St. Paul and the Philosophers

by Max Andrews

Athens’ leading schools of philosophical thought were the Epicurean and Stoic schools, these philosophies were the leading representatives in the confusion caused by Paul’s preaching in Acts 17. Epicureanism, founded by Epicurus (342-270 BC), is mainly a materialist philosophy believing that the universe is composed mainly of atoms but does not deny the existence of gods.  However, there was no belief in divine providence, and life’s purpose was to live as free from pain as possible.[1]  The Epicureans were very existential and would accept the notion of existence before essence or material before immaterial.[2]  They abandoned the search by reason for truth and adopted a hedonistic approach to life through experience.  According to John, in his Gospel account, even Pilate had a desire to search and find truth (John 18:38).

The Stoic school of thought was one of harmony with nature, using rational abilities one possesses, and depending only on oneself for needs.  Their theology of God is some sort of world soul similar to pantheism.  Stoicism was founded by Zeno (340-265 BC) and took its name from a “painted stoa.”[3]  While these two philosophies are different, they are both secular alternatives to dealing with life and problems.

Some of the Gentiles called Paul an idle babbler (Gr. σπερμολός [spermologos] – picking up seed). This is metaphorical to a beggar in the marketplace picking up seed and using what he can get.  When Paul presented the Gospel message, the Gentiles had the impression that he was taking many different philosophies and gods, abstracting certain commonalities and putting them together to create a new message.  The Greeks use the term “deities” in several of their writings for pagan gods.  It is used nowhere else in the New Testament in this sense but occurs fifty times for evil spirits and is, therefore, usually translated “demons.”[4]  Paul preached Christ’s resurrection, and the Gentiles could have thought that Jesus, as the new god, and the resurrection (anastasis) as His chief goddess.[5]  The lack of cultural filtration by the Gentiles by believing Paul was proclaiming new gods as a polytheist, gives example to the need to analogous illustration when witnessing cross culturally which Paul later used in verse 23.

Paul’s technique in evangelism will vary in approach, but draws down to Jesus and the resurrection very quickly.  Here he sets another example in witnessing; Paul left no room for tangents.  Christ set this example of ministry when speaking to the woman at the well (John 4), and when she would get draw off the main message, Jesus would bring the message back to light.  Paul also uses a relevant subject to present the Gospel just as Jesus did.

[1] John B. Polhill, The New American Commentary: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture, Acts (Nashville, TN:  Broadman Press. 1992), 366.

[2] William S. Sahakian; Mabel L. Sahakian, Ideas of the Great Philosophers (New York, NY:  Barnes & Noble Books, 1966).

[3] Kenneth O. Gangel, Holman New Testament Commentary:  Acts, (Nashville, TN:  Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1998), , 288.

[4] Doris W. Rikkers. The Scofield Study Bible (New York, NY:  Oxford University Press. 2005).

[5] Gangel, 288.


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