Areopagus in Acts

Areopagus in Acts April 7, 2016

Paul’s speech on the Areopagus is the second of three programmatic speeches in Acts. Robert Tannehill notes (The Narrative Unity of Luke-Acts) that they trace the progression of Paul’s mission: “Careful planning is indicated by the fact that we have three different types of speeches addressed to three different audiences: a mission speech to Jews (13:16-41), a mission speech to Gentiles (17:22-31), and a farewell speech to the elders of the Ephesian church (20:18-35).” In this as in so much, Paul follows the arc of Jesus’ ministry: He comes proclaiming the kingdom to the Jews, sends out 70 disciples in a larger mission, and then says farewell to His disciples.

The speech at Athens is significant in laying out the theological ground for a universal mission. When Paul preaches to Jews, he can announce that the promises they have long hoped for have been fulfilled in Messiah Jesus. When he speaks to the Gentiles, he focuses on creation and providence. As Tannehill observes, the sermon repeatedly refers to the the universality of Paul’s claims: God has made all things, gives all life and breath, made all men from one man, and now calls all to repentance.

After Paul’s visit to Athens, Tannehill argues, the focus begins to shift from synagogue to oikoumene: “Even there Paul speaks in the synagogue with the Jews and their Gentile associates, but at the same time he is speaking in the marketplace with any who happen by (17:17). The rest of the scene, including the mission speech, highlights his encounter with Gentiles who have no relation to the synagogue. . . . Paul’s work in Corinth and Ephesus begins in the synagogue, but the emphasis on extensive mission work beyond the synagogue in these locations is unusual. The extended mission in Corinth is understood as a partial fulfillment of God’s plan to take ‘a people (laos) from the Gentiles,’ recognized by James in Jerusalem (see 15: 14 with 18: 10). The extended mission in Ephesus enables Paul to reach ‘all those inhabiting Asia . . . , both Jews and Greeks.’”

Tannehill summarizes Dibelius’s claims about the parallels between Paul’s sermon and Greco-Roman philosophy, but argues that this may miss part of the point. He contents that it is most likely that Paul addresses not only philosophers but “an official body that has responsibility for the city, including its religious facilities and rites.” If that’s correct, then Paul’s sermon is very pointed: He challenges their maintenance of temples, images, and cult, and may even be subtly highlighting the tension between the official religion of the polis and the philosophical views that he quotes. Even “one of your own poets” knows that we are God’s offspring, and therefore that God is not wood or gold or stone. Paul warns the entire city to repent of idolatry, since God is preparing to judge the entire world.

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