We were sitting in a little sidewalk cafe north of Athens. In Sounion, which perches on the tip of the cape southeast of Athens, are the ruins of the once-lovely temple dedicated to the sea god Poseidon, and we wanted to see them. The apostle Paul must have sailed past this cape on his second missionary journey and looked up to see the tall white columns gracing the top.

Sidewalk cafes are friendlier and more informal than tourist hotels, and this one was no exception. Sitting at a neighboring table was a genial English couple, who struck up a conversation about all they had seen. “You know,” they commented, “one wonders, after traveling around this place, if a man named Paul didn’t live here after all.”

The mind goes back in time 2,000 years to an ancient Athens that was smaller and more beautiful than the Athens of today. It was “a provincial university city, the home of art treasures” (Otto F. A. Meinardus in Paul in Greece). It was dominated by the Acropolis with its magnificent temples, the largest and most magnificent being the famous Parthenon. These buildings had already been standing for several hundred years when Paul arrived.

An ancient proverb declared that there were more gods in Athens than men, and wherever the apostle looked there were gods—in temples, in niches, on pedestals, on street corners. Paul even discovered a temple to the unknown god.

Seeing the city wholly given over to idolatry, Paul’s spirit was “exasperated” (NEB). He disputed with the religious leaders, with devout persons, with those he met in the marketplace. Then he took on certain philosophers of the Epicureans and the Stoics. Some of them derisively called him a babbler, or in Greek, a spermologos—literally a “seed-picker”—an Athenian slang term for those who loafed about the agora picking up odds and ends.

In the days of Paul, the Council of the Areopagus had authority over all matters pertaining to the religious life of the city, and it was because of this that Paul was invited to appear before them. Here he delivered his famous speech that changed the course of history, though the change was not sudden but gradual. When he spoke of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked; others said they wanted to hear him again on the matter.

But when Paul left Athens, he left behind at least two believers: a woman named Damaris, about whom we know nothing, and Dionysius, the Areopagite. Then silence fell. We know only that a small Christian community did develop, and it grew in spite of the paganism that continued to flourish around it. By A.D. 408–50, several temples in Athens had been converted into churches. During the reign of Justinian (A.D. 527–65) the Parthenon itself was turned into a church, and remained one for 200 years. At about the same time, the Erechtheum atop the Acropolis was also converted into a church.

There are churches in Athens today dedicated to the apostle Paul, though it is not Paul but his first Athenian convert, Dionysius the Areopagite, who is venerated as the patron saint of Athens.

Today, 2,000 years later, the temples are in various stages of ruin. And who can name the gods to whom they were erected? Who can name the members of the Areopagus? Who, aside from scholars, knows the form of government in Greece at that time? Yet, “After traveling around here, one wonders if a man named Paul didn’t live here after all.”

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.