Paul in Athens
While Paul was waiting for you all [them] in Athens, he was deeply troubled by all the idols he saw everywhere in the city. He went to the synagogue to reason with the Jews and the God-fearing Gentiles, and he spoke daily in the public square to all who happened to be there. He also had a debate with some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers. When he told them about Jesus and his resurrection, they said, “What’s this babbler trying to say with these strange ideas he’s picked up?” Others said, “He seems to be preaching about some foreign gods.”
Then they took him to the high council of the city. “Come and tell us about this new teaching,” they said. “You are saying some rather strange things, and we want to know what it’s all about.”
(It should be explained that all the Athenians as well as the foreigners in Athens seemed to spend all their time discussing the latest ideas.)Acts 17:16-21
What stood out to you in this short segment? What struck me is that Paul just couldn’t help himself. While waiting . . . he went to the synagogue to reason with those closest to his viewpoint – the Jews and the God-fearing Gentiles. But Paul was deeply troubled in his spirit. When you are deeply troubled in your spirit it comes out and manifests itself. Jesus was deeply troubled at Lazarus’ death [embrimaomai]. Paul was deeply troubled [paroxuno] at what he saw in Athens. But these troublings of His Lord and Paul are very different. (To gain an understanding of the difference look at Gems 76–78 where I investigated what was going on with Jesus’ emotions at Lazarus’ death)
Athens was a place that was regarded as the Mecca of intellectual discussion and debate. It was an intellectual stronghold. It housed a world-renowned university and its Agora was the centre-point for cults and isms of all and every kind. The Athenians prided themselves on being open intellectually to all matters of the mind and debate. Athens was famed for the number of cults and religions found within the city at any one time. They welcomed the flow of ideas and so they welcome any cults that had a new spin on religious thought and practice. However, they were not truth seekers; rather they were mind ticklers. The Athenians traded in intellectual ideas and thoughts in much the same way as other commercial centres trade in commodities. They traded ideas as though they were goods and services. But the ideas traded were not a search for the essence of life or truth. The Athenians were not interested in seeking truth or spirituality. They treated ideas and cults as luxuries not necessities.
The Agora was a famous place. It was made famous, by the likes of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle who had spoken in the Agora before Paul set foot there. Let me explain what the Agora was like. The majority of translations refer to the Agora (the word Luke uses here) as the market, the market place, the market square. But more to the point it was the public square. It was a large open place in the centre of the city which was the focus of the life of the city. Around the city square were grouped a collection of public buildings – the senate house, the town hall, the law courts and the temples of its patron gods. Interspersed with those public buildings were a collection of stoa or porticoes; columns sectioning off small porches and meeting squares. These acted like little booths in which people could listen to a series of speakers who could sound forth on any topic, philosophy or religious idea they liked. It was like a potpourri of ideas available for you to shop or to practice your debating skills or intellectual prowess. It strikes me as being a combination of Hyde Park in London, famous for its public soap box and a collection of booths for the Salvation Army and any other street preachers of any religious cult or creed whatsoever to have their say. The citizens of Athens could move around the Agora and listen to all speakers at will and consider if there were any whose message caught their ear and bid them to listen some more. At the same time philosophers and intellectuals could mooch among the throngs and take in the collection of ideas on offer to see if there was any new concept or spin on the reason for life and existence they had not heard yet. Partly to be able to say, “Oh yes I have heard of that cult or idea. There is nothing I don’t know or haven’t heard. Yes I have debated with them and dismissed their views after weighing them up.” That was the market place into which Paul ventured.
What troubled him most was fact that this city was full of idols [kateidolon]. The sense of this word is full to overflowing with idols of every kind. Literally “excessive as to idols” – filled with more idols of every kind you can imagine. It was this feature of the city that troubled Paul. This excessive presence of idols and attention given to idols provoked him more than anything else. It irritated him. It hurt deeply; it offended his spirit and the Holy Spirit within him and provoked him to anger and revulsion. Have you ever felt like that? I have the first time I visited Bali and saw the temples and the little idol trays laid as offerings to the Hindu gods everywhere. It offended the Holy Spirit within me. I believe I know exactly what Paul was feeling and thinking as he walked around Athens, especially when he ventured into the Agora.
I suspect Paul was indeed waiting for the others to join him. Perhaps that was his intention at the beginning of his time in Athens as he waited the considerable period of time for the others to join him. But Paul being Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit of God just couldn’t help himself. Athens was the only place where Paul’s preaching didn’t provoke persecution. I am sure Paul noted that and with the growing troubling of his spirit taking place over a series of days Paul does what come naturally. He does what most of us would do. He turns first to his own, to the Jews who are meeting in the synagogue in this city. Why would there not be a synagogue in this city of all places? Of course, the Athenians welcomed all comers. I think Paul like us, sought out his own first, people of like-mindedness who had the same kind of background as him and those who had attached themselves to the Jews in seeking the Jewish God. He talked to them first about what he had seen in the city and in the Agora and then sought to teach them of the significance of Jesus as the Messiah they were seeking. Paul was bringing this message to this city for the first time. But it is also fair to say other travellers may have brought the message of Christ to Athens before him.
Paul spoke with the Jews and those who had joined themselves to the Jewish community in their search for the one true God on the Sabbath. But he also ventured out into the Agora through the week to firstly take in the scene before him and understand it. I am sure he frequented the Agora each day for a while in order to hear the kinds of things the Athenians listened to and talked about. On the basis of his experience and the information he gained he began to seize hold of the ideas and the common talking points which provided opportunity for him. How could Paul have resisted when there are stoa there for the offering and crowds of people used to debate and eager to hear from any new intellectual ideas or religious cults on offer.
Before we begin our analysis of what Luke has written for us, take some time to take in the panorama for yourselves and ponder the words Luke has written for us. Please do something else for me: let me know when you and the team have finally reached Athens too. Is it toward the beginning of Paul’s time in the city or in the middle or towards the end? Just give me the nod when you arrive so we can catch up again.
Wisdom begins in wonder.Socrates
True wisdom comes to each of us when we realize how little we understand about life, ourselves, and the world around us.Socrates
Wise men speak because they have something to say; Fools because they have to say something.Plato
Thinking: the talking of the soul with itself.Plato
It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.Aristotle
Anybody can become angry – that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way – that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy.Aristotle