As Acts 17 tells us, when Saint Paul visited Athens, he stood in the midst of the Areopagus, Mars’ Hill, and preached a world-shattering sermon, the Gospel of Christ and an apologia for the Gospel against the philosophies and gods of the Greeks and the Romans. At this time, Christianity was spreading through the Roman Empire like a wildfire, and its most effective minister to Rome and Greece was Paul the Apostle. Paul’s Mars’ Hill sermon shows us one of the reasons God used him so mightily: Paul’s understanding of contemporary and historical Greco-Roman culture.
There in that sermon at the Areopagus, Paul preached the Gospel, as he often did, in a way to which the Greeks could easily relate. He quoted and debated their philosophers and poets, whom the people enjoyed and admired.
“God made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth . . . that they should seek God and perhaps feel their way toward Him and find Him. Yet He is actually not far from each one of us, for ‘in Him we live and move and have our being.’ As even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are indeed His offspring.’” (Acts 17:26-28)
Paul’s two quotes here are, respectively, from the Greek philosopher Epimenides and from the poem “Phaenomena” by Aratus.
But thou diest not [, Zeuss], for to eternity thou livest and standest, For in thee we live and move and have our being. From Epimenides
FROM "PHAENOMENA" BY ARATUS, TRANSLATED BY G.R. MAIR From Zeus let us begin; Him do we mortals never leave unnamed; Full of Zeus are all the streets and all the market-places of men; Full is the sea and the havens thereof; Always we all have need of Zeus. For we are also his offspring; And he in his kindness unto men giveth favourable signs And wakeneth the people to work, reminding them of livelihood. He tells what time the soil is best for the labour of the ox and for the mattock, And what time the seasons are favourable both for the planting of trees And for casting all manner of seeds. For himself it was who set the signs in heaven, And marked out the constellations, And for the year devised what stars chiefly should give to men right signs of the seasons, To the end that all things might grow unfailingly.
All throughout Paul’s writings and sermons, he references Greco-Roman philosophy, poetry, and mythology—that culture’s language—so his audience might easily compare and contrast their knowledge with the new Word Paul was bringing them. Paul shook his culture to its core. To change that culture, he had to understand it deeply first.
Christians, then, who wish in any way to influence today’s culture are foolish if they think they can do so without understanding it. Yet most Christians I see are missing too many unmissable pieces of cultural understanding.