Paul’s sermon on the Areopagus inspired by the Muses

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by Neil Godfrey

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.

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Neil Godfrey

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27 thoughts on “Paul’s sermon on the Areopagus inspired by the Muses”

  1. Another point to make is : how much more varied and rich is the gallery of Greek gods and their meaningful dramas than the simple figures of the Hebrew and Christian religions. Yahweh did show some unpredictable action and fits of passion. With the Trinity, Son of God and Holy Spirit a little bit of interaction was introduced, but the Holy Spirit remained essentially a magic tool. The Greek myths were so much more insightful and illustrative of real human problems than the Jewish-Christian narrative of sinning and final judgement. Western civilization owes much more to the Ancient Greeks’ creativity than the simple moralistic tale of Hebrew-Christian tradition. It was a sheer miracle that the Renaissance was finally able to reconnect with the Ancient Greeks’ culture and to plant the seeds of a lengthy liberation of Europe from the artificial dogmas of Christianity. Welcome back to Orestes and his Furies.

    1. Also agree. On the other hand I wonder if religion in the ancient world was evolving towards a sort of monotheism anyway. One can only wonder at how differently we might see the world and ourselves with “a god” who embodies the human-variety of the pagan instead of the one who represents only an uncompromising single idea of “the good”. But then again, is not that what the mystery religions — and Christianity — were about? — Reactions against the impersonal distant concept by introducing access-mediating roles?

    1. No. The Furies are the new gods introduced into Athens. The focus should be on the way the Areopagus was brought into the narrative and its function as the platform for the new ideas. The Furies are introduced as new gods who execute judgment as well as good. By contrast with the reception of Paul’s “new god” the Athenians welcomed the Furies (Erinyes). I will have to change that image to one that omits Orestes entirely. Hope to find time tonight to finish the next post.

      1. I think I see your point.

        (All quotes from the play are from here: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3atext%3a1999.01.0006 )

        Athena does say to the Furies:

        “As I see this strange company of visitors to my land, I am not afraid, but it is a wonder to my eyes. Who in the world are you? I address you all in common—this stranger sitting at my image, and you, who are like no race of creatures ever born, [410] neither seen by gods among goddesses nor resembling mortal forms. But it is far from just to speak ill of one’s neighbor who is blameless, and Right stands aloof.”

        And at the end of the play she then convinces them to stay and ensconces them below the Areopagus:

        “No, I will not grow tired of telling you about these good things, so you will never be able to say that you, an ancient goddess, were cast out, dishonored and banished, from this land by me, a younger goddess, and by the mortal guardians of my city. But if you give holy reverence to Persuasion, [885] the sweetness and charm of my tongue, then you might remain. But if you are not willing to stay, then surely it would be unjust for you to inflict on this city any wrath or rage or harm to the people. For it is possible for you to have a share of the land justly, with full honors. [890]”

        “I act zealously for these citizens in this way, installing here among them divinities great and hard to please. For they have been appointed to arrange everything among mortals. [930] Yet the one who has not found them grievous does not know where the blows of life come from. For the sins of his fathers drag him before them; destruction, in silence and hateful wrath, levels him to the dust, for all his loud boasting. [935]”

        Thus introducing the new gods to the Athenians.

        Likewise, Paul, at the same location (the Aeropagus), introduces a new god to the Athenians (or at least identifies the UNKNOWN GOD with God).

        Also, there is the theme of judgement, Orestes is on trial for killing his mother. The new gods (the Furies) act as the prosecution.

        Compared with Acts 17:31, “For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”

        I does help to actually read the play.

        1. I think Lynn Kauppi knew what she was doing when she argued the parallels first and then backed them up with some of the rationales I covered in this post. I have a bad habit of trying to assimilate a piece of writing and trying to regurgitate it through my own understanding. This time I decided to reverse Lynn’s structure and at least two people have let me know this did not work for them.

          And DadaLives — you have quoted a section that I had set aside for quoting in my next or next after that post where I intend to discuss the introduction of the new gods.

          Yes, it does help to know the play. It was one of those plays that was on my course curriculum when doing some sort of ancient Greece major at one time, so I do know it sort of fairly well in English translation at least. The more times I begin to do a post on this the often-er I realize I may have jumped in too quick. If one does not know the play and the Greek literary heritage related to it, I can understand I may have jumped in too deep from the beginning.

          1. Neil,

            I didn’t mean that as a criticism of you, but as a criticism of myself. I had only read an outline of the plays when I first posted via Wikipedia. Then, after reading your response, I looked up, found and read the actual text.

            I should have written, “It does help if I actually read the play,”

            Mea Culpa.

            1. No mea culpas allowed. I didn’t take your comment as personal criticism. Was merely harmonizing with your sentiments and expressing my own doubts over the way I approached this. I concede that I have a special interest in the literary study of biblical texts that is not shared by everyone.

              It’s a way of reading New Testament literature that has more in common with what one finds in classical and other literary studies and does strike many readers as an approach that is strange or suspect. Dennis MacDonald addressed this discomfort when he wrote:

              But I also teach at the Claremont School of Theology, and thus many of my students are studying for the Christian ministry. Although Mitchell and Sandnes do not challenge my work explicitly on theological grounds, the vast majority of my critics do, and I consider it my duty to address these concerns as well—if not for the academy, for my ministerial students. In the past scholars of the Gospels often used their craft to argue for their historical reliability or failing that at least to mine historical or traditional kernels to justify traditional Christian belief. My claim that Mark and Luke, if not also Matthew and John, composed historical fictions has called into question such endeavors, including, for example, the work of the infamous Jesus Seminar of which I have been a member. For this group of interpreters the goal is not to justify traditional Christianity but to radcially revise it by means of a more sophisticated and skeptical form of historiography.

              I would insist that my exposing the Gospels as actively and creatively imitating and rivaling the literatures of their host cultures, both the Jewish Bible and the Greek enkyklion paideia, is a badly needed corrective to the absolute claims made by some believers on the one hand and rationalists on the other. At stake is not truth but meaning, not scientific results but values, not metaphysics but ethics, not history but aesthetics. In a world balkanized by religious conflict and impoverished by ignorant claims to revealed truth, it should come as good news that the Gospels are literary fictions created by first-century intellectuals who saw in Jesus a hero for their time, fictions according to which many thoughtful and ethical people for two thousand years have consciously chosen to inform their lives. Gospel truth lies not in history but in the ethical imagination that, like the evangelists themselves, constantly must reshape culture for evolving visions of the good.

              From “My Turn” found @ http://iac.cgu.edu/drm/index.html

              But we are not really even talking about mimesis in here but only allusions. And scholars have acknowledged many an allusion for decades here: to Socrates, to Aratus, and other poets. Such are the sensitivities aroused that some people worry at merely coming close to the idea of removing the literature entirely from any historical grounding.

              1. Dennis MacDonald’s article is worth reading. Don’t bother with the Word version, the PDF is far easier to follow.
                The thesis of the Gospels being literary works of fiction is undeniable. There were dozens, if not hundreds of Gospels in circulation. Any writer with a bit of savvy was capable of producing one for his community of believers, at a time when public libraries did not exist, and copies of manuscripts extremely expensive and rare, andunaffordable to the general public. This must have been, if not the only literary game in town, at least one of the major subjects available to an ambitious writer.
                Irenaeus who selected the four known canonical gospels on rather subjective and arbitrary grounds, was faced with a huge quantity of gospels in circulation, and was not overly concerned about their internal concordance.
                Also remarkable in the Gospels and the Acts is the liberal and free use of miracles to propel the story forward. At a time when the commonplace natural and the occasional supernatural belonged to the same universe, any creative writer could invent whatever miracles he needed to sustain the interest in his story and justify the plot. So if a well educated writer could mix good Hellenist/Homeric influences or imitations with the goldmine of Hebrew testament quotations and a liberal sprinkling of new miracles, he could easily produce another fascinating heroic Jesus story.

              2. Robert M. Price has a “Recommended Reading List” for the “Classics of Criticism or the Higher-Critical Hit Parade”. In the Gospel “Criticism – Source Criticism” section, three of the nine entries are:

                *Burton L. Mack, The Lost Gospel: The Book of Q and Christian Origins

                *Randel Helms, Gospel Fictions
                The main gospel narrative source is the Septuagint (Greek trans. OT)

                Dennis R. MacDonald, Does the New Testament Imitate Homer?: Four Cases from the Acts of the Apostles
                A big yes.


              3. ROO,

                Cool list! Looks like I’ll be reading for a while.

                On that note, does anybody out there know of a good (and I guess by “good” I mean suitable for working with the concept of mimesis etc.) translation of Homer? I’ve googled for translations and there are a number, but I have know idea which would be appropriate.

              4. To work with ‘mimesis’ at the level MacDonald and others I’ve discussed in the past do means familiarity with the Greek. Any translation is good — not only of Homer but the popular novellas too, and other epics — just to learn how so many of what we have long thought are “biblical” themes and ideas are really commonplaces in the wider literary culture. But even at the “mimesis” level one sees echoes of narrative details and themes that transcend any particular translation. And there are many tantalising details that will always leave you wondering and never be able to quite prove the way you’d like —

                One of my favourites here is the scene in Odyssey where the right-hand man of Odysseus stands back and watches as the rest of his crew enter the palace of the witch-goddess sensing they are going to their dooms. He then is struck by how he failed them all and breaks down weeping.

                Odysseus going off to pray alone at the critical hour and falls asleep while his crew fail their test by eating a sacred meal and must lose their lives . . . .

                So many overlaps and undercurrents to leave you wondering . . . . . but no way of ever going further than wondering . . . . http://vridar.info/xorigins/homermark/mkhmrfiles/nm0nonmacd1.html

    1. Mike: “So far, this thesis is preposterous.

      It gets better. Just wait ’til he gets to the part where Orestes is hung from a pole on the firmament. Oops. Spoilers.

      Mike: “The next post better be a lot better.”

      Or else what?

  2. Wow, I can understand McGrath responding to what he doesn’t read or fails to comprehend but what gives with some of you guys?

    I am sharing the arguments in a doctoral thesis for allusions in Acts 17 to a certain Greek play. This is hardly a novel idea given what we know of Luke’s use of Euripides’ Bacchae, and other allusions to Greek poets and even Socrates in chapter 17 — long widely acknowledged in the mainstream scholarly sources.

    As I pointed out I was postponing the details of the allusions/parallels to my next post and was covering here some other essential material to any argument for literary influence — Do we have grounds for thinking that the text discussed was probably available to the author? What was the likelihood it would have been used in the way to be argued? Do others use it this way? When and where?

    These are important questions that should form part of any comprehensive argument for literary influences.

    And Clark’s criteria are only one of a number of sets of criteria that I have addressed several times but they can only by used when one is assessing parallels themselves and not in the particular arguments I was raising in this post. Besides, I think there is a good case when sharing someone else’s argument that I explain what their criteria are and whose they are, whether Clark’s or not.

    1. Case 1: A man has killed his mother and is being pursued by vengeful goddesses. He flees to Athens, where the gods subject him to a trial, in which he is aquitted, by one decisive vote. The trial takes place near the so-called Rock of Ares.

      Case 2: A man is traveling around the Greek-speaking world, trying to convert people into the religion of Christianity. During the course of these activities, he visits Athens. Near the Rock of Ares, he engages in a conversation with some philosophers about religion.

      Similarities: In each case, a man visits Athens and a dispute takes place near the Rock of Ares.

      1. Here is another explanation. Because of Aeschylus’s play, the Rock of Ares became a place in Athens where philosophers gathered to discuss philosophy. When Paul visited Greece, he wanted to discuss religion with philosophers in Athens, so Paul went to the Rock of Ares, and so that is where he discussed religion with some philosophers in Athens.

      2. You don’t understand how it works or what the arguments are. It’s not about making up stuff like this. Don’t you think it is an idea to hear what the argument is instead of just making up this sort of nonsense?

  3. “To work with ‘mimesis’ at the level MacDonald and others I’ve discussed in the past do means familiarity with the Greek.”

    Arrrgh….I was afraid you’d say that. In that case I shall read the English from the Perseus site while I attempt the Herculean task of learning “the Greek”. Oh woe is me, woe is me…where to begin?

    1. A cheap paperback translation is the way to dive in. You can get a copy of Rieu’s Penguin translation of Odyssey or Iliad via bookfinder.com for 99 cents. With a paperback in hand you can flip back and forth, checking and comparing things you read and quickly pick up the broad brushstrokes.

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