In Acts 17, Luke, writing under the Divine inspiration of the Holy Spirit, gives an account of the Apostle Paul’s second missionary journey (Acts 15:40-18:23a). In the opening verses of the chapter we find him in Thessalonica, then moving on to Berea, before finally arriving in Athens. Here, the Apostle is confronted by the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers regarding the content of the gospel message which he was proclaiming
“And some said, “What does this babbler wish to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities”—because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection. And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? For you bring some strange things to our ears. We wish to know therefore what these things mean.” Acts 17:18-20
These rival schools of philosophy found a common enemy in the preaching of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Epicureans rejected a belief in the afterlife, thinking that the body and soul were annihilated upon death. On the other hand, the Stoics were more of a mixed bag regarding the afterlife, though a consistent denial of eternal life was common among them. These were the chief opponents of the Apostle Paul’s message in and around the Balkan Peninsula.
As a consequence of their disagreement, Paul was escorted to the Areopagus where he gives his infamous speech on Mars Hill regarding the “Unknown god” (Acts. 17:22). Key to the context of our discussion here is Paul’s statement, “30 The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31 because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” Acts 17:30-31
To which we read of the hearers response, “32 Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, “We will hear you again about this.” 33 So Paul went out from their midst. 34 But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them.”
All of this, by way of contextual introduction leads us into Acts 18, where we find Paul leaving Athens, traveling a short distance – about 50 miles – to Corinth. The doctrinal continuity between Paul’s message in Acts 17, its reception, and Acts 18, is his proclamation of Christ’s resurrection.
By all respects, Corinth was a melting pot of immigration and subsequently varying religious views. It’s political and economic hey-day had come during the Hellenistic period some 200 years before Paul’s arrival. Prior to its collapse in 146 B.C. at the hand of the Roman Empire, Corinth had a population anywhere from 100,000-200,000 people (though some have suggested upwards of 400,000).
Left desolate after its destruction as a devotion to the gods, it was rebuilt 100 years later (~46 BC) under the administration of Julius Caesar and became one of the most important cities in the Roman Empire due to its location of 2 major ports on the sea. Its geographic location was largely responsible for the migration of people (and their religious views), particularly Romans, Jews deported from Rome, and migrants from Athens. Corinth was also home to the temple of Aphrodite, as well as a multitude of other temples and pagan shrines as noted in the paragraph below describing the tour of ancient Greece by 2nd century historian Pausanias:
“Upon entering Corinth through the gate which probably bore the name of Cenchreae, Pausanias proceeded to the Agora, where the greatest number of temples stood. He mentions an Artemis Ephesia;–two wooden statues of Dionysus;–a temple of Tyché (Fortune);–a temple sacred to all the gods;–near the latter a fountain, issuing from a dolphin at the foot of a Poseidon in bronze;–statues of Apollo Clarius, Aphrodite, Hermes, and Zeus. In the middle of the Agora was a statue of a bronze Athena, on the basis of which were the figures of the Muses in the relief. Above the Agora was a temple of Octavia, the sister of Augustus.”
Some accounts note that Corinth was such a drunken, lust-filled city that the name was actually turned into a verb, to corinthize, a derogatory term meaning to fornicate. Others have stated that due to the high traffic, transient nature of the port city, visitors did not and could not bring with them enough money to satisfy all the desires of the flesh that Corinth offered. Still others have recounted that the city was home to 1000 temple prostitutes that descended upon the city each night.
This was the climate into which the Apostle Paul was bringing the gospel. The challenges that he faced are well documented in Acts 18, as well as the two epistles to the immature church at Corinth. Understanding this cultural and religious background is helpful for clarifying what the Apostle was facing in during his Second Missionary journey and why he wrote the epistles to Corinth addressing the various errors that he did while asserting specific truths that they needed reaffirmed.
We sometimes think that our current cultural malaise is the worst in history, but we needn’t go far to find comparable if not substantially worse cultural times. Yet despite that, the gospel was not thwarted and the light was not overcome with darkness. If that was true then, how much more so is it in our day? Let us not be afraid nor ashamed to take the gospel into the darkest, depressed regions and trust that in our day, though rejection and suffering may come, may God likewise say “for I have many in this city who are My people”. Acts 18:10