Friday, December 20, 2013

Reverie at the Parthenon, Part 3

By Glenn Juday
Note: In October/November 2012 Professor of Forest Ecology Glenn Juday participated a private trip (pilgrimage) following the route of St. Paul, through Turkey, mainland Greece, Aegean islands and Rome. As time permits he will post some sketches of the history, geography, and natural history and contemporary observations of this route.

St. Paul at the Areopagus

There are few figures in history with a more dramatic life story than Saul/Paul of Tarsus. His life was filled with apparent contrasts. He identified himself as a member of the Israelite tribe of Benjamin and as a Roman citizen. He was reputed to be the most brilliant pupil of the most brilliant rabbi, Gamaliel. As a zealous defender of the Jewish Law and traditions, he seized, arrested and assisted in the execution of Jewish followers of “The Way” – shortly after then known as Christians. A systematic thinker and philosopher, he had a literally blinding mystical experience that transformed his entire spiritual orientation in life. A committed Jew, he became what he had previously persecuted, a Christian.

Ancient steps to the summit of Areopagus, chiseled into the rock, November, 2012. The Areopagus was a place of judgment for matters of civil law.

 After a whirlwind life in the heart of most developed part of the world, the eastern Mediterranean, Paul withdrew to the Arabian desert for years of spiritual contemplation and thinking. Committed to rousing his fellow Israelites/Jews to accept “The Way,” he hit upon the strategy of bringing the Christian message to the gentiles and thus making his own people jealous. In doing so he made a major contribution to arguably one of the greatest cultural transformations in history – the emergence of Christian culture and civilization, and the start of the fusion of the world view embodied by Jerusalem and Athens. For his efforts and labors he was repeatedly beaten, whipped, exiled, arrested, imprisoned and ultimately executed.

Devoted to the land of his Jewish ancestors, he traveled across the Mediterranean world, and ended up with his earthly remains interred in the great city of Rome. The Roman capital that heard his message of religious zeal and moral reform was in the first stages of a disastrous decline into Imperial decadence. Roman power had both made a world in which he could travel safely and it had oppressed his people –Jewish and Christian.

St. Paul was nothing if not fearless, and ambitious as well. He was a man with an urgent message and a sometimes deliberately provocative style. On his second missionary journey he found himself in Athens, known for its students of philosophy – and an intellectually rough and tumble environment. There he spotted his opening. In his characteristic mixed style of debate and proclamation he would confront/provoke the Athenian philosophers and get taken to the civil authorities where he could debate and proclaim the Christian message to an even more influential audience. The tribunal in Athens for such matters was called the Areopagus, a compound of the words for the place where the cases were heard and judgment rendered – the rock (pagos) of Ares (known in Latin as Mars Hill).

The Rock of Ares or Areopagus is near the entrance to the Acropolis of Athens, and is a popular attraction to this day. The ancient steps chiseled into the rock are worn slick from centuries of visitors, and are so slippery they represent a real risk for visitors. The pine and cypress trees around the base of the hill provide welcome shade. As I climbed the steps and reach the summit I was rewarded with a view of the Acropolis above, and down below, the agora. The agora was the public center of the city, and hosted activities such as commerce, politics, religion, and military affairs. Four times per month laws were passed, embassies received, and city defenses reviewed in the agora. But the great attraction at the Areopagus is to literally stand in the footsteps of St. Paul.

In another of the ironic contrasts that seem to mark Paul’s life, he, even though the accused, is widely remembered while most of his judges at the Areopagus are long forgotten, except one judge who took up his cause. Even nearly 2,000 years later it’s difficult to improve on the fast-paced, straightforward account of what happened to Paul at the Areopagus by the scholarly gentile physician Luke in the second half of the Chapter 17 in the Book of Acts.

Acts, Chapter 17
[15] Those who conducted Paul brought him as far as Athens; and receiving a command for Silas and Timothy to come to him as soon as possible, they departed.

[16] Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols. [17] So he argued in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the market place every day with those who chanced to be there. [18] Some also of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers met him. And some said, “What would this babbler say?” Others said, “He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities” -- because he preached Jesus and the resurrection. [19] And they took hold of him and brought him to the Are-op'agus, saying, “May we know what this new teaching is which you present? [20] For you bring some strange things to our ears; we wish to know therefore what these things mean.” [21] Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.

[22] So Paul, standing in the middle of the Are-op'agus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious.[23] For as I passed along, and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. [24] The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by man, [25] nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all men life and breath and everything. [26] And he made from one every nation of men to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their habitation, [27] that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel after him and find him. Yet he is not far from each one of us, [28] for
‘In him we live and move and have our being’;
as even some of your poets have said, ‘For we are indeed his offspring.’ [29] Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the Deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, a representation by the art and imagination of man. [30] The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all men 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 men by raising him from the dead.”

[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 among them. [34] But some men joined him and believed, among them Dionys'ius the Are-op'agite and a woman named Dam'aris and others with them.
 Bronze plaque at the Areopagus, with the quotation from the second half of Acts 17, describing St. Paul’s mid first century speech at the Areopagus, November, 2012.
When he went before the tribunal, Paul identified with his audience, he praised their religious impulse. As a thorough scholar, he quoted the classic authors of Greco-Roman culture to his inquisitors in the Areopagus. He deftly used their own belief in an unknown god to advance his case. Paul’s message had three main points. First he was proposing an alternative to the religious world-view in which numerous gods competed against each other, resulting in otherwise inexplicable suffering for humanity. Paul proclaimed a single God with one mind, one will and all power. That would take some digesting. Paul also inverted the view which held that a proliferation of gods needed to be worshiped through idols in every place where their help might be required. Reality was just the opposite, Paul said. There is one God who is omnipresent. More food for thought.

Finally, Paul made the bold claim that there would be a final day of judgment, in stark contrast to the seemingly endless philosophical debates Athens was so famous for.  The verdict of his audience was mixed. Some rejected it out of hand and ridiculed it, and some wanted to hear more.

In the end, the outcome of St. Paul’s encounter with the Areopagus on this, his second missionary journey included one crucial convert - Dionysius (Dennis) the Areopagite (Greek = Διονύσιος ὁ Ἀρεοπαγίτης). According to the early Church historian Eusebius, Dionysius the Areopagite became the first bishop of Athens.

Portrait of Saint Dionysius the Areopagite in the Latin Rite Catholic Cathedral in Athens, Greece.

This account of origin of church authority is a classic example of apostolic succession. Men that Jesus selected and trained as apostles in turn picked men as bishops (Greek: ἐπίσκοπος, episkopos, or overseer) and so in an unbroken line to today. To this day the Greek root word episkopos persists in the Church as a description of anything relating to the authority or governance by bishops – episcopal office, episcopal conference.

The apostolic lines of succession in Greece, of course, go back to apostles in both the Orthodox and Catholic Churches. But, in the mind of many Greeks the Catholic Church traditionally has been regarded as a foreign presence, given its historical association with western powers and their involvement in the lands of what is now Greece. The sack of Constantinople by western Christian knights in the Fourth Crusade in 1204 is still a very sore point among many Greek Orthodox of today. The concept of transnational, universal identity that characterizes the Catholic self-view contrasts with a stronger tendency toward national or ethnic identity in the Eastern Apostolic Churches. The Greek Orthodox Church played a major role in keeping alive Greek identity, language and culture during the centuries of Ottoman domination. So the status of the Catholic Church today in Greece is frequently challenged in law and the reception of the Catholic Church could be described as something well short of open or friendly. But as EU rules on the cross-border movement and residence of people take effect, the number of Catholics in Greece has increased to a few hundred thousand, and adjustment to this new reality is taking place.

Our group heads for Mass to the Latin Rite Catholic Cathedral (from the Greek καθέδρα or kathedra = seat) in Athens, St. Dionysius Cathedral. It was built in 1844 in the Greek revival style, designed by the well-known German Court architect Leon von Klenze. It is a beautiful church and one of the best neoclassical buildings in Athens. The walls and fence around the cathedral create a secure and peaceful space, but the occasional harassment on the street and the pervasive graffiti on the outside surfaces that we have come to expect in Athens is a reminder of the barely submerged tensions in religious, economic, social, and especially political life in modern Greece.

The Church of Saint Dionysius the Areopagite, Latin Rite Catholic Cathedral in Athens, Greece.

Spray paint graffiti has taken over nearly all public spaces in Athens. A noticeable amount of the graffiti uses the Latin alphabet in an obvious play for western media coverage. Jobs are few, opportunities limited, tax avoidance pervasive, the future very uncertain. One of our Greek guides points out that conditions are better in Athens than surrounding countryside. Many Athenians fill up their cars with food and head out of the city for long weekends starting on Thursday evening. She claims that without this food supplement arriving in the countryside, people would go hungry. As petroleum prices rise or incomes fall, a turn to wood combustion for heat frequently generates a gray or brown layer in the lower atmosphere.

Different groups have different sectors of society they prefer to blame for the woes of modern Greece – immigrants, the EU, the opposite political party. And there is fear that the democratic polity that emerged in ancient Athens as an example to the world may not be coping with the strain.
Spray paint graffiti on a sign describing improvements by the Greek government to the Acropolis of Athens, Greece, October 2012. Spray paint proclaiming rival political/civic ideologies defaces most of Athens, including businesses, public structures, even antiquities.

It’s not difficult to understand some of the contributing factors that make modern Greece a divided society seemingly on the edge. Despite its foundational role in western society, the Greek language has fallen on challenging times. Greek, with its ancient and distinctive alphabet, is read and spoken by about 13 million people, compared to nearly a billion who speak romance languages that use the Latin alphabet. Demographically, Greece is one of the most severely challenged parts of a severely challenged continent. Very roughly speaking, if you polled four Greeks who are grandparents, currently they would have among them about two grandchildren. No pension system can function effectively in the face of numbers like that.

Greek government entities are, financially speaking, broke. Their fiscal liabilities are greater than can reasonably be expected will ever be paid back to creditors. Extreme political movements are growing. Centrist parties struggle to gain public confidence and have deep-seated problems of corruption and credibility in the face of paralysis and inaction. The adoption of the strong Euro as the currency has made manufacturing and exporting from Greece non-viable. Tourism and a sunny climate loom large in the Greek economy. Greece is a first point of landing for non-legal immigrants who are truly desperate and looking for any means to survive.

Still, Greeks are nothing if not resilient. In one sense, the emergence of the modern Greek state was improbable in the extreme. In the early 1800s the military, financial, and political/diplomatic resources necessary for a successful revolt against one of the major powers of the time simply did not exist. The main forces, if they can be called that, behind Greek independence were ideas – liberty, democracy, culture. But the force of those ideas did, in fact, have power. It was the power that comes from the ideals of democracy, science, and art as embodied in the tangible architectural and artistic patrimony of ancient Athens. They had enough power to move the people of Greece and the educated elite of Europe and the U.S.

As usual, reality was more sobering than the ideal. While Greek independence emerged, it did so with plenty of weaknesses and failings. The land had been ravaged in the fighting. The Western Powers and Russia played a major role in the victory, contributed to a mercenary army, and exercised an outsized role politics of Greece for years to come.

The situation then as well as the current situation in Greece might not have seemed all that unfamiliar to St. Paul. A divided society, with some elements of a prosperous population coexisting alongside people not secure in the basic needs of life. A not-so-distant past that looks good compared to an uncertain future. As he traveled the Greek lands, St. Paul must have wondered, what will come of these contending forces?

But he never looked back and he never stopped – right up until the time a Roman sword put an end to His earthly life. And that approach to his mission made a difference, a difference that is felt to this day in the life of everyone reading this account.


Beard, Mary. 2010. The Parthenon. Profile Books. 118 p. ISBN 1847650635.

Kaldellis, Anthony. 2009. The Christian Parthenon
 - Classicism and Pilgrimage in Byzantine Athens. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge UK. 268 p. ISBN: 9780521882286.

Numerous authors. 2013. 6th International Meeting for the Restoration of the Acropolis Monuments. (Abstracts). Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sports, Committee for the Conservation of the Acropolis Monuments, Acropolis Restoration Service, Special Service for the Sector of Culture. Athens, Greece. 48 p.

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