Paul's Idol Polemics
Joshua Jipp argues that Paul's Areopagus address contains both critique and propaganda, critique of Athenian superstition, lust for novelty, and idolatry, and propaganda in favor of Christian faith as a more consistent fulfillment of the aspirations of Hellenistic philosophical theology. Much of the critique, Jipp shows, is drawn from Isaiah's idol polemics (which have parallels in Stoic and other texts). For instance, “Isaiah draws the same conclusion as does Paul in Acts 17:24b, namely, because the one God is creator of everything ‘he does not inhabit temples made by human hand.'” “Made by hands” is used fourteen times in the LXX, seven in Isaiah, where the phrase is always part of a condemnation of false worship and idolatry (579). Paul's claim that God is known through creation and providence echoes Isaiah 55:6 (582-3). “In Him we live, move, and have being,” Paul says, playing off Isaiah's insistence that idols do not live, move, or have existence (584-5). All this reinforces the ignorance of Athenian worship. Their “plethora of idols (17:16), their obsession with religious novelty (17:21), the altar to the “unknown god” (17:22), their building of temples (17:24), their cultic worship (17:25), and their forming gods out of earthly material (17:29) testify that Athenian religiosity is characterized by ignorance” (586). And that too comes from Isaiah: “Isaiah 45:20 states, for example, that the Gentiles who engage in worship of idols “have no knowledge” (586). Luke is careful to note that Stoic and Epicurean philosophers are among Paul's hearers, and this, Jipp says, lays the ground for the propagandistic side of Paul's speech. Stoics and Epicureans would agree with much (not all) of what Paul says about divine nature and even about the superstition of images, temples, and cult. Yet they continued to engage in the very worship they condemned. Paul aims to prove that the faith he announces is philosophy fulfilled in practice: “Whereas Stoics and Epicureans criticized temples and human-made images, both groups continued to engage in this form of civic religion (Plutarch, Stoic, abs. 1034B; Dio Chrysostom, Or. 12). Paul presents the Christian movement as a superior form of philosophical reflection on God by demonstrating the movement’s consistency in both its theological reflection and its practical worship of God apart from images” (585). Positively, Paul stresses that human beings are images of God: “Since humanity is God’s offspring, one should not suppose that anything other than humanity - such as golden, silver, or wooden idols - can represent God. Underlying 17:28-29 is something akin to an imago dei theology” (585). And that leads directly into Paul's final announcement: God has raised a man from the dead - a man who is the image of God - and this man will judge all who turn from the true image to the works of human hands. At the same time, Paul deftly reverses the setting in which he delivers this speech. Jipp argues that Paul is being tried, as Socrates was, for introducing foreign deities into Athens, a crime that could be capital. Other scholars disagree; Bruce Winter has argued that new deities were added to the Pantheon at various times, and that Paul is not so much on trial as an object of religious scrutiny. However that question is decided, Paul is the one who is being examined and assessed. So it seems. But he closes by warning the Athenians that they are the ones on trial, and that they must repent to escape the coming judgment. Once again, it's all in Isaiah: The living God calls witnesses and puts the idols on trial. And they will not stand. (Jipp, “Paul’s Areopagus Speech of Acts 17:16-34 as Both Critique and Propaganda,” JBL 131 [2012] 567-588; cf. Winter, “On Introducing Gods to Athens: An Alternative Reading of Acts 17:18-20,” Tyndale Bulletin 47 [1996] 71-90.)

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