Interreligious Dialogue or Interreligious Monologue? Reflections on Acts 17:22-31

Lectionary Reflections
Acts 17:22-31
May 25, 2014

Today's text presents us with one of the great set literary pieces constructed by the very clever and well-informed Luke. There is no purpose served by the attempt to "prove" that this scene occurred in precisely the way that Luke gives it to us. We always must remember that Luke is not a reporter, or an objective historian; he is a literary theologian, offering to his readers portraits of the growth of the early Christian community in unforgettable stories that have nurtured the lives of Christians down through the centuries. One need hardly go to the Athenian place of the Areopagus to sense the power of what Luke has provided in this riveting event when Paul confronts the Greek philosophers and preaches to them about the resurrected Jesus.

Though I have been to the site several times (once during a cold rain that made the ancient stones on which one must climb more treacherous than the impious Cynics pictured by Luke!), my visits there did nothing to increase my admiration for Luke's creativity. The drama is a masterful one, representing the confrontation of the nascent word of the gospel of Jesus with the hallowed traditions of a Greek culture that predated Christianity by hundreds of years. The fact that Luke does not end his story with the great and fervent success of Paul's preaching, quite unlike the vast numbers of converts made by Peter at Pentecost, makes it very clear that the way of the gospel will be slow, not immediate, and—especially among the learned and the educated, who always "know better"—it will encounter many obstacles. Luke was no fool; he was cognizant of the growth of the message of Jesus, its sometime successes and its sometime failures. However much he poured his artistry into the scene on the Areopagus, he painted the portrait as, in effect, a practical failure.

Luke connects the previous scene of Silas, Timothy, and Paul finding great success in Beroea, a small city some sixty miles south of Thessalonica, with his time in Athens by suggesting that trouble had been stirred up in Beroea by some Jews of Thessalonica who, angry about the success of the evangelism at Beroea, forced the believers to "send Paul to the coast," while Silas and Timothy stayed behind (Acts 17:12-15). Paul goes to Athens, waiting for Silas and Timothy to join him there. By the time of Luke's writing, perhaps in the eighth decade of the first century C.E, Athens was hardly any longer the center of the world. That center now was obviously Rome. Still, Athens' vast history of intellectual and political and architectural vigor made it a destination place, and the perfect location for the confrontation of the new message of Jesus and the old message of the Greek philosophers. After all, the magnificent Parthenon, set high on the hill of the Acropolis, remained the standard of Greek architecture five hundred years after its erection, and dominated the city with its unequaled splendor and its mathematical perfection.

So Luke has Paul go to this wonderful city to play out a scene that will be played out over and again in the succeeding centuries of the Christian story. Paul, according to Luke, wanders about the city and is "distressed," according to the NRSV about the "many idols" he sees in the city (Acts 17:16). The adjective could as easily be translated "angry" or even "outraged." Hence, like some Cynic philosopher himself, Paul "argued in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons (not Jews but those sympathetic to the beliefs of the Jews) and also in the agora (the marketplace) every day with those who happened to be there" (Acts 17:17). Luke pictures a Paul who is more than ready to cross verbal swords with those who like nothing better; Athens is filled with argument, a place of philosophical banter and debate. It appears to be nothing less than a continuous meeting of the faculty, a portrait that those of us who have spent much of our lives in such meetings would either relish or deplore. I readily admit that my retirement was at least in part precipitated by such events, usually more tedious and rancorous than enlightening and edifying.

Luke identifies some of the listening philosophers as Epicurean and Stoic. Both of these schools of thinking were founded about the same time, perhaps 300 B.C.E. One could characterize the Stoics as the more "religious" ones, concerned as they were with providence and divine immanence. Their famous advocates, Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus, searched for a genuine religious spirit. In contrast, the Epicureans were known by their almost complete rejection of traditional religion; in fact Lucian of Samosata describes the Epicureans as particularly concerned to unmask religious charlatans, every age having a surfeit of such mountebanks.

Into this theological maelstrom steps the apostle whom the philosophers perceive to be "a proclaimer of foreign divinities" (Acts 17:18). They call him (probably the Epicureans among them), a "babbler," more literally a "seed picker." They use the image of a bird pecking the ground for random seeds, gulping some while discarding others. "Gossip" or "busybody" might be other possible translations.

5/18/2014 4:00:00 AM
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  • John Holbert
    About John Holbert
    John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.