- Paul’s Areopagus Speech of Acts 17:16–34 as Both Critique and Propaganda
I. Critique and Propaganda
Interpretations of Paul’s Areopagus discourse in Acts 17:16–34 are often radically incongruous. They range from seeing it as a placid pantheistic sermon on natural theology all the way to seeing it as a scathing demonization of Gentile religion.1 Interpreters who emphasize the speech’s similarities to Greco-Roman philosophy incline toward the former view, while those attuned to the Jewish context incline toward the latter. Both types have a significant amount of supporting evidence and are able to provide strong readings for their argument, given that the speech does indeed utilize Hellenistic philosophical concepts and Jewish critiques of idolatry. I suggest, however, that matters are more complex than an either/or interpretation of the Areopagus discourse and that Luke’s purposes are more subtle than either “accommodation” or “critique/resistance” would allow.2 [End Page 567]
I suggest, rather, that Luke has crafted a sermon that invokes both sets of traditions and that this corresponds to two Lukan intents for the Areopagus speech. Luke has (at the least) a twofold agenda in Acts 17:16–34: (1) to narrate the complete incongruity between the Christian movement and Gentile religion—an incongruity exemplified by the speech’s critique of Greco-Roman religiosity, anti-idolatry polemic, and its theologically exclusive claims; and (2) to exalt the Christian movement as comprising the best features of Greco-Roman philosophical sensibilities and therefore as a superior philosophy. The speech is, then, simultaneously both radical and conventional, and a dualistic construct of “accommodation” or “resistance” is too simplistic to describe the purposes of the speech. It is conventional in that the topics of monotheism, critiques of temples and sacrifices, the unity of humankind and the like would have resonated with Greco-Roman philosophical sensibilities. The speech is radical in that it co-opts—one might say takes over and transforms the cultural script—the best aspects of Hellenistic philosophy and claims that they can be found only in the Christian movement.3 The speech is most radical in its insistence that the resurrected Jesus is the Lord of heaven and earth (17:24) who will judge everyone everywhere (17:31), a claim that results in the speech’s anti-idol polemic. In order to accomplish these goals Luke hellenizes Jewish traditions of monotheism, anthropology, and anti-idol polemic to show that the best and most consistent Greco-Roman philosophical religion is contained within the Christian movement.4 The Areopagus discourse illustrates, therefore, both the critique of pagan religiosity and the exaltation of the Christian movement within the Mediterranean world.
Before proceeding to demonstrate this contention through a detailed exegetical examination of the speech, it is worth noting that similar arguments have been set forth with respect to other portions of the Acts of the Apostles. Gary Gilbert has shown that the list of nations in Acts 2:5–11 is an echo of lists that celebrated Rome’s [End Page 568] rule over the inhabited world in order to declare that the true empire belongs to Jesus and not Caesar.5 Laura Salah Nasrallah has suggested that Paul’s travels to Greek cities are best understood in light of cultural discourses of Greek cities under Roman rule and that Acts produces its own version of Hadrian’s Panhellenion.6 Thus, Acts “configures a Christianity that fits within the superior aspects of Greek culture and cities under the Roman Empire.”7 Loveday C. A. Alexander has argued that Luke’s portrait of Paul’s sea voyage in Acts 27 mimics other Greco-Roman accounts of sea journeys over the Mediterranean and constitutes an act of narrative aggression by claiming that the “Greek Sea” belongs to the emissaries of the gospel. Paul is presented as “laying claim to a cultural territory which many readers . . . would perceive as inherently ‘Greek.’”8 And Todd Penner has suggested that the characters of Acts embody “the array of appropriate and moderate responses demanded of individuals in the polis.”9 They are model Roman citizens who engage in public declamations defending and propagating their polity.
With these scholars...