Paul at Aeropagus

Paul at Aeropagus


It has been a long standing tradition for Christians to make allusions to the Old Testament as a substantive way of preaching the gospel. Christ, they believe, is the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets. Novelty however is a concrete reality in every field of life. Paul shows this as he borrows an element of the Greek culture to relate the message of the gospel to the Athenians. In this research, we shall attempt a comparative study of the Greek quotes cited by Paul and the Old Testament equivalents, and demonstrate the relevance of the use of cultural values in the preaching of the gospel.


Athens, the foremost Greek city-state since the fifth century B.C., was known for its proud intellectual independence, literature and art, and most importantly polytheism.[1] From all indications, bringing the gospel message to such a city would be a very difficult task. Leo Zanchettin explains that Paul’s citation of the poets’ quotes is an example of an effort to move people from a position where they are comfortable to a point where they can place their faith in the gospel. He had to move them from a reliance based solely on what their intellect could deduce to a reliance in faith on the promises of God.[2] No wonder he made the resurrection message the last part of his speech. Luke attests that Paul’s style of preaching yielded positive result as few believed thereafter. Again, we know how risky it could be to challenge a people’s culture and belief with an entirely new teaching. That was what took Jesus to Calvary. Paul would have faced the charge of inculcating foreign gods as did Socrates. Therefore before Paul’s citation of the Poets’ quotes, he first demonstrates that he is not introducing a new god. His use of the term agnosto theo (the unknown God), according to Haenchen Ernst, suggests “that the heathen live at one and the same time in a positive and negative relationship with the right God: they worship him and yet do not know him – they worship him indeed, but along with many other gods.”[3] To this effect, Lynn Losie citing James Barr attests that “by nature…men and women have a certain degree of knowledge of God and awareness of him, or at least a capacity for such awareness; and this knowledge or awareness exists anterior to the special revelation of God made through Jesus Christ, through the Church, through the Bible.”[4] Paul’s aim was that the Athenians should seek God by themselves and eventually find him.

Gallagher R. and Hertig P., are not quick to accept that the citation “in him we live and move and have our being” as used by Paul, belongs to the 6th century BC poet, Epimenides of Cnossos in Crete. They maintain that its sentiment is expressed by a number of Stoic philosophers, and that the statement is only indirectly attributed to Epimenides by the 9th century C.E. Nestorian bishop Isho ‘dad in a commentary on Acts – (Dibelius, “Paul on the Areopagus,” 48-50).[5] The Greek version which reads “En auto gar zomen kai kinoumetha kai esmen” is translated “in him (God) we live, we move and are[6]” in Ernst Haenchen’s exegesis of the text.[7] In his exegesis we discover that equivalents of this quote have not yet been found elsewhere. He maintains that its construction by Luke is unlikely: (Luke himself would have maintained no such immanence of man in God as the wording of the text asserts). As the continuation (hos kai tines ton kath) shows, the speaker does not take these expressions to mean a spatial nearness of God (although it is not denied), but rather God’s relationship to men; God’s creation of mankind.[8] Like Gallagher R. and Hertig P., Haenchen attributes this line to a Stoic formulation, even as he argues that whether or not it originated with Epimenides is immaterial. We see here that both accounts are not certain in tracing the quote to Epimenides, and they commonly agree that stoic philosophers are known for using similar terms. None makes mention of any Old Testament equivalent as regards the quote. Let us now pass over this citation and turn to the next one, which would constitute the veritable material of this discussion. According to John Stott, the second quotation “We are his offspring” – (Tou gar kai genos esmen) comes from the 3rd century Stoic author Aratus, who came from Paul’s native Cilicia, although he may have been echoing an earlier poem by the Stoic philosopher Cleanthes.[9] Stott goes further to say that we need to exercise caution, for in stating that ‘we are his offspring’, Aratus was referring to Zeus, and Zeus is emphatically not identical with the living and true God. It was Aristobulus of Alexandria, a Hellenistic Jewish scholar of the second century B.C. who changed the name from Zeus to “of God”, when he quoted the poem. Stott concludes that all human beings are God’s offspring (genos). Although in redemption (Christian) terms God is the Father only of those who are in Christ, and we are his children only by adoption and grace, yet in creation terms God is the Father of all humankind, and all are his offspring, his creature, receiving their life from him.[10] Furthermore, Luke Timothy who translates the citation as “we are also of his family” goes on to argue that Paul immediately picks up the key word, genos (family/offspring) for his conclusion, and that it is probable that Luke understood this kinship along the lines of being created in God’s image (Gen 1:26), for that is the direction the argument takes.[11] The implication of being created in God’s image is that human beings can related to God in a personal way because their intellect and will give them a certain similarity of nature with God. It is this likeness to God that Paul tries to bring to the consciousness of the Greeks. More so, just like the Hebrew adamah (mankind) in Genesis account, the Greek genos (offspring/family) means neither male nor female. In Greek vocabulary, genos is classified as a neuter noun. Both genos and adamah are collective nouns and do not mean male or female or an individual. In other words, both accounts make allusions to the equality of the two sexes that are found in the family of mankind.

A similar expression is seen in Psalm 139:13: “For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb”.[12] This quote in its context aims at affirming God’s omniscience; the fact that God has knowledge of every facet of our lives, that he is the foundation of our existence, and that his eye has been upon us from the beginning of our existence. Another similar quote is found in the prophecy of Isaiah: “Thus says the Lord who made you, who formed you in the womb and will help you” (Isaiah 44:2).[13] We see that the Psalmist and Isaiah use the term womb to emphasize the very first beginning of man, or his origin in God. Again, the womb signifies the strong bond between the mother and the child, and in a deeper sense, the most profound relationship that every human being has with God, the Father of all. This relationship with God is universal; it is not culture-bound. Hence Paul seeks that the Greeks would come to faith in Jesus Christ the Son of God, even though he (Jesus) was manifested in the world as a Jew.


Culture is a concrete reality that is very fundamental to the life of every community of human beings. A community without a culture does not exist; they cannot be identified as a people. Interestingly, beliefs and ideologies (philosophy) are among the most central elements of the culture of every human society. It is a truism that people are often ready to die in the bid to protect what they believe in. In Catholicism, many are acclaimed martyrs and saints for doing so. In Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, the protagonist Okonkwo went to the extent of committing murder and finally suicide because the white man invaded his community with a foreign belief.[14] The major task of this section is therefore to demonstrate that knowledge of cultural values is very necessary for evangelization. At the earliest stage of evangelization, appeal to culture seems to be more effective in transmitting the message of the gospel than making references to the Old Testament even when the evangelized are not in any way acquainted with the socio-cultural anthropological background of the Jewish scripture. When some Greeks came up to Jerusalem to see Jesus, he used the language akin to the laws of nature to teach them the implications of being his disciples. Jesus being aware that the Greeks are very much conversant with the philosophies of nature said to them, “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much fruit” (John 12:24). By this Jesus refers to his death which will lead to his resurrection…the true disciple of Jesus must experience that same death to selfishness in his own life time.[15] The allusion fostered the ground for the Greeks to key into the meaning of Jesus’ message about resurrection and discipleship. The famous admonition of Paul “…bad company corrupts good morals” (I Corinthians 15:53) was used earlier by the poet Menander who probably took it from Euripides (Socrates, Ecclesiastical History, 3:16).[16] Paul knew that his audience was acquainted with this literature. As a way of creating synergy between culture and evangelization in Africa, theological reflection since the year 1960 has been massively centered on inculturation. This will help Africans to welcome the Christian God while safeguarding their identity and their cultural traditions. The emergence of African theology was enhanced by the openness of the Second Vatican Council to the integration of cultures in the expression of the Christian faith.[17]


We have seen how the knowledge of cultural values can foster the propagation of the gospel. Care must be taken however to avoid misinterpreting the elements of a particular culture. Otherwise, it would be wrongly applied to the message of the gospel and vice versa, and the result will be heresy. On the other hand, a profound exegetical approach towards the gospel texts should be adopted in evangelization process. In fact this must be the first task of the preacher for he must gain an in-depth knowledge of what he is to preach or contextualize. No one gives what he has not. We are not just to understand cultural values; we have to respect them too for no culture is superior to another. Evangelization fares better where it is inculcated from within than where it is imposed on the people.


[1] Stott, John, The Message of Acts, (England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1991), 276.

[2] Leo, Zanchettin (ed.), Acts: A Devotional Commentary, (Maryland: The Word Among Us Press, 2001), 153.

[3] Haenchen, Ernst, The Acts of the Apostles: A Commentary, (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1985), 521.

[4] Lynn Losie, Paul’s Speech on the Areopagus: A Model of Cross-cultural Evangelism in Mission in Acts: Ancient Narratives in Contemporary Context, edited by Gallagher, R., et al, (New York: Orbis Books, 2004), 222.

[5] Gallagher Robert & Hertig Paul (eds.), Mission in Acts: Ancient Narratives in Contemporary Context, (NY: Orbis Books, 2004), 230-231.

[6] Italics mine. “Are” which is rendered explicitly as “we are” – (esmen in Greek) is the first person plural of the present active indicative eimi – to be. It is used in the text to express the nature of our relationship with God.

[7] Haenchen, Ernst, The Acts of the Apostles: A Commentary, (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1985), 524.

[8] Ibid., 524.

[9] Stott, John, The Message of Acts, (England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1991), 286.

[10] Ibid., 286-287.

[11] 316 Luke Timothy Johnson, The Acts of the Apostles

[12] The Holy Bible: The New Revised Standard Version, Catholic Edition, Bangalore: Theological Publications, 2014.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Achebe C., Things Fall Apart, (England: Heinemann, 2008), 164-165.

[15] The New African Bible, (Commentary on John 12:24).

[16] Jamieson Robert, A. R. Fausset, and David Brown, Commentary on the Whole Bible, (Oak Habor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997), 1546.

[17] Ukwuije, Bede, The Trinitarian God: Contemporary Challenges and Relevance, (Bandra Mumbai: St Pauls Press, 2013), 43&47.

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