The Athens of the first century was a shadow of its glorious past. The golden age of Athens was some 500 years before Paul visited the city, but it was nevertheless an impressive city. The emperors Augustus and Claudius both made generous donations to maintain public buildings and even Herod the Great donated statues to the city. Jews lived in Athens as early as the fourth century B.C. 2 Maccabees 6:1-2 refers to an Athenian senator sent by Antiochus IV Epiphanes to Jerusalem to persuade the Jews to give up on their traditions (Schnabel, 2:1174).
Despite the reputation of the city, there is a certain amount of prejudice in Luke’s description of Athens. “All they do is sit around and talk philosophy all day!” (Acts 17:21). Even though this might have been respectable to some, Luke’s description of the philosophical activity seems negative.
As for Paul, he is distressed by the idolatry of the city. Luke uses a phrase here which means something like “shaken in his spirit,” but can also mean “provoked to wrath”(παροξύνω, BDAG). In the LXX, both Hos 8:5 and Zech 10:3 use the word for God’s anger over the idolatry of his people (cf. PsSol 4:21). As a Jew, Paul was not just annoyed by the idolatry he saw, but increasingly angry! Yet Paul follows his usual ministry pattern, reasoning with people in the synagogue and in the marketplace. The synagogue and marketplace were the two places he thought he would meet groups interested in his gospel.
In the marketplace, Paul encounters a group of philosophers who recognize Paul as presenting a new teaching. Luke specifically mentions Stoics and Epicureans, two popular philosophical traditions. Although the Stoics were a school of philosophy founded by Zeno of Citium (335-263 B.C.), they continued to have an influence on Roman society in the middle of the first century. Seneca represents the Later Stoa, or Roman Stoicism. Seneca (A.D. 1-65) was born into an equestrian family and was the tutor of Nero until he was forced to commit suicide for allegedly plotting against the emperor. Because Seneca talks about God in very warm and personal terms some early Christian writers “adopted” Seneca (Tertullian referred to him as “always our Seneca” and at least one apocryphal tale was written concerning letters exchanged between Paul and Seneca.
The Epicureans take their name from their founder, Epicurus (341-270 B.C.). He argued “good” was pleasure and the avoidance of pain, so a person ought to live their life in such a way as to seek the “good” – pleasure. His statement “It is not possible to live happily without living prudently, honorably, and justly” is remarkably close to the Judeo-Christian ethic, similar to Micah 6:8 in fact.
Epicureans and Stoics were the chief rivals for the hearts of intellectual people in the Hellenistic age. Both emphasized a high level of moral values and both looked to the philosophical way of life the only way to be truly happy and content. And both have some affinity with early Christianity, but is it clear from Paul’s speech that Christianity is a rival to these two great philosophies? In what ways does Paul’s sermon create connections to Greek philosophy yet remain clearly distinct from them? In other words, how does Paul function in the “marketplace of ideas” the Greco-Roman world?
Bibliography: Charles, J Daryl. “Engaging The (Neo) Pagan Mind: Paul’s Encounter With Athenian Culture As A Model For Cultural Apologetics (Acts 17:16-34).” Trinity Journal 16 (1995): 47-62.