Athens: Mars Hill & the Acropolis

Trip Start May 14, 2012
Trip End May 28, 2012

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Flag of Greece  , Attica,
Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Our first official stop on our trip was Athens, Greece. We had a private motor coach, and guided tour from the airport to our hotel in the heart of the city. Our tour guide, Kelly, was a proud and knowledgeable Athenian. The information that follows was provided by her, through our own personal experiences during our visit, and from the readings in our text by Clyde Fant, A Guide to Biblical Sites in Greece and Turkey, and the New Testament

Athens is the oldest city in Europe. Known as the birthplace of civilization and democracy, the capital of the Greek state has long stood as a foundation to the modern world. Today, home to a population of nearly 5 million people, it is the center of political, social, cultural, and community life in Greece. It is a sprawling city, and at the heart of it lies the Acropolis.

Built in the 5th century BC, the Acropolis (acro "edge", polis "city") is known as the "Sacred Rock" of Athens. Atop the city on the hill rest three impressive temples dedicated to the city's patron goddess, Athena: the Parthenon, the Erechtheion, and the Temple of Nike. These structures were once adorned with detailed relief friezes, with the Parthenon housing a depiction of the Procession of Panathengea, the most formal religious festival of ancient times. At various times through its history, the Parthenon was used additionally as a Byzantine church, a Latin church, and a mosque. It suffered devastating damage after a bomb destroyed much of the temple during the Turkish/Venetian battle for the city in the late 1600s. Further destruction of the temple was delivered at the hands of Lord Elgin, who in the early 19th century removed many of the marbles and sold them to the British Museum. Now, the surviving art that once adorned the walls of the Parthenon rests on the top level of the New Acropolis Museum located below the Acropolis in the Plaka.

The Plaka is the historic district surrounding the Acropolis. With its narrow streets, white-washed buildings, and various archaeological structures peering out of the ground sporadically throughout the area, you can't help but feel as though you are taking a step back in time. Since our hotel was in the heart of the Plaka, we were able to spend a fair amount of time walking the streets, eating at local tavernas, interacting with Athenians, and honing our negotiation skills in the marketplace.

As a central city in the ancient world, Athens is an important biblical city as well. Acts 16-17 tells of Paul, Timothy and Silas' missionary journey to the Greek city. Paul had a vision, and set off from Troas to preach to the Macedonians. They travelled through Phillippi, where they were imprisoned. In Thessaloniki and Berea they preached in the synagogue and
were forced to leave by angry mobs. Paul had gone ahead of Timothy and Silas to Athens, and asked them to meet him there. Athens was a place where a continuous dialogue on contemporary thought was ingrained in the culture. People from all over came to the city to share and debate new ideas. Open to dialogue on everything from civics to religion, Athens was the place to go to spread the message of the early Christians.
While Paul was there, he debated the Epicureans and Stoics, held discussions in public squares, and preached in the synagogue. Paul's message was new to the Athenians and they were interested in what he had to say. He was brought before the Areopagus, a council that acted in the form of a supreme court. The council met atop a hill known today as Mars Hill. This hill sits just below the Acropolis, looking up toward the Temple of Athena Nike, and overlooking the Agora. Here, Paul was given the opportunity to formally share his ideas with the council who would then decide if he would be allowed to preach his message in Athens. At the time, Paul's speech in front of the council was as much a defense of himself as it was an opportunity to spread his message, for it was illegal in Athens to introduce foreign deities.

The main points in Paul's speech, found in Acts 17:22-32, are as follows:

1) He appeals to the Athenians as a religious people by acknowledging their altar to an unknown god. Yet, addresses their ignorance of the god they worship. 
22 Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship —and this is what I am going to proclaim to you. 

2) He proclaims that there is one God, the creator of all, and this is the same unknown god they worship.
24 “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. 25 And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else.26 From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. 27 God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. 28 ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’
3) He tells them that worshipping gold, silver, and stone as idols is worship of false gods
29 “Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill. 
4) He calls for an end to the ignorance, and says that it is now time to repent, and through Jesus, God offers salvation.
30 In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. 31 For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”

5) Following his speech, some Athenians became followers. Included was a member of the Areopagus, Dionysus, and a woman named Damaris. However, for many listening to Paul speak at Mars Hill the idea of Jesus's resurrection proved too much even for the open-minded Athenians. Paul's speech was cut short by those who scoffed at this final proclamation. Paul left Athens, and nothing more is known of the small group of followers he left there. 
 32 When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, “We want to hear you again on this subject.” 33 At that, Paul left the Council. 34 Some of the people became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others.

Having the opportunity to walk in the footsteps of Paul and explore Athens was an incredible experience. The two of us (Alexa and Janine) had a breathtaking backdrop for our presentation. We read Paul's speech standing on Mars Hill, a cloudless, sun-filled sky overhead, the Acropolis looming over us in its magnificence, and the ancient Agora and the rest of modern-day Athens sprawled out below us. The setting was perfect to begin a journey that was as close as any of us will likely get to the treks taken by those dedicated early disciples who spread the word of Christ throughout the world. Just spending time in the shoes of the early Christians, walking where they walked, reading what they wrote and said, seeing the cities where they would have lived and evangelized, gave a whole new perspective and understanding of the history, and reality, of those early years of the Church. 

 We learned more than just the history of the early Christians while in Greece though. We learned words in Greek, had our fill of local cuisine, learned about the art and architecture of the city (both ancient and modern), familiarized ourselves with the geography and climate of the area, witnessed the Torch Ceremony for the 2012 Olympics, met and made friends with Athenians (and had discussions with them about world events, including the economy and Greco-American relations), and ultimately expanded our worldview through being immersed in another culture. The journey, overall, is one that cannot be easily matched in terms of understanding, learning, and sheer experience.
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