Easter 6 Year A. In his speech to the Athenians, Paul famously begins his preaching by pointing out an ‘unknown God’ (Acts 17.22-31), trying to establish a point of contact with his listeners. I have been readings some comments on it in preparation for this Sunday and all seem to think that what Paul did was a model form of presenting the gospel. Despite the lack of ‘success’ in his preaching (the Athenians seemed fairly lukewarm to what Paul was saying), the idea appears prevalent that Paul presented the gospel the way he did because that was the way God led him in that situation.
But do we know what Paul thought of his preaching on that day? I led a Disciple Bible Study Course last year and while we were reading Acts, one in our group gave a reflection that I haven’t been able to get out of my mind since he said it. My fellow Disciple-er was quite adamant that Paul felt he failed in Athens. He pointed to 1 Corinthians 2:1-5:
When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided [KJV: determined] to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God. (NRSV)
When I asked him what follows on from that, he flipped back to Acts and sure enough, after Paul leaves Athens, he lands in Corinth. My friend explained that he read the passage in 1 Corinthians as Paul’s saying that he played too much to the Athenians and their philosophy-charged atmosphere and idea discussing lounging around. Rather, when Paul arrived at Corinth, my friend says, Paul regroups and says in effect, ‘I’m going back to my story of preaching Christ crucified and leaving the fancy talk for the philosophers’ (my paraphrase).
I realise this depends on the historicity of Acts and whether or not Luke ‘edited’ Paul’s sermons with his own theology, but my friend makes an interesting point – especially as Paul is in Corinth right after in Athens. Does 1 Corinthians provide a clue to what Paul might have thought of his work in Athens?