Mars Hill, near the Parthenon, Athens, Greece.
The other day, during my first visit here, I took a tour of the Acropolis, the hill on which the monumental Parthenon, symbol of the glory of Greece, still stands, huge and magnificent. Close by is the much smaller hill of the god Aries — a mound of solid marble with beautifully carved steps leading up to its flat top.
There, civic leaders of democratic Athens would meet to take evidence and hammer out decisions . . . or to conduct selected trials — including all murder trials, which were required to be held outdoors, because the Greeks feared contagion from extreme evildoers if they were enclosed with them.
Paul of Tarsus, the prime stimulus of Christian orthodoxy as we still know it, asked for a Mars Hill meeting with the democrats of Athens to present his case for a new God, one who had incarnated in human form. Now, this Paul was a crafty zealot . . . he had noticed that the Greeks had one statue dedicated to “the unknown god” — kind of like the “tomb of the unknown soldier” — because, in their liberal way, the Greeks were willing to consider there might be some god(s) they didn’t know about yet. Paul saw an opportunity to preach his visions to the Greeks by appealing to their remarkable broad-mindedness. The elders of Athens granted him a hearing.
Paul’s presentation was going OK, until he presented his idea of a human son of God, who rose from the dead and bodily ascended into heaven (Elysian Fields to the Greeks). On top of this, Paul argued that the end of the world was going to happen any day now, at which time the gentle Jesus would come back as a victorious warrior, to smite non-believers, while true believers would also ascend bodily into heaven, in a state of rapture (evidently unaffected by the suffering of their “left-behind” neighbors).
Altogether, these fantastic notions were too much, even for the open-minded, mythology-oriented Greeks. Although they gave him a fair hearing, they could not countenance such ideas, and Paul was dismissed. In this particular instance, he was not able to put “the fear of God” into his audience, and the wise men of Athens never invited him back.
Considering the modern rise in fundamentalism (in all 3 western religions), there may be a lesson in this for us today. Let the fundamentalists say their piece, refuse to be infected by fear-mongering, politely point out the absurd inconsistency of their beliefs, deny them power and send them on their way. The fact that Paul’s belief system gained ascendancy 300 years later, and formed the basis of Christian doctrine, east and west, speaks not only to the power of his fanatic personality but also to the power of fear combined with magical thinking about personal salvation and even ascension (72 virgins, anyone?)
Except for the likes of Athens’ brightest minds, the ancients were ripe for this combination, for hardly anyone living in that brutal world was educated or literate. The promise of a personal redemption and salvation in exchange for the acceptance of one’s suffering was fairly irresistible to many who had no hope otherwise.
Paul left Athens and marched further into the pagan world. He eventually reached Rome where he was imprisoned (for the umpteenth time) and beheaded (way before the Second Coming).