22 August 2017

Connecting the rock
of the Areopagos
with the rock of faith

The Hill of the Areopagos and the Agora of Athens seen from the Acropolis (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

Returning from Athens to Askeaton to Athens after a long weekend, I was a little late in getting to work on my sermons for Castletown and Rathkeale next Sunday [27 August 2017].

The Gospel reading (Matthew 16: 13-20) includes the episode in which Christ says to the Apostle Peter: ‘I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it’ (verse 18).

In the past, Protestant theologians have put forward contorted arguments about the meaning of the rock and the rock of faith in this Gospel passage. Some have tried to argue that the word used for Peter, Πητρος (petros), is the Greek for a small pebble, but that faith is described with a different Greek word, πητρα (petra), meaning a giant rock.

They were silly arguments. The distinction between these words existed in Attic Greek in the classical days, but not in the Greek spoken at the time of Christ or at the time Saint Matthew was writing his Gospel. Πητρος (Petros) was the male name derived from a rock, while πητρα (petra) was a rock, a massive rock like Petra in Jordan.

Other words related to these concepts include the word λιθος (lithos), used for a small rock, a stone, or even a pebble – it is the Greek word that gives us words like lithograph and megalithic, meaning Great Stone Age – and πάγος (pagos), which in Ancient Greek, means ‘big piece of rock.’

The last word probably explains the name of the Areopagos in Athens, the prominent outcrop of rock immediately north-west of the Acropolis. Its English name is the composite form of the Greek name, Ἄρειος Πάγος (Areios Págos, ‘Rock of Ares’).

In classical Athens, this functioned as the court for trying deliberate homicide. It was said Ares was put on trial here by the gods for the murder of Halirrhothios, the son of Poseidon. The gods supposedly accepted his defence of justifiable deicide on the grounds that he was defending his daughter Alcippe from unwanted advances.

A temple dedicated to the Erinyes stood at the foot of this rocky outcrop, and murderers sought shelter to escape the consequences of their actions.

Before the 5th century BC, the Areopagos was the council of elders of Athens, similar to the Roman Senate. But in 462 BC, Ephialtes put through reforms which deprived the Areopagos of almost all its functions except that of a murder tribunal. The centre of decision-making shifted to the ecclesia or ekklesia (ἐκκλησία), the principal assembly of the democracy of ancient Athens which met at the Theatre of Dionysus from about 300 BC.

In the play The Eumenides (458 BC) by Aeschylus, the Areopagos is the site of the trial of Orestes for killing his mother Clytemnestra and her lover (Aegisthus).

Phryne, the hetaerae or courtesan famed for her beauty, appeared before the Areopagos in the 4th century BC, accused of profaning the Eleusinian mysteries. One story says she was acquitted when she let her cloak drop, impressing the judges with her physical beauty.

The Acropolis seen from the new Acropolis Museum on Dionysiou Areopagitou Street (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

The Areopagos continued to function in Roman times, and the Romans referred to the rocky outcrop as Mars Hill, identifying Ares with Mars, the Roman god of war.

Here too was the Athenian altar to the Unknown God, where the Apostle Paul delivered his speech below the Acropolis in which he says:

22 “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. 23 For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the 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, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, 25 nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. 26 From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, 27 so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him – though indeed 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 own poets have said,

‘For we too are his offspring.’

29 Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. 30 While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31 because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”
(Acts 17: 22-31)

This is the most dramatic and fullest reported sermon or speech in the missionary career of the Apostle Paul. Saint Paul is quoting the Cretan philosopher Epimenides, but the location of his speech has important cultural contexts, including justice, deicide and the hidden God.

On the corner of Dionysiou Areopagitou and Vyronos (Byron) streets (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

After his sermon, a number of people in Athens became followers of Saint Paul. They included a woman named Damaris, and Dionysius the Areopagite (Διονύσιος ὁ Ἀρεωπαγίτης), a judge at the court of the Areopagos who is said to have become the first Bishop of Athens.

The street that runs along the southern slope of the Acropolis is Dionysiou Areopagitou. There two of us had breakfast on Saturday morning before we climbed the Acropolis, and there we returned again in the afternoon to visit the Acropolis Museum.

Tertullian asked rhetorically, ‘What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?’ (De praescriptione, vii), meaning ‘What has Greek thinking to do with Christianity, or philosophy with theology?’

But Tertullian was strongly influenced by Stoic philosophy, and without that approach he might never have posed his question. His thinking was founded on the two mighty rocks of both philosophy and theology.

The Stoa of Attalos beneath the Acropolis at night … Tertullian was strongly influenced by Stoic philosophy (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

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