Following Varro, Augustine distinguished three forms of ancient religion: The fabulous religion of the myths, the sophisticated religion of philosophers, and the public religion of the polis. These three categories of ancient religion are evident in Luke’s account of the early church’s missionary encounters. In Philippi (Acts 16) and Thessalonica (Acts 17), Paul is charged with rebellion against Rome; he upsets the political religion of the empire. In Athens, he presents his case to Stoics and Epicureans (among others), while in Ephesus, he is arrested for blaspheming Artemis (Acts 19). Varro’s categories were never rigidly distinct, and Luke’s history demonstrates their interpenetration. For our purposes, it is of particular interest that Paul’s address to the philosophers focuses on idolatry. Paul challenges philosophers in Athens whose religion is at once political and fabulous.
Whom does Paul address? Luke explicitly mentions two schools of Greek philosophy—Epicureans and Stoics (v. 18)—and Paul uses uncharacteristic terms, phrases and quotations designed to resonate with a philosophical audience. Yet his audience is not exclusively a philosophical one. Some commentators have suggested that Paul delivers his speech as an apology during a trial before a city council. That may go beyond the evidence, but the fact that they “took him and brought him to the Areopagus” (v. 19) indicates a quasi-official hearing that probably included priest-politicians as well as philosophers. Scholars have regularly pointed to the parallels between Acts 17 and the trial of Socrates, who was also tried for raising doubts about the official Athenian religion and introducing foreign deities. Given this setting, we should read Paul’s message as a challenge to Athenian political religion. He addresses Athens, not merely its philosophical elite.
Paul’s reaction to the philosophical and cultural capital of the ancient world is revealing: “His spirit was being provoked within him as he was beholding the city full of idols” (v. 16). At the beginning and end of the sermon he offers brief arguments against idolatry. The Creator does not dwell in temples and, as Giver of life, breath, and everything, has no needs that can be served by human gifts or rites (vv. 24-25). As His offspring, human beings live and move in Him. Greek thinkers know humans are God’s children, and they should therefore conclude that “we ought not think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone” (vv. 28-29; note the parallel with personalist arguments for the existence of a personal God.) Paul does not articulate proofs of the existence of God. He does not need to, since Athens is already full of gods. His arguments concern the nature of God. One is drawn the premise of creation and the other drawn from anthropology. They are also arguments about the religious practice: Idolatry and the false belief that cultic service meets God’s needs violate what the best of the Achaeans believe about creation and human nature. Paul exposes a fault line between the religion of the philosophers and the religion of the city. Perhaps he exposes a fault line within philosophic religion. Whatever their metaphysics, most Athenian philosophers continued to support the civic cult.
In addition to the general “philosophical” refutation of idolatry, Paul focuses specific attention on one cult, the altar “to the unknown (agnosto) God,” whom the Athenians worship “in ignorance” (v. 23; agnouontes). He addresses this cult from two angles. On the one hand, Paul introduces the Athenians to the unknown God (v. 23), identifying this God with the Creator who made humanity from one man and who orchestrates the history of nations so that human beings will seek Him. The unknown God is the God in whom all live and move and have being. This God is the God who raised Jesus from the dead (v. 31). The fact that there is an altar to this God in the Athenian forest of idols is proof that “He is not far from each one of us” (v. 27).
On the other hand, Paul’s message is a warning. Up to now, the Creator God overlooked (huperorao) Athenian (and general pagan) ignorance, but the time of ignorance (agnoia) is at an end. Paul’s sermon ends with a call to repent of idolatry and specifically of the ignorant worship of the unknown God.
Paul’s sermon thus reflects a complex relation with Athenian religion. Rhetorically, he parries the challenge that he is introducing foreign deities by insisting he is talking about one of the known-unknown, old-new gods of Athens. Substantively, Paul treats Athenian religion as a praeparatio evangelii. Were the Athenians to repent, they would both reject and fulfill their traditional faith, rejecting false notions of divine nature and abandoning false worship, but coming to genuine knowledge of a God they have always inchoately known. The temporal frame is crucial to Paul: Once their ignorance was excusable, but now it is culpable. A new time has come, and that time demands repentance.
 “Take” is epilambanomai, which in Acts regularly means “seize.” See 16:19; 18:17; 21:30, 33.