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Paul, Athens, and Culture

Posted by on Sep 14, 2011 in discipleship, missional, scripture | 3 comments

Paul, Athens, and Culture

As we continue to study through the Book of Acts with the church, we’ve come to chapter 17. After Paul, Silas, and Timothy (and perhaps others) left Philippi, they traveled through several other cities in Macedonia until they reached Thessalonica. (Acts 17:1) As was their habit, they spent several weeks proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ among the Jews in Thessalonica. (Acts 17:2-3) When the Jews began persecuting them, they moved on to Berea. (Acts 17:10)

In Berea, Paul and the team again began proclaiming the gospel among the Jews. According to Luke, the Jews in Berea checked what they were being told by studying the Hebrew Scriptures (i.e., the Old Testament – probably the Greek version known as the Septuagint or LXX). (Acts 17:10-11) Eventually, Jews from Thessalonica followed Paul, Silas, and Timothy and caused them trouble again. (Acts 17:13)

Some of the believers from Berea (brand new believers, by the way), then helped Paul travel to the coast and then sail to Athens. (Acts 17:14) Contrary to his normal pattern, Paul remained in Athens alone and proclaimed the gospel by himself.

As many, many, many (almost everyone) who study this passage point out, Paul interacted with Greek culture while he is in Athens. When Paul was among Jews (as in the synagogues in Thessalonica and Berea, and probably in the synagogues of Athens – Acts 17:17), he begins his proclamation of the good news of Jesus Christ from Scripture. But, in the marketplace and the Areopagus (Mars Hill) in Athens, Paul does not begin with Scripture. He begins with culture.

Now, Luke tells us that Paul is distressed or troubled by what he sees among the Athenian society, particularly the idols. (Acts 17:16) That means that Paul did not agree with what he saw going on. He did not agree with the many idols, gods, and temples that attracted the worship of the Greek populace.

But, when Paul interacted with the Greeks, he did not begin with his disagreements. He did not begin by telling them they were wrong, and pointing out their errors. (Although, like I said, he certainly believed they were wrong and that they were in error.)

Instead, Paul took a cultural aspect (an idol to an unknown god) and used it in a positive manner. Obviously, the Greeks did not understand the “idol to an unknown god” in the same way that Paul used it. But, Paul was able to take that aspect of culture and proceed in a positive direction to help the Athenians begin to understand his “new teaching.” (Acts 17:19)

Further, while Paul certainly used scriptural allusions and imagery in his speech to the Areopagus, he did not make an argument from Scripture. He even quoted some (two?) Greek poets in Acts 17:28. Once again, Paul did not quote these poets to point out where the culture was wrong. Instead, he used them in a positive sense. Certainly, Paul did not mean the same thing that those poets meant, but he was able to build on their words instead of beginning by tearing them apart.

Paul’s presentation was not a complete proclamation of the good news of Jesus Christ. He did end with the resurrection of Jesus, which caused quite a commotion (and division), as it almost always does. How could Paul be happy with such a cultural-based and simple presentation of the good news among people who were accustomed to very rational, logical, and philosophical arguments?

While we don’t know the answer to the question, the results of Paul’s speech may help us. You see, some were interested in hearing more from Paul. And, of those who wanted to hear more, some became believers. (Acts 17:32-34)

When we interact with culture – and we must – do we try to start with Scripture when the people we’re talking with do not trust Scripture or have little understanding of Scripture? When we interact with culture, do we begin by tearing it apart, or do we look for positive ways to use culture (song lyrics, books, art, etc.)? Do we think we fail if we don’t completely proclaim the gospel, or are we satisfied offering a glimpse at the good news and then continuing with those who show interest?

What else can we learn from Paul’s visit to Athens?


Comments are closed. If you would like to discuss this post, send an email to alan [at] alanknox [dot] net.

  1. 9-14-2011

    Well said Alan, this is a tremendous post.

  2. 9-15-2011

    I really appreciate you highlighting the difference between blasting the heathen for their idolatry and inviting them into their own curiosity and conversation about God. This ties in on several levels to your links to Felcity’s 9 “Principles for working with people who are not-yet-believers” that you shared.

    When you ask,

    “How could Paul be happy with such a cultural-based and simple presentation of the good news among people who were accustomed to very rational, logical, and philosophical arguments?”

    I think you are underscoring that while Paul used accepted cultural concepts to communicate the gospel (there is a God–or gods–who remains unknown to us, and we also want to honor and acknowledge this God), he did not use cultural means (he spoke rather plainly and directly, not using the cultural norms of argumentation and rhetoric commonly used to convince people of the speaker’s message). Paul wanted people’s emerging faith to be in God, not in man’s cleverness at convincing.

    Too often today, we seek to use cultural means (attractional entertainment with high production levels, multiple big screens and large bands, etc.) rather than simply tying the message into normative cultural cues (some things are about money and some things are “priceless,” etc.).

  3. 9-15-2011




    That’s a very good point. Maybe I’ll create a YouTube video about that… 🙂