Formations 01.12.2020: Cultural Awareness

Acts 17:22-34

During my sophomore year of college at Mercer University, I served as a teaching assistant for the freshman experience class. First-year students took this class to establish an initial community of friends and begin exploring different ways of thinking and looking at the world. One of the young men in the class was a Vietnamese immigrant who called himself “Vinny.” He and I became friends for the duration of the class and into the next year of school.

We would chat over lunch and sometimes walk to and from class together, but most of our deepest conversations happened over email. Having grown up in an official atheist state with Buddhism the main religion among people who practiced one, he was very curious about my faith—Christianity. He was also incredibly skeptical of it. This was my first encounter with someone who was unfamiliar with Christian teachings and who also had a question or rebuke for every point I made about my beliefs.

I found Vinny to be challenging because I had never truly questioned my faith before. I had questioned God’s action or nonaction in my life, wondered about the literal truth of some of the biblical stories, and doubted some of the tenets of Christianity. But I had never felt so unsure about my foundational beliefs as I did when Vinny started asking me questions.

Vinny’s culture was so different from mine—I grew up deep in the religious American South—and he was always honest in his seeking. My main goal with him became not to defend my faith against his skepticism but to show him through my friendship what I knew of the love of Jesus Christ. Because of that, he never scoffed at me. Instead, his attitude was always, “I will hear you again about this” (see Acts 17:32).

I don’t know what happened to Vinny. We lost touch after I graduated. But I’m grateful for the way he pushed me out of my little Southern Baptist faith box and showed me a different approach to life. I’m grateful for the way he allowed me a window into his culture so that I could come at my Christian religion as if it were something new and unfamiliar. I’m grateful for the opportunity he gave me to discover the simple power of being a Jesus follower. And I hope that something about what I shared with him—in my words but mostly in my friendship—remains in his heart as a testimony to the “God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth” (v. 24).

Discussion

• Have you ever met someone who asked good, difficult questions about your faith? How did you respond?

• Why do you think it’s important to spend time with people who grew up differently than you did? What can you teach them? More important, what can they teach you?

• Take a moment to read the lesson text again. What do you think about Paul’s approach as he shares the gospel with people who have their own different beliefs? What can we learn about the respect he shows to these people and their traditions?

• What approaches of sharing our faith might harm our witness for Jesus Christ? How can we avoid these approaches?

• Pray that you will be firm in your faith and also ready to listen respectfully to what other people might say and wonder about it.

Reference Shelf

Paul’s Speech before the Council, vv. 22-31

Paul stands (v. 22), as is common among Hellenistic orators. Stating that Paul stood in

the midst of the Areopagus would indicate that the narrator means by Areopagus “the council,” not the geographical locale. One stands in the middle of a group, not the middle of a hill. To help establish his credibility, or ethos, Paul begins his speech on a seemingly positive note by referring to the Athenians’ devotion, something for which they were known in their day. Such “currying of favor,” known technically as captatio benevolentia, was a common rhetorical strategy. The word Paul uses to denote Athenian devotion can also mean “superstitious,” giving Paul’s word a somewhat ironic twist. Though the narrator made clear in v. 16 that Paul was incensed by the idols he saw, Paul is not out to alienate his audience, but to persuade them. Hence, in v. 23 Paul speaks rather neutrally of his observing of the city’s “objects of worship.” The word Paul employs can have negative connotations in Jewish polemical literature against idolatry (cf. Wis 14:20; 15:17), but the Athenian audience need not hear it that way. Thus, once again, the Lukan Paul chooses his words carefully—words that will not offend his audience but do not imply agreement with his audience’s views.

There is much debate over whether there existed in Athens an altar with an inscription “to an unknown God.” To be sure, there is no physical evidence discovered among the archaeological ruins, yet there is enough literary evidence to give credence to the reference, even if such literary evidence offers no exact parallel to Paul’s claim. Nonetheless, in the context of the Lukan narrative, the inscription offers a meaningful point of departure for Paul’s speech. The apostle has found some common ground with his audience.

Paul claims that he will make known to the Athenians this “god” to which they pay homage, a god, by their own admission, that they do not know. To be sure, much of what Paul will tell them they do already know. His strategy will be to show the Athenians that their manner of worship does not measure up even to the best religious and philosophical thinking of their own heritage and tradition. Yet, at the same time, while Paul’s speech will offer many points of contact with Greek thinking, it will remain true to the Jewish theological heritage and to Lukan theology. Paul seeks common ground; he does not compromise, however, faithfulness to his own religious heritage.

Verse 24 affirms God as the creator. This is a bedrock claim of Paul’s Jewish faith; it forms the foundation of the biblical narrative (Gen 1–3). As such, it became a central feature of early Christian thought, including Lukan theology (cf. Acts 4:24, 28; Rom 1; Col 1; John 1, etc.). However, much of the Greek philosophical tradition also affirmed God as creator, or at least the force behind creation that sustained and maintained it. To be sure, the Epicureans did not, but the Stoics most certainly did, though not in the manner of traditional Christianity. As creator, the ruler of all creation (“Lord of heaven and earth”), this unknown God does not live in humanly constructed shrines. Again, Paul has found common ground between Jewish and early Christian thought (1 Kgs 8:27; cf. Isa 66:1-2; Acts 7:48-50; cf. Heb 8:2; 9:11, 24) and Greek thought, for the Greek philosophical tradition regularly affirmed similar beliefs.

Verse 25 offers further connections between the Jewish and Greek heritages. Both affirmed that the creator God did not need what humans had to offer; rather, humans were dependent on the creator. The biblical tradition declares God’s independence of human ritual and cult in such texts as Psalm 50:7-15. Postbiblical Jewish materials echoed this thought (see 2 Macc 14:35). Josephus explicitly claimed that “God contains all things, and is a being every way perfect and happy, self-sufficient, and supplying all other beings; the beginning, the middle, and the end of all things” (Ag. Ap. 2.190; emphasis added). Within the Greek literary and philosophical traditions one can find the same idea. “For God, if indeed God he be, is in need of nothing” (Euripides, Hercules Furens 1345-46).25 Said Senecea, “God seeks no servants; He himself serves mankind” (Epistle 95.47).

In v. 26 Paul alludes to the character of Adam. Paul’s Greek audience, unfamiliar with the specifics of the biblical tradition, would not catch this specific allusion. However, the Stoics in Paul’s audience did affirm the common kinship of humanity, a clear implication of Paul’s statement that all nations derive from one ancestor. Such an emphasis on the common bonds that unite all humans was not universally held, however, in Greek thought.

The second part of v. 26 refers to God’s providential care of the creation. There is debate over what exactly Paul means when referring to allotted periods and boundaries. He could mean by “periods” the natural seasons (cf. Ps 74:17; Acts 14:17) and by “boundaries” God’s setting aside specific places on the earth to make them fit for human habitation (e.g., Gen 1:9-13, 24-26; Job 38:8-11). This reading might have been more amenable to Paul’s Greek listeners.

Or Paul might mean by allotted “periods” the purposeful movement of history, commonly seen in Jewish apocalyptic thought, which often viewed history has divided into predetermined periods. By “boundaries” Paul could be referring to the different areas where various groups within the human family dwell (e.g., Gen 10; Deut 32:8). Regardless of one’s particular reading, the speech asserts that “the historic limitations set upon humanity, the times and places where they dwell, are all the object of divine determination.”

In vv. 27-28, Paul directs his speech toward humanity’s purpose for existence: human beings are to seek this creator God, “feeling after God” and, possibly, “finding God.” The words translated as “feeling after” and “finding” deserve comment. [The former] can carry the connotation of groping, as someone who is blind might feel her or his way along in a room (cf. Isa 59:10). [The latter[ is expressed in the optative mood, a mood rarely employed in the New Testament. The mood expresses in the Greek language a high degree of uncertainty that the action will be fulfilled. Hence, while God created humanity with the intention that humans should seek after God, the quest is characterized by a kind of blind groping with little chance of success. This is in spite of the fact that God is not remote; God is not very far from humanity (v. 27b). It is as though Paul were saying that God is within reach, but as humans reach out in the darkness to lay hold of God, the Creator proves elusive to the human grasp.

Paul’s Greek audience would likely hear the phrase of v. 28 (NRSV, “in him we live and move and have our being”) as an affirmation of divine immanence. Seneca said something quite similar: “God is near you, He is with you, He is within you” (Epistle 41.1-2). Psalm 139 offers a biblical expression of the idea. The Greek text could also be translated to say, “by means of God we live and move, etc.” This would place more of an emphasis on humanity’s dependence upon God, rather than God’s innate nearness to humanity. Whether God is spatially “near” to humans or humans are dependent on God for life and being, God is portrayed as integral to human life.

Paul’s quotation of the Greek poets in v. 28b (likely Eratus, Phaenomena 5), stating that humans are God’s offspring, can, like so much of Paul’s speech, be heard at least two ways. One could hear an affirmation of humanity’s natural kinship with God, as though humans were in some sense divine or, at least, possessed some type of divine nature. Paul’s Stoic audience could very well have heard Paul to be saying this. It is doubtful that either the Lukan or historical Paul would entertain such a notion. For the Lukan Paul and Christian reader, Eratus’s quotation would likely denote that God created humans. In Luke 3:38, Adam is said to be a “son of God.” In Luke’s genealogy such a statement served to affirm that Adam was created by God, not that Adam possessed some divine nature.

God; they can feel after and sense God’s nearness and even have some type of kinship with God as God’s creatures. Paul has offered no explicit assessment of the success of humanity’s quest for God, though the thrust of the speech makes it apparent that the quest is not successful. The very fact that the speech began with reference to an altar dedicated “to an unknown god” speaks for itself. The Athenians do not know this God who has created them to seek after him. In v. 29 Paul draws upon the implications of vv. 27-28 to provide a severe critique of idolatry. As God’s children, persons created by God in God’s own image and likeness (cf. Gen 1:26-27), humans should realize that God is no more like stones or precious metals than are humans. More importantly, human beings, who are created and sustained by God, should fully realize that what humans fashion with their own hands cannot be confused with the Deity. God is the creator; God cannot be captured by that which humans, in turn, create themselves.

On this the traditions of Judaism and certain streams of Greco-Roman philosophy agreed. Dio Chrysostom, an influential Roman thinker of the first century AD, said that living things can only be represented by the living. The Wisdom of Solomon is most emphatic that idolatry represents the height of human foolishness. After all, if it is wrong to confuse what God creates with the Deity (Wis 13:4-9), it is more egregious to confuse what humans create with the Deity (Wis 13:10-19). When Paul’s audience is willing to heed the guidance of even its own philosophical heritage, it will recognize the error of its ways….

The Athenians’ failure to acknowledge the true God, glimpses of whom even the best of their own tradition should have provided, requires that there be a change of mind—a change of thought. Such a “change of mind” (commonly translated as “repentance”) is precisely what Paul demands in v. 30. The God of which humanity had been ignorant, an ignorance epitomized by the Athenian altar dedicated to an unknown god, is now made known through the proclamation of the gospel. The times of ignorance will be overlooked no longer.

In the narrative of Acts, ignorance is a common theme. The Jewish audience is called to repentance for its act of ignorance—rejecting God’s anointed one (Acts 2:38; 3:17, 19; 13:27). Gentiles are called to account for their not knowing the true God (Acts 14:15, 16). The Jews now know, through the apostolic witness, the identity of God’s anointed one. Through that same witness the Gentiles now know the identity of the Creator. Both groups are called to turn away from their respective errors.

Behind the call to repentance is a positive invitation to receive the good benefits of God, such as salvation and forgiveness (2:38; 3:19) or knowledge of the true God, as in this text. But there is also the threat of judgment from the one whom God appointed to serve as judge. The assurance of God’s appointment of this man to the role of judge is found through God’s raising of this man from the dead. The resurrection as the definitive sign of God’s affirmation of this Jesus (though unnamed in this particular sermon) is echoed in earlier sermons to audiences of both Jews and God-fearers (2:31-32; 3:15; 5:30-33; 10:41; 13:31). On this crucial point, there can only be straightforward proclamation; there can be no “common ground” in addressing this Hellenized audience. After all, Aeschylus, the Greek composer of tragedies, placed on the mouth of Apollo: “When the dust has soaked up the blood of a man, once he has died, there is no resurrection” (Eumenides 647-48).

Paul Went Out from among Them, 17:32-34

Verses 32-34 provide the brief conclusion to the narrative of Paul’s mission to Athens. The transition to the conclusion is quick, as the narrator reports the immediate reaction of Paul’s audience to the notion of resurrection. As mentioned above, the idea of the resurrection of the body was foreign to Greek thought. But Greeks, represented in the Lukan narrative by these philosophical schools, differed on the broader idea of “afterlife.” Epicureans denied any notion of afterlife, while Stoics accepted the idea that one’s soul survived, connected as it was to the larger “world soul.” However, the Stoics did not have any concept of personal immortality. Stoic openness to some notion of the survival of the soul may imply that it was they who were willing to hear Paul further on this matter. Some reject the message immediately, while others are open to further discussion.

Yet openness to further discussion is not the same as belief. Luke concludes his narrative on a positive note by explicitly noting that some came to actual faith (v. 34). One such new believer, Dionysius, is a member of the Areopagus. Though later church tradition asserted that this Dionysius became the first bishop of Athens, there is no solid historical basis for this claim. The narrator is also careful, as he has been in other places in his narrative (see 17:4, 12), to note that a woman was among the believers. History offers no further information on the identity or destiny of this Damaris.

J. Bradley Chance, Acts, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2007), 308–14.

Kelley Land, a graduate of Mercer University, has been an assistant editor of Smyth & Helwys curriculum and books since 2001. In addition to this work, she is a freelance editor for other publishers and authors. She also regularly volunteers for Jay’s HOPE, a nonprofit serving families of children with cancer. Kelley enjoys spending time with her daughters, Samantha (15) and Natalie (12), and her husband John. Occasionally, she appears onstage in community theater productions and can sometimes be found playing board games with a group of rowdy friends. She loves Marvel movies, Harry Potter, and Doctor Who, and she’s still trying to write a young adult novel that her girls will enjoy.

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