A rocky height in Athens west of the Acropolis, from which it is separated by a narrow depression bears the name Areopagus [hill of Ares (Mars)]. In antiquity it was the meeting place of the oldest Council of Athens, also called the Areopagus, made up of the king's chief men and having special authority to try murder cases. Its competence varied with the times, but its authority was very great until the democratic reforms of the early 5th century b.c. Thereafter it remained an honorable remnant of antiquity but without political power. At the time St. Paul was summoned before this Council it probably met in the agora and no longer on Mars Hill.
Paul's Arraignment before the Areopagus. When Paul arrived in athens, although he had been fleeing from the Jews in Thessalonica and Boroea, he nevertheless first went to the synagogue of the Jews and to others favorable to monotheism. He also preached in the market place every day, debating with Epicurean and Stoic philosophers without much success. His audience either did not understand him at all or they misinterpreted his teaching as propaganda for two new gods, Jesus and Anastasis (Resurrection). This confusion led to a more formal inquiry about his doctrine before the Areopagus. There was nothing particularly hostile about the hearing as some have thought; it was called to gather information about a doctrine new to the Athenians' jaded ears. Something entirely new and unheard of had come to the center of human wisdom and learning (Acts 17.16–21).
Paul's Speech before the Areopagus. A literary problem is connected with Paul's exposition of his new doctrine (Acts 17.22–31). Is it really Paul's speech or St. Luke's invention put into Paul's mouth to break the narrative's monotony and add greater vividness? It is universally agreed that Greek and Roman historians invented speeches that they attributed to various historical persons. Furthermore, Luke did not accompany Paul from Philippi and he rejoined him only during his last journey, as may be surmised from the long hiatus between the "we sections" of the Acts (16:17; 20.5). Apart from the possibility of a written source, then, Luke had to rely on only Paul himself for knowledge of the Athenian sojourn and the discourse—unless Timothy had not yet returned to Thessalonica (1 Thes 3.1–2). Whatever his source, the author of the Acts had ample means to learn of the substance of Paul's discourse; and there is no need to demand a verbatim account of it. The speech has an authentic ring to it, when one considers that it is a type of Paul's customary kerygma to polytheistic pagans. Moreover, the citation of a Greek poet and philosopher (Acts 17.28) to an Athenian audience is especially appropriate. The judgment of the world by Jesus—established as judge by His Resurrection—brings out the specifically Christian character of this kerygma (Acts 17.31). Finally, if the writer were a forger, he would certainly have represented the result of the speech quite differently (Acts 17.32–34).
Paul's mission in Athens, although it was apparently frustrated, fulfilled nevertheless his principle: he became all things to all men, even a poet-quoting Greek, that he might save at least some (1 Cor 9.22, in the Greek text). Later, however, in Corinth, having learned his lesson from the Athenians' scorn, he would no longer speak in the words of human wisdom but in those of divine wisdom and the Cross—and with much more success (1 Cor 1.17–31).
Bibliography: Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible, tr. and adap. by l. hartman (New York 1963), from a. van den born, Bijbels Woordenboek 129–130. The Oxford Classical Dictinary, ed. m. cary et al. (Oxford 1949) 85. a. wikenhauser, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner, 10 v. (2d, new ed. Freiburg 1957–65); suppl., Das Zweite Vatikanische Konzil: Dokumente und Kommentare, ed. h. s. brechter et al., pt. 1 (1966) 1:830–831. i. c. t. hill, The Ancient City of Athens: Its Topography and Monuments (Cambridge, Mass. 1953).
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Areopagitica, the title of Milton's pamphlet on the freedom of the press published in 1644, derives from this name. The publication was partly inspired by attempts by Parliament to suppress Milton's own pamphlet on divorce.