Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism

Damaris Acts 17 Athens

The Apostle Paul in Athens

However, some people joined Paul and believed, including Dionysius the Areopagite, a woman named Damaris, and others with them. Acts 17:34

In the year 52, the apostle Paul visited the city of Athens as part of his second missionary journey. While in Athens, Paul had discussions with Jews and God-fearing Gentiles in their synagogue and had daily conversations with whoever was in the agora (the marketplace and centre of community life) (Acts 17:17).

In Paul’s day, Athens was a self-governing city within the Roman province of Achaia. The city had declined in prestige since the classical period, but it still attracted philosophers. Paul’s conversations in the agora caught the attention of some of these philosophers, and they invited him to speak at the Areopagus. The Areopagus was where the governing council of Athens met. The council members were all elite, wealthy men.

So, as well as speaking to a Jewish audience in their synagogue, and to the general public in the agora, Paul addressed the Athenian elite at the Areopagus.

Paul’s speech in the Areopagus had mixed results. Some in the audience baulked at the idea of the resurrection of the dead and they mocked Paul. Others, however, were interested and wanted to hear Paul speak again (Acts 17:32). We don’t know if he got to speak a second time, but we do know that one of the council members named Dionysius believed Paul’s message.

Luke, traditionally thought to be the author of Acts, also mentions a woman named Damaris. Luke often mentions men and women alongside each other to highlight the inclusivity of the gospel.  Other unnamed Athenians, who may have been connected with Dionysius and with Damaris, also believed and joined Paul (Acts 17:34).[1]

Why did Luke identify Dionysius and Damaris by name? And only them? What can we know about these two people and Damaris in particular? (The name “Damaris” is pronounced with the stress on the first syllable.)

Was Damaris a Noblewoman or Philosopher?

The book of Acts, and also the Gospel of Luke, was written for a person named Theophilus who likely sponsored its writing (Acts 1:1ff; cf. Luke 1:3-4). Theophilus would have been a wealthy Christian man of elevated rank. Perhaps because of his sponsor, Luke occasionally makes a point in Acts of mentioning men and women from the upper classes who became convinced of Paul’s message and joined the church (e.g., Acts 17:1-4).

Mentioning Dionysius fits with this pattern. Luke describes him as an Areopagite, a member of the ruling council of Athens.[2] Dionysius was a senior man at the top of Athenian society. If Damaris was at the Areopagus when she heard Paul speak, she may also have had elite social status.

It is not clear from Acts 17 if Damaris was present at the Areopagus or if she heard Paul speak at a synagogue or the agora. Nevertheless, many commentators believe she was at the Areopagus because Luke seems to pair her with Dionysius. However, Luke does not present them as husband and wife, as is sometimes suggested.

Athens had a long history of restricting women, and some believe it is unlikely a woman would be in a place such as the Areopagus which was a predominately male space. Others propose that if she was present, she must have been either a philosopher (Epicureans, Pythagoreans, and Stoics had female students) or a hetaira, or both as was sometimes the case. Female philosophers and hetairai (courtesans) lived outside of the usual conventions for respectable married women.

Since it was philosophers who invited Paul to speak at the Areopagus, it makes sense to speculate that both Dionysius and Damaris were themselves philosophers. However, as Arco den Heijer observes,

With regard to Dionysius, the author of Acts is much more interested in his social position, which is reflected in his membership of the ancient aristocratic class of the Areopagites, than in his philosophical allegiance. The same must be true of Damaris: she is to be ranked among the “noble women” who show their interest in Paul’s teaching throughout the book of Acts (cf. Acts 17:12, immediately preceding the Athenian episode).[3]

Was Damaris a Hetaira, a Courtesan?

Hetairai were women who, in classical Athens, “participated in the social activities of the elite men as both sexual and intellectual companions.”[4] Approximately 100 years ago, noted archaeologist and New Testament scholar William Ramsay made the following statements about Damaris.

One woman was converted at Athens; and it is not said that she was of good birth, as was stated at Berea and Thessalonica and Pisidian Antioch. The difference is true to life. It was impossible in Athenian society for a woman of respectable position and family to have any opportunity of hearing Paul; and the name Damaris (probably a vulgarism for damalis, heifer) suggests a foreign woman, perhaps one of the class of educated hetairai, who might very well be in his audience.[5]

Many commentators likewise state that it would have been unusual for a respectable woman to be at the Areopagus. However, Athens, like all cities in the Roman empire, would have been influenced by Roman customs that gave first-century women, especially wealthy women, more freedoms than Athenian women in previous times.

Den Heijer notes, “Roman Athens presented itself to its visitors as the living heir of classical Athens but it is likely that under the influence of Rome, elite women had more freedom to appear in public than in classical Athens.”[6] Furthermore, the role of hetairai, which was significant in classical Athens of the fifth and fourth centuries BC, had waned in importance under Roman influence.

Damaris may simply have been an independent, wealthy woman who was in the Areopagus when Paul was there. Ramsay’s point remains that, unlike other elite women in Acts 17, Luke does not describe Damaris as a noblewoman.[7] However, it was not impossible that a respectable woman was in the audience and heard Paul in the Areopagus.[8]

Does the name Damaris provide clues about the woman’s status or identity?

The Meaning and Provenance of Damaris’s Name

There is no mystery to the name “Dionysius.” It was the name of the Greek god of wine and a popular man’s name. Damaris’s name, however, is more obscure. Ramsay, and others, have stated that Damaris may mean “heifer.” The Greek word damalis, which is somewhat similar to “Damaris,” means heifer. A heifer is a young cow that has not had a calf, but the Greek word damalis was also occasionally used for girls, and not in an insulting way. Another suggestion is that “Damaris” is derived from a very old Greek word damar which means “wife” or “spouse.” Still another suggestion is that “Damaris” is a Jewish name equivalent to “Tamar.”

Arco den Heijer provides compelling evidence that “Damaris” is a Spartan name and is built from a dam stem which has a sense of “to subdue” with connotations of strength and power.[9]  One piece of evidence for the feminine name is a third-century BCE votive vase found in Sparta: it has an inscription that reads, “Damaris dedicated [this vase] to Athena” (SEG XI, 669ab).

Den Heijer discusses the inscriptional evidence for the masculine name Damarēs and the feminine name Damaris (or diminutives of Damaris) and notes that almost all the evidence points to Sparta and the surrounding region of Laconia.[10] Furthermore, these names are frequently found in inscriptions mentioning members of the Voluseni family. “The oldest discernible member of the Voluseni family is a Damares [whose name] occurs on a coin as a patronym. … It shows that this Damares I belonged to the Spartan aristocracy in the first century BCE.”[11]

The plot thickens with evidence from somewhat lengthy inscriptions found in both Sparta and Athens lamenting the untimely death of a man named Lamprias. Lamprias died in the 40s CE at eighteen years of age. The inscriptions relate in unmistakable terms that the young man was from the highest echelon of society, and they link Lamprias to the Voluseni family. Piecing together the available information, it seems Lucius Volusenus Damares, or Damares II, married an Athenian woman named Memmia Damocratia. If Damaris in Acts 17 is related to this family, and this is plausible, she might have been the granddaughter of Damares II, and she would have been in her twenties or thirties at the time Paul visited Athens.[12]

Damaris and the Church in Athens

David Evans observes that while Luke has “an obvious interest in those with high status (Acts 8:27; 10:1–2; 13:7–12; 17:4, 12) and women (Acts 16:14; 17:4, 12, 34), named individuals are often those who offered hospitality to the missionaries and the fledgling Christian communities (Cornelius: Acts 10:1–48; Sergius Paulus: 13:7–12;9 Lydia: 16:15; Jason: 17:5).”[13] Did Paul stay in the home of Dionysius or Damaris while in Athens? Did they provide hospitality or protection in other ways?

Richard Bauckham, commenting on named figures in the Gospels, suggests that when people are named, “it is because they were Christians well known in the early church …”[14] This could be true for named figures in Acts also, such as Dionysius and Damaris.

According to tradition, Dionysius became the first overseer (“bishop”) of the church in Athens (Eusebius, Church History 3.4.11 and 4.23.3). This may well have been the case, as the first Christian overseers were usually house church leaders, and this role was typically taken by relatively wealthy Christians, respected in their communities, who cared for congregations and hosted them in their own homes.

Like many wealthy women in early Christianity, Damaris probably used her wealth to serve the church. Evans suggests that naming Damaris in Acts 17:34 follows Luke’s “interest in noting leading women and those who acted as benefactors.”[15] These women include Joanna in Luke 8:3 and Lydia in Acts 16:14ff.

Damaris, as well as Dionysius, may also have hosted a congregation in her home, like Nympha in Colossae and Priscilla with Aquila in Ephesus and in Rome. The others with Damaris and Dionysius “may have been members of their households, including clients, that possibly came to faith through the mediation of the two named individuals.”[16] This is much like Lydia’s household who came to faith because of their mistress.

Conclusion

There are many named and unnamed figures mentioned in Acts. They came from all sectors of society and they were all introduced to the gospel. It seems Dionysius and Damaris, who accepted the message of the gospel through Paul, were from the highest echelon of Greco-Roman society and were well-known in the first-century church.

Dionysius and Damaris and the unnamed others were the founding members of the Athenian Church. The church grew and several esteemed early Christians were part of, and were trained in, this community.[17]

It is not known if Paul ever visited Athens again or if he wrote a letter (since lost) to the congregation there, but the Athenians are included with all the Christians in Achaia in the greeting at the beginning of 2 Corinthians: To the church of God at Corinth, with all the saints who are throughout Achaia. Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 1:1-2).


Footnotes

This article relies heavily on the work of A.J. (Arco) den Heijer and David Evans.
A.J. den Heijer, “Neglected Epigraphic Evidence on the Name of a Female Disciple,” Novum Testamentum (2021): 1-14.
David A. Evans, “The First Christians of Athens,” Australian Biblical Review 68 (2020): 40-53.
I used Latin letters in Greek words in quotations from these journal articles for my readers who can’t read Greek.

[1] It’s not clear precisely what “joining” Paul means, but it probably meant joining the new group of believers in Athens who were converted through Paul’s ministry. The author of Acts is the only New Testament author to use the verb kollaō (“join”) to refer to joining with other Christians (Acts 5:13; 9:26; 17:34). In other contexts in the New Testament, the verb refers to close human associations or to substances that cling.
Update: David Evans has written a journal article on kollaō (exact form: kollēthentes) in Acts 17:35.  After an analysis of the verb’s usage in biblical, Christian, and Greco-Roman sources, Dr Evans writes,

… the verb is commonly used in contexts describing a union or community that is noteworthy for its strength of commitment. The verb was apparently an appropriate choice in contexts depicting relationships that were presented as ongoing, publicly identifiable and working to the betterment of all parties, including one’s progress in holiness or virtue. […]
Acts 17.34 appears to record, in shorthand form, the formation of a Christian community in Athens.
D.A. Evans, “Κολληθέντες in Acts 17.34 and the Establishment of the Athenian Church,” New
Testament Studies 68 (2022): 188–205, 204.

[2] David Evans cites several inscriptions that contain the word “Areopagite” and he notes that in the first century BCE through to the third century CE, “the term is used to describe those who belonged to the Areopagus council, the leading civic and judicial council in Athens …” Evans, p. 44.

[3] Den Heijer, p. 3.

[4] Den Heijer, p. 4. David Evans makes the following comments about hetairai.

This term denotes a class of women whose precise position in society is hard to pinpoint. Usually foreign women, hetairai were often unmarriageable. While this unmarried status did offer hetairai freedom from social, sexual and educational restrictions experienced by married Athenian women, it also meant that they did not enjoy the legal protections held by citizens. While these women could often become courtesans, this was not the only possible course they could take. Many were highly educated. They could also be foreign women, married to Athenian citizens, who acted according to their “foreign,” as opposed to Athenian, standards of women’s behaviour. Ultimately, Acts 17:34 does not give enough detail to securely identify Damaris as a hetaira.
Evans, p. 48.

[5] W.M. Ramsay, St. Paul the Traveler and the Roman Citizen (New York: Putnam, 1909), 252. Den Heijer includes this quotation and comments in a footnote that Ben Witherington III says almost the exact same thing in Witherington, The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 532–533. Den Heijer, p. 4.

[6] Den Heijer, p. 4.

[7] In Acts 17, we are told that quite a few noblewomen (literally “women of the first families”) in the Macedonian city of Thessalonica became believers (Acts 17:4) and many “noble Greek women” became believers in Berea (Acts 17:12; cf. Acts 13:50).

[8] In the New Testament we have a clear example of a noblewoman in a predominately male public space: Berenice, a great-granddaughter of Herod the Great, was present to hear Paul defend himself during his trial in Caesarea (Acts 25:13, 23ff; 26:30-31).

[9] Den Heijer (p. 7) also points out that several Spartan kings from the Eurypontid dynasty have –dam– as an element in their names: Archidamos , Zeuxidamos, Anaxidamos, Damaratos, and Eurydamidas.

[10] Den Heijer, p. 7. For example, on page 8 den Heijer states, “Regarding the male name Damarēs, a query in the online Lexicon of Greek Personal Names shows that thirteen of the twenty results are assigned to Sparta, and two to other places in Laconia. Many of these are dated to the first century BCE and the first two centuries CE.

[11] Den Heijer, p. 9.

[12] Den Heijer, p. 11. Den Heijer also notes that “daughters were frequently named after their grandfather with a female form of his name.” p. 8.

[13] Evans, pp. 41-42.

[14] Richard Bauckham, Gospel Women: Studies of the Named Women in the Gospels (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 112.

[15] Evans, p. 51.

[16] Evans, p. 51.

[17] For example, in the early second century, Aristides of Athens wrote a defence of Christianity to Emperor Hadrian and is perhaps the author of the Letter to Diognetus. Around the same time, Quadratus of Athens also wrote to Hadrian defending Christianity. In the second half of the second century, Athenagoras of Athens wrote a defence entitled A Plea for the Christians addressed to Marcus Aurelias, and he is the author of a treatise On the Resurrection of the Dead. The famous theologians Basil of Caesarea and Gregory of Nazianzus were both educated in Athens in the mid-fourth century.

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Fayum mummy mask of a Roman-Egyptian woman named (or nicknamed) Eirene.

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Male-Female Pairs and Parallelism in Luke’s Gospel
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More Information

Arco den Heijer, De Heilige Damaris van Athene – Zoektocht Naar Een Vergeten Leven (VromeVrouwen.nl)
J.W. Childers, “A Reluctant Bride: Finding a Life for Damaris of Athens (Acts 17:34),” Renewing Tradition: Studies in Texts and Contexts in Honour of James W. Thompson (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2007), 207-235. (Academia.edu)
The Rise of Early Christianity in Greece and the Southern Balkans (recorded lectures at Topoi.org)
N.T. Wright and Michael Bird touch on the different ways Jews and Greek (including Athenians) regarded bodily resurrection in this 2-minute YouTube video.

10 thoughts on “Damaris in Athens (Acts 17)

  1. Hello Margaret,

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading this detailed article. [What a great researcher you are!]
    When reading this I was taken back to Athens three years ago when I stood where Paul preached.
    Thanks so much for sharing these insights.

    Blessings,
    Paul Penman
    Melbourne.

    1. Thanks, Paul. Though much of the real research was done by Arco and David.

  2. Thanks for putting together this very thorough research, Marg. The only thing that I can add is that Dionysius and Damaris were probably the leaders of the fledgling congregation(s) of Athens because Luke would not have snubbed the leaders by mentioning Dionysius and Damaris without mentioning them. This is especially true if, as I have argued, Acts was written for the Aegean region.

    1. That’s a fair point. I say this a bit more circumspectly in the article: “Damaris, as well as Dionysius, may also have hosted a congregation in her home, like Nympha in Colossae and Priscilla with Aquila in Ephesus and in Rome.”

      1. Yes, and I agree that the church leaders were the founding hosts of the congregations.

  3. Oh, and it is interesting that Codex Bezae felt the need to omit Damaris. It has several other sexist corruptions.

    The geographical and temporal distribution of names beginning with Damar.. can be found using the Lexicon of Greek Personal Names here:
    http://clas-lgpn2.classics.ox.ac.uk/name#
    There are 283 entries for names beginning with Δαμαρ.., out of a total database of about 388000 people. Thus 0.07% of people were called Δαμαρ… . In Sparta, however the frequency of such names is 0.89%, which is indeed much higher. You could do the same calculation for other regions.

    1. Thanks for the numbers, Richard!

      I was wondering whether to mention Codex Bezae in this post. I’ve previously mentioned it and its “anti-feminist tendencies” and anti-Semitism in a somewhat lengthy footnote here.
      https://margmowczko.com/7-things-about-the-king-james-bible/

  4. Just published is an NTS article, “Κολληθέντɛς in Acts 17.34 and the Establishment of the Athenian Church” by David A. Evans. He questions the idea that not much of a church was formed by Paul in Athens. I think he is right. If only a few were converted by Paul, it would be a remarkable coincidence that one of them would be an Areopagite, since Paul tells us that few of his converts were of high status. It seems more likely that there were lots of coverts, most of whom were of low social status, and that Dionysius and Damaris were named by Luke because, having property, they were the hosts/leaders of the new church(es) of Athens. Evans does a good job in his earlier Aussie Bib Rev article too.

    1. Thanks for the heads-up, Richard. I’m looking forward to seeing what David has to say on this!

  5. A note about using BCE

    My master’s degree was in Early Christian and Jewish Studies. Because I was studying ancient Jewish sources, as well as early Christian sources, and studying alongside some Jewish students, my university preferred the use of BCE and CE. The Society for the Study of Early Christianity, which I belong to, also prefers BCE and CE because of our association with Jewish scholars.

    Further, anno Domini (AD), “the year of the Lord,” isn’t accurate. Jesus may have already been a few years old in AD 1.

    Anno domini is derived from anno Domini nostri Jesu Christi: “in the year of our Lord Jesus Christ.” It doesn’t make sense for Jewish people, and people of other faiths, who don’t regard Jesus as their Messiah and Lord to use AD. And BC and AD are irrelevant to Spartan culture.

    Anno Domini (AD) wasn’t widely used until the ninth century. Its use has an interesting history. BC came later and has its own story. There are many ways we can express our devotion and allegiance to Jesus Christ. Using BC and AD is not one I’m especially interested in.

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