The Intellectual Damaris (Acts 17:17)
As the apostle Paul continued his ministry in various Greek cities, he ended up one day in the unique city Athens, known for its university and its intellectual climate. In Acts 17 we watch him wandering through the city, astonished by all the idols and shrines to an endless list of gods and goddesses. We read in Acts 17:17 that “he began to interact with the Jews and Gentile God-worshippers in the synagogue. He also addressed whoever happened to be in the marketplace each day. Certain Epicurean and Stoic philosophers engaged him in discussion.” Out of that he received an invitation to address the Aereopagus, the leading council of Athens. As he spoke of Jesus, some ridiculed him, but others believed. Among the believers was a woman named Damaris.
In the culture of that city, women lived sequestered lives. But one group of women was exempt from that. These were the intellectual courtesans, high-class prostitutes attached to rich men in the city. These women were able to hold their own intellectually, carrying on esoteric debates on philosophical subjects. The Bible doesn’t tell us specifically that Damaris was a courtesan, but the fact that she was allowed to be present at Paul’s meeting with the leading men of the city strongly indicates that possibility. Both her freedom to be in public and her ability to follow Paul’s conversation with the leading men enabled her to understand and to embrace the gospel Paul taught. She became one of the new converts to Christianity in the city of Athens.
New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham tells us that any time we come across the name of someone in the book of Acts or in the apostle’s letters, it’s there because that person had become widely known among the Christian churches as teacher and leader. Because we know Damaris’s name, we also know that she was well-known for ministry in the churches. As an intellectual herself, she had the ability to reach the intelligentsia in Athens.
If Damaris began her career as a high-class escort and ended it as an evangelist, we might wonder what change this brought to her income, influence, or working conditions. The answers might be lost to history. At the very least we can say that God may lead a woman to change careers, and he certainly entrusts important work to women from a diversity of backgrounds.