Old Testament: 2 Samuel 13 & 14
Poetry: Proverbs 23
New Testament: Acts 17
It is hard to discuss Acts 17 without mentioning verse 11, and the more “noble-minded” behavior of the Bereans, compared with the Thessalonians. They received the word with great eagerness and searched the scriptures daily to determine if what they were being told was true. The central comparison with the Thessalonians involved those residents of the city who had rejected the truth and driven out Paul and his companions. So it seems like the issue was the Bereans’ openness to examine the truth and receive it, making Bible study itself secondary. But the verse offers a lovely image of people being excited with the truths of the gospel they are hearing, while still being cautious to verify they are not being led astray. That image fits better for a group of Jewish believers, already familiar with the Old Testament, than it would have for a group of Gentiles who were only first hearing about the Gospel and learning about the scriptures. But you can see how the image may also apply to those who are familiar with the Bible and then are exposed to a new way of understanding it, perhaps the Gospel of the Kingdom, or the sleep of the dead. To first grasp such an idea and then figure out how sections of the Bible you previously thought you understood actually fit together and form a different picture may require examining dozens of texts. And in that process the new understanding becomes more fully owned, and more ready to be shared with others.
After Paul left Berea he found at Athens one of the centers of Greek paganism, paired with one of the centers of Greek philosophy. Neither aspect of the city impressed him, but he considered that the altar to “an unknown god” (theos agnostos) gave him a discussion point for speaking with the philosophers of Athens. The idea of the altar wasn’t, apparently, to be cautious and try to honor some nation’s god which the people were not yet aware of. The phrase was intended to describe divinity in a Platonist way, saying there was a fully transcendent god, so “other” as to be unknowable to humans. It suggested a being who was infinite, formless and changeless. When Paul described “The God who made the world and all things in it” the philosophers present may have immediately known that Paul had in mind something quite different than the altar was for – our God is glorious and transcendent, yes, far beyond us, but also immanent, capable of creating, capable of loving that creation, and desiring to save creation. When Paul argued that God doesn’t dwell in temples, and can’t be represented by statues of gold, silver or stone he was rejecting aspects of the “pagan” Athens, not the “philosophical” Athens, and the philosophers may have been right in line with his words. But then he spoke of the resurrection, and most of them could get no grasp on what he was referring to. The normal philosophical notions of perfection were all about being freed from the physical realm, they involved the mind, and continuing life after death as a spirit being. The idea of desiring to regain a body after dying played no part in that. A very few members of the group were willing to leave with Paul and learn more, but it seems that Paul was not interested in coming back to keep talking to the rest of them. Their reputation was that they loved to talk and to listen, but Paul could tell there were better things to do with his time.
As an odd note, the name of Dionysius the Areopagite (who left with Paul in v. 34) was taken up for a very prominent fraud. The tradition of studying and teaching philosophy in Athens continued into the 500s, though it is considered that the last major figure in that line was Proclus who died in A.D. 485. Sometime in A.D. 500-520 a set of ten letters and four treatises was released, portrayed as being by “Dionysius the Areopagite,” who was remembered as having become the first bishop of Athens. It presented a Christian philosophical-theology in line with Proclus’ writings. Because it claimed to be from the first century it could be used to support a number of ideas it contained, like the trinity, which were not established by the Bible. One of the writings is credited with coining the Greek word for “hierarchy,” and it describes the structure of the church with bishops, priests, deacons, monks, etc. After these works came to public attention in 533 a bishop did ask why, if they were really from Dionysius in the first century, they had never been heard about or quoted from before. But as people found these texts useful for claiming what they wanted to prove, objections were set aside. The writings of Pseudo-Dionysius-the-Areopagite weren’t properly questioned for centuries, and they were not widely rejected until issues were raised in the Renaissance in the 1400s. Eventually it was seen that the text of one of the works had plagiarized Proclus, which made the sequence of events clear, but that wasn’t recognized until 1895. Truly this was a case where it would have been better if people had been content to examine the scriptures and compare them to what they were learning elsewhere.
Paul wrote to the Corinthians that “the Greeks search for wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness, but to those who are the called, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:22-24). Paul had some experience with Greek people, not just in Greece, who wanted to hear things that would let them feel big, and wise. It is enough to accept that God is those things.
Dear Lord, please help me be open to knowing you as your child, as Paul wrote. Simply, and lovingly. Please remove complications that aren’t needed, barriers that get in the way. Open my eyes to you, please, and let me see. Amen.
- Have you attempted to examine the scriptures to determine that what you have learned was correct?
- Paul’s speech to the philosophers seems well crafted, he found an interesting hook, he cites Greek poetry, he pays attention to local concerns – it seems like a good example of Paul trying to be all things to all people that some might be saved. (1 Corinthians 9:22) How do you view the idea of trying to be “all things to all people”? Do you think Paul ever had much of a chance to have a big impact with the group he was trying to reach in Athens? Do you think there was more potential for those who he had reached to reach others there after he left?
- What do you think could cause someone to feel they needed to write a book under a borrowed name to present their beliefs about Christianity? What could they have done next?
- What do you think made it so hard for people to see the truth about the writings of Pseudo-Dionysius-the-Areopagite?