Athens in the first century CE was not the great centre of democracy and philosophy that it had once been. After its destruction by Sulla in 86BCE, its repeated poor choices of affiliations during the Roman civil wars, and its fractious relationship with Augustus, the city in the first century CE could be described as recovering, but not particularly flourishing. Even with the Roman emperors’ interest in the city as a symbol of the great things of the Hellenistic past—a symbol they were more than happy to appropriate for their own propaganda—the city was still at a low ebb in regards to its status as a destination for learning and culture. When Paul arrived in Athens, he was presented with a city still bearing the scars of Sulla’s attack over a century earlier.
The apostle was also presented with the contested nature of the city. The Athenians were wrestling with the tension caused by the need to court their Roman rulers—evidenced by honorary inscriptions, the adoption of the imperial cult, and the building of many (Roman-funded) statues and buildings which projected Roman ideology—and their desire to maintain a proud Athenian identity—evidenced by their dedicated continuation of Athenian bronze coinage. The old agora, formerly used for democratic processes, was now cluttered with statues, idols and buildings that could varyingly be used to project Rome’s dominance over the city, or as “weaponised nostalgia” to reinvigorate the Athenians’ self-identity.
In this paper, I will consider the Acts 17 record of Paul’s arrival and ministry in Athens, and the establishment of the church there, in light of the context of the city outlined above. Paul appeals to the Athenians religiosity, history, and philosophy in order to present them the God who has ordained the times and boundaries of all nation (whether Greek, Roman or other) and the one man, Jesus, to whom all must give an account. This is no accommodation of the Christian message to Greek philosophical ideals, but a well managed presentation of a “new” God and his appointed ruler, and the establishment of what would have been a new community with an identity immune to the contested politics of first century Athens.
4 May 2019
Society for the Study of Early Christianity Annual Conference 2019