The account of St. Paul’s address on the Areopagus in Athens is a masterclass in the evangelization of the culture – a skill surely important for our day and age. His arrival in Athens is, in its way, the introduction of Christianity to Europe. It was an event, while of no particular note or importance to historians, thoughts leaders, or philosophers of the day, was one that shaped the history of Western Europe and eventually the world.
After spending time in Asia Minor, Paul went to Athens, arguably the most important cultural center of the ancient Roman world. Upon arriving, as was his practice, Paul went to the synagogue where he could easily connect the Good News to a shared foundation of their common Jewish heritage. There his goal was to announce Jesus as the climax of the story of Israel.
But he did not limit his delivery of the Good News to those already part of the Chosen People. He went daily in the public square with whoever happened to be there. Even some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers engaged him in discussion.” (Acts 17:17-18)
When he arrives at the Areopagus—a rocky outcropping just below the Parthenon—Paul used a rhetorical device, captatio benevolentiae (capturing the good will of one’s audience), Paul compliments them: “You Athenians, I see that in every respect you are very religious.” (v.22) Just as in the synagogue, Paul works to build upon a foundation already there: “For as I walked around looking carefully at your shrines, I even discovered an altar inscribed, ‘To an Unknown God.’” (v.23) Then Paul moves on to complete the story and make known to the Athenians, “The God who made the world and all that is in it, the Lord of heaven and earth.” (v.24)
It is an important masterclass in Evangelization: there were seeds of the Word in Athenian culture, alongside idolatrous practices, esoteric philosophies and variant theologies. As in our day. St. Paul is not simply “open” to the culture or quickly adopts the combative stance of the cultural warrior. He starts on a foundation upon which both can agree.
That day, only a few accepted his testimony, but the seeds were planted. St. Paul might not have been successful, but he was faithful to the opportunity. And he left the increase of believers to God. It is a lesson in humility and faithfulness.
Image credit: Paul preaching in the Areopagus, 1729-31 by Sir James Thornhill, Public Domain – from an original preparatory drawing by Raphael of Paul preaching in the Areopagus.