This passage occurs in the Revised Common Lectionary and Narrative Lectionary during the Easter Season.
Note: The previous few verses describe Paul's immediate reaction to Athens and will provide insight into this section of Scripture (Acts 17:16-21).
Summary: Paul gives a great apology for the Christian faith here, weaving in Greek philosophy and religious thinking of his day. Yet he never shies away from the most amazing and counter-cultural: That Christ experienced a resurrection from the dead and he will return to judge people. While we may not preach on this text, it is certainly worth reflecting on how Paul does it (or fine, be a modern biblical scholar: how Luke does it through Paul). The more one reads this passage, the more amazed one becomes at how subtly Paul uses words. However, the reader of Paul's letters should not be surprised at Paul's amazing ability to proclaim Christ across cultural boundaries!
I have a websited dedicated to Paul's cross-cultural proclamation. For more on Paul's visit to Athens, you can go here: http://www.zionsjonestown.com/paul/athens/areopagus.htm
Αεριου παγου ("areopagus" or "Mars Hill", 22) Paul gives this speech on a hill named for the Greek god of war. More remarkably, within 100 meters of him is the acropolis, upon which stood the Parthenon. As Paul spoke about God not living in temples made with human hands, a 100 foot high statue of Athena was being worshipped with animal sacrifices; the smoke would have been rising up to the heavens behind Paul; to his left the meat would have been sold in the market. Also, the Areopagus was the ancient court of Athens and hub of philosophical speculation. It was the Harvard Cigar club and Supreme Court rolled into one.
δεισιδαιμονεστερους ("religious/superstitious", 22) You can see the word "daimon" within the word. It can mean god-fearing, but it also tends toward superstitious. This word reminds us that Paul is going to splice words perfectly in this passage, subtly conveying his message. He both compliments them and insults them all at once.
αγνοστω ("unknown" from αγνοστος, 23) Paul says they have a monument to an "agnostic god." I wonder how many in our society worship an "agnostic god"
χειροποιητος ("hand made", 24) While hand-made may have nice connotations today, in the Bible it inevitably refers to idols made from hands. Which is a very, very bad thing. I find this striking that everything made by human hands is tainted with sin in the Bible; even Solomon's Temple will be destroyed by Jesus (Mark 14:58) in order to make the new temple!
θεραπευεται ("serve" or "heal" from θεραπευω, 25) This is fascinating word I would like to study more. English speakers will recognize the word "therapy" and immediately move to healing. However, the original meaning of this word was much more akin to serving the gods, like a priest. In fact, in the Old Testament the word never means heals, as in God heals, but means the people serve the god or king. Jesus turns the Bible upside-down by actually doing the service toward people. My sense is that those who did service to the gods were healed and this is how this word came to have its dual meaning, but I need to research this more.
ψηλαφησειαν ("grope" or "search", 27) Paul uses this word to describe our searching for God. Interestingly, Homer will use this word to discuss cyclops after he is blinded. A striking word to describe our searching for God outside of proclamation!
υπαρχω ("be at one's disposal; exist", 24&27) I never have liked this Greek word because it seems to mean all sorts of the things. The point I want to emphasize here is that when Paul says that God is not far away from us, he more closely means, God is available to us; ie, Paul is not simply discussing physical space, but spiritual space. I argue for this translation because Paul uses the word back in verse 24 to discuss how everything is at God's disposal; by verse 27 Paul is arguing that God is also at our disposal.
μετανοειν ("repent" from μετανοεω, 30) Most times when Biblical writers use this word, they are picking up off of the old Testament concept of repentance as a turning of one's heart and really actions away from sin and toward God. However, within this philosophical mileau of the Areopagus, Paul here, I argue, leans into its more Greek meaning, which means "new mind." Paul is calling them to a new way of thinking, namely, that, God has provided for the:
αναστησας νεκρον ("resurrection from the dead," 31) This was a radical concept for the Greeks. The immortal soul was acceptable, but the resurrection from the dead was just gross. It is after this comment that Paul's speech breaks down and people said, "They've had enough!"
Grammar review: Moods and the Optative
Greek has a number of "moods" for verbs. Moods are not like tenses. Moods describe the role of the verb within the sentence. For example, a verb may be in the indicative mood, which means it describes what happens: "Peter eats dinner." A verb may be in the imperative mood, which means it tells someone what to do: "Eat dinner, Peter!" A verb may be in the infinitive mood: "Peter needed to eat." A verb may also be a participle mood, like "Eating his dinner, Peter..." A verb may also be in the subjunctive mood. "If Peter would eat." In English, however, you need to add helping verbs to make a verb truly subjunctive. Greek simply slaps on a different ending, much to the chagrin of Greek learners! Greek also has another mood, called the optative. It is very rare, occuring less than 40 times in the New Testament. In fact, 15 of these are Paul saying "μη γενοιτο." (Heck no!) The optative mood describes a wish. It is probably best to assume the translators get it right when it comes to the optative. Books upon books are written about the death of the optative mood in Greek. Let me again save you the time: Trust the translators with the optative. With the subjunctive, well, its more subjective ;-) There you have to watch them...