Commentary on Acts 17:16-31
We love the tale of the great preacher, who connects all the dots, explains mysteries about God, dispels fear of the unknown, and convincingly transforms lives. And many of us who are preachers have secret (or not so secret) fantasies about our preaching being this effective. So when we are tasked with preaching about a preacher whose preaching flips the whole Athenian world on its head—we start to tell preacher tales that are a lot like the fish tales that swarm around summer vacation days. The effects of the preacher, just like the catch of the fisher, get bigger and bigger and bigger with each sermon. Luke, the writer of Acts, is a very good fish-tale teller in this lection.
The fact that Luke aggrandizes Paul’s effectiveness in this passage, however, is not just a pot-shot at Luke or Paul. It really matters for the way we think about our own faith communities and the importance of our own work within and without them. Luke crafts a masterful tale of Paul the orator who is rejected at his home institution, made fun of at the philosophers’ conference, and then re-tools his message so that all of Athens hears him. But Luke’s audience for Acts is not readers who are unfamiliar with the story. It’s just the opposite. Luke’s readers know the story. The value Luke adds is the way he tells the story—if Paul can convince Athenians, including some Athenian Jews, of his message then his readers can show how their faith fits within the cultural context of the Roman Empire.
Athens was a city that was a hub for intellectual and cultural elite life of the Roman Empire. It was the Cambridge, or Oxford, or Hyde Park, or Harvard Square of the world in the first century CE. Philosophers and wannabe philosophers swarmed in the porticoes and stoas (modern-day coffee shops and craft beer halls) of the city. Athens was teeming with writers and historians, geographers and composers, artists and architects, physicians and lawyers. If you were looking for something ancient, edgy, profound, exotic, different, or intellectually stimulating, Athens was the place to be.
Athens, as a city, was also quite cosmopolitan in its religious expressions. Athena was, of course, primary among the gods in the city, but hundreds of other kinds of gods and reverential practices were part of the fabric of the city. Inevitably, there were some who practiced their religious craft very, very, very seriously—including Jews of many different sects and backgrounds. Acts 17:17 implies that there was just one synagogue in Athens. The historical situation was likely much more complex than Luke suggests here. It does help the story, though. If all the Jews argue with Paul and all of them are unified in their opposition to his teachings, then Paul’s sermon on the Areopagus in the next verses seems much more grandiose and effective.
Modern preachers, however, should be cautious in assuming this total and/or unified rejection—especially when we tell our own fish tales about Paul as a preacher or about the potential for Christianity (as we know it) to be universal. So often we construct Judaism in opposition to Christianity—something that Luke suggests is true but that Paul, in his own letters, does not (see Philippians 3:5–6).1
As the story continues to the agora (verse 18), Epicureans and Stoics begin to ridicule Paul calling him a spermologos, which the NRSV translates as “babbler.” The word draws on connotations of a chicken or a bird pecking at the ground to collect tiny bits of food. In other words, the philosophers call Paul a “pecker of knowledge.” And this “babbling” is what prompts them to bring Paul to the Areopagus.
Scholars don’t know a lot about the Areopagus as an institution. We know even less about the way the space was configured (centuries of pilgrims have worn away any distinguishing architectural marks on the rock itself). We do know that it was a place where lively, sometimes incendiary political and intellectual debate took place in the city. Those at the Areopagus were hungry for new ways to think, new images to contemplate, new possibilities for understanding the world (verse 21). While that was not always a complement in the Roman Empire (what was old was considered stable and authoritative), the fact that Paul’s Areopagan listeners wanted to hear more about the “rather strange” (verse 20) teaching puts Paul among the most innovative religious and philosophical leaders in the Roman world. No wonder Luke wanted to place Paul at the Areopagus!
Paul’s sermon itself (verses 22–31) is beautiful! Lofty! Inspiring! Contemplative! And Luke likely wrote it and then narrated it into Paul’s ministry. That’s not to diminish either the truth of its theological import or the veracity of Paul’s work. What those listening to contemporary preachers benefit from is the awareness that inspirational and theologically rich preaching is not just the work of a single preacher, a single author, or a single biblical voice.
Rather, Luke translates something discerned in the praxis of relationship with the Spirit. Luke’s Paul crafts rhetorical phrases that translate important religious concepts within the local context of his preaching to those who listen. Luke’s Paul includes his own observations as he explored the physical city (verse 23), quotations from local poets (verse 28), and themes he knows will resonate with this particular audience (verse 30). Luke’s Paul names the deepest desires of his audience—the search, even groping, for God the creator (verse 27) whom Paul names as the “unknown god” (verse 23). Luke’s Paul exhibits brilliant rhetorical agility in this sermon—the kind to which many preachers aspire, but at which few are adroit. The Athenians are enrapt.
That is. Until. Luke’s Paul ends with the apocalyptic message that on a certain day, a man (andros) whom God has raised from the dead and has appointed, will judge the world in righteousness (verse 31).
Here is where the sermon becomes a fishy story for the Athenians, and perhaps even for us. With all of the apocalyptic imagery and rhetoric that fills our media streams and our images of our contemporary world, (whether it’s humanitarian crises or pandemics or fires or earthquakes or tropical storms or insurrections or migration emergencies) most preachers likely resonate with the desire to hear of a singular savior who will rescue us. But in our contemporary world—even in the Roman world where the emperor was all-powerful, god-like—it seems downright dangerous to suggest that one man (and in this case the Greek andros specifies male, man) can solve all of these cataclysmic problems single-handedly. The temptation to look for a contemporary, humanly powerful savior becomes too strong.
This is where the strength of the Gospel comes into play with this reading. The curious community in Athens, the depth of local context that Luke’s Paul draws upon, and the continued refrain of commitment to local community preach the good news that no one single human person is, in fact, so powerful as to rescue a whole world. Notice that this chapter of Acts mentions the women within the communities to which Paul preaches three times (verses 4, 12, 33).
Notice that this chapter of Acts demonstrates deep engagement with local contexts, practices, and politics. And while Luke doesn’t exactly give credit for the longevity of the Gospel message in this place where credit is due, this might be the place where contemporary preachers can depart from their own fish tales and start to highlight and value the faithful witness of those whose Gospel proclamations remain unknown in our own communities.
- Krister Stendahl, Paul Among Jews and Christians.
PRAYER OF THE DAY
God of the unknown,
Your mysteries are astounding. Give us knowledge where you see fit, and let us sit comfortably with that which we can never understand. Amen.
Make my life a living prayer, Aaron David Miller