Acts 17 tells of Paul’s visit and missionary efforts in the city of Athens.
Our first picture is taken from the observation tower of the 9th story of a hotel in downtown Athens. We see in the distance the same scene that the apostle Paul would have seen when he came into the city of Athens. This is the Acropolis. “Acro” means "high" and “polis” means "city" – "high city", or "the high part of a city". It was usually a place of defense, where a fortress might be built. Or it could have been a center of worship. Idolatrous temples could have been built there, as in the case of Athens. There were three university cities in the Roman world: Athens, Greece; Alexandria, Egypt; and Tarsus. Of these three Athens was the foremost.
The Acropolis is 512 feet high. We are looking at the ruins of buildings Paul would have seen, but when Paul came Athens was at the height of its glory. Paul probably arrived in Athens in the autumn of 51 AD.
We are about a mile closer to the Acropolis. At the top of this steep ascent, toward the right, is the little temple of Nike-Zeus. Zeus was the chief god of the Athena Pantheon. "Nike" means "victory".
This steep pathway winds back and forth to the top of the Acropolis. We have covered about 250 feet in climbing. This is the "Propylea", which means "entrance way" or "portal to the Acropolis", "the High City of Athens".
Again, the Propylea. Oscar Broneer, a Swedish-American archaeologist who worked in Greece mostly, is convinced that Paul spent part of his time sight-seeing. He says that Acts 17:23 tells us this. “For as I passed along, and observed the objects of your worship, I found also this inscription, ‘To an unknown god’.” Oscar Broneer continues his discussion in an interesting article in the Biblical Archaeologist, February, 1958. Sir William Ramsey translates this passage, “As I went through your city surveying the monuments of your city.” Paul would have come through this Propylea, for it was the only entrance to the hill, where there were about 40 different temples dedicated to the gods and goddesses of the Athenians.
Let’s take a closer look at the Nike-Zeus Temple. This building's construction began in 427 BC and completed 3 years later. In 1685 the Turks dismantled it completely and reused its blocks in the fortification of the walls of the Acropolis. The Greeks rebuilt it in 1835. Orlandus dismantled it and rebuilt it between 1935 and 1940, what we see here is a reconstruction. It follows very closely the line of the original building.
This is a view not often seen in books, the back side of the Propylea. Before us is the rubble of the many temples that stood in this area. In the distance is the city of Athens. Today it is a city of more than 3 ½ million people. It is 5 miles from the seaport of Piraeus. Paul would have landed there and walked to Athens. This Acropolis is the first thing he would have seen.
This is the center of the Propylea from the back side. We are told that there was a gigantic statue of Athena that stood just outside this are. It was called "Athena Pronachus" or "Athena the Defender of Athens". The statue could be seen from the harbor of Piraeus, a distance of 5 miles
This Odeum or Theater of Herod Atticus was built in 161 AD, so it was not here during the time of Paul. It seats about 5,000. Today it is used for summer carnival festivals. Herod Atticus was a wealthy citizen, who expressed his appreciation to Athens for what it had done for him by building this theater.
To the west of the Acropolis is the one spot that all Christians are interested in: Mars Hill. Most of us, seeing it for the first time, are surprised to find that it is solid rock. There are some trees growing at the base, but there is little soil on the hill itself. Remember that the Acropolis and Mars Hill are two different hills. We will return to Mars Hill later.
South of the Acropolis is the theater of Dyonicious. “Theater” literally means “seeing place.” This theater was meant for musicals as well as plays and public readings. This was built in the 4th century BC. It was capable of holding 1,700 spectators. The very first performance of the Greek Tragedies was held in the theater, which is still in use today.
We see now for the first time, the Parthenon. “Parthenon” is the Greek word for “virgin,” so this was the Temple of the Virgin and was dedicated to Athena, for whom Athens is named. Inside the Parthenon was a large gold and silver statue, which is said to have been 20 feet tall. This building would have been in its glory in Paul’s day. It was more than 400 years old when Paul saw it.
The construction of the Parthenon began in 447 BC and was completed in 438 BC. It is 238 feet long and 111 feet wide. It is probably the most photographed building in the whole world. The entrance however, is at the other end. The end that we always see and photograph is the back side. There is neither a straight line nor a perpendicular line in the entire building. Since the eye has a tendency to make a horizontal line dip in the center, the floor line of the Parthenon was designed to follow a curve with a 3 ½ mile radius. A perfectly flat floor would have appeared to sag in the center. The columns lean toward the center. If they were extended for a distance of a mile and a half, they would meet. This building was a temple to Athena for 900 years. It was a Christian church dedicated to Mary for 1,000 years, and it was used as a Moslem mosque for 200 years. In 1687, when Venetians forces were attacking the Turks on the Acropolis, a barrel of gunpowder in the Parthenon exploded, destroying the interior. Restoration began on this beautiful building in 1859.
Skilled workmen were paid about 1 ½ drachma when this building was constructed. It would be about 35 cents today. There are 46 fluted Doric columns. There are 27 on each side and 8 at each end. Each column is 34 feet high, and the diameter of the base is 6 feet. The highest point of the roof was 65 feet.
These carvings that go around the top of these buildings are called metopes, which are squares separated by triglyphs. The metopes and triglyphs together formed a Doric frieze. There are 92 of these panels, which begin at the southwest corner. More than 400 human figures and 200 animals are carved in these metopes. They are shown in a procession which took place every four years for the purpose of bringing a robe to Athena.
The pediment was at one time filled with sculpture. This western end portrays the contest between Athena and Poseidon for the possession of Athens.
This sculpture of a man is on the eastern pediment. Except for this figure and a cast of a horse on the opposite end, there is nothing left of the scenes on the pediment which depicted the birth of Athena.
The horse at the east end is one of the many that were taken by Lord Elgin, British Consular General in Athens in the 1800’s. Many of these marble statues are housed in the British Museum.
This is the original marble horse from the east pediment, which Lord Elgin brought to England, The British Museum purchased what is now called the "Elgin Marbles" from him at a time when he was probably having financial difficulties.
This is one of the many metopes. 420 feet of these sculptures are in existence. Of these, 247 feet of the sculptures are housed in the British Museum.
This series of statues, now in the British Museum, are from the east pediment. Greece would like to have them back. There has long been a controversy about whether Lord Elgin stole these pieces for his private collection or whether he was trying to save them from further destruction. He did take them at a time when Greece was not financially able to maintain them. It is doubtful that they will ever be returned to Athens to be put in their original places.
This is a side view of the Parthenon. In 447 BC, Pericles decided to begin a public works program. It was after the war with Persia. The peace treaty had been signed, and the people needed something to occupy their time. Xerxes was the Persian emperor, and Esther was one of his wives. So the building of the Parthenon was begun. The age of Pericles was the Golden age of Greece. It lasted a little over 200 years.
The view of the side shows us the inner wall that was destroyed by the barrel of gunpowder that exploded. The columns went all the way around the building.
Phidias was the designer of the Parthenon, Ictinus was the architect, and Callicrates was the contractor. They began the public works project by constructing the Parthenon.
Here is a long view down the southern side. A close view of the Parthenon is overwhelming. We are impressed with the size of these immense columns.
The railing around the top would have begun at this southwest corner and would have continued all the way around the building.
Only a portion of the south side is still standing. The center portion has fallen.
For the first time we see the front of the Parthenon. The reason this is thought by many to be the back is that the entrance to the area is at the west end. But the entrance to the Parthenon was at this east end.
Now we are inside. A 20 foot statue of Athena, made of gold and ivory, once stood in the doorway. Paul would have been impressed with the beauty of this place, but his heart was stirred, because all of these things were dedicated to the worship of gods and goddesses that did not exist. Luke tells us that “his spirit was provoked within him, as he saw that the city was full of idols.” (Acts 17:26)
The second most important building on the Acropolis is the Erechtheum. The Erechtheum is on the north side of the Acropolis and north of the Parthenon. It was built to enclose the sacred site of the contest between Athena and Poseidon for the control of Athens. We can see in the foreground, the ruins of other temples. It is said that there were more than 40 temples on the Acropolis in its heyday.
The legend of the contest between Athena and Poseidon for the control of Athens says that Poseidon struck a rock here with his trident and sea water, symbolic of the naval power of the Athenians, gushed forth. Athena struck the rock with her spear and a fruit bearing olive tree sprang forth. The olive tree was considered more important so the city came under her protection.
The Erectheum is a beautiful building even today. Constructed in 4 parts, it is 78 feet long and 42 feet wide. The Ionic columns are 25 feet high. The porch of the Maidens is on the southwest corner. The tallest columns are on the north side. The Parthenon would be to the right of this picture.
The Erectheum was used as a church by the Byzantines. Sometime between 400 and 800 AD they knocked out the inner walls and made it into an auditorium. The Porch of the Maidens was probably used as a baptistery.
From this side we can see the Porch of the Maidens. The auditorium would have been inside, just to our right. The Maidens originally supported the roof of the porch.
This is one of the finest examples of Greek sculpture. As you can see, the soft folds in the garments look like fabric. It would be very difficult to fashion something soft looking like this out of hard marble.
No two of the maidens are alike, though they are very similar. They are irregularly spaced, and one of them has pierced ears. The maiden standing second from the end on your left is actually a cast. In 1803 Lord Elgin took the original statue of the Maiden to England, and this cast was made to replace it.
This is the original maiden. She stands in the British Museum, and her duplicate stands in her place in the Porch of the Maidens.
We have a distant view of the Erectheum. Imagine it surrounded by many other temple as Paul would have seen it.
We are back to Mars Hill. Mars Hill is the name that appears in the King James translation. The American Standard calls it the Areopagus. Mars was the Roman god of war, so the real name of this hill is the "Hill of Ares" or "Areopagus". The Areopagus is 377 feet high and is located northwest of the Acropolis. It is solid rock. Steps are cut into it in many places. Legend says that Ares stood here when he slew the son of Poseidon, the sea god. The Areopagus served as a meeting place for the council and court of the Athenians.
We are looking back now, and you can see in the upper right of the picture the little temple of Nike-Zeus. We are standing on the Areopagus. There is a deep valley between us and the other hill. The Acropolis is 512 feet high and Areopagus is 377 feet high. No one knows exactly where Paul stood as he preached his great sermon. Most theaters were built with the stage or arena at the lower part, with the stands for the spectators higher. It is likely that Paul stood near the base of this hill and spoke upward to the people, who were seated on the hill.
From the brow of this hill you can see the chasm that separates the Areopagus from the Acropolis. It is filled with trees. The Acropolis would have made a good fortress, since it is surrounded by steep cliffs. It would have been difficult for an enemy to take it.
Toward the west from the Areopagus is the agora or market place. It was here that Paul reasoned with the people daily. After he had planted the seeds of the gospel, the Athenians called him to meet with them on an appointed day and speak to them from this hill. On the left you can see another temple. It is at the south end of the market place. This temple is commonly called the "Theseum", or "Temple of Thessius", but its real name is "Hephaesteon". Hephaesteon was the god of fire and of blacksmiths. The temple of Hephaestus was 404 feet long and 45 feet wide, and 34 feet high. It is the only temple, to my knowledge, in all the ancient world that still has its roof. It was used in the 4th century as a Christian church.
This is the other end of the market place. The long building is the "Stoa". Stoa is the Greek word for "porch". This Stoa was built between 159 and 138 BC. It has been reconstructed and made into a museum, which opened in 1956.The original was built by King Attalus II of Pergamum, because he felt a debt of gratitude to Athens, where he had been educated. The Stoa has two floors. There were in ancient times, 42 shops in it with 21 shops on each floor. It is 385 feet long, and 64 feet wide. There are 45 columns.
Paul reasoned in the market place every day. The main street of the city of Athens ran directly in front of the Stoa of Attalus. It was called the "Panathean Way". A religious procession would come down this street and make its way to the top of the Acropolis with the yearly offering for Athena. The Bema or Judgment Seat was located in front of the Stoa. This market place had many shops or stalls, where the people could buy and sell cheese, fruit, fish and sausage. There were also barbers and perfumers.
Several statues remain here in the agora. In the day of Paul there were many statues of gods, goddesses, and heroes of the Athenians. At the west end of the agora is the temple of Hephaestus. Because the sculptures around the top of it resemble the mythical Theseus, who cleared the roads of Athens of bandits and who also killed the half-bull, half-man, Minotaur, this temple is sometimes called by his name, Theseus. But it was originally dedicated to Hephaestian, the god of fire.
The Stoa was rebuilt by the Rockefellar Foundation. At one time this section was covered by the poorer section of Athens Archaeologists wanted to excavate this area. It took years to buy all the property, to clear it and then to excavate it. The Rockefeller Foundation furnished all the funds to do this and to build this beautiful museum, which is a reproduction of the Stoa of Attalos, built by and named after Attalos II of Pergamum,who ruled between 159 and 138 BC.
As we look down this colonnade, we can see the road which would have been their main street. The Bema or Judgment Seat would have stood in this same area.
This area is called the "Area of Dionysius the Aeropagite". Dionysius was converted by Paul. He was probably in charge of the proceedings on the Hill of Ares. We are now on the north side of the agora. In this same section was the Painted Stoa, where Zeno instructed his students in the philosophy of the Stoics. Paul made reference to the Stoics and Epicureans. Stoics felt that virtue was obtained through self-denial and pain and suffering. Epicureans said, “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow you die.” When Paul preached Jesus and the resurrection, the people thought he was preaching a new god, because their word resurrection was Anastasia.
We take one last look at the Areopagus and the Acropolis. Many people come to Athens to see the Areopagus because of Paul, not because of the gods and goddesses that were worshipped there. Paul’s message is found in Acts 17:30, “The times of ignorance God overlooked but no he commands all men everywhere to repent.” But few of the people of Athens heeded his words.
Original text and slides from "Bible Cities and Geography", ©1974 Star Bible Publications. Unlawful to duplicate or reproduce in any form or manner. Used by permission. Various edits and new audio recordings by the Bible Study Center 2006-2014.
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