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Paul’s apology before the court of the Areopagus (Acts 17) has been held up as a master class in contextualization. Paul accommodates his message to his audience of Greek philosophers, adopting a metaphysical idiom and quoting “one of your own poets.” Paul’s address seems to lend an apostolic imprimatur to various shades and flavors of Christian Hellenism.

But that line of interpretation doesn’t fit easily into the context. Alone in Athens, Paul wanders the city, not admiring its intellectual achievement, its architecture or art, but becoming increasingly outraged at its rampant idolatry. He doesn’t ascend to the Areopagus in an accommodating mood; he’s gripped by the iconoclastic spirit of a Joshua or a Josiah more than the mild synthetic attitude of a Christian Platonist. As Joshua Jipp has pointed out, his speech draws repeatedly on the satirical idol polemics of Isaiah. God, he says, cannot be confined to temples built by human hands, nor is he well-represented by images of gold, silver, or stone. Some Greek thinkers stressed the same, yet most continued to participate in civic religion, opening themselves to charges of hypocrisy. Paul urges the Athenians to abandon the nothings they worship.

Paul isn’t intimidated by the sophisticates of Athens. Strange as he sounds to Athenian ears, he’s willing to subject his didache to their scrutiny. The gospel can more than hold its own. Epicureans and Stoics call him a “babbler,” but Paul tells them their worship is “ignorant” (agnoountes) because they worship an “unknown” God (agnosto theo). Though the philosophers assemble to put Paul’s teaching to the test, he turns the tables. At the end of his speech, he warns them of a coming judgment, which God has confirmed by raising the Judge from the dead. Surely Paul anticipates the dismissive scoffs that follow, but he doesn’t fluff up his message with more pleasing Hellenistic phrasings.

Luke’s account of this episode, however, adds a tantalizing layer of meta-Hellenism that links Paul’s Athenian moment with the career and trial of Socrates. Like the philosopher, Paul spends his days in Athens in dialectical discussion in the synagogue and the agora. Like Socrates, he’s charged with introducing strange new teaching and encouraging Athenians to worship new gods. 

Classicist and biblical scholar Loveday Alexander has argued that Luke’s entire biography of the apostle, which occupies the second half of Acts, conforms to a Socratic template. Socrates began his philosophical quest after receiving a puzzling oracle at Delphi; and as Paul repeatedly reminds his interrogators, he too was divinely commissioned, by the light and voice he encountered on the road to Damascus. Socrates is continuously guided by his daimon, as Paul, throughout his missionary expeditions, is prompted, led, and sometimes blocked by the Spirit of Jesus. Already in Plato’s Apology, Socrates describes his “herculean” labors, and by Paul’s time writers like Seneca had added more trials to the legend—poverty, shipwreck, battles. Some of them are identical to Paul’s own hardships, listed in his apostolic apology, the second letter to the Corinthians.

The apostle and philosopher are most closely akin at their respective trials. A number of Greek accounts of Socrates are set in an Athenian prison, and in the first century he was perhaps best known, as Diogenes Laertius puts it, as “the first philosopher who was condemned to death and executed.” Half of Luke’s account of Paul is a series of trial scenes, as Paul appears before Jewish authorities, Roman governors, and Herod Agrippa on his way to a final hearing before Caesar. Along the way, Luke uses the word apologia seven times. Both Socrates and Paul are accused of impiety, Paul by Jews and Socrates by Greeks, and both insist on their innocence.

Luke verbally echoes both Plato and Xenophon. During one of his trials, Paul claims to “train” (asko) himself to achieve a blameless conscience, employing a term that Xenophon uses repeatedly in his account of Socrates’s trial. Near the end of Plato’s Apology, Socrates tells his friends to “wait” (paraminate) for him since nothing “hinders” (klouei) their conversation. Luke ends Acts with Paul remaining (enemeinen) in Roman confinement, but with freedom to preach Christ “unhindered” (akolutos).

Luke’s Socratic references are too numerous and targeted to be accidental, especially when we stir in his sly allusions to Euripides’s Bacchae in his account of the riot at Philippi, his recurring nods to Homeric and Vergilian epic, and his overt references to Greco-Roman gods and mythic figures (Zeus, Hermes, Ares, Artemis, Castor, Pollux).

Acts doesn’t offer the synthesis known as Christian Hellenism, but something more like a typological reading of Greek myth, history, and philosophy. As ambassador for the Christ who fulfills the law and prophets, Luke’s Paul merges and surpasses Judaic and Hellenic ways in the new Way of Jesus. Paul comes to Athens as a greater Socrates who dispels ignorance and calls her vaunted intellectuals to love the higher Wisdom who gives all things to all.

Peter J. Leithart is president of Theopolis Institute. 

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Image by Mätes II., licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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