I have been posting recently about my recent trip to first-century archaeological sites in Asia Minor–modern day Turkey. I wrote most recently about the apostle Paul’s efforts to explain to the Jews living in that part of the Roman empire that Jesus Christ fulfilled the promises made in the Jewish scripture. Paul was also interested in bringing the Christian gospel to Gentiles. That means that he had to address not only Jewish concerns but those pertinent to Greek and Roman culture. This post will discuss that portion of his message.

Whereas Acts 13 shows how Paul spoke to Jews, Acts 17:22-31 shows how he approached a skeptical gentile audience. Paul is in Athens, where he has been conversing with the locals in the marketplace. Some of his hearers bring him to the Areopagus to hear what he has to say. Unlike his approach with Jews, he says nothing about Hebrew history and doesn’t quote scripture. He begins instead connecting to the world of his hearers, noting how religious they are and commenting on an altar that had been dedicated “to an unknown god.” He uses this to discuss religious matters with his audience. As Ben Witherington notes, “what we see here is not an attempt to meet pagans halfway, but rather a use of points of contact, familiar ideas and terms, in order to make a proclamation of monotheism in its Christian form.” (The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary).

The Athens Acropolis as viewed from the Areopagus.

God doesn’t live in human temples, says Paul with a good deal of temerity, speaking as he is in the shadow of the temple-studded Acropolis. God doesn’t need anything from us–contrary to the Greek myth that humans were created in order to offer sacrifices to the gods. And it’s wrong to think of God in terms of statues made of gold, silver, or stone. All this seems to directly contradict Greek and Roman religion. This was a fairly sophisticated audience, though, and as such they weren’t mindless adherents of the traditional belief system. Among his listeners are Epicurean and Stoic philosophers. He was expressing agreement with some of the ideas of each, and disagreement with others.

The Epicureans would agree with Paul’s critique of pagan sacrifices, for example, but not with his reason for the critique. As N.T. Wright says,

“For the Epicurean, the gods were far away and so didn’t want anything from us; for Paul, God is very close to us, the giver of everything to us, the passionate seeker who wants us to seek him in return—and therefore doesn’t want animal sacrifices from us.” (Acts for Everyone, Part 2)

As for the Stoics, Paul’s allusion to the oneness of all humans in verses 26-8 would have gotten their approval. In verse, 28, he quotes the Stoic philosopher Aratus on the subject of humans being God’s children: “We are his offspring.” For the Stoics, our kinship with God would have been understood pantheistically, but Paul would have meant something different: that God had created all of us in his image. Witherington, who discusses the above points, says this about what Paul was doing:

“Familiar ideas are used to make contact with the audience, but they are used for evangelistic purposes to bolster arguments that are essentially Jewish and Christian in character.” (The Acts of the Apostles: a Socio-Rhetorical Commentary)

Paul goes on to speak of a day of judgment presided over by a man that God raised from the dead. That was all that his listeners could stand, and they interrupt. Had he been able to continue, he probably would have continued his same strategy of repurposing concepts familiar to Greeks and Romans to explain what God has done in Jesus. In fact, such repurposing can be found throughout Paul’s writings. Here all some examples of concepts Paul repurposed; I’ve adapted ideas from essays by Richard A. Horsley, Dieter Geogi, and Helmut Koester in Paul and Empire, edited by Horsley (Biblical passages cited are illustrative, not exhaustive; my knowledge of Greek is quite limited and corrections by those who know the language better than I do are welcome):

  • euangelion (gospel) had been used in proclamations about the achievements of Caesar such as the Priene Calendar Inscription; Paul used it in I Cor. 4:15, 15:1, Eph 1:13, 3:6 to refer to what Christ accomplished in behalf of his followers.
  • soter (savior) and soteria (salvation) had been used to refer to what Augustus Caesar and his successors had accomplished; Paul used in Rom. 1:16; 10:11; Phil 1:28; 3:20 to refer to who Christ is and what he has accomplished.
  • pistis (faith or faithfulness) was used to describe the loyalty of Caesar, to be reciprocated by his subjects; Paul used in Rom. 3:3 and Gal. 3:23-25 to about God’s faithfulness and our response.
  • eirene (peace) had been used to refer to the quelling of conflict under Roman rule; Paul used it in Rom. 2:10, 5:1, 8:6, 14:17 to describe a state that God brings in the lives of believers.
  • parousia (arrival or visitation) was used to describe a visit by the emperor; Paul used it in I Thes. 3:13, 4:15, 5:23 to refer to Christ returning to earth in glory.

In the Roman context, such words were political in nature, but also religious, in that they were used in the cult of emperor worship. Paul, an astute observer of his cultural setting, appropriated them to refer to Christ and his accomplishments. Reading Paul today, we tend to limit them to their religious sense. But these words were political as well. Paul was announcing the reign of God, his rule over the powers of this earth. Roman rulers who heard him as challenging their dominion were probably understanding his meaning more clearly than we do today. “May your kingdom come, your will be done,” we pray, as Jesus taught. We might tremble were we to consider what that would do to the kingdoms now in place.

View of the Areopagus from the Athens Acropolis.

I’ve been posting about a recent trip to Biblical archaeological sites in Asia Minor, discussing Roman religion, Roman influence, and Roman architecture. In this post, I’ll switch my focus to the Apostle Paul, who was a missionary to Galatia and Asia, two provinces in Asia Minor, as well as to Greece and Rome. The things I’ve learned (and discussed in earlier posts) about the cultural context in which Paul evangelized have given me a better appreciation of his strategy.

Sociologist Rodney Stark indicates (in The Rise of Christianity: A Sociologist Reconsiders History) that, as a new religion, Christianity appealed initially to those who were likely to be early adopters of cultural innovations. As he describes them, early adopters tend to be above average in income and education. They are attracted to new ideas and have the sophistication to understand those ideas and see the need for them. As Paul traveled, he encountered two groups that had such qualities: Hellenized Jews and upper-class Gentiles.

Jews had settled in Asia Minor well before the first century and thus had for decades or even centuries been influenced by Hellenistic culture.  They were often well-to-do and lived in the major cities in the region. Many had taken Greek names and had accepted some elements of pagan religious thought. At the same time, they continued to meet in synagogues and study the Torah. An example of such a congregation was located in Sardis; the remains of the synagogue there showed strong Greek and Roman influences, such as this altar flanked by statues of lions:

When Paul came to a city, he typically went first to the synagogue and spoke to the congregation there about the gospel of Jesus Christ. Mark Strauss, the New Testament scholar who accompanied our tour, pointed out an example of this strategy recorded in Acts 13. Paul had come to Pisdian Antioch, went to the synagogue, and was invited to speak. He began with a recitation of the history of Israel–the stay in Egypt, the exodus, the conquest of Canaan, the judges, and the start of the monarchy. All this would have been familiar to his listeners. He paused when he got to David, describing him as not only royalty but as obedient, a man after God’s own heart. Paul used David as a springboard to leap over the next thousand years, to Christ:

“From this man’s descendants God has brought to Israel the Savior Jesus, as he promised.” (v. 23, NIV)

His hearers would know the promise Paul was alluding to: that God would raise up a descendant of David who would establish an everlasting kingdom. That person would be the savior of Israel. In his commentary on Acts, N.T. Wright explains why a first-century Jewish audience would recognize the need for a savior:

“…Israel, though God’s people, were not living in freedom, were not being much of a light to the nations, and were often finding it difficult to keep their own law, whether because of pressure from pagan society or laziness within the Jewish community. All was not well: when would God’s purposes finally come true, when would Israel be rescued from her continuing plight? That is the implied question, a corporate as well as an individual problem, to which Paul offers the solution of Jesus the Saviour.” (Acts for Everyone, Part 2)

Paul went on to describe selected events of the gospel, culminating in Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. “We tell you the good news,” he adds. “What God promised our ancestors he has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising up Jesus.” (v. 32, 33a) He supported his argument by quoting from Psalm 2, Isaiah 55, and Psalm 16. He was speaking to them as fellow Jews, recipients of the promises contained in scripture. At the same time, his description of what Christ has accomplished has more universal appeal:

“Therefore, my friends, I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you. Through him everyone who believes is set free from every sin…” (v. 38,9)

Stark describes the appeal of the Christian message to this Jewish audience:

“Christianity offered twice as much cultural continuity to the Hellenized Jews as to Gentiles. If we examine the marginality of the Hellenized Jews, torn between two cultures, we may note how Christianity offered to retain much of the religious content of both cultures and to resolve the contradictions between them.”

But this raises additional questions. Paul’s appeal in Acts 13 seems to focus almost entirely on his listeners’ religious roots in Judaism. How did his message appeal to the other main cultural influence on Hellenistic Jews, the Greek and Roman view of the world? And how did it resolve contradictions between them? To answer that, have to look at how Paul spoke to followers of Greek and Roman religion. I’ll consider that in my next post.

Entrance to Perga, another city where Paul preached.