A Unique Athenian Rock
TO THE WEST of Athens’ famous Acropolis and separated from it by a small valley is an outcrop of limestone that the Greeks call the Areopagus. Its dimensions are not particularly impressive, measuring about 1,000 feet (300 m) long by a little over 400 feet (120 m) at its widest point and rising to a height of about 370 feet (115 m). What is unique about this rock is the extraordinary history, secular and Biblical, associated with it.
The name Areopagus literally means “Hill of Ares,” or “Mars’ Hill,” Mars being the Roman equivalent of the Greek Ares, the god of war. According to legend, the first court hearing, on a bizarre murder case among the gods, was held here. Ares was on trial for killing the son of the sea god Poseidon. Thus the rock became important in the judicial and political affairs of ancient Athens. It eventually became the seat of the city’s earliest court, which took on the name Court, or Council, of the Areopagus, or simply the Areopagus.
It is not certain just when the Court actually began. But by about the seventh century B.C.E., it wielded considerable power over all the affairs of the city, its members being elected from among the aristocratic and the wealthy, the elite of the people. As time went on, however, much of its power was transferred to the city magistrates and the popular court. Its jurisdiction was limited to homicide cases and religious and educational matters.
At the time of Pericles (c. 495-429 B.C.E.), for example, it was reported that the Areopagites were trying those who desecrated the “sacred olive trees” from which olive oil for sacred service was extracted. The Areopagites were considered the guardian and trustee of morals and religion, protecting the city from any undesirable “foreign deities.” Interestingly, students of history will recall that the famous philosopher Socrates (470-399 B.C.E.) was condemned by the Athenian court for just such reasons: “corruption of the young” and “neglect of the gods whom the city worships and the practice of religious novelties.”
When the Areopagus held sessions on homicide cases, they were generally conducted in the open air so that “the judges and the accuser might not be polluted by being brought under the same roof with the offender.” The proceedings called for the accuser to be seated on a stone called Relentlessness and the accused on one called Outrage. Today, on top of the hill, one can see two white stones that are said to be the scene of the court. Hearings on other matters were probably held in the so-called Royal Gallery (Stoa Basileios) in the agora, or marketplace, situated in the valley below the Areopagus.
The best-known historical event to take place at the Areopagus, however, is the one recorded in the Bible in Acts chapter 17—the apostle Paul’s visit to Athens, where he gave his memorable speech “in the midst of the Areopagus.”—Acts 17:22.
When Paul visited Athens, he was “irritated at beholding that the city was full of idols.” This moved him to engage in many discussions with the people in the agora about “the good news of Jesus and the resurrection.” Evidently this message piqued the curiosity of the people, especially the Epicurean and the Stoic philosophers, and they had Paul give a fuller account about the “foreign deities” and the “new teaching” at the Areopagus.—Acts 17:16-34.
Rising to the occasion, Paul courageously and vigorously defended the good news of Jesus. His speech is a masterpiece of logic and refutation; its impact remains as powerful today as when the Athenians first heard it. Today, there is a bronze plaque at the foot of the rock, on the western side, to commemorate the event. Paul’s speech is engraved on it in large Greek uncials, or capital letters, for all to see. It is a silent witness not only to the long and unique history of the rock but also to the historical authenticity of the Bible.