Archaeology and Idolatry
Jun 03, 2009 by Craig Blomberg | 2 Comments
“While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols.” “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands” (Acts 17:16, 24).
Last weekend I was in Athens as part of a group of 40 on Denver Seminary’s every-other-year trip “In the Path of Paul”. It was the climax of two weeks of traveling around Turkey and Greece seeing many magnificent ruins (as well as smaller ones), teaching and learning about the sites Paul visited.
Of course, in Athens we visited the Parthenon and other sites on the Acropolis, the reconstructed Stoa of Attalus, and the famous Areopagus (Mars Hill). We read and discussed Paul’s famous address there (Acts 17:22-31, which is also inscribed in Greek on a plaque on the side of a rock at the bottom of the hill. It is a well known sermon to be sure.
But how many of us remember how Luke begins his narrative of Paul’s time in Athens? Verse 16 makes clear Paul’s reaction when he saw so many temples and shrines dedicated to the various gods, goddesses and emperors: “he was greatly distressed.” The verb is from paroxunomai, which can also mean “inwardly aroused, “ “greatly upset,” or “provoked to wrath.” It is the root from which we get the English word “paroxysm.”
Of course we had to take in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, ranked by some as among the top ten museums of its kind in the world. And the next day we had a stopover in London for time at the British Museum, which certainly ranks in that category. People understandably go to ancient ruins and modern museums and marvel of the architectural feats of the ancients. Do we also stop and reflect on how disproportionately large a percentage of those edifices came about in order to worship false gods or deified human rulers? Do we agonize over the massive amounts of slave labor employed in back-breaking work over decades to create these monuments to idolatry? Paul did and it broke his heart. Little wonder he did everything he could to point the Athenians in a very different direction.
It’s not surprising that in this context part of his message would include the reminder, stressed already by Solomon, that God does not dwell in temples constructed by humans. Even Solomon’s temple was not God’s first plan but a response to the desire of the people to be like the pagan nations surrounding them. His initial plan was the still beautiful but more modest and portable tabernacle. In the New Testament, Jesus makes clear in John 4:20-24 that locations or buildings aren’t what worship is all about but worshiping God “in spirit and in truth”.
The Protestant Reformers rightly criticized Eastern Orthodoxy and Catholicism for at times spending too much money and focusing too much attention on creating ornate buildings rather than promoting true worship of Jesus. Until some time in the late 1970s or early 1980s, evangelicals were in general known for their more modest buildings than liberal Protestantism, but in the last thirty years that state of affairs has, in general, been reversed. At what point do our facilities become our idols? Would Paul be greatly distressed if he came to Denver and saw the number of large churches and the millions of dollars their people pour into their buildings that could be better spent elsewhere?