Acts 17, Epicureans and the Areopagus Speech: Stereotypes and Theodicy
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
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)
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
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
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
(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
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?"
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:
THEODICY DENIED (CAIN) THEODICY AFFIRMED (ABEL)
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
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
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  409-12), about which this study is
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,
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
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)
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,
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
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,
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
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
48. See Malherbe, "'Not in A Corner,'" 195-201.