Acts 17:1-9: Paul and Silas (and probably Timothy as well) travel to Thessalonica, an ancient city even at that time (founded in 315 BCE). Paul reaches out first through the synagogue, offering an interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures, an authoritative source of faith for both Jews and Christains. The issue is not authority but interpretation. Christians understand the Old Testament to point beyond itself to Christ and the church; Jews understand it to point to the continuation and further development of God’s purpose in the synagogue and Jewish tradition. (Peoples New Testament Commentary). That the focus of the interpretive argument Paul offers is the suffering of Jesus is not surprising as it would have been a contentious issue among Jewish people. Could one who suffered such a shameful death really be God’s Messiah, Anointed One, Christ (all three terms are synonymous)? Paul not only argues that the Messiah will suffer, but in fact has – that the Messiah is Jesus. Some believe Paul, both Jews and Gentiles, and some do not. Among those who do are “leading women.” Apparently the early church offered influential women a greater leadership role than was possible in they synagogue. The history of Christianity demonstrates that this early trend was not continued as even today significant branches of the Christian church deny to women the role of clergy or other leadership positions.
Whatever success Paul and Silas have creates a problem for some and opposition arises. Jason, in whose home Paul and Silas have been staying, is dragged before the city authorities, along with some believers. They are charged with disturbing the peace (“turning the world upside down” – to us this phrase can have both positive and negative connotations), with disobeying the decrees of the emperor, and of proclaiming a rival king. Jason has to post bail, indicating that he is a person of some means. As an author Luke often takes great pains to imply that Christians were not a political threat to the empire. Ironically, though the early church was not a direct political threat, its message really was one about an alternative kingdom, an alternative way of life, which was in essence anti-imperial. In what ways might Christian faith be critical of some of the prevailing social, cultural and political trends and movements of our day and time?
Acts 17:10-15: As has been the case before, Paul and Silas leave a place of conflict quietly. In this new place, Beroea, the message they share is received more warmly by more people – among them Greek women and men of high standing. Luke often portrayed Jesus as concerned for the poor. In Acts, he often takes time to mention that influential people are becoming a part of the Jesus movement. In part Luke does this to try and demonstrate that the Christian movement was not some kind of proletarian revolution against the empire. When one puts Luke’s gospel and Acts together, one gets a fuller picture of a church that is meant to include all, regardless of economic status. The past catches up with Paul and he again leaves in the face of conflict. Sometimes opposition needs to be engaged and sometimes one leaves to fight another day – metaphorically speaking.
Acts 17:16-34: Paul’s destination is Athens. Though Athens was still renowned as the glorious city of classical times (fifth-fourth centuries BCE) where Plato and Aristotle had taught, its actual importance had greatly declined in the first century. (Peoples New Testament Commentary) Athens was a city that contained a number of statues to the gods. Jews were disturbed by the polytheism of Greco-Roman religion and by the fact that people seemed to worship hand-made statues. Both charges were valid against much of the folk religion of antiquity, but many thoughtful pagans had come to believe in one God who was represented in the variety of gods and goddesses, praying to “Zeus of many names,” and most would have said they did not worship the statue itself, but the god it symbolizes (Peoples New Testament Commentary).
Paul begins his work of sharing the good news about Jesus in the synagogues, but also engages in discussion in the marketplace. Today Christians should also be a part of the discussion in the marketplace of ideas. In that setting, Paul was in conversation and debate with Epicureans (followers of Epicurus – 341-270 BCE), who advocated the view that happiness was the highest human good and taught that persons should live austerely and responsibly and not engage in public and political life, and with Stoics (founded by Zeno – 340-265 BCE), who believed not in any gods but in the universality of reason and in living a life in accord with that reason – a life of virtue based on knowledge, self-sufficiency and devotion to duty. As a philosophy major, it is fascinating to see these philosophical movements referred to in the New Testament, though they aren’t referred to anyplace else within its pages. In the midst of this debate, Paul was called a babbler (literally a seed-picker), someone who dropped little bits and pieces here and there but offered no coherent philosophy of life, and was seen as proclaiming foreign gods. In Athens, debate was encouraged, but new ideas were not readily received. Nevertheless, Paul is asked by some to explain more deeply.
Paul offers a response. Notice that he begins by affirming something positive about the Athenians – their religious sensibility. He next wants to connect with them by talking about the God of creation, the God who made all that is. Christians do not bring God, or the worship of God, to people of other religions, for the one true God is universally present. Christians must still bear witness to their faith that the God already present and worshipped in paganism is in fact the God who has definitively revealed himself and acted in Jesus Christ (Peoples New Testament Commentary). The religious search is universal and affirmed by Paul, who also affirms that though it feels like we “search” for God, God is already near each person. “In [God] we live and move and have our being.” Paul begins to bring them to a moment where they will need to make some decision. Will you continue to worship in ignorance or open yourself to God as God is known in Jesus Christ, the one whom God raised from the dead?
The response, as recorded by Luke is fascinating. Some scoff – the notion of resurrection was difficult for them. Some want to hear Paul again. In spite of this, Paul moves on. The names of two new believers are mentioned: Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damatis. Tradition has it that Dionysius became bishop of Athens and was killed by the Emperor Domitian. Furthermore, the identity of Dionysius was assumed by a fifth century monk who wrote a short treatise on mystical theology under the name of Dionysius the Areopagite. Christian tradition is replete with fascinating stories like this, where a minor character in the biblical text is given a larger role in the on-going Christian story.