Read the text here: Acts 17:16-34.
Paul has made his way to Athens, that all important city in Greece. Although the Roman Empire had long ago gained dominion over the known world, the importance of Greek culture was still immense. Greek was a commonly spoken language throughout the empire. Greek philosophy, art, religion, writings, poetry, and drama, all continued to deeply influence Roman culture.
Although the text tells us that Paul spent time in the synagogue in Athens, neither his teachings nor the response of the people there is given. The focus in our reading today is on Paul’s interaction with Athenian Greeks. His regular conversations in the marketplace with disciples of Greek philosophies (Epicurean and Stoics) lead to an invitation to come before the Areopagus, the highest government council in the city. There Paul delivers the address of a lifetime, connecting the spirituality, philosophy and art of Greek culture to his understanding of the work of God in humankind.
Paul quotes Greek philosopher/poets: “In him we live and move and have our being…” most likely a quote from the 6th century BCE poet Epiminides of Crete. He takes a reference to Zeus “For we too are his offspring...” from a 3rd century BCE writer Aratus of Cilicia and connects it to the Jewish/Christian God. (see Spencer, p. 184). Paul finds connections between Greek thought and the ancient traditions of Judaism, focusing on the common themes of God as creator and sustainer of the world. Paul’s address leans much more toward theology, talk of God; the role of Christ receives only a brief mention.
There is deep richness in the text; the image of Paul engaging the Greek thinkers of Athens is dramatic. Perhaps we can learn from his approach. Paul actively seeks to engage Greek culture, acknowledging the wisdom he finds there, and making connections with his faith perspective. It is a respectful encounter. Although the writer tells us that Paul is disturbed by the many Temples in Athens, he does not go on a prophetic rampage through the Acropolis. Rather, he listens and learns from the culture, gleans good from its resources, and draws relationships between Greek understandings and his own.
This story of Paul in Athens is exciting–and we can tease out our own parallels to today’s setting. How do we actively engage our culture? Where can we find common wisdom? How do we engage in humble and generous dialogue with those outside the church?