The noted philosopher of religion Marilyn McCord Adams makes the mystifying assertion that “the Paul of Acts does not pursue his mission to the Athenians, for the simple reason that he was not a philosopher.” Au contraire! His departing Athens was by no means due to insufficient philosophical skills. In Douglas Groothuis’s book On Jesus in the Wadsworth Philosopher Series, we see why Jesus could be called a remarkable philosopher; if this is true of Jesus, then it would be true of Paul as well. Indeed, we have seen in my two previous blog posts on the apostle Paul that he had ample philosophical skills and the requisite suppleness of mind to show himself to be a “lover of wisdom.”
In this piece I note, among other things, that Luke presents Paul’s Areopagus speech at Athens (Acts 17) as that of a gifted philosopher-theologian. Luke views Paul as a Socrates-like philosophical figure.
How so? Paul’s activity and teaching bear a similarity to the early Greek philosopher Socrates as portrayed by his pupil Plato in The Apology, which depicts Socrates’ trial). We see three verbal similarities between Socrates and Paul:
Engaging in dialogues in the marketplace
Paul: “[E]very day with those who happened to be present,” Paul engaged in dialogues (dielegeto) in the marketplace/agora (en tē agora) (17:17).
Socrates: “I go about the world, obedient to the god, and search and make enquiry into the wisdom of any one, whether citizen or stranger” (Apology 23). The common place that Socrates engaged others was the marketplace: “If I defend myself in my accustomed manner, and you hear me using words which I have been in the habit of using in the agora… (Plato, Apology 17).
Proclaiming foreign deities:
Paul: He was accused of proclaiming “foreign gods/divinities [xenōn daimoniōn]” because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection (17:18).
Socrates: He was charged with being “a doer of evil, who corrupts the youth; and who does not believe in the gods of the city, but has other new divinities [hetera de daimonia kaina]” (Apology 24).
Presenting a new teaching:
Paul: He was asked to give an account of this “new teaching which you are proclaiming [tis hē kainē autē hē hypo sou laloumenē didachē]” (17:19).
Socrates: “Socrates is a doer of evil, who corrupts the youth; and who does not believe in the gods of the city, but has other new divinities” (hetera de daimonia kaina]” (Apology 24).
Luke is trying to strengthen Paul’s message by connecting him to Socrates. As biblical scholar Walter Hansen observes, “Luke indicates the favourable reception which the [Areopagus] address should receive from his hearers in the Greek world by this association of Paul with Socrates.”
Not only does Acts 17 show Paul’s philosophical prowess by connecting him with Socrates; Paul actually quotes pagan philosophers/thinkers to build bridges with his audience.
v. 23: “I also found an altar with this inscription, ‘TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.’” Various writers like Pausanias and Diogenes Laertius [Laertes] mentioned altars to unknown gods. Epimenides of Crete (6th cent. BC) was associated with the altars to the unknown God in Athens.
v. 28: “for in Him we live and move and exist.” This is also attributed to Epimenides the Cretan thinker.
v. 29: “as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we also are His children.’” (This was from the Stoic poet of Soli, near Tarsus, c. 315-246 BC.)
As an aside, Paul quotes Epimenides again in Titus 1:12 (“Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons”) and Menander in 1 Corinthians 15:33 (“Bad company corrupts good morals”).
Some have compared Paul’s method of presentation to that of the Stoics—in approach rather than in exact theological content. The Roman writer and rhetorician Cicero gave the standard outline of Stoic arguments in his work De natura deorum: “first they prove that the gods exist; next they explain their nature; they show that the world is governed by them; and lastly, [that] they care for the fortunes of mankind.”
Being a good Jew, Paul was angered by the idols he saw in Athens. However, he approached the Athenians graciously and calmly in an attempt to build bridges. He took as his opening, the Altar to the Unknown God. In the sixth century BC, Athens had been plagued by pestilence. The despairing city leaders called to the “prophet” Epimenides of Crete (whom Paul cites in Titus 1:12) to come and help. His solution was to drive a herd of black and white sheep away from the Areopagus and wherever they would lie down, they would be sacrificed to the god of that place. As it turns out, the plague ceased, and, as Diogenes Laertes described it, memorial altars with no god’s name inscribed on them could be found as a result.
Paul was the consummate bridge-builder, who became all things to all people—to Jew and Gentile alike—so that he might win some. Being the cosmopolitan man he was, he could build rapport with his hearers on many levels. And despite their misguided worship and allegiances, he sought to connect the Athenians to their Maker, their Savior, and the Judge of all humanity.
The Socrates-like Paul also used his intellectual brilliance—both his philosophical and theological-mindedness—for God’s glory. He was prepared to present the risen Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. In his ministry, he wisely recognized that evangelism is a process, not necessarily an event. Jesus affirmed that people often need to not only sit down and count the cost of discipleship; Paul likewise reasoned not only with Jews in the synagogues, but with Gentiles in the agora; he challenged his hearers to think through the logical conclusions of their own beliefs as well as the philosophical implications of the Christian faith. Unlike many well-intentioned evangelists who “rest their case” by saying, “The Bible says…,” Paul wrapped key biblical themes into a language and context that his pagan audience could understand; Paul even quotes other “authorities” when they reflect biblical themes.
This type of pre-evangelism illustrates the importance of establishing common ground with our hearers. As thoughtful believers, we can appeal to common philosophical intuitions and ideals (e.g., human dignity and rights or moral ideals) as well as to empirical evidences such as the universe’s beginning in the Big Bang or the universe’s remarkable fine-tuning; we can point to the existence of beauty, objective moral values, reason, and consciousness—all of which are readily explained in a theistic context, not a non-theistic one. In doing so, we can, by the Spirit, point people to the God “in whom we live and move and have our being”—the God “who is not far from each one of us.”
 Marilyn McCord Adams, “Philosophy and the Bible: The Areopagus Speech,” Faith and Philosophy 9 (1992): 146.
 G. Walter Hansen, “The Preaching and Defence of Paul,” in Witness to the Gospel: The Theology of Acts, eds. I.H. Marshall and David Peterson (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 310.
 Ibid. This is contrary to what Marilyn McCord Adams asserts: “the Paul of Acts does not pursue his mission to the Athenians, for the simple reason that he was not a philosopher.” Marilyn McCord Adams, “Philosophy and the Bible: The Areopagus Speech,” Faith and Philosophy 9 (1992): 146.
 Hansen, “Preaching and Defence,” 312; Bruce Winter writes: “It must be concluded in seeking to understand Paul’s approach to Stoic views held by his audience, that he may well have consciously used the traditional outline of the Stoics on De natura deorum.” Bruce W. Winter, “In Public and in Private: Early Christians and Religious Pluralism,” in One God, One Lord: Christianity in a World of Religious Pluralism (2nd ed.), eds. A.D. Clarke and B.W. Winter (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1992), 136.
 William Larkin, Acts (Downers Grove, IL: 1995), 255. The story behind the Altar to an Unknown God is described by Diogenes Laertes’ Lives of the Philosophers 1.110.