Eavesdropping on a Historical Areopagus Sermon

View from the Areopagus.

View from the Areopagus.

Early some Sunday morning in June, I dragged myself out of my bed in Athens and hiked up to the Areopagus to shoot my latest video blog episode on Paul’s famous Areopagus speech.

Though I had hoped to avoid the inevitable glut of tourists, several Christian groups had already congregated around the hill for Sunday morning worship. An American pastor (who you see featured at 00:42 in the video) was preaching a sermon on Paul’s speech to one of these groups. Standing at an awkward distance to eavesdrop, I overheard the pastor echoing my own thesis: Paul emulates Greek apologists–especially Socrates–in his speech.

The pastor’s conclusion?: Acts 17 proves that the historical figure of Paul was well-versed in Greek apologetics and that he deployed these skills to tailor his message for his Athenian audience.

As benign as this may sound, this pastor highlights the toughest obstacle I encountered when writing this vlog, namely, acknowledging the disconnect between the traditional and scholarly interpretations of this Biblical passage in a way that was both fair and accurate. 

For most Christians, this pastor included, Acts 17 is an accurate representation of a historical speech that Paul gave on the Areopagus sometime in the mid-1st century CE.

For most scholars, Acts 17 reflects how the author of Acts wanted to portray Paul as well-versed in Greek apologetics.

Notice the difference.

The former assumes the historicity of the event, the latter recognizes that the event is filtered through the lens of an author. This doesn’t necessarily preclude the historicity of the event, but it DOES return agency to the author who has a vested interest in crafting a positive image of their main protagonist Paul.

Of course, some scholars unequivocally assert that the event is spurious. From their perspective the author of Acts is obviously a Pauline fan-boy who composed this speech from whole-cloth in an attempt to prove Paul’s intellectual prowess. But other scholars strike a more moderate tone, conceding that Paul may have given a speech in Athens which the author of Acts then embellishes.

Since it’s difficult to prove a negative (i.e Paul didn’t give this speech) by historical means, I side with the moderate position that Paul may have given a speech in Athens that more or less follows the trajectory described in Acts. However, as an educator in ancient religion, I would be remiss to gloss over the complexity of this passage. Paul possibly did not give this speech, and if he did, it might not have sounded exactly like how the author of Acts records it.

Historical criticism such as this is disconcerting for many people of faith and may invite opprobrium both in the classroom and in blog comments, but I’m a firm believer that engaging and appreciating this complexity can not only benefit one’s own beliefs, but it is also a vital component of religious literacy. 

Yes, historical and archaeological interpretation, especially within biblical studies, is a messy business, and scholarly conclusions don’t always tell us what we want to hear. But the whole point of religious literacy is to become a more informed and empathetic individual in the 21st century. It is to discover how to thrive in a diverse secular society, not hiding from viewpoints that challenge our opinions but rather engaging them honestly with an open mind.

 

 

Andrew Henry is a PhD student in early Christianity at Boston University. His research focuses on the popular and domestic religion of the eastern Mediterranean, particularly the magico-religious rituals deployed to harness and direct ritual power.

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