How Did Paul Find Common Ground with Greek Intellectuals in Acts 17?

Darrell Bock, in Acts, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, provides an excellent analysis of Paul’s speech to the Athenian Areopagus in Acts 17. Bock demonstrates how the beginning of Paul’s oration found common ground with his Greek audience. By studying Paul’s technique, we can learn how to find common ground with members of our culture who are biblically illiterate.

In Acts 17:24-25, Paul says, “The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.”

Bock writes:

Thus God is defined in a twofold way. The first is as Creator of all. Larkin (1995: 257) notes that the Epicureans had similar views. The second idea is that God is not contained in a temple and, by implication, is not reflected by an idol. This second remark recalls Stephen’s view and the basic view of Judaism (1 Kings 8:27; Isa. 66:1–2; Acts 7:47–50; on this use of ‘world’ in relation to creation, see Wis. 9:9; 11:17; 2 Macc. 7:23; Josephus, Ant. preface 4 §21). The idea that a temple cannot contain the gods is something some other Greeks also recognized, as Euripides, frg. 968, expresses the idea that a house built by craftsmen could not enclose the divine form (Bruce 1988a: 336n65).

Paul’s emphasis is on God as Sustainer and Creator, along with the idea that God does not need humans for anything. The Greeks shared this idea of deity as independent (Aristobulus, Hist. Alex. frg. 4; Euripides, Heracles 1345–46, ‘God … is in need of nothing’; Fitzmyer 1998: 608).

In Acts 17:26-27, Paul says,

And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us.

Bock writes:

The reference to Adam is intended to show that all people have their roots in the Creator God. Indeed, humanity is to seek God. Johnson (1992: 315–16) notes a similar argument in Philo, Spec. Laws 1.6–7 §§32–40, especially 1.7 §36: ‘Nothing is better than to seek the true God.’ This affirmation would be hard for the Athenians, who prided themselves in being a superior people, calling others barbarians. . . .

Paul describes the Greeks as humans seeking God in their own imperfect way in the hope that they may ‘get a hold’ of God—and this goal is attainable because God is close (Deut. 30:11; Josephus, Ant. 8.4.2 §108 [God is close to his own]; among the Greeks, Seneca, Moral Ep. 41.1, ‘God is near you, with you, within you’). Although the Greeks had similar expressions, this is not a mere intellectual attainment, which the Greeks tended to emphasize. Rather, there is a personal dimension that leads to serving and honoring God in truth, as verses 30–31 will show (Marshall 1980: 288; Larkin 1995: 257, ‘a gracious, personal Creator, Ruler and Sustainer of all’). In effect, Paul is saying that the Greeks’ effort proceeds with uncertainty until they understand what God has revealed. . . .

Witherington (1998: 529) is right to contrast what is happening here with a famous speech of Dio Chrysostom, Man’s First Conception of God (Olympic Discourse 12.28), to which Paul’s remarks are often compared. There Stoic ideas are used positively to declare how people have innate conceptions of God and all are kin to God. Paul says that there is a kinship at creation but that this is not enough. Fellowship requires that one respond to God as God’s creature, as one accountable to the Creator and his divine revelation.

In Acts 17:28, Paul quotes popular Greek writings.  “In him we live and move and have our being”; “For we are indeed his offspring.”

Bock writes:

This text about living, moving, and having our being in the Deity appears to allude to pagan ideas (BAGD 432 §3; BDAG 545 §3). Polhill (1992: 375–76) discusses the debate over whether this statement is rooted in a specific passage in Epimenides of Crete (ca. 600 BC), a point that is unlikely given the frequency of the thought in ancient thinking. An association with Epimenides goes back to Clement of Alexandria (Stromata 1.14.59; among the Greeks, a citation from Isho’dad of Merv is also known; Bruce 1990: 384; Williams 1990: 308; Barrett 1998: 847). These citations suggest a widespread belief that people exist by God’s creation and sustenance, so that God is not far off.

In addition, ‘we are his offspring’ (γένος ἐσμέν, genos esmen). The expression that we are God’s offspring comes from another pagan poet, Aratus (ca. 315–240 BC), Phaenomena 5 (some scholars also note Cleanthes, Hymn to Zeus; Marshall 1980: 289; but Fitzmyer 1998: 611 rejects a connection to Cleanthes). Paul explicitly notes this connection in introducing the citation as coming from ‘some of your poets.’ Paul is working with ideas in the Greek world that are familiar to the Athenians and only alludes to Scripture in his speech instead of quoting it directly. The text from Aratus, as Paul uses it, recognizes the shared relationship all people have to God. It also makes a more subtle point when the remark about being God’s children is repeated in verse 29: we are God’s creation; we do not create him by making images of the gods (Witherington 1998: 530). Thus the remark does express Paul’s view in this limited sense. . . . Paul contextualizes the citation and presents it in a fresh light, setting up his critique. He takes a Greek idea of the ‘spark of the divine being’ in us as tied to Zeus and speaks of being made as God’s children by the Creator, alluding to our being made in God’s image.

Given the common ground Paul has found with the Greek intellectuals of the Areopagus in verses 24-28, he then introduces new arguments in verses 29-31, ultimately leading to the resurrection of Jesus. Hopefully, you can see that this methodology is far more productive than Paul jumping straight to the resurrection of Jesus. It requires a shorter leap for the members of the Athenian council, and some of them do respond positively to Paul’s message.

In like manner, when we engage anyone with the truths of Christianity, we must find common ground first. Does our friend believe in a Creator God? Do they believe in the supernatural? What do they think of the Bible? Can it be trusted? Is it historically accurate? Do they think Jesus really existed or that he was a legendary figure? These are the kinds of questions that need to be answered to find common ground in our day. This often requires effort and patience that many of us don’t have. But if we skip this step, our evangelism will fail more often than not.