Some years ago I somehow stumbled into an email exchange with a doctoral student on the other side of the world who kindly let me preview a chapter of the thesis he had been working on. Since I recently noticed his thesis has since 2006 been commercially published as Foreign but Familiar Gods: Graeco-Romans Read Religion in Acts I feel free to share the contents of that chapter now.
Lynn Kauppi argues that the scene in Acts where Paul is brought before the Areopagus to explain himself partly on the impression that he is introducing new gods to Athens was inspired by a scene in a play well-known to Greek speakers of the day.
The play is Eumenides, the third in a trilogy of plays composed by Aeschylus around the 450’s bce. The name Eumenides refers to devotees of the Furies (Erinyes). These Furies pursued and tormented one who had murdered his own mother.
In the first play of the series King Agamemnon returned home victorious from the Trojan war but was murdered by his wife, Clytemnestra. In the second play their son Orestes was moved by his sister and the god Apollo to avenge his father’s death by killing his mother.
The third play, the one said to contain the influences on the author of Acts, contains the resolution of the moral conflicts built up in the first two plays. On Apollo’s advice Orestes flees to Athens seeking escape from the torment of the Furies. Meanwhile the ghost of Clytemnestra rises up from the dead to rebuke the Furies for not completing their just vengeance on her son.
In Athens Orestes is met by the goddess Athena who listens to his case and also hears the counter-claims of the Furies. Unable to determine the rights and wrongs of the matter alone she founds the court of the Areopagus to help her decide the case. Orestes appears at this court, the Areopagus, along with his prosecutors, the Furies, and his defender, the god Apollo. The court is divided so the goddess Athena casts the deciding vote in favour of Orestes, thus cleansing him from the stain or pollution of blood-guilt and setting a precedent for mercy over justice. When the Furies threaten to destroy Athens in retaliation a shrine is established for them and a procession is held in their honour by the Athenians.
The outline of the play does not encourage the modern reader to suspect it may contain an influence on the author of Acts.
But Kauppi argues that the play was well-known in the early Christian era and did influence other writings of the time; and that a Graeco-Roman reader of Acts would likely recognize allusions in the play to “the resurrection” from the dead, the role of the Areopagus in examining the central character and the theme of the introduction of new gods into Athens.
I will reverse Lynn Kauppi’s order and save the detailed arguments for “Luke’s” conscious and recognizable allusions to Eumenides to last. I look first at his case that early readers of Acts were likely to have known of the Greek play at all.
- Classical drama continued to be performed in the ancient world, in particular in Athens, at least through to the third century of the Christian era. (C.P. Jones, 1993)
Mosaics, wall paintings, papyri, and lead “admission tickets” indicate that classical comedies and tragedies were performed before a wide cross-section of society in Ephesus, Oescus, Mytilene, Pompeii, and especially Athens — which remained the center of drama in the ancient Mediterranean world. (leaf 174 of the manuscript)
- Aeschylus’ plays are known to have been read and studied throughout antiquity. (John Edwin Sandys, 1958, 1967)
- Euripides criticized Aeschylus in his own plays
- Aristophanes wrote a comic play (The Frogs) featuring Aeschylus and Euripides
- Ancient literary critics commenting on Aeschylus:
- Aristophanes of Byzantium (c. 257 – c. 180 bce)
- Aristarchus of Samothrace (220 – 145 bce)
- Didymus (65 bce – 10 ce)
- the anonymous author of “On the Sublime” (c. 30 bce – early first century)
- Dio Chrysostom (40 – 114 ce) discussed the style of Aeschylus in a way that indicates he expected his audience to be knowledgable about the playwright
- Clement of Alexandria (c. 181 – 251/4 ce) mentions Aeschylus when discussing the Eleusinian mysteries and the gossip that Aeschylus had divulged those mysteries.
- Pausanias (c. 155 ce) describes the Athenian shrine to the Erinyes/Furies and says that Aeschylus was the first to depict them with snakes in their hair.
It was fully possible for Luke’s Graeco-Roman audience to be aware of and perhaps understand literary allusions to Aeschylus’ Eumenides in the first century c.e. (leaf 175)
Kauppi asks what such an audience may have thought of Luke’s allusions to Eumenides had they recognized them. He begins by noting that the readers would have been first struck by the totality of the Greek world context of the setting where Paul found himself. They were probably being drawn to observe the contrast between Greek and Christian culture and appreciate both its noble and its shameful qualities:
- Paul is “enraged” by the Greek altars and statues to their gods
- Paul “discusses” and “disputes” with two major schools of Greek philosophy
- Paul appears before the Athenian “high” court, the Areopagus
- Paul’s speech before the Areopagus has been thought by other scholars to allude to other Greek authors and poets: Epimenides, Aratus (Phaenomena), Cleanthes (Hymn to Zeus).
- Paul’s speech directly compares the Christian god with the Greek gods: both believe god exists, is worshiped (even if only as the “unknown god”), created humanity and the entire world, rules heaven and earth; the Christian god additionally calls for repentance [though note that the Greek philosophical schools also required members to change their ways of living], and promises judgment through Jesus who was raised from the dead.
In the next post I will address the three specific parallels between the Greek play and Acts that Kauppi sees as deliberate allusions by “Luke”, and what meaning they in particular may have had for the earliest readers of Acts.