“Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, ‘Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way…” (Acts 17:22)
It seems as though religion has always been a neutral word, even if it can be taken with either positive or negative connotations. When Paul begins his famous sermon in front of the Areopagus (Mars’ Hill for my King James friends), I tend to hear him with his tongue planted firmly in his cheek. “I see how extremely religious you are in every way,” doesn’t exactly sound like a genuine compliment. Of course, one could read it just as easily the other way. A.T. Robertson says that “the way one takes this adjective here colours Paul’s whole speech…” It would behoove the preacher, if she is looking at Acts this Sunday, to take some time an consider whether Paul means religious as a good or not.
The word Luke uses that gets translated as “religious” is that crazy long Greek word above. Like it is in English usage, it can mean a genuine piety – devotion to one’s belief system. Or, it can mean superstition or slavish rigidity to system of faith. As Robertson notes, “Thayer suggests that Paul uses it ‘with kindly ambiguity.'” The Vulgate and the King James Version both choose to read it negatively, translating the Greek to mean “superstition,” while most modern translations choose “religious” with all its inherent ambiguity.
So what are we to do with it? First, I would say that I agree with Robertson in thinking that Paul wouldn’t have been helped by being overtly negative toward his crowd. Paul was a smart man, and a wise preacher. He had studied rhetoric and knew how to work a room. I doubt highly that he would have chosen a word that undermined the religious sensibilities of the audience he was trying to convert. Still, as I noted above, in his mind, I’m willing to believe that there is no way Paul would have held the religion of the Athenians on par with his beloved Judaism or the fledgling faith tradition of Christianity. I’d be willing to suppose that Paul used this word, with all its ambiguity, very intentionally; in order to keep the ears of his audience open while not also betraying his own theological understandings.
This, then, is where we can learn a thing or two about evangelism from Paul. As I noted earlier this week, evangelism requires that we be fully committed to the validity of our own faith tradition while entering into conversation with the faith of the other with humility and reverence. Paul didn’t start a riot by calling the people of Athens no good pagans. Instead, he lifted up their hunger for faith and communion with their gods as an opportunity then to think more fully about the God that Paul would present, whose Son came to redeem the world.