and a woman named Damaris

Posted on August 9, 2020


In the Book of Acts, which is really one of the best historical sources for the story of Jesus’s followers and disciples after his Resurrection, there is a short account of the Apostle Paul visiting the Areopagus in the city of Athens during his many missionary travels. The Areopagus fulfilled many functions in ancient Athens, including serving as a gathering place for Greek thinkers and philosophers. It was kind of an open air coffee house on a big rocky outcropping in the middle of Athens where anyone could speak what was on their mind, kind of a chat room in the open for you modernists tied to your computer or tablet or phone screens.

So, who is Damaris? She’s only mentioned once in the Bible so you may not immediately recognize her. She was in the Areopagus one day and heard Paul speak.

Not everyone was impressed by his testimony about Jesus the living and only true God.

As many intellectuals over the centuries have reacted: “Some of them dismissed him [Paul] with sarcasm: ‘What an airhead!’ But others, listening to him go on about Jesus and the resurrection, were intrigued: ‘That’s a new slant on the gods. Tell us more.’” (Acts 17:17-18, version, The Message) They invited Paul to talk to them at the Areopagus.

“This is a new one on us. We’ve never heard anything quite like it. Where did you come up with this anyway? Explain it so we can understand.” (Acts 17: 19-21). Like social media today, a lot were listening, curious about this new teacher, a Jew no less, but apparently also a Roman citizen, not a status to be dismissed by people like the Athenians and fellow Greeks conquered and governed by Rome.

 So, Paul laid it out for them. “It is plain to see that you Athenians take your religion seriously. When I arrived here the other day, I was fascinated with all the shrines I came across. And then I found one inscribed, to the god nobody knows. I’m here to introduce you to this God so you can worship intelligently, know who you’re deaIing with.”

It is I think among the best of Paul preaching to Gentiles, non-Jews who had little or no knowledge of the Hebrew matrix of Jesus’s life. It is to persuade them as many Athenians understood the world: logical and common sensical.

 “The God who made the world and everything in it, this Master of sky and land, doesn’t live in custom-made shrines or need the human race to run errands for him, as if he couldn’t take care of himself. He makes the creatures; the creatures don’t make him. Starting from scratch, he made the entire human race and made the earth hospitable, with plenty of time and space for living so we could seek after God, and not just grope around in the dark but actually find him…. He’s not remote; he’s near. We live and move in him, can’t get away from him!”

“The unknown is now known,” Paul told them, “and he’s calling for a radical life-change. He has set a day when the entire human race will be judged and everything set right. And he has already appointed the judge, confirming him before everyone by raising him from the dead.”

The Resurrection set them to arguing. “At the phrase ‘raising him from the dead,’ the listeners split: Some laughed at him and walked off making jokes; others said, “Let’s do this again. We want to hear more.”

But that was it for the day, and Paul left. There were still others, it turned out, who were convinced then and there, and stuck with Paul—among them Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris.”

Life can be sometimes catastrophic—witness the Covid19 virus today—but is more often made up of small, sometimes seemingly inconsequential, or random moments, that only affect us as individuals. We get caught up in the catastrophic, like pandemics and wars, but usually live one moment at a time.

Damaris made a choice when she heard Paul at the Areopagus that late afternoon. And, by an accident of history and how it is written or reported, she made it into the Book of Acts composed by Luke as a companion and continuation of his story of Jesus, the Book of Luke, one of the four Gospels.

We know virtually nothing else of Damaris. She believed and was transformed by her acceptance of Jesus and I would guess then went on to convince others by her words and actions of the truth in her lifetime.

She didn’t earn sainthood or other noble and edifying recognition by the early Church, largely since it was just coming into existence. And she would have been forgotten, but for Luke mentioning her by name.

“And a woman named Damaris…was convinced then and there, and stuck with Paul.” I like the simplicity and profundity of what Damaris did for me and all of us. She’s a girl who got right with God in a simple gesture of obedience. What a wonderful model!

Published as Simple gesture offers a model for us all in The Tuscaloosa News, Sunday Aug 2 2020.