A Biblical Demonology – Part 2
In last month's article, we began considering Paul’s speech in Athens as it relates to what the Bible teaches us about demons.
Paul was face to face with two of the great philosophical schools of thought of the day—Epicureanism and Stoicism. He is more interested in addressing the ideas of the Stoics, who as pantheists believed that divinity was found in every phenomenon within Creation. In a sense, Paul agrees with the Stoics, but with one major difference: divinity consists of only one divine being who is transcendent and sovereign over all things. The Stoics, on the other hand, as was common in the ancient world, believed in a diversity of immanent divine beings that controlled their various arenas within Creation.
The initial reaction of the philosophers before Paul’s speech is noteworthy for a couple of reasons. Luke records first an insult that they threw at Paul. In our English versions, they said he was a “babbler” (Acts 17:18), a word used for a dilettante, someone who has an interest in something but does not possess the requisite knowledge or expertise in the subject matter.
The etymology of this word–spermologos–means “seed-speaker” and had the idea of someone picking up scraps of information from others like a bird might peck at seeds on the floor. Paul will silence his critics as far as that is concerned by intertwining the philosophy of the Jewish Scriptures (particularly Deuteronomy 32) with an understanding of Greek rhetoric and a knowledge of Greek writings. He was, after all, from Tarsus, one of the other great university cities of the Greek world. However, instead of developing a religious syncretism between Bible teaching and Greek philosophy, he will use the Stoics’ writings to find some common ground and hammer his point home.
There is a lesson to learn from this. Peter exhorts us “always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Pet. 3:15).1 The word translated “defense” is apologia, from which we get our English word apologetics—reasoned arguments used to justify a theory or religious doctrine. Are we armed with well-reasoned arguments for why we believe in the God of the Bible, his son, the Lord Jesus Christ and the basic first principles of Scripture? Or are we seed-speakers, having a vague notion of why we believe what we believe but not putting in the work ourselves?
We, too, can be dilettantes, especially when dealing with the philosophies of our age, like New Atheism. Paul was an educated man, both from his Bible study and his knowledge of the world he lived in and its philosophies. The pioneers of the Christadelphian movement were likewise erudite both in their understanding of Scripture and the scholarly works available to them. Unfortunately, over time we have fallen into the trap of a fundamentalist approach to Scripture, and many view the works of non-Christadelphian scholars, and even education itself, as a spiritual danger.
Bible literacy, along with an appreciation for the ancient Near East world in which it was written, is at an all-time low, and we can come across as babblers to those we interact with in the world. But the apostle Paul himself, despite being a tentmaker and itinerant preacher, had done his homework and was well-read and educated so that he was qualified to be an apologist, as he was asked to exhibit in Athens.
The Epicureans and Stoics misunderstood what Paul was preaching. He had been teaching about “Jesus and the resurrection” (Acts 17:18) in the Agora, and they interpreted this as him being “a preacher of foreign divinities.” The word “resurrection” in Greek is anastasia, which is also a woman’s name, so they probably thought Paul was talking about some god and goddess they hadn’t heard about before. Paul will take advantage of their intrigue, despite their misunderstanding.
They sacrificed to demons, and not to God
Last month we looked at Deuteronomy 32, where Israel is nicknamed “Jeshurun” (v. 15). Perhaps the Greeks using the term “foreign divinities” (KJV “strange gods”), recalled in Paul’s mind the Song of Moses, where Jeshurun “stirred him to jealousy with strange gods.” (Deut 32:16). However, the word for “divinities” used by Luke is daimon, demons, the same word used in the very next verse in the Septuagint of Deuteronomy 32:17—“They sacrificed to demons, and not to God.”
The problem a lot of people have with a biblical definition of demons comes down to an anachronism. If you were to ask the general populace what is meant by the term demon, they’d probably say something like “an evil minion of the devil.” According to popular culture, both secular and Christian, demons are sent out by Satan to inhabit people and make their lives a misery or are found in the dark recesses of people’s homes, ready to bring evil into their lives.
But that’s not what the Athenians meant by the word “demon.” To them, it was another term for a god. The other main word, theos, was normally reserved for the higher gods in their pantheon, like Zeus. But for the all the myriad of smaller gods—whether good, evil, or neutral, they commonly used the word daimon. That’s why they wondered if Paul was preaching about two small gods they had never heard of before—Jesus and Anastasia.
At this point, as Luke records in Acts 17:19, “they took him and brought him to the Areopagus.” Commentators are divided over what exactly this meant:
Verse 19 has provoked one of the most lively discussions surrounding Paul’s Areopagus address. Was Paul tried before a formal Athenian court named Areopagus, or did he deliver a public address from a hill known as the Areopagus? The NIV has already solved the problem by translating “a meeting of the Areopagus,” which is a clear opting for the first possibility. The Greek is not so unambiguous, merely stating that the Athenians took hold of Paul and led him “to the Areopagus.” The Areopagus was both a court and a hill, due to the fact that the court traditionally met on that hill. The term Areopagus means hill of Ares. Ares was the Greek god of war. The Roman equivalent god was Mars, hence the KJV Mars’ hill’2
It is quite possible, since Paul was preaching in the Agora, that they led him to the Stoa Basileios, which was in the Agora itself, rather than to the hill where the Areopagus was initiated. Whether this was an official gathering of the court or simply Paul being given an opportunity to explain himself doesn’t matter, and neither does the location: Paul now had an audience, and he took full advantage.
The Athenians, as is evident from the reason given why they wanted to listen to Paul, suffered from the cult of the new:
Perhaps the word “new” was a further reminder to Paul of Deuteronomy 32?
It is worthwhile at this juncture to consider a little more of the theology and metaphysics of the ancient world. What Paul is going to do in his speech is demonstrate the radical nature of the God of Israel, distinct from the philosophies of the ancient Near East and from the Greek world of Paul’s day.
The mention of “new gods that had come recently” may remind us of the concept of theogony (origin of the gods) prevalent in the ancient world. The ancients considered that their gods had origins, with the primordial gods arising first and then giving birth to other gods. This is of course a direct contrast with the God of the Bible who is “from everlasting to everlasting.” (Psa 90:2). The concept of theogony is alien to both Jewish and Christian understanding of God.
However, the theogony of the gods of the ancient world was also tied up with their function. The various elements of the cosmos were said to be expressions or manifestations of the gods and so the two—the cosmos and the gods—were intertwined.
The natural world, and the gods connected with the elements of the natural world, came into being together. Thus, the gods of paganism were in creation itself rather than being the creative force. This is perhaps why Paul wrote that they “worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator,” (Rom 1:25) because ultimately idolatry is the worship of creation rather than the Creator. Indeed “every aspect of what we call the natural world was associated with some deity in the ancient Near East.”3
John Walton, professor of the Old Testament at Wheaton College, continues, “Though the god is the controlling party in the functioning partnership, the god has no existence separate from, outside, or above the sun. The sun is the manifestation of the god and the expression of the god’s attributes. The god is the power behind the sun. Because of this, we might also conclude that our categories of cosmogony (origins of the cosmos) and cosmology (operations of the cosmos) are artificially distinguished with regard to the ancient world.”4
In his speech Paul is going to stress the contrast between this and the overarching sovereignty of Yahweh.
A classical oration in Greco-Roman literature consisted of three parts: exordium, probatio and peroratio. “Exordium refers to the commencement of an address. Here the speaker seeks to gain the attention or win the sympathy of the hearers. Probatio refers to that which the orator is attempting to convince the hearers of. Then in the peroratio, the speaker ‘summarizes the argument and seeks to arouse the emotions of the audience to take action or to make judgment.’”5 6
Paul begins with his exordium in verse 22, moves on to the probatio in verse 24 and finishes with the peroratio starting in verse 29. Paul establishes common ground with his hearers without sacrificing his theological integrity. He manages to change the form of the message in order to appeal to a group outside of the normal Jewish cultural setting and communicates the gospel message in language the Athenians could understand while keeping its thoroughly Biblical base intact.
(To be continued)
Simi Hills Ecclesia, CA
1 All Scriptural citations are taken from the English Standard Version, unless otherwise noted.
2 Polhill, J. B. (1992). Acts (Vol. 26, p. 367). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.
3 Walton, J. H. (2006). Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. p97.
4 Ibid. p97.
5 von Ehrenkrook J.Q. (1998) A Rhetorical Analysis of the Areopagus and its Missiological Implications. Calvary Baptist Theological Journal. p5.
6 Kennedy G.A. (1984). New Testament Interpretation through Rhetorical Criticism. University of North Carolina. p23-24.