Athens was named after the goddess Athena. During the period of the Roman Empire, Athens was considered a university town and a seat of intellectualism, but the heyday of its political power and commercial leadership had passed. Corinth occupied that position in Paul’s day.
In 86 B.C., Athens was severely punished by the Roman general Sulla, who burned the city’s arsenals and shipbuilding yards, and leveled its walls when the city tried to break away from Rome. After the battle of Actium in 31 B.C., in which the Athenians sided with Antony, Augustus showed his displeasure by taking from Athens the right to grant citizenship and mint coins. In another display of imperial displeasure, it was decided that the proconsul would administer the province from Corinth rather than from Athens.
The architectural splendors of Athens, including the Acropolis, the agora, and other public and religious buildings, helped Athens retain some of its ancient splendor. The city’s most beautiful statues were not removed by Nero25 untilA.D. 64, more than 10 years after Paul’s visit to Athens. Nero removed the pieces to beautify Rome.
The Acropolis of Athens is located in the center of the city on a hill 230 feet high. To reach it, Paul ascended a marble staircase built by Claudius less than 10 years before Paul’s arrival. He then entered the Acropolis through an ornamental gate called the Propylaea (ca. 435 B.C.), adorned with Doric and Ionic columns. Very near the Propylaea (about 40 steps) was the prodigious bronze statue of Athena (ca. 450 B.C.).
On the summit of the Acropolis was the great Parthenon26 or Temple of Athena (dedicated in 438 B.C. at the height of Athens glory). A little to the east of the Parthenon was the Temple of Augustus, identified by an inscription found on the site.
Altars with the name Augustus inscribed thereon testify that emperor worship was widespread in New Testament times. Statues of gods and men appeared everywhere. A Roman satirist, named Juvenal, said it was easier to find a God in Athens that a man! No wonder Paul’s “spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols” (Acts 17:16).
North of the Parthenon was the Erechtheion (Temple of Athena Polis and Poseidon-Erectheus).27 The Porch of the Maidens is on the west end of the building, which displays six beautiful caryatids.
The agora of Athens was northwest of the Acropolis. Paul came here daily to reason with all who would listen:
- So he argued in the synagogue...and in the market place every day with those who chanced to be there. (Acts 17:17)
Historically, the agora was reserved for political purposes. From Augustus on, buildings and monuments began to fill the square.29
The Areopagus30 was west of the Acropolis. Certain Epicureans31 and Stoics32 took Paul from the agora to stand before the Areopagus, the governing council of the city (Acts 17:19).
A formula referring to the Areopagus has been discovered on numerous monuments: “The council of the Areopagus, the council of the five hundred and the municipality of the Athenians.” The council apparently had jurisdiction over religious and educational affairs, which included the introduction to foreign divinities
Athens (Bible Study)
Acts 17: 15-17. While awaiting for Silas and Timotheus to arrive, Paul argued in the synagogue with the Jews, and in the marketplace with anyone who would listen. This he did because “the city was full of idols.”
1 Thess. 3:1-2. Paul was left alone in Athens when he sent Timothy to Thessalonica.
Acts 17:18-31. The Epicureans and Stoics brought Paul before the civil council that met on the Hill of Ares (Mars). There Paul declared the “unknown god” (to them), teaching that he is not an idol that dwells in temples made with hands: “Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the Deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, a representation by the art and imagination of man.”
Acts 17:31-34. Some of the people mocked Paul for mentioning the resurrection, but “Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them” believed. Dionysius was a member of the Areopagus. “He became the first bishop of Athens, was martyred under Domitian,33 was canonized by the Orthodox Church and today is regarded as
the patron saint of Athens”
15: And they that conducted Paul brought him unto Athens: and receiving a commandment unto Silas and Timotheus for to come to him with all speed, they departed.
16: Now while Paul waited for them at Athens, his spirit was stirred in him, when he saw the city wholly given to idolatry.
17: 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.
18: Then certain philosophers of the Epicureans, and of the Stoicks, encountered him. 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.
19: And they took him, and brought him unto Areopagus, saying, May we know what this new doctrine, whereof thou speakest, is?
20: For thou bringest certain strange things to our ears: we would know therefore what these things mean.
21: (For all the Athenians and strangers which were there spent their time in nothing else, but either to tell, or to hear some new thing.)
22: Then Paul stood in the midst of Mars' hill, and said, Ye men of Athens, I perceive that in all things ye are too superstitious.
23: For as I passed by, and beheld your devotions, I found an altar with this inscription, TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you.
24: God that made the world and all things therein, seeing that he is Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands;
25: Neither is worshipped with men's hands, as though he needed any thing, seeing he giveth to all life, and breath, and all things;
26: And hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation;
27: That they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after him, and find him, though he be not far from every one of us:
28: For in him we live, and move, and have our being; as certain also of your own poets have said, For we are also his offspring.
29: Forasmuch then as we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Godhead is like unto gold, or silver, or stone, graven by art and man's device.
30: And the times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commandeth all men every where to repent:
31: Because he hath appointed a day, in the which he will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom he hath ordained; whereof he hath given assurance unto all men, in that he hath raised him from the dead.
32: And when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked: and others said, We will hear thee again of this matter.
33: So Paul departed from among them.
34: Howbeit certain men clave unto him, and believed: among the which was Dionysius the Areopagite, and a woman named Damaris, and others with them.
1: After these things Paul departed from Athens, and came to Corinth;