Pauline Apologetics and Lucan Rhetoric
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At the Areopagus (Acts 17:22-31):

Pauline Apologetics and Lucan Rhetoric

By Ron Vince


In tracing the advance of the Christian mission beyond Palestine "to the ends of the earth" (1:8), the author of the Acts of the Apostles marks as especially significant Paul’s crossing from Asia to Europe.1 "Forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia" (16:6), Paul is compelled by a vision (16:9-10) to cross immediately from Troas to Macedonia. After describing the tribulations of Paul and Silas at Philippi (16:12-40) and the mixed receptions of the Christian message at Thessalonica and Beroea (17:1-13), Luke recounts how Paul was brought alone to Athens. At this point, in the context of a carefully constructed narrative framework, Luke inserts one of a series of representative Pauline sermons, "symbolic encounters between the world of the gospel and the many aspects of the world it was destined to transform."2 The speech before the Areopagus, one of only two in Acts delivered before a pagan audience (cf. 14:15-17), has attracted attention as "the exemplary meeting between Jerusalem and Athens,"3 between Judeo-Christian religious thought and Greek philosophical thought. J. A. Fitzmyer calls it "the most important episode in Pauline Mission II," and "one of the highlights of Acts."4

Luke provides a richly textured setting for the speech. Although Athens was no longer the political and economic centre of the Hellenistic world, it continued as an intellectual centre and undoubtedly symbolized for Luke the epitome of pagan, Gentile thought. Paul’s proclamation of the Christian message in this most famous of Greek cities represented a formidable challenge. Paul is said to have been deeply disturbed by the number of idols in Athens, and to have debated both in the synagogue "with Jews and the devout persons" and in the marketplace "with those who happened to be there" (17:16-17). The response of the Athenian philosophers was less than encouraging (17:18). One group – presumably Epicureans – called him spermologos, "a babbler or chatterer"5; others – Stoics – perhaps misunderstanding Paul’s references to I‘sous (Jesus) and anastasin (resurrection), thought that he was proclaiming "foreign divinities."6 The result was that the philosophers brought Paul to the Areopagus: either to the hill itself, or, more likely, before the council that traditionally met there, a venerable court which even under the Romans retained considerable authority.7 Here, Luke has Paul deliver his speech.

This short scene is presented in two movements: 1) from personal concern to private and then public discussion, that is, from Paul’s distress at seeing idols to his debates in the synagogue and proclamations in the marketplace; and 2) from informal discussion in the streets to formal address before a judicial body. There is a temptation to idealize the scene, to imagine Paul presenting his case before those who wish to understand and are prepared to engage in the intellectual debate for which Athens was famous. For Luke, argues Fitzmyer, it was the "ideal setting for a sermon that his hero [Paul] preaches to educated Gentiles of the Graeco-Roman world."8 Luke includes details, however, that suggest a more ominous interpretation. For example, the intensity and tone of the philosophers’ debate with Paul is uncertain. The verb sumballă (17:18), typically translated as "debate" or "dispute," can carry the stronger connotation of "quarrel."9 Moreover, the philosophers’ reference to Paul proclaiming foreign divinities recalls the charge for which Socrates was condemned (although not by the Areopagus).10 And it is hard not to read coercion into epilabomenoi te autou (17:19): "They took hold of him" is as legitimate a rendering as "they took and brought him." As Haenchen comments, it "sounds unpleasantly like an arrest."11 The harshness of this picture, however, is somewhat mitigated by Luke’s editorial comment that the behaviour of the philosophers was typical of Athenians, who "spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new" (17:21). The hint of contempt in Luke’s comment shifts moral authority to Paul, whatever the technical nature of his appearance before the Areopagus.

There is in fact little agreement among commentators concerning the situation in which Paul found himself. Was it a formal arraignment before a judicial body, an informal discussion away from the bustle of the marketplace, or something in between? The fact that there is no formal indictment or accusation, and the fact that no decision was taken and no sentence imposed would indicate that we are not dealing here with a trial in a strict sense. Nevertheless, Luke describes Paul taking the position of a Greek orator, standing before a formally constituted assembly, which suggests that more than a casual discussion is involved.12 I. Howard Marshall comes to the reasonable conclusion that "Luke meant to describe a meeting of the court, no doubt in public session and not necessarily taking the form of a legal trial."13 Richard Longenecker refines this analysis, suggesting that bringing Paul before the court was "probably half in jest and half in derision," but that it had the serious purpose of determining whether or not Paul would be allowed to preach in the streets of Athens.14 However we interpret the narrative and dramatic context for Paul’s speech, its overtones are ambiguous, creating a latent tension that spills over into the speech itself. For the convention of the reported speech allows Luke to exploit the fact of two audiences: the philosophers who listened to Paul’s speech, and the Christians who read Luke’s narrative.

It is arguable, of course, that the speech Luke places in Paul’s mouth bears little resemblance to any speech that Paul actually made. Luke, who by his own account did not accompany Paul to Athens, probably relied on sources, written and oral, for the content of what he reports, and on literary convention and his own imagination for the way that he reports it. There was a long tradition, for instance, of historians creating speeches for historical figures based on the probabilities of character and occasion as well as on actual report. In the case of Acts, there are two extreme possibilities: that the speeches it reports are based on the memories of disciples who were present, or, conversely, that they are purely Lucan creations.15 With respect to this particular speech, the second possibility has been argued most convincingly by German scholars in particular who, principally on the basis of the discrepancies in religious thought and sentiment between the Athenian address and Paul’s letters, deny Pauline authorship and insist that the speech is a Hellenistic composition at awkward variance with the rest of the New Testament.16

Although unable to refute this position altogether, more recent commentators have identified in the speech thoughts, expressions, and ideas that echo the Old Testament, Hellenistic Jewish propaganda, and even Paul’s letter to the Romans. This has led in turn to a reinterpretation of the Hellenistic cast of the speech and a consequent modification of the respective roles of Luke and Paul in its composition. Longenecker, for example, acknowledges that the speeches in Acts are "necessarily paraphrastic," but insists that, despite their being "reworked" by Luke, there is no cause to question their essential reliability.17 The philosophical nature of this particular speech can at least partially be explained as an example of Paul’s normal practice in tailoring his message to his audience.18 What Paul does throughout much of this address, as Marshall points out, is to clothe "essentially Jewish beliefs in a Hellenistic form."19


Paul begins his speech by noting the Athenians’ piety (22b), then goes on to explain the basis for his judgment, noting in particular an altar dedicated to "an unknown god" (23a). It is this god, he says, that he himself proclaims (23b). Thereupon the apostle first defines God (24-25), then describes the proper relationship between God and humanity (26-27). Specifically, Paul defines God as sole creator and lord of the world (24a), in need of neither shrines made by human hands (24b) nor the service of human hands (25a). Indeed, he says, God needs nothing since He is Himself the source of all (25b). In terms of the relationship between God and humanity, Paul establishes that "from one," God created human nations together with their geographical and temporal limits (26), and argues that the purpose of created humanity is to seek God (27a). In fact, he says, God is not far away (27b).

Taken together, verses 28-29 mark a temporary suspension in thematic progress, as Paul focuses on Greek expressions of the divine-human relationship and recapitulates previous themes. Verse 28a, which echoes 25b, serves both as an explanation of God’s nearness and as a possible example of what "some of your own poets have said"; 28b quotes a line of Greek poetry in support of the creator-creation relationship of 24-25a, and thus completes a brief summary of Paul’s point concerning human dependence on God (25b-27); while 29 is a recapitulation of 24-25 in light of the poetic quotation in 28b. God, he says, owes nothing to "human hands," or to "the art and imagination of mortals."

Finally, verses 30-31 provide the climax of Paul’s message, with its contrast of two eras: that of the past in which God was willing to forgive human ignorance, in contrast to the present, which is a time for universal repentance (30). We know this to be true, he concludes, because God has fixed the day of judgment and appointed the judge, evidence for which lies in the resurrection of that judge from the dead.

22-23 Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, "Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, "To an unknown god." What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.

Paul opens his address to the Athenians with a compliment concerning their piety. The Greek deisidaimonesterous, commonly translated, "extremely religious," can also be rendered as "somewhat superstitious." Those who argue for the more positive meaning do so mainly on the basis of the requirements of Paul’s rhetoric: that is, if he wished to persuade the Athenians of the truth of his message, he is unlikely to have begun with an insult.20 Those who suggest that the pejorative meaning of deisidaimăn needs to be taken into account point to the narrative context, and argue that Luke intended his readers to see the irony in the word’s ambiguity.21 Christians were perfectly aware that the Athenians were pagans and their religion false; otherwise what would be the point of Paul’s address? The reference to sebasmata, "objects of worship," is similarly double-edged. For Paul’s hearers it is doubtless neutral, carrying no hint of condemnation,22 whereas for Luke’s readers, Jewish or Christian, the term refers back to 17:16, where Luke describes Paul’s distress at seeing so many idols in the city. "For all their religiosity, the Athenians were in reality thoroughly superstitious and lacking in knowledge of the true God."23

Paul takes as the starting point for his sermon an Athenian altar inscribed "to an unknown god," and tells the Athenians that this is the god he proclaims. But this is a problematic declaration, even though there is little doubt that it is a brilliant rhetorical ploy. By identifying the true God with the Athenians’ unknown god, Paul adroitly defends himself against any charge that he is proclaiming "foreign divinities," and at the same time flatters his listeners into thinking that their piety has a valid basis in their unconscious worship of the true God. Paul implies that he is about to make known what they already acknowledge by means of their altar. This is a notion, however, that no worshipper of the true God could be expected to accept. Paul is therefore engaging in a fiction in order to press home his message, a strategy that Longenecker notes is "by no means out of character" for a man who was willing to be "all things to all men" for the sake of the gospel.24

On the other hand, Luke’s play on agnăstă and agnoountes serves indirectly as an indictment of the Athenians’ "ignorance," and will serve more generally to characterize pagan humanity in similar terms at verse 30.25 Yet we need to remind ourselves that Paul obviously believes pagan humanity to be redeemable. For this reason, if no other, his "fiction" suggests a symbolic truth: that, as Haenchen has it, the Athenians "live at one and the same time in a positive and negative relationship with the right God."26 From this indeterminate position, Paul will argue the way to a truly positive relationship.

24-25 The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things.

Paul’s proclamation of God as creator echoes the sentiments of Hebrew scripture (e.g. Genesis 1:1-23, Exodus 20:11, Isaiah 42:5). But the world that God created is referred to in the first instance as ton kosmon, a concept that is more Hellenistic than Hebrew, even though the description of God as Lord of "heaven and earth" reverts to Old Testament terminology.27 In any event, as creator and Lord, God has need of neither "shrines made by human hands" (24b), a phrase suggestive of idolatry, nor of human service (25a). The idea of a totally self-sufficient God is not at variance with Greek thought, as several commentators have pointed out;28 but these same commentators all agree that the overall impression of the verses is more Hebraic than Greek. A similar accommodation of Hebrew thought to Greek expression occurs in 25b, where the reference to God’s giving to mortals ză‘n kai pno‘n kai ta panta, "life and breath and all things," again echoes Isaiah 42:5, in which God is similarly described as giving "breath" to people, that is, giving them life. But Paul (or Luke) emends the LXX pno‘n kai pneuma ("breath and spirit") to speak more explicitly of pno‘n ("breath") and ză‘n, "life," with the latter term suggesting a pun on Zeus, the name of the supreme Greek god. As Haenchen points out, these verses "negate the whole pagan belief in gods without the speaker having to touch upon the ticklish theme of the pagan state gods."29 Yet Marshall, who agrees with Haenchen’s interpretation of the word-play, takes issue with the latter’s further contention that this idea is Hellenistic rather than Hebraic. He points out that the triad of "life-breath-everything" was in popular currency, and that the idea of God’s self-sufficiency was already present within Greek-speaking Judaism (where it found its roots in Psalms 50:7-15). "If the language and the thought represent a development from the Old Testament and a use of Greek terminology," he writes, "it is hard to see why this makes the statement foreign to the spirit of the Old Testament."30 Once again we see the subtle interplay between Paul’s rhetorical presentation for the benefit of his hearers and Luke’s narrative presentation for the benefit of his readers.

26-27 From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him – though indeed he is not far from each one of us.

The opening clause of verse 26 can mean either that God created the entire human race or that he created every race of humankind, and did so that they might "inhabit the whole earth." More significantly, God is said to have made all humanity ex henos, "from one," a phrase that has been variously interpreted to mean "from one ancestor" (NRSV), "from one man" (NIV), "of one stock" (NEB), or "from one principle" (NJB). Luke’s readers were likely to think in terms of a man (Adam), but the idea of a common ancestor for all humanity was foreign to the Greeks and Paul may have wished to leave the precise nature of this ancestor undefined. The rendering "principle," preferred by the NJB, may be more consistent with Greek philosophical thought and thus may represent what Paul’s audience was intended to infer. In any case, the emphasis in verse 26a is on the unity of all humanity.31

Verse 26b points to the second part of God’s creation of humankind, namely the establishment of their geographical and temporal limits. Here too, however, we encounter minor difficulties of interpretation. The "allotted times" can be taken as referring either to the flourishing and declining of nations or to the seasons of the year; while "boundaries" can refer to the boundaries separating geographical areas inhabited by different peoples, or else it can simply designate those areas suitable for human habitation.32 However we understand the specific meaning here, echoes of Old Testament texts are once again present. Haenchen points to Psalm 74:17: "You have fixed all the bounds of earth;/you made summer and winter." And Marion Soards cites Deuteronomy 32:8: "When the Most High apportioned the nations, when he divided humankind, he fixed the boundaries of the peoples according to the number of the gods."33 Paul is here suggesting that God’s creative work can be recognized in the world of human experience, appealing to a form of natural theology for an audience unfamiliar with revealed religion.

This natural theology is elaborated in verse 27, where Paul’s assertion that the purpose of created humanity is to seek God is couched in terminology suggestive of the Greek notion that it is natural for humans to seek the true and the good. Of course, the quest carries with it no guarantee of success: it is the process of seeking to understand that defines the philosophical life. Hence Fitzmyer’s positive reaction in writing of "the instinctive searching of the human mind and heart for God."34 But the hint of Jewish distrust of Hellenistic philosophy apparent in ps‘laph‘seian, with its connotations of blind searching and failure, prompts quite a different response from C. S. C. Williams, who points instead to the inadequacy and wrongheadedness of the pagan search: "Man’s quest for God has resulted in ignorance, and this is false worship and idolatry...."35 These opposing reactions, I believe, are not modern impositions. They represent dual possibilities implicit in Luke’s text, where meaning is to a large extent determined by the ideology of the listener/reader.

28-29 For "In him we live and move and have our being"; as even some of your own poets have said, "For we too are his offspring." Since we are God's offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals.

Verse 27 concludes with the encouraging observation that God "is not far from each of us." The philosophical basis for this observation is the topic of verse 28. The first half of the verse, "In him we live and move and have our being," echoes the "life and breath and all things" of verse 25, and certainly implies an intimate relationship between God and humanity. The statement is often taken as a quotation from a Greek source, but the traditional attribution to Epimenides the Cretan is at best problematic and several commentators reject it outright.36 Whatever its source, it appears to reflect a Greek sentiment, perhaps "a matter of a received Stoic formulation," or merely "an old and frequent pattern in the Greek language."37 The second quotation, "For we too are his offspring," has been attributed with more certainty to the Greek Stoic poet Aratus of Soli (fl. 275 bce).38 Thus it is worth noting that Paul echoes Greek sentiments and quotes at least one Greek poet with approval. He has led his listeners this far with no hint of the startling message he will provide at the climax of his speech, but has brought them instead to what must have seemed familiar territory. In this way, Paul appropriates Greek poetry to buttress his own argument, using pagan sources as a means of reaching this particular audience.

Previously, in verses 24 through 28, Paul had demonstrated 1) that as creator, God needs neither shrines nor rites; and 2) that it is in human nature to seek God. The odds of actually finding God are improved by the fact that we owe our being to God, he says, and in this sense "we are his offspring" – all ideas that find support in the writings of the Greeks themselves. In verse 29 Paul turns the poet’s expression into a logical premise and draws a conclusion that is in fact a recapitulation of his initial point. Since it is in no material sense that we are God’s offspring, it follows that God cannot be projected in material form; cannot be "an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals." Paul’s distress at Athenian idolatry initiated his interaction with the Athenians; he began his speech by asserting its irrelevance to God; here he concludes that humanity can neither seek nor find God in idolatry. This negative assessment of idols reflects a typical Jewish outlook; its relationship to Greek thought is less certain.39

30-31 While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.

Paul finally proclaims his eschatological message. Significantly, the ambiguity that characterized the earlier part of the speech all but disappears at this point. Certainly a tension remains, for Paul’s message includes several elements likely to disturb the Athenians. The "times of human ignorance," which have now come to an end, recall the ignorance implicit in the Athenian worship of the unknown god, in the suggestion of their blind groping after God, and in the erroneous idolatry that still surrounds Paul in Athens. God has withheld judgment on former times. But Paul’s ta nun, "now," announces the eschatological time of repentance. And just as humanity is one (26), so now "all people everywhere" are called upon to repent.

Paul is hardly proclaiming a foreign divinity, for the God of whom he speaks is Lord of all, including the Athenians, who are in need of repentance because, of course, they also share in the universality of human sin. By implication, ignorance can no longer be "overlooked," because with the proclamation of a new age, ignorance is no longer incidental but willful. As Bruce explains it, "If ignorance of the divine nature was culpable before, it is inexcusable now."40 Paul may have couched his message in alien tones, but it is the same message that Luke had already recorded in his Gospel: "The Kingdom of God has come near to you" (Luke 10:9).

We might expect some reaction from listeners who have just been accused, however indirectly, of sinful ignorance, but Paul goes on to tell them that God has already scheduled the day of judgment, appointed a judge, and – incredibly – confirmed him in office by raising him from the dead.41 This proves too much for Paul’s audience, and they break off the speech. What for Paul is a clincher is for the Athenians the last straw.42

Luke draws his narrative-dramatic framework to a close in a somewhat perfunctory manner. He informs us (v. 32) that Paul’s reference to the resurrection led some of his listeners to scoff and others to say that they would speak of the issue later. He also tells us (v. 34) that "some of them" became believers. The second group may, of course, have simply been offering a polite dismissal of the idea, and the two converts named here ("Dionysius the Areopagite" and "a woman named Damaris") are otherwise unknown. This mixed response has led to the conclusion that Paul’s attempt at a "philosophizing sermon" was a failure.43 Yet recent commentary has attributed this failure less to Paul’s style of address than to the Athenians’ attitude.44 At least one commentator bluntly rejects the notion of failure, calling it "a myth invented by scholars, without any foundation in the texts."45

Perhaps we should pose the question differently. What was Luke’s purpose in recording (or even composing) this situation and speech? His hero neither clearly triumphs nor suffers unjustly for his faith. Yet Paul appears as philosophically knowledgeable, rhetorically sophisticated, and doctrinally sound. He is also shown confronting the greatest obstacle to the truth he proclaims: not idol worship, but philosophy; not outright evil, but rationalistic rejection of the apparently irrational. For the resurrection that Paul preached indeed appeared irrational. Still, however much the Athenians are scandalized, they have no ready counter-arguments. Paul had approached the meeting point of religion and philosophy from one side; the approach from the other side had yet to be articulated.


In Acts 17:22-31, Paul’s description of a self-sufficient God and a dependent humanity, his condemnation of idolatry as the product of an ignorant age, and his proclamation of an age of repentance are all themes that would not have been out of place in the mouth of an Old Testament prophet. What is remarkable is the skill with which he adapted his message to a Hellenistic point of view. And equally remarkable is Luke’s contextualizing of the speech to make its subversive sub-text clear to his readers. Understandably, no amount of rhetorical Hellenizing could make the resurrection palatable to the Athenians: Paul does not even try. The specifically Christian portion of Paul’s proclamation was a stumbling block for the Athenians, as it has been – and continues to be – for many others. Nevertheless, this central tenet of Christianity must continue to be addressed: there are undoubtedly many ways to understand the nature and meaning of the resurrection, but for Christians there is no avoiding the necessity of confronting it.

Works Cited

Brown, Raymond E. An Introduction to the New Testament. New York: Doubleday, 1997.

Bruce, F. F. The Acts of the Apostles. 3d ed., rev. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1990.

--------. The Book of Acts. Rev. ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998.

Fitzmyer, Joseph A. The Acts of the Apostles: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. New York: Doubleday,1998.

Haenchen, Ernst. The Acts of the Apostles: A Commentary. Tr. Bernard Noble and Gerald Shinn , rev. R. McL. Wilson. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1971.

Johnson, Luke Timothy. The Acts of the Apostles. Sacra Pagina Series. Gen. Ed. Daniel J. Harrington. Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1992.

Longenecker, Richard N. "The Acts of the Apostles." In The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 9. Ed. F. E. Gaebelin. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1981.

Marshall, I. Howard. The Acts of the Apostles: An Introduction and Commentary. Leicester: Intervarsity Press; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1980.

Munck, Johannes. The Acts of the Apostles: Introduction, Translation, and Notes. Rev. William F. Albright and C. S. Mann. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1967.

Soards, Marion L. The Speeches in Acts: Their Content, Context, and Concerns. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994.

Williams, C. S. C. A Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles. 2d ed. Black’s New Testament Commentaries. London: Adam and Charles Black, 1964.