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If Luke has carefully designed his two-volume history, we should probably pause to wonder why he includes such lengthy description of the journey to Rome. This must be more than an exciting story (did he think readers were getting bored?), nor was Luke trying to fill out a scroll (as if he was a student trying to make it to 10 pages for a paper). There are literary and theological reasons for Luke’s inclusion of Paul’s shipwreck.
First, Luke is traveling with Paul. On the one hand, this accounts for the details. But often ancient historians narrate a story up to the time in which they are living and then include themselves in the story in order to build credibility. Josephus summarized all of Jewish history up to the time of the Jewish revolt and included himself in the story as a leader in Galilee. Thucydidies wrote a history of the Peloponesian War and included his own participation at various points. This shipwreck functions to give Luke credibility – he witnessed the events himself and was a participant in the history he tells. A Greco-Roman reader would expect this sort of thing if the book of Acts was to be seen as credible.
Second, there is more going on here than Luke’s interest in travel. If someone (say, Theophilus) has been reading through Luke and Acts, he would notice some similarities between Paul and Jesus. Both are arrested by the Jews and handed over to the Romans, both are tried by a secular authority (Pilate and Herod; Felix/Festus and Agrippa) and both are the victims of a miscarriage of justice motivated by the religious establishment in Jerusalem. Will Paul suffer the same fate as Jesus? Will he be executed by the Romans as a political undesirable, or will he receive justice from Rome?
Third, we need to remember Luke’s theme for the whole book: “beginning in Jerusalem, then Judea and Samaria, then to the ends of the earth.” Luke knows that Paul will go to Rome to testify before the Emperor, but the reader may think that Paul will be killed along the way. As James Dunn has observed, Luke is trying to show that “come what may, God will fulfill his purpose by having Paul preach the good news in the very heart of the empire.”
Fourth, some scholars question the historicity of the shipwreck based on parallels with other ancient literature, including Homer’s Odyssey. Often a guilty man will try to escape justice (or fate), head out to the seas to avoid capture, but ultimately he will suffer and die anyway. Paul is escaping from the Jews, yet is shipwrecked and eventually nearly killed by a snake, it is thought that Luke is patterning this story after the archetypal Greco-Roman novel plot-line.
There is something to the parallels and it may be Luke tells this story in such detail because shipwrecks were popular in literature at the time. But this does not necessarily negate the historicity of the story. Paul went to Rome, the best way to do that is by ship. It is entirely plausible Festus would send him off in this way. Shipwrecks were in fact common, so much so that Paul has already suffered shipwrecks twice in his travels (2 Cor 11:25)!
While I think Paul did travel to Rome by ship and experienced a shipwreck, Luke’s theological motivation is that nothing will hinder the Gospel getting to Rome.
In his defense before Festus, Paul offers a his view on the Servant in Isaiah: The Servant is Jesus, who suffered for our sins (Luke 4:18, Is 61:1). There seems to have been some discussion of who the servant was; recall that the Ethiopian Eunuch was reading this text in Acts 8 and the idea of a suffering, dying and rising messiah appears at several points in the book of Acts. This is anticipated as early as Luke 2:32, Simeon’s blessing on Jesus cites Isaiah and proclaims that this salvation has come to Israel.
But the “Light to the Gentiles” in Acts 26 refers to Paul and his ministry. This is a rather bold statement since it might appear the Servant is the light to the Gentiles. Luke 2:32 has already applied Isaiah 42:6 to Jesus, but here Paul sees his ministry as a participation in Jesus’ messianic office as delivering the “light to the Gentiles.”
Paul describes salvation as “turning to God” and “opening eyes,” are both drawn from Isaiah 42:6, but may allude back to the paradigmatic miracle on Cypress, the blinding of Bar-Jesus (13:4-11). Like Isaiah, both Jesus and Paul ministered to blind people, both literal and spiritual blindness. The disciples, for example, were in need of healing in their understanding, so they might believe that Jesus is in fact the Messiah. Paul is sent to preach repentance to both the Jews and the Gentiles (recalling Romans 1:16-17, to the Jew first).
Festus interrupts Paul’s speech: “You are out of your mind!” It is possible that this means that Paul’s knowledge of esoteric doctrines find things that are not necessarily true. This may reflect the common-sense “down to earth” Roman worldview. Festus is saying that the conclusions to which Paul comes is “beyond common sense,” not that these are strange and outlandish things.
Paul states that he is speaking “true and rational (σωφροσύνη) words.” This description is good Greek rhetoric, sobriety is a chief virtue in Greek philosophy. Agrippa, on the other hand, understands that Paul’s speech has a persuasive value, which he is trying to convince them both of the truth of the Gospel. What Paul has done has “not been done in a corner,” but rather out in the open for all to hear and evaluate. This too is a feature of good philosophy and rhetoric, those who engage in secrets and mysteries are questionable (and probably not sober and self-controlled).
So Paul sees himself as engaged in messianic ministry (although he is a servant of Messiah Jesus; Paul does not see himself as a messiah!) This claim is rational, based on evidence and is both truthful and rational. Festus recognizes Paul’s “great learning” but thinks Paul has gone out of his mind-the opposite of rational. The Greek μανία can refer to madness or even delirium. This was an accusation against a political or philosophical opponent, or as BDAG says, “eccentric or bizarre behavior in word or action.”
For a Roman official like Festus, Paul presents strange ideas in rational manner, and he is impressed but unconvinced. To what extent can Paul claim to be rational in his arguments that Jesus is the Messiah or that he has been called by God to this particular mission? Is there a way to use Paul’s defense before Agrippa and Festus as a model for ministry in a post-modern world?
[This is the second guest post from one of my Advanced Studies in Acts students, John Caprari. John is a senior undergraduate Biblical Studies major with an emphasis on Pastoral Ministry. He and his wife will be going to Africa soon after graduation to explore a church planting ministry. He has therefore focused his attention on Paul’s missionary method.]
It amazing to reflect on the many Christian works Paul began. He had a strong desire to win as many people as possible (1 Cor. 9:19). In Paul’s epistle to the Romans he declares his inner yearning for the gospel’s proclamation: “I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on someone else’s foundation” (Romans 15:20).
Paul set this framework in which he would preach the gospel, and he did just that. Although there were not many places where Christ had already been proclaimed, he certainly fulfilled this internal passion. He had a “commitment to pioneer evangelism, to pursue his mission only in virgin territory” (Dunn 544) Can you imagine entering a city that not only has a population of 0% Christians, but also live in a culture that worships pagan gods? Where and how do you even begin telling people about Jesus? Paul’s answer? The synagogue.
Luke communicates in Acts over and over that upon arrival in a city, the first thing Paul did was go to the Jewish synagogue (Acts 13:5; 14:1; 17:10). Wait a second… Wasn’t Paul supposed to be the light to the Gentiles? Why is he going to the Jewish gathering place?
There are some who understand Paul to believe that the gospel was meant to be proclaimed among Jews before Gentiles (Rom 1:16). They believe that Paul’s custom was to go to the Jewish synagogue because he had a theological understanding that the gospel must be heard by the Jews, and then upon rejection, the Gentiles (Acts 14:36). The following is an excerpt from a scholar who understands Paul’s custom of going to the Jewish synagogue as a theological issue rather than strategic:
Although Luke’s plain intent is to show how the gospel of Jesus Christ was carried from Jerusalem, the center of Judaism, to Rome, the center of the Gentile world, he records of Paul’s ministry in the Roman capital only his customary initial ministry to the Jews (Acts 28:17 ff.). In Acts too, therefore, the theme is clear, the gospel is “to the Jew first.” (Stek 17)
Paul went to the synagogues first because he thought it would be the best way to carry out his mission: to be a light to the Gentiles. These gathering places were mostly filled with Jews. However, it was common for there to be a couple of God-fearing Gentiles who would congregate with the Jews. Dunn writes, “for it was in the synagogues that he would find those Gentiles who were already most open and amenable to his message” (Dunn 560).
Why do you think upon arrival Paul would immediately go to the synagogue? Was it a theological understanding or a strategical method? If theological, how come? If strategical, what made the synagogue, a Jewish gathering place, the right place to be a light to the Gentiles?
Bibliography: Dunn, James D. G. Beginning from Jerusalem (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2009); Stek, John H. “To the Jew First.” Calvin Theological Journal 7.1 (1972): 15-52
[This is the third set of guest posts from my Advanced Studies in Acts class. John Caprari is a senior undergraduate Biblical Studies major with an emphasis on Pastoral Ministry. He and his wife will be going to Africa soon after graduation to explore a church planting ministry. He has therefore focused his attention on Paul’s missionary method.]
The Apostle Paul is undoubtedly one of the greatest missionaries to walk this earth. The fruit of his labor is convincing enough! I’m sure Paul would suggest that he was simply a vessel. And a vessel he was. But, what does that mean? Some might say he just went wherever the Spirit led him. I might add, we should always be obedient to the direction the Spirit guides us in. With that being said, Paul did not just sit around and wait for anything supernatural happen.
Roland Allen is one of the classics of our era who have written on Paul’s missionary methods that many look to for understanding. He believes Paul’s ministry strategy was more a lack of strategy than anything else. He calls it spontaneous expansion: “This then is what I mean by spontaneous expansion. I mean the expansion which follows the exhorted and unorganized activity of individual members of the Church explaining to others the Gospel which they have found for themselves; I mean the expansion which follows the irresistible attraction of the Christian Church…” (Allen 10).
In his book The Spontaneous Expansion of the Church Allen argues that the less control we have over the church, the more growth we will see. The more freedom we allow the Spirit to work, the more expansion of the Church will happen. For Allen, no type of organization is important. The pre-requisites of a great missionary are: 1) faith and 2) dependence on the Spirit.
The Holy Spirit’s influence on Paul’s ministry is not only evident, but also vital. It’s the Spirit that called Paul and Barnabas out: “While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “’Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work which I have called them’” (Acts 13:2). And it’s the Holy Spirit who led them where they were to go: “The two of them, sent on their way by the Holy Spirit, went down to Seleucia and sailed from there to Cyprus” (Acts 13:4). Just a few chapters latter in the narrative of Acts, Luke again shows the presence of the Spirit in these missionary journeys: “Paul and his companions traveled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia, have been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia” (Acts 16:6). I wonder what Paul was thinking after this: “Come on! There is so much potential in the province of Asia. The gospel needs to be preached there!” But, God had other plans.
These are just a few examples telling of the influence of the Spirit in Paul’s ministry. Surely, there are many more that communicate the Spirit’s guiding and also the importance of the Spirit’s ‘hand’ on the fruit of our work.
Can you think of any passages, especially in the book of Acts that communicate the absolute need of dependence on the Spirit in our ministry? Is Allen right in suggesting that we should drop all ‘control’ we have and allow more freedom for the Spirit to expand the Church? Is there room for organization and strategic planning in missions? Why or why not? Was Paul more strategically oriented in his ministry or was he completely dependent upon spontaneous expansion?
Acts 19:11-17 reports the amusing story of the Sons of Sceva who attempt to cast out demons in the name of Jesus and Paul. Jewish exorcists are well known in the ancient world. Legends about Solomon’s great power of demons were well-known. Josephus says God gave Solomon great wisdom, but also remarkable magical powers (Antiq. 8.42-49).
“God also enabled him to learn that skill which expels demons, which is a science useful and sanative to men. He composed such incantations also by which distempers are alleviated. And he left behind him the manner of using exorcisms, by which they drive away demons, so that they never return, and this method of cure is of great force unto this day.”
He goes on to describe a Jew by the name of Eleazar who cast out demons in the presence of the emperor Vespasian and many other witnesses. The method Eleasar used to cast out the demon was strange: “He put a ring that had a root of one of those sorts mentioned by Solomon to the nostrils of the demoniac, after which he drew out the demon through his nostrils; and when the man fell down immediately, he abjured him to return into him no more, making still mention of Solomon, and reciting the incantations which he composed.”
Solomon is not the only Jewish name thought to have magical powers. In Paris Papyri 574, the exorcist says to the demon, “I abjure you by Jesus the God of the Hebrews,” and “hail God of Abraham, Hail God of Isaac, hail God of Jacob, Jesus Chrestus, Holy Spirit, Son of the Father.”
In Ephesus, at least some Jewish exorcists attempted to use the names of both Jesus and Paul as “power words” to cast out demons. This is the only place in the New Testament where the Greek ἐξορκιστής (exorcist) is used. When commanded, the demon reverses the usual process and “exorcizes” the exorcists! This humorous scene shows that the God of Paul is not to be manipulated like the other gods of the ancient world.
The news of beating of the sons of Sceva spreads quickly. The text says that the name of the Lord Jesus was held in high honor (μεγαλύνω). This does not necessarily mean people became believers. The word appears in Acts 5:13 to refer to the reputation the apostles gained in Jerusalem (“held in high regard by the people”), but certainly in that context people were not converted to Christianity.
What are the implications for modern evangelism and/or church life? While I suspect this will have a different application in the West as opposed to other parts of the world where a belief in demons is more vivid, American Christianity is not immune from using the name of Jesus as a quasi-magical word that someone guarantees we “get what we wished for.” This kind of neo-paganism is common, but very dangerous.
Paul’s years in Ephesus are perhaps his most fruitful times in ministry. Witherington comments that Luke intends this unit to be a “lasting model of what a universalistic Christian mission ought to look like” (Acts, 573). It is perhaps strange to think of this as the third missionary journey, since Paul stays in Ephesus for three years. This is Paul’s longest period of settled ministry and perhaps the most fruitful time in his entire career. Christianity does in fact spread throughout Asia Minor and Ephesus becomes a center for Christianity into the early middle ages.
As is his usual pattern, Paul begins at a synagogue (19:8-9). As we have come to expect by this point in Acts, Ephesus had a large Jewish population as well (Josephus, Antiq. 14.225-227, 16.162-168, 172-173). That Paul meets several important Jewish Christians in Ephesus (Aquila and Priscilla, Apollos, as well as some disciples of John) indicates the importance of Ephesus to the Jews.
Paul is able to spend three months in the synagogue arguing persuasively about the kingdom of God. Paul is described as speaking freely (παρρησιάζομαι), the same verb used to describe Apollos in the synagogue (18:26) as well as Paul and Barnabas in the synagogue in Psidian Antioch (13:46). The word refers to boldness or fearlessness in speech. Paul is not holding anything back in his time in the synagogue. The phrase “kingdom of God” likely refers to a whole range of topics Paul preaches on in synagogues. This would include arguing Jesus is the messiah, but also that the messiah would die and rise again.
Luke chooses an important word to describe the negative response of the synagogue to Paul’s preaching. The NIV’s “obstinate” (σκληρύνω) is used in the Septuagint to describe hard-heartedness toward the word of God. For example, this the word used in Exodus for Pharaoh’s hear (4:3). In LXX Jer 7:26 the prophet describes resistance to the word of the Lord as “stiffening the neck.” In the Second Temple period, the writer of PsSol 8:28-29 says the nation “stiffened their neck” and was sent into exile as a result.
These Jews are acting like their forefathers, a point made also by Stephen in Acts 7. The word describes a choice not to believe something, but also the fact that this stubbornness leads to a stronger unbelief. This can be seen in the “hardening” of Pharaoh’s heart in Exodus (or Rom 9:18). He chose to be stubborn, and then the Lord increased his stubbornness as judgment.
Unlike Paul’s previous experience in Philippi or Thessalonica, he is able to remain in the city of Ephesus for a long time, perhaps as long as three years. In fact, Paul’s time in Ephesus might be his most successful ministry described in the book of Acts. What contributes to this success? Does Paul do anything different in Ephesus? Or is this a matter of being at the right place at the right time?
The city of Corinth was an important cosmopolitan city in the middle part of the first century. (Was Corinth more sinful than other Roman cities? Click the link for my comments about that longstanding misunderstanding of history, as well as a followup comment from a read.) It was economically stable, attracting a wide range of businesses from all over the Empire. Paul established the church in this city for this very reason. Once Christianity takes hold in Corinth, the local churches themselves can continue the mission of spreading the gospel throughout the region.
In choosing as one of his main missionary centers a city in which only the tough were reputed to survive, Paul demonstrated a confidence oddly at variance with his protestations of weakness. Corinth, however, offered advantages that outweighed its dangers. In addition to excellent communications, the extraordinary number of visitors (Dio Chrysostom, Or. 37.8; Aelius Aristides, Or. 46.24) created the possibility of converts who would carry the gospel back to their homelands. In contrast to the closed complacency of Athens, Corinth was open and questioning, eager for new ideas but neither docile nor passive, as Paul’s relationship with the Christian community there amply documents (Murphy-O’Connor, ABD 1:1138).
Yet of all of Paul’s churches, this one seems to have had the most difficulties assimilating Christianity and their culture.
The books of 1 and 2 Corinthians deal with a number of problems that arose after Paul left the city. Why did Paul not deal with them as a part of his regular training of new believers and church leaders? What happened in Corinth that brought these particular problems to the forefront only after Paul left the city?
The thesis of Bruce Winter’s After Paul Left Corinth is that after Paul left the city the church began to explore how Christianity interacted with their Greco-Roman culture and social relationships. Their culture was a thoroughly Roman world-view, but it was also a world-view in flux.
There were several de-stabilizing factors in first century Corinth.
First, the institution of yearly festivals in the imperial cult. Participation in these festivals was something a Roman citizen would have associated with loyalty to Rome, a loyalty that the citizens of Corinth took very seriously.
Second, the Isthmian Games were based in Corinth, and there is evidence that when the games were celebrated the President of the games hosted a festival for Corinthians who were Roman citizens. In 8:9 there is a reference to having the “freedom” to eat; the Greek word is “authority,” or perhaps “right” to eat. Paul may be referring to these sort of elite social connections that some in the church had the right/freedom to participate in. Can a Christian really participate in this meal as a follower of Christ?
Third, Winter cites evidence that there were three severe grain famines in the first century that effected Corinth. There are ten inscriptions from Paul’s time that honor the “superintendent of the grain.” This office had the power to manage grain sales in an effort to keep prices down and supply flowing. This could involve a taxation system that paid for grain for the poor, or even a flooding of the market with grain in order to drive prices down. Even rumors of famine were enough to cause riots and generally de-stabilize an economy.
Last, the most difficult issues revolved around Roman cultural and social practices. In 1 Cor 3:3 Paul says that the church is “still worldly,” literally that they are thinking like the people of Corinth, not the people of God. The Christians in Corinth failed to see how the Roman world impacted their life in Christ.
Does this cultural background help us understand “what happened” in Corinth? Why did the church mis-handle so many of the challenges to their new faith in Christ? Is the Corinthian experience much different than Christianity in the modern West?
Bibliography: Bruce Winter, After Paul Left Corinth: The Influence of Secular Ethics and Social Change (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2001).
After several very difficult experiences in Philippi and Thessalonica and an unfruitful visit to Athens, Paul finally experiences some good success in Corinth. After preaching in the synagogue he establishes a church that includes several key converts. Luke lists Titius Justus, a god-fearing Gentile and Crispus, the leader of the synagogue. Both of these were leaders in the synagogue and would have been valuable to Paul as leaders in a new church. A third convert is implied in Romans 16:23 – Erastus, the “director of public works” (NIV) or city treasurer. If Erastus was a convert at this time he would have brought some wealth and prestige to the church. In addition to these converts, Aquilla and Priscilla were in Corinth and eventually the teacher Apollos
Paul may have been concerned his success would breed a violent back-lash from the synagogue, as it had in Thessalonica. In fact, Paul has seen this happen before. The normal pattern is for him to enter the synagogue and face serious persecution. He is not afraid for his own life, in fact, he seems more than willing to suffer physically for the Gospel.
1 Cor 2:3-4 indicates that Paul was afraid his ministry was destined for failure. He does not yet know of the fate of the Thessalonican believers, perhaps even Berea is unknown to him. Athens likely did not result in a church. Will Corinth go just as badly? Yet in 1 Cor 2, Paul claims that any success in Corinth was based solely on the power of the Holy Spirit, not his own rhetorical ability.
In Acts 18:9-10 Luke tells us that Paul has a vision in which the Lord tells Paul that he will not be harmed in the city of Corinth and that there are many people in the city that are “the Lord’s.” There are three short, related commands: Do not fear, continue to speak, and do not be silent.
If these commands reflect Paul’s mood prior to Silas and Timothy’s return, then it is possible that Paul considered, like Jeremiah before him, to remain silent and not open himself up to further persecution (Jer 20:7-12). But like Jeremiah, Paul cannot keep the Gospel to himself, he must be what he is, the light to the Gentiles. Even if this means he will be persecuted. This vision encourages him to continue, since his Gospel message will be received in Corinth. He will remain in the city 18 months, Paul’s longest place of ministry since his commission from Antioch in Acts 13.
An important observation here is Paul’s success was met with increased jealousy and persecution. Paul was obedient to his calling yet he was still suffering. Why is this? To what extent is Luke describing a successful ministry as a persecuted ministry? Compared to what some modern Christians seem to think, this is the opposite of what to expect. Yet for Paul, suffering confirmed he was doing exactly what God called him to do.
Paul 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?
A 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.
Does 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.
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.