Areopagus

AREOPAGUS (âr'ē-ŏp'a-gŭs, Gr. Areios pagos). The rocky hill of the god Ares, or Mars. A spur jutting out from the western side of the Acropolis at Athens, separated from it by a short saddle. To the north directly below was the Agora or marketplace.

Areopagus is also the name of the council that met on Mars Hill, a court dating back to legendary times, in NT days still charged with questions of morals and the rights of teachers who lectured in public. Its importance was enhanced under the Romans. Paul was brought to the Areopagus (Acts.17.19) to be examined regarding his teaching. KJV says that “Paul stood in the midst of Mars hill,” where ASV and RSV have “in the midst [middle] of the Areopagus,” referring to the court, not the hill (Acts.17.22). NIV, even more specific, says that Paul stood up “in the meeting of the Areopagus.” Before these “solid citizens,” the bulwark of civic and religious conservatism, Paul met the mocking taunts of adherents of two of that day’s most popular philosophies, Epicureanism and Stoicism. His address is today more widely read than any of the writings of the philosophers and is almost the only means by which we remember the Council of Areopagus. Paul’s mission in Athens produced numerically scant results, and the founding of no church is recorded; but Dionysius the Areopagite, one of the members of this honorable court, was among those who “became followers of Paul and believed” (Acts.17.34).——ER


Standing on the Areopagus, looking toward the Acropolis in Athens.

AREOPAGUS ăr’ ĭ ŏp’ ə gəs (̓Άρει̂ος πἀγος, perhaps the hill of Ares, Gr. god of war. The Rom. equivalent is Mars. Hence, Mars’ Hill). A large, irregular outcropping of limestone about 380 ft. high. It lies NW of the Acropolis to which it is connected by a low, narrow saddle, and overlooks the agora, the marketplace of classical and Hel. Athens.

The archeological evidence from the Areopagus is much less plentiful than the literary references to it. There are two unhewn stones on the summit. On one, the stone of outrage, stood the accuser. On the other, the stone of ruthlessness, stood the accused. There are also a few cuttings which may have served as the foundations of a building or as platform for altars. On the S side near the top is a flight of fifteen hewn steps which lead from the connecting saddle to the top. On the NE slope four late Helladic tombs were cut into the soft rock. Foundation walls of an elliptical building of the Geometric period have been uncovered on the NW slope. The large quantity of votive material in and around it suggests that it was an early religious site, perhaps the sanctuary of Areia, an early cult name for Athena. This is offered as an alternative etymology for Areopagus.

The Court of the Areopagus presumably met on the hilltop in earliest times. At first it exercised control over all matters pertaining to the city. According to tradition it was originally convened to try cases of murder. The first case tried before it was that of Ares (hence the name of the hill according to the ancients), for the murder of Helirrhothios who attempted to rape his daughter. The most famous case, immortalized in the Oresteia of Aeschylus, was that of Orestes who was charged with the murder of his mother, Clytemnestra. Athena intervened in a tie vote to save him from the avenging furies and thus established the superiority of law and reason over revenge in Athens.

Under the Athenian constitution the court lost most of its ancient powers but retained jurisdiction in cases of homicide. By the 1st cent. of the Christian era, it exercised a general censorship in matters of religion and education. The court was made up of all archons who after their term in office were able to prove themselves free of official misconduct in accordance with the provisions of the law.

Although the court originally met on the hilltop, by the 5th cent. b.c. judicial trials were prob. heard in the Stoa Basileios at the NW corner of the agora. This building was connected with the duties of the Archon Basileios, who was responsible in matters of religion. An annex of the Stoa was used to hear cases where privacy was important. Presumably the court met on most occasions in the Stoa, but for the sake of ceremony moved to the hilltop to pronounce sentence. The reason for the change of location was prob. the exposed situation of the Areopagus. The velocity of the wind there is very great on clear days as well as in inclement weather. It is often difficult to stand there and even more difficult to hear.

Paul’s visit to Athens is recorded in Acts 17:15-34. Because of his teachings regarding Jesus and the Resurrection he was taken before the Court of the Areopagus. It is presumed that the court was exercising its right of censorship on the religious life of the community. The account suggests that the proceedings were in the nature of a hearing rather than an actual trial. Paul, a foreigner and a teacher, was examined to determine if he should be allowed to circulate freely in the city. The hearing prob. took place in the Stoa Basileios since reference is made to a surrounding crowd (vv. 19-22, 33), which could not be successfully accommodated on the hilltop.

No comment was made about the official response of the court to Paul’s presentation of the Gospel. Two converts were mentioned by name, Dionysius, a member of the court, and a woman, Damaris. Others, unnamed, were also said to have believed. Dionysius, bishop of Corinth (c. a.d. 170) called nodetitle, was the first bishop of the church at Athens. The remains of the church of St. Dionysius the Areopagite are visible on a ridge on the N slope of the hill.

The name Areopagus survives today as the title of the Supreme Court of Greece.

Bibliography

For the function of the council, Aristotle, Constitution of Athens, passim; K. Wachsmuth and T. Thalheim in Pauly Wissowa RE s. v. “̓Αρει̂ος πάγος”; I. T. Hill, The Ancient City of Athens (1953).

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

A sort of spur jutting out from the western end of the Acropolis and separated from it by a very short saddle. Traces of old steps cut in the rock are still to be seen. Underneath are deep grottoes, once the home of the Eumenides (Furies). On the flat surface of the summit are signs still visible of a smoothing of the stone for seats. Directly below to the North was the old Athenian agora, or market-place. To the East, on the descent from the Acropolis, could be seen in antiquity a small semicircular platform--the orchestra--from which rose the precipitous rock of the citadel. Here the booksellers kept their stalls; here the work of Anaxagoras could be bought for a drachma; from here his physical philosophy was disseminated, then, through Euripides, the poetic associate of Socrates and the sophists, leavened the drama, and finally reached the people of Athens. Then came the Stoics and Epicureans who taught philosophy and religion as a system, not as a faith, and spent their time in searching out some new thing in creed and dogma and opinion. Five centuries earlier Socrates was brought to this very Areopagus to face the charges of his accusers.

To this same spot the apostle Paul came almost five hundred years after 399 BC, when the Attic martyr was executed, with the same earnestness, the same deep-rooted convictions, and with even greater ardor, to meet the philosophers of fashion. The Athenian guides will show you the exact place where the apostle stood, and in what direction he faced when he addressed his audience. No city has ever seen such a forest of statues as studded the market-place, the streets and the sides and summit of the Acropolis of Athens. A large part of this wealth of art was in full view of the speaker, and the apostle naturally made this extraordinary display of votive statues and offerings the starting-point of his address. He finds the Athenians extremely religious. He had found an altar to a god unknown. Then he develops theme of the great and only God, not from the Hebrew, but from the Greek, the Stoic point of view. His audiences consisted, on the one hand, of the advocates of prudence as the means, and pleasure as the end (the Epicureans); on the other, of the advocates of duty, of living in harmony with the intelligence which rules the world for good. He frankly expresses his sympathy with the nobler principles of the Stoic doctrine. But neither Stoic nor Epicurean could believe the declarations of the apostle: the latter believed death to be the end of all things, the former thought that the soul at death was absorbed again into that from which it sprang. Both understood Paul as proclaiming to them in Jesus and Anastasis ("resurrection") some new deities. When they finally ascertained that Jesus was ordained by God to judge the world, and that Anastasis was merely the resurrection of the dead, they were disappointed. Some scoffed, others departed, doubtless with the feeling that they had already given audience too long to such a fanatic.

The Areopagus, or Hill of Ares, was the ancient seat of the court of the same name, the establishment of which leads us far back into the mythical period long before the dawn of history. This court exercised the right of capital punishment. In 594 BC the jurisdiction in criminal cases was given to the archons who had discharged the duties of their office well and honorably, consequently to the noblest, richest and most distinguished citizens of Athens. The Areopagus saw that the laws in force were observed and executed by the properly constituted authorities; it could bring officials to trial for their acts while in office, even raise objections to all resolutions of the Council and of the General Assembly, if the court perceived a danger to the state, or subversion of the constitution. The Areopagus also protected the worship of the gods, the sanctuaries and sacred festivals, and the olive trees of Athens; and it supervised the religious sentiments of the people, the moral conduct of the citizens, as well as the education of the youth.

Without waiting for a formal accusation the Areopagus could summon any citizen to court, examine, convict and punish him. Under unusual circumstances full powers could be granted by the people to this body for the conduct of various affairs of state; when the safety of the city was menaced, the court acted even without waiting for full power to be conferred upon it. The tenure of office was for life, and the number of members without restriction. The court sat at night at the end of each month and for three nights in succession. The place of meeting was a simple house, built of clay, which was still to be seen in the time of Vitruvius. The Areopagus, hallowed by the sacred traditions of the past, a dignified and august body, was independent of and uninfluenced by the wavering discordant multitude, and was not affected by the ever-changing public opinion. Conservative almost to a fault, it did the state good service by holding in check the too rash and radical younger spirits. When the democratic party came to power, after Cimon’s banishment, one of its first acts was to limit the powers of the Areopagus. By the law of Ephialtes in 460 the court lost practically all jurisdiction. The supervision of the government was transferred to the nomophulakes (law-guardians). At the end of the Peloponnesian war, however, in 403 its old rights were restored. The court remained in existence down to the time of the emperors. From Ac 17:19,22 we learn that it existed in the time of Claudius. One of its members was converted to the Christian faith (17:34). It was probably abolished by Vespasian.

As to whether Paul was "forcibly apprehended and formally tried," see Conybeare and Howson, The Life and Epistles of Paul, chapter x, and The Expositor, 5th series, II, 209 f, 261 f (Ramsay).

LITERATURE. P. W. Forchhammer, De Areopago (Kiel, 1828); Philippi, Der A. und die Epheten (Leipzig, 1874); Lange, Die Epheten und der A. vor Solon (Leipzig, 1874).

See also

  • Athens