Paul and Orestes before the Areopagus: the resurrection

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by Neil Godfrey

Continuing from my previous post . . . .


Resurrection ἀνάστασιςin both Acts and Eumenides

A number of scholars have remarked upon the reference to the resurrection in Eumenides by Aeschylus when commenting on the reference to the resurrection in connection with Paul’s appearance in the Areopagus before the Athenians.

F. F. Bruce, in The Book of Acts, p. 343, when commenting on the scoffing Paul received after mentioning the resurrection, recalled the scene in Aeschylus’ play that likewise mentioned the resurrection in connection with a hero appearing before the Areopagus. Most Athenians, Bruce said, would, on hearing of Paul’s mention of the resurrection, have agreed with the sentiments expressed in the play by

the god Apollo, . . . on the occasion when that very court of the Areopagus was founded by the city’s patron goddess Athene: “Once a man dies and the earth drinks up his blood, there is no resurrection.” Some of them, therefore, ridiculed a statement which seemed so absurd.

The footnote supplied points to Aeschylus, Eumenides, lines 647-8, where the same Greek word, ἀνάστασις, is used in both the play and Acts 17:18, 32.

Similarly Charles H. Talbert in Reading Acts, p. 157, makes note of the same observation:

Scoffing is a typical response to speeches by fringe figures . . . Given the assumptions of Paul’s auditors, scoffing is an entirely appropriate response. Aeschylus, Eumenides 647-48, relates how, on the occasion of the inauguration of the court of the Areopagus, the god Apollo says, “When the dust hath drained the blood of man, once he is slain, there is no return to life.”

Lynn Kauppi sees more in the link between Aeschylus and Acts than a background pointer to a common belief among Athenians of the day. He suggests that the way “Luke” weaves the allusions into the scene of Acts 17:16-34 gives reason to think that his audience “may have observed an allusion to the Athenian literary tradition.” (The Greek text is from Perseus and the English translation from Kauppi’s manuscript.)

The word ἀνάστασις appears in both Aeschylus and Acts when the central character is about to appear before the Areopagus.

ὦ παντομισῆ κνώδαλα, στύγη θεῶν,
πέδας μὲν ἂν λύσειεν, ἔστι τοῦδ᾽ ἄκος
καὶ κάρτα πολλὴ μηχανὴ λυτήριος:
ἀνδρὸς δ᾽ ἐπειδὰν αἷμ᾽ ἀνασπάσῃ κόνις
ἅπαξ θανόντος, οὔτις ἔστ᾽ ἀνάστασις.
τούτων ἐπῳδὰς οὐκ ἐποίησεν πατὴρ
οὑμός, τὰ δ᾽ ἄλλα πάντ᾽ ἄνω τε καὶ κάτω
στρέφων τίθησιν οὐδὲν ἀσθμαίνων μένει.

You foul animals, from whom the gods turn in disgust,
Zeus could undo shackles, such hurt can be made good,
and there is every kind of way to get out. But once
the dust has drained down all a man’s blood, once the man
has died, there is no raising [ἀνάστασις] of him up again.
This is a thing for which my father never made
curative spells. All other states, without effort
of hard breath, he can completely rearrange.

The god Apollo is defending Orestes before the Areopagus by declaring that if he dies he can never be raised back up — resurrected. Apollo pleads that Orestes deserves to live because in murdering his mother he was obeying the god’s command and had since been ritually purified. There is no resurrection, Apollo reminds everyone, and this is why death is too harsh a penalty for one who acted on the command of (a) god. (Apollo earlier testified that when he commanded Orestes to avenge his father’s death he did so on the orders of Zeus himself.)

“Luke” brackets Paul’s Areopagus defence with the word ἀνάστασις, resurrection: Acts 17:18 and 32

But some also of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers attacked him. And some said, What would this chatterer say? and some, He seems to be an announcer of foreign demons, because he announced the glad tidings of Jesus and the resurrection to them. . . . . 

Because he hath appointed a day wherein he will judge the world in equity, by the man whom he hath appointed; giving faith to all, by raising him up from the dead. And when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked, and some said, We will hear thee again also concerning this.

The common ancient literary technique of inclusio is used. Mark uses the same technique applied to narratives when he so often draws attention to a framing idea/idea contained within the framing words such as his episode of the cleansing of the temple being bracketed by the cursing of the fig-tree. Kauppi draws attention to “Luke’s” use of “resurrection” as an inclusio for Paul’s Areopagus speech. The inclusio is not just in the form of the one word, though. In each case the reference to the resurrection is embedded in mocking scenes.

Aeschylus pointedly writes that Orestes can never be resurrected. When he does speak of Orestes acting in the afterlife he portrays him as a spirit wreaking judgment upon armies who would dare in the future attack Athens.

Aeschylus portrays Orestes as having only a shadowy post-mortem existence as a vengeful spirit. In Acts, an attentive reader would notice a reiteration of the importance of Jesus’ resurrection as the proof of God’s impending judgment upon the world (17:31).

By noting this possible allusion to Eumenides, a Graeco-Roman reader may have contrasted the emphasis on the resurrection in Acts to the blunt finality of the Athenian classical literary heritage, “there is no resurrection” (Eum. 647) (leaf 165)

Notice that Lynn Kauppi does not say that the reader would have recalled his or her memorized lines from Aeschylus, but may well have recalled the “classical literary heritage” that had bequeathed the cultural-literary idea from Aeschylus.


Time. Had fully (well, almost) expected to complete this post last night. Just now I really fully expected to finish it “just now”. But see that the next two segments, (a) the Areopagus, social order and the innocence of Paul and Orestes; and (b) the introduction of new gods — are as long as the longest snake in the world so I now fully expect to finish doing them tomorrow instead.

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Neil Godfrey

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6 thoughts on “Paul and Orestes before the Areopagus: the resurrection”

  1. The Rock of Ares (Areopagus) in Paul’s time apparently was something like Speakers Corner in Hyde Park in London. It was an informal, famous assembly place for people who wanted to discuss politics, philosophy and religion.

    Perhaps one of the reasons that the Rock of Ares became such a place is that Aeschylus made it the location of the trial of Orestes. This trial involved issues about politics, philosophy and religion.

    The circumstances of Paul’s presence at the Rock of Ares were very different from the circumstances of Orestes’ presence. Paul was traveling around as a free man, trying to convert people into the Christian religion, which would give them eternal life. Orestes was fleeing as a hunted man, because he had murdered his mother. Paul wanted to discuss religion with philosophers in Athens. Orestes was captured and put on trial by the gods in Athens.

    The reason Paul talked about resurrection from the dead and about eternal life was that he talked about that subject all the time, wherever he was. Talking about that subject was his sole mission in life.

    If he had spoken English and was visiting London, he would have visited Speakers Corner in Hyde Park in London and talked with amateur philosophers about resurrection from the dead.

    Rather, though, he spoke Greek and was visiting Athens, so he visited The Rock of Ares and talked with amateur philosophers about resurrection from the dead. The combination of those elements (Rock of Ares, discussion with philosophers about religion, resurrection from the dead) is not remarkable and does not require any special explanation.

    Paul had not murdered his mother. Paul was not hunted by vengeful goddesses. Paul was not captured and tried by the gods. This story in Acts does not involve a trial, but rather only a calm discussion. There is no good reason for anyone reading this story in Acts to perceive Paul’s role as full of references to Orestes’ role in Aeschylus’s play.

    I would be interested in seeing any evidence that any Greeks ever — since the origin of Christianity to the present — have noticed and pointed out any of these supposed references. It seems to me that these references have been pointed out only by a few English-speaking academics in very recent years.

  2. You are simply not getting it, Mike. You are reading into the post way, way more than anyone is remotely thinking. You are arguing against an argument that does not exist.

    One may argue against Kauppi’s point, but not on the grounds you are using.

    (The arguments you are addressing are better discussed in response to someone who has engaged with them from the other side of that fence: http://iac.cgu.edu/drm/My_Turn.pdf )

  3. This bit about the resurrection appears in a context that does not resonate with Paul’s sermon.

    Orestes called Apollo as a witness to testify that he, Apollo, had told Orestes to murder his mother. Apollo confirmed that he had done so and Apollo added that Zeus had told Apollo to tell Orestes to murder his mother.

    The reason these two top gods ordered Orestes to murder his mother was that she was a woman who had murder her husband, who was a man and furthermore a king. He too was a murderer (he had murdered their daughter), but the decisive consideration for the two gods and for Orestes was that she was a woman and he was a man (and a king).

    So, then the furies protested against Zeus’s role in ordering Orestes to murder his mother. The furies point out that Zeus himself had mistreated his own father Cronos. Zeus had bound his father Cronos in chains. In other words, how could Zeus make a big deal about the fact that the mother had murdered a king, when Zeus himself had mistreated his own father, who was a king too.

    Now comes the passage we are discussing. Apollo responds that Zeus’s binding his father was not as bad as the mother killing her husband the king, because Zeus’s father could be unbound from the chains but the murdered king could not be brought back to life — could not be resurrected.

    This statement by Apollo in this context is supposed to resonate with Paul’s sermon to the Greek philosophers? I don’t think so.

    Paul said that human beings should repent, because the monotheistic god will come to conduct a final judgment at the end of time. The proof of this prediction is that Jesus Christ was resurrected from the dead.

    That does not resonate with Apollo saying that Zeus binding Cronos in chains is not so bad as Orestes’s mother murdering her husband the king, because Cronos could be unbound from his chains, but the murdered king could not be unmurdered.

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