22Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. 23For 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. 24The 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, 25nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. 26From 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, 27so 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. 28For ‘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.’ 29Since 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. 30While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31because 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.”
Paul’s speech to the Athenians is justifiably famous. In this brief speech, Paul asserts the gospel in a potentially hostile environment, displays missionary zeal, and confronts the idolatry and false beliefs of the Greeks. In many ways, he set the standard for missionary endeavours.
When we read past stories of mission work, including this passage from Acts, we might lament that in the secularising West, where religious adherence is stagnant or falling, we are no longer in a religious context. Today it seems that the Christian message falls mainly on deaf ears and stony hearts that are immune to any religious impulse. If we are involved in mission, we might envy Paul, thinking how fortunate he was to be working in a thoroughly religious environment, in which gods, even unknown ones, had altars by which they could be remembered and worshipped. We might think that in such an environment it is easier to win converts when compared with places where traces of religiosity have all but vanished.
For Jacques Ellul, this description of the modern world is completely false. Moderns remain, in his view, a completely religious people, just as the Athenians were in Paul’s time. We might not have altars to unknown gods, but we do have monuments to things we do not recognize as our gods. Skyscrapers, war memorials, banks, and shopping malls are altars to the gods of technology, violence, money, and consumerism. Nationalism and patriotism are ideologies that draw people into religious zeal for gods of the culture and nation. Yet, there is no reason why, given the religious nature of the modern world, why people who adhere to one religion cannot change to another. Our mission remains both as easy and as difficult as Paul’s.
In his famous speech before the Areopagus, Paul’s forceful preaching reveals him as possibly the first counter-cultural contextual theologian, confronting Athenian culture with the gospel. While his speech evokes great evangelical hope, it is also a source of political lament. It contains a wonderful example of cultural engagement and evangelism to non-Christian culture, but it also contains a notorious verse, which has supported nationalism and racism with devastating political consequences.
Paul challenged the false gods and idols of Athens, but in doing so his recorded words have created a terrifying legacy. Throughout the twentieth century, verse 26 was used to support the toxic politics of segregation, Apartheid, and ethno-nationalism. The effects are still with us today. So, reading this verse demands great care. Here is it again:
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.
Acts 17:26 was read in the pro-Apartheid Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa as meaning that nations and peoples were created and given their own lands, with borders between them. Cultures and nations and races, it was said, were part of God’s ordering of the human family. Based on this view, it is a mistake, therefore, to mix what God wanted to keep apart. This was the basis for segregating races of people in Apartheid-era South Africa and in the southern states of the USA.
I recently saw the film Loving (dir. Jeff Nichols, 2016), which narrates the story of Richard and Mildred Loving, and their protracted battle for legal recognition of their inter-racial marriage. In telling their story, the film touches lightly on the theological justifications for banning interracial marriage in the segregated states. When the Lovings appealed their 1959 conviction for violating Virginia’s miscegenation laws, Leon M. Bazile, judge of the Caroline County Circuit Court, infamously elaborated his view of their “unnatural alliance” in his judgment (January 22, 1965):
Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with his [arrangement] there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.
While not citing Acts 17 directly, Bazile’s words would have reminded his hearers of the biblical underpinnings of his judgment. There is written evidence that Acts 17 was commonly used in this way in the segregated South. For example, Rev J. David Simpson in an article entitled “Non-Segregation Means Eventual Inter-Marriage”, published in The Southern Presbyterian Journal (March, 15, 1948), wrote in support of this common and widespread interpretation of Acts 17:
I want to express my further conviction that the Scriptures teach Segregation, and most positively do not teach the pattern of non-segregation that is being so strongly urged upon the South by pressure groups and agitators from the outside. Acts 17:26 says: “And hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation.” This verse, by some of our leading Biblical Commentators and Theologians, is used over and over again in defense of segregation of the races, and to their interpretation I agree. The fact is, that the latter part of the verse teaches just the opposite of non-segregation and free social inter-mingling.
While not always justified on scriptural grounds, this view of the separation of races can still be heard today. In Fiji, for example, which has a large Indian population, largely the descendants of former indentured labourers, some indigenous Fijians (now known as “iTaukei”) believe that God placed the Fijians in Fiji, and the Indians in India and that this mixing of peoples has been to the detriment of Fiji and against the will of God. Such Fijian ethno-nationalism has had devastating political consequences for this island nation, since the first coup d’état in 1987, which sought to restore indigenous Fijian rule over Fiji.
A subtler misinterpretation of this passage interprets the first part of Acts 17 to recognise that humanity comes from one source, Adam and Eve, but that this unity is only a spiritual one, being a mystical body union with the risen Christ. In other words, we share a unity of spirit. When it comes to our bodies, however, they must remain segregated and not mix (G. T. Gillespie, “A Christian View on Segregation,” 4 November 1954, 12). In summary, this view holds that, while human spirits can be united privately in the church, human bodies fall under the control of the state, and for social harmony to exist, our bodies must be segregated along racial lines.
Thankfully there are other ways of reading this text. One way into an alternative reading of this passage is to consider why Paul deals with the issue of nations and their boundaries. Some scholars answer that Paul is challenging the ethnic pride of the Athenians, who claimed to be autochthonous, meaning they were created directly by the gods in Athens from the ground itself. This was a source of pride and self-righteousness that made them feel superior to other nations. More positively it also encouraged a sense of egalitarianism, but only within Athenian society.
By claiming that all nations, including Athens, were created by God, Paul directly challenged their belief in their autochthonous origins, and affirmed that Athenians, like Jews, were all descended from “one ancestor” and are brothers and sisters with all people. As a result, Athenian egalitarianism should be spread outside Athens to all nations. Reading the passage in this way suggests that the racist reading cannot be tolerated. Rather, we should read this passage in a way that humbles ethnic pride and reinforces an internationalism and multiculturalism based on a belief in our common human origins. So, rather than supporting segregation, this passage supports the idea of humanity being one family under God.
This view is supported by the reading of Acts 17:26 within the Second Vatican Council document “Nostra Aetate” (Pope Paul VI, October 28, 1965). Paul VI agrees that Acts 17:26 defines the common origin of humanity, and reminded the church that we should also be conscious of the common destiny of humanity (Revelation 21:23-26). This is the heavenly inter-mingling and unity of all nations in harmony with God, our fellow brothers and sisters, and other creatures. In other words, our origins and ethnicity alone do not define us as persons or nations.
In our current era of nativism, wall-building, and ever stronger national boundaries, the church must work to promote internationalism and the universal brotherhood and sisterhood of all humanity, which is not merely some spiritual bond, but must be built relationship by relationship in this material world as a direct challenge to those advocating ethnic purity and segregation. In acting in this way in the world, our actions would be as strong a witness as Paul’s was. In this work, we will have enemies, as Paul did (we should remember Paul’s mixed results; some scoffed at him, others converted). But in doing this work, we can, wherever we are, help those groping to find the true God in this world.
Dr. Richard A. Davis is Senior Lecturer in Theology and Ethics at the Pacific Theological College in Suva, Fiji Islands. He tweets on @rad_1968.