This article is a short review of the book by Paul Copan and Kenneth D. Litwak called The Gospel in the Marketplace of Ideas: Paul’s Mars Hill Experience for Our Pluralistic World. This is a wonderful and easy read for all vassals of theological education. Whether you are a new Christian or a seasoned interpreter, this book draws on some very interesting conclusions regarding Acts 17.
The entire book is a commentary and history on this one passage: Acts 17:16-34. The whole book is dedicated to this one important passage in the book of Acts and re-imagines what Paul was drawing upon and concluding. It is a short and interesting read that will fulfill any truth seeking Christian. It challenges you to re-think how Paul was postulating and promulgating the Gospel in the Ancient intellectual world of Rome.
I have included some interesting passages that give you just a taste of what this book illuminates:
“The account of Paul’s evangelistic activity in Athens illustrates the encounter between the gospel of Jesus the Messiah and intellectually and socially elite Gentiles. These Gentiles have little or no knowledge of Jewish beliefs and have never heard the gospel preached.” [Paul Copan (2018). (p. 93). The Gospel in the Marketplace of Ideas: Paul’s Mars Hill Experience for Our Pluralistic World. Retrieved from https://app.wordsearchbible.lifeway.com%5D
Commentary such as this brings the reader to a closer knowledge of the historical-narrative and culture of first century Athenians. This is vitally important in understanding the context and purpose of Paul’s Mars Hill speech.
“At Athens, Luke shows what one of God’s chosen evangelists did when seeking to reach intellectuals, many of whom were schooled in philosophy and believed in well-established philosophical teachings. None of these three types of speeches is recorded a second time. This suggests that Luke saw each of these speeches as a sufficient model for each category of audience. Paul’s experience in Athens would show Luke’s audience that, yes, Christians should indeed seek to reach the intellectual and social elite, and, while it might be hard to win converts from among them, it was nevertheless doable (by God’s grace) and crucial.” [Paul Copan (2018). (p. 90). The Gospel in the Marketplace of Ideas: Paul’s Mars Hill Experience for Our Pluralistic World. Retrieved from https://app.wordsearchbible.lifeway.com%5D
What Paul and Kenneth point to is Paul’s use of the intelligentsia of the day to make a case for Christ. In this book they advocate for reason and evangelism and show how Paul did not, nor should we, fear intellectual and philosophical societies where great thought and debate is held. These are important places where the message of Christ’s gospel is needed and takes a certain style to convey the message of salvation without being blatantly disregarded.
“This is why studying Paul’s speech in Athens serves as a model for Christians: we must be aware of the leading, influential ideas that shape culture so that we can insightfully and winsomely engage them with the power, beauty and truth of the gospel. Paul was not ignorant of those dominant ideas in his day, and we shouldn’t be either. Paul also promoted robust, mature thinking—as opposed to being mentally infantile and doctrinally mushy (1 Cor 14:20; Eph 4:13; cf. Heb 5:14; 1 Pet 1:13).” [Paul Copan (2018). (p. 36). The Gospel in the Marketplace of Ideas: Paul’s Mars Hill Experience for Our Pluralistic World. Retrieved from https://app.wordsearchbible.lifeway.com%5D
By better understanding the historical makeup and culture of what is happening around the time that scriptures were being written, the reader gets a “in the minds eye” worldview of why Luke was writing what he was writing. Without truly grasping the cultural ties of the area in a given passage is like analyzing the Holocaust without any prior knowledge to Nazi Germany. Unfortunately this is all too common for the modern-Christian Church and the ramifications have been catastrophic.
“Just as biblical scholars exegete (properly explain) biblical texts, so we should exegete culture as well to better connect people to the gospel. As we point out later in the book, part of exegeting our culture is to be aware that the Christian message is clouded by false ideas or caricatures in the minds of the unchurched. The unchurched often perceive Christians as more concerned about “getting decisions” rather than building relationships, which leads more naturally to making disciples of Christ (Mt 28:19)—not to mention being too political, hateful toward homosexuals, anti-intellectual and anti-scientific, shallow, and closed off to doubters.” [Paul Copan (2018). (p. 74). The Gospel in the Marketplace of Ideas: Paul’s Mars Hill Experience for Our Pluralistic World. Retrieved from https://app.wordsearchbible.lifeway.com%5D
Sections like this show just how poorly modern Christianity takes its exegesis. This book often points out poor hermeneutics in light of anti-intellectualism, which was obviously not something embraced by the Apostle Paul.
“In stark contrast to Paul (and Judaism), the Stoics believed that the way to learn of God’s existence was solely through human reasoning, which was given to humans by the divine Logos. Logos often means word but can also be used for more complex ideas, including reason, and that is how the Stoics used it. They would not look to nature to learn about God but believed that all people have an idea of God because God is the cosmos and all that is in it. They might not all agree on every point about God, but all would agree that “the Deity is incorruptible, perfect, endowed with reason, and acts as a kind of Providence.” These insights are in a person’s own soul, and they are the first source of the knowledge of God since all people contain and are part of the divine Reason. A second source comes from ideas learned through education or other individuals, such as poets and artists. The Stoics saw a human’s innate reason and what one learns from being taught as the primary sources of knowledge of the Deity.” [Paul Copan (2018). (p. 80). The Gospel in the Marketplace of Ideas: Paul’s Mars Hill Experience for Our Pluralistic World. Retrieved from https://app.wordsearchbible.lifeway.com%5D
In passages like this, Paul and Kenneth provide a copious amount of ancient historical philosophy that most Christians are unaware of. Normally believers read scripture in light of their worldview; understanding Paul’s Mars Hill speech in light of someone else’s worldview, particularly the stoics and epicureans, helps to frame exactly what Paul was talking about and who he was addressing.
“Paul’s theology is essentially Jewish yet heavily shaped by the truth that God has acted in Jesus the Messiah to fulfill God’s promise to Abraham of blessing the whole world through Abraham’s descendants (see Gen 12:1-3; Gal 3:7-9). Paul never gave up his Jewish beliefs, but they certainly were reframed by his encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus. The core beliefs of Jews like Paul formed most of the core beliefs of Christians then and now.” [Paul Copan (2018). (p. 93). The Gospel in the Marketplace of Ideas: Paul’s Mars Hill Experience for Our Pluralistic World. Retrieved from https://app.wordsearchbible.lifeway.com%5D
What this book ultimately accomplishes is reshaping how one might go about doing apologetics in a much more effective manner. If you are concerned with apologetics, this is a great book in defense of faith and reason. Paul and Kenneth go at great lengths to defend Paul’s intellectual arguments against idolatry and for the deity of Christ. He uses the culture of the day to make a case for the one true God and turns the Athenian worldview on its head.
Paul and Kenneth outline the passage with key highlights and this serves as a great outline for a Bible study in the book of Acts. This sets up the parameters of the passage and will help to guide or lead a pointed Bible study on this passage.
- Paul shows his awareness of Athenian piety (Acts 17:22-23).
- Paul uses his observations of Athens as entry point into his challenge to his audience’s superstition or misguided religiosity (Acts 17:23a).
- Since God made the world and all that is in it, he obviously cannot be contained in one building, especially one made with human hands (Acts 17:24). Therefore, Paul implies, “I do not need a temple for the true unknown God.”
- Not only does God have no use for a temple, but he needs absolutely nothing from humans at all since he is the one who gives life and everything else (Acts 17:25). By this statement Paul indicates that, “I do not want or need a priesthood to offer sacrifices to the unknown God. They can give him nothing that is not already his.”
- This God made all people from one person, so we all belong to God. Since God made everyone and set seasons and boundaries for them, this means that God is not distant (as the Epicureans claim) but is actively at work among humans (Acts 17:26).
- That activity indicates that God has a purpose for human beings. That purpose is to seek God (Acts 17:27). This is not an intellectual pursuit only, as the Stoics claim, but a response to God’s revelation of himself. God is not far from anyone who will seek him on his terms.
- It is appropriate to acknowledge the true God by seeking him, for it is by God’s power that humans “live and do what we do and exist” (Acts 17:28). We not only depend upon the one true God for existence, but he is the one who brought humans into being, and we are his children.
- Since humans are God’s offspring and humans breathe, talk, walk and act, it is obvious that images of God that do not breathe, walk, talk or act are not worthy of or representative of the one true God (Acts 17:29).
- God allowed this ignorant idolatry in the past but now calls upon all people to leave their ignorance, repent of idolatry and turn to the one true God. Failure to do so will lead to judgment by God in the future (Acts 17:29-30a).
- This judgment will be carried out by a person whom God has chosen, and God has validated this person’s role as judge by raising him from the dead (Acts 17:31b). [Paul Copan (2018). (p. 120). The Gospel in the Marketplace of Ideas: Paul’s Mars Hill Experience for Our Pluralistic World. Retrieved from https://app.wordsearchbible.lifeway.com%5D
This also makes for a great book in any Christian book clubs. Take the time to read this wonderful book and it will truly enrich your life for years to come.