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In ancient Greece, sometime around 430 BC, a disciple of the philosopher Socrates visited the oracle of Delphi. He had a burning question: “Is there anyone wiser than Socrates?” The god of Delphi (Apollo) gave a clear answer: “No.”
This response greatly puzzled Socrates—he thought of himself as the least wise person on earth. It resulted in a kind of conversion as he spent the rest of his life trying to find out if the god of Delphi was correct. This philosophical quest gave birth to his unique style of argument—dialectic, i.e., putting forth penetrating questions to an interlocutor in order to discover truth. Eventually Socrates concluded that the god of Delphi was right. He was indeed the wisest man, not because of what he knew, but because he admitted that he knew nothing (see Plato’s Apology 21D–E).
Regarding the relationship of Greek philosophers (like Socrates) to Scripture, the early church father Tertullian once asked, “What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?” His implied answer: “Nothing at all.” But most other fathers like Justin Martyr, Augustine, and later Aquinas would answer, “Much in every way!” Indeed, many early church fathers argued for a philosophic preparation of the Greek mind to know Christ in the same way there was a prophetic preparation for the Jewish mind to know Christ.
The precursor to all philosophizing apologists was the apostle Paul. Paul and Luke, the author of Acts, were on the side of redeeming Greek philosophy and demonstrating its ultimate fulfillment in Christ. This can be seen most vividly when Christianity first encountered Athens in Acts 17:16–34. I will argue that Luke here presents Paul as a new Socrates—a Socrates who knows—and then examine how we can apply Paul’s Socratic approach today.
Paul as a New (and Wiser) Socrates
Given Athens’s legendary status as the home of Socrates and the birthplace of philosophy, any Greek with a modest education reading Acts 17:16–34 would’ve remembered Socrates, especially when Paul is seen walking the streets, arguing in the dialectic method of question and answer in the agora (marketplace) with anyone who might happen to be there (Acts 17:17; Plato, Apol. 29D).
Indeed, this would not have been the first time Luke had awakened memories of the legendary philosopher. Educated Greeks reading Peter and John who boldly proclaim “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29) would likely have remembered Socrates’s apologia “defense” speech, in which he said, “Men of Athens, I respect and love you, but I shall obey God rather than you” (Plato, Apol. 29D).
Luke presents Paul as a new Socrates—a Socrates who knows.
The scene in Athens is even more pronounced with parallels between Socrates and Paul. First of all, Paul’s teaching approach in Athens would’ve reminded Greek readers of Socrates’s daily dialectic. Paul reasoned, argued, and debated with those in the synagogue and with those in the agora (Acts 17:17). Similarly, Xenophon notes that “Socrates lived ever in the open; for early in the morning he went to the public promenades and training grounds; in the forenoon he was seen in the market [agora]; and the rest of the day he passed just where most people were to be met: he was generally talking, and anyone might listen” (Memorabilia 1.1.10).
Moreover, identical charges were brought against Paul in Athens that were brought against Socrates (and led to his execution). Of Paul the Athenians said, “‘He seems to be a proclaimer of strange deities [xenon daimonion]—because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection” (Acts 17:18). Similarly, both Xenophon and Plato declare, “Socrates is guilty of rejecting the gods acknowledged by the state and of bringing in strange deities [kaina daimonion]” (Mem. 1.1; Apol. 24B).
Paul even opens his address to the council of the Areopagus, andres Athenaioi (“Men of Athens”), the identical way Socrates addressed his accusers in his Apology (Apol. 17A). Paul will go on to allude not only to Plato, but also to the Greek playwright Aeschylus, the Roman statesman Cicero, the Hellenistic Jew Philo of Alexandria, and directly quote the Greek poets Epimenides of Crete and Aratus of Soli.
John Stott was right: ‘Paul was a kind of Christian Socrates, although with a better gospel than Socrates ever knew.’
John Stott was right: “Paul was . . . a kind of Christian Socrates, although with a better gospel than Socrates ever knew.” He was not only a Hebrew to the Hebrews, but a Hellenist to the Hellenists. Paul, a man of three worlds—Jewish, Greek, and Roman—truly did “become all things to all people so that by all means [he] might save some” (1 Cor. 9:22).
That being the case, how can we follow Paul’s Socratic approach to our own culture “full of idols” (Acts 17:16)?
Four Ways to Emulate Paul
We must first and foremost be immersed in Scripture. Absorb the ancient wisdom of God’s Word deep into your heart. Only then can you rightly immerse yourself in the culture in order to critique it and subvert it. Paul knew the depth of Scripture, but he also understood the Athenian culture—its language, beliefs, heroes, and deepest aspirations.
What is the language of your neighbors—their beliefs, their heroes, their deepest aspirations? How can you retell the story for them, using their language and citing their heroes, with Christ as the fulfillment of all their hopes and dreams?
We must find common ground with other religions, ideologies, and worldviews. Meet them where they are. Paul’s Athenian audience was considered the wisest on earth, and yet it was exceedingly ignorant. So he takes the inscription to the “unknown god,” a visual admission of ignorance, as a launching point to educate them (Acts 17:23).
Absorb the ancient wisdom of God’s Word deep into your heart. Only then can you rightly immerse yourself in the culture in order to critique it and subvert it.
When Jesus wanted to convince the Sadducees of the truth of the resurrection, he didn’t quote from Isaiah (Isa. 26:19) or Daniel (Dan. 12:2–3), but from Exodus 3:6 (Mark 12:18–27). Why? Because the Sadducees only accepted the inspiration of the Torah, the first five books of Moses. Likewise, Paul didn’t quote the Scriptures to the philosophers of Athens. Instead, he quotes from their beloved Stoic poets, Epimenides and Aratus.
Follow the wisdom of Jesus and Paul. If you’re engaging with a Muslim, quote from the Qur’an. If you are talking to a Mormon, then the Book of Mormon (or the King James Version); if a Jehovah’s Witness, then the New World Translation; and if an atheist, then Nietzsche or Thomas Nagel. Secular humanists and social justice warriors have their own canon. Study it. Engage in Socratic dialectic. Ask penetrating questions that expose the absurdity of the opposing worldview. Sometimes just quoting from their “Scriptures” is sufficient.
Stoics would have agreed with most of what Paul says in his speech. But once he got to Christ and the judgment, they must have been squirming in their togas! Neither Epicureans nor Stoics believed in a judgment day to come, let alone the bodily resurrection of a crucified man from Nazareth.
Paul didn’t much care, and neither should we. Contradicting the so-called god Apollo who claimed that “there is no resurrection (anastasis),” Paul boldly preached the resurrection, proclaiming: “[God] will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:31; 17:18).
It is not with Apollo or some ‘unknown god’ that you have to deal, but with the Risen Christ.
Though he said it with tact, love, and gentleness, Paul was saying, “You are wrong, Epicureans! You are wrong, Stoics!” Atheists, agnostics, Buddhists, Hindus, and those who call yourselves “spiritual” (whatever that means) are also wrong. There will be a judgment, and Jesus will be the Judge. It is not with Apollo or some “unknown god” that you have to deal, but with the risen Christ.
Preach Christ! Lift up Christ—his exquisitely beautiful life, his unparalleled miracles and teachings, his death, resurrection, ascension, and soon return to judge the quick and the dead. The resurrection of Christ is proclaimed in every sermon in Acts. Woe to us if we neglect to proclaim the resurrection! Paul retells the story of Genesis to Revelation, cloaked in Greek philosophical dress, bolstered by Stoic poets, but the telos/end is always the same: Christ. The cross and resurrection are the pivot on which the entire cosmos turns.
Someone Greater Than Socrates
Despite what some critics say, Paul was victorious in Athens. Surprisingly, no one stated this better than New Testament scholar and agnostic Bart Ehrman, who noted:
In the end, Paul won. What Paul preached that day on the Areopagus eventually triumphed over everything . . . in the Agora and . . . on the Acropolis. It overwhelmed both the Temple of Haphaestus and the Parthenon. No one except, probably, Paul himself would have predicted it. Yet it happened: Christianity eventually took over Western Civilization.
The cross and resurrection are the pivot on which the entire cosmos turns.
No one on the Areopagus or in the agora that day in Athens would have predicted it. In fact, they “burst out laughing” at the idea of a crucified and risen man (Acts 17:32, author’s translation). Paul, on the other hand, would have predicted it. He knew Jesus’s promise: “I will build my church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18). Paul’s philosophy—or better, his gospel—won that day. Centuries after his immortal speech, those temples all over Greece were transformed into churches where Christians still hail the power of Jesus’s name to this very day.
Socrates may be the wisest philosopher who ever lived, and we can learn a lot from him. But as he himself admitted, he knew nothing. Let us then emulate Paul, the Christian Socrates who knows, and engage our culture with “Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:23–24).