The spiritual marketplace (part 2)

Go into your local bookstore (that is, if you still have one), and browse through the religion and self-help sections.

Pull out a copy of your local phone directory (okay, you might not have one of those anymore either!) and look in the Yellow Pages or business section under “churches.”

Go online to (surely this one is doable) and do a book search using the term “god.”

Any or all of these experiments will give you a sense of today’s spiritual marketplace, the breadth and complexity of which might have staggered the pre-modern imagination.

But that’s not to say, of course, that there was no spiritual marketplace in the ancient world. And Paul understood the challenges.

As we’ve seen, as Paul waited for Silas and Timothy to join him in Athens, he spent time in the public square debating the local philosophers. Some were derisive, accusing him of being a philosophical amateur; others accused him of promoting foreign gods. They decided, therefore, to bring him to the Areopagus (literally, the “hill of Ares,” or to the Romans, “Mars Hill”) so his views could be examined further.

There’s some ambiguity about what Luke is referring to with the term. On the one hand, “Areopagus” is the name of the large, rocky hill that towers over the marketplace where Paul debated his opponents. On the other hand, it’s also the name of the council of elders that functioned as a local court; the council, apparently, took its name from the rock where some of its deliberations were probably held. So when Luke tells us that Paul was “brought…to the Areopagus” (Acts 17:19, NRSV) does he mean the hill, the council, or both?

With the straightforward translation “brought to the Areopagus,” the New Revised Standard Version leaves the matter open-ended. The New International Version opts for just the council. But the Common English Bible wants to have its cake and eat it too: they “brought him to the council on Mars Hill.”

Given the context, the non-negotiable part seems to be that Paul was brought before the council. The negotiable part is where. There’s some evidence that the council actually met in a corner of the marketplace rather than on the hill, and this may well be the truth of the matter. When his opponents decided to take him before the council, it was only a short walk to where they were meeting.

What was the tone of the meeting? Interpreters disagree here, too. One reading is that while some were dismissive of Paul, they regarded his words more as a curiosity than a threat. This fits the picture that Luke seems to paint of the Athenians’ empty intellectualism:

“What is this new teaching? Can we learn what you are talking about? You’ve told us some strange things and we want to know what they mean.” (They said this because all Athenians as well as the foreigners who live in Athens used to spend their time doing nothing but talking about or listening to the newest thing.)

Acts 17:19b-21, CEB

On that reading, therefore, Paul was brought before the council so the experts could satisfy their curiosity. When Paul gave his reply, some simply scoffed, some wanted to hear more, and some believed (Acts 17:32).

But it’s quite possible that the scene was more tense. The charge of proclaiming foreign gods was a serious one. Centuries before, Socrates had been found guilty of corrupting the youth of Athens with his philosophy, and of not believing in the state-sanctioned gods. He was sentenced to death by hemlock poisoning — not a particularly pleasant way to die.

Moreover, whereas the NRSV attempts to stay neutral by saying that his opponents “took” Paul and brought him to the Areopagus, the CEB opts for “they took him into custody.” “Took” is certainly a valid translation, but it’s also the word used by Luke earlier to describe what happened in Philippi, when Paul and Silas were “seized” and taken before the magistrates (Acts 16:19, NRSV).

On this reading, then, the situation is a more hostile one. Paul stands accused of what some might construe as a capital crime; he is therefore seized and brought before the authorities to give account of himself. Their questions are not expressions of idle curiosity, but designed to give him enough rope to hang himself.

Which is the case? Perhaps we don’t have to choose. Not everyone responded to his defense in the same way, and it’s reasonable to suppose that they differed in their attitude toward him from the start. Some were hostile, and some were curious.

The point is that in the spiritual marketplace, agnosticism and relativism rule the day, as people sample from one expression of spirituality after another. But there are different ways of being agnostic. One might say “I don’t know,” or “I can’t be sure,” or even, “It’s impossible for anyone to be sure.” But that in itself doesn’t determine how open one might be to being confronted with a transcendent truth.

The question, it seems, is whether we really want to know the unknown God. More on that in upcoming posts.