Paul on the Areopagus
The scene in the book of Acts in which Paul preaches to the people of Athens (17:19–34) denotes, and is intended to denote, a climax of the book. The whole account of the scene testifies to that: the speech on the Areopagus is the only sermon reported by the author that is preached to the Gentiles by the apostle to the Gentiles. Moreover, peculiarities of style and an abundance of motifs that here appear compressed into a few verses give the account a special importance.
Attempts to interpret this speech in the last decades have, it seems to me, suffered somewhat from the fact that those who have sought to explain it have always had either an historical or a literary thesis in mind. On the one hand they have wanted to prove that Paul actually made this speech or that he could have made it. In this case the preference is for using the letters and the environment of the historical Paul as affording the best evidence by which to interpret it; this it the view of Ernst Curtius, Adolf von Harnack, Alfred Wikenhauser, and Eduard Meyer.1 Or the speech on the Areopagus is explained as being an insertion, the work of an editor of the book of Acts, so that we shall not be surprised to find that it contains contradictions to and passages that are not quite in harmony with other parts of the book. That is how it is regarded by, for example, Norden and Loisy.2 My investigation proceeds by applying a reverse method; we shall look first at its meaning and then at its historicity and its importance in the book of Acts.3
The speech can be isolated in this way, since it is self-evident: a very clear arrangement shows its drift immediately. Groups of motifs, sometimes compressed into one or two sentences, form its content, but the choice of words and the way in which the ideas are expressed are so characteristic that, with the sole exception of v. 26, we are in no doubt as to what ideas are to be associated with it and quoted in explanation.