Paul in the Seat of Mockers

For a long time something has bugged me about the traditional interpretations of Paul’s Areopagus address (Acts 17:22-31). I would like to float an idea that I have not read anywhere else. Please let me know what you think of my idea, or if you’ve read this elsewhere.

Paul begins his discourse with his appeal to the “unknown god” that the Athenians worship in their pantheon: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.” (Acts 17: 22b-23)

There’s quite a bit of debate about what Paul is doing here. The most basic question is whether Paul is complimenting the Athenians on their religious devotion, or mocking the Athenians for their polytheism. From there, there is some question of emphasis: is Paul is smoothly adapting his message to appeal to his audience, or is he offering a veiled polemic?

Now, Paul seems to be speaking here at the request of the Stoic and Epicurean philosophers, before an educated audience. I’m no student of Greek philosophy, but my understanding is that neither Stoicism nor Epicureanism is polytheistic. For that matter, it doesn’t seem that any of the classical Greek philosophers held to polytheism. Socrates, for example, was sentenced to death for (among other things) opposing polytheism.

So, why would Paul see the need to refute polytheism before this audience? Perhaps Paul is not refuting but mocking the polytheism of the masses in order to appeal to the “enlightened” thinkers. It’s as if Paul is saying, “Wow, guys, what a religious city–you have so many gods! *wink, wink* But seriously, we all agree that this is a bunch of crap.”

This idea is further supported by the reception that Paul appears to receive from the crowd. First of all, it seems that the original reason that the Stoics and Epicureans are intrigued by Paul’s teaching is that he is preaching against polytheism (vv 17-19). Second, his speech is defined by the notion that the true God is both transcendant and immanent–ideas that the two groups fought over. It doesn’t seem to bother them that Paul preaches a single deity. They seem to be with him until he starts preaching the resurrection (v 32).

I have studied Greco-Roman culture primarily in order to understand the context of the New Testament. Can any of you NT or philosophy folks out there tell me if my read of this situation is correct? If this does seem to be an accurate description of Paul’s situation and approach, how does that influence our approach to apologetics/evangelism? Does it?

About Benj

I’m a native North Jerseyan, transplanted to Pennsylvania...lived and taught in Eastern Europe for six years…Old Testament professor, ordained minister, occasional liturgist…husband to Corrie…father to Daniel and Elizabeth.
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3 Responses to Paul in the Seat of Mockers

  1. Joshua says:


    You’re right, neither the Stoics nor the Epicureans were polytheists by any means. A rationalized pantheism is one way of describing their theism, but it was more of the “nous” in everything. At least, I think I’m right about that…

    I’m not sure how this affects the situation much, though. Either way, he is rebuking (?) the god of the philosophers; whether he rebukes a shared or unshared polytheism… I don’t know how it affects. What do you think? I feel like I’m missing something you might be seeing.

    • thinkhardthinkwell says:

      Josh: I think Paul is drawing the philosophers in with a shared joke at the expense of the unwashed masses. Paul would certainly have more in common with this thoughtful class of non-polytheists (which was my original question). But then he explodes the philosophers’ mistaken conceptions of the divine as being just as inconsistent.

      Does that clear things up a little? Do you agree?

  2. Pingback: Best of 2010 | think hard, think well

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