The storm clouds gathered over Athens today. We had been checking the forecast all week of course to see what weather awaited us along the journey and it had said all the time that there would be storms on Thursday. And they were right. So we began the day early, in the hope of avoiding the worst of the weather, and headed straight for the Acropolis which dominates and in many ways defines Athens.
In some sense this was the climax of the pilgrimage – though, if this is not too nonsensical, there is another climax to come in the shape of Corinth – but what I mean is that with Paul we had arrived at the capital and at the heart of Greek society and Greek thinking. As we have been travelling here from Kavala, Neapolis, we have been thinking with Mark Vernon about the philosophical context into which Paul arrived with the Good News of Jesus Christ. Mark has also been contributing to this blog and further developing his ideas about Paul’s impact.
The sheer beauty of the Parthenon
Stepping from the bus and beginning to climb the huge hill which is crowned by the Parthenon is an amazing experience. This mountain is covered in temples. The acropolis of Athens (there was one in each Greek city) was not about government or fortification, it was about the worship of the gods and the goddess Athena in particular. As Paul climbed the hill, as we climbed it, he would have seen it in all its dazzling splendour and as Acts tells us it distressed him.
While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols. So he argued in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and also in the market-place every day with those who happened to be there. Also some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers debated with him. Some said, ‘What does this babbler want to say?’ Others said, ‘He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign divinities.’ (This was because he was telling the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.) (Acts 17.16-18)
He was on his own, waiting for Silas and Timothy to join him. He did exactly what we did, looked around at the sights, looked at what was going on, the plethora of temples, the idols, the sacrifices, the lavishness of the place. And in the agora, the market place he heard the debates, the competing ideas, the questions and the answers. As it then says in Acts
So they took him and brought him to the Areopagus and asked him, ‘May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? It sounds rather strange to us, so we would like to know what it means.’ Now all the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new. (Acts 17.19-21)
The ‘they’ were the philosophers with whom he had been arguing, debating and so they bring him to the place of audience.
The statue of Athena – or at least what it was thought to have looked like
As we walked around today and saw the perfection of the architecture of the Parthenon and saw the beauty of the caryatids that hold up part of the roof of the temple on the Acropolis known as the Erechtheion; as we heard about the gold and ivory statue of Athena and looked down on theatres and stadia and other temples below, I was in awe of Paul. He could easily have been persuaded into silence by the sheer power and grandeur of the place. What was he in such a setting, one man, with a word, in such an overwhelming place?
But instead, at Mars Hill, the places of the Areopagus, he speaks out and speaks boldly. This is the fearless Paul, the one who with complete conviction, with real intelligence preaches about Jesus and his resurrection and in that environment brings people to faith.
We worshipped at Mars Hill
Again we hear that among those who gave him a careful and sympathetic hearing was a woman. She is named as Damaris. Nothing more is known of her, but to be there, to be present she must have been a woman of high status, well-educated, even perhaps a foreigner. Whoever she was, with Dionysius she is aways remembered as another of the women who heard Paul and believed in Jesus Christ.
From Mars Hill we went on a short tour of Athens and ended up in the Agora. The clouds were gathering and we could hear the rumble of thunder. Perhaps it was a reminder to us that this man accused in Thessaloniki of ‘turning the world upside down’ had unleashed a storm which would in the end result in the abandonment of the temples and the cults and the old gods. Perhaps Zeus was trying to remind us of this and trying to get a word in!
In a church called to be ‘mission-shaped’ in a context of competing truths and idols we need both the courage and the missional intelligence of St Paul because without both we won’t be given the hearing that he received.
may we be your witnesses
courageous, articulate, intelligent
that we too may make Christ known.