St. Paul on Stoicism
From the Acts of the Apostles
Some scholars find many traces of Stoicism in the New Testament, particularly in the teachings of the Apostle Paul. One even concludes: “Paul was a crypto-Stoic” (Engberg-Perderson, in Strange & Zupko, 2009).
In the Acts of the Apostles, Chapter 17, the author, traditionally presumed to be Luke the Evangelist, describes St. Paul’s arrival in Athens around 50 AD. Paul engages in discussion with certain Epicurean and Stoic philosophers at the Areopagus, or high court, delivering a famous Christian sermon. The well-known 5-6th century Neoplatonic Christian mystic and philosopher Pseudo-Dionysus the Areopagite is named after one of the individuals described here as becoming a follower of Paul at Athens, with whom he was originally confused. Paul favourably quotes lines from two unnamed Greek poems in his sermon. Scholars have identified the first as coming from the Cretica of the pre-Socratic philosopher-poet Epimenides (fl. 7th or 6th century BC), which forms part of the verse:
They fashioned a tomb for you, holy and high one,
Cretans, always liars, evil beasts, idle bellies.
But you are not dead: you live and abide forever,
For in you we live and move and have our being. [the line quoted by St. Paul]
Let us begin with Zeus, whom we mortals never leave unspoken.
For every street, every market-place is full of Zeus.
Even the sea and the harbour are full of this deity.
Everywhere everyone is indebted to Zeus.
For we are indeed his offspring… [the line quoted by St. Paul]
The Text from Acts 17
Those who escorted Paul brought him to Athens and then left with instructions for Silas and Timothy to join him as soon as possible.
While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. So he reasoned in the synagogue with both Jews and God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there. A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to debate with him. Some of them asked, “What is this babbler trying to say?” Others remarked, “He seems to be advocating foreign gods.” They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection. Then they took him and brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus, where they said to him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we would like to know what they mean.” (All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.)
Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said:
“People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.
“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being’ [Epimenides]. As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring’ [Aratus].
“Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”
When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, “We want to hear you again on this subject.” At that, Paul left the Council. Some of the people became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others.