[17:1-15]. Paul at Thessalonica and Berea.
Thessalonica was more than a thousand kilometres away from Iconium and in the middle there was the sea, and yet the same pattern is repeated: preaching in the synagogue, adherence of a significant minority of Jews, adherence also of numerous Greeks, violent reaction of unbelieving Jews, who promote an alliance with the unbelieving Greeks.
In Thessalonica and Berea, the Gospel reached even the highest social classes (vv. 4 and 12), showing that the whole of society was in a way ready to receive the message. Verse 6 contains an accusation to which every Christian aspires, that of having «turned the world upside down».
The attitude of those of Berea is defined as «more noble» and often the readers of the Bible declare themselves “Bereans”, because they were not satisfied with listening, but personally controlled, «examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so» (v. 11). For the Bereans, of course, «the Scriptures» were represented by the Greek Old Testament.
Paul, faced with danger, as usual did not run away, agreeing to leave only to obey the worried brothers (vv. 10 and 14). As usual, the persecution was not towards Christians in general, but focused on the person of Paul, whose moving away from the situation caused it to calm down again.
Having to take Paul from Berea, the brothers «took him» (v. 15) to Athens, accompanying him for about 500 km of navigation.
[17:16-34]. Paul in Athens.
At the end of the previous passage, Paul seems to be one of those quarrelsome people that must be separated by force from the adversaries, while here he shows an extraordinary ability to dialogue with everyone: Jews, various people in the square, philosophers. The latter «took him and brought him to the Areopagus» (v. 19), which was an elevated place of the city suitable for philosophical debates. The two characteristics of meekness and quarrelsome seem to be contradictory, so let’s try to resolve them. First of all, it was not Paul who was quarrelsome with others, but others who attacked him. He, like Stephen, did not put up a fight with his hands, but used words that pierced profoundly. It is precisely that ability to interact in a non-superficial way which enabled dialogue with everyone, but also stirred strong opposition from those who felt destabilised in their own foundations.
Paul stood in front of others in a humble way and speaking with modesty, but the meanings he expressed resembled earthquakes. We find a trace of this in the Second Letter to the Corinthians, where it was described as follows: «His letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech of no account» (2 Cor 10:10). Paul himself defined his preaching as one of those piercing aromas that cannot be ignored and that are perceived by some as very dangerous («a fragrance from death [which leads] to death»), while for others they are refreshing («a fragrance from life [which leads] to life») (2 Cor 2:15-16).
Paul’s speech to the Athenian philosophers (vv. 22-31) is a model of dialogue that has inspired and still inspires countless Christians. Paul did not bring direct quotations of the Word of God (as he had done in the synagogue of Antioch at Pisidia, 13:16ff). He did not begin by emphasising differences, but sought to value what he saw as positive in the other speaker, after having thoroughly examined the world of the other. Here too, as at Lystra (14:15ff), Paul knows that he had to lay the first foundations of faith (Genesis), presenting «the God who made the world» and declaring the brotherhood of all human beings (vv. 24-26). The only quotation he reported is from a Greek author, because it would have been useless to rely on biblical authors who, for that audience, were not authoritative.
Having moved culturally to the world of the audience, Paul invited that audience to come where he was; and then he began to contend against idolatry openly (v. 29), calling all to a conversion and announcing that, sooner or later, all would be judged by a man who has risen from the dead (v. 31).
The resurrection was foolishness for the Athenians (as Paul himself writes, 1 Cor 1:23), and therefore it was a prospect they could not bear. In that world influenced by Plato, in fact, the body was conceived as a prison of the soul, so resurrecting meant returning to being prisoners: the Athenians, therefore, closed the dialogue there and politely left. As common, however, some accepted the message, going to form the first nucleus of Jesus’ disciples in that strategic place.
We know that then, even in that Greek world, the number of Christians would have grown much and very important personalities would have arisen from that world, that is, the so-called “Fathers of the Church”, who would have “adapted” the Hebrew concepts of the Word of God to the Greek mentality in which they were immersed, both them and their listeners. They would declare themselves continuators of Paul’s work, but in reality they would “mix” apostolic Christianity with Greek philosophy. A clear sign of this operation is precisely the attitude towards the resurrection, which was the point of irreconcilability between Paul and the Athenian philosophers: officially Christianity has continued to believe in it, but in reality it has always marginalised the resurrection, placing Paradise at the centre as the substantially final goal of the path of salvation.
Resurrection and Paradise, however, are not only two different goals, but two different doctrinal systems and the deviation that has effectively been established, involving almost all Christianity, imposes on this issue an analysis not hasty, also because it involves other parts of the Bible: after having finished scrolling through the whole text of Acts, therefore, we will render it the subject of Further Insight n. 17 (Paradise without resurrection, an “actual heresy”).