Some ideas become ubiquitous rather quickly, even if they have a less than substantial basis in reality. This is true in all arenas of thought, but is perhaps most pernicious in all things religious. The still rather large niche market of what I could only term pop-culture American Christianity is especially susceptible to this problem, as theologically suspect and exegetically questionable notions can quickly gain a sub-cultural foothold.
This rather nebulous description is perhaps best illustrated in an idea that I have always taken for granted, but have recently begun to question. The idea I have in mind is that of accommodating the message of the Gospel to be expressed in a way that is winsome and relevant to the cultural milieu in which one finds oneself.
The perennial Scriptural foundation for this is Paul’s encounter with the pagans at the Aeropagus, also known as Mars Hill. A notion associated with this narrative is that Paul took the assumptions and even proof texts of his listeners and formulated his presentation of the Gospel to make sense within that milieu. The idea is certainly not that he substantially modified the message, but rather that he made it culturally accessible; after all, how does a Jew explain a fundamentally Jewish notion of God and salvation to Gentiles who do not have the same notions of the divine nature?
As aforementioned, this idea seems straightforward enough, and has some consonance with the text. And trying to make explicitly Christian notions about God understandable is not the target in my sights, but rather what I would refer to as exegetical creep. That is, if we begin with the presumption that St. Paul is intentionally presenting his message under a certain guise to be culturally accessible, the logic is extended so that the cultural accessibility can become paramount. We can begin to be more concerned with the ways in which the message is relevant than with worrying about if we are accurately presenting it. Naturally, one would probably never intentionally favor the style of the message over the message, but one cannot help but look at the way in which the Gospel is often presented in our current experience and wonder if that is not indeed happening, all under the auspices of cultural relevance.
The real danger then becomes substituting the power of the Gospel and the sign of contradiction it is meant to be (especially in the disciples it creates) for the cultural accommodation that all too easily occurs in trying to be relevant or authentic or any of the other buzzwords we employ to describe the ways in which we are presenting the Gospel to a buzzword inebriated culture.
And so we come back around again to Mars Hill- what exactly is happening here, and what is St. Paul trying to do?
St. Paul’s encounters with the philosophers seems to occur by chance, since we are told that he was only in Athens while waiting for Timothy and Silas. But Paul was not one to waste any opportunity, and so he did what he was prone to do: he started arguing with people.
While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols. So he argued in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and also in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. (Acts 17:16-17 NRSV)
St. Paul’s agitation is borne not out of an existential discontent or even boredom but rather a deep distress from seeing all the idols in Athens. His Jewish pedigree ensured that he not only had a profound distaste for idolatry of any kind (which we see coming across in his epistles), but also had a theological sadness in knowing that the people of Athens were worshipping that which is nothing. And thus he channeled his distress into evangelism, but went about it in a way that we usually discourage today: debates.
After some time arguing with his own kinsmen and others in the market, he fell in among some of the pagan philosophers:
Also some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers debated with him. Some said, “What does this babbler want to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign divinities.” (This was because he was telling the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.) (Acts 17:18 NRSV)
It would be too tedious to offer a context for both Epicureanism and Stoicism, but one interesting bit is that these two philosophies were in some respects opposed to each other. Luke seems to have the Stoics more willing to listen to Paul, while the Epicureans are placed in the more oppositional position. For example, when Luke relates the identities of the two groups, he draws a subtle link by means of order between the Epicureans (What does this babbler want to say?) and the Stoics (He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign divinities). Given the varying philosophies and Paul’s eventual argument, the real conflict that is presented here seems to to hinge on the Epicureans rejection of providence and the Stoics quasi-acceptance of it. (We see a similar link created by Luke in Paul’s discussion of the resurrection with the Sadducees and the Pharisees.)
St. Paul comes out of the gate swinging, moving from arguing with his kinsmen to arguing with the Epicureans and the Stoics. But even though both groups find the discussion of resurrection hard to understand (or simply incoherent), they nevertheless want him to give a more thorough account of what he is proclaiming, and thus have him speak at Mars Hill.
From the outset St. Paul is engaging in straight up polemics, and it was understood in ancient times that rhetoric was a battle as much as anything else. Even rhetoric designed to persuade had a sense of conflict in it, for one was trying to prevail in some way. St. Paul, having some training in rhetoric, understands this, and so does his audience. As such, it becomes a terrible misunderstanding from the very beginning to interpret his words without their polemical character. His opening salvo, for example, is meant to be both disarming in its cleverness while also a backhanded insult:
“Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way.” (Acts 17:22 NRSV)
Some translations render this as ‘superstitious,’ but regardless of the translation his mocking intent is fairly clear, and must have been for his audience as well. His Jewish understanding of God has no room for idols, and thus to commend pagans for their devotion to what he knows to be meaningless pieces of rock and wood only underscores his ironic compliment. Both groups of philosophers would have actually probably agreed with him to some extent; the Epicureans were generally stereotyped as atheists, and the Stoics would probably not have actually understood the idols to be anything real but rather representative of the gods or of God.
But lest Paul be rebuffed for erecting a straw man, his intent is to make fun of their opulent displays of piety by pointing out that they have an altar to an unknown god:
For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ (Acts 17:23 NRSV)
The joke is that even though they have countless idols and thus consider themselves pious, they still don’t have all their bases covered since they have to try and make up for their lack of piety and ignorance with a catch-all altar. Their piety promises knowledge but they admit to ignorance and even admit to worshipping that of which they are professedly ignorant.
Oh yes, we can hear Paul wryly proclaim, I can see that you are very religious. Not only do you worship what you claim to know, you also worship what you claim you do not know. Is there anything that you don’t worship, being so religious? And the shot across the bow for the philosophers is that, whatever their understanding (or lack thereof) of God is, they live and worship and philosophize in a city that is so very religious. Athens is supposed to be the apex of learning and philosophy, but it is cluttered with meaningless rocks with pretensions to deity.. One can almost hear St. Paul chuckling as he speaks.
The Main Idea
St. Paul plays off of this admitted ignorance by owning it for them, and then turning it around to contrast the empty piety towards the gods with the Jewish and Christian understanding of God in his oneness:
What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. (Acts 17: 23b-25 NRSV)
In other words, his proclamation contains both a positive connotation in that he is claiming to tell them a profound truth, but also a negative connotation since this is something that the supposedly deeply religious are completely ignorant of, as their worship indicates. St. Paul seems to making every effort to be as confrontational as possible.
Thus far Paul has the Epicureans in his sight, for theirs was a tacit denial of providence. However the world came to be, it was ultimately chaotic and subject to the whims of chance. If the gods did exist, they had nothing to do with human affairs, themselves perhaps as subject to chaos as anything else. Ultimately they seemed to have advanced a rather materialistic philosophy, and St. Paul will have none of this. His opening argument is meant to contrast most decisively with this sort of philosophy.
The Stoics are also in view, for while they did not hold to the materialism of the Epicureans, they tended to view creation as a manifestation of God, blurring the ontological lines between Creator and creation. St. Paul’s words here run counter to this more pantheistic notion, as Paul draws a clear line of demarcation between God and creation.
Thus, rather than beginning by speaking in culturally accommodating ways, St. Paul begins by proclaiming a rather strident Jewish/Christian understanding of God.
As he moves forward St. Paul again takes aim at his audience’s entrenched notions:
From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. (Acts 17:26-27 NRSV)
The Epicureans understood- as already mentioned- that chaos was the underlying reality of the universe, and thus there was no room in their philosophy for any notion of providence. If the gods existed they were not guiding the universe or interested in human affairs. The Stoics disagreed, believing that fate ruled all with an iron grip- even the gods were under its auspices. Thus while the Stoics may have found some resonance with Paul’s description of God’s providence here, his proclamation of this unknown God is running afoul of their understanding of providence, since God is presumably not bound by fate but is directing humanity and all creation in its path.
By far the Epicureans get the shorter end of the stick here, but since St. Paul is an equal opportunity offender, he decides to switch things up on the Stoics and do something that really gives the more modern approach to this passage its teeth: he quotes some pagan writers:
For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’ (Acts 17:28 NRSV)
While this could seem to be a case of cultural accommodation, of placing the message of the Gospel within a milieu that is understandable, what St. Paul actually seems to be doing here is a classic rhetorical move- he is using their own writers against them. St. Chrysostom remarks on this passage thusly:
Did the words of the Gospel need to be declared? The would have mocked them. Or maybe the words from the books of the prophets or from the precepts of the laws should have been talked about? But they would not have believed. What did he do then? He rushed to the altar and defeated them with the weapons of the enemies themselves. And that was what he said, “I became a everything to everyone: to the Jews a Jew, to those outside the law as if I were outside the law. (St. Chrysostom, Catena on the Acts of the Apostles 17.23)
St. Paul’s point is to rebuff his opponent’s understanding by means of their own assertions. If we live and move and have our being in God, then contrary to the Epicureans there is providence, and contra the Stoics all is not moved by fate but by providence. If we are his offspring then contra the Epicureans God providentially cares for his creation, and contra the Stoics God is not his creation.
St. Paul certainly refers to the language and understanding of his audience, but he does so in order that he can defeat them, as St. Chrysostom says. His ‘becoming all things to all men’ is to correct and rebuke them for their idolatry and ignorant philosophy. When we see the actual context in which St. Paul becomes all things to all men, it takes on a much different flavor than is commonly understood.
Lest the polemical nature of Paul’s speech be mistaken, he reinforces his disdain for idolatry by means of the same quotations:
Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. (Acts 17:29 NRSV)
St. Paul is still very much in Jewish/Christian territory here, describing the absurdity of idolatry in all its forms. He even seems to ‘lapse’ back into a more distinctly Jewish form of thinking (as if he ever left), for his statement here clearly has in mind Isaiah 44:9-20, something with which his audience would most likely be unfamiliar. Yet at the same time these philosophers probably fundamentally agreed with him about the absurdity of their city overflowing with idols; indeed, that is probably St. Paul’s intent. No rhetorical move is more effective than one in which one’s audience is compelled to agree, even if that agreement arises out of shame.
St. Paul concludes with a classical treatment of Jewish theodicy, coupled with a decidedly Christian character:
While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” (Acts 17:30-31)
It was Paul’s preaching of the resurrection of the dead that compelled the philosophers to hear more of his talk, and some may have even misunderstood him to be speaking of the resurrection as a deity itself. (Anastatsis [resurrection], in Greek, sounds like the feminine name Anastasia and may have been understood to be a deity.) But as he clarifies it becomes clear to both groups that he is actually advocating a resurrection of the body, a concept which had little purchase among either group. Luke once again seems to present a marked distinction between the Epicureans and the Stoics here; the former are subtly linked to those who ‘scoffed,’ while the latter are identified with those who all willing to hear more about it again.
Either way, his conclusion runs in direct contradiction to their worldview, and St. Paul does not even try to attempt to rephrase it in more philosophically or culturally accommodating ways. Rather, he finishes off his polemics with the most divisive issue of all, the resurrection of the body and the judgment of the dead. This typical Jewish/Christian theodicy had no correlation or point of connection with the Epicureans or the Stoics, and thus St. Paul ends on the most polemic note of all.
Given the preceding reading, it is difficult to take at face value the modern popular notion that St. Paul is trying to make his presentation of the Gospel culturally accessible or winsome or relevant. In all actuality, his points of contact with his interlocutors are intended to point out their philosophy’s bankruptcy, or at least to demonstrate the superiority of his message by contrast. He seemed to understand that there was going to be an inevitable conflict between two opposing world views, and the clash between them could not result in any sort of compromise. Thus, he uses his opponents’ own views against them, decrying them for their ignorance.
In the end, St. Paul seemed to understand that although there might be some common ground between them, even appealing to their sensibilities and cultural understandings was not going to rid them of their idols. St. Paul was nothing if not a fighter, and it is perhaps appropriate that he is usually iconographically presented with a sword. Indeed, in this case he took up the pagans’ own authorities as a rhetorical weapon, jumping into the fray of two inevitably clashing world views.
Sometimes, it would seem, the truth must be a cudgel.
And that is how St. Paul became all things to all men.