Summary: Paul in Athens - heavy on background - witness in the marketplace
Two preachers were on the roadside with a sign that read, "The End is Near – Turn Back Now". A passing driver yelled "leave us alone you religious nuts". Then the preachers heard squealing breaks followed by a loud splash. One preacher said to the other, "I told you we should have just said "Bridge Out".
Sometimes ministers have trouble saying things in a way that others will understand. That was the issue that faced Paul as he tried to bring the gospel to the people of Athens.
We need to understand the setting here. Paul has traveled from Berea to Athens ahead of Silas and Timothy. That trip is 3 days by boat or 12 days if you walk.
David Padfield, a minister in Illinois, put together this description of what Paul might have seen.
Supposing Paul arrived by ship, he would have landed at Piraeus and would have gone north from the harbor and entered Athens by the “Double Gate” on the west side of the city, where four highways converged.
Passing through the gates, Paul would have seen the Temple of Demeter with statues of the goddess and her daughter. A little further on he would have passed the statue of Poseidon hurling his trident. Beyond this, he would have seen the statues of Healing Athena, Zeus, Apollo, and Hermes standing near the Sanctuary of Dionysus.
Assuming that Paul explored the city he could have seen the Royal Colonnade, the Metroum or Sanctuary of the Mother of the Gods with her image. In the agora, the central market, he would have seen the altar of Mercy, which stood in a grove of laurels and olives. Nearby was a stone statue of Hermes, and a bronze statue of Ptolemy. In the city were the Sanctuary of the Dioscuri, the Temple of Olympian Zeus, the Sanctuary of Dionysus at the foot of the Acropolis, the Temple of Victory Athena, and the Wingless Victory. And in Athens was the e most famous Greek temple of all - the Parthenon.
An ancient proverb declared that there were more gods in Athens than men, and wherever the Apostle looked, in niches and on pedestals, in temples and on street corners, were gods and demigods. Busts of Hermes were on every corner and statues and altars were in the courtyard of every home.
Archeologists have yet to find an altar to “An Unknown God” in Athens, but such an altar would not be a surprise and it would not be unique. Outside of Rome, on the Palatine Hill, there is an altar dedicated to “The Unknown Gods.”
Why build an altar to an Unknown God? Writing in the third century, Diogenes Laertius tells a story of a plague that took place in Athens nearly a thousand years earlier. He says that a Cretan magician ended the plague by bringing a heard of sheep to the Aeropagus and releasing them. Each sheep was followed and when it lay down, it was sacrificed to the god whose temple was in that area of the city. According to the legend, a sheep lay down in an area where no temple seemed close, so that sheep was sacrificed to An Unknown God. We don’t have any historical records of that event, but it makes a good story.
Although Athens was named for a goddess, Athena, and was the home of the Parthenon, when we think of Athens we are more likely to think about their schools of philosophy than about their religions. Our passage here mentions two of these – the Epicureans and the Stoics. Both those words have survived into our language.
The Stoics were not as lacking in passion as our current caricature of them would seem. They believed that the world, including human kind, was driven by a natural law. It was a deterministic view that assumed that people had little or no capacity to shape their destinies. It was this attitude of “you might as well accept it because you can’t change it” that gave rise to their reputation of enduring without complaint. The Stoics rejected the old gods and believed in a sort of impersonal divinity that permeated all of nature. When Paul says “In him we live and move and have our being” he was using a phrase that would have appealed to his Stoic audience. They viewed God that way.
The Epicureans had an entirely different perspective. While they paid some lip service to the idea of gods, they saw them a distant and disinterested in the affairs of people. Their philosophy was based around the idea that pleasure was the highest goal in life which explains the current connotation associated with their name. However, it is unfair to dismiss them as mere pleasure seekers. They defined “pleasure,” not as transitory thrill seeking, but as achieving a sort of peaceful enjoyment. They followed a sort of situational ethics where moral decisions were based on which choice would yield the most pleasure for the most people. There philosophy included both the idea of deferred gratification, passing up a small pleasure now for a larger pleasure later, and self-sacrifice, giving up a pleasure of mine for a larger pleasure for others.