Paul’s Encounters in Athens
The Areopagus, or Mars Hill overlooking Athens

Paul’s Encounters in Athens

In Acts 17, we see Paul in three cities: Thessalonica (verses 1-9), Berea (verses 10-14), and Athens (verses 15-34). We’ve already discussed the major figures in the chapter, but there are two more minor individuals, as well as two groups of people, we have not yet considered. Paul encounters these people in Athens.

Dionysius and Damaris

As with Jason, we know very little about Dionysius or Damaris, who appear at the end of the chapter. Luke, the author of Acts, identifies these two individuals by name as among those in Athens who “joined [Paul] and believed” (Acts 17:34, NASB throughout).

Luke refers to Dionysius as “the Areopagite,” which provides at least a small clue as to the manner of man he was. According to the article “Areopagite” in the Encyclopedia of the Bible, this addition to the name refers to a “member of the Council of the Areopagus,” which is Greek for “Mars Hill.” This hill was connected to the Acropolis, the hill on which the Parthenon sits, and it overlooked the agora, or marketplace.

The council was composed of former archons, or individuals who had been elected to one-year terms as rulers of the city. (There were nine archons with different functions at any given time.) Once an archon had served for a year, he could never again be an archon. However, he automatically became a lifetime member of the Council of the Areopagus. By the time of Paul, the main function of the council was censorship, particularly in matters of religion.

Two Prominent Citizens

Dionysius, then, was a prominent citizen of Athens, probably introduced to Paul at a hearing to determine whether this “foreigner … should be allowed to circulate freely in the city” (“Areopagus,” Encyclopedia of the Bible).

We have even less information about Damaris. Because she was mentioned in the same breath with Dionysius (Acts 17:34), a man of standing, she may also have been a prominent citizen. However, the Encyclopedia of the Bible notes that because “a respectable woman of Athens generally would not have attended such a public gathering, some have suggested that she was … an educated courtesan, a woman of low moral character.” On the other hand, Luke mentions her by name, which seems to support the idea that Damaris was someone of distinction.

Marketplace of Ideas

Luke tells us that besides speaking in the synagogue in Athens, Paul interacted “every day with those who happened to be present” (Acts 17:17) in the market. Two groups of philosophers, the Epicureans and the Stoics, were among those with whom Paul conversed (verse 18). We’ll take a brief look at these two schools of thinking, though any summary of their ideas for this blog post will, of necessity, leave out much.

If you’re like me—or like many people who have only a cursory knowledge of philosophy—you’ll have some false impressions of both groups. Coming into this study, I would have been tempted to describe the two groups as hedonists (the Epicureans) and masochists (the Stoics). And I would have been wrong!

Avoiding Pain

As I learned more about the Epicureans, I was relieved to discover that I have not been alone in my misconceptions. The online Encyclopedia Britannica article on “Epicureanism” explains that from ancient times until now, “the term was employed with an even more generic (and clearly erroneous) meaning as the equivalent of hedonism, the doctrine that pleasure or happiness is the chief good.”

The Encyclopedia of the Bible explains that, though Epicureans sought pleasure, what they meant by that concept is far-removed from what we read into their thinking. In reality, “the Epicureans defined pleasure as the absence of pain. Their aim therefore was not so much the titillations of sense as it was the absence of pain, the avoidance of trouble, and freedom from annoyances.”

It’s a bit of a surprise to discover how this desire to avoid pain put them at odds with the tenets of Christianity. One of the worst sources of pain for Epicureans, according to the Encyclopedia of the Bible, was the idea that “the gods punish evildoers.” This belief eventually resulted in their precept that “nothing ever comes about by divine power.”

Doing Your Duty

Again, as I learned more about the Stoics, I was just as surprised as I had been during my investigation of the Epicureans. The Stoics were not masochists. Instead, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica, they believed in a personal responsibility toward fellow humans, and considered it their duty to “play an active role in world affairs.”

Their sense of duty, then, led them the opposite direction from Epicureans, who sought to avoid pain, and thus the entanglements of the world. As the Encyclopedia of the Bible states, the Stoics “deemed it worthwhile to run risks in order, for example, to raise a family and discharge civic responsibilities—two activities the Epicureans condemned.”

The Stoics, though they had some admirable ideas, were also at odds with Christianity, primarily because their world view held no place for God.

In my next post, I’ll look at some of the interesting terms sprinkled throughout the chapter. in the meantime, please feel free to share with me what you’ve learned about Dionysius and Damaris, or about the Epicureans and Stoics.

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