Saint Paul delivering the Areopagus Sermon in Athens, by Raphael, 1515.
Where Science Meets Religion by Trent Dee Stephens, PhD, for the Come Follow Me lesson July 24-30: Acts 16–21.
We read in Acts 17:16-23 “Now while Paul waited for them at Athens, his spirit was stirred in him, when he saw the city wholly given to idolatry. Therefore disputed he in the synagogue with the Jews, and with the devout persons, and in the market daily with them that met with him. Then certain philosophers of the Epicureans, and of the Stoicks, encountered him. And some said, What will this babbler say? other some, He seemeth to be a setter forth of strange gods: because he preached unto them Jesus, and the resurrection. And they took him, and brought him unto Areopagus, saying, May we know what this new doctrine, whereof thou speakest, is? For thou bringest certain strange things to our ears: we would know therefore what these things mean. (For all the Athenians and strangers which were there spent their time in nothing else, but either to tell, or to hear some new thing.) Then Paul stood in the midst of Mars’ hill, and said, Ye men of Athens, I perceive that in all things ye are too superstitious. For as I passed by, and beheld your devotions, I found an altar with this inscription, To the Unknown God. Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you.”
When I have read this passage in the past, I have always pictured Paul standing on a grassy knoll, known as Mars Hill, amidst a bunch of statues to Greek Gods. But that is not what the scripture says; when considered more carefully, it states that Paul was brought “…unto Areopagus…[and] …Paul stood in the midst of Mars’ hill…” What the King James Bible calls “Mars hill” is Ἄρειος Πάγος in Greek (“Areopagus;” sometimes translated Hill of Ares; interestingly, most English New Testaments use “Areopagus” instead of “Mars hill;” only the King James Bible and a couple of others use “Mars hill;” see biblehub.com/acts/17-22.htm.). The Areopagus is a rocky outcrop just northwest of the Acropolis in Athens. The Greek war god was Ares, whose nearest counterpart in Roman religion is Mars—thus the translation “Mars hill.” However, I recognize -pagus from my own discipline, which is the study of birth defects. There, -pagus doesn’t mean a “hill,” but rather, it means to “fasten together.” For example, gastropagus refers to conjoined twins attached at the abdomen. By digging more deeply into the term Areopagus, the –pagus there apparently originally referred to a boundary stake (fastener) used to identify the corner of a certain piece of property. The stakes were later replaced by rocks—so that Areopagus could be loosely translated as the “boundary rock of Ares,” or simply the “rock of Ares.” One can imagine that the Rock of Ares, originally marking some sort of boundary corner on a rocky outcrop, could have eventually referred to the entire outcrop—or hill. So the term Areopagus does not refer to any “hill” in general, but only to that specific rocky hill.
Areopagus in Athens
But Areopagus was not just a place, it also was an Athenian deliberative body that considered judicial cases; such as homicide, injury, arson, and religious matters. It was apparently this latter issue that brought Paul before the Areopagus—thus the phrases that Paul was brought “…unto Areopagus…[and]…Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus…” makes perfect sense. The name of this body is apparently derived from the Areopagus because that was the site of their council meetings.
Douglas MacDowell stated in his book, The Law in Classical Athens (Cornell University Paperbacks, Ithaca, NY, 1986, p. 27), “The Areopagus was a council so called because it met on the hill of Ares, west of the Akropolis. There is no reliable evidence about its origin and early history…” However, contrary to MacDowell's statement, the Areopagus deliberative body may not have had anything to do with Ares Hill, but may have been a “stake of Ares” that “fastened” Athenian politics to a logical judicial system—as the US founding fathers envisioned for our judicial branch of government.
The Epicureans were philosophers that followed the teachings of Epicurus (c 307 BC), who believed that the greatest happiness one could obtain came from a modest lifestyle of tranquility and freedom from fear and bodily pain. The Epicureans generally withdrew from politics because it could lead to frustration and excessive ambition, which could conflict with their pursuit of virtue and peace of mind—that sounds like good advice. They were opposed by the Stoicks, who believed that virtue alone was enough to live a good, flourishing life. The Stoics’ goal was to live a life spent practicing certain virtues such as courage and temperance, and living in harmony with nature. According to Acts 17: 21, both groups of philosophers “…spent their time in nothing else, but either to tell, or to hear some new thing.”
Apparently, no archaeological research has unveiled an altar “To the Unknown God” in Athens, but such an alter apparently has been discovered in Rome—currently on exhibit in the Palatine Museum. It was found on Palatine Hill in 1820, and bares the Latin inscription: SEI·DEO·SEI·DEIVAE·SAC, G·SEXTIVS·C·F·CALVINVSPR, DE·SENATI·SENTENTIA, RESTITVIT, which may be translated as, “Whether sacred to god or to goddess, Gaius Sextius Calvinus, son of Gaius, praetor, restored this on a vote of the senate.” (Sandys, John Edwin, Latin epigraphy: an introduction to the study of Latin inscriptions, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, 1919, p. 89; archive.org/details/cu31924029785759; retrieved 20 July 2023)
The altar currently exhibited in the Palatine Museum.
Paul then continued, (Acts 17:24-37) “God that made the world and all things therein, seeing that he is Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands; Neither is worshipped with men’s hands, as though he needed any thing, seeing he giveth to all life, and breath, and all things; And hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation; That they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after him, and find him, though he be not far from every one of us: For in him we live, and move, and have our being; as certain also of your own poets have said, For we are also his offspring. Forasmuch then as we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Godhead is like unto gold, or silver, or stone, graven by art and man’s device. And the times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commandeth all men every where to repent: Because he hath appointed a day, in the which he will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom he hath ordained; whereof he hath given assurance unto all men, in that he hath raised him from the dead.”
Some members of the Areopagus apparently mocked Paul, but others wanted to know more (Acts 17:32). Among the latter, “…certain men clave unto him, and believed: among the which was Dionysius the Areopagite, and a woman named Damaris, and others with them.” (Acts 17:34) Missionary work has changed very little over the past two thousand years: many people mock our message of the risen Lord, Jesus Christ, but some, like Dionysius, and the small group with him, want to hear more, believe the message, and join The Church of Jesus Christ.
Trent Dee Stephens, PhD