Acts 17:15, 22-18:1 Paul and the Athenians
Wednesday of the Sixth Week of Easter
“Then Paul stood up at the Areopagus and said:
“You Athenians, I see that in every respect
you are very religious.
For as I walked around looking carefully at your shrines,
I even discovered an altar inscribed, ‘To an Unknown God.’
What therefore you unknowingly worship, I proclaim to you.”
The monotheism of Judaism and Christianity finally encounters the enlightened paganism of Greece as Paul confronts the people of Athens. Many great men, rulers like Pericles and Themistocles, mathematicians like Pythagoras and Euclid, scientists like Democritus and Anaxagoras, writers like Homer and Sophocles, philosophers like Plato and Aristotle, all hailed from this very place. Even the proud Romans, though the conquerors of the Mediterranean, submitted to Greece’s superior culture, adopting their religion, housing their texts, imitating their models for every academic discipline, and even learning and using their language. In a setting of such sophistication, of so many virtues, of so many world-famous men, Paul, a former tent-maker untrained in rhetoric, hopes to challenge their way of life in the Areopagus, the Athenian equivalent for the courtroom.
Without the grace of knowing Christ and believing in Him, one might wonder what this strange man from Israel could possibly suggest to these people who had invented nearly every known academic discipline in the civilized world. However, Paul immediately identifies their key weakness along with the one thing he could offer them: true religion. In their successes as a civilization, and in this one key failure, the Greeks demonstrate the fate of a culture that does not receive true revelation, a personal knowledge of God. Paul does not merely flatter the Athenians when he tells them, “You Athenians, I see that in every respect you are very religious.” He knows that most members of his gentile audience likely ascribe to mystery cults, belong to Hellenistic philosophy schools, or have followed the superstitious traditions associated with the extensive panoply of Greek gods. Contrary to the atheistic notion that sensible people would forsake religion once they reached a certain degree of worldly enlightenment, the Greeks seemed to adopt a multitude of religions—one could say they were poly-religious as well as polytheistic. Furthermore, their variety of religions curiously did not lead them to adopt relativism, which rendered all faiths equally subjective and irrelevant by the sheer fact of their multiplicity, but made them ever more hungry for the true religion, one which came from God Himself.
Paul sees this hunger right away when he notices an altar erected for “an Unknown God.” Apparently, the Greeks liked to keep their spiritual options open so they keep an altar free in case Hesiod, a poet who tediously charted the confusing family trees of the whole Greek pantheon, might have missed a deity or two. Even more than understanding what they had in knowledge, the Greeks understood painfully what they lacked in wisdom. A deep admirer of Greek philosophy, St. Thomas Aquinas over a millennium later defined the two differing sources of thought present in Paul and his Greek audience: a knowledge that could come from reason, which he termed philosophy, and a knowledge that came from revelation, which he termed theology. Philosophy applied to a knowledge of the world, including the fact that God existed; theology applied to knowledge of God, what God has said and what God has done. The Greeks, especially Socrates who famously died because of this very issue, came to believe in the existence of a supreme yet hidden God, and Paul provided the missing component of God’s Word, Jesus Christ.
Paul himself came to know God through a vision of Jesus, asking him why he continued to persecute His Church. Afterward, Paul converted to Christianity and continued learned about Jesus through the other Christian disciples, who revealed the Truth, the Way, and the Life spoken of since the beginning of world. As he learned, the “Spirit of truth,” took of hold of him, sent from Christ Himself. This Holy Spirit drove Paul to share the gospel with great zeal, and It spread among his listeners, like a flame spreading through parched vegetation. Paul knows firsthand of the God of Whom he spoke, and, far from being unknown and unknowable, this God had a name which in itself constituted all existence, I AM WHO AM, and His Son Who revealed Him to His people, and His Holy Spirit Who guided His people back to Him.
This inspiration of the Holy Spirit separates Paul from other religious leaders who wanted to grow their cults. This spirit inspires him and, in Pope Emeritus Benedict’s XVI’s words, “abides in him,” transforming him completely. Paul does not resemble the possessed priestesses of Delphi, nor does he resemble the scholars of the academies, nor does he resemble traditional officials trying to return to the old Roman or Greek ideals. He himself possesses a faith much deeper than Bacchic frenzy; he knows a truth much more vital than the subtle logic of Zeno; and he has more virtue and fortitude than the great legions of Rome or phalanxes of Athens. In addition to all of these qualities, Paul shows his humility in giving no credit to himself but to Jesus Christ Who had mercy on Him and sent His Holy Spirit to empower him on his mission. Along with the unknown god, Paul stands before the Athenians as the unknown disciple who communicates to their hitherto unknown hearts.
At times, people today, both Christians and non-Christians, act much like the Athenians did towards Paul. They make themselves restless following the many religions—though they may prefer a different label than “religion”—that abound in the absence of true religion. As modern people put their faith in materialism, hedonism, or statism, they forget the God Who continue to calls to him, and continues to send His disciples to remind them of the god they marginalized into obscurity, the unknown god. Some people will scoff, and likely do so with great violence, but others will want to hear more; for just as the Holy Spirit works through the those speakers, so too will It work through the listeners, and thus bring about Christ’s salvation of humanity.
This meditation was written by Benedict Augustine, an English teacher who works in the DFW area. He has taken on the pseudonym, Benedict Augustine, to honor his two favorite Catholic thinkers: St. Augustine and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.
Incoming search terms:
- anaxagoras philosophy
- paul at athens and the unknown god