by Neil Godfrey
Literary allusions and influences are generally not about one-to-one correspondences of plot or character details. Authors are for most part motivated to write something new, something that interests them and their audiences, and that means drawing upon familiar written and oral words and weaving them into new creations. Perhaps a good comparison could be drawn from those music programs that trace the history of certain genres of music through the decades. One soon learns that even “the new and different” is really a re-mix of the old from here, there and somewhere else that has been repackaged and presented in a very new way.
Nor does the fact of literary allusion of itself suggest that the topic being written about is fiction. One is quite entitled to write a history of a modern event and draw on allusions from Shakespeare or Homer in the process. Where the line is crossed is where the entire narrative can be most simply explained in terms of literary allusions and ideological interests. Whether that line is crossed is the case with Paul before the Areopagus I do not know. I have not taken the time to give it proper consideration. But surely Lynn Kauppi’s discussion is one part of the discussion that cannot be ignored. (Nor am I suggesting that Kauppi himself rejects the historicity of Acts 17. I have no idea if he does or not and his thesis I am addressing here does not allow me to know his thoughts on the question of historicity.) And in the process of preparing these posts I have had opportunities to catch up with what others have had to say about this Areopagus episode — e.g. Talbert, Kirsopp Lake, Haenchen — and have uncovered a range of ideas that are too broad to include in these posts here. The question of historicity is another one I may take up in another post when I have time to collate the contributions of these and Lynn Kauppi among others.
But in the meantime let’s continue with what I intended to be just one quick post but that has turned itself into some sort of mini-series now. I am discussing the thesis of Lynn Kauppi that the author of Acts 17 (let’s call him Luke) was writing with conscious allusions to (among other literary sources to be discussed another time perhaps) the fifth century BCE play Eumenides by Aeschylus. This post follows on from the previous two posts.
For Luke’s audience, the reference to the Areopagus in Acts 17 would have brought to mind aristocracy, respectability, antiquity, and the divine establishment of the Areopagus. [The goddess Athena instituted the Areopagus in order to hear the case against Orestes and thereafter established it for all time.] By writing his narrative in this way, Luke operated within the ancient mindset of “reverence for antiquity,” which assured the preservation of both social and religious order. By the first century CE the Areopagus, composed of local Athenian aristocrats, was eight centuries old. The Areopagus had an air of sacredness, immense respectability, and aristocracy. (Lynn Kauppi, leaf 165)
The fifth century playwright Aeschylus connected the divine establishment of the Areopagus with a court-hearing that established the innocence of Orestes.
The goddess Athena had confessed she alone was not able to judge Orestes’ case and for this reason appointed the Areopagus to assist her:
The matter is too great, if any mortal thinks to pass judgment on it; no, it is not lawful even for me to decide on cases of murder that is followed by the quick anger of the Furies, especially since you [Orestes] . . . have come a pure and harmless suppliant to my house . . . .
But since this matter has fallen here, I will select judges of homicide bound by oath, and I will establish this tribunal for all time. Summon your witnesses and proofs, sworn evidence to support your case; and I will return when I have chosen the best of my citizens, for them to decide this matter truly, after they take an oath that they will pronounce no judgment contrary to justice. (From Perseus)
After the Areopagus hears the arguments of the Furies, Orestes and Apollo the goddess decided to ordain the Areopagus as a permanent court of justice:
Hear now my ordinance, people of Attica, as you judge the first trial for bloodshed. In the future, even as now, this court of judges will always exist for the people of Aegeus. . . . .
I establish this tribunal, untouched by greed, worthy of reverence, quick to anger, awake on behalf of those who sleep, a guardian of the land.
I have prolonged this advice to my citizens for the future; but now you must rise and take a ballot, and decide the case under the sacred obligation of your oath. My word has been spoken. (From Perseus)
The votes are cast; they are evenly divided for and against Orestes; Athena casts the deciding vote in favour of mercy over justice; and Orestes is thus free to go.
Orestes then “disappears” from the play in an almost anti-climactic fashion.
The narrative of Paul being brought before the Areopagus is ambiguous. To depart from Kauppi’s discussion for a moment, the same ambiguity is discussed in other commentaries. The commentary of Foakes Jackson and Kirsopp Lake sees Paul being brought before the Areopagus as a continuation of the pattern of Paul’s experience in Philippi, Thessalonica and Corinth: in each case he is brought before the supreme authority of the city for “trial” as a result of hostile Jews. In Athens, however, there are no hostile Jews involved and the hearing “scarcely ends like a trial with a clear-cut decision.” But on the other hand Acts is said to often end the accounts of trials in this blurred way. Other commentators are cited to support doubts that this scene is really a trial scene.
Lynn Kauppi himself notes that the word for “take” (the philosophers took Paul to/before the Areopagus”) is itself ambiguous, capable of meaning either “seize”, “arrest” or simply “take” without hostile intent.
Perhaps Luke’s ambiguity is purposeful.
Luke’s Greco-Roman audience could have read this ambiguity in two ways. First, Luke’s audience could have read his narrative as depicting a friendly discussion between Paul, the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers, and the Areopagus in the Stoa Basilike . . . .
Secondly, Luke’s audience could have interpreted his narrative as depicting a formal judicial proceeding investigating Paul’s possible introduction of new gods to Athens. Viewing the narrative in this light, the readers/auditors could possibly associate the judicial functions of the Areopagus in the imperial period with its functions in Aeschylus’ Eumenides.
During the Roman period the Areopagus did have jurisdiction over the introduction of new gods, and had the power to impose exile and capital punishment. It was something akin to a combined Senate and High Court of Athens.
In this light Paul convinces a court that he is not introducing a new god to the Athenian pantheon. Once Paul mentions the resurrection, some members of the Areopagus scoff at him (c.f. Eum. 647 where Apollo states, “there is no resurrection”); others wish to defer discussion. But they do not find Paul culpable of anything.
If the original readers of Acts did notice an allusion to Eumenides then the idea of Paul’s innocence would have further been underscored.
Introduction of New Gods
Kauppi asks if a Greco-Roman reader who was familiar with the idea of the Areopagus as judicial authority over the question of introducing new gods into Athens might have seen an allusion to Aeschylus’ Eumenides in Paul’s experience.
Paul introduced the “Unknown God” and explained that this god required “proper acknowledgment and repentance by the Athenias (17:30-31).”
The Furies were introduced as new gods, and they had their own conditions to be met, into Athens through a hearing before the Areopagus.
In both narratives the Areopagus was central to making a judgment that resulted in requirement to make a decision on whether to accept the new gods or not.
It was not quite so simple in the case of the Furies, though. At the end of Orestes’ trial (that concluded in Orestes’ acquittal) they were not satisfied and threatened to wreak judgment upon Athens:
Younger gods [e.g. Athena, Apollo], you have ridden down the ancient laws and have taken them from my hands! And I—dishonored, unhappy, deeply angry— on this land, alas, I will release venom from my heart, venom in return for my grief, drops that the land cannot endure. From it, a blight that destroys leaves, destroys children—a just return— speeding over the plain, will cast infection on the land to ruin mortals. I groan aloud. What shall I do? I am mocked by the people. What I have suffered is unbearable. Ah, cruel indeed are the wrongs of the daughters of Night, mourning over dishonor!
Goddess Athena assuages their wrath by promising them altars, sacrifices and religious processions by worshippers in Athens. That’s fine, but the Furies/Erinyes demand something more: the Athenians have to live righteously. Kauppi’s translation:
Death of manhood cut down
before its prime I forbid . . .
. . . Civil war
fattening on men’s ruin shall
not thunder in our city. Let
not the dry dust that drinks
the black blood of citizens
through passion for revenge
and bloodshed for bloodshed
be given our state to prey upon.
Let them render grace for grace,
Let love be their common will;
Let them hate with a single heart.
Much wrong in the world thereby is healed.
(Eum. 956-57, 976-87)
The Furies, the new gods, will live in Athens provided they receive their due honors and the Athenians live justly. At the end of the Eumenides, the Athenians honor the Erinyes by escorting them in procession to their new shrine, a cave on the slopes of the Areopagus (1003-47). Aeschylus introduces a new cult, the Erinyes, into Athens after the founding of the Areopagus, the governing body that helped regulate the introduction of new gods. (leaf 172)
Did early readers of Acts associate Paul’s introduction of a new god (the “Unknown God”) with one of the traditional functions of the Areopagus — judgments concerning the introduction of new gods? (Some commentators even from ancient times have raised the possibility that Luke intended to convey the impression that the Athenians thought both Jesus and “Resurrection” [Anastasis] were the new gods he was introducing.)
Paul made it clear that his “new god” also demanded justice and righteousness.
In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. (Acts 17:30)
There is nothing remarkable, Kauppi explains, in gods — gentile or Jewish — demanding repentance or changed behaviour. Greek philosophies also demanded changed behaviour and conformity to moderation and ethical standards — as we find narrated by Lucian in Nigrinus.
There is also an irony here with Paul being thought to introduce “new gods” while he himself explains that he is really pointing to a god that the Athenians are already worshiping. He is “merely” pointing them to the “true God”. The Erinyes, on the other hand, had no cult in Athens until the establishment of the Areopagus and Athena’s final judgment.
Greco-Romans may have seen a second level of irony in an allusion to Eumenides. In Eumenides the entire polis [city-state] welcomes the Erinyes into the Athenian pantheon. In Acts, the Athenians, excepting Dionysius, Damaris, and “a few others” (17:34), do not accept God as they accepted the Erinyes in Eumenides. (leaf 173)
And now we return to the first post in this “series” that picks up where Kauppi continues his argument.
Criteria and motivation
Lynn Kauppi wrote his thesis before Dennis MacDonald published his controversial The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark. She was, however, familiar with MacDonald’s Christianizing Homer: the Odyssey, Plato and the Acts of Andrew — less controversial presumably because no-one had any objection to finding Homeric influences on the creation of a spurious work such as the Acts of Andrew!
That should sum up all that needs to be said about the controversy surrounding these sorts of studies in relation to biblical texts.
In that work MacDonald’s criteria for intertextual dependence, as listed by Kauppi, were:
- density and order
- explanatory value
MacDonald altered these criteria subsequent to the publication of “Christianizing Homer”. He wrote to Kauppi:
I consider accessibility and analogy environmental issues somewhat difficult to apply to particular texts. I’ve dropped them as criteria, but use them to bolster the argument. I’ve also separated the criteria ‘density’ and ‘order.’ I’ve changed ‘motivation’ to ‘emulation,’ the ancient rhetorical designation for improving on a model. I’ve added one other criterion: ‘retention of distinctive traits.’
In Homeric Epics MacDonald published a slightly modified list of criteria. These are outlined — along with two other sets of criteria by other scholars for similar purposes — in my post Three criteria lists for literary borrowing.
There is a problem with the sorts of criteria listed by these scholars, however, when addressing Acts 17:16-34. As Kauppi himself explains:
MacDonald developed his criteria in order to study literary dependence between two entire works. Since I am studying the allusions to sections of one text found in a short section of another text, I do not address density, order, explanatory value, emulation or retention of distinctive traits. (leaf 161)
Kauppi chooses to use three of MacDonald’s initial criteria:
- accessibility — to answer whether an alleged source was available to the dependent text
- analogy — to learn if the supposed source influenced other texts
- motivation — to see if there is a reasonable explanation for the use of allusions
As discussed in my initial post Kauppi treats accessibility and analogy together. Kauppi has asked throughout whether a Greco-Roman audience could have seen in Acts 17 an allusion to Eumenides and also whether they could have recognized a purpose for such an allusion.
Kauppi sees mixed responses on the part of any audience who may have observed allusions to Eumenides.
Luke drenches the scene in classical Hellenistic culture. There are the statues and altars of the Greek gods that “enrage” Paul; there are two major Greek philosophical schools making their appearance; and when Paul speaks before the most prestigious body of the Athenian state he in all likelihood alludes to writings of Epimenides, Aratus and Kleanthes. The high and the low (from a Christian perspective) of the Greek culture are being brought together here.
When Paul speaks about “the true God” — under the guise of the already accepted “Unknown God” — he is comparing the Christian god with the Greek gods. Paul’s description of “God” relates him to the attributes of the gods of the Greeks:
- God exists
- God is already worshipped (as the Unknown God by the Athenians)
- God created humanity and the entire world
- God rules earth and heaven
There are two additional attributes of the Christian god:
- God calls humanity to repentance
- God will judge the world through Jesus Christ who he raised from the dead
But although Greek gods did not call on worshippers to repent, membership of philosophical schools did bring with it the demand to change one’s life in accord with moderation and ethical principles, as noted above.
If the three allusions to Eumenides were noticed by early audiences then these comparisons between the gods may have been reinforced:
- resurrection: contrast the importance and reality of the resurrection with the Greek denial of resurrection in Eumenides;
- appearance of Orestes and Paul before the Areopagus: reinforces the innocence of Paul and his message — neither are threats to the social order;
- introduction of new gods and their demands upon Athenians: points to the irony that the Christian god cannot be introduced as a “new god” since he is already worshipped as the “Unknown God” who demands repentance and turning from traditional religion.
If a Greco-Roman audience did perceive an allusion to Aeschylus’ Eumenides in Acts 17:16-34, they may have understood the allusion as both a challenge to and an acceptance of the Athenian classical literary heritage. Contrary to this heritage, a Greco-Roman may have seen an argument for Jesus’ resurrection and a demand to turn away from the traditional gods of Greece and Rome. A Greco-Roman reader may have as well seen an allusion to Eumenides as an indication that the reader’s classical heritage could be “baptized” and be included as part of the Christian community. (leaves 177-78)
One can begin to understand the significance of the title in Kauppi’s book: