Athens—“City of Many Gods”
ZEUS, Hera, Artemis, Apollo, Ares—probably you have heard of at least one of these gods and goddesses. Remains of their statues can be found in Athens, the “city of many gods.” However, the most prominent of all the ancient Greek deities was Athena, the so-called goddess of wisdom. She gave Athens its name, and her temple, the Parthenon, is one of its most remarkable landmarks.
Looking at the numerous remains of gods in stone all over Athens, a visitor to this bustling metropolis of almost 2.5 million inhabitants might well think of the words spoken here by the Christian apostle Paul. After walking through the city’s streets, he said: “I behold that in all things you seem to be more given to the fear of the deities than others are.”—Acts 17:22.
AN OVERALL VIEW
Suppose we begin with an overall view of Athens. By taxi, we travel along a very narrow road leading sharply upward to the starting point of a funicular railway. A few minutes later, we arrive at the top of Mount Lycabettus, a steep, cone-shaped hill that affords magnificent views of the city. According to tradition, St. George’s Chapel, on the brow of the hill, is built on the spot where an altar to Zeus once stood. While we have some refreshments outside a restaurant, we enjoy the view.
Evening is drawing on. The sultry heat that has hung over the city during the day gradually diminishes. To the southwest and connected with Athens by miles of suburbs we see Piraeus. Through this main port and industrial center of Greece the country’s riches such as olives, grapes and other fruits find their way to many parts of the world. From our high vantage point, we also notice that Athens is surrounded by mountains and is filled with monuments, museums and churches.
As it grows darker, our attention is suddenly captured. On the other side of the valley in which Athens lies, 1,500 floodlights are flashed on, bathing the Acropolis. A breathtaking sight, indeed!
FROM THE AGORA TO THE AREOPAGUS
A visit to the Acropolis is a must the next day. We park our car on one of the crowded streets near the Acropolis and set out on foot. Below to the left we see what remains of the ancient Agora, or marketplace. Not only was it a location for transacting business but it was also a place to debate and conduct civic affairs. Indeed, the Agora was the center of public life. That is why the apostle Paul spent time there about 50 C.E., when visiting Athens on his second missionary tour. “Every day in the marketplace” (the Agora) he came upon people “who happened to be on hand.” Their inquisitive attitude is reflected in the words: “In fact, all Athenians and the foreigners sojourning there would spend their leisure time at nothing but telling something or listening to something new.”—Acts 17:17, 21.
Paul himself soon became involved in a discussion with certain Epicurean and Stoic philosophers, and it was not long before “they laid hold of him and led him to the Areopagus, saying: ‘Can we get to know what this new teaching is which is spoken by you?’” (Acts 17:18, 19) Today the Agora is an interesting place in the center of Athens, an area to which picnickers and painters flee from the bustle of the camera-carrying tourists on the Acropolis.
While we allow our attention to be absorbed by this modern scene, we will not forget that Paul’s situation was extremely dangerous. He was suspected of being “a publisher of foreign deities,” and the law provided that ‘no person shall have any separate gods, or new ones; nor shall he privately worship any strange gods unless they be publicly allowed.’ Small wonder, then, that the apostle was seized and taken to the Areopagus to be questioned. In any case, the Bible account about the Areopagus induced us to go searching for the hill of that name.
We succeed in finding our way, and a short walk takes us to the foot of the Areopagus, or Mars Hill, northwest of the Acropolis. It is an exciting moment. Perhaps we are standing on the very spot where Paul once stood and gave his memorable witness recorded at Acts 17:22-31. In the side of the small hill we find Paul’s famous speech inscribed on a bronze plaque. The time has come to open our Bibles and relive what happened here 19 centuries ago.
EARLY PREACHING IN ATHENS BEARS FRUIT
Paul’s eloquent testimony before learned men of Athens is an excellent lesson in tact and discernment. At the same time, he made a fine legal point, an appropriate argument to answer the accusation of introducing a new deity. The apostle showed that he was preaching about the very Creator of heaven and earth, the One who does not dwell in temples of human construction. Paul tactfully told his listeners that he was publishing to them the “Unknown God,” to whom they themselves had made an altar and were unknowingly giving godly devotion. The apostle brought this “Unknown God” nearer to them by quoting from the writings of Aratus, a Cilician poet, and from the Hymn to Zeus by Cleanthes. Thus Paul could tell the Athenians that some of their own poets had said “We are also his progeny” and, therefore, all men owe their existence to Him.
Paul went on to show that this God will judge the inhabited earth in righteousness by a man that he has appointed. And, as a guarantee of this, God resurrected him from the dead. At that point, Paul’s talk was cut short, for “when they heard of a resurrection of the dead, some began to mock, while others said: ‘We will hear you about this even another time.’” What happened then?
Paul went out from their midst, but his masterful argument had led to more than these two different reactions. There was also a third group, for “some men joined themselves to him and became believers, among whom also were Dionysius, a judge of the court of the Areopagus, and a woman named Damaris, and others besides them.” (Acts 17:32-34) Hence, early Christianity grew in the “city of many gods.”
REFLECTIONS ON THE CITY’S HISTORY
The Acropolis rises just a short distance from the Areopagus. We climb the impressive marble steps of the Propylaea (or, Foregates), the splendid ascent to the Parthenon, the crown of the Acropolis. On our right is the temple of the Wingless Victory, but the goddess has disappeared from it. We pass through the imposing colonnades of the Propylaea, which, though partly worn away, still give an overwhelming impression that this once was a massive structure. Arriving at the top of the steps, we see the immense remains of the Parthenon. When was it built, and what led to its construction?
The origin of Athens is shrouded in the past, although archaeology sheds some light on its very early history. In the seventh century B.C.E., the city was ruled by the Eupatridae, an aristocracy that wielded political power and controlled the Areopagus, the chief criminal court at the time. In the next century a legislator named Solon laid the foundation for a democracy. Thus Athens became the center of the first state with a democratic form of government.
The rise of the Medo-Persian Empire proved a severe threat to Greece and, as the prophet Daniel had foretold, the fourth king of Persia would “rouse up everything against the kingdom of Greece.” (Dan. 11:2) The tide of war went back and forth until finally the ‘fourth king,’ Xerxes of Persia, roused up his entire empire and invaded Greece in 480 B.C.E. He got as far as Athens and burned down the Acropolis fortress. The Athenians, however, wrecked the Persian fleet at Salamis, forcing the Persians to withdraw. Athens gained leadership in Greece by virtue of its strong navy.
The golden age of Athens began. During that time of great prosperity under the able leadership of Pericles, the city became the cultural leader of the ancient world. Athens flourished as an educational center filled with professors, lecturers and such philosophers as Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. Four schools of philosophy were established there: the Platonic, the Peripatetic, the Epicurean and the Stoic. (Acts 17:18, 19) At that time, too, many beautiful buildings and temples were constructed, among them the Parthenon, the principal monument of ancient pagan religion.
THE SCRIPTURES VERSUS PHILOSOPHY
At the time that Jesus and his apostles were on earth Athens was still important on account of its schools of philosophy. From its cradle in Greece, philosophy spread to other parts of the world. In fact, Paul had to warn even the Christian congregation in Colossae, Asia Minor: “Look out: perhaps there may be someone who will carry you off as his prey through the philosophy and empty deception according to the tradition of men, . . . and not according to Christ.” Paul was preaching Christ, and as the apostle said: “Carefully concealed in him are all the treasures of wisdom and of knowledge.”—Col. 2:3, 8.
When writing to the Greek Corinthians, Paul came out very strongly against human wisdom. In defense of true Christianity, he put human philosophy in its proper place, saying: “If anyone among you thinks he is wise in this system of things, let him become a fool, that he may become wise. . . . ‘Jehovah knows that the reasonings of the wise men are futile.’” (1 Cor. 3:18-20) Yes, not only do their reasonings prove futile but the works of their hands perish too. Just look at the Acropolis. Gone is the gold-decked image of Athena. Only part of the Parthenon still stands. And what about the Erechtheum, the joint shrine of Athena and Poseidon? Little remains of its former proud beauty.
As we leave the Acropolis and walk down the steps of the towering Propylaea, we remember the words of the apostle Paul to the court of Athens: “We ought not to imagine that the Divine Being is like gold or silver or stone, like something sculptured by the art and contrivance of man.”—Acts 17:29.
GENUINE CHRISTIANITY STILL ALIVE
On this excursion, were you able to catch something of the spirit of ancient and modern Athens? To sense this spirit completely, of course, it is necessary to associate with the people. Many visitors have found that the Athenians are truly hospitable. It certainly is no coincidence that the Greek word for stranger also means guest, as Greeks are very hospitable to strangers.
It is, then, not surprising that true Christianity, which is characterized by such a spirit, should once again have taken root in Athens and all over Greece. Why, in Athens alone more than 7,000 witnesses of Jehovah are associated with 110 congregations! In all Greece, there are 20,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses. Although they, like Paul, are regarded as ‘publishers of foreign deities,’ they continue to proclaim the “Unknown God,” Jehovah, to the inhabitants of Athens and all Greece.
Our visit is over, and we retrace our steps. Looking back from a distance, we have our last glimpse of the Acropolis. The setting sun turns the marble crown of the city into radiant gold. What a sight! But especially are we delighted that so many are now enjoying true spiritual enlightenment in Athens, the age-old “city of many gods.”