The Athens Project

The core around which this site revolves is based on a sermon I heard when I was living in Chicago. I was attending a small church called by North Side Community Christian Church and pastored by Gordon Venturella.

I have since heard different renditions on the topic, but here is the general outline that you can read for yourself:

Read Peter’s sermon at Pentecost (Acts 2) and note the following:

  • The sermon begins with a quotation from the Jewish scripture of Joel.
  • Peter gives an account of the significance of Jesus ministry in relation to Jewish history.
  • The focus is on the cross and the death of Jesus.
  • There is a call for repentance and, by implication, an assumption of sin.
  • The reaction is immediate and a mass conversion takes place.

Read Paul’s speech at the Aeropagus (Acts 17) and note the following:

  • There are no references to the Jewish scriptures.
  • There are no references to Jewish history.
  • There is no mention of Jesus by name.
  • There is no mention of the cross.
  • The focus is on the resurrection.
  • There is no mention of sin, but rather ignorance.
  • The reaction is mixed–some curious, some scoffers and some believe.

Peter’s Pentecost sermon in Acts 2 seems straightforward but what is going on in Acts 17? Isn’t this “Roman Road” Paul? Where is the “…we preach Christ crucified?”

To explain we need to understand the audiences to which each spoke.

To start, note that both texts portray the proclamations as impromptu rather than carefully-crafted sermons. In other words, they were not pre-planned or orchestrated beforehand but rather spontaneous reactions to the immediate circumstances. Both Peter and Paul were men of their times and carried with them certain assumptions about their own ethnic, cultural, political and religious sensibilities as well as those of their audiences. What flowed from the lips of the Apostles was not lofty rhetoric but a soap-box understanding of the time and place. This needs to be considered in any interpretation.

Jerusalem

Peter’s sermon occurs during the Jewish festival of Pentecost. Jerusalem is filled with faithful Jews who have traveled there on pilgrimages from throughout the Ancient Near East. What touched off the occasion for the sermon was the commotion that ensued when the apostles entered the temple precincts speaking in different languages. Peter responds with the claim that something extraordinary is occurring. However extraordinary, it was at the same time not unexpected and was comprehend-able to his hearers within the context of Jewish history. The icebreaker, if you will, is the Joel quotation.

The audience had an immediate knowledge of not simply the passage, but all its implications for Jewish politics, religion and history. With this as its starting point, the rest of the speech is an attempt to recast Jewish history in the light of the ministry of Jesus.

A modern equivalent might be a political stump speech beginning with a reference to the Gettysburg address or Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream speech” or the like. The audience would immediately recognize the starting point and no explanation of the context would be necessary. The body of the speech would be the speaker’s attempt to tie the current context to the past.

By tapping into Jewish sensibilities, history, religion and current circumstances Peter is able to shed new light on things. It is, in essence, an appeal to the Jewish heart and mind with its deeply-rooted understanding of sin and its impact on Jewish culture and history. Peter was a Jew speaking to other Jews.

The result of Peter’s speech is immediate and overwhelming. Peter was able to pull together various strands of Jewish political and religious history into a coherent argument with such force as to awaken and unite the audience with his appeal. There was something for everyone: those tired of the complacency and corruption of the religious elite, those waiting for the long-promised Kingdom of God, those hearing strains of the resurgence of the Jewish past.

Athens

In Acts 17, Paul’s speech is given to an audience at the intellectual heart of the ancient world. He is speaking to the cultural elite with little or no familiarity of Jewish history and culture. To the Athenians, Palestine was a cultural backwater. (Luke’s apparent disdain for the cultural elite is implied in his off-hand comment, to paraphrase, “…the Athenians had nothing better to do than talk about the latest cultural trends.”)

It is important to know a little about the events leading up to this episode and how it impacted Paul’s approach. Arguably, Paul’s standard modus operandi when entering a new city was to find the local synagogue and focus on those Gentiles sympathetic to Jewish sensibilities (Gentile believers and God-Fearers). It would often get him into trouble with the traditional Jews, in that, these groups were the “buffer” between themselves and the rest of the culture (Paul’s ministry was a threat). This was the audience to which Paul directed his ministry. Such people were familiar with the concepts and trappings of the Jewish religion and culture but also lived and moved within the local Greek culture.

However, outside the synagogue in the marketplace his boilerplate rendering of the Gospel message is met with bewilderment. His message is strange and incomprehensible, so much “babble.” The hearers can’t comprehend what he is talking about and can neither accept nor reject what they do not and/or cannot understand. They would have no understanding of the Jewish concept of Messiah and all political and religious nuances that went with it. Nor would references to the Jewish scriptures or Jewish history fare much better.

The issue Paul faced was that he was a Jew speaking to secular Greeks. The two cultures saw things differently. Centuries before the Greek philosopher Socrates taught that people do the wrong things because they don’t know good from bad, so the problem to be solved was ignorance. To the Jewish mind the problem to be solved was sin and the solution was repentance. To the former, the path forward was a matter of training the mind (morality and ethics) and to the latter training of the will (law and ritual). (Paul would take exception to both: “I know what the Good is, I just can’t do it.”)

The results were mixed. The text mentions two specific groups in particular. The Epicureans were the strict materialists of Paul’s day and scoffed at the notion of resurrection while the Stoics were more open to it since their philosophy was more a way of life. A few accepted Paul’s message and believed.

Today

The two settings for the sermons were separated by a few decades and less than a thousand miles, but the Gospel rendered in each was markedly different. Both cultures shared an ancient worldview but were at opposite ends of the cultural spectrum. When comparing the two sermons few themes are similar save one, the resurrection. Regarding the crucifixion of Jesus, Peter does not characterize it as sacrificial and Paul says nothing about it at all. Yet, in both cases conversion takes place.

So what does this mean for the modern age? Two thousand years of history have passed since these episodes took place and two things are certain. First, the Gospel is rendered differently in different times and cultural settings, and, second, the Gospel cannot be fully encapsulated by any cultural rendering. The two are in constant tension and the Gospel resists being bound by its cultural constraints. It will always break these constraints and move in another, often unexpected, direction.

Call it the Athens Project, the ongoing attempt to faithfully render the Gospel to the culture into which we are thrown.

One thought on “The Athens Project

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s