I live in a small Ukrainian village that is over 700 years old. Kyiv, the capital, is even older, dating back to the Apostolic age where popular tradition holds that the apostle Andrew, during one of the Black Sea missions trips visited the area. The long and difficult history in the region is filled with famines, Mongol invasions, two world wars and 70 years of communist occupation. Enduring these periods, the onion-domed Orthodox church continues to fill the skyline of villages and cities, an overtly religious culture.
Over the centuries, a hybrid of pantheistic celebrations and Christian holidays fill the Ukraine’s Gregorian calendar. Though outwardly displaying vestiges of orthodox Christian symbolism, the dominant culture resembles an agnostic pantheism not unlike first century Athens. Ukrainian culture, like ancient Greek paganism, is extremely superstitious and synthesizes several traditionally Christian rituals. In my town, for example, several pagan carved stone images dating BCE lie proudly on our main street, and although considering themselves Christian, most of the town enjoys annual festivals in honor of ancient pagan traditions. From my experience living among culturally Orthodox Ukrainians for the past 14 years, I’ve found their concept of deity, if they even have one, as that of a distant, impersonal and uninvolved Being.
Athens, during the Apostle Paul’s day, having also endured countless battles of its own, was an eclectic mix of visual pagan religious identity and competing schools of philosophy. In this paper, we will review chapter 17 of Acts and Paul’s particular engagement with the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers as well as the general pagan culture in Athens.
My thesis statement is that Paul’s cultural appropriation of the Athenians pagan roots when combined with the centrality of his post-resurrection message provides a blueprint for engaging unfriendly, dominant cultures. I will begin with a contextual review of the historical and narrative context of Luke-Acts, then move to a commentary on Paul’s sermon in 17:16-34, concluding with a contextual and contemporary reflection of my own pseudo pagan-Christian context.
- Historical Summary
Luke, the evangelist, traveling companion, and beloved physician of the Apostle Paul , is regarded by most historians as the author of the unified, two-volume Luke-Acts work. “The extensive linguistic and theological agreements and cross-references between the Gospel of Luke and the Acts indicate that both works are from the same author.
Educated and fluent in Greek, little details are given concerning Luke’s conversion, or life before his conversion to the Christian faith, but it is commonly held that Luke was a gentile convert. Writing towards the end of the first century, Luke begins both of his works addressing “the most excellent Theophilus” as the intended recipient. History is silent on Theophilus, though some speculate it to be a pseudonym due the literal translation of his name, lover of God.
Concerning Luke’s audience, historians have “failed to achieve anything approaching a consensus,” although most agree that Luke-Acts was written primarily for a Christian audience. Luke wrote Luke-Acts in order to provide an accurate, orderly account of the life and ministry of Jesus, and the Spirit. In terms of genre category,
Luke-Acts are part compiled history, part narrative, functioning together as historiography.
- Literary Structure
In meta-narrative form, Acts itself provides us with a selective, sweeping historical account of the early church’s origins. From the outpouring of the Spirit in the first chapters (AD 30-33), to the final chapters with Paul under house arrest in Rome (AD 60-62), Acts covers nearly 30 years of history as Luke “narrates the continuity of the Christian community with the ancient people of God.” The book of Acts can be structured into four general movements:
Gospel in Jerusalem 1-6
Gospel to Judea & Samaria 7-12
Gospel to Gentile Regions 13-20
Paul’s Trials & Imprisonment 21-28
With Israel’s messiah crucified and risen at the end of the Gospel, Luke’s Acts turns toward the continuing ministry of Christ through the Spirit. It is now the Apostles, along with Paul and a widening cast of disciples who are empowered and sent as witnesses into all the earth. Luke’s high level narrative reveals the “centrifugal shape to the mission” and Spirit’s focus in “crossing all boundaries and inclusive of all peoples” with an “unrelenting interest in the marginalized and dispossessed.”
Even as the good news takes root outside of the heavily guarded religious structures of Judaism, it’s clear that “Acts narrates the continuity of the Christian community with the ancient people of God.” After receiving the promise of the Spirit and the early narrative of the first days of the expanding Jewish-Gentile community in Jerusalem, Luke focuses on a key event as the turning point and impetus in the outward expanding mission, the stoning of Stephen and growing and familiar hostility from Judaism.
Halfway through Acts, Luke turns his attention towards the conversion and ministry of the Apostle Paul, a former Pharisee and persecutor of the church, now set apart by the Spirit to the Gentiles. Luke recounts a series of missionary journeys as Paul and accompanying disciples follow the Spirit beyond Jerusalem, into the regions of Judea, Samaria, and “to the ends of the earth.”
- Setting in Acts 17:1-15
During Paul’s second journey, Paul receives instruction in a vision to turn westward towards the region of Macedonia. After responding to this vision, crossing the Aegean Sea, Paul, Silas, Luke, and the team, stay and share the Gospel in Philippi, which ultimately lands them in jail.
As we begin chapter 17, Paul and the team have moved to Thessalonica, a city just 260 miles north of Athens. There, the apostle encounters a particularly hostile group of Jewish leaders which drives Paul southwest to Berea, then eventually south to the coast to Athens, leaving Silas and Timothy behind.
- Running Commentary for Acts 17:16-34
While waiting for the rest of his team in Athens, Luke records the Apostles activity. Far from passively waiting for his friends, per Paul’s tradition, he engages the Jewish leaders in the synagogue as well as Gentile converts to Judaism. This time however, Luke notes that Paul was also interacting with the Athenians in the marketplace. Luke notes how Paul was deeply distressed by many idols in the city, giving us a clue to the nature of the conversations taking place which will dominate his sermon later on in the text.
Although Corinth during this time was Rome’s seat of political power, Athens’
fame was still very great. “It was full of philosophers, rhetoricians, orators, painters, statuaries, and of young persons who came to learn philosophy and the arts.” “Athens had been the undisputed home of philosophy, the place above all where such questions were to be addressed, since at least the time of Socrates in the 5th century B.C.“
Throughout Luke’s two-book work, whenever Jesus or his disciples engage Judaism’s power structures, the Pharisee and rival Sadducee are often united in opposition as mitigating gatekeepers. Now, in the heart of a new dominant pagan culture, Luke introduces the reader to another form of religious and social guardianship, this time on the part of the pagans; the Epicurean and rival Stoic philosophers. Paul’s message will take aim towards the particular worldview of both popular philosophies.
Here we find two respected, and guarded pagan religious worldviews facing Paul and the work of the Spirit. Fortunately for Paul, though born and raised a Jew, he was “at home in the secular world of the Mediterranean basin.” For the philosophers, much like Judaism’s religious elite, the meaning of life wasn’t simply an interesting pastime, but “the study, teaching, development and living out of the great traditions they inherited.”
Initially, the audience scoffs at Paul, “what does this babbler want to say?” and others confessing, “He seems to be proclaiming foreign divinities,” misconstruing Jesus and the resurrection as two new gods. Among the scoffing however, there was enough of an interest to invite Paul to the Areopagus or Hill of Ares as a guest speaker.
For centuries this massive protruding rock had served as a social, political and philosophical place of gathering in Athens. Not unlike the Jewish synagogue, the Areopagus functioned as a space for reading, oral dialogue and debate. Luke has set the stage for one of the ways the Apostle engaged a diverse, pagan audience.
Paul takes his place in the middle of the huge rock platform. Just as Luke recorded in Acts 13:16-41 in his sermon to the Jewish leaders, Paul begins with a historical and cultural connection point in the development of his message. Paul acknowledges common ground among the Athenians; the pursuit of knowledge and interest in religious things.
Though deeply distressed by the surrounding pagan idolatry, Paul chooses to acknowledge and somewhat affirm the Athenians in their religious fervor. Paul then transitions to confront their admitted ignorance as a people that pay homage to an unknown deity. In a play on words, Paul uses their own state sanctioned worship of this unknown god to suggest that in their ignorance they’ve actually been worshiping the very god He will now declare to them.
In declaring God as he, Paul is personifying deity, “striking at the core of pantheism, rooted in pre-socratic thought.” For the Greeks, “God was more of a metaphysical abstraction than a person being, and for the Epicureans, this would seem absurd. Paul proclaims that this singular, exclusive Creator God rules over all that is made, including humanities first human, the universal ancestor. Paul declares that this unknown God is completely sufficient within Himself and therefore cannot be sequestered to outward symbols. It was humanity that comes from God, not the other way around, which is the nature of idolatry.
Paul’s God is near. To affirm that the Athenians already had room in their religion for this idea, he quotes from two Greek philosophers and poets. First, he quotes from Epimenides of Knossos (6-7th Century BCE), “In him we live and move and have our being.” The second is an excerpt from Phaenomena by the famed Sicilian poet Aratus (310-240 BCE), “For we are also his offspring.” Paul, who spoke Greek naturally, clearly knew how to deal with non-Jews” and appeals to the Hellenistic worldview which revered ancient truth. For the Hellenist, “to prove a thing ancient and traditional is very close to proving it true.”
By integrating “vocabulary associated with the popularized platonism that characterized much of the intellectual framework of the Greco Roman world” Luke is showing us how Paul culturally appropriated the message of Jesus Christ for his audience. For the Greeks, the “Source of wisdom lies in the past, not the present.”
Paul then calls the philosophers to repent from their ignorance which has, for a time, been overlooked, and prepare themselves for judgment. Paul turns the tables on the knowledge seeking Philosophers by redefining the real nature of knowledge. “God’s knowing creates the context for human knowing…the overriding knowledge is the knowledge which the One God has of the world and of all its inhabitants.” The judge is none other than the appointed man (Jesus) whom God furnished proof for them through the resurrection.
The Epicureans distant, uninvolved deity is not so distant far all! The Stoics’ denial of bodily resurrection and concepts of fate have been confronted by Paul’s insistence of resurrection.
Upon hearing of the resurrection, some scoffed, and others were intrigued. However, Luke notes that some Greeks believed, including Dionysus, Damaris, and others.
c. Summary of Luke’s purpose
Luke portrays Paul as one who “traveled tirelessly to announce the good news of God’s saving acts in Christ.” He details for the reader how the Spirit, through Paul was now “offering an essentially Jewish message to the pagan world” through the ministry of Christ and his resurrection, “in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy.” Now that the good news has moved beyond Jerusalem, the Spirit is “opening the way for the inclusion of people in God’s dominion who otherwise have no apparent claim on God.” The Jewish-Gentile church is emerging. “This theme of reversal highlights the new conceptions of the community of God’s people with the arrival of the messianic era.”
Through the recorded sermons of Paul in Acts, we see that “Luke understands the resurrection and ascension of Jesus as two events that point to the same theological reality – without the resurrection there is no Christian message in Acts.”
IV) Summary Reflection
As we can see from our study, through the inspiration of the Spirit, Paul deployed a two-step blueprint towards engaging the dominant culture; cultural appropriation, and the message of the resurrection.
Concerning cultural appropriation, Paul didn’t attack the idolatry of the Athenians directly. Rather, Paul, coming alongside the dominant culture, momentarily appropriates, or employs useful native cultural content in his apologetic. For the Jewish audience, Paul grounds his listeners in the Old Testament and Jewish tradition. For the pagan audience, Paul doesn’t look to Judaism, he employs pagan history and tradition and that which would bring meaning for his audience. As Paul becomes all things to all men, he clearly shows us the importance of collecting cultural instruments which could be used to “summon the nations of the world to worship and serve Him.”
Concerning resurrection, this, for Paul “constitutes the very center of the Christian faith” as his message remains fixed from a “post-resurrection vantage point.” Although he warns us that much of the world will consider this message foolish, the message the resurrection is for all times, and all people, because Christ died once for all. From Luke’s perspective, the outward expanding Spirit-led mission is reaching into culture, redeeming it out from underneath, and Paul’s blueprint is consistent with this ongoing mission today.
As a western missionary in Ukraine, I confess that I have become too insulated from my pagan-orthodox surroundings. By becoming more intentional, discerning possible ways to utilize the available cultural elements around me for the gospel, I can practice Paul’s blueprint. So often, the general attitude among western missionaries is to ignore, or condemn the symbols surrounding us without seeing their usefulness to connect more deeply with those around us.
In keeping with Paul’s blueprint, I must remember that connection with culture and my neighbors is only the first of Paul’s two step process. As the Spirit allows me opportunity, I must also boldly proclaim that God has come near in the Son, and will judge the world for their ignorance having “given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” If I do that, by God’s grace, I will hear the response among my neighbors, “We will hear you again about this.”
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