Excavations of ancient Athens (Map 7:D3) (named after its patron goddess Athena) reveal its settlement since the Neolithic period. The easy defense of the Acropolis and the proximity of the Saronic Gulf to the south explain the importance of the site in the history of Attica. In the fifth century BCE, despite defeats in the Peloponnesian War, Athens emerged as the cultural and intellectual center of the Greek world. Innovative techniques in art and sculpture, powerful developments in Greek drama, and significant progress in political reform characterized the glory of fifth‐century Athens. The wellspring for later Greek philosophical inquiry flowed from the life and thought of Socrates (ca. 470–399). Ironically, the virtual destruction of the Acropolis in the early fifth century by the Persians made way for an era of architectural creativity in the last half of the century, when the Parthenon, Erechtheion, and numerous other temples were constructed on the Acropolis.

Acts 17.16–34 contains the only extended reference in the New Testament to Athens. The plot of this narrative is structured around some of the best‐known aspects of Athenian culture and local color. The city's religiousness, expressed in temples, shrines, and altars, was proverbial in both Greek and Roman thought. The travelogue composed by the Greek geographer Pausanias (second century CE) depicts a city replete with sacred edifices and statues. This facet of Athenian culture is reflected in Luke's statement that “the city was full of idols” (Acts 17.16) and Paul's reference to the Athenians' piety (17.22) and an altar “to an unknown god” (17.23).

From the time of Socrates until the emperor Justinian closed the schools of philosophy in 529 CE, the name of Athens was synonymous with philosophical pursuit of truth. The city had, in fact, been the home not only for Socrates but also for Plato's Academy, Aristotle's Lyceum, the Painted Porch of Stoicism, and the Gardens of Epicurus. As a university town in Paul's time, Athens continued to attract philosophical and philhellenic intellectuals. The account of Paul's efforts there is interwoven with allusions to the city's philosophical traditions. Paul encounters “Epicurean and Stoic philosophers” (17.18), argues for the true nature of God on the basis of natural revelation (17.24–28), and quotes the Stoic poet Aratus (17.28). (See also Epicureans; Stoics.) The scrutiny of Paul's doctrine of God by the council of the Areopagus deliberately echoes the trial of Socrates for proclaiming new deities and leading the populace to question its beliefs in the traditional gods.

Beyond Acts 17, 1 Thessalonians 3.1, in which Paul mentions his stay in Athens, is the only other New Testament reference to the city. Athens was the home of several second‐century Christian apologists, but otherwise did not exert much direct influence in early Christian history.

Richard E. Oster, Jr.