Epicureans and the Areopagus Speech:
Stereotypes and Theodicy

Jerome H. Neyrey
University of Notre Dame

The New Testament documents were written in a milieu permeated with the ideas and slogans of Greek thinkers, whether Stoics, Cynics or Epicureans. As the followers of Jesus moved steadily into the Graeco-Roman world, they inevitably came in contact with these groups and their ideas in a variety of ways. Christians either found points of agreement with them, imitated them in terms of style and form, or engaged them in controversy. Considerable work has been done on Stoic background of Romans 1-2 and Acts 17.(1) Furthermore, much attention has been given by Abraham Malherbe and several of his students to the Cynics,(2) their preaching style and modes of argument.(3)

In regard to the Epicureans, few scholars have paid much attention to them, perhaps because their name occurs but once in the collection of New Testament writings, namely Acts 17:18.(4) Malherbe himself is unusual for his interest in the Epicureans vis-à-vis the New Testament.(5) For in spite the single reference to them in the Areopagus Speech, Malherbe has paid attention, not simply to the label "Epicurean," but to the ideas and slogans attributed to them, against which Paul, at least, seems to have reacted.

Despite lack of attention from modern scholars, the Epicureans were well known in the Hellenistic world which cradled the New Testament, and known because of a variety of opinions credited to them.(6) This study deals with the Epicureans in the Areopagus Speech in Acts 17, especially in terms of Christian preaching on "theodicy" as this met with Epicurean denials of the same. By "theodicy" I mean the argument that God's providential relationship to the world entails a just judgment of mortals, especially a judgment which takes place after death where rewards and punishments are allotted.

Paul's speech in Athens is the clearest place in the New Testament where Christian theodicy is explained to Epicureans and their reaction to it recorded. Whether Acts 17 record an actual address by Paul to these very people or a creation of the author, Luke sees Christian doctrine being compared and contrasted with an alternate doctrine, Epicureanism. It is the hypothesis of this study that Christian preaching about theodicy seems regularly to have come in conflict with denials of it, denials which are typically and even specifically characteristic of Epicureans.

A. Introductory Matters and Acts 17

Before we examine Luke's narrative about the Epicureans and their reaction to Christian theodicy, we must clarify some perceptions of the Areopagus Speech. The initial questions are not immediately those of cultural or intellectual background, but issues of Lukan redaction and focus. As regards the content of the Areopagus Speech, Luke describes Paul presenting in Hellenistic modes of thought "new teaching" (Acts 17:19) to Greeks at Athens, comparable to the way Paul heralded the Christian gospel in a Jewish mode of expression in the cultural contexts of synagogues. The subject matter in Acts 17, moreover, is situation specific; it is unlike Paul's speech to the synagogue in Antioch which operated on a prophecy-fulfillment motif which was suited to a Jewish audience where questions of genuine leadership (Jesus) over the authentic covenant (via Abraham, David) were central, and could be argued by recourse to the Hebrew Scriptures. Acts 17 talks in a Greek mode to Greeks to make a point more relevant to the Hellenistic situation Luke perceives.

Different, too, is the modest place Jesus plays in the Areopagus speech. No mention is made of his signs and wonders, which would signal his role as a prophet attested by God (Acts 2:22). In fact, scant mention is made of Jesus' crucifixion and death, beyond the simple note about God raising him from the dead (17:31). Absent here is the pattern "you rejected/killed him, but God raised him,"(7) which functioned in other contexts to urge the hearers to "change their minds" and correct their judgments about Jesus.(8)

The God of the Scriptures, who is the Christian God, is the focus of Paul's speech,(9) in itself not an unusual focus in Paul's authentic preaching (see 1 Thess 1:9; 1 Cor 8:4-6).(10) The literary occasion of the Areopagus speech is Paul's "provocation" at seeing a city "full of idols" (17:16), which suggests that the speech will have a polemical cast to it concerning the true God. And the specific audience contains two contrasting schools of Greek thinkers about God, Stoics and Epicureans (17:18). In one sense, critical readers of Acts 17 are well aware that by and large Paul's speech reflects Stoic ideas about God, but up to a point. What sets Paul's presentation of the Christian God apart from well known Greek understandings of god is the very issue of Christian theodicy, the role of Jesus as Judge who will judge all peoples after death to render reward and punishment (17:30-31). But the issue from start to finish is God and God's providential action in the world, which includes theodicy.

B. Old Conclusions and New Hypotheses

Previous examinations of Paul's speech on the Areopagus have yielded a number of important observations and conclusions. For example, we readily recognize that the doctrine of God or natural theology in the speech is common theology,(11) common to Stoics, as well as to Jews and Christians.(12) Second, the critical remarks about the foolishness of idols (17:29) and the vanity of temples (17:24-25) are stock-in-trade, Jewish polemic against paganism.(13) Third, some commentators, reminded of Paul's critical remarks about preaching Christ in terms of "worldly wisdom" in 1 Cor 1:17 and 2:1-5, see Paul trying just such a foolish move in Acts 17 and deservedly failing.(14) But this last remark is clearly misguided, as the following discussion will show. However one reads Paul's own apologetic remarks in 1 Cor 2:1-5,(15) Luke does not consider it wrong to speak of Christian doctrine in ways that would indicate compatibility and agreement with right-thinking people elsewhere.

As valid and valuable as these insights are, they do not adequately satisfy the Lukan logic and purpose of the Areopagus Speech. I suggest the following hypotheses which refine and sharpen the above-mentioned consensus:

1. Luke's theology in Acts 17 is his clearest instance in Acts of the Apostles of his regular presentation of God in terms of "providence," which was not just a Stoic idea but a general, traditional understanding of God.

2. In addition to the presentation of God's providence, Luke emphasizes a distinctively Christian view of theodicy in 17:30-31. This is the forensic issue with which the hearers must grapple, the "question for judgment."(16)

3. Epicureans were popularly known in terms of stereotypes, in particular their "atheism," their denial of providence, and their rejection of theodicy. Luke understands the Epicureans in Acts 17 precisely in terms of a stereotype, namely, their denial of theodicy.

4. The speech, which is a set piece of traditional theology, is delivered to contrasting groups of noted theologians, Epicureans and Stoics. Their contrasting reactions are both predicable to and desired by Luke.

5. Typical of Lukan narrative style, he portrays a divided reaction to Paul's speech: a division (schisma) takes place and some listeners respond favorably (Stoics), while others reject it (Epicureans).

6. Since Luke does things in pairs and with parallels,(17) he intends the reader to link the diverse reactions by Stoics and Epicureans to the issue of theodicy in Acts 17 with the contrasting reactions by Pharisees and Sadducees to the issue of the resurrection in 23:6-10.

7. The common point in Acts 17 and 23 is "theodicy," a doctrine of three element: (a) a divine judge, (b) survival of death/ resurrection, and (c) post-mortem retribution. This precise doctrine, Luke urges, is acceptable to leading Jewish and Hellenistic thinkers. Conversely, those who reject this part of Christian preaching are to be labelled as eccentric, strange and wrong, either the Epicureans or the Sadducees.

These are but hypotheses, which need to be stated more clearly and more formally argued.

C. Acts 17 and Theology

We turn first to consider the doctrine of God in Acts 17. Obviously the speech has a polemical thrust, for the narrative describes Paul being "provoked" at the city "full of idols." Hence part of the speech criticizes idols and their shrines and temples (17:24, 29) in service of proclamation of the "unknown God" to be revealed (17:23). These are important aspects for Luke, who argues throughout the speech that there is a correct theology and a wrong one; the multiplicity of pagan idols is clearly wrong, while the remarks on "the unknown god" (17:23) point in the direction of a correct theology.(18) Yet this is not the critical "question of judgment" in the speech.

D. Acts 17 and Providence

Paul's speech is logically structured to present the Christian God under the traditional, acceptable category of "providence." In Hellenistic theology, "Gods" might be understood in a variety of ways, one of which is the complex category of god-as-provident. This synthetic idea of God would include the following elements. (1) Gods exist and are active. (2) They are wise and good, and so when they act, they act wisely and in goodness. (3) Their actions can be summarized in two ways: (a) they create, order and maintain the world and (b) they exercise executive and judgmental functions. (4) Hence, the Gods must be both benevolent and just. (5) Providence, moreover, is shown in a variety of ways in the world: (a) the order and regularity of creation, (b) the giving of oracles and revelations to mortals, and (c) the protective care given to good individuals and (d) the just judgment of evildoers. Furthermore, a deity who is "provident" knows the future and controls the world; this deity, then, can predict the future and issue prophecies and oracles, bring things to pass, intervene in history etc. Such actions befit a deity who is wise, benevolent and just.

In the Areopagus Speech, Luke underscores several aspects of the popular doctrine of God's providence: a) God is creator: "God, who made the world and everything in it . . ." (17:24); b) God is benevolent orderer: "God made from one every nation of men to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and boundaries of their habitation" (17:26); and c) God is just judge: "God has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness" (17:30). As noted above, this material draws heavily on Stoic materials and would be heard by Luke's audience as traditional and so respectable theology.

Luke's concern to present the Christian doctrine about God in terms of providence is not confined to the speech in Acts 17. Time does not allow for a full exposition of the Lukan portrait of God in Acts of the Apostles in terms of "providence," but the following chart suggests the fullness of fit between the abstract description of a provident deity and the Lukan God.

The Doctrine of Providence in Acts of the Apostles

1. Creation: 4:24; 14:15; 17:24

2. Divine Foreknowledge and Plan:

a) 2:23; 4:28

b) dei: 14:22; 17:3

3. Oracles of the Future:

a) prophecy-fulfillment: what God prophecied

long ago has come true in Christ & his followers

(2:14-21, 25-30; 3:19-22; 4:25-28)

b) oracles delivered during the narrative of Acts which

come true (11:27-30; 21:10-14; 22:17-21; 27:23-27)

4. Benevolent Control of History:

a) the rescue of good people:

Peter (4; 5; 12:1-12)

Stephen (7:54-56)

Paul (16:19-39; 17:1-9, 12-15; 18:5-11;

19:23-20:1; 21:27-39; 22:22-29;

23:12-31; 27:9-44; 28:1-6)

5. Just Judgment of Sinners:

a) judgment of Ananias & Sapphira (5:1-6)

b) judgment of Herod (12:23)

6. Theodicy: post-mortem judgment:

a) Jesus, judge of the living and dead (10:42; 17:31)

b) future judgment (24:25).

It would be a mistake to drive a too sharp a wedge between Hellenistic god-talk and Jewish theology on the issue of providence. All of the above material would be quite intelligible to a Jewish audience in terms of its Scriptures, but equally clear to Greeks in terms of Hellenistic discussions of God. In fact, certain Jewish and Christian authors intentionally cast their traditional god-talk in terms of Hellenistic doctrine of providence.(19) Luke, I suggest, intentionally portrays the God of Israel in terms of providence, either because that is in fact how he, a literate person of the Hellenistic world, views the matter or because he seeks to portray Christian doctrine as traditional and acceptable to all.

E. Acts 17 and Theodicy

We are arguing two points here. First, like discussions of many topics in the ancient world, discussions of "theodicy" come to us in the form of a topos. Complex ideas were regularly digested and reduced to simple formulae which were easy to remember. From many discussions of theodicy, we can piece together the shape of the arguments which both defended theodicy and attacked it. Luke is quite aware of such topoi or summaries, especially in regard to theodicy. Second, Epicureans in particular were known by their opponents in terms of stereotypes, especially the stereotype of those who deny providence and theodicy. Again, Luke is aware of this, for on these two points the Areopagus Speech hinges the topos on theodicy and the stereotype of the Epicureans.

What comprises the topos on theodicy? What regular elements were seen to make up an argument for it? A convenient discussion of this traditional doctrine can be found in Plutarch's "The Delay of Divine Judgment," which was written at the end of the first century, and so is roughly contemporary with the author of Luke-Acts. In this tractate, Plutarch first voices standard anti-theodicy polemics, statements which are formally attributed to Epicureans.(20) Their objections are then dealt with vigorously, although not conclusively. Finally, one of the speakers makes bold to expose the presuppositions of one of the parties to the dispute; and by doing so, he gives a succinct precis of what comprises a belief in divine theodicy:

It is one and the same argument that establishes both the providence of God and the survival of the human soul, and it is impossible to upset the one contention and let the other stand. But if the soul survives, we must expect that its due in honour and in punishment is awarded after death rather than before.(21)

From this and many other examples of the argument for theodicy, we infer that traditional belief in divine theodicy entails three elements: (1) a judge, (2) survival of death, and (3) post-mortem retribution by God.

If this is the positive presentation of belief in theodicy, the denial of it is equally informative for learning the shape of a topos on theodicy. In the ancient world, the Epicureans were accounted as the chief antagonists of belief in divine theodicy. From the writings attributed to Epicurus we can cull the relevant elements which, when stitched together, form a coherent argument against theodicy. First, Epicurus' doctrine of God denies "providence." God is neither kind nor angry, for God is not moved by passions: "A blessed and eternal being has no trouble and brings no trouble upon any other being; hence he is exempt from movements of anger and partiality, for every such movement implies weakness."(22) God, then, is not Judge!

Epicurus' second Sovran Maxim affirms the finality of death: "Death is nothing to us; for the body, when it has been resolved into its elements, has no feeling; and that which has no feeling is nothing to us."(23) There is, then, no survival after death! It follows that there can be no post-mortem retribution, if God does not judge and if there is no survival after death.(24) Just as traditional theodicy affirms three items (judge, survival of death, post-mortem retribution), Epicurus was perceived as denying all three.

Lactantius provides a convenient and popular summary of the perception that Epicurus denies all three elements, and so denies theodicy:

If any chieftain of pirates or leader of robbers were exhorting his men to acts of violence, what other language could he employ than to say the same things which Epicurus says: that the gods take no notice; that they are not affected with anger or kind feeling; that the punishment of a future state is not to be dreaded, because the souls die after death, and the there is no future state of punishment at all.(25)

Therefore, both proponents of theodicy and its adversaries regularly cast their argument in terms of three interrelated items which they either affirm or deny: (1) God as judge, (2) human survival after death, and (3) post-mortem retribution. Such is the popular shape of the way theodicy was discussed.

Paul's presentation in the Areopagus speech of God's providential judgment fully coincides with the three expected elements of the traditional topos on theodicy. Paul declares:

(1) God as judge: "God has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed" (17:31a);

(2) human survival of death: First, it must be noted that Paul preached "the resurrection" (17:18), which is not simply the announcement of Jesus' resurrection but the survival of death for all (see Acts 10:42). Second, Paul specifically states that God gave assurance of the coming judgment by raising Jesus from the dead, not simply to constitute him as judge, but also to give proof that there will be a resurrection unto judgment (17:31b);

(3) post-mortem retribution: The "resurrection" which Paul proclaims is "resurrection unto judgment." And on that future day, God will "judge the world in righteousness" (17:31) by Jesus, whom God has appointed to "judge the living and the dead" (Acts 10:42). Those to be judged are not just Christians who are alive and Christians who have died (see 1 Thess 4:14-17), but all peoples, including and especially the dead (see Acts 24:25).

The Areopagus Speech, then, is about right and wrong theology. It criticizes idols, but positively affirms God's providence and especially theodicy.(26)

F. Confirmation by Comparison: Acts 24

The typical modern reader might hear Luke's doctrine in Acts 17 as vintage Christian eschatology and so pay no special attention to it as theodicy. And to forestall this, Luke returns to just this material in two of Paul's speeches to the governor Felix.

In the first instance, Luke records Paul delivering a forensic defense of his doctrine during a solemn trial before the governor Felix (24:10-21).(27) Tertullus, the spokesman for Ananias and the priestly party, charges Paul with being a deviant ("pestilent fellow. . .agitator among all the Jews. . .ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes," 24:5). He implies that Paul stands totally out of the mainstream of Jewish theology, and that he propounds heretical doctrines. Paul's apology defends his orthodoxy, in this case, his claim to be solidly loyal to the traditions about Israel's God. The issue is Paul's theology, his doctrine of God; more specifically, the issue is theodicy.

In the course of Paul's speech, he shapes the trial so as to make the formal "question for judgment" the general issue of "the resurrection": "With respect to the resurrection of the dead I am on trial before you this day" (24:21). Although Paul can be presumed to allude to Jesus' resurrection, his speech before Felix contains no explicit mention of Jesus at all. Rather, the reference to "the resurrection" is cast here in terms of traditional faith in the Jewish God; it is exclusively about the correct doctrine of God. As Paul says, "I worship the God of our fathers, believing everything laid down by the law or written in the prophets" (24:14). More specifically, Paul focuses his claim to orthodox theology on the precise issue of theodicy: ". . . having a hope in God which these themselves accept, that there will be a resurrection of both the just and the unjust" (24:15). This "resurrection," moreover, comprises both survival of death ("resurrection") and port-mortem retribution (". . . of the just and unjust"). Paul's apologetic remarks in 24:15 can be seen to contain the three traditional aspects of theodicy:

(1) a judge: "a hope in God,"

(2) survival of death: "there will be a resurrection,"

(3) post-mortem retribution: "of the just and the unjust."(28)

Paul, therefore, develops his apology to Tertullus' charges with a claim to orthodox theology in general and with belief in traditional theodicy in particular.

According to Luke's narrative, Felix does not resolve this trial. He is said to have "rather accurate knowledge of the Way," and later summons Paul to "hear him speak upon faith in Christ Jesus" (24:24). But Luke's account of Paul's further remarks to Felix has nothing whatsoever to do with "faith in Christ Jesus," rather they are still on the theme Paul propounded in the recent trial: "He argues about justice, self-control, and future judgment" (24:25). Using 17:31 and 24:15 as interpretative keys, we find in 24:25 the same three components of traditional theodicy:

(1) a judge: "justice"; dikaiosune is essentially forensic judgment, and implies a judge who dispenses this justice; that judge is God or God's agent, Jesus;

(2) survival of death: "future judgment"; the future aspect of

this judgment implies that all will survive death so as to

be there;

(3) post-mortem retribution: "judgment" (krimatos tou mellontos); this judgment, moreover, is a just forensic judgment rendered on the basis of the moral principle of self-control (egkrateia).

If Felix was curious about Jesus in 24:24, he is portrayed as "alarmed" by Paul's words because the narrative suggests that he is evil ("he hoped that money would be given him by Paul," 24:26). By his reaction, Luke indicates that Felix fully understood the thrust of Paul's remarks about post-mortem retribution. Whereas the Epicureans "mocked" Paul in Acts 17, Felix is upset and dismisses him for his uncomfortable message about theodicy.

G. Acts 17, "Division" and Contrast

The whole episode in Acts 17:16-34 is so carefully crafted that notice of its narrative logic will assist in its interpretation. As has been noted, the speech itself is prefaced and concluded by Luke's note of contrasting reactions to Paul.(29) Luke notes that Paul was "met by some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers," among whom there are initial, contrasting opinions: "Some said, 'What would this babbler say?' Others said, 'He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities'" (17:18). The text suggests that the Epicureans call Paul "a babbler," while the Stoics consider him "a preacher of foreign divinities." The point lies, however, in polarized opinions from contrasting groups. At the end of the speech, moreover, Luke narrates further contrasting opinions, "Some mocked, but others said, 'We will hear you again about this'" (17:32). The rhetoric here supports this, for Luke uses the men - de construction to distinguish and contrast two groups.

I suggest that Luke intends us to understand the Epicureans, who initially called Paul "a babbler," as the latter group who "mock him," and the Stoics, who formerly evaluated him as "a preacher of foreign divinities," as those who react more positively, "We will hear you again."(30) The text states, moreover, that from the assembled crowd of Epicureans and Stoics, "some men joined him and believed, among them Dionysius the Areopagite" (17:34). These can hardly be Epicureans, and the text might be read to infer that they were Stoics. The speech itself, then, is bracketed by contrasting opinions about Paul's doctrine.

More importantly, however, is the issue of whether these contrasting reactions to Paul's speech in 17:32 derive from the contrasting viewpoints of Epicureans and Stoics? The answer in large measure rests on our observation of how Luke regularly presents characters and issues. For example, Luke frequently notes that the audience of Jesus or Peter or Paul is "divided" over what it hears.(31) Even in Acts 17, this pattern is quite pronounced: in Thessalonika Paul first meets with success (17:2-4) but then with failure (17:5-8); likewise in Beroea, his initial success (17:10-12) is juxtaposed with failure (17:13-14). Luke has conditioned the reader to expect the same pattern of "division" among the crowds on the Areopagus during the subsequent climactic episode at Athens. Some show favor (Stoics), while others mock him (Epicureans).

Luke does things in two's and he favors parallels. He would seem to offer a parallel to the contrasting reactions to Paul's theodicy speech in Acts 17 in the description of the reactions to Paul's confession of "the resurrection" in Acts 23:6-10. The similarities are immediately compelling. (1) Contrasting audiences Just as there are contrasting Epicureans and Stoics listening to Paul in Athens, so in Jerusalem Paul's audience consists of Sadducees and Pharisees, two groups who can be said to disagree on most things: "One part were Sadducees and the other Pharisees" (23:6a). (2) Allies and enemies Just as Paul cast his doctrine in a way to elicit the favor of the Stoics as well as the mockery of the Epicureans, so in Jerusalem Paul identifies himself as a Pharisee, allying himself with them, while ensuring the rejection of the Sadducees: "I am a Pharisee, the son of Pharisees" (23:6b). (3) Resurrection Just as the point of Paul's speech in Athens was the resurrection (he "preached . . . the resurrection" (17:18), so Paul declares before the Jews "the resurrection of the dead" as the forensic point of judgment: "With respect to the . . . resurrection of the dead I am on trial" (23:6c). (4) Theodicy Just as Luke could presume that his readers clearly distinguished Epicureans and Stoics on the issue of providence and theodicy, so the trial in ch 23 works precisely because the Sadducees and Pharisees are known to hold opposite views on the central issue: "For the Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, nor angel, nor spirit; but the Pharisees acknowledge them all" (23:8). From a study of the way Luke typically presents characters and issues, then, these parallels between the contrasting reactions to Paul speech seem persuasive enough for us to infer that Luke intends the reader to see Epicureans and Stoics holding contrasting views on theodicy in Acts 17, just as Sadducees and Pharisees differ on "the resurrection" in Acts 23.

H. Acts 17 and Stereotypes

It is important for a modern reader to grasp an important fact about the world of Luke. How do people in Luke's world tend to know and describe themselves and other people? Basically, in terms of stereotypes.(32) For example, nations and towns were perceived in terms of stereotypes: (1) "Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons" (Titus 1:12) and (2) "Jews have no dealings with Samaritans" (John 4:9). Likewise towns, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" (John 1:46).

Individual people as well are known in terms of stereotypes. (1) Jesus' new wisdom and power are incompatible with the village perception of what a carpenter's son should be like (Mark 6:2-3); (2) Sadducees do not believe in "the resurrection," but Pharisees do. God also is known in terms of a stereotype, namely in terms of providence and theodicy, that is, as just judge. The topos on theodicy, then, is another example of stereotypical perception. Stereotypical perception characterizes Luke's world and is true of Luke as well. From Acts 23, we conclude that Luke obviously employs this mode of perception in regard to Sadducees and Pharisees, just as I argue that he does the same in Acts 17 in regard to the Epicureans and Stoics. More importantly, Luke and others in his world know both pairs, Epicureans-Stoics and Sadducees-Pharisees, stereotypically in terms of their contrasting positions on the same issue of theodicy.

Since the stereotypical perception of characters in Acts is so important to the argument of this study, let us pursue it further. Any reader of the Synoptic Gospels comes to know the Sadducees, for example, in terms of a stereotype, namely, their denial of "the resurrection":(33)

(1) "The same day Sadducees came to him, who say that there is

no resurrection" (Matt 22:32);

(2) "And Sadducees came to him, who say that there is no

resurrection" (Mark 12:18);

(3) "There came to him some Sadducees, those who say that there

is no resurrection" (Luke 20:27).(34)

Nothing in the Synoptics suggests that this is a post-factum reaction to Jesus' own resurrection, but rather a well known denial by Sadducees of survival after death. It is not a position attributed to them in reaction to Christian claims, rather it is the stereotypical way in which people know them.

The stereotypical perception of Sadducees and Pharisees is not confined to the Gospels or Acts. Josephus provides a remarkable description of the Sadducees and the Pharisees which likens them respectively to Epicureans and Stoics, and this precisely in terms of their stereotypical stand on theodicy. To explain the Pharisees to non-Jews, Josephus compares them to the Stoics,(35) relying on the stereotype of a recognized Hellenistic group (Stoics) to explain an unknown Jewish group (Pharisees).(36) In several places, Josephus describes the Pharisees (i.e., Stoics) in terms of providence and theodicy. For example,

The Pharisees, who are considered the most accurate interpreters of the laws, and hold the position of the leading sect, attribute everything to Fate and to God . . . Every soul, they maintain, is imperishable, but the soul of the good alone passes into another body, while the souls of the wicked suffer eternal punishment.(37)

In this description, we find the three familiar elements of traditional theodicy. (1) God is Judge ("Fate or God is all powerful"); (2) survival of death ("the soul is immortal, and survives death); and (3) post-mortem retribution ("the soul of the good passes into another body, while the souls of the wicked suffer eternal punishment").(38) This text serves several purposes. First, Stoics are themselves known by their stereotypical theodicy beliefs. Second, the same stereotypical beliefs are thought adequately to describe the Pharisees. And the topos on theodicy was well known. Stereotypes are useful all around.

Although when Josephus describes the Sadducees he never explicitly compares them to the Epicureans, this is a safe assumption.(39) He likewise describes them in stereotypical form as those who reject theodicy. For example,

The Sadducees, the second of the orders, do away with Fate altogether, and remove God beyond, not merely the commission, but the very sight of evil . . . As for persistence of the soul after death, penalties in the underworld, and rewards, they will have none of them.(40)

Again, the three elements of the topos are evident. (1) No Judge ("They remove God even from the sight of evil," i.e., judgment). (2) No survival of death ("As for the persistence of the soul after death . . . they will have none") ; and (3) no post-mortem retribution ("As for . . . penalties in the underworld, they will have none").(41) Josephus' description of the position held by the Sadducees corresponds exactly with stereotypical descriptions of the Epicureans.(42)

Josephus is Luke's contemporary. He is proof positive of the stereotypical presentation of Pharisees = Stoics and Sadducees = Epicureans, and both groups precisely in terms of the stereotype of theodicy. This is the type of understanding which Luke can assume, even if the reader did not follow the parallels between Acts 17 and 23.

Thus far we have looked at specific groups who are described in terms of stereotypes. May I present one further example, this time, not of specific groups but of stereotypical arguments to help modern readers be quite clear both on the typical content of the topos on theodicy and on the widespread knowledge of the stereotype or topos. The example comes from certain targumic elaborations on Gen 4:8, the conversation between Cain and Abel about the justice of God.

Cain answered and said to Abel:

"I know that the world was not created by love,

that it is not governed according to the fruit of good deeds,

and that there is favor in Judgement.

Therefore your offering was accepted with delight,

but my offering was not accepted from me with delight."

Abel answered and said to Cain:

"I see that the world was created by love,

and is governed according to the fruit of good deeds.

And there is no favour in Judgement."

Cain answered and said to Abel:

"There is no Judgement,

there is no Judge,

there is no other world,

there is no gift of good reward for the just

and no punishment for the wicked."

Abel answered and said to Cain:

"There is Judgement,

there is a Judge,

there is the gift of good reward for the just

and punishment for the wicked."(43)

The conversation between Cain and Abel revolves around two issues, providence and theodicy. Cain denies that God acts providentially, that is, benignly and fairly: "The world was not created by love and is not governed according to the fruit of good deeds." And like others who attacked the notion of providence, Cain cites injustice as his evidence against divine providence: "There is favor in Judgement."(44) Conversely, Abel defends providence.

From our examination of other examples of the topos on theodicy, we can readily discern the traditional three elements that comprise the argument against and for theodicy:


1. God is not Just Judge: 1. God is Just Judge:

"There is no Judge" "There is a Judge"

2. No Survival of Death 2. Survival of Death:

"There is no other world" "There is another world"

3. No Post-Mortem Retribution 3. Post-Mortem Retribution

"There is no Judgement" "There is Judgement"

Just as Josephus described Sadducees and Pharisees in terms of their opposing points of view on theodicy, so we find Cain and Abel distinguished point-for-point on the same topic.

Some scholars have attempted to identify Cain and Abel with various historical groups. Sheldon Isenberg, for example, argued that the midrash on Gen 4:8 represents a Sadducee-Pharisee controversy.(45) He based his argument on the stereotype which we have already noted that Sadducees deny the resurrection. Henry Fischel, however, argued that the midrash is Epicurean, citing in support numerous passages from the Rabbis which parallel in form and content the anti-theodicy sayings attributed to Epicureans.(46)

Although the question of provenance, whether Sadducean or Epicurean, may be impossible to solve, that should not deter us from noting the persistence and pervasiveness of the topos either against or for theodicy. It matters little whether Epicureans = Sadducees = Cain or Stoics = Pharisees = Abel, for the issue is that God was perceived in terms of a stereotype, the topos about theodicy. We have ample evidence that on the topic of theodicy, there were stereotypical responses and that certain well known parties in the Hellenistic and Jewish worlds were readily perceived in terms of their stand on theodicy. Stereotypes, then, describe both doctrine discussed and those who discussed it.

I. Summary and Conclusion

In regard to the hypotheses stated earlier in this study, we may now conclude:

1. Among the many theological elements in the Areopagus Speech, the chief issues which Luke highlights are providence and theodicy.

2. Luke presents characters and issues in contrasting pairs and by parallel examples. The Epicureans and Stoics of Acts 17 are balanced by the Sadducees and Pharisees of Acts 23.

3. Like other ancient writers, Luke portrays groups and parties in terms of stereotypes.

4. Luke knows of and presents a stereotypical description of theodicy, a topos on it (Acts 17; 23; 24).

5. Luke is not ignorant of the stereotypical perception of Epicureans and Stoics,(47) and has told the story in Acts 17:16-34 in such as way that these two parties react in contrasting fashion to Paul, both at the beginning of the speech and at its end. The stereotypical perception of Epicureans and Stoics is based on contrasting assessments of theodicy.

From this analysis, we conclude that Luke has cast the characters and the issues in such as way as to argue that Christian theology belongs to the common, acceptable doctrine of God held by good and reasonable people, whether Hellenistic Stoics or Jewish Pharisees. In regard to Paul's speech in Acts 17, we noticed that belief in providence and theodicy, while congenial to the Stoics, is not exclusive to them, but is a common, orthodox doctrine. Paul's speech in Acts 24, moreover, argues that his Christian belief in God is also vintage Jewish theology, although the Sadducees, guardians of Israel's shrine, would not agree. At least Luke makes this claim to orthodoxy through Paul.

Luke, then, presents certain aspects of Christian thought, i.e. theodicy, is terms acceptable to Greek and Jew alike; he would argue that this doctrine is orthodox, common and traditional. And so, the charge in Acts 17:6 that Paul and the Christians "turn the world upside down" must be false, for their doctrine is quite in conformity with what all intelligent, good people think.(48) In fact, to be mocked by the Epicureans and then to be dismissed by the Sadducees plays into this strategy. If mockery and dismissal come from groups which can be shown to be wrong, that in itself is further confirmation of the correctness of what they mock and dismiss. Comparably, to find common ground and perhaps endorsement from groups generally considered the guardians of the basic tradition (Stoics, Pharisees) can only shed that approbation to the new group of Christians as well. At least they are not mavericks.


1. For example, Max Pohlenz, "Paulus und die Stoa," ZNW 42 (1949) 69-104.

2. Abraham J. Malherbe, The Cynic Epistles (SBLSBS 12; Missoula Mt.: Scholars Press, 1977); Benjamin Fiore, The Function of Personal Example in the Socratic and Pastoral Epistles (AnB 105; Rome: Biblical Institute Press, 1986).

3. For example, the Cynic diatriabal style was examined by Stanley K. Stowers, The Diatribe and Paul's Letter to the Romans (SBLDS 57; Chico Ca.: Scholars Press, 1981).

4. When they are discussed, it is generally without any precise sense of their presence in Acts 17. See, for example, Richard B. Rackham, The Acts of the Apostles (Grand Rapids, Mi.: Baker Book House, 1964) 303-305; but even here, Rackham lists miscellaneous ideas attributed to the Epicureans, without indicating which Epicurean idea was operative in this particular context.

5. Abraham Malherbe, "The Beasts at Ephesus," JBL 87 (1968) 71-80; "Self-Definition Among Epicureans and Cynics," Jewish and Christian Self-Definition. Volume Three (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1982) 46-48; "'Not in a Corner': Early Christian Apologetic in Acts 26:26," The Second Century 5 (1985-86) 196, 204-206; and Paul and the Thessalonians. The Philosophic Tradition of Pastoral Care (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1987) 40-43 and 101-106.

6. Epicureans were positively known for their (1) fellowship (Abraham Malherbe, Paul and the Thessalonians, 40-43; and Bernard Frischer, The Sculpted Word [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982] 46-66) and (2) communal meals (Dennis Smith, Social Obligation in the Context of Communal Meals (unpublished dissertation; Harvard, 1980, 56-68). They were negatively criticized for beliefs such as (1) "eat, drink and be merry" (Malherbe, "Beasts at Ephesus," 75-77); and (2) "atheism," the denial of belief in a providential god (Neyrey, "The Form and Background of the Polemic in 2 Peter," JBL 99 [1980] 409-12), about which this study is concerned.

7. See C. H. Dodd, The Apostolic Preaching and Its Development (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1936); J. Dupont, "Les discours missionaires des Actes des Apôtres," RB 69 (1962) 37-60.

8. See J. H. Neyrey, The Passion According to Luke (New York: Paulist Press, 1985) 89-107.

9. See Martin Dibelius, Studies in the Acts of the Apostles (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1956) 26-77; Eduard Schweizer, "Concerning the Speeches in Acts," Studies in Luke-Acts (eds. L.E. Keck and J.L. Martyn; London: SPCK, 1966) 212-214; and L. Legrand, "The Areopagus Speech, its theological kerygma and its missionary significance," La Notion biblique du Dieu (ed. J. Coppens; BETL XLI; Leuven: Gembloux, 1976) 337-50.

10. See Charles H. Giblin, "Three Monotheistic Texts in Paul," CBQ 38 (1975) 527-47.

11. See, for example, H.P. Owen, "The Scope of Natural Revelation in Rom I and Acts XVII," NTS 5 (1958-59) 133-143.

12. See especially, Bertil Gärtner, The Areopagus Speech and Natural Revelation (Uppsala: C.W.K. Gleerup, 1955) 73-143.

13. Ibid., 203-228; but it should be noted that a polemic against idols and even temples as fit places for gods is conducted also in Greek philosophy; see Hans Conzelmann, "The Address of Paul on the Areopagus," Studies in Luke-Acts (eds. L.E. Keck and J.L. Martyn; London: SPCK, 1966) 221.

14. See L. Legrand, "The Areopagus Speech: Its Theological Kerygma and Its Missionary Significance," La Notion biblique de Dieu, 338-341 and Jacques Dupont, "Le discours à l'Aréopage (Ac 17,22-31) lieu de rencontre entre christianisme et hellénisme," Bib 60 (1979) 535.

15. See J. H. Neyrey, Christ Is Community (Wilmington, Del.: Michael Glazier, Inc., 1985) 204-13.

16. In terms of forensic rhetoric, speeches necessarily build toward the decision of the judged, which in classical rhetoric is called judicatio/krinomenon (see Cicero Inv. 1.13.18 and Quintilian Inst. 3.11.5-6). In the speeches in Acts, this "point of judgment" is always "the resurrection"; see my article "The Forensic Defense Speech and Paul's Trial Speeches in Acts 22-26: Form and Function," Luke-Acts. New Perspectives from the Society of Biblical Literature Seminar (ed. C.H. Talbert; New York: Crossroads, 1984) 214-216.

17. See Charles H. Talbert, Literary Patterns, Theological Themes and the Genre of Luke-Acts (SBLMS 20; Missoula Mt.: Scholars Press, 1974), Walter Radl, Paulus and Jesus im lukanischen Doppelwerk: Untersuchungen zu Parallelmotiven im Lukasevangelium und in der Apostelgeschichte (Frankfort: Peter Lang) 1975) and A.J. Mattill, "The Paul-Jesus Parallels and the Purpose of Luke-Acts: H.H. Evans Reconsidered," NovT 17 (1975) 15-45.

18. C. K. Barrett, "Paul's Speech on the Areopagus," New Testament Christianity for Africa and the World (eds. Mark Glasswell and Edward Fasholé-Luke; London: SPCK, 1974) 72-75. Barrett sees Paul's criticism of idols and his search for a correct doctrine of god (i.e. the "unknown god") as theological moves by the author to show some compatibility with Epicurean attacks on superstition.

19. See Philo, Prov.; Harold W. Attridge, The Interpretation of Biblical History in the Antiquitates Judaicae of Flavius Josephus (HDR 7; Missoula Mt.: Scholars Press, 1976); G.F. Moore, "Fate and Free Will in the Jewish Philosophies according to Josephus," HTR 22 (1929) 371-89.

20. Although many arguments are alleged against divine providence, the Epicurean remarks in De Sera 548D-549D and 556E-557E urge that God is an unjust judge because punishment does not come upon the culprit himself or is visited on his children and grandchildren.

21. Plutarch, De Sera Numinis Vindicta 560F (trans. Phillip H. De Lacy and Benedict Einarson; Loeb Classical Library; Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1948) 257. See my article, "The Form and Background of the Polemic in 2 Peter," 411-14.

22. Diogenes Laertius X.139; see Cicero, N.D. I.85; Lucretius, R.N. I.44-49 and II.651. See Herman Usener, Epicurea (Stuttgart: Teubner, 1966) 242-44.

23. Diogenes Laertius X.139; see Lucretius, R.N. III.830ff; Lucian, JConf. 7; Cicero, Fin. II.xxxi.100; Plutarch, Non Posse 1103D and 1104E; see Usener, Epicurea, 226-228. Important studies on this topic include: Traudel Stork, Nil Igitur Mors Est ad Nos, Der Schlussteil des dritten Lukrezbuchs und sein Vermächtnes zur Konsolations Literatur (Bonn: Rudolf Habelt, 1970) and Barbara P. Wallach, Lucretius and the Diatribe Against Fear of Death, De Rerum Natura III 830-1094 (Mnemosyne 40; Leiden: Brill, 1976).

24. We have presented the negative or reactionary side of Epicurus. In his writings he aimed at "freedom from anxiety" (ataraxia), a freedom which found traditional notions of a provident God and post-mortem retribution all too anxiety producing. The gist of this freedom from anxiety is summarized in the famous tetrapharmakon: "God is not to be feared. Death is not frightful. The good is easy to obtain. Evil is easy to tolerate." See Diogenes Laertius X.133; F. Sbordone, Philodemi Adversus Sophistas (Naples: Loffredo, 1947) 87; A.J. Festugière. Epicurus and His Gods (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1955) 44; and Henry Fischel, Rabbinic Literature and Graeco-Roman Philosophy (Leiden: Brill, 1973) 33.

25. Lactantius, Div. Inst. III.17; the translation is that of William Fletcher, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Grand Rapids, Mi.: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1970) VII.88.

26. On the very issue of right and wrong theology in Acts 17, see C. K. Barrett, "Paul's Speech on the Areopagus," 72-75.

27. For a detailed analysis of this speech, see Neyrey, The Passion According to Luke, 102-7 and "The Forensic Defense Speech and Paul's Trial Speeches," 211-16.

28. The reader is reminded that in the New Testament, when "resurrection" is mentioned, it often explicitly means "resurrection unto judgment." See John 5:28-29; Luke 14:14; Heb 6:2; Rev 20:5-6. See Ulrich Wilkens, "The Tradition-History of the Resurrection of Jesus," The Significance of the Message of the Resurrection for Faith (ed. C.F.D. Moule; SBT 2nd series 8; London: SCM, 1968) 65-66.

29. See Robert O'Toole, "Paul at Athens and Luke's Notion of Worship," RB 89 (1982) 186.

30. See Ernst Haenchen, The Acts of the Apostles (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1971) 526, and C. K. Barrett, "Paul's Speech on the Areopagus," 71.

31. See Jerome Kodell, "Luke's Use of LAOS, 'People,' Especially in the Jerusalem Narrative (Lk 19,28-24,53)," CBQ 31 (1969) 330-32; Jacob Jervell, Luke and the People of God (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1972) 41-74; and Neyrey, The Passion According to Luke, 121-24.

32. See Bruce J. Malina, The New Testament World. Insights from Cultural Anthropology (Atlanta: John Knox, 1981) 53-59.

33. The Pharisees likewise are know by Christians in terms of certain stereotypes; they may be perceived as "legalists" or "hypocrites" for their perceived concern for keeping Torah in a strict way. In certain strands of the tradition, Jesus and his followers are perceived in comparable stereotypes, as those who do not keep Torah strictly. See Bruce Malina and Jerome Neyrey, Calling Jesus Names (Sonoma: Polebridge Press, 1988) 59-60.

34. I am presuming in this discussion that when the Sadducees are said to deny "the resurrection," this does not simply mean Jesus' resurrection but all post-mortem survival. Denying "the resurrection," then, is shorthand code for rejection of afterlife and post-mortem retribution. See note 28 above.

35. Josephus, Vita 12.

36. Josephus also likens the Essenes to the Pythagoreans, Ant. XV.371.

37. Josephus, B.J. II.162-163 (trans. H. St. J. Thackeray, Loeb Classical Library; Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1947) 385-87.

38. Although the primary text is Josephus, B.J. II. 162-163, see also Ant. XIII.172 and XVIII.12-15.

39. He does, after all, call the Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes "three philosophies" (B.J. II.119), indicating as we noted that Pharisees = Stoics and Essenes = Pythagoreans; it is not an unwarranted assertion that Sadducees = Epicureans.

40. Josephus, B.J. II.164-165.

41. See also, Josephus, Ant. XIII. 173; XVIII.16.

42. See my unpublished dissertation, The Form and Background of the Polemic in 2 Peter (Yale, 1978) 176-90.

43. Tg. Neof. Gen 4:8; the translation is that of G. Vermes, "The Targumic Versions of Gen 4:3-16," Post-Biblical Jewish Studies (Leiden: Brill, 1975) 96-100; see also P. Grelot, "Les Targums du Pentateuque -- Étude comparative d'après Genèse, IV, 3-16," Sem 9 (1959) 59-88.

44. Epicureans often cite either injustice or delay of judgment as evidence against divine providence. See Neyrey, The Form and Background of the Polemic in 2 Peter, 174-79.

45. Sheldon Isenberg, "An Anti-Sadducee Polemic in the Palestinian Targum Tradition," HTR 63 (1970) 433-441.

46. Henry Fischel, Rabbinic Literature and Graeco-Roman Philosophy (Leiden: Brill, 1973) 35-50.

47. Because of the focus of this study, I have not attended to the stereotypical understanding of the Stoics, a task usually done adequately in the commentaries; I remain impressed with Barrett's suggestions about the typical doctrines of the Stoics alluded to in Acts 17 ("Paul's Speech on the Areopagus," 72-74).

48. See Malherbe, "'Not in A Corner,'" 195-201.

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