At the Center of the Greek World

Paul’s only recorded visit to Athens was a momentous one and the subject of a detailed section in Luke’s account of early church history.

The book of Acts indicates that Paul was brought to the city by sea by some of the people of Berea who had become believers (Acts 17:14–15). Once there, he called for his colleagues Silas and Timothy to join him.

During his time alone in the city, he became more and more concerned at the idolatry he saw all around. Luke writes that “his spirit was provoked within him” (verse 16). Paul was astonished by the number of temples, altars, objects of worship, and statues of Greek gods and Roman emperors. Pausanias, the second-century traveler and geographer, wrote in his Description of Greece (1.24.3) that “the Athenians are far more devoted to religion than other men.”

At the famous Acropolis, Paul would have seen the Parthenon and, inside, Phidias’s colossal gold and ivory statue of Athena Parthenos—the “virgin Athena,” goddess of the city—towering nearly 40 feet high. By the first century Athens had declined in importance from its classical days of greatness, and its population was probably only five or ten thousand. But it was a free city, allied with Rome and having its own form of government, and primarily an intellectual and cultural center.

All Things to All Men

As usual when he came to a town or city, Paul went first to the synagogue and reasoned with the Jewish and gentile worshipers. But in Athens he also spoke “in the market place daily with those who happened to be there” (verse 17). The sense is that he was willing to discuss his beliefs with anyone who wished to converse, not that he pressured people to listen. And there, just below the Acropolis, Paul came into contact not only with the general public but with disciples of the Epicurean and Stoic schools of thought, founded by the philosophers Epicurus and Zeno.

What followed was an unusual opportunity, because most of the people Paul addressed would have held to pagan beliefs. In order to reach them, he had to use a different approach than in the synagogue. He spoke in language the Athenians could appreciate, yet he still made his point. Paul’s carefully crafted words have been described by the eminent 19th-century Pauline scholars Conybeare and Howson as “full of the most impressive teaching for every age of the world.” These authors concluded, “We cannot fail to notice how the sentences of this interrupted speech are constructed to meet the cases in succession of every class of which the audience was composed.”

For the Stoics, the divine was everywhere and in everything. They were pantheists who believed that at death the human spirit returns to God for fiery “recycling”; in that sense, for them, there was no personal afterlife. Further, they said that everything that happens is God’s will and should not be resisted. Their code was an austere one of both self-denial and apathy. The Epicureans, on the other hand, were as close to being atheists as people who still made reference to the gods could be. They held that death was final, that everything happened by chance, and that the gods were of shadowy substance, remote and disinterested at best in humanity, and therefore life should be spent in pursuit of the highest form of pleasure—the removal of all pain.

According to Luke, the Athenians in general were known for spending their time in passing around the latest news and ideas. Much of the discussion took place in the Stoa, or colonnaded area, around the market place. As Paul addressed the crowd, the reaction to his words about Jesus and the resurrection was mostly negative. Some of the philosophers tossed ideas back and forth with him and eventually insulted him, referring to him as an ignorant show-off. The offending word in Greek meant, literally, “a seed picker,” a lazy person who made a living from picking up scraps of food. In Paul’s case, the term referred not to food but to bits of religious or philosophical knowledge, and thus to a person who spoke without real knowledge. Others in the audience were concerned that Paul was breaking an Athenian law against the introduction of new gods. Inviting him to explain his ideas further, they took him to nearby Mars Hill—if that was still the meeting place of the Areopagus, or official court of the government of Athens—or to a place within the Stoa (verses 18–21).

So Paul got to his feet in the middle of their council, and began, ‘Gentlemen of Athens, my own eyes tell me that you are in all respects an extremely religious people.’” 

Acts 17:22, J.B. Phillips Translation

Paul’s discourse was masterful. He said that during his stay he had noticed that the Athenians were “very religious,” because they worshiped many objects. Though Paul was in fact greatly distressed by the city’s open idolatry, his language remained courteous and friendly. He said that he had come upon an altar dedicated to “the unknown god.” (That such altars existed in Athens is supported by Pausanias’s mention of them about a hundred years after Paul was there.) Thus Paul could not be convicted of introducing a new god, since he claimed that their unknown god was the very God he represented, and that they worshiped Him without realizing it.

Then, on the basis of the good will he had created, Paul made an audacious comment. Surrounded by the area’s many temples, he said, “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.” Further, he said, the God he was speaking of could not be “worshiped with men’s hands, as though He needed anything, since He gives to all life, breath, and all things” (verses 24–25). Here Paul seemed to be alluding first to the Greek dramatist Euripides, who wrote, “God, if he be truly God, has need of nothing” and second, to Seneca, who wrote that “God seeks no servants . . . he himself serves mankind.”

Paul continued to explain that God “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.” The apostle had no intention of talking only about the God of ancient Israel but about the God of all humanity. This common origin of mankind was not a truth that the Athenians would have appreciated, believing as they did that they were a unique people. But Paul noted that this common ancestry meant that all humanity “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” (verses 26–27). Paul had his doubts that the Athenians would seek Him, but certainly God intended that they should.

Next he said, “For in Him we live and move and have our being, as also some of your own poets have said.” Many scholars believe that here Paul quoted Epimenides of Crete, who, according to legend, went around erecting altars to anonymous gods. In one of his poems, addressing the supreme god, he wrote: “They fashioned a tomb for thee, O holy and high one—the Cretans, always liars, evil beasts, idle bellies! But thou art not dead: thou livest and abidest forever, for in thee we live and move and have our being.” Extending the argument, Paul said, “For we are also His offspring.” This is yet another quote, this time from the poem Phenomena by Aratus of Cilicia. Cilicia was, of course, Paul’s birthplace, and this perhaps accounts for his familiarity with the poet’s work.

Paul’s main argument was that the worship of idols has nothing to do with the one true God who created everything. Thus he was saying that idolatry is wrong, because nothing that man can fashion can even approximate the Creator and certainly should not be worshiped. What was needed was for the Athenians to change their evil ways, to turn around and to go the other way. Further, he said, because the world has sinned in many ways, idolatry being just one of them, God will send a man to judge the world. Then, startlingly, he said that the man God will send has already been resurrected from the dead.

Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some began to sneer, but others said, ‘We shall hear you again concerning this.’”

Acts 17:32, New American Standard Bible

At the mention of the resurrection, some made fun of Paul, some said they would like to hear more later, and some believed him (verse 32). Among the latter was a leader of the Areopagus, Dionysius. Members of this court were chosen from among the archons, or leaders of the city, which gives us a clue to Dionysius’s status in Athenian society. From Paul’s unique approach to delivering the message came additional believers: a woman named Damaris and several others. Nothing more is known of the Athenian church, but the manner in which Paul addressed this unusual audience confirms that he tried, as he said in one of his letters, to be “all things to all men” (1 Corinthians 9:22).

On to Corinth

From Athens, Paul traveled 50 miles to the west to the commercial capital of the area, Corinth. The classical city seems to have been established in the eighth or ninth century B.C.E. and was almost completely destroyed by the Romans in 146 B.C.E. A century later, Julius Caesar recreated it as a Roman colony, populating it with freedmen. By the 50s C.E., when Paul went there, it was once again becoming the wealthiest city in southern Greece.

Like most cities with port facilities, Corinth fostered a mobile and decadent society. But its everyday moral problems were only made worse by local religious practices. Early in the first century C.E., the geographer Strabo claimed that one thousand female slave prostitutes, having been dedicated as offerings, had at one time been active at the Temple of Aphrodite. While that is disputed, it is known that the temple, which was associated with immorality, was restored in Roman times. In this challenging and corrupt environment, Paul stayed for 18 months (Acts 18:11) and established a group of followers of the Way. It was here, too, that he began to write some of the letters that form a major part of the New Testament. Among the first were his two letters to the church he had helped form a few months earlier at Thessalonica.

When Paul arrived in Corinth he met two Jews, Aquila and his wife, Priscilla, who had recently been expelled from Rome under an imperial decree promulgated by Claudius Caesar in about 49 C.E. The Roman biographer Suetonius records that Claudius drove the Jews out of the capital because they were causing trouble at the prompting of one “Chrestus.” Whether this was an individual’s name or an inaccurate spelling of “Christus” is not known. That Jews were persecuted by three successive emperors of the period is well established. It is not surprising that as Jews under persecution, Aquila and Priscilla went to Corinth; it was a crossroads of the ancient world and had a Jewish community. There Paul stayed with the couple, since they shared the same occupation: tentmaking and leatherwork.

Near the forum in Corinth, on the Lechaion Road, archeologists have found part of an inscription on white marble. It probably read in full “Synagogue of the Hebrews” and was placed over the door of the meeting place. It confirms that there were enough Jews in Corinth in the period to warrant such a building, and the New Testament mentions the presence of a synagogue at the time of Paul’s visit. Luke tells us that Paul went there every Sabbath and spoke with Jews and gentiles, proselytes and God-fearers.

When Silas and Timothy arrived from Macedonia, Paul devoted his whole time to speaking and left off working with Aquila and Priscilla. Unfortunately, most of the Jews and proselytes rejected the message, and Paul decided to deal solely with the gentiles. Only a few from the synagogue immediately became members of the Church. First was Titius Justus, who lived by the synagogue and was a God-fearer. And, surprising to the Jews, the others were the synagogue ruler, Crispus, and his household. As a result, other Corinthians soon joined the group. Paul confirms in his first letter to the Corinthian church that he personally baptized Crispus, and Luke records in Acts that many others were baptized (Acts 18:5–8; 1 Corinthians 1:14).

Paul was able to continue teaching from the safety of Justus’s house until opposition boiled over once more. When Corinth received its newly appointed Roman proconsul, Gallio, in 51 C.E., some of the Jews seized the opportunity to complain to him about Paul. Gallio was an older brother of the Roman philosopher Seneca, who later became an advisor to Emperor Nero. Despite the fact that Crispus, a man of influence, had become a follower of the Way, Paul was accused of persuading people to worship God against the law. In effect, his opponents said that he was promoting an illegal religion. It was a weak argument. Paul was a Jew, and Judaism was a legally recognized religion in the Roman Empire. Gallio quickly saw the case against Paul as an internal Jewish matter and threw it out of court, effectively recognizing the followers of Jesus as a legal part of Judaism. This ruling allowed the Corinthian church to flourish (Acts 18:12–16).

Gallio said, ‘Listen, you Jews, if this were a case of inflicted injury or a serious crime, I could reasonably be expected to hear you out patiently. But since it involves questions about words and names and your own law, then you must deal with it yourselves. I flatly refuse to judge such matters.’” 

Acts 18:14b–15, Jewish New Testament

What kind of teaching did Paul bring to the Church members in Corinth during his long stay there? Did he launch a new religion, as his accusers claimed and as many claim today? Was Paul the founder of a new religion or a follower of Jesus? His two extant letters to the congregation at Corinth tell us in detail what he taught. Take the following statement, for example: “I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you: that the Lord Jesus on the same night in which He was betrayed took bread; and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, ‘Take, eat; this is My body which is broken for you; do this in remembrance of Me.’ In the same manner He also took the cup after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in My blood. This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.’ For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death till He comes” (1 Corinthians 11:23–26).

Here, in a brief passage, we see that Paul followed his Master exactly. In this case, he taught and practiced what Jesus did on His final Passover evening with His disciples. And this letter was written 20 years after Paul became a follower. But did he recommend that followers emulate Jesus in other ways? For example, did he expect them to keep the Sabbath and holy days just as the Jews of that time did, and as Jesus Himself had done? In 1 Corinthians, Paul writes to Jews and gentiles that he expects them to keep a feast that the ancient Israelites had kept: “Therefore purge out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, since you truly are unleavened. For indeed Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us. Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (1 Corinthians 5:7–8). When he speaks of keeping or observing the feast, he is speaking of the Feast of the Passover and the Days of Unleavened Bread, something that Jesus Himself kept (see Luke 22:1, 7–8). Even in the gentile world, Paul was following Jesus’ example down to the letter by teaching and observing the holy days that God had commanded of ancient Israel in the Old Testament.

After many months in Corinth, Paul determined to return to Antioch in Syria. To do so, he went first to Cenchrea, Corinth’s eastern port, taking a ship to the city of Ephesus, then a major port on the eastern side of the Aegean Sea. It was the capital of the Roman province of Asia and home to the governor. As we will see, Paul ended up spending more time in Ephesus than anywhere else on his journeys. He lived and taught in the city for up to three years. We pick up his stay there next time in “The Apostles,” Part 7.