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.

Paul and the Story of Israel

A major part of N. T. Wright’s view of Paul (and Jesus for that matter) is that Paul stands within the overarching story of Second Temple Period Judaism.  By this he means that Paul interprets Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection in the light of the “plot” of the Hebrew Bible as it was understood in the first century.  Wright assumes that the majority of Jews in the first century shared some basic ideas about who they were and where the fit in the history of Salvation.  There are five “big questions” which all world views answer:  Who are we? Why are we here? What is wrong? What is the solution? What time is it?

Paul would have answered these questions with a story something like this.  We are the people of God, put here in this world to worship God and enjoy the goodness of his creation.  But the world has become corrupted by sin and we are unable to fulfill that destiny.  The solution to the problem is to be found in the death and resurrection of Jesus.  The last question is therefore critical – where are we in God’s plan of redemption?  For Paul, a new age has begun with Jesus – a radically different new age has already dawned when Jesus rose from the dead (Fresh Perspective, 6, 9).  

Most likely any Jewish reader of Paul’s letters would have agreed with the first three answers, although the solution to the problem would have differed greatly.  Pharisees, for example, perhaps would have said “study of the Torah” is the key, while the Essenes would have agreed but urged a more faithful adherence to the Torah than even the Pharisees. Even a Hellenistic Jew living far from the Land may have agreed on the first three questions, but perhaps would have suggested the solution was commitment to Wisdom as a philosophy of life (someone reading Philo or Sirach, for example).

This is all well and good and I agree with Wright’s description of the narrative which controlled Jewish thinking in the first century.  But Paul was not the Apostle to the Jews, he was sent specifically to the Gentiles.  The answers to the world view questions would vary greatly in a Greco-Roman context.  Unlike the Jews, the purpose of human life was not to worship the Hebrew God or enjoy his goodness.  I would suggest that the common person was afraid of the capricious gods who controlled his fate and did not really have any desire to enter into a “personal relationship” with any god!  What is more, the final question might not have resonated at all with the gentile world since the coming “new age” of the Hebrew Bible was unknown to them.

Paul would not have compromised his understanding of Jesus as the solution to man’s rebellion nor does he appear to have softened his eschatology for Gentile audiences.  But how did Paul draw a pagan audience into a story which is decidedly Jewish?  This will be the difficulty Paul faces as he does ministry further away from Jewish cultural centers in Acts 13-14.   This is much more than an academic question since the task of the church has always been to re-tell the story in new and compelling ways to reach new generations of people.

Acts 17 – Paul’s Speech on Mars Hill

Luke’s description of Paul’s sermon on Mars Hill is well known from the many modern ministries which have taken their name from this chapter.  The intention is quite good, since Paul on Mars Hill attempts to meet the culture the Greek world where it is, granting a few of their premises and arguing on their own ground that there is a God who created all humans and that God is about to judge sin left unpunished before this time.

The fact that Paul cites Greek poets is often used as an foundation for doing ministry that uses our culture as a starting point.  This is an excellent method and does in fact work well, but it there are some dangers from taking only one element of the sermon in Acts 17 as a “mission statement.”  Culture is only one side of the equation, Paul is clearly teaching biblical theology on Mars Hill!

While it is true that Paul could stand in the Aeropagus and discuss Stoic and Epicurean philosophy, and even cite Greek poets, he cannot be confused with a Greek philosopher.  His point is the story of the Bible, told without direct reference to the Bible since the audience simply does not know the scriptures.  He is not saying that a Greek can add Jesus on to their Stoic beliefs and they can be right with God; he is not saying that an Epicurean is “almost saved” and just needs a little bit of Jesus to get them into the Body of Christ.  As Witherington observes, Paul is using somewhat familiar idea in order to pass judgment on the idolatry of the Athenians – he is not meeting polytheism halfway! (Witherington, Acts, 518)

Let me illustrate this with one key element of the speech.  Paul says that God has determined where men should live over the whole earth (Acts 17:27).  This is a phrase which would resonate with Stoics, but it is entirely possibly Paul is alluding to Deut 32:8.  He is using the idea of a single God who has created all people and determines the times and seasons for them to argue for a single God.

This seems to run counter to Romans 1 (all men suppress the truth of God), but the syntax used by Luke at this point indicates the unlikeliness of the possibility of men seeking God.  Luke uses an aorist optative of ψηλαφάω, “to grope for” and an optative of εὑρίσκω, to find.  An optative expresses wish or hope:  “would that men would grope around in the darkness for God and find him!”  It is a hope, but of all the ways this idea could be expressed, this is the least likely possibility.

Ironically, the name Mars Hill is commonly associated with a seeker-sensitive congregation, but Paul says here that the seekers are in such total darkness that there is very little possibility they will find what they are looking for, they are incapable of finding God in the darkness.  If we are going to persist in using Mars Hill as a model for ministry, we need to realize that the task of the church is to take a light into the dark world and help those lost in the dark to find the truth. The church cannot “meet them half way,” we need to go all the way to where the darkness is and shine the light.

Epilogue: In contrast to most American attempts, here is an example of a Mars Hill ministry which has had the right idea for a good many years.  I stole the image for this post from their website, sorry Kevin.  Jumpin’ Llama is a great coffee.

Was Thessalonica a “Gentile” Church?

What was the ‘social setting” of the church at Thessalonica?  Pollhill has a good summary of the usual arguments for the church being primarily Gentile (P&HL, 185).  But this is problematic because Acts tells us that the congregation was formed after a period of time teaching in the Synagogue. In addition, Jews stirred up trouble for Paul out of jealousy – presumably because of his success in their synagogue.

The argument that the recipients of the letters are Gentiles rests on three observations.  First, they are said to have turned “to God from idols.”  Paul would not describe a Jewish convert as “turning from an idol.”   Secondly, 1 Thess 4:1-8 describes some sexual ethics problems in the church.  This would be more typical of a Gentile congregation than Jewish. Thirdly, 1 Thessalonians does not quote from the Old Testament,  although 2 Thess seems to allude to the Hebrew Bible.  If the church were written to a gentile audience with very little synagogue training and knowledge, we would expect few biblical quotations.

So where to these Gentiles come from? If the Gentile converts were God-fearers from the synagogue, then it is also unlikely that they would have “turned from idols” since they were worship God in the synagogue.  In addition, a Gentile God-fearer might be expected to know as much of the Hebrew Bible as a Jewish person.  The fact that the second letter is laced with allusions to the Hebrew Bible makes me think that there are other reasons for the lack in 1 Thessalonians.  Paul was only in the city for a short time and there is no reference to evangelism in the marketplace, but he may have made contacts there which Luke chose not to report.

I think that the answer goes back to the persecution faced by the church.  If they are persecuted for “rejecting Rome,” perhaps some of the “prominent people” Luke mentions in Acts 17:4 left the Christian church and returned to the synagogue, or to secular life.  Those who remained “turned from idols,” specifically the national Roman cult.  Someone like Jason was able to use wealth and power to deal with the court system in the city, so there is at lesat an implication that he was wealthy and connected politically.  Perhaps Jason or other wealthy persons had left  the church by the time Paul writes (suggested by Adolf Deissmann, c.f., Malherbe, 65).

The letter itself seems to praise the church for their strength in persecution, so maybe it is not wise to make too much of this alleged defection of some prominent converts, but it might explain the last of Jewish allusions in the letter.