you can be sure his listeners did. They could not afford to lose their heads over a new idea— neither figuratively nor literally.
So, Paul has succeeded in alienating two groups of potential supporters in short order. He then goes on to alienate another group. Those tow the line pagans who have actually bought into the religio-economic culture of idol manufacturing and manipulation are the next target.
Paul simply tells them that they are wrong. They are wrong to make idols because God created everything and he cannot be housed in idols. They are wrong to sacrifice to these idols because God does not need the sacrifices. He cannot be manipulated by these selfish attempts at appeasement. Paul undermines the whole culture of idolatry in a city of idol fanatics!
For good order, Paul now turns back to address his original intended audience. It could be that those philosophers who had invited (or perhaps compelled is a better word) him to speak are not yet convinced he is a lunatic. So, Paul rounds out his introductory argument by asserting something that would raise cackles for both the stoics and the epicureans.
Acts 17:26-27 (CSB)
26 “From one man he has made every nationality to live over the whole earth and has determined their appointed times and the boundaries of where they live. 27 “He did this so that they might seek God, and perhaps they might reach out and find him, though he is not far from each one of us.
If there was a statement that rang true in the lecture halls of both Stoicism and Epicureanism it would be that we have to figure this world out without God’s help. The gods are too busy with their own matters to pay lowly humans any mind. Each of these ideologies has proposed a way to live life in the absence of divine guidance. Both ways are radically opposite of each other. But both agree that we have to figure life out without reference to revelation.
Enter Paul. He tells his Areopagus audience that God not only wants us to seek him, he has made himself accessible to us. In just a few words, Paul has managed to put off every single group of potential supporters of his gospel.
Acts 17:28-29 (CSB)
28 “For in him we live and move and have our being, as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are also his offspring.’ 29 “Since we are God’s offspring then, we shouldn’t think that the divine nature is like gold or silver or stone, an image fashioned by human art and imagination.
Paul gives the pagan idolaters a second poke with this observation. The idolaters didn’t believe their fashioned idols were the actual gods. They believed that if they created an idol of especially fine craftsmanship out of the best, most expensive substance, then a god or goddess would come and live in the idol. The image could represent the deity, and offerings to the image would placate the god.
Paul turned that thinking upside down. He pointed to the fact that God created human beings. Living human beings were created to be God’s image bearers. Some inanimate hunk of wood or stone or even precious metal would just not do. If God were to represented, it would take a living being— which leads to Paul’s next big idea.
God calls us to Repent
Acts 17:30-31 (CSB)
30 “Therefore, having overlooked the times of ignorance, God now commands all people everywhere to repent, 31 “because he has set a day when he is going to judge the world in righteousness by the man he has appointed. He has provided proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”
If the idols are too inferior to be representing God, then who qualifies? Not Caesar. This is where Paul interjects the second big idea: Jesus is God’s appointed judge of the world. The badge authorizing Jesus to decide the fate of mankind is his resurrection. His victory over death has proven that he is different than the rest of us.
One of the differences is immortality. All the rest of us die and stay dead. Jesus died but didn’t stay dead. God alone is immortal. The Old Testament predicted that:
Psalm 16:10 (CSB)
For you will not abandon me to Sheol; you will not allow your faithful one to see decay.
Sheol is the state of being dead. Folks in that state rot. But Jesus did not stay dead long enough.
Christ had to die in order to obtain forgiveness for our sins. He had to be resurrected to prove it. Resurrection was the third big idea. The resurrection was not another goddess for the Athenians to add to the divine roster. The resurrection of Jesus was the only evidence Paul put forward to prove what he asserted about Jesus.
Other implications can be inferred by Paul’s mentioning the resurrection here. If God has appointed a day to judge everyone, then everyone who dies before that day must be resurrected. Every person must stand before Christ to be judged by him. Idols are useless to decide our fate. Only Jesus will do that.
All people everywhere are being commanded to repent. Jesus is not just a Jewish prophet; he is the world’s judge. He is the answer for the world of first century Athens. He is the answer for the world today. Above him there’s no other; Jesus is the Way.
Some have suggested that this passage in Acts 17 is the first major text of the Bible establishing human immortality. A closer look at the text shows that Paul was conceding human mortality, not rejecting it. If all humans are already immortal, then how can Jesus’ resurrection prove anything? If we have immortality by nature, why insist that life and breath are gifts from God?
No, this passage does not prove we have immortal souls. But it does explain how we can gain immortality. By trusting our destinies to the man who is appointed as our judge, we can see life again, even after we die. Our judge is coming, and he has our reward with him.3 That reward is immortality: the gift of permanent life.
- ἀνάστασις = resurrection
- Isaiah 62:11; Revelation 22:12