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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Athens

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(Ἀθῆναι)

Athens, which St. Paul visited in the autumn of a.d. 48 (Harnack), or 50 (Turner), or 51 (Ramsay), was now in some respects very different from the city of Pericles and Plato. Her political and commercial supremacy was gone. Greece had for two centuries been the Roman province of Achaia, of which Athens was not the capital. The governor had his residence at Corinth, and the merchant-princes had forsaken the Piraeus for Lecheum and Cenchreae. Rut Athens was still the most beautiful and brilliant of cities, the home of philosophy, the shrine of art, the fountain-head of ideals. As the metropolis of Hellenism she had, indeed, a wider and more pervasive influence than over, which the Roman conquerors, like the Macedonians before them, did their best to extend. ‘From the Philhellenic standpoint, doubtless, Athens was the masterpiece of the world’ (T. Mommsen, Provinces of the Roman Empire2, London, 1909, i. 258). To be among her citizens was to breathe the atmosphere of culture. Her Lyceum by the Ilissus, her Academy by the groves of Cephissus, her Porch in the Agora, and her Garden near at hand, were still frequented by Platonists, Peripatetics, Stoics, and Epicureans. Her University drew to itself a host of foreign students, especially from Rome, and became the model of the younger foundations of Alexandria, Antioch, and Tarsus.

Neither the Republic nor the Empire ever fully applied the subject-relation to Greece, and the Athenians were always treated with special kindness. ‘The Romans, after their conquest, finding them governed by a democracy, maintained their independence and liberty’ (Strabo, ix. i. 20). Even in the Mithridatic war, when an ordinary town behaving as Athens did would have been razed to the ground, ‘the citizens were pardoned, and, to this time, the city enjoys liberty, and is respected by the Romans’ (ib.).

The outward aspect of Athens was little altered in St. Paul’s time. Plutarch, who wrote half a century later, says in regard to Pericles’ public edifices: ‘In beauty each of them at once appeared venerable as soon as it was built; but even at the present day the work looks as fresh as ever, for they bloom with an eternal freshness which defies time, and seems to make the work instinct with an unfading spirit of youth’ (Pericles, xiii.). Cicero conveys the impression which the city made upon every cultivated mind in his time: ‘Valde me Athenae delectarunt, urbe dumtaxat et urbis ornamento, … sed multum ea philosophia’ (Ep. ad Att. v. 10). The Philhellenism of the Empire surpassed that of the Republic, and of all the Roman benefactors of Athens the greatest was Hadrian, who not only completed the temple of Zeus Olympius, which had remained unfinished for 700 years, but embellished the city with many other public buildings, and gave the name of Hadrianopolis to a new quarter.

But, though Athens was outwardly as splendid as ever, she was inwardly decadent, being, in philosophy, letters, and art, a city living upon traditions. Her first-rate statesmen and orators, poets and thinkers, did not outlive the nation’s freedom.

‘The self-esteem of the Hellenes, well-warranted in itself and fostered by the attitude of the Roman government … called into life among them a cultus of the past, which was compounded of a faithful clinging to the memories of greater and happier times and a quaint reverting of matured civilisation to its in part very primitive beginnings.… The bane of Hellenic existence lay in the limitation of its sphere; high ambition lacked a corresponding aim, and therefore the low and degrading ambition flourished luxuriantly’ (Mommsen, op. cit. i. 280, 283).

The decay of Athens was due less to the exhaustion of her creative energy, with the substitution of imitative for original work, than to the simple fact that the thought and art of her citizens were no longer wedded to noble action and brave endurance. Full of aesthetes and dilettantes, loving the reputation more than the reality of culture, letting a restless inquisitiveness and shallow scepticism take the place of high aspiration and moral enthusiasm, she became blind to the visions, and deaf to the voices, which redeem individual and collective life from vanity.

The devouring appetite of the Athenians for news had long been one of their best-known traits.

Demosthenes (Phil. i. p. 43) pictures them bustling about the Agora inquiring if any newer thing is being told (πυνθανόμενοι κατὰ τὴν ἀγοράν εἴ τι λέγεται νεώτερον), the tragedy being that, while they were talking, philip was acting. Thucydides (iii. 38) makes Cleon say to them: ‘So you are the best men to be imposed on with novelty of argument, and to be unwilling to follow up what has been approved by you, being slaves of every new paradox, and despisers of what is ordinary. Each of you wishes above all to be able to speak himself.… In a word, you are overpowered by the pleasures of the ear, and are like men sitting to be amused by rhetoricians rather than deliberating upon State affairs.’

Among the philosophers of St. Paul’s time the penchant for news took the form of an eagerness to hear the latest novelty in speculation or religion which any σπερμολόγος (picker-up of scraps of information) might have to publish (Acts 17:21), in order that they might exercise their nimble wits upon it, and most probably hold it up to ridicule.

Though St. Paul spoke the language of Hellas, and acknowledged himself a debtor to the Hellenes (Romans 1:14), yet Athens does not seem to have exercised any fascination over him. She did not beckon him like Rome; he did not see her in his dreams, or pray that he might be prospered to come to her; he never exclaimed, with a sense of destiny, ‘I must see Athens.’ That he ever visited her at all was apparently the result of an accident. He was hurried away from Berœa before he had time to mature his plans of future action, and he merely waited at Athens for the arrival of his friends, Silas and Timothy (Acts 17:15 f.). To picture him wandering among temples and porticos, lost in admiration of works of genius, and ‘perhaps witnessing the performance of a play of Euripides,’ is to misunderstand him. He did not spend his leisure in Athens, any more than Luther in Rome, in appraising the masterpieces of plastic and dramatic article They were both ‘provoked’* [Note: παροξύνομαι often used in the LXX to express a burning Divine (and prophetic) indignation against idolatry (Hosea 8:5, Zechariah 10:3).] by what they saw as they passed by. They were consumed with the prophetic zeal which seeks to replace a false or imperfect religion with a true and perfect one. St. Paul, indeed, knew the Hellenic world too well to imagine that, while the city was ‘full of idols’ (κατείδωλον), its men of culture were given to idolatry. In their case the worship of the gods survived only in that cultus of physical beauty to which innumerable sculptured forms bore silent witness, while such spiritual faith as they still retained found expression rather in altars Ἀγνώστῳ Θεῷ; to the existence of which Pausanias (i. i. 4) and Philostratus (Vit. Apollon. vi. 2) testify (see Unknown God).

St. Paul’s address before the court or council of Areopagus (q.v. [Note: quod vide, which see.] ) is a noble attempt to find common ground with the Athenian philosophers, an appreciation of what was highest in their religion, an expression of sympathy with their sincere agnosticism, an appeal to that groping, innate sense of spiritual realities, that universal instinct of monotheism, which lead to the true God who is near to all men, and who, though unseen, is no longer unknown. Renan suggests that St. Paul was ‘embarrassed’ by all the wonders that met his eyes in Athens, as if Athene herself had perhaps cast her spell upon him and made him somewhat doubtful of the Galilaean; but there is no sort of foundation for such a fancy. It is certain, however, that the Apostle had a new experience of a different kind in Athens. Faced by an audience half-courteous and half-derisive, he was first ridiculed and then ignored, when he would have preferred to be contradicted and persecuted. Not driven from the city by hostile feeling, but quitting it of his own accord, too unimportant to be noticed, too harmless to be molested, he departed with a crushing sense of failure, and, apparently as a consequence, began his mission in Corinth ‘in weakness and fear and much trembling’ (1 Corinthians 2:3). It is possible that he felt he had made a mistake. All that he said to the philosophers of Athens was true, but ineffective. It did little or nothing to storm the enemy’s citadel. In a modern phrase, it was magnificent, but it was not war. Another power was needed to humiliate the wise, as well as to end the long reign of the gods of Greece. It is significant that in Corinth the Apostle determined-not, indeed, for the first time, but certainly with a new emphasis-not to know anything save Jesus Christ and Him crucified (1 Corinthians 2:2), who was for both Jews and Hellenes the power of God and the wisdom of God (1:24).

The Athenian synagogue (Acts 17:17), in which St. Paul met some ‘devout persons’-σεβόμενοι, Gentiles more or less influenced by Judaism-was probably small, for the university city did not attract his compatriots like Corinth, the seat of commerce. His reasoning ‘in the Agora every day with those who met him’ naturally recalls those Socratic disputations in the same place, of which Grote gives a lively account in his History of Greece (London, 1869, viii. 211f.). That the address before the Council of the Areopagus was not entirely fruitless is proved by the conversion of a man holding so important an official position as Dionysius the Areopagite (q.v. [Note: quod vide, which see.] ).

Literature.-W. J. Conybeare and J. S. Howson, Life and Epistles of St. Paul, new ed., London, 1877, i. 405f.; W. M. Ramsay, St. Paul the Traveller and the Roman Citizen, London, 1895, p. 237f.; A. C. McGiffert, Apostolic Age, Edinburgh, 1897, p. 257f.; E. Curtius, Gesammelte Abhandlungen, Berlin, 1894, ii. 528f.; A. Mommsen, Athenœ Christianœ, Leipzig, 1868; J. P. Mahaffy, Greek Life and Thought, London, 1887, and The Silver Age of the Greek World, do. 1906; A. Holm, History of Greece, Eng. translation , London, 1894-98.

James Strahan.

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Hastings, James. Entry for 'Athens'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdn/a/athens.html. 1906-1918.

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Thursday, October 17th, 2019
the Week of Proper 23 / Ordinary 28
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