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How Did Paul Interact with Greek Philosophies in Athens?
After being driven out of Thessalonica and Berea by an angry mob, Paul was conducted down the coast to Athens by the faithful Saints for his own safety (see Acts 17:1–15). While Paul waited for his companions, Silas and Timothy, to join him, “his spirit was stirred in him, when he saw the city wholly given to idolatry. Therefore disputed he in the synagogue with the Jews, and with the devout persons, and in the market daily with them that met with him” (Acts 17:16–17).
As Paul was preaching in the agora, he gained the attention of “certain philosophers of the Epicureans, and of the Stoicks,” who had varying attitudes towards what they heard: “And some said, What will this babbler say? other some, He seemeth to be a setter forth of strange gods: because he preached unto them Jesus, and the resurrection” (Acts 17:18). So they took Paul to meet with the Areopagus on Mars Hill right next to the Acropolis. There the city rulers invited him to explain in greater detail the new doctrine he was preaching.
Paul commenced his well-known speech by discussing the Athenian worship of an unknown god (Acts 17:23). Here, Paul shows a deep understanding of the language and culture of his audience. As biblical scholars have studied Paul’s explanation address, it has become clear that Paul was familiar with ideas common in Greek philosophical circles. Since he had grown up in Tarsus, the capital city of the Roman province of Cilicia, Paul was probably educated there and would have been taught Greek language, literature, history, and public governance. Now in Athens, Paul could deliver an effective prophetic critique of many of the ideas prevalent in Athenian society, “contrasting supposed Athenian piety with the truth about humanity, their origins, and their relationship to the true God.”1
One of the most prominent philosophers known to Athens, for example, was Socrates, who was famously tried for his beliefs and sentenced to death on this same hill in 399 BC, almost five centuries earlier. Though Paul may not have been deeply conversant with all of Socrates’s works, biblical scholar Craig S. Keener has observed how Paul is depicted in Acts 17 as a “new Socrates” for his hearing on this hill.2 For the most part, Paul drew upon his knowledge of Stoic and Epicurean thought throughout his speech as he tries to share the gospel in terms that both of those two groups would be more likely to understand.
Paul begins and ends his speech, for example, by mentioning the Athenians’ ignorance of the true God (see Acts 17:23, 30). While some philosophers such as Socrates believed “that those who claimed to have knowledge in reality did not,”3 most philosophers (such as those in Paul’s immediate presence) valued knowledge highly and confidently. Specifically, many Greek thinkers valued knowledge of deities, “and ignorance of a deity was usually not a compliment.”4 However, Paul did not leave the Athenians to remain in ignorance but went on to teach them about God’s true nature and how they might come to know Him.
One aspect of this ignorance likely included the Epicureans’ rejection of temples and sacrifices; they saw intellectual exercise as the only reasonable form of worship.5 While they might have been enthusiastic to hear Paul teach that God is not “worshipped [literally, ‘served’] with men’s hands, as though [God] needed any thing,” they would have immediately rejected the rest of Paul’s statement because Paul declared that serving God allows us to “feel after him, and find him” (Acts 17:25, 27). Just because God does not require our worship does not mean that He does not desire His children to approach Him and come to know Him, especially in the ordinances performed in the temple.
Assessing his audience, Paul had more in common with the Stoics than the Epicureans. For example, on the one hand, Epicureans believed in God yet viewed Him “as an untroubled being, uninvolved in human cares and concerns.”6 Paul, however, maintained that God was intimately involved with the details of our lives, even to the point of giving us “life, and breath, and all things” (Acts 17:25). Stoics, on the other hand, maintained that God was active in the world, and so they could have agreed with many of Paul’s teachings.
Stoics likewise may have been more open to the idea of a resurrection than the Epicureans, who rejected any idea of an afterlife and were likely those who mocked Paul “when they heard of the resurrection of the dead” (Acts 17:32).7 While both groups of philosophers believed in living according to one’s reason and training, Paul taught powerfully that that was not enough. Rather, all people must repent and live according to God’s will (see Acts 17:30).
Paul additionally cited the Greek poets Epimenides and Aratus to demonstrate to both the Epicureans and Stoics how “your own poets have said, For we are also his offspring” (Acts 17:28), referring to their status as children of God.8 However, even these famous philosophers could not come to a true understanding of what their declaration meant without relying on the Spirit and listening to the Lord and His prophets. For this reason, Paul invited the Athenians to “seek the Lord, if they are willing to find him, for he is not far from every one of us” (Joseph Smith Translation, Acts 17:27).
Ultimately, while Paul’s teachings may not have had a lasting effect on some of these philosophers who were unwilling to repent, some of them did believe and were baptized (see Acts 17:34). Philosophers, however, would ultimately impede Paul’s preaching later on in his ministry. About two years after this experience, Paul would write to his converts in Corinth warning them not to allow their philosophical studies and interests affect their faith, declaring, “Your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God” (1 Corinthians 2:5).9
We may not know exactly what Paul’s education included, but it is clear that the Apostle had extensive training in classical schools of thought in addition to his training under Gamaliel in learning the Jewish laws and scriptures (see Acts 22:3). While many philosophers would prove detrimental to the faith of some Christians, Paul was able to powerfully utilize his secular and spiritual training to bring the gospel to many who would have otherwise not heard the message.
Greek philosophy would continue to have a rocky relationship with Christianity for the next several centuries. As Daniel W. Graham and James L. Siebach have observed, much of Roman science was beneficially rooted in Greek mathematics, analysis, and philosophy and thus made important advances that we still depend on today.10 What it could not do, however, was replace revelation as the proper medium for a knowledge of God. Rather, “we may use rational methods to organize the teachings of the scriptures, and we may profitably evaluate them by the use of reason. But we do not need to adhere to any school of Greek philosophy to understand Christian doctrine; on the contrary, we should use Christian doctrine to evaluate philosophical theories.”11
The problem of depending primarily on philosophical theories became more pronounced in the third and fourth centuries as later “Christian thinkers believed the question of God’s nature to be one such theological enquiry which the New Testament did not elucidate sufficiently” and began to force their doctrine to fall in line with philosophical schools.12 Rather than follow Paul’s example and base their faith on the scriptures as elucidated by the teachings of the prophets, they instead grounded their faith on the philosophies of men, only using the scriptures when necessary to give them a shadow of authority.13
Such a basis for belief cannot last. In the Book of Mormon, Jacob testified that “to be learned is good if they hearken unto the counsels of God” (2 Nephi 9:29). Indeed, the Lord encourages us to gain a faithful education in modern times as well: “Seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith” (Doctrine and Covenants 88:118). Paul’s experience in Athens reflects this exact principle. A true and saving knowledge about the nature of God and the gospel is not something that can be worked out by ourselves to suit our own predilections. Rather, truth and goodness must be accompanied by a willingness to follow God and accept His will in our lives.
As we follow Paul’s example, we can more fully “seek learning, even by study and also by faith” and seek to maintain the Spirit in our lives. President Russell M. Nelson has taught, “Become an engaged learner. Immerse yourself in the scriptures to understand better Christ’s mission and ministry. Know the doctrine of Christ so that you understand its power for your life.”14 As we do so, we can, like Paul, be able to distinguish truth from error more clearly, make more inspired choices, and come to feel the Savior’s love more powerfully in our lives.
Bryce Gessell, “Greco-Roman Philosophy and the New Testament,” in New Testament History, Culture, and Society: A Background to the Texts of the New Testament, ed. Lincoln H. Blumell (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University; Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 2019), 178–193.
Eric D. Huntsman, “‘The Wisdom of Men’: Greek Philosophy, Corinthian Behavior, and the Teachings of Paul,” in Shedding Light on the New Testament: Acts–Revelation, ed. Ray L. Huntington, Frank F. Judd Jr., and David M. Whitchurch (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2009), 67–97.
Gary Layne Hatch, “Paul among the Rhetoricians: A Model for Proclaiming Christ,” in The Apostle Paul: His Life and His Testimony, ed. Paul Y. Hoskisson (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1994), 65–79.
Richard P. Anderson, “Rhetoric versus Revelation: A Consideration of Acts 17, Verses 16 to 34,” in The New Testament and the Latter-day Saints, ed. H. Dean Garrett (Orem, UT: Randall Book, 1987), 23–41.
- 1. Nicholas J. Frederick, “The Life of the Apostle Paul: An Overview,” in New Testament History, Culture, and Society: A Background to the Texts of the New Testament, ed. Lincoln H. Blumell (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University; Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 2019), 408.
- 2. For example, Keener notes that “when a philosopher was rejected because of his wisdom, he could be compared to Socrates” by later biographers. Craig S. Keener, Acts: An Exegetical Commentary, 4 vols. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2014), 3:2606; see more generally pages 3:2603–2612 for an analysis of this comparison as well as similarities between Paul’s speech and Socrates’s teachings. Other scholars have likewise noted apparent similarities between Socrates’s trial and teachings with Paul’s speech, showing that Paul may have even been aware of Socrates’s teachings and intentionally drawn upon them for his audience. See Richard I. Pervo, Acts: A Commentary (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2009), 428–429. For an analysis of these noted comparisons as well as of different observations on these similarities, see J. Andrew Cowan, “Paul and Socrates in Dialogue: Points of Contact between the Areopagus Speech and the Apology,” New Testament Studies 67 (2021): 121–133.
- 3. Cowan, “Paul and Socrates in Dialogue,” 130. In Plato’s Euthyphro, Socrates’s beliefs extended to religious fields, where Socrates expressed his frustration that he was being persecuted for not accepting blindly the stories he was told about the gods, concluding he could learn little about them. This is heavily contrasted with Paul, who believed that we could learn about God and become like Him.
- 4. Keener, Acts, 3:2635.
- 5. See Keener, Acts, 3:2639. This point is likewise found in Plato’s Euthyphro, which contains an account of Socrates’s final teachings before his execution. See Plato, Euthyphro 14e–15a; Cowan, “Paul and Socrates in Dialogue,” 131; Pervo, Acts,434–435n93.
- 6. Bryce Gessell, “Greco-Roman Philosophy and the New Testament,” in New Testament History, Culture, and Society, 185.
- 7. See Gessell, “Greco-Roman Philosophy,” 187.
- 8. Frederick, “Life of the Apostle Paul,” 394.
- 9. For more on Paul’s rebuttal of philosophies in 1 Corinthians, see Eric D. Huntsman, “‘The Wisdom of Men’: Greek Philosophy, Corinthian Behavior, and the Teachings of Paul,” in Shedding Light on the New Testament: Acts–Revelation, ed. Ray L. Huntington, Frank F. Judd Jr., and David M. Whitchurch (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2009), 67–97.
- 10. Daniel W. Graham and James L. Siebach, “The Introduction of Philosophy into Early Christianity,” in Early Christians in Disarray: Contemporary LDS Perspectives on the Christian Apostasy, ed. Noel B. Reynolds (Provo, UT: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies [FARMS], 2005), 212.
- 11. Graham and Siebach, “Introduction of Philosophy into Early Christianity,” 218–219.
- 12. Graham and Siebach, “Introduction of Philosophy into Early Christianity,” 221.
- 13. For an excellent treatment on the introduction of philosophy into the Church as a replacement for prophetic revelation, see Hugh Nibley, “Prophets and Philosophers,” in The World and the Prophets (Provo, UT: FARMS; Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1987), 33–43; Graham and Siebach, “Introduction of Philosophy into Early Christianity,” 205–238.
- 14. Russell M. Nelson, “Christ Is Risen; Faith in Him Will Move Mountains,” April 2021 general conference.
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