Thursday, 24 January 2008

A PS on Paul, Athens, Acts 17 and the rest of it

I've just now checked out the Greek word 'deisidaimonesterous', translated in Acts 17:22 as 'very religious' (although Rob Doyle, theology lecturer at Moore College, cheekily suggests 'demon possessed'). Here's the whole sentence from the ESV translation:

So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious."

3 Greek-English lexicons of the NT (Louw and Nida; Thayer; and Arndt and Gingrich) and an FF Bruce commentary on Acts later, I've confirmed what I suspected. That is, that this expression 'very religious' can't be used as an example of Paul smoothing the way for the bitter pill that is the gos-pill.

Summarizing what the lexicons say and adding a bit more, FF Bruce comments as follows:

This characterization of the Athenians by Paul was not necessarily meant to be complimentary: we are told that it was forbidden to use complimentary exordia in addressing the Areopagus court, with the hope of securing its goodwill. [Bruce here gives a footnote: "Cf. Lucian, Anacharsis 19"]. The expression Paul used could also mean "rather superstitious"; it was as vague a term in Greek as "religion" is in English, and what was piety to Greeks was superstition to Jews (and vice versa). [Bruce then has a footnote suggesting the reader compare with the noun 'deisidaimonia' in Acts 25:19.]

- The Book of the Acts, in the New International Commentary on the New Testament series (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988) p 335.

Being an inquisitive soul I read a bit further and found that Bruce noticed something else I noticed, which is that Paul scarcely laid 'em in the aisles with his knockdown delivery:

There is no mention of any baptisms at Athens, nor is Paul said to have planted a church there. Although Athens was in the Roman province of Achaia, it is a family resident in Corinth that Paul describes as "the firstfruits of Achaia" (1 Cor 16:15). If the response to his preaching in Athens was scanty, the reason may lie with the Athenians' refusal to take him seriously...

The Athenians of today have made up for their ancestors' indifference by engraving the text of Paul's Areopagitica on a bronze tablet at the foot of the ascent to the Areopagus, and by naming a neighbouring thoroughfare in honor of the apostle.

So there you go. Always reassuring to find one of the great ones confirming something you thought you'd noticed. I don't know where old FF gets off, though, suggesting that the present day Athenians have compensated by putting up a plaque and naming a road. Call me eccentric, but I'd have said that the way to make up for ignoring Paul was to start paying attention to his message, and preparing to meet the risen Lord Jesus on the day of his terrible and glorious judgement of the whole of creation.

4 comments:

Pete said...

Thanks for doing the research, Gordo, very interesting indeed. Must file that away somewhere, for future reference. Paul isn't quite the bridge-builder we'd like him to be...

Anonymous said...

Reminds me of a rule of Edwin Judge (which I was told is very famous amongst Moore people, though not everyone might know its author): Whenever you find the word "religion" (or similar) in the translation of an ancient text (NT included) cross it out and have a look at the original. There will never occur a word in the original text which has our meaning of "religion" (included the Latin "religio" which also doesn't mean "religion" in our sense!).

Unfortunately Edwin spread this rule only in lectures and has never written an article on his understanding of ancient "religion" - but this is another story ...

Alex

Gordon Cheng said...

That does sound fascinating, Alex. What a useful contribution an article from Edwin would be! Perhaps you could help him write it in your spare time? ;-)

Anonymous said...

Gordon, lead me not into temptations ...

Actually, I am trying to persuade Edwin to write such an article. Up to now I have not been quite successful, but he is about to turn his review of the book of the German scholar Rüpke on "Gruppenreligionen" into a lengthy review article in which he intends to outline his concerns with the concept of "religion" for antiquity. That's not quite what I wanted. My hope is that the journal in which the review should appear rejects the lengthy review article, and then Edwin will be forced to write a "real" article which should be publicicised more prominently.

Am I allowed to make an advertisement here? If yes, the first volume of Edwin's collected papers is just back from the printer: "Social Distinctives of the Christians in the First Century", ed. David Scholer, Peabody, Hendrickson Publishers 2008. Fascinating reading, papers nos. 2, 4, 7, 8 also strongly recommended (and readable) for those who preach on the Pauline esp. the Corinthian epistles!

Alex