Athens is one of the most iconic cities of the ancient world, and even today transports the traveler back to the days of famous philosophers and rich culture. Few other ancient cities so influenced the development of democratic political theory, philosophy, mathematics, drama, and a wider culture that would come be known as Hellenism. Even as Roman power spread throughout the Mediterranean region, Hellenistic culture often followed and was equally as significant.
Its known origins go back to the Mycenean civilization about fifteen hundred years before Christ. With a natural harbor and an imposing rock fortress (the Acropolis) Athens became an economically powerful and influential city. The sixth-century BC witnessed the beginnings of democracy from Athens, which enabled the city to become the seat of power and culture in the region. For the next two centuries, Athens became one of the most culturally innovative and influential cities of the ancient world. However, like the rest of Greece, the city eventually came under the control of Philip of Macedon, his son Alexander, and then his generals following the death of Alexander the Great. This was ultimately followed by Roman expansion and rule after the Battle of Actium in 31 BC.
Many of the cities referenced in the New Testament can be described as Greco-Roman, signifying that Rome held political power, but the influence of Athens pervaded every level of culture. Paul witnessed this firsthand when he arrived at the city of Athens on his way to Corinth.
Athens In The Bible
On Paul’s second missionary journey, he traveled through Macedonia to the cities of Philippi, Thessalonica, and Berea. Opponents in Thessalonica would harass Paul, leading him to eventually seek refuge in the city of Athens, while he waited to meet up with Silas and Timothy. It was in Athens that Paul encountered a city full of idols.
According to Acts 17, it was here that Paul debated the many Epicurean and Stoic philosophers. They invited him to the Areopagus, where he would make an impassioned speech, directing the Athenians’ pursuit of pagan worship toward the God of Israel. The speech is recorded in Acts 17:22 – 31.
Paul did successfully convince some people in Athens, including some members of the Areopagus. But he soon left Athens for Corinth. As discussed in the Explore Corinth page, in Paul’s day Corinth was the more influential city within the Roman Empire. Paul many have passed through Athens again, but scripture does not mention any other events that took place in this great city of antiquity.
Take A Photo Tour
The first stop on our trip was the city of Athens. Upon dropping our bags in our room, the first thing we did was take an evening stroll around the Acropolis. Initially, what strikes you is how elevated the Acropolis is above the rest of the city. It is not difficult to imagine a commoner straining his or her neck looking up the dramatic slopes of the rocky plateau, only imagining what must be taking place up there. Surely it was a mystical, awe-inspiring place. The next morning, we walked through the Acropolis site, taking in the Theater of Dionysus, climbing the grand entrance steps, passing the Temple of Nike, marveling at the impressive, sculpted caryatid columns of the Erechtheion, and finally gazing at the Parthenon. The Acropolis gives a wonderful view of the surrounding city, encircled by ocean and large hills. The Acropolis does not disappoint!
Later that day, we surveyed the city again from the top of Mount Lycabettus, which is actually higher than the Acropolis. (Of course, the Greeks had a mythic explanation for this.) The next day we set out for more sites, but encountered the soon-to-be familiar “On Strike” sign, announcing various historical sites closed for the day – frustrating for a visitor with limited time in the city! We did manage to discover Mars Hill and the Areopagus (literally standing on top of it, trying to figure out exactly where it was). The final day before we left for the airport, we did a quick pass through the ancient agora and took one last look at the Acropolis.
Mars Hill Plaque
Besides the old stuff, one thing you quickly notice is the many stray dogs that roam the city. Most however, seem well-fed and even have de-facto owners who care for them. In the National Gardens we observed a couple police officers call for all the dogs – about 8 or 10 responded – and led them out of the park at closing. You will also notice graffiti everywhere. We even ran across a shop that specialized in all your graffiti needs – paints, stencils, as well as tips and tricks! I read some speculation that given the economic climate of Greece, graffiti may be the cheapest form of advertising your business, though I didn’t gather that from what we saw. There is little doubt that the economic climate has people frustrated, both at the politicians and at those who think the problem should be solved as long as someone else foots the bill. I would look forward to visiting Athens again when it has its economic house in order.
Odeon of Herodes
As far as historical/Biblical insights, here are some more thoughts on Athens:
Insight #1 – Athens isn’t nearly as important to the Apostle Paul as other cities. Visiting Athens versus Corinth today, we might naturally assume that Athens was a key city in reaching the Gentiles. As I mentioned elsewhere, for all its influence Athens does not stand out in the New Testament. Paul quickly moves on to Corinth. But his sermon delivered on Mars Hill is recorded in Acts 17, thus giving Athens a lot of airtime. I imagine one reason that Athens is not predominant in Paul’s thinking can be found in Acts 17: “All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.” The picture we get is that Paul could have had many great discussions with the lovers of philosophy in Athens, but would have seen very little transformation take place. A few did accept Paul’s message, but Athens isn’t mentioned again.
Insight #2 – What is recorded in Acts 17 rings authentic. Despite the relegated role Athens takes on Paul’s journeys, his message in Acts 17 does capture the spirit of the city. Acts 17:16 says Paul, “was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols.” The city today is still littered with temples, statues, and monuments from that time. I can only imagine what it must have looked like to Paul. Yes, every city of any size in Paul’s day outside of Judaea would have had a temple or two to various deities, but even for Paul the amount of pagan imagery in Athens distressed him. Yet at the beginning of his sermon, he chooses to identify this with spiritual hunger: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious.” Athens was a city of learning, ideas, and spiritual hunger! “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands” Paul would go on to say. The Parthenon, the Temple of Nike, Hephaestus, Dionysus, Zeus, the Erechtheion – they were all amazing sites. But for all their glory, past and present, they are not where you will find God. I imagine that must have stung a bit, “God does not live in your magnificent temples.” The good news was – and is – that though God does not live in these temples, “he is not far from any one of us.”
Insight #3 – Greek mythology reveals much about how the ancients understood the world beyond. I’ll comment more on this elsewhere as I process it more, but one of the things I wanted to do in preparation for this trip was to better understand Greek mythology. And although I enjoyed it, I wasn’t sure what to do with it. I was going to write a post on one of the books I read, but honestly didn’t know what to say. But having immersed myself firsthand in the subject matter for a couple of weeks – walking through it, touching it, breathing it – I have come to appreciate it much more. It circles back to Paul’s own observation: “I see that in every way you are very religious.” And I have concluded that my own life could use more of the mythic – that attempt to understand the spiritual world and connect to the larger story – not less!
COMING THIS FALL!
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