Paul’s speech in Athens (Acts 17) is one of the best-known and most-celebrated passages of the New Testament. It is also one whose interpretation and exact meaning are among the most disputed. Where did Paul speak - on a hill or before a council? To whom exactly - to philosophers, political elites, common citizens? What was he doing there in the first place - having a friendly chat or being investigated for a potentially capital crime? Did he mean “very religious” or “very superstitious”? Is he accommodating his message to the philosophy of his audience, and if so, in what ways and to what extent? Or is he being subversive and/or condemnatory? Is this the kind of evangelistic message we should emulate when speaking to unchurched unbelievers at the park or the street corner? Or was it a failed attempt, after which Paul resolved to “know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2)?
To answer these and many other similar questions about Paul’s speech, one must take a couple of steps back and reflect on the nature of Luke’s two-volume work, “Luke-Acts”. Recognizing the rich texture of Luke’s writings helps the reader to be sensitive and attentive to its many dimensions, be they scriptural, historical, theological, linguistic, canonical, intratextual, intertextual, literary, narratival, etc. Then, and only then, can the reader begin to hear clearly the voice of the (A)author guiding him or her through the story and unveiling its meaning.
A (rather quick) survey of these features will enable us to draw a number of basic principles for reading Luke’s books the way their author intended them to be. These should prove quite helpful for understanding any part of Luke-Acts, which is the longest single-author contribution to the New Testament (almost a third of it). In order to test their validity and usefulness, we will apply these hermeneutical principles in the exegesis of a highly-debated Lukan text, deemed by many scholars to be hopelessly ambiguous: Paul’s Areopagus speech, reported to us in Acts 17:22–31.