Paul and the Classical World of His Time

By Dr. Craig A. Evans

That Paul, the “apostle to the Gentiles,” frequently engaged the classical world of his time should come as no surprise at all. The Christian Church of the early centuries simply could not avoid the culture of the Greeks and Romans; it was everywhere around them. In fact, it was Christianity’s expansion into this largely non-Jewish world that gave rise to some of its most difficult problems. Because the Church rightly recognized that Greeks and Romans could indeed become part of Israel’s story, through the redemptive work of Messiah Jesus, the Church swept the Roman Empire in three hundred years, gaining legal status at the beginning of the fourth century and becoming the dominant religion by the end of that century. But those three centuries were difficult, especially the first one.

Paul collided with classical culture several times. Most of the problems for Paul lay in Greco-Roman morality and polytheism. Nowhere is this more in evidence than in his correspondence with the new Christians in the city of Corinth. Had the newly minted Gentile Christians in Paul’s churches held firmly to Jewish ideas of God and morality, Paul would have little to talk about in his letters!

In this brief essay I will look at four examples in the book of Acts, where Paul directly confronts the Greco-Roman paganism of his time. I will then look at three examples in his letters, where the apostle alludes to important elements of this culture, in two cases pushing back and in the third case creating an edifying analogy.


Paul’s Encounters with the Classical World in the Book of Acts

The first example occurs in Acts 14:8–12, where Paul and Barnabas, on their first missionary journey, find themselves identified as the gods Zeus and Hermes. Reacting to the healing of a man crippled from birth, the people of Lystra cry out: “The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men!” They responded this way because of traditions found in Homer to the effect that the gods “come in many forms, and have the appearance of strangers from a foreign country” (Odyssey 17.485–486). More worrisome for the pagans of Lystra is the story related by Ovid, which tells of two gods who visit nearby Phrygia. The locals fail to show respect and hospitality to these strangers, who turn out to be Zeus and Hermes. Their failure results in calamity (Metamorphoses 8.626–724). Pagan mythology and superstition accounts for the boisterous and potentially blasphemous reception Paul and Barnabas received at Lystra.

A second example is seen in Acts 16:16–18, when Paul enters Philippi in Macedonia and encounters the young slave girl who is said to possess a “spirit of divination,” or, more literally, the “Python spirit” (πνεῦμα πύθωνα). For several days the girl followed Paul and his companions, crying out, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation.” Annoyed at this, Paul casts out the spirit and the girl loses her fortune-telling powers. Her owners are outraged and take Paul to court.

The significance of this event, in which Paul’s invocation of the name of Jesus overpowers the Python spirit, would have been readily perceived by Greeks and Romans alike. Indeed, pagans likely would have been awestruck, for the Python spirit was the spirit of the mighty god Apollo himself, among the oldest and most powerful of the sons of Zeus. It was his spirit of wisdom and counsel that many sought at the famous oracle of Delphi. In the time of Paul, however, the god’s soothsayers had become itinerant and were wandering about the eastern Mediterranean offering advice for a fee. One need not travel to remote Delphi to encounter one of Apollo’s mantic servants. The ejection of a spirit associated with Apollo would have stunned Greeks and Romans.

We find a third example of Paul’s engagement with the classical world when he enters the Areopagus of the city of Athens in Acts 17:18–31. There Paul encounters Epicurean and Stoic philosophers, who wonder what “this babbler” has to say. (Referring to Paul in this way recalls what Dio Chrysostom, in Oration 32.9, said of the rude Cynics who “gather at street-corners and in alley-ways . . . stringing together rough jokes and much babbling.”) Paul’s opening gambit is clever and catches their attention: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along, and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To an unknown god [ἀγνώστῳ θεῷ].’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you” (vv. 22–23). If Paul knows something about the unknown god, so goes the reasoning, then perhaps the men of Athens should listen.

Anyone today who walks among the ruins of the Areopagus of Athens, beneath its famous Acropolis, cannot fail to observe the numerous statues and inscriptions dedicated to the many gods and goddesses of the classical world. In such a setting Paul, a Jewish monotheist, could easily — and with a touch of irony — describe the Athenians as “very religious” (δεισιδαιμονεστέρους)! Paul has offered no compliment; he has simply made an observation. One inscription, however, catches his attention.

We have not yet found an inscription in Athens dedicated “to an an unknown god.” But altars dedicated to “unknown gods” are attested in the literature of the time (Pausanias, Graeciae descriptio 1.1.4; Philostratus, Vita Apolloni 6.3). Such an inscription provided Paul with a point of entry: He is more than willing to share with the Greeks the God that is unknown to them.

Paul does not hesitate to appeal to Greek poets who sometimes say things about Zeus that can rightly be said of the God of Israel. The apostle says to the Athenians: “He is not far from each one of us, for ‘In him we live and move and have our being’” (Acts 17:28a). Here Paul has quoted a line attributed to Epimenides the Cretan (and more of it appears in Titus 1:12). Paul also appeals to a work called Phaenomena by the Cilician poet Aratus: “as even some of your poets have said, ‘For we are indeed his offspring’” (v. 28b). The quotations of Epimenides and Aratus may well have been borrowed from the influential Hymn to Zeus by Cleanthes. What is said of Zeus in reality applies to the true God, who is unknown to the men of Athens.

The fourth major encounter with the classical world takes place in Ephesus. It is occasioned by the reckless attempt of the seven sons of Sceva, a Jewish ruling priest, to cast out a particularly potent evil spirit (Acts 19:11–20). Exorcism, of course, is as much Jewish as it is Greco-Roman, but what is especially noteworthy is the aftermath of this interesting episode: the burning of a great many books of magic. The author of Acts reports: “And a number of those who practiced magic arts brought their books together and burned them in the sight of all; and they counted the value of them and found it came to fifty thousand pieces of silver. So the word of the Lord grew and prevailed mightily” (vv. 19–20).

The implication of v. 20 is that the “word of the Lord,” by which is primarily meant the word of the gospel of Jesus, has overpowered the magical words of the incantations and charms, which supposedly are backed by an array of demons and deities. These magical texts are filled with words thought by pagans to be quite potent. Not at all, as it turns out. Pagan magical words and rigmarole are no match for God and his risen Son Jesus Christ.

When the author of Acts speaks of the burning of the magic books and their great value, his contemporaries would have no difficulty imagining what is being described. Magi was everywhere. The paraphernalia of magic was very much part of the Greco-Roman world. Many magic artifacts have been recovered from late antiquity. We have magical papyri, amulets, books, cups, bowls, and metal foils and plates. Some of this magic was for the purpose of protection, to drive away illness and evil spirits. Some of the magic was for malignant purposes, to send illness and/or evil spirits against an enemy. Some of the magic was manipulative, as seen in love charms designed to coerce someone (usually a woman) to become a lover. Magic words, magic sounds (i.e., voces magicae), diagrams, symbols, figures, ink in different colors, and pieces of iron (especially iron crucifixion nails!) were utilized to strengthen the potency of the charms.

Some of these magical items invoke the name of Jesus. One pagan charm against evil spirits, attributed to legendary Egyptian magician Pibechis, instructs the user of the charm to say: “I adjure you by the god of the Hebrews, Jesus” (PGM IV.3007–3086, at lines 20–21). The charm originated in the first century, but along the way the name of Jesus was inserted presumably to augment its efficacy. Ten years ago a magician’s cup was found in the harbor at Alexandria, Egypt. Although the cup itself probably dates to about 100 BC, the Greek inscription seems to have been added in the first century AD. It reads: “through Christ the magician (is empowered).” Again we probably have an example of a pagan artifact that has been upgraded by an appeal to the well-known healer and demon-besting Jesus of Nazareth.

In Jewish magic texts Jesus is sometimes invoked for protection or healing. The practice apparently was common, so much so that the Rabbis condemned it, telling their disciples that it was better to die without violating rabbinic tradition than to violate it and live (see Tosefta Ḥullin 2.22–23: “Happy are you, Ben Dama, for you have died in peace; you did not break the hedge erected by the sages!”). Nevertheless, several Jewish magic bowls that invoked the name of Jesus or other Christian names and traditions testify to widespread knowledge among Jews and pagans of Jesus as a healer and a belief — of some sort — in this healing power. The seven sons of Sceva, whose misadventure is recounted in Acts 19 (briefly described above), were but adumbrations of the non-Christian appeals that after a few centuries would become commonplace.

In the time of Paul and the early Church people lived in great fear of evil spirits, usually thought to be the spirits of the wicked, restless dead (as we probably should understand Mark 5:1–20, which tells of the strange case of the demonized man called “Legion,” who resided in a necropolis near the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee). Strange practices employed to hold the dead at bay included os resectum, or “bone cutting,” by which a finger of the deceased was amputated and kept in a special place, and “armpitting,” by which the hands and feet of a corpse were amputated and hung beneath the arms, in the hopes that should the deceased make an unwelcome appearance as a ghost, he would have little power to inflict harm on the living.


Paul’s Encounters with the Classical World and His Letters

In a number of passages Paul speaks of the classical world of his time. Sometimes it is to warn Christians of its danger and sometimes it is to draw an edifying comparison. We find an example of the latter in 1 Corinthians, where the apostle enjoins believers to be disciplined, even as athletes in training:

Do you not know that in a race all the runners compete, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. 25 Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. 26 Well, I do not run aimlessly, I do not box as one beating the air; 27 but I pommel my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified. (1 Cor 9:24–27)

Paul resided in Corinth for 18 months (Acts 18:11), during which time the biennial Isthmian games may have been held. In any event, throughout the course of his apostolic travels Paul visited several cities that held games (Caesarea Maritima, Philippi, Athens, Ephesus, and Corinth; later Rome itself). Late antique authors report that large crowds attended the games (Strabo, Geographica 8.6.20; Livy 33.32.1; Plutarch, Quaestionum convivialum 5.3.1–3; 8.4.1; 9.10–22). Athletic analogies were commonplace in the writings of the philosophers and ethicists (Epictetus, Dissertationes 1.18.21–23; 1.24.1–2; 2.18.27–29; Plutarch, Moralia 593E). Paul’s analogy is not unusual at all.

Everything Paul says in 1 Cor 9:24–27 corresponds with the Greco-Roman games. Words like “race” (lit. stadion), “prize”, “athlete,” “crown,” “self-control,” among others, reflect the vocabulary of the games in the time of Paul. Paul’s description of what one does and does not do in training for boxing corresponds with the language and imagery of boxing competition, one of the most popular events in the games of late antiquity. Paul warns of the danger of being “disqualified,” which was one of the greatest disgraces in life. If caught cheating (during training prior to the event or during the event itself), one was, in the words of an anonymous Christian writer who was himself likely a resident of Corinth, “flogged, disqualified, and thrown out of the stadium” (2 Clement 7:3–4). Paul’s athletic analogy would have resonated meaningfully with his Corinthian converts, bringing to mind images and concepts with which they were very familiar.

In warning the Christians of Thessalonica Paul directly challenges the imperial doctrine of security. The “Lord will come like a thief in the night,” Paul says. “When people say, “There is peace and security [εἰρήνη καὶ ἀσφάλεια],” then sudden destruction will come upon them” (1 Thess 5:2–3). Paul’s words mimic the assurances of the Roman government, seen in ancient literature and inscriptions. For example, in Asia Minor, engraved on stone, a grateful people thank Pompey (1st century BC) for “restoring peace and security [τὴν εἰρήνην καὶ τὴν ἀσφάλειαν] on land and sea” (SEG 46.1562). One especially interesting parallel involves treachery: Parthian King Phraates “assured him (Marc Antony) of peace and security [εἰρήνην καὶ ἀσφάλειαν]” (Plutarch, Parallel Lives: Antony 40.4). But it was false assurance; it was a trap!

Paul’s language in 1 Thessalonians 5, in which he warns Christians of future dangers and tribulation that will precede the return of Jesus, alludes to and flatly contradicts imperial assurances. The Roman emperor cannot guarantee peace and security. Far from it, when the eschatological crisis comes, says Paul, disaster will befall the wicked.

One of the more curious passages, in which Paul apparently contrasts Christian religious life with pagan religious life, is found in Ephesians. He exhorts his readers:

Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise men but as wise, 16 making the most of the time, because the days are evil. 17 Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. 18 And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery [ἀσωτία]; but be filled [πληροῦσθε] with the Spirit, 19 addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart, 20 always and for everything giving thanks in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God the Father. (Eph 5:15–20)

At first blush the contrast between drunkenness on the one hand and Spirit-filling on the other hardly seems appropriate. The first is an obvious vice, is it not? The second is an obvious virtue. So in what way do they compare? But in fact the first, though a vice from a Christian point of view, was viewed by many pagans as a spiritual positive, perhaps even comparable to the Christian idea of being filled and led by the Holy Spirit. As it turns out, Paul’s comparison contrasts two rival understandings of spirit-filling and religious fulfillment.

Many commentators rightly suspect that Paul’s command not to be intoxicated probably alludes to pagan religious practice, in which excessive consumption of alcohol was part of the feast or ceremony. Some commentators suspect that the cult of Dionysius, the god of wine, is primarily in view. I think this is probable.

In his famous play, The Bacchae, Euripides (5th century BC) speaks of the followers of Dionysius who are “filled [πλησθῶσαν] with the stream of the vine” (Bacchae 281), become frenzied, begin to prophesy, “whenever the god should enter the body fully” (ibid. 297–301). It is in the imbibing of wine that the follower of Dionysius receives the god’s spirit and begins to prophesy. Indeed, Paul says that “all (Christians) were made to drink one Spirit” (1 Cor 12:13). However, Christians are filled with the Spirit, not with wine.

Paul bluntly states that being drunk with wine results in ἀσωτία, which the RSV, NIV, and other versions translate as “debauchery.” This could be correct, but the etymology of the word is, literally, “un-salvation,” which likely would not have been lost on the readers and hears of Paul’s letter. In other words, drinking wine to excess does not lead to salvation or to spiritual insight; it leads to the opposite.

Paul adds that the believer who is filled with the Spirit speaks and sings “spiritual songs” to one another and to the Lord (Eph 5:19). This too parallels the practice of the Dionysiac cult, whose intoxicated celebrants sing and prophesy, though often in a wild frenzy. Indeed, in its primitive form, the “maddened” followers of Dionysius feasted on raw flesh — sometimes human flesh (Bacchae 139, 1121–1152). It is hardly surprising then that Christians, who celebrated the Words of Institution, in which the bread was compared to the flesh of Christ and the wine was compared to his blood (1 Cor 11:23–25; cf. John 6:53–54), were sometimes accused of cannibalism, a charge that is heard throughout the second and third centuries (as witnessed in Tertullian, Apology 7.1: “We are accused of observing a holy rite in which we kill a little child and then eat it”). The pagan practice and ancient tradition of the cult of Dionysius, perhaps viewed as a precedent of sorts, would have made it easier to malign early Christians and their observance of the Lord’s Supper.

I have reviewed only a few examples of how Paul engaged the paganism of the classical world of his day. In recent years New Testament scholars and historians concerned with Christian origins have become more aware of how important understanding the classical world in general and the Roman Empire in particular is for a more accurate understanding of what the founders of the Christian Church faced. Research in this area also helps us moderns give thought to how we engage our modern, increasingly post-Christian society.

[Editor’s Note:  Christianity and the Classics image from Nicolas Poussin’s The Triumph of David, c. 1630, found at Wikipedia Commons.]


Craig A. EvansAbout the Author

Craig A. Evans, PhD, DHabil, is the John Bisagno Distinguished Professor of Christian Origins in the School of Christian Thought at Houston Baptist University. He has published extensively on Jesus and the Gospels and has appeared in several television documentaries and news programs.