Biblical Places Spiritual Spaces - A short tour of Athens

The Acropolis dominates the city of Athens

Laura and the Parthenon

The south side of the Parthenon with the blown out wall  (and roof) from a Venetian cannonball which sturck the gunpoweder storage of the Ottomans inside the Parthenon on September 26, 1687.

Thorsten, Michael, Tony and Craig, 2001

13 But when some Jews in Thessalonica learned that Paul was preaching the word of God in Berea, they went there and stirred up trouble. 14 The believers acted at once, sending Paul on to the coast, while Silas and Timothy remained behind. 15 Those escorting Paul went with him all the way to Athens; then they returned to Berea with instructions for Silas and Timothy to hurry and join him.  Acts 17:10-15

Now Paul found himself waiting for the others in Athens, the philosophical center of the ancient world. Athens is dominated by the Acropolis, with the principal building, the Parthenon, visible from all parts of the city. Just to the northwest is the Areogapus, (Mars Hill), a small hill attached to the northwest side of the Acropolis, where the leading philosophers and city leaders often meet for discussions.  As one trained in logic and rhetoric, Paul knew the various philosophical schools, and their teachings. He was also well acquainted with Greek literature.

16 While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was deeply troubled by all the idols he saw everywhere in the city. 17 He went to the synagogue to reason with the Jews and the God-fearing Gentiles, and he spoke daily in the public square (Agora) to all who happened to be there.

18 He also had a debate with some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers. When he told them about Jesus and his resurrection, they said, “What’s this babbler trying to say with these strange ideas he’s picked up?” Others said, “He seems to be preaching about some foreign gods.”


Laura and Michael with the Agora in the background

Who are the Epicureans and Stoics?

Epicurus (341-270 BC) concluded that “freedom from pain in the body and from trouble in the mind” is the ultimate aim of a happy lifeEpicureanism focused on pleasure as the chief good in life. His followers tried to live a life in a manner to derive the greatest amount of pleasure in a moderate way that would avoid the suffering of excesses and overindulgence. Epicurus believed that pleasures of the mind were more significant than physical pleasures. He also believed that fear was the chief cause of stress in one’s life- fear of the gods and death. He also taught that passionate love also brought strife to life but recreation sex was a natural pursuit of mankind. He placed a great emphasis on developing friendships as the basis of a pleasurable life.

“Of all the things which wisdom has contrived which contribute to a blessed life, none is more important, more fruitful, than friendship.”                           Epicurus quoted by Cicero

Stoicism is a school of Hellenistic philosophy founded by Zeno of Citium in Athens in the early 3rd century BC. It is a philosophy of personal well-being and happiness (eudaemonia) declaring that the practice of virtue is both necessary and sufficient to achieve eudaimonia, by means of living an ethical life. For the Stoics, eudaimonia was the result of a life spent practicing the cardinal virtues of Wisdom, Courage, Justice, and Temperance, and living in accordance with nature.

The Ancient Athenian Agora

Paul is stepping into the epicenter of the ancient cultural world with confidence. He is engaging the culture in the Agora, not preaching. He us using the “Socrates” style of asking questions, drawing out ideas, discerning their opinions, and using their own beliefs in a form of cooperative argumentative dialogue to prove his points. He’s not talking at them, but rather with them to stimulate critical thinking and draw out ideas that form their opinions. We should take our cues from Paul in these discussions.


The Acropolis from the northwest

19 Then they took him to the high council of the city. “Come and tell us about this new teaching,” they said. 20 “You are saying some rather strange things, and we want to know what it’s all about.” 21 (It should be explained that all the Athenians as well as the foreigners in Athens seemed to spend all their time discussing the latest ideas.)

22 So Paul, standing before the council, addressed them as follows: “Men of Athens, I notice that you are very religious in every way, 23 for as I was walking along I saw your many shrines. And one of your altars had this inscription on it: ‘To an Unknown God.’ This God, whom you worship without knowing, is the one I’m telling you about.               Acts 17:16-23


The Akropolis By Leo von Klenze - Neue Pinakothek, Munich, Public Domain with the Areopugus in the foreground

In the 3rd Century B.C. there was a plague in Athens, and many were dying. Offerings were made to the various gods, but to no avail. Finally, a poet named Epimenides decided that perhaps there was an unknown god that might help. He devised a plan to bring hungry sheep into the city and turn them loose to graze. If any of the hungry sheep decided to lay down on the grass instead of eating it, Epimenides thought it must be a sacred place, and he set up and altar on that spot and sacrificed the sheep as an offering to the “Unknown God”. According to Epimenides’ own account, this occurred in various places in the region, and other altars were built. Eventually the plague abated, and many believed that the Unknown God had indeed intervened.

Another Greek writer named Diogenes Laurtius mentions these altars: “Altars may be found all over Attica which have no names inscribed upon them, which are left as memorials to this atonement.” 

Jason 'Java Jake' Spence, Randy Smith and Michael at the Areopagus


Paul made a historical and cultural connection with this group of philosophers on Mars Hill. Now they are listening.

24 He is the God who made the world and everything in it. Since he is Lord of heaven and earth, he doesn’t live in man-made temples, 25 and human hands can’t serve his needs—for he has no needs. He himself gives life and breath to everything, and he satisfies every need. 26 From one man he created all the nations throughout the whole earth. He decided beforehand when they should rise and fall, and he determined their boundaries.

27 “His purpose was for the nations to seek after God and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him—though he is not far from any one of us. 28 For in him we live and move and exist. As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’ 29 And since this is true, we shouldn’t think of God as an idol designed by craftsmen from gold or silver or stone. Acts 17:24-29


The text from Act 17 in Greek mounted on the wall of the Areopagus

Paul now makes even more cultural connections by quoting two ancient writers, Aratus and Epimenides. Aratus (310 BC – 240 BC) wrote a famous poem, Phaenomena, which describes the stars, constellations and other celestial phenomena. In Phaenomena 1-5, Aratus writes:

 “Let us begin with Zeus, whom we mortals never leave unspoken. For every street , every market-place is filled with Zeus. Even the sea and the harbors are full of his deity. Everywhere, everyone is indebted to Zeus. For we are indeed his offspring.”

Paul is claiming the Creator is not Zeus, but rather Yahweh. Now he quotes a second poet, Epimenides, who wrote in his work entitled Cretica:

“They fashion a tomb for thee. O holy and high one…But thou art not dead, thou livest and abides forever. For in thee we live and move and have our being.”

Paul now is making the connection between their own poet’s words and the death and resurrection of the one true God, Jesus Christ.


Randy teaching on the site of the debate, 2001

 “God overlooked people’s ignorance about these things in earlier times, but now he commands everyone everywhere to repent of their sins and turn to him. 31 For he has set a day for judging the world with justice by the man he has appointed, and he proved to everyone who this is by raising him from the dead.”

32 When they heard Paul speak about the resurrection of the dead, some laughed in contempt, but others said, “We want to hear more about this later.” 33 That ended Paul’s discussion with them, 34 but some joined him and became believers. Among them were Dionysius, a member of the council, a woman named Damaris, and others with them. Acts 17:30-34


Acropolis Amphitheater 

Through his cultural understanding, and knowledge of Greek literature, Paul reached into the minds of the Athenian elite. God made a connection to the heart of Dionysius, Damaris, and others, and they joined the Family. According to Rodney Stark, the sociologist who wrote ‘The Rise of Christianity”, the congregation in Athens grew over the next two centuries, becoming one of the largest in Greece.

How did Paul do it?

Paul told them of a Bigger God that they all sensed existed. After all, where did the virtues of wisdom, courage, justice and temperance come from? He was appealing to their sense of a higher moral code than that of their gods or their culture. Who was the source of this absolute moral code?

Why did Greeks have fear of their gods and death, when they all knew through Creation that there was a Creator of exquisite beauty and order? Didn’t Plato himself teach that there were metaphysical forms with which we intersect with in our soul and spirit, the most fundamental being “the Good”, who was a perfect entity that was eternal and constant that existed outside our space and time? When we do good things that we intersect and participate with this “Good.”

These Athenian philosophers were all very familiar with these teachings and concepts. Paul appealed to these intrinsic principles, and brought a message not only to their minds, but to their hearts. Yahweh is the Creator. He is the perfect entity that wants a relationship with mankind. He even became a man and lived among us so that we would have no misunderstanding who He is, and what He desires from us. His public execution on a cross and subsequent Resurrection proved his Divinity, and that all He said was true.

It was a presentation of the Gospel that was logical and culturally relative which penetrated the hearts of his listeners on the Aeropagus.


From Paul’s experience in Athens, I conclude that we should

  1. Do our best preparation to reach that person in front of us where they are at.
  2. Allow ourselves to step into their world, their thinking, and their experiences, to point them in the direction of God through our modeling the Christian life.
  3. Do our best to show friendship and affection through hospitality and service.
  4. It is at this point that we allow God to do His part, and open their minds and heart to Him, just as he did for Lydia in Philippi.
  5. We let the conversations take place naturally.
  6. Remember that it is only Him who can do that! Jesus Himself said:

 For no one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them to me, and at the last day I will raise them up.                   John 6:44

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