in the footsteps of paul
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Athens: City of Reason

In Athens, Paul was furious to see the city full of idols. He debated in the synagogue with the Judeans and the god-fearing Gentiles, and in the agora with any who happened by. Some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers clashed with him, and said "What can this babbler mean?" And so they led him to the Areopagus. When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some scoffed, saying "We will hear more about this some other time."
–Acts 17. 16-33

Ancient market
Ancient market
(historical re-creation)

Loading cargo onto a ship
Loading cargo onto a ship
(historical re-creation)

There is one way into the acropolis and no other-- the whole area is steep and strong-walled. The entry gate has a roof of white stone, and the adornment and size of this stone surpasses even those of my own era. To the right of the gate is a shrine of Victory, and on the left, a gallery of paintings. Also on the acropolis is a bronze statue of Athena, whose spear tip and helmet crest can be seen as you come in from Sounion.
–Pausanias Description of Greece 1.22.4-6, 25.5-7, 27.2, 28.2

A monument in the Kerameikos
A monument in the Kerameikos

In earlier times the Athenians were under kings, then they transformed into a democracy; they were oppressed by tyrants, but they easily got rid of them. Later a foreign king again placed tyrants over them, until Sulla brought it to an end by taking back the city by siege. He gave a pardon to the city itself, and to this day, it remains free and honored by the Romans.
–Strabo Geography 9.1.15-20

aul would have left the main trade road to head south to Athens. Paul's letters make no mention of Athens, but the Book of Acts describes a visit in some detail. If Paul did visit Athens, he would have seen the Acropolis and its famous temples long before reaching the city, especially the colossal bronze statue of Athena in armor, her helmet and spear reflecting the sunlight like a beacon. Approaching the main city gates, he would have passed through the cemetery called the Kerameikos, which lined the road with a solemn procession of memorials to heroes and to the soldiers who had fallen in over six centuries of battles. Here too was the site of Plato's Academy, and the ruins of Athens' long walls, which had run over six miles from the city to the harbor at Peiraeos. The ruins of the walls were a reminder of the city's former naval prowess. And they were a bitter reminder of the ferocity with which Rome could punish dissenters. In 88 BCE, the Athenians had sided with an invading Eastern king and taken up arms against the Romans. The Romans seized the city in 86 BCE, destroyed the walls and held a lottery to assign the death penalty to one out of every ten rebels. In the struggles for control of the empire that consumed the Mediterranean throughout the first century BCE, Athens repeatedly chose the losing side. However, its cultural reputation saved the city from the kind of destruction Rome had visited on other insurgents like Carthage and Corinth.

By the time Paul reached Athens, its population was in decline, and it was no longer on the major routes by land or sea. The city was designated one of the free, self-governing cities in the Empire, though this was largely an honorary distinction, and in practice such cities were free to follow Roman orders. The city had become a kind of museum to its past, a school and display case for philosophy, oratory, art and architecture. Tourists and students came from around the Empire -- guidebooks available to these ancient travelers have been preserved, and there is evidence that locals could serve as tour guides or sell souvenirs in the markets. Having passed through the city gates, Paul would have entered the ancient agora, and then the Roman forum -- the markets which were the hub of city life. Here, in the shadow of the Acropolis, he found a perfect opportunity to get on his soapbox and debate his ideas with the intellectually curious Athenians. Although Acts paints a rather cartoonish picture of intellectual life in Athens, it was the birthplace of Epicureanism and Stoicism, two philosophical traditions popular in the Roman Empire. The main goal of Epicureanism was a happy life, to be achieved through the pursuit of pleasure, defined as the absence of pain. Epicureans did not believe in an afterlife, and maintained that death was not to be feared. They believed in the existence of gods, but did not believe that gods were involved in human affairs, or the physical world. Their views of death and the gods rested on atomist theories. Stoics, on the other hand, believed that the gods, or some creative force, did determine human reality, but that they could not be influenced by human action. The achievement of a happy life depended on an individual's use of reason to accept this reality. Stoics and Epicureans had their differences, but neither challenged the status quo. Brought before the city council on the Areopagos, Paul may have had high hopes of instigating the kind of social change for which the Areopagos was famous. This was the hillside court where, legend held, the trial of a matricide named Orestes gave birth to the system of trial by jury. Few Athenians were swayed by Paul's message, however, and he left the city for Corinth.

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