After being rushed away from yet another city, Paul found himself in Athens with some time on his hands as he waited for Timothy and Silas to join him. What he witnessed in Athens caused “his spirit [to be] provoked within him when he saw that the city was given over to idols” (Act 17:16). So, as was his custom, he spoke in the synagogue and the busy marketplace about the true God, and this drew the attention of the local philosophers. Paul did not impress them with what he was saying. But they wanted to hear more and brought him before the Areopagus to hear “what this new doctrine is” (Acts 17:19), the doctrine of Jesus and the resurrection (Acts 17:18). Let’s take a further look at how Paul makes the unknown God known to the “men of Athens” with some help from the Chronological Study Bible (NIV and NKJV).

Stoics, Epicureans, and a Babbler

17 Therefore he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and with the Gentile worshipers, and in the marketplace daily with those who happened to be there. 18 Then certain Epicurean and Stoic philosophers encountered him. And some said, “What does this babbler want to say?”

Others said, “He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign gods,” because he preached to them Jesus and the resurrection.

19 And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this new doctrine is of which you speak? 20 For you are bringing some strange things to our ears. Therefore we want to know what these things mean.” 21 For all the Athenians and the foreigners who were there spent their time in nothing else but either to tell or to hear some new thing.

Acts 17:17-21

The Epicureans

In Athens, Paul encountered the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers (Ac 17:18). Epicureans, who held little influence outside the academic elite of their day, dismissed popular Greek notions about the gods. If deities existed, Epicureans argued, one could know them only in terms of physical phenomena like stars or planets. In Epicurean philosophy the supreme goal was pleasure, defined especially as the absence of pain.

The Stoics

By contrast, the more popular Stoics opposed pleasure, criticized Epicureans, and usually professed belief in the gods. Nevertheless, Stoics had interpretations of the gods that were quite different from those held by the common people. Sometimes Stoics focused on the supreme deity, whom they saw as ruling and permeating the universe.

Paul could not appeal simultaneously to both of these groups as he addressed them at the Areopagus. Most of what he says fits both Christian and Stoic teaching (Ac 17:22–29). Only after he had won his audience’s ear did he present distinctive Christian theology (17:30, 31). We can known the unknown God only in his Son, Jesus Christ.

In 399 B.C. the council of the Areopagus had accused Socrates of introducing new gods, so with the charge against Paul of proclaiming “foreign gods” (17:18) the Athenians were treating him as they had their most famous thinker. Such a charge had once been a capital offense in Athens; they had stoned to death a priestess for the same crime.

The “Babbler”

Paul’s philosophic critics called him a “babbler” (17:18). In Greek, the term originally referred to birds pecking up grain, but by Paul’s time it meant worthless persons—perhaps somewhat like the traditional American insult “birdbrain.” Yet this “babbler’s” sermon was not a failure, and resulted in new believers, including the influential Dionysius (17:33, 34). The unknown God became known. A tradition from Eusebius reports that Dionysius the Areopagite became the first Christian bishop of Athens.

Geography and Environment

22 Then Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus and said, “Men of Athens, I perceive that in all things you are very religious; 23 for as I was passing through and considering the objects of your worship, I even found an altar with this inscription:

TO THE UNKNOWN GOD.

Therefore, the One whom you worship without knowing, Him I proclaim to you: 24 God, who made the world and everything in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands. 25 Nor is He worshiped with men’s hands, as though He needed anything, since He gives to all life, breath, and all things.

26 And He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their preappointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings, 27 so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; 28 for in Him we live and move and have our being, as also some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are also His offspring.’

Acts 17:22-28

Paul spoke about the unknown God at the Areopagus, whose name was associated with Ares, the Greek god of war (Ac 17:22). In Greek, the name “Areopagus” means “hill of Ares” or “Mars’ Hill.” It is the name of a hill below the Acropolis in Athens, and also of the traditional law court of Athens, which once met on or near the hill. A little farther from the Acropolis and below the Areopagus was the agora, the city marketplace.

Paul Before the Areopagus

32 And when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked, while others said, “We will hear you again on this matter.” 33 So Paul departed from among them. 34 However, some men joined him and believed, among them Dionysius the Areopagite, a woman named Damaris, and others with them.

Acts 17:32-34

In A.D. 50 Paul visited Athens and began preaching in the agora, the marketplace which in ancient Greece served as the center of public life (Ac 17:17). Paul was summoned by the Athenians to the Areopagus, where he preached his sermon about the “unknown God” (Ac 17:19–23). The purpose of his visit to the Areopagus and its council is not certain, but he may have been on trial to defend his beliefs. We know of one individual from the Areopagus council, Dionysius, who became convinced of the truthfulness of Paul’s message (Ac 17:34).

The Areopagus was a prominent hill in Athens (nearly 400 feet high). Although ancient references to the council of the Areopagus are few, it is evident that it was an aristocratic body that advised the king. It then assumed royal functions after the Athenians deposed their monarchy (sometime before 800 B.C.). With the rise of democracy in 500 B.C. the council lost some of its power and became largely an esteemed group with religious functions.

By the 1st century A.D. the council of the Areopagus had regained much of its former authority. The assembly to which Paul preached was again the chief governing body in Athens, a position it would keep until the advent of Christian domination in the 4th century A.D.

The NIV and NKJV Chronological Study Bible

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