Acts 17:22-28 – Quoting the Philosophers?

homer missionaryPaul quotes two Greek writers as support for his case that the creator God does not need temples or temple services from humans. The use of this material has always prompted discussion among readers of Acts, especially with respect to application. Is Paul modelling how Christians ought to present the gospel in a non-Christian, non-Jewish environment?

The first allusion is to Epimenides the Cretan, the poet Paul cited in Titus 1:12. The original poem no longer exists, but fragments appear in other ancient writers. The second citation is from Aratus, a Cilcian poet (Phaenomena 5).  The original line, “in him we move and live and have our being,” was pantheistic, but Paul spins this line into a statement about God as the source of our life.

In other words, he ignores the writer’s original intention so that he can effective make his point. If Aratus had been in the audience in Acts 17, what would he have said in response to Paul? In modern scholarly writing, misrepresenting another scholar’s ideas is not just a mistake, but intellectual dishonesty. Someone who does this sort of thing today would be dismissed as a poor scholar or a crank (or possibly just a biblio-blogger). In some areas of scholarship, authorial intent is not important, so perhaps Paul is not out of line here. Can Paul legitimately pull this line out of context and reapply it to prove the God of the Bible is superior to the other gods?

Homer College DegreeA second problem is how Paul came to know these lines of poetry. There are not many modern readers who can quote freely from current poets or philosophers. One possibility is Paul had some secular education which could be applied to the preaching of the gospel. We might imagine Paul thinking through his task of being a light to the Gentiles and researching possible points of contact in order to preach to pagan audiences. This is in fact a typical way of doing apologetics today. Christians will study philosophy for the purpose of interacting with the philosophical world in their own terms.

While I do not think this kind of cultural education is a bad idea at all, that may not be Paul’s point in using these sources (or, Luke’s point in presenting Paul as using these sources). These lines may have been well known proverbial wisdom, common knowledge. If so, then the allusion to Greek poets is more like the preacher who uses a common phrase in order to make his point.

Or better, this is an example of a modern pastor quoting lyrics of popular songs to make a point. I occasionally use a line from a popular movie or song in order to make a point (although with my taste in music, it usually does not work very well).  This comes down to knowing your audience.  I have found that I can get a lot further with college age group with a Simpsons reference, while the same line is lost on an adult group.  Perhaps that is what Paul is doing here in Acts 17 – he is riffing on the culture.

In both of the allusions Paul simply intends to demonstrate his thinking is not too far from the culture the audience understood and appreciated.  To cite the Hebrew Bible would have been fruitless since the audience did not know it, nor were they inclined to listen to philosophy drawn Jewish texts.

Bob Dylan GospelDoes this mean Acts 17 gives permission for Pastors to quote Bob Dylan lyrics or use Simpsons clips in their sermons and Bible studies? Perhaps, but we need to couple cultural reference with a serious point from the text of the Bible.  It is one thing to mimic culture to attract attention to you point, but it is a fairly worthless strategy is if there is no point behind the reference. I think that you can (and should) illustrate serious theological points via cultural artifacts (like poets, books, movies, etc.), but this can be very dangerous if it overwhelms the Scripture.

If the message of the Gospel is obscured by the using Fifty Shades of Grey as a sermon title, or by playing U2 songs during your worship, or hosting a Dancing with the Stars night at church, then you have missed Paul’s point in Acts 17.

20 thoughts on “Acts 17:22-28 – Quoting the Philosophers?

  1. This is a controversial topic. The reason it’s so hard to define is that the application is valid in nearly every area of our lives. How immersed in culture should we be to be relevant, yet affective? I have to go back to Matthew 10:16 when faced with this question. “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” To be wise as serpents is to see what people are believing and get them to believe the truth in sometimes subtle but always clever ways. But the God who said the verse above also said to not be conformed to the world (Romans 12:1). There is a delicate balance that can only be discerned by His guidance.

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  2. jessicaturnbough
    You wrote, QUOTE:
    “But the God who said the verse above also said to not be conformed to the world (Romans 12:1). ”

    No, PAUL wrote Romans 12:1.
    Paul is not God.
    Other than perhaps Paul’s own writings, out of context, there is nothing in the pages of the Bible to even suggest that Paul’s words are the words of God, equal to the words of Jesus. That doesn’t mean Paul is wrong about everything – but he isn’t equal to Jesus.
    .
    Jesus has no equal, and therefore the words of Jesus have no equal- If you disagree, please quote me chapter and verse to show me where. I’ve been wrong before, and even in my brief time posting here there have been several points where I was off, and I quickly admitted it, learned from it, and changed my viewpoint. (If you want to quote Paul, you will need a backup witness – Paul’s testimony cannot stand alone.)

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  3. I think that the issue of cultural relevance comes up often in evangelism. Just how do we as believers go about preaching the gospel to the world if we share no commonality, no points in which our experiences intersect? It seems that Paul’s strategy is less to give credence to his argument by (mis)quoting known philosophers, but rather to establish some goodwill with his audience. By referencing their culture, Paul shows that in the most basic sense he can relate with those to whom he is preaching. He doesn’t focus so much on their culture that he doesn’t get his message across, but rather he uses culture as a means to the end of preaching the gospel.

    I think that in some sense, we can use this model in evangelism today – that we use cultural references to help establish goodwill and create a common ground – but we must also realize that this strategy has its limits. Christianity is by nature a sort of counter-culture. Jesus Himself ate with social outcasts, healed on the Sabbath, and prophesied about the destruction of the Temple. Sometimes it seems that He subverted cultural expectations with every opportunity He got. Ultimately, evangelism is not about just interacting with secular culture, or even about converting those of a secular culture to a Christian culture, but about a message that transcends culture.

    “Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”
    John 4:21-24 NIV

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  4. Wow, I didn’t realize
    “The first allusion is to Epimenides the Cretan, the poet Paul cited in Titus 1:12.”

    Paul wrote:
    Even one of their own poets has said, ‘Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons.’ This testimony is true. Therefore, rebuke them sharply….”
    [Titus 1:12-13]

    And we have been trained to blindly believe that these words written by Paul are “The Word of God” and the commandments of God, equal to the words of Jesus….

    “In other words, he [Paul] ignores the writer’s original intention so that he can effective make his point. If Aratus had been in the audience in Acts 17, what would he have said in response to Paul? In modern scholarly writing, misrepresenting another scholar’s ideas is not just a mistake, but intellectual dishonesty. Someone who does this sort of thing today would be dismissed as a poor scholar or a crank”

    Amen.

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  5. It could be said even in today’s world that Paul’s “secular” education is like a student transferring from Christian education to the public school system (like me, for example). Understanding that transition, there are those certain people you become friends with and want to reach out to them in order to share the Gospel. While there is a separation of church and state, it doesn’t mean a student can still proclaim his faith or talk about the Gospel. Cultural references should be used in a way only where one person would get it, and for yourself in the cleanest way possible, such as a U2 song, a Jimmy Fallon comedy bit. If the gospel is presented in such a way where the person hears it and understands, the times they are-a changin’ with God now on their side.

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  6. When Paul pens the words “I’ve become all things to all people” in 1 Corinthians 9 he is not saying he went to the temple of the temples of the fertility goddess and participated in prostitute rituals, but he has engaged a culture in a way to be relevant in both worlds of man and God. In the same way a Simpsons reference is to catch my attention faster then singing an old hymn there is a way one can be relevant without selling of ones morals. Here in chapters 17 we have Paul trying to engage with people at mars hill who are trying to find all meanings out of all things, and that applies to finding more than one meaning out of one set of words. Paul like he does best gives them something they want to hear and then turns it upside down to show them the futility of their ways. Really what this comes down to is knowing who God has put in front of you and knowing what God has for them through you. If I was to preach sunday night back at my home church to the regular congregants that average around the age of 63, I would not be showing clips of the simpsons, nor would I ever show things like 50 shades of misery. While we are to be all things we have a moral obligation to hold ourselves to a higher standard like Paul avoiding going to fertility temples, after all “23 “All things are lawful,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up” -1 Corinthians 10:23

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    • DaveJ
      You wrote, QUOTE:
      “…. we are to be all things…”

      Could you explain from the pages of the Bible why you believe “we are to be all things”? Looking at the commandments of God and the testimony of Jesus, I believe we are NOT to be all things. Only the risen Jesus Christ has now become all things- no one else has, can, or should try to be all things. Can you tell me why you think I am wrong?

      You wrote, QUOTE:
      “All things are lawful,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up” -1 Corinthians 10:23″

      Paul wrote this – and Paul was wrong.
      Is adultery lawful? Is Murder lawful? Is idol worship lawful?

      Can you quote Jesus teaching us that “all things are lawful”?

      Or is it your New Law, the Law of Paul, that “All things are lawful”?

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  7. I strongly agree that this topic is very controversial; however, this topic I think is very common. In a previous post, Lindsey Burkey stated, “I think that the issue of cultural relevance comes up often in evangelism” (Burkey 2015). I strongly agree with that. I personal think that when we evangelize, we have to be able to know who we are talking to, and have some type of way to connect with who we are talking to. For example, if I was evangelizing to a group of kids that are between the ages of ten to twelve, I most likely would not use quotes that are from Benny Hinn. I also would not evangelize to older people in their seventies, and use quotes from the rapper Lecrae. I think that the use of something that is popular to the crowd that you are speaking to could be very useful. In my past experiences, I had a chance to minister to a group of kids a few years ago around the ages of thirteen to sixteen. In the message I was giving, I somehow brought together my topic with the television show Jersey Shore. I used that because at that time, it was something that was very popular to that age group. I was once told that “as long as you catch a fish, then it does not matter how you caught him.” Acts 10:42 says, “He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead.” It does not say how to preach to people, it just says preach to people. So I think that the use of cultural relevance when evangelizing is acceptable.

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  8. I have always learned that you have to know your enemy in order to defend against it. I think it is important to reach out to people as to where they are at. It can be difficult ministering to people who have never attended a worship service, but using things that people can relate to within a worship service is a great way of helping people to make connections with the worship service and ultimately God. I remember watching a missionary video in a class, and the missionary had to learn about the culture in order to be accepted by the people. If you did not know the culture, it would be hard to connect with the people. The minister in my church uses analogies that relates to his sermons, and it really helps me to understand key concepts that are within the bible. I still would understand the concepts without the analogies, but if we have visitors within our church that did not grow up in the church, it would be helpful for them to understand the key concepts.

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  9. When we evaluate a speech, we really need to consider – did it produce any fruit for the Kingdom of God? Or not? Did God get the glory, in the name of Jesus? Or not? I guess that would be the next post.

    “A few men became followers of Paul and believed” does not mean anything for the kingdom of God. The Greek Philosophers of Athens gathered followers who believed what they said. Paul was doing the same thing, gathering followers for himself, never mentioning the name of Jesus, but rather quoting pagans instead.

    With Paul in Athens, the name of Jesus was not glorified, and zero fruit was produced for the kingdom, as far as we can tell.

    https://readingacts.com/2011/09/07/paul-at-the-feet-of-gamaliel/#comment-18213

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  10. In “Paul and His Letters”, Polhill explains that Paul’s upbringing in some of his secular schooling enabled him to teach to the gentiles for he was able to relate to them. As a child, he received his education in Tarsus in a Jewish school, as well as a Greek school (Polhill 10). In the Greek school it is guessed that he was taught the basic skills of reading, writing, simple arithmetic, moral formation, music, and possibly the works of philosophers (Polhill, 10). This knowledge made it so he could quote the writings that the people were familiar with, the philosophers, he was able to speak to them on their level.

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  11. With the world being a noisy place and there is a religion for person it can becomes difficult to get their attention and share the gospel. I agree that secular movies, poems, and etc. should be used to reach the lost. When Paul said “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.” in 1 Corinthians 9:22-23.

    In the same way using secular topics can be helpful to share the gospel. These different subjects and materials used by anyone communicating the gospel to help with sharing it to the lost. It will help them to relate to the person or group they are with and it also helps the audience connect what is being talked back to the bible when it is done right. However, there is a limit to what is concerned just enough material and it becoming overkill. It can be said that too much of a good one thing can become bad. Going overboard with a secular topic in sharing the gospel can distract the person or group making it difficult to get the gospel through to them. (On the other hand I will never doubt that God can do thing in spite of our humanness.)

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  12. Shayna,
    Yes, PAUL SAID “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.”

    If you believe that Paul was speaking the truth about himself here, can you produce another witness as a backup? Do you have any evidence this is true, other than “Paul said so”?

    Can anyone besides the Risen Lord God Jesus Christ be “all things to all people?” I don’t think so – but if you believe I’m wrong can you open your Bible and explain why, please?

    Did Paul “save some” people?
    No. Only Jesus saves people. Paul was wrong in this boastful false claim, since Paul had a “messiah complex.” If you think “but Paul didn’t really mean what he said he really meant something else”…. can you quote any other author of Scripture who wrote something like ” I might save some” ?

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  13. Why did Paul go to Athens, and what was Paul actually doing there?

    We have been so thoroughly trained to “make this fit” in the overall narrative of what we mistakenly call “Paul’s Second Missionary Journey” that we ignore the text.

    If you read Acts 17 about the Bereans of “more noble character,” without the Paulist blinders on, you can catch a wiff of the truth. I’m not saying that Paul was completely wrong in what he did in Philippi, Thessalonica, and Berea. I’m not saying there was no fruit at all in these places.
    However,
    I am suggesting that Paul’s ministry as a traveling speaker was carnal, immature, and contained a lot of false teaching. He was probably grandstanding and playing divisive power politics, (as Luke records Paul doing before the Sanhedrin, and as Paul boasts of doing at Antioch attacking Barnabas and the Apostle Peter.)

    To save Timothy and others from Paul’s false teaching and bad influence, and to save Paul from himself, the noble Bereans kicked Paul off his own “mission team”. They escorted him hundreds of miles away, and dumped Paul in Athens, where he could be an idle babbler in the marketplace, and a Philosopher, on his own. To use Paul’s language, you might say the noble Bereans “turned Paul over to Satan” in Athens.

    Paul still thought he was “Boss” demanding that they tell Silas and Timothy to join him in Athens as soon as possible- but of course, no one else ever came to Athens, since they were never intending to. Paul being dumped in Athens alone was a form of “church discipline” and it seemed that it worked, and Paul repented at least somewhat, although he was reluctant to admit it.

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  14. I love this blog post because it sums up what the modern church today is trying to figure out. How much culture is too much culture? Looking at some of the churches I’ve visited over the past few years, I’d say this amount varies widely depending on the church. My home church, for instance, is not “cultured” at all. Rarely do I hear a pastor speak to something that’s happening or popular in the community or world around us. News sometimes finds it’s way into our sermons, such as terrorism (we just moved on from a series on our response to terrorism and persecution), but other than that we don’t really touch on real world circumstances. Is this a bad thing, not usually for my church because they have a sound Biblical doctrine, where we are presented with the truth each week. If a church did not have that, then it would come up meaningless, not reaching the culture and not preaching the truth. On the flipside, I’ve been to churches that are all about meeting the culture where it’s at, including having brewing Bible studies, playing secular music before worship, and overall making the environment tailored to a certain crowd. Is it bad, no it’s not, but when they start to compromise Biblical truth, that’s where the road gets slippery. So then, is this what Paul is trying to speak to, in regards to the people and culture he’s a part of. Honestly, I think he was just trying to show the people that he knew their culture and was human like themselves, but that he had a hope much greater than any they had ever had. Thus Paul beautifully balances meeting the culture where it’s at, while not shying away from Biblical truth.

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  15. I appreciate the article. I believe that “appropriating” current cultural icon into the gospel message does help reach the minds of people. Paul’s use and intent was not for evangelization.

    I find the verses in Acts Chapter 17 22-28 are applicable to the your argument. But the major icon was “The Unknown God”. The use of greek philosophical poems or verses are introductions to the character of “The Unknown God”. By historical context, Paul wasn’t at the Aeropagus primarily to introduce the Gospel. Paul found himself in a potentially grave situation.

    Paul was escorted to the Aeropagus. The Aeropagus was not a market place bustling with ordinary people. Unlike the Aeropagus, in a market place, opinions were expressed, debated ensued and rhetorical skills were exercised.

    The Aeropagus was a large marble mount over looking Athens. Its functional use was about as close to a court setting as you could get. The members sitting on marble seats were an elite exclusive group. They were “virtuous men, philosopher and religious scholars all skill in rhetorical questioning. Their mission was to judge individual causing civil perturbations, including teachings of odd religious doctrine. They had the power to summon anyone, at anytime, to be questioned. They had the power to punish if they felt false religious teachings crossed the line. Paul was not there to evangelize. He was on trial and with the potential to be punished.

    Case in point, the previous verses in chapter 17 shows a repetitive style to Paul’s evangelical mission. Paul would enter a city. Paul would go to the synagogue as a learned rabbi with incredible intellect and Jewish education. Paul would enter into discussion and debate over Old Testament scripture supporting Jesus as the Son of God, the Ultimate Seat of God’s Mercy. Ancient rabbis and worshipers would not have necessarily been upset with Paul for this claim. Paul’s angering claim was that the 600 plus Law of God did not have to be followed. Only then he’d be throw from the synagogue. Paul would then head to the market places to preach. Paul then would be accused of religious heresy against local gods and also not having allegiance to Caesar, but rather King Jesus. That was a real crime. Sometimes he was arrests and once he was stoned and sometimes he escaped. This happened over and over again. Verses 22-28 is the third such example found in Chapter 17. (No, the Berean’s that were part of the synagogue where not the ones who ran Paul out of town. He wasn’t teaching false doctrine about Jesus. It was the Jewish mob from Thessalonica that came to Berea and incited the non-believing Jews and gentile to run him out of Berea.)

    Paul was escorted to the mount to explain his religious beliefs. Paul was not invited for simple discourse or evangelism. His belief appeared to go against many gods worshipped in Athens.

    At the Aeropagus, Paul needed to find a way to morph his message to a message compatible with an Athenian god, If he could, he could not be accused of preaching inflammatory messages about other gods. Gods were taken very seriously in ancient times. There was a god associated with every aspect of the ancients life. The people believed that upsetting a god carried grave consequences for the city and its people. Keeping the gods happy was a critical mission for the council. They had seen their wrath in earthquakes, famine, plague, floods and other disasters.

    Paul’s began his defense, by acknowledging that these men were very religious. From the elevated marble mount, Paul viewed and pointed to the city’s many temples and god-shaped statues littering the landscape. Athens was said to have more pagan statues and temples than anywhere else in the roman empire.

    Paul claimed to be a follower of the UNKNOWN GOD. This was his “in” and “port of safety”. He explained the UNKNOWN GOD. The members had no clear concept of this particular god. They didn’t know its character, its history or its preferred methods of worship, therefore no one could argue with Paul.

    Paul’s used greek and cretan quotes because he knew the them. He had probably recited them at sometime in his life. Paul knew and probably had read the works of most philosophers. Educated rabbis were taught rhetoric and greek philosophies to evangelize areas of the Roman Empire (hellenized by Alexander the Great and his general, Seleucus). Therefore Paul was taught these skills. Paul was an extremely educated, a brilliant orator, skilled in writing, recitations, rhetoric, and understand local and worldwide religious practice. In Pauls letter to the Roman he demonstrates his remarkable and complicated literary skill with long Scholastic Diatribes.

    He was not afraid of confrontation as illustrated by his life as Saul, who actively sought, found, emprisioned and killed early christians. As his is life as Paul illustrates, he had a veracity for the Gospel even in the face of injury and death. We know his countenance could be caustic, biting, unshakable and at times unforgiving, as shown with Mark and then Barabas.

    The Aerogapus members did understand his use and alterations of the poem as a method to describe a characteristic of the UNKNOWN GOD.
    This was not a major concerns to the court. Aratus, the poems author, probably wouldn’t have raised an eyebrow.

    The modern sense of indignation and the questioning of Paul’s character would not have crossed the minds of the ancients.
    If it did, it would have been part of their questioning. This judgment of Paul’s rhetorical methods is a modern concern only, not the ancient’s concern. Paul shouldn’t be judged by modern scholastic standards.

    With a modern view of verses 22-28, one could draw a conclusion that Paul was illustrating the use of current cultural icons for evangelism, but I think it was a secondary benefit. For modern evangelism, modern icons can open the mind’s door allowing access to characteristics and knowledge of God and the saving grace of the Gospel. I have seen this method work very well and I encourage its use. But I don’t see it as the major point of this story.

    McIntyre Bridges, MD

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