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Steve Heil


Paul’s View of the Law: Galatians (Chaps. 3-4, Argument 1)

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Galatians 3-4 constitutes the probatio, according to the terminology of classical rhetoric—that is, where the principal arguments are presented and the case made. Paul uses a variety of “proofs”, generally moving between arguments from Scripture, practical illustrations, and personal appeals, in an attempt to persuade and convince his audience. He has already stated the case in 2:15-21 (see the previous discussion), and in these chapters he seeks to persuade the Galatians.

Probatio (Galatians 3:1-4:31)

I divide the probatio into six sections, and will discuss each in turn:

  1. An appeal to the Galatians’ experience (3:1-6)
  2. Scriptural argument: the blessing of Abraham comes by faith (3:7-14)
    —contrasted with the curse of the Law (vv. 10-13)
  3. Scriptural argument: the promise to Abraham comes through Christ (3:15-29)
    Illustration: the nature of a testament/covenant, with a contrast between the Law and the promise (vv. 15-18)
    Statement(s) on the purpose of the Law (vv. 19-25)
    Statement on the promise that comes through Christ (vv. 23-25)
  4. Illustration: Slavery vs. Sonship (4:1-11)
  5. Appeal based on the example and person of Paul (4:12-20)
  6. An allegory from Scripture illustrating Slavery vs. Sonship (4:21-31)

Section 1: Galatians 3:1-6

Paul begins with an appeal to the Galatians’ experience, as believers who have come to Christ. He uses the rhetorical/dialogical technique of calling on his audience to bring forward the argument themselves (“this only I wish to learn from you…”, v. 2), by asking them a two-fold question, framed with a provocative accusation/insult (using the adjective a)no/hto$, “mindless, unintelligent”, i.e. “foolish”):

  • “O senseless [a)no/htoi] Galatians! who has exerted (this evil) influence on you?…” (v. 1)
    • Question: “did you receive the Spirit out of [i.e. from] works of Law or out of (the) hearing of trust/faith?” (v. 2)
  • “Are you thus (so) senseless [a)no/htoi]?…” (v. 3-4)
    • Question: “the one supplying… and working… (is he/it) out of [i.e. from] works of Law or out of (the) hearing of trust/faith?” (v. 5)

In both questions Paul contrasts two parallel expressions:

e)c e&rgwn no/mou
“out of works of Law”
e)c a)koh=$ pi/stew$
“out of (the) hearing of trust”

These are similar in form, with the preposition e)k (“out of”) in the sense of “from, through, on the basis of”. The expression “works of (the) Law” was already used in 2:16 (cf. my note on this verse), there being contrasted with “trust of Jesus Christ”, which is generally synonymous with “trusting in(to) Jesus Christ” as indicated there in 2:16. Here “works of Law” is set against “hearing of trust”, which probably should be understood in the sense of “hearing (the Gospel) so as to trust in Jesus”.  “Works of Law” is a shorthand for active observance of the commands and ordinances of the Old Testament Law (Torah or “Law of Moses”), particularly in its ritual/ceremonial aspect. Here in Galatians the reference is primarily to circumcision, but would also include the sacrificial offerings, observance of holy days (Sabbath, Passover, etc), dietary regulations, and so forth—even extending to supererogatory acts of religious devotion which go beyond the letter of the law. By juxtaposing the parallel genitive expressions, Paul creates a contrasting distinction—Law vs. faith/trust (in Christ), and the Galatians are ultimately asked to choose between them. The implicit correct answer to Paul’s two-fold question, as he has already stated, is “out of faith/trust“; but what is it that specifically comes out of faith/trust? In the first question (v. 2), it is the Galatians having received the Spirit; in the second (v. 5), Paul refers to:

“the One [i.e. God]
—supplying the Spirit upon you and
—working (work)s of power in/among you”

This indicates the two-sides of the religious/spiritual transformation: (a) the believer who receives the Spirit, and (b) the active work of God in giving the Spirit—both of these are seen as the result of a person hearing (and responding to) the Gospel in faith/trust. In verse 3, Paul also contrasts the Spirit with “the flesh [sa/rc]”, where the (second) question to the Galatians is specified:

“having begun in the Spirit, are you now being completed in/with flesh?”

Paul often juxtaposes the Spirit and flesh in his letters, and does so here in Galatians (cf. the allegory in 4:21-31 and  throughout the exhortatio of 5:1-6:10). Clearly, the contrast Spirit/flesh is meant to be understood as directly parallel to faith/Law. The “works of Law” are effectively “works of flesh“. The implication is also clear that, in turning to observance of the Law (“in flesh”, esp. circumcision), the Galatians would be turning away from the Spirit.

This section concludes with a quotation from Genesis 15:6, regarding Abraham; its purpose is two-fold: (a) as a Scriptural illustration of the argument in 3:1-5, and (b) as a transition into the Scriptural arguments of 3:7-29, which center upon Abraham. Because of the importance of this citation (also used by Paul in Romans 4:3ff, 22; and again by James 2:23), it is worth comparing the versions of it side by side:

Genesis 15:6

hq*d*x= oL h*b#v=j=Y~w~ hw`hyB^ /m!a$h#w+
“and he [i.e. Abraham] relied firmly on [i.e. trusted in] YHWH and He counted/regarded it for him (as) righteousness”

Genesis 15:6 [LXX]

kai\ e)pi/steusen Abram tw=| qew=| kai\ e)logi/sqh au)tw=| ei)$ dikaiosu/nhn
“and Abraham trusted (in) God and it was counted to/for him unto justice/righteousness”

Galatians 3:6

kaqw\$  )Abraa\m e)pi/steusen tw=| qew=| kai\ e)logi/sqh au)tw=| ei)$ dikaiosu/nhn
“and {even as} Abraham trusted (in) God and it was counted to/for him unto justice/righteousness”

The citation in Galatians (like those in Romans and James) matches the LXX, which itself is a fairly literal rendering of the Hebrew, the only real difference being the use of the (divine) passive e)logi/sqh (“was counted”) in Greek rather that the active “he [i.e. God] counted it” in the Hebrew. This verse, and, indeed, the entire Scriptural argument in 3:16-29, is dealt with more precisely in Romans 4 (a passage which will be discussed extensively at the proper point in this series). Paul presents it in rather a different context than we see in James 2:14-26; and this difference will be discussed in a separate note. Suffice it to say, Paul gives more attention to the immediate Scriptural context in Gen 15:1-5, where God discloses to Abraham the promise of a son and heir for him. This theme of promise will be central to the arguments from Scripture in the remainder of Galatians 3 (and 4:21-31).


Genesis 15:6 in Galatians and James

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The famous contrast between the discussion of “faith and works” in the Epistle of James and by Paul in Romans/Galatians finds its greatest point of difference/disagreement in the use of Genesis 15:6—

  )Abraa\m e)pi/steusen tw=| qew=| kai\ e)logi/sqh au)tw=| ei)$ dikaiosu/nhn
“Abraham trusted (in) God and it was counted to/for him unto justice/righteousness”

as rendered in Greek by the LXX and in the New Testament. Paul expounds this verse in the fourth chapter of Romans (Rom 4), but this treatment largely follows that in Galatians 3-4 (Galatians usually admitted as being written some time before Romans). It is also in Galatians that Paul presents a more forceful rhetorical and theological argument against “works of the Law”, as contrasted with trust/faith in Christ; therefore, it is more appropriate to use Galatians as the primary basis of comparison with the epistle of James (Jas 2:14-26).

In Galatians, Paul cites Gen 15:6 (in Gal 3:6) just prior to the Scriptural arguments, centered on Abraham, in Gal 3:7-29. These two arguments involve the blessing (3:7-14) and promise (3:15-29) to Abraham, emphasizing that the blessing comes by faith (not the Law) and that the promise comes to believers through Jesus Christ (not by observing the Law). Romans 4:4-25 provides a similar discussion.

In the letter of James, the citation of Gen 15:6 (in Jas 2:23) comes at a climactic point toward the end of the (ethical) instruction in 2:14-26. The central proposition (and declaration) is that faith “apart from works” is dead and cannot save a person (2:14-17). There would seem, on the surface at least, to be several significant differences between the claims made by Paul and the author of James (trad. James, the brother of Jesus), which were often emphasized in prior commentaries and works on New Testament theology. However, today scholars and commentators (of all stripes) tend to downplay or dismiss the idea of any real (direct) conflict between these passages, though often for different reasons:

  • Traditional-conservative commentators have generally sought to harmonize Paul and James, under the basic doctrinal assumption that the inspired Writings would not (or could not) be in disagreement
  • For critical scholars, on the other hand, among the more important factors are:
    (1) A tendency to look at individual New Testament writings, without feeling the need to compare/harmonize with others, and to focus more precisely on the specific context in each book
    (2) A tendency to soften or qualify Paul’s arguments in Galatians regarding the Law, limiting their rhetorical and theological scope, in light of what is (often) assumed as Paul’s more positive view of Judaism and the Law elsewhere in his life and writings

I am less willing than many to dismiss all conflict between the interpretive approaches of Paul and ‘James’ on this question of “faith and works”, as there do seem to be several substantive differences. In order to highlight these, it will be necessary to look briefly at the salient points of comparison:

e&rga “works”—It is sometimes said that James and Paul are using the term “works” (e&rga) in a fundamentally different sense, and, as such, are not really talking about the same things. This is not quite accurate; rather, it would seem that James is using the term in a general way, as “action”, while Paul is referring to specific types of religious action. The examples James offers are reflective of (a) charitable giving (esp. to the poor and needy) and/or (b) sacrificial giving (offering from oneself), but otherwise describe various sorts of action. Paul uses the expression “works of (the) Law” (e&rga no/mou) to refer specifically to the performance/observance of the commands and regulations in the Law (Torah), especially that of circumcision. Based on 2:8-13, James would presumably include “works of the Law”—at least the ethical aspects of the Law, as interpreted by Jesus (as in the Sermon on the Mount)—among the “works” described in vv. 14-26. There is no definite indication, anywhere in the letter, that James would include the ritual/ceremonial aspects of the Law (such as circumcision); in that respect, James and Paul are probably in agreement.

pi/sti$ “trust/faith”—Again, it would appear that James uses the word pi/sti$ in a more general sense than Paul does in Galatians, etc. It is likely that, despite the reference in 2:1, pi/sti$ in vv. 14-26 means “belief” without a specific object of belief necessarily being indicated (in v. 19 it is belief in God, generally). On the other hand, in Galatians, Paul typically, when contrasting “faith” with “works”, refers specifically to faith in Jesus Christ (Gal 2:16) or, more precisely, faith in response to hearing the Gospel message (Gal 3:2, 5).

xwri/$ “apart from”—Several times (in 2:18, 20, 26), James uses the expression “faith separate/apart from [xwri/$] works”, to emphasize the importance of faith/belief being expressed in action—the two (faith and action) go together, and cannot be separated. Paul never uses xwri/$ in Galatians, but does so notably in Romans, emphasizing that:

  • The justice/righteousness of God has been manifest [lit. has shone forth] “apart from [xwri\$] the Law” (3:21)
  • A man is made just/righteous by faith/trust “apart from [xwri\$] works of (the) Law” (3:28)
  • (Ps 32:2) Happy is the man for whom God counts justice/righteousness “apart from [xwri\$] works” (4:6)

The last reference matches the expression in James, and also shares the context of quotation from Gen 15:6 (cf. below). However, Paul’s use of “apart from works” could not be more different from that of James; indeed, he makes virtually the opposite point—faith (in Christ) is separate/apart from works! This, of course, is precisely the argument Paul makes in Galatians 2:15-21 and throughout chapters 3-4, and is the very context in which Gen 15:6 is cited.

dikaio/w “made/declared just”—Here, too, James (in 2:21, 24) seems to be saying the opposite of Paul, that Abraham was made/declared just (or righteous) “out of works” (i.e., by or because of his actions), rather than by/through faith (Rom 3:28; 5:1; Gal 2:16; 3:11, 24). But are James and Paul using the verb dikaio/w in the same way? This is an important question, and on it hinges the possibility of conflict between the two viewpoints. The verb does not appear in James apart from this section (2:21, 24-25), but the adjective di/kaio$ (“just/righteous”) is used in 5:6, 16, and the noun dikaiosu/nh (“justice/righteousness”) in 3:18 (apart from the citation of Gen 15:6 in 2:23). These instances suggest that James is using the words in their traditional/Jewish sense, of religious and ethical/moral behavior which is according to the will of God (and which will be rewarded by Him), much as they are used in the teaching of Jesus (cf. Matt 5:45; 9:13; 10:41, et al). Paul, on the other hand, developed a distinct theological (and soteriological) technical meaning and connotation for the word-group which would appear to be foreign to the epistle of James (especially if the early date often given for the letter is correct). Would James (that is, the author of the letter) have agreed with Paul’s usage? On objective grounds, this is difficult to say. Much depends on the interpretation of his use of Gen 15:6.

Genesis 15:6—The citation in James 2:23 occurs toward the end of the ethical instruction of 2:14-26, with an emphasis on the importance of religious faith (in God and/or Christ) being expressed in action, especially in charitable/sacrificial giving (to the poor and needy, vv. 15-16) and in obedience to the will of God. In respect to the latter, the example of Abraham is given, particularly of his willingness to sacrifice Isaac at God’s command (Gen 22). It is Abraham’s trust, expressed in action—a most momentous action—which is emphasized; Gen 15:6 is cited as though God’s declaration followed this action. Paul (in Gal 3:6, also Rom 4:3ff) treats it more properly in its Scriptural context (Gen 15:1-5); note the comparison:

Both contextual situations relate to God’s promise to Abraham of many descendants (through Isaac), but—

Paul refers to the original promise (Gen 15:1-5) of a son,
prior to any proving/testing of Abraham’s faith in action

James effectively refers to God’s confirmation of the promise (by the Messenger of YHWH, Gen 22:15-18),
subsequent to (and as a result of [cf. verse 16]) the testing/proving of Abraham’s faith in action

However, it could be argued that the use of Gen 15:6 in the context of Gen 22 is misplaced; certainly, for Paul, the promise is related entirely to faith/trust in Jesus Christ. The only sacrificial action or efficacious “work” he mentions in Galatians is that of Jesus (Gal 1:4; 2:19-20; 3:13; 4:5). To a lesser extent, he also refers to his own labors (as apostle/missionary of Jesus, 4:12-20); but, overall, praxis is minimal in his ethical teaching (6:1-2, 9-10), with more focus given on the Spirit as the guiding force for believers (5:17-26; 6:6-10). James gives much greater emphasis to specific behavior (Jas 1:19-21, 26-27; 2:1-7, 9-11, 15-16, etc).

In what sense, for James, was Abraham (or Rahab, 2:25) made/declared just through works? Verse 22 gives the answer by the use of two verbs:

  • sunerge/w (“work [together] with”)—”trust/faith worked together [sunh/rgei] with his works”
  • teleio/w (“complete, finish”)—”(his) trust/faith was completed [e)teleiw/qh] out of [i.e. from, by] (his) works”

In the first, proper religious/ethical action is the natural (and necessary) complement of faith; in the second, such action also completes one’s faith. This brings us to the last point of comparison:

teleio/w “complete, finish”—Interestingly, Paul uses an intensive (compound) form of this same verb in the context of his citation of Gen 15:6 (in the section Gal 3:1-6, v. 3), where he asks the Galatians:

“having begun in the Spirit, are you now being completed [e)pitelei=sqe] in/by (the) flesh?”

This contrasting juxtaposition is parallel to that between faith and (works of) the Law. Paul warns the (Gentile, non-Jewish) Galatians against adopting circumcision and observance of the Jewish Law (Torah), effectively arguing that their faith should not be “completed by works”. It is here that we perhaps encounter the greatest (substantial) difference between James and Paul. Consider how the logic in the letter of James essentially proceeds:

Abraham’s faith/trust in God was expressed (and confirmed/completed) by his action in sacrificing Isaac…
…therefore we, as believers, ought to express our faith (in Christ) through (sacrificial) action in love and obedience to the word of God

However, circumcision was another way in which Abraham demonstrated his obedience to God (also involving a kind of sacrifice of his son), cf. Gen 17:9-14; 21:4. Might not Paul’s Jewish-Christian ‘opponents’ argue in a similar way:

Abraham’s faith/trust in God was expressed (and confirmed/completed) by his action in circumcising Isaac…
…therefore we, as believers, ought to express our faith (in Christ) through action (circumcision and observing the Torah) in love and obedience to the word of God

While Paul certainly would have agreed with the importance of moral/ethical behavior (cf. Gal 5:16-25) and for believers to support one another (6:1-2), I doubt very much that he would speak of works (of any sort) completing our faith in Christ. Note how in Gal 5:16-26, the negative “works of the flesh” refer to specific sorts of actions, while the contrasting “fruit of the Spirit” are more general characteristics. The closest he comes in Galatians to a specific instruction regarding action for the believer is in the basic exhortation to “walk by the Spirit” (5:16, 25). Such practical instruction is relatively rare in the other epistles as well, being most prominent in 1 Corinthians, where the instruction is often prompted as the result of questions to him by the Corinthian congregations.

Paul’s emphasis on the (Holy) Spirit brings up another major difference with James—the two instances of the word pneu=ma in the letter (Jas 2:26; 4:5) both refer to the ordinary (natural) human spirit/soul/life, and not to the Holy Spirit. The lack of any reference to the Spirit in James is most striking, and is one of the reasons that some commentators consider the letter to be primarily a Jewish (and only nominally Christian) work. Indeed, much of the language, style and content of James follows traditional Jewish instruction, and is much closer (in tone and emphasis) to the teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount than to Paul’s epistles. These differences can be partially explained if one accepts the early date often ascribed to the letter of James (c. 35-40 A.D.). According to this view, James might have been written anywhere between 10 and 20 years earlier than Galatians and Romans, etc. Paul, in his letters, would, by this time, have established a more precise terminology and developed theology, especially with regard to the Jewish-Gentile question, the relation of believers to the Law, sin and salvation, the nature of the Gospel and Christian identity, and so forth—all areas of discussion which are virtually absent from James.


Paul’s View of the Law: Galatians (Chaps. 1-2)

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For a proper study of Paul’s treatment of the Law in Galatians, I believe it is important to keep the overall line and structure of his argument in view throughout. For this reason, I will be looking at the relevant verses and passages according to the divisions of the letter as established by the best rhetorical analysis.

In analyzing the structure and rhetorical framework of Galatians, I am generally following the outline of Hans Dieter Betz (Galatians, in the Hermeneia series, Fortress Press [1979]). This landmark critical work was among the first to apply modern rhetorical analysis extensively to Paul’s epistles; for a more traditional-conservative approach along the same lines (and using the same basic outline), see B. Witherington, Grace in Galatia: A Commentary on Paul’s Letter to the Galatians (T & T Clark / Eerdmans: 1998).

The outline is as follows:

  • Opening Greeting (Epistolary Prescript)—1:1-5
  • Introduction, with direct address to the audience (Exordium)—1:6-10
  • Narration or statement of relevant facts and events (Narratio)—1:11-2:14
  • Statement and exposition of the case (Propositio)—2:15-21
  • Presentation of arguments and proofs (Probatio)—3:1-4:31
  • Exhortation and ethical instruction (Exhortatio)—5:1-6:10
  • Conclusion and Farewell/Benediction (Epistolary Postscript)—6:11-18

Epistolary Prescript (Gal 1:1-5)

This includes the standard elements indicating author and addressee (vv. 1-2), greeting (vv. 3-4) and doxology (v. 5). There are two aspects especially worthy of note: (1) Paul’s self-identification as an apostle (a)po/stolo$), v. 1, and (2) the Gospel summary in v. 4. These are both common features of Pauline opening greetings, but they have a particular significance here in Galatians:

  • Paul as an apostle, that is, one who is set forth as a special emissary and representative (of Christ). This will be a central theme in establishing the argument of the letter—Paul’s role and authority as an apostle to the Gentiles. Note how he qualifies the term “apostle” in verse 1—”not from men and not through a man, but through Yeshua (the) Anointed and God (the) Father”. In other words, his apostolic authority comes directly from Jesus Christ and God the Father. Consider also how his apostleship is connected to the Gospel message here in v. 1 with the concluding formula “…the (One) raising him [i.e. Jesus] out of the dead”.
  • Verse 4 applies to Jesus a more extensive Gospel formula: “the (One) giving himself over our sins, that he might take us out of the standing evil Age, according to the will of our God and Father”. A proper definition and understanding of the Gospel (“good message”) is likewise central to the argument of Galatians, as we will see.

Exordium (Gal 1:6-10)

This represents the introduction of the letter and the beginning of Paul’s direct address to his audience. Verses 6 and 7 provide the causa, that is, Paul’s reason for writing. He begins, “I wonder/marvel [qauma/zw] that…”, a deliberative rhetorical technique that draws attention to the course of action being taken (or about to be taken) by his audience; similarly, his use of the adverb taxe/w$ (“[so] soon/quickly”). Note the two parallel verbs in vv. 6-7:

  • metati/qhmi (“set [something] after”, i.e. change the place of)—metati/qesqe “you have moved (yourselves) away from [a)po\]”
    • The transfer is away from the one calling the Galatians to faith and salvation, i.e. God (but in a secondary sense, also Paul as apostle), and toward (“unto”, ei)$) “another Gospel” (e%teron eu)agge/lion)
  • metastre/fw (“turn after/across”, i.e. turn to a different place or condition)
    • Paul’s opponents (the ones “troubling” [tara/ssonte$] the Galatians) wish “to change/pervert/distort” [metastre/yai] “the Gospel of Christ” [to\ eu)agge/lion tou= Xristou=]

On the one hand, Paul accuses the Galatians of changing over to “another” Gospel, on the other, he accuses certain people of wishing to change/alter the Gospel. Though he does not state it here, it soon becomes clear that this “other Gospel” is represented by the views of the Jewish Christians who would require (or urge) that Galatian believers become circumcised and observe the regulations of the Law (Torah). Paul effectively marginalizes this Jewish-Christian (“Judaizing”) position with his aside regarding this “other” Gospel—o^ ou)k e&stin a&llo (“[of] which there is no other”). That is to say, in Paul’s mind, there is only one Gospel, and it corresponds with the Gospel which he has been proclaiming. As will become clear throughout the first chapters of the letter, this question of the Gentile believers being (or feeling) compelled to observe the Old Testament/Jewish Law is no small matter of indifference or preference, but rather cuts to the very heart of the Christian message. The seriousness with which Paul views the matter is indicated by the double curse (anathema) he gives in verses 8-9. Implied within the curse is an affirmation of Paul’s own apostolic authority—this will be the main focus of the narration in vv. 11ff. Paul’s position and authority as an apostle (representative of Christ) is also indicated in verse 10, which serves as the transitus, or transition, between the exordium and the narratio.

Narratio (Gal 1:11-2:14)

In classical rhetoric, the narratio refers to a statement (narration) of the facts of a case, along with related events, by the author/speaker; it also sets the stage for the principal arguments (or proofs) which follow. Verses 11-12 make up the propositio, or opening statement, intended to influence the audience. This is indicated by Paul’s use of gnwri/zw ga\r u(mi=n (“For I make known to you…”) at the start.

I am not sure why Betz, in his outline of Galatians, treats verse 11 as part of the transitus; his own analysis on pp. 59-60 shows that it is better regarded as the opening of the narratio (part of the propositio).

Here Paul expands upon the point made back in verse 1—that the Gospel he proclaims was not taught to him by other human beings, but came to him directly by revelation from Jesus Christ himself. This fact is intimately connected with his role as a representative and emissary (apostle) of Christ, both aspects—Gospel message and apostolic authority—being central to his exposition. The narratio itself is autobiographical, and can be divided into three parts:

  • Paul’s early career—the call to be an Apostle (1:13-24)
  • The meeting in Jerusalem—confirmation of Paul’s role as Apostle to the Gentiles (2:1-10)
  • The incident at Antioch—questions regarding the Gospel as proclaimed to the Gentiles, concerning Jewish-Gentile relations and the Law (2:1-14)

Paul’s early career (1:13-24)—From the standpoint of this study, three basic themes or points can be isolated:

  • His religious devotion and zeal—that is, his Jewish identity (vv. 13-14)
    The “traditions [lit. things given along, passed down] of the Fathers” certainly includes legal (i.e. commands and regulations of the Torah) as well as extra-legal religious matters. His devotion extended even to persecuting the early Christians in Jerusalem and Judea, which corresponds to the scenario described in Acts 8:1-3; 9:1-2ff. Note also how here he effectively contrasts Judaism with the Gospel (presented in v. 15), but not as either competing or complementary religions; rather, the revelation of Jesus Christ to him represents something entirely new.
  • His call and commission as Apostle (to the Gentiles)—it came directly from God and Christ (vv. 15-17)
    This is indicated by two aspects of the narrative:
    (1) He was set apart by God (even before he was born), being called by the favor of God and through the (personal) revelation of Christ (vv. 15-16a)
    (2) He did not consult at first with other Christian leaders (in Jerusalem), i.e. his instruction and earliest ministry work was directly under the guidance of God and Christ (vv. 16b-17)
  • His ministry work becoming accepted within the wider early Christian community—including contact with the apostles in Jerusalem (vv. 18-24)

The meeting in Jerusalem (2:1-10)—I have discussed this passage in some detail in relation to the so-called ‘Jerusalem Council’ of Acts 15. I would generally follow the majority of commentators in their view that Acts 15 and Galatians 2 refer to the same underlying historical event[s], though this identification is not without difficulties. However one chooses to interpret the relation between these passages at the historical level, here we must focus exclusively on what Paul writes in his letter. The following points should be noted:

  • Paul’s attendance in Jerusalem is also the result of a revelation (vv. 1-2, cp. Acts 15:2f)
  • At issue is the Gospel Paul has been proclaiming to the Gentiles (v. 2)
  • There were some (Jewish Christians) in Jerusalem who would require/compel Gentile believers to be circumcised (and, presumably, to observe other Torah regulations as well) (v. 3; this is more prominent in Acts 15:1-11ff)
  • Paul characterizes these Jewish Christians (“Judaizers”) as “false brothers”, indicating that they have come in surreptitiously (infiltrating/spying), and with false/improper motives (v. 4); note the introduction here of a motif (slavery vs. freedom) which will appear throughout the epistle.
  • Paul clearly contrasts this Jewish-Christian view with the “truth of the Gospel”—as such, Paul feels compelled to oppose it (v. 5)
  • The authority and importance of the (apostolic) leaders in Jerusalem, judged in human terms, is devalued by Paul (v. 6, 9)
  • And yet, Paul’s role as apostle to the Gentiles is confirmed—along with his missionary approach and the Gospel he proclaims—by the leaders in Jerusalem (James, Cephas/Peter, and John) (vv. 7-9)

We can detect how many of the important themes and motifs of the epistle, to be expounded by Paul, are introduced and interwoven throughout this narrative. The points of controversy and conflict are brought forward, and already Paul has begun the polemical (and vituperative) treatment of his opponents which will increase markedly in the climactic sections of the letter.

The incident at Antioch (2:11-14)—For a detailed treatment of this section, see my earlier discussion (daily note for July 3), and also on the Peter/Paul controversy in Christian tradition (note for June 30). It also may be worth consulting my notes on the so-called Apostolic Decree from Acts 15. Here we have a narrative snippet from a minor, but significant, event in early Church history, which shows the cultural and religious difficulties in incorporating Gentile (non-Jewish) believers within a largely Jewish-Christian matrix. The incident at Antioch, by all accounts, did not involve Jewish Christians urging or compelling Gentiles to observe the Torah; rather, it had to do with the behavior of the Jewish believers. Should Jews (as believers in Christ) continue faithfully to observe the Torah regulations and/or their religious traditions if it meant separating themselves from fellowship with Gentiles? The issue may even have gone deeper, for Paul speaks of Peter as starting to be in a Gentile manner of living (e)qnikw=$); this perhaps indicates that Peter has ceased to observe certain Torah regulations (such as the dietary restrictions, cf. Acts 10:9-16), at least when living and eating among Gentile believers. Social pressure (from prominent Jewish believers) apparently caused Peter to return to his prior religious scruples. Paul saw and sensed in this a great danger, as it seemed to place Jewish distinctiveness ahead of Jewish-Gentile unity in Christ. This is an important observation directed at those commentators who would view Paul’s arguments regarding the Law in Galatians as being limited to what is necessary for salvation—the incident at Antioch shows that Paul’s argument goes beyond this, for it relates to the very notion of Christian identity. Galatians is first surviving Christian writing (however one dates it exactly) to address this issue head-on.

Propositio (Gal 2:15-21)

The propositio is the primary statement of the case (distinct from the statement introducing the narratio, cf. above), along with an initial exposition, whereby points of agreement and disagreement are laid out. Each of these seven verses is vital to an understanding of Paul’s view of the Law in Galatians. I have discussed and examined them in some detail in a series of notes, and, as such, it is not necessary to repeat that analysis here. The notes proceed according to the following outline of the section:

  • Note 1 (vv. 15-16)—Basic proposition regarding justification and the Jew/Gentile distinction
  • Note 2 (vv. 17-18)—Rhetorical argument to show the problem with applying the Law to (Gentile) believers
  • Note 3 (vv. 19-20)—Relation of the believer to the Law
  • Note 4 (v. 21)—Concluding argument regarding justice/righteousness

The overall statement in vv. 15-21 is further expounded by Paul in chapters 3-4 (the probatio) with a series of arguments illustrating and proving its validity, with the purpose, of course, of convincing and persuading the Galatians. Each of these arguments is important for Paul’s view of the Law and must be examined carefully; this will be the focus of the next article in this series.



Paul’s View of the Law: Introduction

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In this series on “The Law and the New Testament”, it is now time to begin exploring Paul’s view of the Law, which will be done over a series of articles. It is a complex and difficult subject, to which one might easily devote any number of book-length treatments (as indeed scholars have done); here I will attempt a careful survey of the most relevant passages, devoting longer exegetical notes, when necessary, to specific verses. The history of interpretation, fascinating though it may be, will only be introduced when it is especially helpful in elucidating a particular passage; similarly, comparative studies between Paul and Rabbinic Judaism, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and so forth, will be kept to a minimum. Every effort will be made to focus on the fundamental meaning and context of Paul’s words in the letters. Before proceeding, I must offer two explanatory notes:

1) On authorship of the Pauline letters—Of the fourteen letters (or “epistles”) traditionally ascribed to Paul in the New Testament, they may be divided as follows:

  • Undisputed letters—i.e., Paul is indicated as the author in the text and few (if any) commentators question his authorship; there are seven (7) such letters: Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, Philemon
  • Disputed letters—Paul is indicated as the author in the text, but at least a fair number of commentators believe the letters are actually pseudonymous; I would break down this category further:
    —where critical scholarship is somewhat divided (2): Colossians, 2 Thessalonians
    —where there is a general critical consensus against Pauline authorship (4): Ephesians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus
  • Anonymous letters (1): Hebrews—traditionally ascribed to Paul, though relatively few scholars would hold this today

For the purpose of these studies, I am not including Hebrews in the discussion on Paul’s view of the Law. With regard to the 6 disputed letters, I accept 2 Thessalonians and Colossians, without any real reservation, as among the authentic Pauline epistles. There is more legitimate question surrounding the other four (Ephesians and the Pastoral epistles). I will be including them in these articles; however, as a way of preserving the distinction, they will always be cited or referenced in order after the previous nine letters.

2) On recent interpretive trends—In recent decades, there has been something of a revolution in Pauline studies, in two main respects:

(a) A reaction against the customary Reformation/Protestant view of Paul, with its juxtaposition of law vs. faith, works vs. grace, and so forth. Attempts have been made to present a more “holistic”, nuanced picture of Pauline theology, with more attention paid to his epistolary and rhetorical style, the context of (re-)socialization and community-building in early Christianity, the Jewish background and apocalyptic character of his thought, and so on.
(b) Paul’s Jewish background, in particular, has been given greater emphasis, part of a wider tendency to set early Christianity within a Jewish matrix. Correspondingly, scholars today are much more reluctant to draw a sharp distinction between “Judaism” and “Christianity” in the New Testament.

These articles draw on the more recent scholarship, to some extent, though I have tried very much to allow the text of the epistles to speak for itself. At several junctures, however, it will be necessary to interact with certain modern interpretive tendencies involving key passages—especially in Galatians and Romans, the two letters where the Law is most extensively discussed by Paul.

An Introduction to Galatians

As Galatians contains the most distinct (and controversial) Pauline teaching on the Law, I will be dealing with it first. There are, however, several points which ought to be addressed, by way of introduction:

Historical background and chronology—The historical context of Paul’s argument (including the narration in Gal 2:1-14) has long been a subject of scholarly debate, especially in terms of its relationship with the so-called “Jerusalem Council” of Acts 15. An important question has been whether the Jerusalem meeting described in Gal 2:1-10 refers to the same underlying event of Acts 15 (for more on this question, see my earlier supplemental article on the Jerusalem Council). A number of scholars would hold that the events of Gal 2:1-14 took place prior to those of Acts 15, even that Galatians itself was perhaps written prior to the Council. The main evidence typically cited is:

  • There are several notable differences in the details as narrated in Acts 15 and Gal 2:1-10
  • Paul makes no mention of the decisions of the Council of the decree (the letter of Acts 15:22-29) in Galatians
  • Acts 15:24 (in the letter) may be a reference to what Paul mentioned in Gal 2:12
  • The picture in Acts 15 (cf. also 16:4) is of a generally harmonious resolution of the Jewish-Gentile question (on the matter of circumcision and observance of the Torah), with all involved apparently accepting the Jerusalem decisions and decree (as expressed in the letter) as authoritative. This seems to be at odds with the conflict narrated in Gal 2:11-14, and, indeed, with the overall argument of Galatians as a whole.

The last of these points carries the greatest weight, and it is the main reason—i.e. the desire to harmonize Galatians and Acts—that many traditional-conservative commentators hold that Paul’s epistle was written prior to the Council. I find it far more likely that the events described in Gal 2 took place prior to those of Acts 15 than that Galatians itself was written so early. There are essentially three possibilities:

  • That the events in Gal 2:1-14 (and possibly Galatians itself) are to be dated prior to the Council (and the decree/letter) of Acts 15
  • That Gal 2:1-10 and Acts 15 describe the same basic event, and that the incident at Antioch in Gal 2:11-14 took place after the Council (and issue of the the letter/decree)
  • That Gal 2:1-10 and Acts 15:1-12ff describe the same event, but that the letter/decree of Acts 15:22-31ff was issued some time after the Antioch incident of Gal 2:11-14, the author of Acts combining/conflated separate traditions within the narrative of ch. 15

I am rather inclined to this last option, though it is not without its own difficulties. Many critical commentators would object to any attempt at harmonizing Galatians and Acts as being unnecessary and misplaced. I agree in that I see no need for harmonization from the standpoint of trying to preserve (or defend) the inspiration and historicity of the two accounts—each book ought to be read and/or accepted on its own merits. However, there is still considerable value in examining the historical background of Galatians (and the historical tradition[s] within Acts). At any rate, these are questions and issues which may be brought up, from time to time, during this study of Galatians (esp. involving the narration in chapter 2).

The use of the term “Law”—Of the approx. 130 references to law in the Pauline letters, 70 or so are found in Romans, with another 32 in Galatians. The Greek word is no/mo$ (nómos), and it is virtually always used in the sense of the revelatory instruction (hr*oT, tôrâ) seen as coming from God (YHWH) to Israel (through Moses), and preserved primarily within the five “books of Moses” (the Pentateuch: Genesis–Deuteronomy). This instruction was viewed as normative for Israelites (and Jews), bound up intimately with the idea of the agreement (covenant) God established with his people. From a traditional and religious standpoint, observance of the Torah represented the terms and requirements necessary for preserving the covenant. In the introductory article of this series of “The Law and the New Testament” I have discussed the specific terminology, along with differing nuances of meaning between hroT, no/mo$ and English “law”. Some commentators today, uncomfortable with Paul’s use of no/mo$ (in Galatians especially), would like to substitute or read in a specific meaning or connotation such as “legalism”, “(misuse/misunderstanding of the) law”, and so forth. I disagree completely with such an approach. I find little reason to think that Paul intends anything other than a basic, fundamental reference to the Law/Torah wherever no/mo$ is used in Galatians, Romans, and the rest of the epistles, with but a few possible exceptions. This will be discussed in more detail when dealing with specific passages in Galatians.

On Jewish and Christian identity—Another area of difficulty for many modern-day students and commentators of the New Testament involves the religious distinction between “Judaism” and “Christianity”, with an increasing reluctance to set Christian identity over against the Jewish, at least within the context of the New Testament itself. There are a number of reasons for this, most notably:

  • A more ‘holistic’ and comparative approach to the study of the New Testament (and Pauline studies in particular, cf. above), including more objective analysis of the Jewish background and environment of early Christianity
  • Multi-cultural, religious-pluralistic, and ecumenical trends which have had a significant influence on theology and interpretation today
  • Sensitivity to the painful legacy of centuries of anti-Jewish (and/or anti-Semitic) mistreatment and persecution by ‘Christian’ communities

These are all important matters today which cannot (and ought not to) be ignored. In particular, the modern religious and cultural sensitivity is, on the whole, most laudable, especially with regard to past mistreatment of Jews by supposed Christians. However, it is easy for such noble sentiments to color or distort the historical context and meaning of many New Testament passages. Consider, for example, the famous (and notorious) ‘anti-Jewish’ discursion in 1 Thess 2:14-16, within an epistle almost universally recognized as authentically Pauline—it is so striking, and appears at odds with what is understood (and/or assumed) today about the Jewish Paul, that many commentators seriously doubt that Paul could have said it. Admittedly, it makes for uncomfortable reading today, which is almost certainly the main reason why it is often regarded as a non-Pauline interpolation—many would prefer to remove it from the New Testament!

The same situation applies, to a lesser degree with the way Paul deals with Judaism and the Law in Galatians and Romans; there is less overt conflict expressed in Romans, but Paul’s various arguments in that epistle are not without their own points of controversy (especially in the soteriological/eschatological aspects of chs. 9-11). The forcefulness (even harshness) of the rhetoric and polemic Paul uses at times in Galatians (against his Jewish-Christian opponents, sometimes called “Judaizers”) can also be hard to read (and accept) today; one might naturally question whether Paul is treating his opponents fairly and representing their actual position accurately. However, I would maintain that it is the fundamental issue of religious identity which represents the most difficult, and perhaps controversial, point of the letter. Whatever date one ascribes to Galatians, it is almost certainly the earliest New Testament writing which attempts to define a specific Christian identity, in relation to Judaism (and the Law); and when Paul begins to apply traditional and essential aspects of Jewish identity (such as the promises to Abraham and his descendants) to believers in Christ, there can be little doubt that a new sort of religious identity is being expressed. As indicated above, these can be extremely sensitive matters within today’s cultural and religious climate, and yet they must be addressed and interpreted fairly and honestly, without prejudice.

Concluding outline—The articles in this series on Paul’s View of the Law will proceed according to the following outline:

  1. The Law in Galatians
  2. The Law in Romans
  3. The Law in the remaining Pauline Letters
  4. Paul’s view of the Law in Acts compared with the Letters

Due to the length required, each article may be broken into more than one part, as necessary.


Note of the Day – September 14

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In the previous note, I examined Romans 1:18-32 (specifically, verses 19-23) in the light of the Areopagus speech by Paul in Acts 17:16-34. Today, by way of conclusion, I will look at the climactic verses—Acts 17:29 and Romans 1:23—dealing with the matter of the worship of God through images (i.e. idols).

The starting-point

In Romans 1:23, it is the do/ca (dóxa), i.e. the proper esteem/honor/glory which belongs to God
In Acts 17:29, it is the divine origin of human beings and their kinship with God (“we are the lineage [ge/no$] of God”)

This would appear to be a major difference, the importance and significance of which will be discussed below. In each passage, this is the basis upon which the turning (away) into idolatry should be understood. In Romans, this do/ca is distorted/perverted into images of human beings and animals; in Acts, the essential human kinship with God is ignored in favor of other likenesses.

The likeness—Both passages mention that human beings considered God to be like, or in the likeness of, something else:

In Romans, they make/change (the honor/glory of) God “in(to) a likeness” (e)n o(moiw/mai)
In Acts, they customarily/habitually regard (nomi/zein) the deity to be “like” (o%moion) something

The emphasis in Romans is on the (active) perversion/distortion of the true nature and character of God, in Acts it is on a lack of proper knowledge and understanding. In Rom 1:23, the regular noun qeo/$ (“God”) is used, in Acts 17:29 it is the substantive adjective qei=o$ (“deity”); this is a relatively minor difference, since qeo/$ also appears earlier in the verse.

The images

In Romans, the emphasis is on the particular shape/form of the image (ei)kw/n)
In Acts, the emphasis is on the making of the image, in two respects:
—(a) the material (gold/silver/stone)
—(b) the work of cutting/engraving (the “cut-mark” [xa/ragma])

These different points of emphasis can be seen as complementary, as both can be found in the traditional condemnation and polemic against (pagan) idolatry in the Old Testament and Judaism, with the stress on the making/fashioning of the image perhaps more common in the Prophets.

The human role

In Romans, we are dealing with an image “of decaying/corruptible man”—in other words, the human being is the form and pattern for the image, its character and shape
In Acts, it is the artistic skill (“production and inspiration”) of man which is in view—the process of devising and shaping the image

Again, these can be seen as complementary aspects of the creation of images/idols. Human religious history shows ample evidence of man’s tendency to conceive and imagine God in his own image (cf. Gen 1:26-27), with human characteristics and attributes being applied. Today, in an era largely devoid of religious idolatry, we are able to look at this phenomena more objectively; in the ancient world, concrete images and conceptions of deity (of all sorts) were a vital part of religious expression, requiring that the matter be dealt with head-on in Scripture. It can be difficult for us today to get inside of the thinking that is at work here, the religious and theological underpinnings of (pagan) polytheism now being rather foreign to us. The context of these verses require that they be studied carefully.

The loss of human dignity—Both passages suggest not only a departure from a proper conception of God, but also from a proper understanding of human nature:

In Romans, this is perhaps indicated by emphasizing images of various kinds of animals, in addition to man; Jewish, Christian and philosophical polemic against (pagan) idolatry occasionally stressed the ‘grotesque’ forms of many animal images (however poorly understood) as an especially perverse feature of idol-worship
In Acts, this is emphasized again by the contrast between man’s (metaphysical/spiritual) kinship with God and the fashioning of images in metal and stone

This brings us back to the starting-point (cf. above), whereby it is necessary to take a closer look at the overall difference of approach between Rom 1:23 and Acts 17:29:

Doxa (do/ca)—As discussed above, this refers to the dignity, honor and esteem which is to be accorded God by human beings; it is based on:

  1. God Himself—in traditional theological terms, this would be his nature and attributes; in Romans 1:20 it is summarized as qeio/th$, “God-ness” (i.e., deity).
  2. His Work—indicated here in Rom 1:20 as His power (du/nami$), but power manifested primarily, according to Old Testament/Jewish (and early Christian) tradition, in:
    (a) His work as Creator—giving existence and life to all things, in particular, to human beings
    (b) His work on behalf of Israel—his mighty actions in delivering and establishing His people, especially through the Exodus and Conquest of the land of Canaan.
    Christian tradition and doctrine would extend this salvific work to the deliverance of the people of God from the bonds of sin and darkness.

The improper religious response to God, as described in Rom 1:18-32, involves a perversion of the doxa which belongs to God; this leads to idolatry, and, ultimately (in a similar manner), to all kinds of immorality (vv. 24-32).

Lineage of God (ge/no$ tou= qeou=)—Whereas in Romans much traditional Old Testament (and Jewish) thought is at work, in Acts 17 Paul (and/or the author of Acts) draws more extensively upon Greco-Roman philosophical language and concepts (for more detail on this, see the previous articles on the Areopagus speech). Most noteworthy is verse 28, which contains two elements:

  1. A triadic formula defining the life and existence of human beings “in Him” [e)n au)tw=|, i.e. in God]; this is very different from Paul’s usual theological/Christological language—it has been characterized as “panentheistic”, and appears to have much in common (as well as other parts of the speech) with Stoic thought, in particular.
  2. A citation from the astronomical/meteorological poem (or verse-treatise) of Aratus, an early 3rd-century B.C. author (and contemporary of Zeno of Citium) who was influenced by early Stoic thought. Paul picks up on this quotation and uses it in verse 29 as the basis for the argument against the worship of God through images.

The quotation reads: tou= ga\r kai\ ge/no$ ei)men “for we are of (his) lineage”. The word ge/no$ literally means something which has “come to be”, i.e., from or out of someone—”we have all come to be from him”. In ancient mythological-philosophical thought, human beings (or, at least, their spirits/souls) were often viewed as being the offspring of the gods in a metaphysical sense. This is foreign to the context of Israelite/Jewish monotheism, where God (YHWH) was only the Father of human beings in a symbolic sense, in terms of family relationship, or as the Creator. Paul seems to affirm this Greek philosophical-religious sentiment, by re-stating it in verse 29: ge/no$ ou@n u(pa/rxonte$ tou= qeou=, “then, being of the lineage of God”, or perhaps “…belonging to the lineage of God”, with the word ge/no$ given emphasis. Would the historic Paul (of the letters) have used such an argument? This has been much debated by commentators and scholars. It was not unusual for him to take up statements or concepts, which he might not otherwise entirely accept (without qualification), for the greater purpose of the overall message and teaching (cf. for example, his apparent use of Corinthian ‘slogans’ in 1 Cor 6:12; 7:1; 8:1, 4; 10:23). Consider also his declaration in 1 Cor 9:20-22; if we take this seriously, then Paul certainly would not have shied away from using Greek philosophy if it might help win Greeks to Christ. As I have previously noted, Acts 17:16-34 is really the only example we have of Paul (or any other New Testament speaker/author, for that matter) directly addressing pagan Gentiles. A stronger argument against Pauline authenticity is the significant number of words, expressions and concepts which do not occur in the letters, or are used in a different sense, but even this is far from decisive.


Note of the Day – September 13

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Having established the background (in the previous day’s note) for a comparison of the Areopagus speech in Acts 17:16-34 with Romans 1:18-32, let us begin the comparison here by listing out some essential points of the speech (for more detail, cf. the series on the Speeches of Acts and my supplemental article):

  • Paul notes the religious devotion—deisidaimoni/a (“fear of divine powers”) / eu)se/beia (“good/proper fear”)—of the Greeks in Athens (17:22-23). This is done with complimentary language (rhetorical device of captatio benevolentiae); earlier in the narrative (v. 16), Paul’s spirit was stirred/angered (“brought to a [sharp] point”) by the number of idols/images throughout the city.
  • A two-fold argument is presented against temple buildings (and the ritual/objects associated with them) as things “made with hands” (17:24-25):
    (1) God as Creator made all things (with his hands)
    (2) He gives all things to human beings and needs nothing from them
  • God created all human beings with a two-fold purpose (17:26-27):
    (1) to live and dwell upon the earth, with the seasons and natural features appointed to them as a divine gift
    (2) to seek God, emphasizing that he is close to (“not far from”) all human beings
  • The divine origin of humankind—stated by accommodation to Greek religious-philosophical language—is presented as a decisive argument as to the true nature of God (“Deity”, to\ qei=on), and against the worship of images (17:28-29)
  • The entire situation described in vv. 22-29 is summarized as the “times of unknowing/ignorance” which God has (up till now) overlooked (v. 30). This is contrasted in verse 31 with the “day” on which God will ultimately judge the world (and which is about to come).

Verses 22-29 are about as close as we come in the New Testament to an objective, positive appraisal of pagan/polytheistic (Greco-Roman) religion. To see this more clearly, note the following chiastic outline:

  • V. 22-23: Accomodation to Greco-Roman religious forms (altars/temples), with praise for their religious devotion, though emphasizing (at the end of v. 23) that it is done without knowledge (of the true God)
    • V. 24-25: Two-fold presentation of the true nature of God (the Creator)—contrasted with the temples/altars, etc. of Greco-Roman religion
    • V. 26-27: Two-fold presentation of God’s purpose in creating human beings—emphasizing God’s nearness to them (i.e. requiring no temples, sacrificial ritual, etc)
  • V. 28-29: Accomodation to Greco-Roman religious-philosophical language (triadic formula and citation from Aratus), stressing the kinship of human beings with (the true) God, and using it as a powerful argument against the worship of God through idols/images

Only in verse 30 does the tone shift to the more familiar theme of judgment against human wickedness, which is the very point at which Romans 1:18-32 begins. In this light, let us see how pagan religion is described by Paul here in Romans. The relevant discussion is limited to vv. 19-23, verse 19 following the announcement of God’s judgment (his wrath/anger) in v. 18 with the connecting (subordinating, causal) conjunction dio/ti, “through (the fact) that”, “for (the reason) that”, i.e. “because”. The clause governed by this conjunction is fundamental to Paul’s argument, and should be examined carefully:

to\ gnwsto\n tou= qeou= “the (thing) known of God”—i.e., that which is (or may be) known of God (or about Him); this motif of the knowledge of God is shared with the Areopagus speech
fanero\n e)stin e)n au)toi=$ “is shining (forth) in/among them”—i.e. is manifest to them (and among them); the specific idea of God manifesting himself in Creation is generally foreign to the Areopagus speech
o( qeo\$ ga\r au)toi=$ e)fane/rwsen “for God has shone forth to them”—i.e. the (true) God has manifest himself to them; the emphasis in the Areopagus speech was on knowledge of the true God, a distinction more or less taken for granted in Romans

Verses 20-21 come very close to providing an early Christian theory on the origins and development of polytheistic/pagan religion; while not satisfactory from the standpoint of an objective modern analysis of the phenomenology of religion, it remains most incisive, even apart from its theological/doctrinal value.

V. 20: “For the unseen (thing)s [a)o/rata] of Him, being brought to mind by the (things that are) made [poih/samen] from the production [i.e. creation] of the world, are seen accordingly”

These unseen aspects and attributes of God are specified as his ever-present/everlasting [ai&dio$] power [du/nami$] and deity [qeio/th$]. The noun qeio/th$, related to qeo/$ (“god”), is literally “god-ness”, which in ordinary English can only be rendered as “deity”; sometimes it is translated here as “Godhead”, but that is rather inaccurate and misleading. The word occurs only here in the New Testament, and has a parallel (of sorts) with the substantive adjective qei=o$ in Acts 17:29, which likewise is not used elsewhere in the New Testament. The idea of God’s divine and eternal attributes and nature being present and recognizable in the natural world is not specified in the Areopagus speech; at best, it might be inferred from vv. 26-27. Even more distinctive is the phrase at the end of Romans 1:21: “…unto their being [i.e. that they are] a)napolo/ghto$“—this adjective literally means “without (the ability to offer) an account for (onself)”, as before a tribunal, i.e. “without a defense”, here in the sense of “without an(y) excuse”. The idea seems to be that God’s manifestation in creation should be sufficient to bring forth proper recognition and worship of Him among human beings. While not specified as such in the Areopagus speech, there is a similar assumption that God—the true God—can be found and recognized by all human beings. In modern theological terminology, this is described as the knowledge of God by natural revelation; however, Paul makes no clear division between “natural” and “special” revelation, and the categories/labels do not exactly apply.

Verse 21 continues with a dio/ti clause parallel to that in verse 19:

“through (the fact) that [dio/ti, i.e. because] (while) knowing God, they did not esteem (him) as God nor did they show good favor…”

The verb doca/zw is typically rendered “give glory, glorify”, but the sense of “honor, regard with honor” is perhaps better; I have translated here with “esteem”. The verb eu)xariste/w literally means “show/offer a (good) favor”, but it can also refer to the proper response to being well-favored, i.e. “showing gratitude/thanks”. Paul thus attributes to all human beings (even pagan Gentiles) some degree of genuine knowledge of God, but that humankind (universally, it would seem) did not respond properly, in two respects: (1) they did not regard or honor Him as God, and (2) they did not offer thanks/gratitude in turn for the grace/favor He has shown. One would very much like Paul to expand on what he means here—precisely how should human beings have given honor to God as God? This can only be inferred from the verses that follow. An interesting comparison with the Areopagus speech may be offered here:

  • In Acts 17:23, Paul states that the Greeks (pagans) are “not knowing” (a)gnoou=te$) the true God in their religious actions and attitudes (playing on the idea of “unknown god”); this idea is echoed by the expression “times of unknowing” in verse 30. Paul praises (in a sense) their religious response, and emphasizes their lack of proper knowledge.
  • In Romans 1:20-21, Paul takes the opposite approach—affirming their knowledge (“knowing”, gno/nte$) of God, but finding fault with their religious response.

The (pagan) religious response is indicated, negatively, by the adversative conjunction a)ll’, “but (rather)”, and is characterized two-fold:

  • “they became vain/empty” (e)mataiw/qhsan)—”in their thoughts“, as typically rendered; dialogismo/$ being derived from the verb dialogi/zomai, lit. “count through, go through an account”, and generally, “to think/reason through, reckon, consider”, etc.; here it can be understood in the sense of religious thinking or conception. In Old Testament/Jewish tradition, pagan idols/images are typically referred to as “vain/empty” (ma/taio$) things, cf. Acts 14:15; 1 Pet 1:18.
  • “their heart was darkened (e)skoti/sqh)”—”heart” being qualified by the adjective a)su/neto$ (“without understanding, unintelligent”, i.e. senseless/foolish); darkness can be used as a motif for a lack of knowledge (ignorance), but also generally for sin/wickedness and immorality.

This last point is stated in harsher terms in verse 22: “declaring (themselves) to be wise, they became dull [i.e. foolish]”; then follows the concluding statement in verse 23, which describes the beginning of (pagan) idolatry and immorality:

“…and made the esteem/glory of the undecaying God other(wise) in(to) a likeness of (an) image of decaying man and (also) winged-animals and four-footed (creature)s and creeping (thing)s”

The verb a)lla/ssw “make other[wise]” more precisely means “make/change (one thing) into another”, i.e. “change, exchange”, and it is this verb which defines the onset of idolatry. Note also these important details:

  • do/ca (of God) vs. ei)kw/n (of man and animals)—do/ca is usually rendered by “glory” and, in reference to deity, covers two aspects of God: (a) corresponding to Hebrew dbk, lit. “weight” and metaphorically as “honor, dignity, majesty” and the like; (b) according to the fundamental sense of the Greek word of the (favorable) thought/consideration given to someone/something, i.e., by extension, “reputation” or the “honor/esteem” given to someone. Here, then, is a seminal religious distinction between the human conception (or understanding) of God and its translation into physical form and shape (the image [ei)kw/n]).
  • The apposition of ei)kw/n (“image”) with o(moi/wma (“likeness”)—in other words, the conception/image of God is made into a specific likeness (human, animal, etc).
  • a&fqarto$ (God) vs. fqarto/$ (man and animals)—the adjective fqarto/$ relates to the idea of “ruin” and “destruction”, often in the sense of (physical) corruption or decay; I have translated above with “undecaying/decaying”, in order to capture the vividness of the comparison, but other parallel terms could be used (e.g., “incorruptible/corruptible”, “indestructible/destrucible”).
  • The sequence from “man” to “winged (animal)s” [i.e. birds], “four-footed (creature)s”, and “creeping (thing)s” may be meant to indicate or imply a descent into even more ignoble and grotesque forms of idol-worship.

It is here, in verse 23, that we find perhaps the most notable point of comparison (and difference) with the Areopagus speech, as will be discussed (in conclusion) in the next daily note.


Note of the Day – September 12

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The next several daily notes are part of a recent study on the Areopagus Speech of Paul in Acts 17:16-34; cf. Parts 20 and 21 of my series on the Speeches of Acts, as well as a supplemental article. One of the passages in the Pauline letters which is often compared with the Areopagus speech is Romans 1:18-32. Both deal with the subject of ‘pagan’ (polytheistic) religion and idolatry prior to human beings receiving the Gospel. It has been argued by a number of critical scholars that the historic Paul (of the undisputed letters) would not have spoken the way the Paul of Acts 17 does, and that the speech (like most of the others in Acts) is a Lukan composition, i.e. primarily a product of the author of Acts (trad. Luke). I have previously noted a considerable number of words, expressions, and concepts in the speech which appear to be foreign or otherwise unattested in the letters. It is possible, however, that this is the result of the different audience—the Pauline letters (undisputed and disputed), along with the remainder of the New Testament books, were all written to and for Christians, while the Areopagus speech is virtually the only example in the New Testament of an address to pagan Gentiles outside of a Jewish or Christian context. There is no clear and simple solution to the question, on objective grounds. But what of the comparison with Romans 1:18-32? Even upon first glance, one notices a substantial difference in orientation; this difference is primarily two-fold:

  • The emphasis is on the impending judgment of God against humankind, brought out clearly at the start in verse 18, with the basis for judgment expounded forcefully in vv. 19-31 and punctuated in v. 32. The idea of judgment is present in the Areopagus speech, serving as the culminating exhortation of 17:30-31, but it is not the main theme of the speech.
  • Romans 1:18-32 deals principally with the immorality of humankind, viewed as a product of human wickedness and a result of idolatry. This is not present in the Areopagus speech at all.

Elsewhere in the letters, Paul’s references to Greco-Roman paganism are all negative, from the standpoint of salvation—the Gentiles once were in darkness, enslaved by idolatry and immorality, but God has rescued them through Christ (cf. Gal 4:8-9; Rom 6:17-19; Col 1:21; 3:7, also Eph 2:2-3). An importance point of emphasis in Romans, of course, is that all people—Jews and Gentiles alike—were slaves to sin in much the same way, whether they lived under the Law or as “sinners”. Typically, Paul refers to idolatry as well from an ethical standpoint, according to its traditional association with licentiousness and immorality (cf. Rom 2:22; 1 Cor 5:10-11; 6:9; 10:7, 14; Gal 5:20; Col 3:5 [also Eph 5:5]). In only four instances (apart from Rom 1:18-32), does he make reference to idols in the context of pagan/polytheistic religion

  • Twice, in brief statements related to the former state of Gentile believers’, before conversion:
    “…how you turned from images to be a slave to [i.e. serve] (the) living and true God” (1 Thess 1:9)
    “You have known that when you were (as the) nations, (you were ones) being led away toward voiceless images, as you might be led” (1 Cor 12:2)
  • In two separate passages related to the question of food sacrificed to idols (1 Cor 8:1-13; 10:14-22)

The first two verses imply a condition of enslavement (“being led away”); the references in 1 Cor 8 and 10 deal more properly with the nature of idolatry. There were two views on this subject in early Christianity:

  1. The pagan deities were identified primarily with their images/idols, by way of polemic distortion, and so regarded as vain or nothing, i.e. they did not really exist. This is the view generally expressed throughout the Old Testament Prophets (including the Deuteronomic history, Deuteronomy–Kings) and in Jewish tradition.
  2. The deities had real existence, but were actually evil/unclean spirits or “demons”. This came to be the predominant view in early Christianity.

Interestingly, Paul seems to express both views in 1 Cor 8 and 10—on the one hand, that the deities and their idols are nothing (1 Cor 8:4-5; 10:19; also Gal 4:8), on the other, that they are “demons” (1 Cor 10:20-21).

A more sophisticated treatment of polytheistic/pagan religion is presented in Romans 1:18-32 and the Areopagus speech, which will be discussed in the next note.


The Areopagus Speech

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I have already examined the Areopagus Speech by Paul (Acts 17:16-34) in considerable detail—cf. Parts 20 and 21 of the series on the Speeches of Acts. This supplemental article will focus on the specific critical question as to the authenticity of the speech—whether or not it is compatible with what we know of Paul from the (undisputed) letters. At previous points in this series, I have noted the general assumption, shared by many critical scholars, that the speeches are largely the product of the author of Acts (traditionally, Luke), rather than a record of the purported speakers’ actual words. This view is based primarily on two factors:

  1. The way ancient (Greco-Roman and Jewish) historians use and present comparable speeches in their works. Thucydides and Josephus are typically cited for comparison.
  2. A relative uniformity in terms of language, style, citation of Scripture, etc., which is found in most of the speeches, regardless of speaker. The close structural and stylistic similarities between Peter’s Pentecost speech (Acts 2) and Paul’s speech at Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13) are especially noteworthy.

The significance and extent of these two factors, however, may be disputed; traditional-conservative commentators generally regard the speeches as authentic, with perhaps some degree of adaptation and modification by the author. Legitimate arguments can be, and have been, presented on both sides; for the purposes of these studies, I have adopted a moderating position.

In addition to these basic historical-critical concerns, commentators have especially noted some unique and unusual features in the Areopagus speech, which I have already highlighted in the prior articles. According to a number of critical scholars, these features are foreign to Paul’s thought (as expressed in his letters), and, indeed, with New Testament theology as a whole. In their view, this provides a decisive additional argument that the speech is Lukan, rather than Pauline. For a clear and detailed presentation of this viewpoint, see Dibelius’ important and influential study “Paul on the Areopagus” (1939) in Studies in the Acts of the Apostles, pp. 26-77, followed by more recent commentators such as E. Haenchen (Acts, pp. 527ff).

It will be helpful to discuss again the relevant points in the speech which are viewed as foreign and/or incompatible with Pauline thought, and to offer a summary evaluation.

Verse 22—One might question the positive characterization of the Athenians’ religiosity, here using the comparative adjective deisidaimone/stero$, derived from deisidaimoni/a (deisidaimonía), which is otherwise used in the New Testament only in Acts 25:19 (a general descriptive term [of Judaism] by Festus). The word deisidaimoni/a, often translated “religion”, “religious devotion/practice”, etc, literally means “fear of divine-powers [i.e. daimons]”, either in the positive/neutral sense of “religion” or the negative/pejorative sense of “superstition”. Elsewhere in the New Testament, a daimon (daimw/n/daimo/nion) is always understood from the Jewish (monotheistic) viewpoint as an evil/unclean spirit; only in here (in Acts 17:18) is the word used in the general sense of “(lesser/local) deities” or “divine powers”. In the letters, Paul only rarely mentions “demons” (1 Cor 10:20-21, cf. also 1 Tim 4:1) and refers to Greco-Roman paganism in more standard Old Testament/Jewish terms of idolatry and immorality. However, here in the speech, there can be no doubt that the speaker/author uses the somewhat ambiguous term deisidaimoni/a with irony (their religious devotion actually reflects ignorance of the truth), which he begins to draw out with the example in verse 23. Also, it should be noted that the positive tone can be attributed to a rhetorical device known as captatio benevolentiae—the use of complimentary or flattering language as an appeal to the audience, in the hopes that they will be receptive to the line of argument in the speech.

Verse 23—Here there is perhaps some uncertainty as to the force of Paul’s argument (regarding the altar dedicated “to an unknown god”). Previously, I pointed out several ways one might understand it:

(a) The Athenians recognize that there is at least one “unknown” divine power, in addition to all the more familiar deities—Paul uses this to introduce the (true) God of Scripture and the Gospel to them.
(b) The Athenians effectively believe a hidden deity called “(the) Unknown”—i.e., the true deity which lies behind their flawed and mistaken religious conceptions, and which Paul now reveals to them.
(c) The Athenians’ (errant) religious seeking has led them to erect altars even to strange and unknown deities, an example of the “times of ignorance” (v. 30) which Paul now would dispel with the truth of the Gospel and revelation of the true God.

The narrative context suggests (a), the overall language and tone of the speech indicates (c), but Paul’s immediate response in v. 23b is closer to (b). The context of Greco-Roman religion in Acts (cf. also 14:15 and 19:26-27ff) expresses the viewpoint, derived from the Old Testament (esp. the Prophets) and Jewish tradition, that the pagan deities (identified with the idols/images) are vain and “nothing” (i.e. they do not really exist). Paul expresses this view as well in 1 Cor 8:4; 10:19 (also Gal 4:8); however, in the same passage he also expresses the more common view in early Christianity, that the deities have real existence but are actually evil spirits (“demons”), cf. 1 Cor 10:20-21. It is actually surprising how rarely Greco-Roman religion is mentioned in the New Testament, becoming a more prominent subject in the theological and apologetic writings of the second century. For this reason, it is difficult to judge how Paul (or the author of Acts) might have handled the matter in addressing pagan Greeks; typically, in the letters, pagan religion is described merely by inference, or under the stock reference of idolatry/immorality. The closest passages to the Areopagus speech would seem to be 1 Thess 1:9 and 1 Cor 12:2, though both are very brief statements.

The verb eu)sebe/w (“treat/regard with good/proper fear”), here used to describe the Athenians’ religion—i.e. good religious ‘fear’, but in ignorance—as well as the related words eu)se/beia, eu)sebh/$, and eu)sebw=$, are never used by Paul in any of the undisputed letters, occurring (frequently) only the Pastoral letters (1 Tim 2:2; 3:16; 4:7-8; 5:4; 6:3-6, 11; 2 Tim 3:5, 12; Tit 1:1; 2:12); they also appear several times elsewhere in Acts (3:12; 10:7).

Verse 25—The argument that God, as eternal Creator of all things, is himself in need of nothing, while relatively common in Hellenistic Judaism, is not much found in either the Old or New Testament writings (but note, e.g. Psalm 50:9-12). Of many examples, see 2 Macc 14:35; 3 Macc 2:9ff; Josephus Antiquities VIII.107-8, 111ff (on Solomon’s dedication of the Temple); for similar sentiments in Greco-Roman literature and philosophy, see Euripides Heracles l. 1345 and Fragment 968; Zeno of Citium in Plutarch Moralia 1034B (“On Stoic Contradictions” 6) and Clement of Alexandria Stromateis V.76 (chap. 11); and Seneca, Letters 41:1-3; 95:47-50. From this basic philosophical observation is derived a general argument against the importance of temple buildings, sacrificial offerings and other religious ritual. The anti-Temple outlook—identifying temples with idol/images as both “made with (human) hands”—appears several places in Acts (esp. in Stephen’s speech, 7:39-50, cf. also 19:26-27), but is not really a point of emphasis in Paul’s letters. The somewhat rare compound verb prosde/omai (“to request [something] besides”) is not otherwise used in the New Testament; similarly the verb qerapeu/w occurs only here in its fundamental sense of “serve, attend, take care of” (elsewhere it always has the specific meaning “heal” [from illness/disease]), and Paul never uses it in the letters.

Verse 26—The premise of the common origin of humankind (from a single person), while obviously assumed from Old Testament narrative and tradition (the line from Adam, Gen 1:26ff; 5:1ff, cf. Romans 5:12ff), is usually not stated in such an abstract manner. In the phrase e)poi/hse/n te e)c e(no\$ pa=n e&qno$ a)nqrw/pwn (“and he made out of one all [the] nation of men”), pa=$ e&qno$ could mean “every nation”, but the specific formulation here is better understood as “(the) entire nation”—i.e. the entire human race, with e&qno$ in a similar sense as ge/no$. It is a more philosophical construct, such as we find, for example, in Philo On the Creation §136, referring to the one man (Adam) as o( panto\$ tou= ge/nou$ h(mw=n a)rxhge/th$ (“the [one] leading/beginning all our lineage [ge/no$]”). The limits in the natural world appointed/designated (by God)—the seasons and physical boundaries (for human habitation)—are also relatively familiar from Greco-Roman philosophy as evidence for the existence and providential care of God (or the gods), a kind of “teleological argument” (cf. the examples cited by Dibelius, Studies pp. 27-37). Citing the seasons, etc., in reference to God’s care and concern for human beings, is known in the New Testament (Jesus’ words in Matt 5:45, cf. also James 5:7), but does not especially occur in Paul’s letters. There is, however, a reasonably close parallel in the brief speech recorded at Lystra (Acts 14:17), cf. below.

Verse 27—This verse is particularly difficult from the standpoint of biblical theology, and is frequently cited as being incompatible/incongruous with Paul’s teaching in the letters.

  • “to seek God” (zhtei=n to\n qeo\n)—The theme of “seeking God (or the Lord/YHWH)” is common in the Old Testament Prophets (Amos 5:6; Isa 55:6, et al), as an exhortation for the people of God, but rarely, if ever, is the concept applied in Scripture within the context of “natural revelation”—i.e., the general religious impulse of all human beings (including non-Jewish/non-Christian pagans). For an interesting reference to seeking God in the context of idolatry, cf. Deut 4:28-29. Of the many relevant passages in Hellenistic Judaism and Greco-Roman philosophy, see e.g., Wisdom 13:6; Philo On the Special Laws I.36; Cicero On the Nature of the Gods 2.153. It must be admitted that Paul, in the letters, does not use this sort of language; indeed, the overall argument of Romans 1-3 would suggest the opposite—that human beings (Jew and Gentile alike) do not truly seek God, nor are they able to do so, being enslaved by sin (apart from Christ), cf. the citation of Ps 14:1-3/53:1-3 in Rom 3:10-12. On a comparison with the famous passage in Rom 1:18-32, see below.
  • “if, indeed, they might touch/feel (about) him and find (him)”—The verb yhlafa/w often has the connotation of exploring by touch, even as far as feeling or groping about (like a blind person). For use of this verb in a somewhat similar context, see Philo On the Change of Names §126. While this verb implies the “times of ignorance” in which the pagans live, it also suggests that, despite their ignorance, they may somehow find God (at least in part).
  • “and yet (truly) he is present (and) not far from each one of us”—The existential use of the verb u(pa/rxw (cf. verse 24b) indicates presence, qualified by the expression “not far from” (ou) makra\n a)po). This idea of God’s immanence is relatively rare in the Old Testament (note e.g. Psalm 145:18; Jer 23:23), being expressed more precisely in Greco-Roman and Hellenistic-Jewish thought—cf. Josephus Antiquities VIII.108; Dio Chrysostom Oration 12.28; 30.26; Seneca Letter 41.1; 120:14, etc. Along the lines mentioned above, this concept of the “nearness” of God (even to pagans) is seen as problematic and generally foreign to Paul’s thinking. Perhaps the closest we come to this idea in the letters is the citation of Deut 30:14 in Romans 10:8, though the context is rather different, referring specifically to the response (in faith/trust) to the Gospel.

Verse 28—There are two separate issues in this verse: (1) the panentheistic tenor of the statement in v. 28a, and (2) the ambiguity of the citation from Aratus in v. 28b.

First, the classic statement in v. 28a: “for in him (e)n au)tw=|) we live (zw=men) and we are moved (kinou/meqa) and we are (e)sme/n)”. It sounds like it was taken out of the Greek philosophers, and yet no clear and convincing source or parallel has been found; the use of the verb kine/w is particularly suggestive of the Stoic concept of God as Mover (who himself is not moved)—see, for example, Chrysippus in the Eclogues of Stobaeus I.8.42; Philo On Allegorical Interpretation I.6 (cf. Dibelius, Studies, 48). Needless to say, there is nothing quite like this in the New Testament. The verb za/w (“live”), along with the related noun zwh/ (“life”), often are used in the New Testament in the sense of spiritual/eternal life, and are typically predicated of human beings (believers) in this way; here, of course, ordinary physical/material life is meant. The use of “in him [i.e. God]” (e)n au)tw=|) is even more unusual; Paul often speaks of believers as being “in Christ” (e.g., Rom 8:1; 12:5; 16:7; 1 Cor 1:30; 15:22, and many more instances), but not of human beings as “in God”—believers are “in God” but only insofar as they are “in Christ” (Col 3:3), and note also this frequent Christological sense in the Gospel and Epistles of John.

The quotation from Aratus (c. 310-240 B.C.), from the opening lines of his verse-treatise Phaenomena, is perhaps even more problematic. The poem begins with Zeus, describing his presence everywhere, and reminding human beings of their dependence on him, stating (as Paul cites), tou= ga\r kai\ ge/no$ e)smen “for we are of (his) lineage”. In the context of ancient mythological-philosophical thought, human beings (or, at least, their spirits/souls) were often viewed as being the offspring of the gods in a metaphysical sense. This is foreign to the basic tenets of Israelite/Jewish monotheism, where God (YHWH) was only the Father of human beings in a symbolic sense, in terms of family relationship, or as the Creator. Paul (and/or the author of Acts) is clearly drawing on the pagan philosophical understanding. For similar (Stoic) language and thought, see Cleanthes’ Hymn to Zeus ll. 3-5; Dion of Prusa Oration 12.27; 30.26.

Verse 29—Curiously, the author/speaker uses this premise as the basis for a critique and condemnation of idolatry (worship of God through images). While the argument against idolatry is common to Old Testament and Jewish tradition, the reasoning in v. 28b-29a is not. One might have expected a reference to the fundamental Scriptural teaching of man created in the image of God (Gen 1:26-27; 9:6), which could have been adapted to Greek philosophical concepts without too much difficulty. The neuter substantive adjective qei=on, which refers more generally to “Deity”, is not used elsewhere in the New Testament.

Verse 30—The statement that God has overlooked the “times of ignorance” for pagan Gentiles up until the present time, while similar to the statement made (by Paul) in Acts 14:16, has been thought to run contrary to tenor of Paul’s thought in the letters. On the idea of humankind’s failure to perceive and understand God properly (prior to the Gospel), cf. Rom 1:20-23; 1 Cor 1:21; for the theme of ignorance (and use of a&gnoia) elsewhere in Acts, see 3:17; 13:27. The verb u(perei=don (“look over, overlook”) is not otherwise used in the New Testament. The emphasis on God’s impending judgment in vv. 30b-31, brings the statement more closely in line with the remainder of the New Testament.

Verse 31—The declaration of the coming day of Judgment is common to the basic Jewish and early Christian worldview, and stated in traditional terminology. Only the last words of the verse create difficulty:

e)n a)ndri\ (“in/by a man”)—’Western’ witnesses (D and Vulgate MSS) add  )Ihsou= (Yeshua/Jesus). Commentators have often wondered why there is not more explicitly “Christian” content in the Areopagus speech, and no specific mention of Jesus (by name, assuming the Western reading to be secondary). This may have been what prompted the addition “Jesus”, in order to, at the very least, clarify the situation and avoid misunderstanding.

pi\stin parasxw=n (“holding alongside a trust”)—this is rather a different use of pi/sti$ (“trust”) than we typically see in the New Testament (and Paul’s letters), where it usually refers to faith/belief in Christ (or in God). Here, however, it has the sense of “assurance”, “proof”, or something similar, i.e. God demonstrating his trustworthiness. Interestingly, a few Western witnesses seem to read the verb as an infinitive (parasxei=n)—”to give along trust to all (people)”—perhaps indicating a tendency to interpret pi/sti$ here in its usual sense of faith in God/Christ.

Evaluation—It cannot be denied that there are good number of terms, expressions, and concepts which are rare or unique in the New Testament (and Paul’s letters) as a whole. But, to what extent are they incompatible with Paul’s own thought and approach? The words and phrases, detailed above, which either do not appear at all in the letters, or are used in a rather different sense, would seem to be a strong (cumulative) argument against Pauline authenticity for the speech. However, the problem with such arguments based on vocabulary and linguistic style, is that they require sufficient (relevant) material for comparison. And, the fact is, we have no other substantive example of Paul addressing (pagan) Gentiles outside of a Jewish or Christian context. All of the letters (undisputed and disputed) are written to Christians, and to believers who, presumably, have been given a significant amount of Christian instruction—including familiarity with the Scriptures, Israelite history, elements of a Jewish(-Christian) worldview and thought-forms, etc. The same applies to the rest of the New Testament; the Gospels and the Letters were all written to and for Christians. It has been pointed out, correctly, that the closest parallels to Areopagus speech are from the brief address in Acts 14:15-17; note, for example—

  • The speech begins with an exhortation to turn away from “vain/empty things” (i.e. pagan deities / idols) and toward the “living God”; for a comparable statement, written not too long after the historical event described here, cf. 1 Thess 1:9. This, of course, is the overall theme and emphasis of the Areopagus speech as well.
  • The statement of God as Creator (at the end of v. 15) is parallel to that in 17:24.
  • Though worded differently, verse 16 expresses much the same thought as 17:30 (cf. above)
  • The mention of the seasons (rain and the fruitfulness for harvest) in verse 17 is echoed in 17:26f; both references treat the features of the natural world as a witness to God’s existence and presence, though, again, in rather different language.

It just so happens that these two passages are also the only examples we have in the New Testament of Christian missionaries directly addressing a pagan audience. One must, therefore, be cautious—we simply do not have enough material available for a proper comparison. Can we be certain just how Paul would have addressed a pagan Greek audience at this time? Even if we were to admit, for the moment, that the speeches in Acts 17:22-31 (and 14:15-17) are effectively the product of the author (and not Paul), this does not solve the problem entirely. A number of the distinctive words and expressions in the speech better fit the context of the the book of Acts (rather than the Pauline epistles), but only slightly so. Luke-Acts did have an educated Greco-Roman audience in mind, at least in part, but it was still written primary for Christians and from a Christian standpoint. Theophilus (Lk 1:1; Acts 1:1) was either already a Christian or was at least someone interested in the new faith, perhaps having a similar role as the God-fearer Cornelius in the book of Acts itself (chaps. 10-11).

What about passages in the letters of Paul which are, in some sense, parallel to the Areopagus speech, especially Romans 1:18-32, which is extensive enough to allow for a reasonably fair comparison? This will be discussed in a set of separate (daily) notes, followed by a concluding statement regarding the critical question.


The Speeches of Acts, Part 21: Acts 17:16-34 (continued)

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The first two sections—the Narrative Introduction (vv. 16-21) and the Introductory Address (vv. 22-23)—were discussed in Part 20 of this series; here I will be studying the remainder of the speech.

Central Declaration (vv. 24-29)

These verses, representing the core of the speech, serve the same role as the central kerygma (Gospel proclamation) and Scripture citation/application found in the prior speeches of Acts. Here, in a speech addressed to (pagan) Greeks, we find instead a fundamental theological proclamation—on the true nature of God. This declaration is in response to, and contrasted with, the religious/superstitious deisidaimoni/a (“fear of divine-powers”) of the Athenians which Paul has noted in his introductory address (vv. 22-23). In particular, Paul has drawn upon their practice of erecting altars to “unknown gods” (sg. “[an] unknown god”, v. 23) as a way of introducing to them a new (and different) understanding of God (v. 23b). Verse 24 begins immediately with o( qeo\$ (“The God…”).

I would divide this (theological) declaration into two parts: (1) The nature of God, and (2) The relation of God to humankind.

(1) The Nature of God (vv. 24-27)

Again, it is possible to break this down further: (a) the true God vs. Idols, vv. 24-25, and (b) God as Creator, vv. 26-27.

(a) The true God vs. Idols (vv. 24-25)—These verses declare the nature of the true God, identifying God (o( qeo\$) as:

“the (One) having made the world [ko/smo$] and all the (thing)s in it”

This first premise—that the true God is Creator of the universe—will be expanded in vv. 26-27; the second, related, premise follows:

“this (One) belongs as Lord of heaven and earth”

The demonstrative pronoun ou!to$ (“this [one]”) indicates that it is specifically the God proclaimed by Paul—YHWH, the God of Israel and the early Christians—who is Creator and Lord of the universe. For a similar use of the demonstrative “this (one)” (referring to Jesus) in the Gospel kerygma of the prior speeches, see Acts 1:11; 2:23, 32, 36, etc. The verb u(pa/rxw literally means “begin under”, but in customary Greek usage it covers a fairly wide range of meaning, such as “to be (present)”, “to belong”, “to exist”, and so forth; I have rendered it above as “belong”, but the phrase could just as easily be translated simply “this (One) is Lord of heaven and earth”. The third premise builds upon the first two, as the last of three steps in v. 24, and for which there are three corresponding steps in v. 25; note—

  • (He is) the (One) having made the world and all the things in it (24a)
    • this One is Lord of heaven and earth (24b)
      • he does not dwell in shrines made with (human) hands (24c)
      • he is not attended/served by the hands of men (25a)
    • (he is) not looking to receive (a single) thing [i.e. is in need of nothing] (25b)
  • He is giving life and breath and all things to all (things/people) (25c)

We move from the outer ring (God as Creator and life-giver) to the inner (worship of God), the central proposition of v. 24c-25a reprising a Temple-motif found earlier in Acts in the speech of Stephen (cf. 7:39-50). In both speeches there is a notable contrast between God the Creator (whose hands made all things) and Temples/Idols (made by hands), with repeated use of xeir– (“hand-“) and the verb poie/w (“make”)—see esp. 7:40-41, 43-44, 48, 50; 17:24-26. While the connection between the Jerusalem Temple and idolatry in Stephen’s speech is somewhat surprising (and problematic), here in Paul’s speech the anti-Temple theme relates to the more obvious critique of pagan religion. Paul (and/or the author of Acts) could easily have quoted here the same passage from Isa 66:1-2 cited in Acts 7:49-50. The closest we come to a Scripture citation in the Areopagus speech is a likely allusion to Isa 42:5 here in vv. 24-25.

The anti-Temple motif, with its corresponding rejection of sacrificial offerings, is tied to a very specific idea: that the true God is not in need of anything. Derived from the basic concept of God as the all-powerful Creator, this specific idea is actually relatively rare in the Old Testament (e.g. Psalm 50:9-12), becoming more common in Hellenistic Jewish thought—cf. 2 Macc 14:35; 3 Macc 2:9ff; Josephus Antiquities VIII.107-8, 111ff (on Solomon’s dedication of the Temple). For similar sentiments in Greco-Roman literature and philosophy, see Euripides Heracles l. 1345 and Fragment 968; Zeno of Citium in Plutarch Moralia 1034B (“On Stoic Contradictions” 6) and Clement of Alexandria Stromateis V.76 (chap. 11); and Seneca, Letters 41:1-3; 95:47-50.

For God as maker and preserver of the ko/smo$, see e.g. Gen 1:1; 14:19, 22; Exod 20:11; Psalm 146:6; Isa 42:5; Wisdom 9:9; 11:17; 2 Macc 7:23, 28; Philo On the Creation 2.7-12; On the Special Laws I.81. For the specific expression “Lord of heaven and earth”, see Tobit 7:18; Luke 10:21 (also Gen 14:19).

(b) God as Creator (vv. 26-27)—specifically, Creator of human beings:

e)poi/hse/n te e)c e(no\$ pa=n e&qno$ a)nqrw/pwn
“and he made out of one all (the) nation of men”

The expression pa=$ e&qno$ could mean “every nation” or “all (the) nation” (i.e. the entire nation), the latter seeming much more likely in context (cf. the use of pa=$ in 2:36; 3:9, 11). This, of course, relates to the creation account in Gen 1:26ff, but stated in a more abstract and philosophical manner—i.e., from a single person (e)c e(no\$) God made the entire human race. This is followed by two purpose clauses, each governed by an infinitive:

  • katoikei=n (“to put down house”, i.e. to dwell)… v. 26
  • zhtei=n (“to seek”)… v. 27—specifically, to seek God

The first indicates the establishment of human society, the second, religion.

(i) Society—This is seen as developing within the confines of God’s providential control over the natural world. Human beings come to dwell (“put down house”) upon all the face of the earth (e)pi\ panto\$ prosw/pou th=$ gh=$). God the Creator governs the world by marking out and determining (o(ri/sa$):

  • “(the) arranged times/seasons” (prostetagme/nou$ kairou\$)
  • “the marked-out limits” [i.e. boundaries] (ta\$ o)roqesi/a$) for their dwelling

There is some question as to the precise meaning of these expressions, but kairo/$ most likely refers to the natural seasons of the year, and o)roqesi/a to the natural boundaries in the physical world (i.e. mountains, rivers, desert, sea, and so forth). This pairing is also found in Psalm 74:17; and, with regard to the boundaries of human settlement, cf. Deut 32:8.

(ii) Religion—simply put, “to seek God”, or (more literally) “to seek the God” (zhtei=n to\n qeo\n), i.e. the one true God. The theme of “seeking God” is common in the Old Testament Prophets (Amos 5:6; Isa 55:6, et al), though here it corresponds to what we would call “natural religion” (and “natural revelation”); for an interesting reference to seeking God in the context of idolatry, cf. Deut 4:28-29. Of the many relevant passages in Hellenistic Judaism and Greco-Roman philosophy, see e.g., Wisdom 13:6; Philo On the Special Laws I.36; Cicero On the Nature of the Gods 2.153. An interesting clause follows:

“if, indeed, they might touch/feel (about) him and find (him)”

The verb yhlafa/w often has the connotation of exploring by touch, even as far as feeling or groping about (like a blind person). For a use of this verb in a somewhat similar context, see Philo On the Change of Names §126. The statement concludes with the clause:

“and yet (truly) he is present (and) not far from each one of us”

On the existential use of the verb u(pa/rxw, cf. verse 24b above; here it indicates presence, qualified by the expression “not far from” (ou) makra\n a)po). This idea of God’s immanence is relatively rare in the Old Testament (note e.g. Psalm 145:18; Jer 23:23), being expressed more precisely in Greco-Roman and Hellenistic-Jewish thought—cf. Josephus Antiquities VIII.108; Dio Chrysostom Oration 12.28; 30.26; Seneca Letter 41.1; 120:14, etc. We find two somewhat parallel concepts in the New Testament: (a) of the kingdom of God (and salvation) ‘coming near’ (Lk 10:9, 11; 21:28, 30-31; Rom 13:11), and (b) of believers approaching or drawing near to God (James 4:8; Heb 4:16; 7:19, 25; 10:1, 22; 11:6; Eph 2:13), but nothing quite like this statement in Acts (perhaps the nearest example being Paul’s citation of Deut 30:14 in Romans 10:8). It is a powerful theological expression, and one which would likely have appealed to Stoics and other educated Greeks in the audience.

(2) The Relation of God to Humankind (vv. 28-29)

Interestingly, instead of a citation from Scripture, here Paul quotes from a Greek poet (Aratus); the citation is in verse 28, with a brief exposition/application in verse 29. This section can be divided:

  • Theological statement (v. 28a)
  • Citation from Greek literature (v. 28b)
  • Exposition/Application (v. 29)

Theological statement (v. 28a)—”for in him (e)n au)tw=|) we live (zw=men) and we are moved (kinou/meqa) and we are (e)sme/n)”. This triadic formula sounds like it could have been taken straight out of Greek philosophy, but, as of yet, no convincing specific parallel has been found. For a detailed argument that it derives from Epimenides of Crete, see K. Lake in The Beginnings of Christianity V, pp. 246-251 (Additional Note 19) and Dibelius, Studies pp. 48-51. Is there any special significance to the order of the verbs?—”we live” (zw=men) and “we are” (e)sme/n) would seem to be parallel expressions, life and being (existence), with the passive “we are moved” (kinou/meqa) set in between. The use of the verb kine/w is particularly suggestive of the Stoic concept of God as Mover (who himself is not moved)—see, for example, Chrysippus in the Eclogues of Stobaeus I.8.42; Philo On Allegorical Interpretation I.6 (cf. Dibelius, Studies, 48). The centrality of God with regard to life and being would be consistent both with the panentheistic philosophical context of the speech and the overall Christian message. The verb za/w (“live”), along with the related noun zwh/ (“life”), often are used in the New Testament in the sense of spiritual/eternal life, and are typically predicated of human beings (believers) in this way; here, of course, ordinary physical/material life is meant. The use of “in him [i.e. God]” (e)n au)tw=|) is even more unusual; Paul often speaks of believers as being “in Christ” (e.g., Rom 8:1; 12:5; 16:7; 1 Cor 1:30; 15:22, and many more instances), but not of human beings as “in God”—believers are “in God” but only insofar as they are “in Christ” (Col 3:3), and note also this frequent Christological sense in the Gospel and Epistles of John.

Citation from Greek literature (v. 28b)—this is introduced “as some of the (verse-)makers according to you [i.e. your ‘poets’] have declared…” The citation is generally recognized as coming from the opening lines of the popular astronomical and meteorological treatise (in hexameter verse) Phaenomena by Aratus (c. 310-240 B.C.). A contemporary of Zeno, Aratus appears to have been influenced by early Stoic thought, as reflected in this his major surviving work. “Let us begin from Zeus…” (e)k Dio\$ a)rxw/mesqa), so opens the poem, telling how all things are “full” (mesto/$) of him—streets, marketplaces, seas and harbors—”and we all need Zeus” (de\ Dio\$ kexrh/meqa pa/nte$). This leads into the statement of line 5a:

tou= ga\r kai\ ge/no$ ei)men
“for we are of (his) lineage”

This is the portion Paul cites (tou= ga\r kai\ ge/no$ e)smen). The word ge/no$ literally means something which has “come to be”, i.e., from or out of someone—”we have all come to be from him”. In ancient mythological-philosophical thought, human beings (or, at least, their spirits/souls) were often viewed as being the offspring of the gods in a metaphysical sense. This is foreign to the context of Israelite/Jewish monotheism, where God (YHWH) was only the Father of human beings in a symbolic sense, in terms of family relationship, or as the Creator. Paul (and/or the author of Acts) is here drawing on the pagan philosophical understanding, a fact which has caused some difficulty for commentators (cf. below). For similar (Stoic) language and thought, see Cleanthes’ Hymn to Zeus ll. 3-5; Dion of Prusa Oration 12.27; 30.26. According to ancient sources, Aratus was from Cilicia (possibly Tarsus), which increases the likelihood that the historic Paul would have been familiar with his work. The same line from Aratus was apparently used by Aristobulus (fragment 4), cf. Eusebius’ Preparation for the Gospel 13.12.3ff.

Exposition/Application (v. 29)—Paul builds upon this premise (“then being [the] lineage [ge/no$] of God…”), turning it into a (decisive) argument against idolatry (worship of God through images):

“(therefore) we ought not to regard the Deity [to\ qei=on] to be like gold or silver or stone (with the) cut-mark of man’s production and inspiration”

The substantive neuter adjective qei=on refers to God/Deity in the more general sense (used only here in the New Testament); it is another example of accommodation to the understanding of a (pagan) Greek audience. The argument against idols, however, is more squarely within Old Testament and Jewish tradition, e.g. Deut 4:28; Isa 40:18; 44:9-20; Wisdom 13:10; 14:7ff; 15:7-17; and note Acts 19:26. It is interesting the way this traditional Israelite/Jewish polemic identifies the pagan deities precisely with their images, even though no intelligent pagan would have believed that the deity was nothing more than the image itself. The purpose of this distortion was almost certainly to emphasize that the pagan deities did not really exist. Early Christian tradition, on the other hand, operating with the confines of Greco-Roman paganism, tended to take a different approach, regarding the deities as real (evil) spirits (i.e. “demons”). Though Paul occasionally echoes such belief (1 Cor 10:20-21), here, in the Areopagus speech, the Old Testament Prophetic view (that the pagan deities are nothing) is implied (cf. also 1 Cor 8:4; 10:19). The word xa/ragma refers to a “mark” cut into material (including impressing or branding); elsewhere in the New Testament it is only used in the book of Revelation for the “mark of the beast”.

Concluding Exhortation (vv. 30-31)

As with most of the prior speeches in Acts, this is an exhortation to repent (metanoei=n, “have a change of mind”); this is emphasized with a pair of contrasting clauses:

  • V. 30a—me\n (‘on the one hand…’): “God has overlooked the times of unknowing [a&gnoia, i.e. ignorance]”
  • V. 30b—nu\n now (‘on the other hand’), things (are thus): “he brings along a message to all men (in) all places to repent”

It may be helpful here to track the various instances of the knowledge/knowing motif in the speech:

  • “may we know…?” literally, “are we able to know [gnw=nai]…?”—request by the Athenians (v. 19)
  • “we wish to know [gnw=nai]…”—a more direct request (v. 20)
  • the altar ‘to an unknown [a)gw/stw|] god’ (v. 23a)
  • “what you worship, unknowing [a)gnoou=nte$], I announce to you…” (v. 23b)
  • this period of pagan worship as “times of unknowing [a)gnoi/a$]” (v. 30)

For the theme of ignorance (and use of a&gnoia) earlier in Acts, see 3:17; 13:27; on the idea of human’s failure to perceive and understand God properly (prior to the Gospel), cf. Rom 1:20-23; 1 Cor 1:21. Verse 30 here is a more precise statement of what was previously said by Paul in the short address at Lystra (14:15-17, v. 16); it also reflects the situation indicated in verse 27. The “overlooking” (u(peridw\n, vb. used only here in the NT) of the nations’ past ignorance (and idol-worship) is a sign of God’s patience and graciousness.

The exhortation (and with it, the speech) concludes dramatically with an announcement of God’s impending judgment. This is an important aspect of early Christian preaching, and it is worth highlighting each element in the verse here:

e&sthsen h(me/ran, “he has set (up) a day”—that is, a time when God (and/or his representative) will appear to bring judgment on the world; this is referred to in Scripture and tradition as the “day of the Lord (day of YHWH)”.
me/llei kri/nein, “he is about to judge”—this indicates the common (and widespread) Jewish and early-Christian view that end was near and God’s judgment imminent.
th\n oi)koumen/nh, “the occupied/inhabited (world)”—i.e., all people, nations, and civilizations, the entire world
e)n dikaiosu/nh|, “in justice”—or “with justice”, according to the justice/righteousness of God, and by which the ‘righteousness’ of human beings would be measured.
e)n a)ndri\, “in/by a man”—key ‘Western’ manuscripts (D and Vulgate MSS) add  )Ihsou= (Yeshua/Jesus) in order to avoid ambiguity and misunderstanding; some commentators continue to be troubled by the lack of a specific reference to Jesus, but note a somewhat similar use of the demonstrative pronoun ou!to$ (“this [one]”) for Jesus elsewhere in the speeches of Acts (cf. above). There may also be an echo here of the Jewish/Semitic “Son of Man” concept and language, so familiar from the sayings of Jesus. The specific Greek expression indicates judgment in the presence of a (human) judge.
w!| w%risen, “whom he [i.e. God] has marked-out”—on earlier use of the verb o(ri/zw in this context (of God appointing/designating Jesus), see Acts 2:23; 10:42, the latter reference being very close overall to this verse.
pi/stin parasxw\n pa=sin, “holding alongside a trust for all (people)”—this is a different sense of pi/sti$ (“trust”) than we typically see in the New Testament (where it means “faith/belief” in God and/or Christ); here it might be rendered as “assurance”, “proof”, or something similar, i.e. God demonstrating his trustworthiness.
a)nasth/sa$ au)to\n e)k nekrw=n, “causing him [i.e. Jesus] to stand up out of the dead”—this statement that God raised Jesus from the dead is, of course, a fundamental Christian tenet and component of Gospel preaching, appearing prominently in most of the prior speeches of Acts.

Narrative Conclusion (vv. 32-34)

Verses 32-33 provide the main conclusion, with a two-fold reaction to the speech, similar to that in verse 18:

  • me\n (‘on the one hand’) some of the people joked/mocked (e)xleu/azon)
  • de\ (‘on the other hand’) some of the people said “(perhaps) we will hear you about this again”, indicating genuine interest or merely a polite refusal (as opposed to mocking)

The speech began with Paul standing “in the middle/midst of them” (v. 22), and now it concludes stating that he “went out of the middle/midst of them”, providing a precise frame to the speech within the narrative. A conclusion to the narrative itself is added in verse 34, which indicates that there was at least some positive response to Paul’s proclamation, and even a few converts (two of which, Dionysios and Damaris, are named).

For many of the references above, as well as other relevant citations from the Old Testament, Jewish and Greco-Roman literature, see Dibelius, Studies, pp. 26-77; Haenchen, Acts, pp. 517-26; Fitzmyer, Acts, pp. 603-13.

Additional Note—Any careful student or reader of the New Testament will likely have noticed a number of details in the Areopagus speech which are a bit unusual—in terms of language, style, and points of emphasis—when compared with the letters of Paul. Indeed, the speech contains several concepts and expressions which are virtually unique in the New Testament, having more in common, it would seem, with Greek philosophy (Stoic thought, in particular). This has led a good many critical commentators to question whether the historic Paul could have (or would have) spoken this way. Due to the sensitivity and difficulty of this question, I will be addressing it in a supplemental article.


The Speeches of Acts, Part 20: Acts 17:16-34

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The “Areopagus Speech” of Acts 17:16-34 is the second major speech by Paul in Acts, and the only substantial speech in the book delivered to Gentiles outside of a Jewish (or Christian) context. As such it holds a special place, and is justly famous, though perhaps not nearly so many readers and students of the New Testament are as familiar with this remarkable text as they ought to be. In several important respects, the Areopagus speech is foreshadowed by Paul’s brief address in Acts 14:15-17; the points of comparison will be addressed below. In analyzing the speech, I will be using the same basic pattern and procedure I have adopted throughout this series.

Note: References below indicated by “Dibelius, Studies” are to M. Dibelius, Studies in the Acts of the Apostles, a collection of articles and lectures published in 1951 by Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht: Göttingen (English translation 1956 by SCM Press: London). Dibelius’ landmark study “Paul on the Areopagus” (1939), pp. 26-77, which draws extensively upon the earlier work of E. Norden (Agnostos Theos [1913]), has been especially helpful in locating some of the more relevant references from Greco-Roman literature for background and comparison with details in the Acts narrative.
“Haenchen, Acts” refers to the classic critical commentary by E. Haenchen (English translation of the 14th German edition [1965] by Westminster Press, 1971).
“Fitzmyer, Acts” refers to the commentary by J. A. Fitzmyer in the Anchor Bible (AB) series, vol. 31 (1997).

The basic structure and outline of the speech is as follows:

  • Narrative Introduction (vv. 16-21, esp. vv. 19-20/21)
  • Introductory Address (vv. 22-23)
  • Central (Theological) Declaration (vv. 24-29), in two (or three) parts:
    • The nature of God (vv. 24-27)
      —God vs. Idols—Temple theme (vv. 24-25)
      —God as Creator (vv. 26-27)
    • Relation of God to humankind (vv. 28-29), with a citation (from Greek literature, v. 28) and application (v. 29)
  • Concluding Exhortation (vv. 30-31)
  • Narrative Conclusion (vv. 32-33 + 34)

Narrative Introduction (vv. 16-21)

These verses present the basic narrative, as drawn from historical tradition.

Verse 16 picks up from the narrative in vv. 10-15, where Silas and Timothy are left behind in Berea and Paul has proceeded on ahead; he is in Athens, waiting for them, according to the text of v. 16. The famous city of Athens was at this time only a faint reflection of its glorious past, having decreased considerably in size and importance; however, it remained prestigious, especially as a symbol of intellectual thought, religion and philosophy. This is perhaps the reason why the episode here was given so much prominence by the author, despite the lack of immediate missionary success (vv. 32-34). From a literary (and missiological) standpoint, Athens was, in many respects, the ideal setting to introduce the Gospel as proclaimed to educated, pagan Gentiles.

parwcu/neto to\ pneu=ma au)tou= e)n au)tw=|—the compound verb parocu/nw means “bring along to a (sharp) point”, i.e. stir or provoke (to anger): “his breath/spirit in him was brought to a (sharp) point”; the verb occurs only once (1 Cor 13:5) elsewhere in the New Testament, with the related noun parocusmo/$ used in Heb 10:24 and Acts 15:39 (of the disagreement between Paul and Barnabas).

katei/dwlo$—a compound (intensive) adjective, used only in Christian writings (and only here in the New Testament), indicating (with a bit of hyperbole) “completely (filled) with images”. On religious images (temples, altars, etc) in Athens, see the classical references in Pausanias I.17.1, Strabo 9.1.16, and Livy 45.27.

Verse 17—Mention is made of Paul’s usual missionary practice of attending local Synagogues, where he would have the opportunity to preach and teach to interested Jews and Gentile “God-fearers” (oi( fobou/menoi to\n qeo\n), cf. Acts 10:2, 22, 35; 13:16, 26; (sebo/menoi) 13:43, 50; 16:14; 17:4; 18:7. To this is added discussion with pagan Greeks/Gentiles in the marketplace (a)go/ra).

diele/geto kata\ pa=san h(me/ran pro\$ tou\$ paratugxa/nonta$, “he related throughout [i.e. discussed/disputed/argued]… according to each/every day toward [i.e. with] the (one)s he struck [i.e. happened to be] alongside”—in other words, every day, whether in the Syngaogue or Marketplace, Paul used every opportunity to speak with those he came across.

Verse 18—Mention is made of Epicureans and Stoics, representatives of two major philosophical branches (or “schools”) in ancient Greece. It is not clear whether v. 18b qualifies these two groups or whether four segments of the audience are indicated: (1) Epicureans, (2) Stoics, (3) those who are skeptical/mocking, (4) those curious about Paul’s religious ideas. It is certainly possible that the Epicureans are depicted as especially skeptical, while the Stoics would have more legitimate interest. There are definite parallels to Stoic ideas and expressions in the speech which follows (cf. below). Of all the philosophical “schools”, Stoicism probably had the most in common with Hellenistic Judaism and Early Christianity. Philo of Alexandria, whose writings are generally contemporaneous with the New Testament, skillfully combines Stoicism (and Platonism) with Jewish tradition and the text of Scripture.

sune/ballon au)tw|—the Epicureans and Stoics “cast/threw (things) together with him”, that is, they discussed and disputed with Paul, the verb sometimes indicating a heated (or hostile) argument.

spermolo/go$ (“seed-gatherer”)—this idiomatic expression characterizes the skeptical/mocking response to Paul (by the Epicureans?). Concretely, it refers to a bird picking up seeds from the ground, but could also be used as a more general reference to someone collecting junk or scraps. In an intellectual (and pejorative) sense, as here, it describes someone who gathers various ideas and teachings (as his own), but without really understanding them.

ce/nwn daimoni/wn dokei= kataggeleu\$ ei@nai, “he seems to be one bringing a message of foreign daimons“—this is the other response to Paul, more sympathetic (or at least curious), but without a clear understanding of what he was proclaiming. The word dai/mwn (daímœn, neut. daimónion), of uncertain etymology, originally referred to deities or “divine powers” in a general sense (similar to qeo/$ “god”), but gradually came to mean lesser (local) deities—in particular, the supernatural powers which were thought to be intimately connected with daily life. The fate and fortune (good or ill) experienced at the personal or family level—blessing and prosperity on the one hand, disease/death and misfortune on the other—were due to the influence of daimons. Along these lines, the idea of a personal protecting spirit (similar to a ‘guardian angel’) was relatively common. A uniquely intelligent, creative or charismatic person could also be seen as gifted and guided by a daimon (or “genius”, in the fundamental sense of the word). In the monotheistic environment of Judaism (and early Christianity), there was little place for the daimon concept, the term being used almost entirely in a negative sense, for evil or “fallen” celestial beings, unclean spirits (of disease, madness and possession), and so forth. This New Testament usage ultimately is passed down into English in the transliterated word “demon”. The reference here to “strange deities” is reminiscent of the charges brought against Socrates (Plato Apology 24B, Xenophon Memorabilia I.1.1, cf. also Josephus Against Apion II.267)—note below.

The response to Paul is glossed and explained by the author—Paul was proclaiming (“bringing the good message of”) Jesus and the Resurrection. It is possible that the Greek listeners understood a)na/stasi$ (anástasis, “standing up [again]”, i.e. resurrection) as a specific deity (“Anastasis/Resurrection”) along with Jesus.

Verse 19—Paul is taken to the Areopagus ( &Areio$ Pa/go$, “the fixed point [i.e. peak/hill] of Ares”, i.e. “Mars’ hill”), the famous hill NW of the acropolis. In earlier times, the ruling council of Athens would meet on the hill, but in Paul’s day, the council regularly met in the Agora (market-place) at the “Royal colonnade (Stoa\ Basi/leio$)”. In the narrative, it is not entirely clear whether “Areopagus” refers to the council meeting or to the ancient hill itself—the former appears to fit the narrative context better, but the latter is the more dramatic setting (especially if Paul is thought to be addressing a large crowd). It is possible that the author of Acts (trad. Luke) understood (or applied) the setting differently from earlier historical tradition.

e)pilabo/menoi, “taking (hold) upon him…”—the use of this verb could indicate that Paul is being taken into custody for a hearing (before the Council), cf. Lk 20:20, 26; Acts 16:19; 18:17; 21:30, 33, though it need not indicate anything more than that he was taken away to another location, perhaps implying a private setting (Lk 9:47; 14:4; 23:26; Acts 9:27; 23:19). “They led/brought him upon the ‘hill/peak of Ares'”—taken literally, this might mean “onto the hill”, but it could also mean “before the council” (cf. Acts 9:21; 16:9; 17:6; 18:12); some degree of force(fulness) is perhaps suggested by the use of a&gw (“lead [away]”). However, if Paul is being taken before the council, there is no indication of any (criminal) charge; it has been suggested that the Areopagus council served as an official “advisory board” for regulation of public instruction, etc., but this is far from clear, and by no means certain whether (or just how) it would apply to Paul’s situation.

duna/meqa gnw=nai, “are we able to know…?”—on one level this is simply a request by the Athenians (“may we know…”), but the author of Acts surely intends a play on words, i.e. “(how) are we able to know”? The question sets the stage for the introduction of the Gospel (to interested, educated pagans) in the speech which follows. It also establishes the key motif of the knowledge of God.

h( kainh\ au%th h( u(po\ sou= laloume/nh didaxh/, “(what is) this new teaching being spoken by you?”—the adjective kai/no$ (“new”) is parallel to “foreign/strange” (ce/no$) in verse 18, and both will appear again in the verses which follow. The emphasis is on how different and striking the message of the Gospel is within a (pagan) Greek context, compared with the Jewish/Synagogue setting.

Verse 20—”For you are carrying some (thing)s appearing as strange/foreign into our ears…”

ceni/zonta—from the verb ceni/zw (related to ce/no$, above); concretely it refers to one responding to a stranger (i.e. acting as host), but more abstractly means treating/regarding someone (or something) as foreign—that is, the Athenians regard Paul’s teaching and terminology as strange/foreign.

boulo/meqa ou@n gnw=nai, “we would wish to know”—repeating gnw=nai (“to know”) from v. 19, with the emphasis again on knowledge.

ti/na qe/lei tau=ta ei@nai, “(just) what these things wish/intend to be”—the Greek idiom is very different from English (we would say “…what these things mean“); to our ears it almost suggests that the subject of Paul’s discourse has a will and purpose of its own. For a similar use of this (classical) expression, see Acts 2:12.

Verse 21—Here the author interjects a proverbial reference to Athens (cf. Demosthenes Oration 4.10); note again the presence of the ce/no$/kai/no$ motif, referring to strangers (ce/noi) who join with native Athenians in their desire to hear or to speak of “some (especially) new thing” (ti kaino/teron). While this reference could suggest that Athenians are rather vain and fickle, the underlying message (from the larger narrative standpoint of Acts) is that Gentiles (even pagan Greeks) will ultimately be receptive to the new/strange message of the Gospel.

Introductory Address (vv. 22-23)

The use of the expression “standing in the midst/middle of…” (staqei\$e)n mesw|) elsewhere in Acts (1:15; 4:7; 27:21) strongly indicates that Paul is before the Athenian Council rather than in the middle of the clearing on top of “Mars’ hill” (cf. the ambiguity of the reference to the Areopagus, above). For similar use of the vocative address “Men…” (a&ndre$…), see numerous examples in the prior speeches (Acts 1:11, 16; 2:14, 22, 29; 3:12; 5:35; 7:2; 13:15, 16, 26, 38; 15:7, 13). In the remainder of verse 22, Paul praises the Athenians (using a bit of irony and wordplay) for their apparently religious nature, with a practical observation in verse 23—providing an example which sets up the central declaration of the speech.

Verse 22b: “I see/consider [qewre/w] how according to [i.e. in] all things you have more ‘fear of daimons‘ [deisidaimoneste/rou$] (than others do)”

As indicated above, a dai/mwn (daímœn, neut. daimónion) in the Greco-Roman context is not a “demon”, but rather a lesser/local “divine power” or “deity” in the general sense; deisidaimoni/a means “fear of daimons”, cf. the component dei/dw (“to fear / I fear…”). In this respect, fear can be understood either in a proper and pious sense, or in an excessive and misplaced manner—the distinction, one might say, between religion and superstition (see also in Acts 25:29). On the surface, Paul praises their religion (in the positive sense), using a rhetorical technique known as captatio benevolentiae (“capture of good will”), complimentary language designed to gain the audience’s attention. From an early Christian perspective, of course, the (polytheistic/idolatrous) religion of the Athenians actually reflects the “times of ignorance” (v. 30) prior to the proclamation of the Gospel, and the “vain/empty things” (14:15) from which people are to turn away.

Verse 23a: “(In) going through (the city) and looking again (carefully) at your seba/smata, I (even) found a step-platform [bwmo/$, i.e. altar] in which there was written upon (it) ‘to (an) unknown god’…”

A se/basma (sébasma) is an object or work of (religious) fear and awe, i.e. of worship and veneration (cf. on the related verb se/bomai above). Elsewhere in the New Testament, it appears only in 2 Thess 2:4 (note also the verb seba/zomai in Rom 1:25). It may refer to a specific object (i.e. idol/image), cultic action (sacrificial offering) or space (temple/altar), or even to the genuine object of worship (the deity or deities) behind the ritual and material elements. Here Paul uses it in the basic sense of the temples and altars in Athens.

The expression “to (an) unknown god” (a)gnw/stw| qew=|) is perhaps the best-known detail in the entire narrative, but, in some ways, it is among the most difficult to interpret. It needs to be examined on three different levels: (a) the historical background, (b) the context of the narrative, and (c) the way Paul (and/or the author) makes use of it.

(a) The historical background—Based on what is known from classical (and early Christian) sources, there are several relevant strands of tradition upon which the narrative may be drawing. In Pausanias’ Description of Greece I.1.4, mention is made of altars “of gods.. named unknown” (qew=n.. o)nomazome/nwn a)gnw/stwn) among those standing on the way to Athens. Pausanias refers to a similar altar “of unknown gods” (a)gnw/stwn qew=n) at Olympia (V.14.8), and Philostratus in the Life of Apollonius VI.3.5 mentions altars “of unknown divine-powers” (a)gnw/stwn daimo/nwn) in Athens. Note the following possible aspects of such references:

(i) Instances where the particular deity, to whom the altar had been dedicated, was not known; there may not have been an inscription originally. This is indicated by Diogenes Laertius in his Lives of Philosophers I.110 (a story involving Epimenides of Crete), and is probably the best way of reading Pausanias’ reference in I.1.4.
(ii) Altars dedicated to foreign deities; this appears to be the understanding of certain early Christian commentators such as Tertullian (To the Nations II.9, cf. also Against Marcion I.9) and Jerome (Commentary on Titus, 1.12).
(iii) Altars dedicated to ‘unknown’ powers, in the sense of being hidden and mysterious, or, perhaps, which people were unable (or unwilling) to name. There is something of this idea in the story Diogenes Laertius tells (I.110).

(b) The context of the narrative—The narrative in Acts is perhaps best understood according to aspect (iii) above. The author (and/or his underlying tradition) seems to be drawing upon the idea of the large number of altars in Athens, and here we do well to regard the deisidaimoni/a (“fear of divine-powers”) of the Athenians (Acts 17:22) in the full sense of this expression—i.e. they were concerned to provide altars even for strange and unknown deities, lest they offend any divine power unnecessarily. Such religious psychology underlies the context of Apollonius’ advice to Timasion in the account by Philostratus (VI.3.5, mentioned above). It also reflects a basic “superstition”—and ignorance of the true nature of God—which is central to the message in Paul’s speech.

(c) Its use in the narrative—With some clever and ironic wordplay, Paul shifts the meaning of “an unknown deity” (in one of the three senses indicated above) to “the unknown God”. This can be interpreted several ways:

(a) The Athenians recognize that there is at least one “unknown” divine power, in addition to all the more familiar deities—Paul uses this to introduce the (true) God of Scripture and the Gospel to them.
(b) The Athenians effectively believe a hidden deity called “(the) Unknown”—i.e., the true deity which lies behind their flawed and mistaken religious conceptions, and which Paul now reveals to them.
(c) The Athenians’ (errant) religious seeking has led them to erect altars even to strange and unknown deities, an example of the “times of ignorance” (v. 30) which Paul now would dispel with the truth of the Gospel and revelation of the true God.

The narrative context suggests (a), the overall language and tone of the speech indicates (c), but Paul’s immediate response in v. 23b is closer to (b):

Verse 23b: “Therefore, the (one) whom you show good fear/veneration [i.e. worship], not knowing [a)gnoou=nte$], this (one) I bring down in a message [i.e. announce/declare] to you”

Again we see the motif of knowledge:

“to an unknown god” = “worshipping (God) without knowledge”

This will be emphasized again in verse 30 with the expression “times of unknowing [a&gnoia, i.e. ignorance]” that characterizes all of Greco-Roman religious history prior to the introduction of the Gospel. Indeed, it is the knowledge of God that is the central theme of the speech, a point brought home clearly (and immediately) in the central theological declaration that follows in verse 24, and which begins emphatically with o( qeo\$… (“The God…”), i.e. the true God.

This declaration (vv. 24-29) will be examined in the continuation of this study in Part 21.