Acts 17 – Paul and the Poets

Paul quotes two Greek sources here as support for his point that the creator God does not need temples or service from humans.  The first allusion is to Epimenides the Cretan, a poet also cited in Titus 1:12.  The original poem no longer exists, but it appears in a number of 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.

Homer the Philosopher

We might ask 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 that he 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 is a bad idea at all, that may not be Paul’s point in using these sources.

On the other hand, these may very well have been well known bits of proverbial wisdom that were more or less “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, Paul is quoting lyrics of popular songs to make his 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 older adult group.  Perhaps that is what Paul is doing here in Acts 17 – he is riffing on the culture.

(Let me comment here that most of the books which try to use movies to teach the gospel with a popular movie are lame and probably only read by Christians who like the movie in the first place.  I cannot imagine that a pagan picks up “Finding Jesus with Frodo” and gets saved as a result.)

In both of the allusions Paul simply intends to show that his thinking is not all that far from authorities which the audience would have understood and appreciated.  To cite the Hebrew Bible would have been fruitless since the audience did not know it, nor where they well disposed to hearing from Jewish texts! Paul does not think that Jewish or Christian theology can be added to Stoicism in order to put one right with God – there must be a conversion to an entirely new worldview.

Does this mean that Acts 17 is permission to quote The Simpsons and Bob Dylan in 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.)  If the point is obscured by the fact that you rolled a Family Guy clip in church, then you have missed Paul’s point.

29 thoughts on “Acts 17 – Paul and the Poets

  1. Yes, I think that you are right in suggesting that we are quick to learn just enough of other traditions or societies that we might engage them with some sort of credibility. And I think we can learn a lot from Paul’s approach to the Athenians. We do tend to see apologetics as this way of casting a line into a community of people with the hopes that we can hook a few (or even all) and reel them in to our way of life and our way of thinking. But Paul here illustrates a really vast understanding of God’s unique design for individuals and cultures. Paul does not seem to try to draw a sociocultural transformation, but a paradigm shift. If we can change a person’s lifestyle but no new understanding accompanies, I believe that we fail. This becomes so important that we learn about other types of people and other types of thinking, not to use it for our advantage, but simply to understand. We must care deeper. We cannot be so quick to create converts but instead seek transformed hearts and minds, and if this means loving people with patience, we must learn. Paul writes to Timothy,

    “In the sight of God, who gives life to everything, and of Christ Jesus, who while testifying before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, I charge you to keep this command without spot or blame until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ, which God will bring about in his own time—God, the blessed and only Ruler, the King of kings and Lord of lords…” [1 Timothy 6.13-15]

    Which God will bring about in His own time…Paul understood this and his concern was for God’s purposes for each culture according to how He had designed each of them to bear His image. If we can bring the Gospel with this kind of understanding and patience, I don’t think that we’ll fail.

  2. Phil,
    This Acts 17 passage has always troubled me — in this sense — it has often been used by pastors, churches and ministries to justify some kind of off-track style of preaching or teaching in the name of being “relevant” to the culture we live in.

    The difference seems to be that Paul, on the one hand, went through the path of contemporary culture to present the clear message of Christ — and was for the most part rejected (very few converts in the Aereopagus).

    Today, on the other hand, presentations seem to stop at the cultural relevance and often forget the clarity of Truth. They draw many adherents (they are popular), but what are they really adhering to?

    I often wonder why churches and ministries declare themselves like “Mars Hill” in Acts 17, but fail to see the reality of Paul’s rejection in that venue. Aren’t there other examples of Paul’s ministry that might be better used as models for modern ministry?

  3. As you said, this does give us an example of using some kind of cultural reference in a biblical setting. I have no problem with people doing something like this today as long as that somehow ties in with your message. Especially in something like a youth group or something similar it helps to further identify their faith with a reference they can recognize and draws attention. Not to say that the youth group should become very shallow or rooted in popular culture but it helps with things like outreach. In my own experience there has not been many cases where I would say referencing something in the culture was a bad thing to do.

  4. As far as referring back to a bob dylan song and or a video clip of one of todays latest shows like family guy or the simpsons, i dont feel that we dont need to go to that extent to relat to todays “youth” or college students. However, it may not be a terrible ide if it lightens the mood and keeps the message that is trying to be portrayed in tact. I think sometimes all it takes is to actually get to know who it is that we are preaching to and not barging in trying to change everyones life all at once. Sometimes though that is exactly the case with Paul.

  5. (my small group went for 2 hours instead of 1) I really enjoy the fact that Paul takes a seemingly non-Christian quotation and twists it to his advantage. I also really enjoy that you compared that to quoting Bob Dylan! When I read this post, all I could think of was today in Christian Education when Spooner (our substitute) gave us a sheet of quotations, and we had to guess who said it. Take this one for example: “I go the way that Providence dictates with the assurance of a sleepwalker.” Now try to guess who said this. Adolf Hitler. Not who you expected, right? It is probably possible to take this quotation and use it to mean something different than Hitler did. That just came through my head when I read your post, and I definitely agree with you that it is possible and can be good to use something modern from the media to illustrate something you want to illustrate.

  6. I think that it is a good idea if you see your audience starting become bored. Then it is okay to make a movie or song reference. I for one enjoy them. Relating to what Bryce said, it “lightens the mood.” The most important thing would be making sure that it is relevant to scripture and what we are talking about. If that is the case then it is okay to make a point using cultural references.

  7. I believe what Paul does here is great. I believe that if he just goes on talking and doesn’t quote those poems he might not gain the attention of as many people. This shows how Paul can work in adverse conditions. He can teach and quote out of the Hebrew bible or he can quote poems that people that aren’t real religious will know. I think that this is why Paul is so good and why he is so successful on his missionary journeys.

  8. When I first read Acts 17 I found it very unusual that Paul referenced two different poets. That fact that he was referencing other individuals was not what surprised me. It was who he was referencing. The fact that Paul was using poets to help him rather than a past Bible character was shocking to me because it never usually happens. If you look at Acts all before this, the teachers are constantly quoting others and/or referencing them but these are characters such as King David in Acts 2:25-28, or other prophets found throughout the book. Be that as it may, I really like that Paul did this. In my opinion, it helped further his credibility. “As one of your own poets says (Acts 17:28).” Being that Paul was preaching in Athens to individuals who would find the Hebrew Bible to be fruitless (P Long, article), he needed to do something to help gain his credibility which would then lead to trust. By quoting the two poets (Epimenides the Cretan and Aratus, P. Long, article) individuals would recognize Paul gained his credibility through the use of ethos, pathos, and logos. Quoting them showed he had a wide range of knowledge, quoting them gain an emotional attachment to the crowd, and quoting them showed logic to what he was saying because even those poets who were not considered Christian Jews agreed with what he claimed. Overall, I think anyone can do what Paul did and use different references that are non-biblical to explain and/or help their point get across. However, like Long has said it has be context related and relatable for the audience. I think it is important to note that if something outside of the Bible can help the Bible carry on God would want it to be used. If more individuals in this world today could begin to understand this I believe their would be more hearts turned to Jesus. If only we could spread the word by having it be more relatable to anothers story.

  9. I think that Paul’s way of using other sources makes his writing more credible for people who maybe could be a little cynical. It is like that way with any writing- if I was writing a research paper but didn’t do any research for it but rather just gave my own opinion, I would not get a good grade because what I say is not credible. By Paul using other peoples words, I think for people who could have a hard time believing what he is saying in Acts 17, it could be used as a way to affirm. The use of outside sources as a way of evangelism and teaching the Bible I think is just a way to relate to others where they are. In class if my professor quotes The Office I am more likely to remember what we were talking about, but that does not diminish what He/She was teaching on because they used an outside reference.

    • I would have to agree with you there. I do believe that he was able to make what he was talking about more credible when he cited these two poets. It also gave the audience a way to connect and listen more to what he had to say rather than having the audience completely tune him out. When references are made by people who are teaching me, it tends to stick better in my brain and I am able to remember it better.

  10. I think Pauls use of a cultural known reference is very smart on his part. Our brains make connections with previously learned material, this is called scaffolding. While people are learning these new concepts their brains were probably having a hard time processing because it was all or mostly new information. By making a commonly known reference the people are able to take the new information and connect it to this reference. This not only helps it to be processed but it helps people remember the new concepts. This means that people would remember what Paul talked about and be able to relay it to all of their friends.

  11. Paul using something that the people can understand is a very wise way to illustrate when sharing the Gospel. These are tools that we need to use to our advantage. Using everyday sources that people understand is very important because it helps them to not get confused when it comes to understanding the Gospel. As a future youth pastor, I find it easy to use things like video games and movies to display the gospel for kids to understand it better. I believe there are right ways and wrong ways to share God’s word, but if we are doing with the true intentions of using something on this earth to bring God the Glory then we need to go for it.
    People of this world are not educated in ways like Paul is or even how we are with having our bible and theology classes. What an amazing thing it would be to take something that the devil might be trying to use against God and flip the script. We use that one thing to give God the glory and put Satan in his place. In all things, we can find positive growth. In the bad times, we can give glory to God sharing with others how with him we got through it. We can use anything to show God’s hands in it in some way and how life becomes better from it.

  12. Referencing things such as the Simsons, might not go to well with some of the more conservative views that are within churches today however, something that is culturally relative would be very effective. Just like the article states, that Paul’s allusions were ones that he was using to show what he was thinking, which his audience would understand. This is where some pastors/ speakers get in trouble in church today because they don’t filter out their content to the culture that is todays culture in church. Illustrating your points can make or break a sermon, we just need to identify them in the correct manner.

  13. I think that when Paul made a cultural reference was incredibly smart on his part. It allows for the human brain to gain a better understanding of the thing that he was trying to get across, and it also was a way to connect with his audience. I have found that in ministry, people are able to get more out of the things that are being taught when you are able to relate them to the things that they may see or hear on a daily basis. It is a way to connect with the audience and to gain their attention. I do believe that there is a right and a wrong way to use cultural references though. For Paul, this was a way that he was able to gain the attention of his audience and connect with them before sharing the gospel. I don’t think that it is right to show random things just to show them, but if it does tie in to the message that is being delivered in a way that will help the audience understand what is being taught, and it will bring glory to God, then I do think that it is okay.

  14. I think it is very wise for Paul to quote well-known people that the listeners will relate to. He uses pop culture in that century to grab peoples attention and have them be more willing to listen to what follows. I see this a lot in church services today where the Pastor will use stories or examples from current events at the beginning of the service. It’s like the Pastor is performing and he wants the viewers to be hooked right away, so he presents something interesting that the audience will be able to relate to, keeping them interested in the rest of what he has to say. I wouldn’t say this is wrong unless it distracts from worship or pulls focus away from Jesus. Just like these Pastors that I have witnessed do this, Paul uses quotes from poets that the audience is familiar with which perks their ears up to what he has to say. He uses something that they understand and are perhaps interested in to draw them further into his presentation of the Gospel. It shows that he was very intentional doing this, and he didn’t choose just any random quote to speak to these specific people. He had the intention of getting their attention to focus on what he had to say about Jesus.

  15. Paul is the one who we know as saying “to the gentile I become like a gentile” in 1 Corinthians 9: 19-23 Paul was known to use the strategy of connecting with his audience through things that they would understand. when it came to the Jewish audience’s he could fall back on his teachings and what the people knew about God. however as mentioned quoting Hebrew scriptures would have been lost on a completely Greek audience. Paul using what is understood by those he is speaking to not only helped him to make them understand but also showed the hearer that he knew something of their culture. when one tries to use the lingo of the newer generation it rarely goes well unless that person has proven that they know something about that group. furthermore this situation proves Paul can determine what his audience will relate to and works with that information. if a pastor didn’t know his congregation well then playing a family guy clip in church would be like playing Russian roulette with his job. I think it is really important to remember the point of using culture in ones sermons as we to often forget that when we preach we are not doing it to impress. if the illustration does not help to point to Christ why do it? 1 Corinthians 10:23 is Paul’s way of saying that while you could do something that doesn’t make it all that great. remembering that ” just because you can, doesn’t mean you should” is a solid way of gauging what parts of culture we should use when trying to minister such as Paul did. we don’t want to lose focus on the ultimate goal of Christ.

  16. What Paul was doing is helping people learn and know the Gospel in a unique way that will help them better understand and remember the Gospel. Also that way they could explain to someone else as well. Just like how some people use Star Wars as a way to represent the Gospel. They say Darth Vader is the devil and Luke Skywalker is Jesus. The Force which binds us all together is used to represent God, however, I would say the Force is more of the Holy Spirit. And that Master Yoda would represent God better. Now you see if someone didn’t know Christ or has never watched Star Wars hearing or reading this was leave them seriously confused. And for some Star Wars fanboy I just made their head explode like the Death Star in Episode IV: A New Hope.

    By using popular culture references it helps connect the bible with some modern things that can be used to help remember different stories of the bible. Using pop culture creates a mnemonic device which helps a person retain the information with something meaningful or easily accessible to that person. This learning technique is used to help people learn acronyms, phrases. The human mind uses things that are meaningful or relatable instead of some abstract or unimportant piece of knowledge or information.

  17. I think that Paul’s ability to quote well known Greek poetry to his listeners shows not only his scholarly aptitude, but his desire to connect to those he is witnessing to. Paul understood that for his message to get any traction, he would first need to connect with the people of Athens. This is a talent or gift which we should all strive for when speaking or attempting to connect with someone. A speech which is aimed at solely getting the point across, regardless of the delivery, will never get the same response as one where the speaker is deliberate in connecting with the audience in some way. At the risk of using a movie to emphasize this, in the 2005 version of Pride and Prejudice there is a scene where the family is sitting in church. While the preacher is delivering his sermon, which just goes on and on in extremely dull delivery, the congregants are clearly doing anything but listen. While this was clearly meant to poke fun at boring church services, it does show how important personal connection is. Paul knew that the Greeks would not follow or understand Jewish references, so he chose something which would hopefully catch someone’s attention. What better way then for a Jewish man to quote from their own Greek poets? I also think his gift was not just having the knowledge, but the ability to weave it into his witness and ultimate message of God without losing the truth he was presenting.

  18. In Acts 17, Paul engages in philosophical and theological discussions with the poets and philosophers of Athens. This results in Paul referencing two greek sources to support his thesis that the creator God does not need human services or physical temples. Firstly, Paul references Epimenides the Cretan, whose original poem no longer exists, but is cross-referenced in other ancient writings. The second reference was to Aratus, a Cilician poet, who Paul quotes to state that God is the source of life. One might question how Paul, seemingly flippantly, would know greek philosophy since many modern people cannot quote or discuss philosophers or their ideas. As Long notes, one possibility is that Paul received some level of secular education which allowed him to be introduced to greek philosophers and their ideas. It would be likely that Paul, throughout his journeys to primarily gentile areas would be familiar with or research possible perspectives on topics. This proposition would not be uncommon for modern-day Christian apologists, who often study philosophy to engage with people using the proper terms and lines of thought to argue for Christianity or Christian ideals.
    It could also be the case that these allusions were “common knowledge”, which would have been understood by all common people in the area. If this is the case, then Paul would be embodying the pastoral tendency to use a common phrase to teach a message or point. Similar to how pastors or teachers might orient a message to fit an audience of young adults in contrast to a crowd of older people, Paul is using culturally familiar stories and language to help preach the gospel. His goal was to show the people that his message was not completely disconnected from the leaders of the Greek people, whom they would have appreciated and understood.

  19. I think that Paul using an outside source such as a poet is very interesting because it would allow for someone to speak in a different way. This would allow for other people to understand the point that Paul is trying to get across and also allow for a different interpretation as well. An outside source would allow for someone that could be confused when reading the Bible to better understand the word of God. Even for me sometimes reading the book of Acts I am confused on some of the messages that Paul is trying to get across so to see this little reference to someone outside of the Bible made me think and understand better. Paul was a very educated man which makes his writings very deep and somewhat tricky to interpret. Another thing that I thought was smart of Paul with using the poets was that it would allow for him to gain the attention of his audience and to connect with them before he shared the Gospel. It is not a good idea to reference things just to do it but if it is going to tie into the message then there will always be a use for that. Paul continued to bring the glory to God through this reference and it was very smart of him to do.

  20. Paul’s preaching in Athens serves as a good lesson on how to reach those who are far away from Christian tradition and knowledge. The Gentiles in Athens did not know the Old Testament and therefore would not have cared about anything Paul quoted from it, especially since they already considered him to be a foolish babbler who didn’t understand all that he was saying (Polhill, 2008, p. 2122). Because of this, he decided to show them that he did indeed know what he was talking about by quoting well-known Greek thought that the crowd in Athens would have known, understood, and respected. As a result, they understood and respected Paul more. Similarly, Christians most often cannot use the Bible to prove anything to those who do not believe that it is true. Instead, Christians must explore other fields of apologetics, logic, reason, science, and philosophy in order to create arguments for God that non-believers will actually understand and respect. Non-believers often do not know Biblical history, and even if they do, their belief is usually shallow and incomplete. Therefore, one must often do as Paul did and start off outside the Bible in order to bring people into it.

  21. Considering the fact that Paul is the same person who emphasizes “becoming all things to all people”( 1 Corinthians 9:19), it is no surprise that he would employ Greek poetry to connect with his audience at a common level. I do think that this is similar to when people today, both in theology and in the secular world (maybe for instance, in a secular education class), use a reference to a commonly known movie, book, show, etc in order to make a point. I’ve had professors references well known people as a lead to get the class thinking and to introduce a topic. This post speaks of the concept of balance when using such a tactic: being sure that the common/popular reference you use does not cause your audience to miss the point you’re trying to make (I.e the family guy in a Sunday sermon example). I think this is important in a secular discussion, but all the more important in a theological; discussion, especially for a Christian using a secular reference, because at the end of the day, we are to be bringing glory to God, not ourselves or our own personal biases on common/popular things (1 Corinthians 10: 31).

  22. I appreciate that this blog looks at the benefit of understanding the culture of which you are ministering to & still applying both biblical truth and cultural knowledge when preaching/teaching.
    It’s interesting that this example of Paul quoting lines of poetry in Acts 17 is a living example of trying to relate to a crowd. I’m thinking about how if you’re ministering to a youth group, it’s difficult to hold their attention if you’re not going to speak into something of their culture. This can even go for adult ministry—sometimes you need to bring up a political Facebook post that keeps getting shared in order to grab their attention (so that you can properly administer the Gospel!)
    The more that I learn how to effectively minister, the more I realize that this skill that Paul demonstrates in Acts 17 is vital. People want to be related to. People want to feel understood. A way to understand them is to understand their culture and what’s popular. It might seem silly, but genuinely, I think it does a lot of good.
    As you mention in this blog, this doesn’t mean that you only involved quotes from The Simpsons or Bob Dylan, but you learn how to casually sprinkle in some references (or maybe once in a while use those references as your leading point.)

  23. Some have found it intriguing that Paul quoted two Greek philosophers here in Acts 17. As Long mentioned, Paul also quotes the same Epimenides poet in Acts 17:28 and then again Titus 1:12. Because it seemed like Paul was well-versed in Greek poetry should not come as that big of a surprised since Paul was an educated man (Acts 7:3). Although he was a Jew, Paul was also a Roman (Acts 22:28), therefore he was not unexperienced in learning different cultures and customs, so he easily could’ve picked up Greek philosophy and literature. As Long also mentions, it is speculated that perhaps Paul, as any educated man would who had a fire to reach different people groups, could’ve studied the people of Athens before he preached to them. This would make sense since Paul was an observant man, as seen in Acts 17:23 where he mentions how he saw an alter titled “for an unknown god”. Therefore, Paul takes relatable examples that the people of Athens would recognize and put a redemptive twist on it, just like preachers commonly do today with book or movie references.

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