Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Land of “Milk and Honey” (Numbers 13:27)

How did the Israelite spies sent by Moses describe the land of Canaan? A land flowing with milk and honey (Numbers 13:27)

Before entering the Promised Land, God instructs Moses to send spies into the region to survey it (Numbers 13:1-2). A representative from each tribe is selected for the mission (Numbers 13:3-16). The operatives return with tangible evidence of the land’s sustenance in the form of an impressive cluster of grapes (Numbers 13:23) and concede that the land is as advertised - it does indeed “flow with milk and honey” (Exodus 3:8; Numbers 13:27).

Thus they told him, and said, “We went in to the land where you sent us; and it certainly does flow with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. (Numbers 13:27 NASB)
Like a modern day church building project in which the architect is brought in to bring specs of what is being built to capture the people’s imagination, spies are conscripted to give the people an idea of the land that can be theirs and their descendants (Numbers 13:1-2). Though the contingency agrees that the land is excellent, they return with mixed emotions (Numbers 13:26-29).

Dennis T. Olson (b. 1954) informs:

Moses instructs the twelve tribes to survey the land not only to deduce the military might of its inhabitants but also to observe the fertility of the land (Numbers 13:17-21). The spies reconnoiter the land for forty days and then return to report what they have seen [Numbers 13:25]. The initial spy report has some good news and some bad news. The land is indeed fruitful and “flows with milk and honey” (Numbers 13:27). But the bad news is that the residents of the land and strong and live in fortified cities (Numbers 13:28-29, 31-33). (Olson, Numbers (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, 78)
The Promised Land is described as a land that “does flow with milk and honey” (Numbers 13:27 NASB). Salim J. Munayer (b. 1955) introduces:
References to the Promised Land in the Bible are many...While some quantitatively describe the borders, others are more concerned with describing the land qualitatively. For this reason we often see the land promised by God described as a land flowing with milk and honey (Exodus 3:8, 17, 13:5; Leviticus 20:24-26, 22:4; Numbers 13:27, 14:8; Deuteronomy 6:3, 11:8-12, 26:8-9, 27:2-3, 31:20; Joshua 5:6; Jeremiah 11:5, 32:22; Ezekiel 20:5-6, 15). Typically this phrase is taken to be a description of the land of Canaan, the phrase “milk and honey” as a “metaphor meaning all good things—God’s blessings.” While some try and draw a literal connection between the land of Canaan and flowing milk and honey, most understand it “to be hyperbolically descriptive of the land’s richness.” (Munayer and Lisa Loden, “Theology of the Land: From a Land of Strife to a Land of Reconciliation”, The Land Cries Out: Theology of the Land in the Israeli-Palestinian Context, 252)
“Milk and honey” is a common epithet of the land that serves almost as a refrain throughout the biblical text (Exodus 3:8, 17, 13:5, 33:3; Leviticus 20:24; Numbers 13:17, 14:8, 16:13-14; Deuteronomy 6:3, 11:9, 26:9, 15, 31:20; Joshua 5:6; Jeremiah 11:5; Ezekiel 20:6; Sirach 46:8; Baruch 1:20; II Esdras 2:19; Jubilees 1:7; cf. II Kings 18:32; Job 20:17; Sibylline Oracles 3.6222).

The expression accentuates the goodness of the land with most interpreters focusing on its fertility. W.H. Bellinger, Jr. (b. 1949) comments:

“Flowing with milk and honey” is a common description of the fertility of the land [Exodus 3:8, 17, 13:5, 33:3; Leviticus 20:24; Numbers 13:17, 14:8, 16:13-14; Deuteronomy 6:3, 11:9, 26:9, 15, 31:20; Joshua 5:6; Jeremiah 11:5; Ezekiel 20:6] . The land was not terribly fertile but would have seemed so in comparison to the wilderness. Eryl W. Davies [b. 1953] cites evidence that the phrase is a stock one in the ancient Near East (Numbers, p. 138). (Bellinger, Leviticus, Numbers (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series))
The phrase is first heard from the Burning Bush where God uses the expression to promote the land that the Israelites will be taking while speaking to Moses (Exodus 3:8). The Dictionary of Biblical Imagery traces:
“A land flowing with milk and honey,” a phrase that encapsulates the abundant goodness of the Promised Land, first appears in God’s conversation with Moses from the burning bush in Exodus 3:8. It subsequently occurs fourteen times in the Pentateuch [Exodus 3:8, 17, 13:5, 33:3; Leviticus 20:24; Numbers 13:17, 14:8, 16:13-14; Deuteronomy 6:3, 11:9, 26:9, 15, 31:20] , once in Joshua [Joshua 5:6] and several times in Jeremiah and Ezekiel within contexts alluding to Israel’s history [Jeremiah 11:5; Ezekiel 20:6] . (Leland Ryken [b. 1942], James C. Wilhoit [b. 1951] and Tremper Longman III [b. 1952], Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, 488)
Though “milk and honey” is used previously, the spies’ report marks the first time the phrase is heard on the lips of the people and not God (Numbers 13:27). The Promised Land is as good as God (and by association Moses) had advertised.

Some scholars have attempted to isolate the expression to a particular source as posited by the Documentary Hypothesis. George Buchanan Gray (1865-1922) delineates:

A land flowing with milk and honey... [occurs at] Numbers 14:8, 16:13 (exceptionally of Egypt), Exodus 3:8, 17, 13:5, 33:8 (all...passages from J), 7 times in D, once in H (Leviticus 20:24), and also in Jeremiah 11:5, 32:22, Ezekiel 20:6, 15. Thomas Kelly Cheyne [1841-1915] (in Encyclopaedia Biblica 2104) suggests that the phrase, already conventional in the time of JE, was derived from ancient poetry, and had a mythological origin. (Gray, Deuteronomy (International Critical Commentary), 145)
Horst Dietrich Preuss (1927-1993) analyzes:
The promised land is readily characterized as the “land flowing with milk and honey,” not in the references to the promises of the land in the ancestral narratives but rather in the narratives of the Moses group and then in ensuing texts (Exodus 3:8, 17 J; Exodus 13:5, 33:2ff. [early Deuteronomic]; Leviticus 20:24; Numbers 13:27 P; Numbers 14:8 P; Numbers 16:13ff J; Deuteronomy 6:3, 11:9, 26:9, 15, 27:3, 31:20, 34:4; Joshua 5:6; Jeremiah 11:5, 32:22; and Ezekiel 20:6, 15). The lack of this expression in the ancestral stories points to the probable original separation of the tradition of the promise of the land to the ancestors from the tradition of the land to the Moses group. With the distinguishing feature of “land flowing with milk and honey,” the land is not portrayed as a land of the gods or painted with the colors of paradise; rather, it is described as an inhabitable land, and perhaps from the view of wandering nomads as an ideal land, so that in Numbers 16:13ff even Egypt can have this description. In Isaiah 7:15, by contrast, “milk and honey” appear as (poor?) nourishment from the viewpoint of the farmers who use the land. In addition to the promise of the land of the fathers, there is then the promise of the land to the Moses group that builds a bridge reaching unto the conquest. However, those who were rebellious, doubting, and not fully obedient to YHWH were denied entrance into the land (Numbers 13:22-33, 14:30-34, 20:12,24, 26:64ff, 32:11). Since these emphases occur especially in the Priestly and also in the Deuteronomic texts (Deuteronomy 1:35, 39ff, 2:14), the question arises as to whether this “wilderness” treats a situation analogous to the sojourn in the exile when many could not or would not trust anymore in YHWH’s guidance. (Preuss, Old Testament Theology, Volume 1 (Old Testament Library), 120)
There are parallels to the expression “milk and honey” in other cultures. Eugene A. Carpenter (1943-2012) reveals:
This phrase...is closely paralleled in Ugaritc poetry. “The heavens fat did rain, The wadis flow with honey!” Milk and fat are mentioned as a blessed feature of the world ordered by Enki, who determined Sumer’s destiny. This hyperbolic metaphorical phrase stresses both the richness of Canaan and the special favor God has bestowed on it as the dwelling place for his people. (John H. Walton [b. 1952], Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary), 456)
Walter Riggans (b. 1953) supports:
This phrase was used by the Greeks for the food of the gods, and, in a text from about 2,000 B.C., the Egyptian Tale of Sinuhe uses it to describe Northern Galilee. But it is overwhelmingly used by the Israelites of the general area of Canaan. (Riggans, Numbers (Daily Study Bible, 108)
Milk has a decidedly positive connotation in the Old Testament; its most common usage actually occurs in connection with the idiom “milk and honey” (Exodus 3:8, 17, 13:5, 33:3; Leviticus 20:24; Numbers 13:17, 14:8, 16:13-14; Deuteronomy 6:3, 11:9, 26:9, 15, 31:20; Joshua 5:6; Jeremiah 11:5; Ezekiel 20:6) .

Clyde M. Woods (b. 1936) and Justin M. Rogers (b 1982) comment:

Milk is a figure of profusion in the Old Testament (cf. Genesis 39:12; Isaiah 7:21-22). Due to the lack of refrigeration, milk quickly became curds, which could be sopped up with bread, or churned into butter (Proverbs 30:33). (Woods, and Rogers, Leviticus–Numbers (College Press NIV Commentary), 260)
Étan Levine (b. 1934) researches:
Biblical literature abounds with references to milk (or milk products) and honey). These are described as luxury items, gifts, articles of trade, contributions to priests and Levites, and high-energy foods used by those who camp in the wilderness. (Levine, Heaven and Earth, Law and Love: Studies in Biblical Thought, 47)
Ronald L. Eisenberg (b. 1945) inventories:
When poetically depicting God’s gracious generosity toward the Israelites in his farewell address, Moses included “curd of kine” [butter, cream, and yogurt] and “milk of flocks” (Deuteronomy 32:14). In Song of Songs (Song of Solomon 4:11), the lover describes the sweetness of his beloved as having “milk and honey...under your tongue.” In his vision of the Messianic Age, the prophet Joel (Joel 4:18) stated that “the mountains shall drip with wine, the [Judean] hills shall flow with milk.”...Most dairy products during the biblical period were produced from the milk of sheep and goats, since there were relatively few cattle. As an important source of dietary liquid in a region where water was scarce and often contaminated, milk and dairy products were popular offerings by pagan peoples to their gods or king. The prohibition against “boiling a kind in its mother’s milk”—which is repeated three times in the Torah (Exodus 23:19, 34:26; Deuteronomy 14:21) and is the basis for the separation of meat and milk—...may thus be the divine rejection of an ancient Canaanite religious practice. (Eisenberg, Jewish Traditions (JPS Guide), 688)
Honey is also presented favorably in the Hebrew Scriptures. Étan Levine (b. 1934) surveys:
Honey itself is described as being both healthful and pleasurable, a metaphor for diverse delights and benefits such as wisdom, divine guidance, and, along with milk, sexuality. The divinely bestowed manna in the wilderness had the taste of honey (Exodus 16:31), for as a foodstuff, “What is sweeter than honey (Judges 14:18)?” (Levine, Heaven and Earth, Law and Love: Studies in Biblical Thought, 46)
The honey in question may be different than most contemporary readers envision. John Goldingay (b. 1942) clarifies:
The usual English phrase is “flowing with milk and honey” [Exodus 3:8, 17, 13:5, 33:3; Leviticus 20:24; Numbers 13:17, 14:8, 16:13-14; Deuteronomy 6:3, 11:9, 26:9, 15, 31:20; Joshua 5:6; Jeremiah 11:5; Ezekiel 20:6], but the “honey” is not bees’ honey but syrup made from fruit such as figs, the main source of sweetness in the Middle East. (Goldingay, Numbers and Deuteronomy for Everyone, 36)
Robert Alter (b. 1935) concurs:
The honey in question is probably not bee’s honey, for apiculture was not practiced in this early period, but rather a sweet syrup extracted from dates. The milk would most likely have been goat’s milk and not cow’s milk. In any case, these two synecdoches for agriculture and animal husbandry respectively become a fixed bounty of the promised land. (Alter, The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary, 320)
Clyde M. Woods (b. 1936) and Justin M. Rogers (b 1982) investigate:
“Honey” usually includes, in addition to bee-honey, “grape-honey,” a thick grape substance...Baruch A. Levine [b. 1930] states that the term simply means “sweetness,” and can apply broadly (his translation, “sap;” Numbers, p. 356)...R.K. Harrison [1920-2003] notes that honey could perhaps be used as a euphemism for a potent alcoholic mixture (Numbers, p. 211). However, it is unlikely that the euphemism applies here: for the combination of milk and honey is a common figure indicating abundance. (Woods, and Rogers, Leviticus–Numbers (College Press NIV Commentary), 257, 260)
Walter Riggans (b. 1953) deduces:
It could be wild-bee or date honey, but either way the two substances were moist and sweet and in plentiful supply---symbols of peace and plenty. Not what might be expected from an area called “parched” [“Negev”; Numbers 13:17, 22,29]! (Riggans, Numbers (Daily Study Bible), 108)
Counter-intuitively and contrary to popular belief, milk and honey may not have been staples of the Israelite diet. Nathan MacDonald (b. 1975) resolves:
Milk and honey features prominently in the descriptions of the Promised Land [Exodus 3:8, 17, 13:5, 33:3; Leviticus 20:24; Numbers 13:17, 14:8, 16:13-14; Deuteronomy 6:3, 11:9, 26:9, 15, 31:20; Joshua 5:6; Jeremiah 11:5; Ezekiel 20:6]. Yet, outside of the stereotypical phrase, milk and honey do not appear often in the Old Testament and may not have been important in the diets of most Israelites. (MacDonald, What Did the Ancient Israelites Eat?: Diet in Biblical Times, 11)
There is debate over the exact meaning of the pairing “milk and honey” (Numbers 13:27). Many have seen the foodstuffs as representative terms encompassing a spectrum, one phrase assessing the goodness of the land.

Sarah Malena (b. 1974) and David Miano (b. 1966) research:

The pairing of “milk and honey” evokes an image of fertility, but it is more than the fertility of flocks and groves. Ben Sira lists milk and honey among the basic necessities of life [Sirach 39:26], while the Song of Songs employs the two words in images of luxury and indulgence [Song of Solomon 4:11, 6:1]. William H.C. Propp [b. 1957]’s musings on the subject reveal the nuances of parental nourishment and comfort. And in the frequent reiteration of the divine promise one perceives the connotation of security and longevity. (Malena and Miano, Milk and Honey: Essays on Ancient Israel and the Bible in Appreciation of the Judaic Studies Program at the University of California, San Diego, ix)

Others have seen milk and honey as representatives of larger, overarching categories. The Dictionary of Biblical Imagery examines:

Why did milk and honey become the favored pair of items for the evocative epithet, when other options existed? Since the Bible does not itself explicate the epithet, we are left to surmise. Next to bread, milk was the most important staple in the diet of the Hebrews. A land that produced an abundance of milk had to be rich in pasturage, so by extension a picture of successful farming enters one’s imagination. Honey, valued for its sweetness rather than as a necessity of life, was rare enough to rank as a luxury. As images of desirability and abundance, therefore, these two images combine to form a picture of total satisfaction. The image of “flowing” suggests a rich fullness that surpasses all need and sets up a contrast with the arid wilderness. Perhaps they are even an example of Hebrew merism (naming opposites to cover everything between as well), suggesting the whole spectrum of food, from the necessary to the luxurious. (Leland Ryken [b. 1942], James C. Wilhoit [b. 1951] and Tremper Longman III [b. 1952], Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, 488)
Bruce Wells (b. 1968) inquires:
Exactly what kind of prosperity does the biblical expression refer to? It probably does not refer to the most common forms of agriculture, such as the cultivation of grains. Rather, the “milk” likely refers to animal husbandry and the use of animal byproducts for food and clothing. Sheep were important for their wool and meat, but goats may have been more important. They provide twice as much milk as sheep, and their hair and hides could be used for tents, clothing carpets, and even satchels for holding liquids. The “honey” refers to horticulture—the cultivation of fruits and vegetables. (John H. Walton [b. 1952], Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary), 174)
Étan Levine (b. 1934) counters:
Contrary to popular interpretation, biblical diction paired “milk and honey” not because of their gastronomical affinity but because both are products of identical topographical and economic conditions. In biblical Palestine as elsewhere, both milk and honey are not products of fertile, cultivated farmlands, but of uncultivated grazing areas. The flocks and herds feed on wild growth, on land unsuitable for agriculture. And it is there, amidst the thickets, bushes and wild flowers, that honey is also found. (Levine, Heaven and Earth, Law and Love: Studies in Biblical Thought, 46)
Some have seen the two elements as indicative of the distinct geography of the northern and southern portions of Israel. The Zondervan Dictionary of Biblical Imagery speculates:
Milk...appears in the frequently mentioned formula used to describe the Promised Land, “a land flowing with milk and honey” (Exodus 3:8, 3:17, 13:5, 33:3, et al.). As the Israelite spies spent years in a trackless wilderness, the description certainly provided an inviting picture of the Promised Land. But it may also be a descriptor that honors the distinct differences between the northern and southern sections of Canaan. Because the north receives more rain, there is considerably more vegetation that provides flowers for the bees to use in making honey. In contrast the south receives considerably less rain, so we find agriculture giving way to the pastoral life and the goat’s milk that was a staple in the Israelite diet. Thus the diverse nature of the Promised Land is captured in this expression by naming two important commodities associated with it subregions. (John A. Beck [b. 1956], Zondervan Dictionary of Biblical Imagery)
This proposition seems unlikely as the later division between the southern and northern kingdoms was unwanted. At this point, an image of solidarity was preferable if not necessary; an advancing army must be unified.

Others have seen the land as evoking paradise. Salim J. Munayer (b. 1955) argues:

More than simply indicating fertile soil, in the context of the biblical world, milk and honey were also used to describe the otherworldly richness of paradise. Indeed, in many ancient Near Eastern traditions, “the image of an ideal place flowing with milk and honey has long been associated with paradise.” Even in Islam we find traces of this association; for example the paradise described by Allah in the Qur’an is depicted as “the eternal garden of joy...[and it] possesses not only rivers of pure water and wine, but ‘rivers of fresh milk’ and ‘rivers of pure honey.’”...Given the context from which it arose and what we have learned about merism phrases, there is reason to doubt the mention of a land flowing with milk and honey is making a reference to an earthly place at all. The land of Canaan already had certain very specific and known elements associated with it—the famous Seven Species of Deuteronomy 8:8, where Canaan is described as “a land with wheat and barley, vines and fig tress [sic], pomegranates, olive oil and honey.”...It makes more sense to think of this phrase as a literary, poetic description of an idyllic paradise, rather than a specific location on earth. There are radical implications to this interpretation when applied to all the many places in the Scriptures where we find this phrase [Exodus 3:8, 17, 13:5, 33:3; Leviticus 20:24; Numbers 13:17, 14:8, 16:13-14; Deuteronomy 6:3, 11:9, 26:9, 15, 31:20; Joshua 5:6; Jeremiah 11:5; Ezekiel 20:6]. However, when we remember the universal nature of God’s promise, it is clear: The land flowing with milk and honey is not Canaan or Egypt or any other terrestrial place; it is a future return to the garden as the fulfillment of God’s promises. (Munayer and Lisa Loden, “Theology of the Land: From a Land of Strife to a Land of Reconciliation”, The Land Cries Out: Theology of the Land in the Israeli-Palestinian Context, 252-53)
There has also been discussion as to whether Canaan’s land is as arable as the spies’ depiction (Numbers 13:25-27). Later pilgrims could not help but notice discrepancy.

Lester I. Vogel (b. 1948) documents:

Confronted with the reality of Ottoman Palestine, it was easy to turn from the present to the past, as Clara E. Waters [1834-1916] had done. Likewise, it was easier to explain the reality in sweeping, universal terms. Nathaniel Clark Burt [1825-1874] saw Palestine’s condition as epitomizing the geography of the world in its diversity, thereby affording the former peoples of the country a chance to be representative of humanity and to produce “a revelation with wide, varied, universal adaptations.” To Burt, the Holy Land was dreary and desolate, especially in the context of the biblical passage that advertised the land as luxuriantly flowing with milk and honey [Exodus 3:8; Numbers 13:27]. But Burt imagined that the land had been good in ages past, that “it requires little observation and reflection, on the part of the traveler in Palestine, to perceive that the country possesses great natural capabilities and must, at a former period, have sustained an immense population.” When Burt recalled that the land’s present condition fulfilled scriptural prediction exactly, he showed more interest in the spectacle of the land’s desolation than he did in evidences of prosperity. (Vogel, To See A Promised Land: Americans and the Holy Land in the Nineteenth Century, 74)
There is ancient support for a fertile Canaan. Bruce Wells (b. 1968) presents:
The expression evokes the image of a prosperous land [Exodus 3:8, 17, 13:5, 33:3; Leviticus 20:24; Numbers 13:17, 14:8, 16:13-14; Deuteronomy 6:3, 11:9, 26:9, 15, 31:20; Joshua 5:6; Jeremiah 11:5; Ezekiel 20:6]. The Egyptian Story of Sinuhe (from the Twelfth Dynasty, early second millennium B.C.) also describes the land of Canaan as prosperous: “It was a wonderful land called Yaa. There were cultivated figs in it and grapes, and more wine than water. Its honey was abundant, and its olive trees numerous. On its trees were all varieties of fruit. There was barley and emmer, and there was no end to all the varieties of cattle.” But the land seems not to have been consistently prosperous; several biblical texts refer to famine in Canaan (Genesis 12:10, 26:1, 43:1). Biblical texts describe the blessing of Yahweh as the determining factor. When he wished for there to be prosperity, there was. Ugaritic texts present a similar perspective: When there was divine blessing—in their case, from Baal—then “the heavens rain oil/the wadis run with honey.” (John H. Walton [b. 1952], Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary), 174)
The rabbinic writing also corroborates the biblical witness. Fred Rosner (b. 1935) apprises:
The Bible repeatedly asserts that Israel is “a land flowing with milk and honey” (Exodus 3:8, 3:17, 13:5, 33:3; Leviticus 20:24; Numbers 13:27, 14:8, 16:13, 16:14; Deuteronomy 6:3, 11:9, 26:9, 26:15, 27:3, 31:20; Joshua 5:6; Jeremiah 11:5, 32:22; Ezekiel 20:6, 20:15). This divine blessing is depicted in the Talmud (Ketubot 11b) where it states that Rabbi ben Ezekiel [220-299] once paid a visit to Bnei Berak where he saw goats grazing under fig trees and honey was flowing from the figs and milk ran from the goats and the honey and milk mingled with each other. Rabbah bar Bar Hannah said: “I saw the flow of the milk and honey in all the land of Israel and the total area was equal to the land extending from the Be Mikse to the Fort of Tulbanke, an area of twenty-two parasangs in length and six parasangs in breadth.” Here and elsewhere (Megillah 6a), Resh Lakish [third century CE] said that he saw the flow of milk and honey at Sepphoris and it extended over an area of sixteen by sixteen miles. (Rosner, Medicine in the Bible and the Talmud: Selections from Classical Jewish Sources, 115)
Jacob Neusner (b. 1932) bolsters:
R. Ammi bar Ezekiel visited Bene Beraq. He saw goats grazing under fig trees, with honey flowing from the figs, and milk running from the goats, and the honey and the milk mingled. He said, “That is in line with ‘a land flowing with milk and honey’ (Exodus 3:8; Numbers 13:27).” Said R. Jacob b. Dosetai, “From Lud to Ono is three Roman miles. Once I got up early at down [sic] and I walked up to my ankles in fig honey.” Said R Simeon b. Laqish [third century CE], “I personally saw the flood of milk and honey of Sepphoris, and it extended over sixteen square miles.” Said Rabbah bar bar Hannah, “I personally saw the flood of milk and honey of the entirety of the Land of Israel, and it extended from Be Mikse to the Fort of Tulbanqi, twenty-two parasangs long, six parasangs wide.” (Neusner, Theological Dictionary of Rabbinic Judaism, Part One: Principal Theological Categories, 113)
While the Bible lauds the Promised Land it also acknowledges its shortcomings. Eugene Korn (b. 1947) recalls:
While the Bible describes the Land of Israel as “a land of milk and honey” (Deuteronomy 31:20) and “a good land, a land with streams and springs and fountains issuing from plain and hill; a land of wheat and barley, of vines, figs, and pomegranates; a land of olive trees and honey (Deuteronomy 8:7-8), Scripture also points out on numerous occasions that this land forces its inhabitants to recognize God by increasing the Jewish people’s dependency on God and on fulfilling the covenant. (Korn, The Jewish Connection to Israel, the Promised Land: A Brief Introduction for Christians, 8)
Comparatively speaking, Canaan fits the bill as the land is undoubtedly an upgrade over the wilderness in which the Israelites are presently residing. Stephen Buchmann (b. 1952) appraises:
To people living in a harsh desert climate, a lush green landscape must have fit their idea of paradise. The pastures of this rich, well-watered paradise would be dotted with contented cows grazing on succulent grass and producing fresh, wholesome milk; the meadows would be filled with wildflowers buzzing with bees as they collected nectar and pollen to transform into golden honey. It’s no mystery why milk and honey became symbols for the Jews of a blessed land [Exodus 3:8, 17, 13:5, 33:3; Leviticus 20:24; Numbers 13:17, 14:8, 16:13-14; Deuteronomy 6:3, 11:9, 26:9, 15, 31:20; Joshua 5:6; Jeremiah 11:5; Ezekiel 20:6]. (Buchmann, Letters from the Hive: An Intimate History of Bees, Honey, and Humankind, 124)
Étan Levine (b. 1934) recognizes:
To the homeless Israelites who were poised to take it, the Holy Land was perceived as being a “very, very good land” [Numbers 14:7], a “blessed land” [Deuteronomy 33:13], for realistically speaking, one could hardly expect a different reaction from a horde of landless wanderers! It is also true that no less than fifteen times in the Pentateuch and five times thereafter, the Promised Land is described as “a land flowing with milk and honey” [Exodus 3:8, 17, 13:5, 33:3; Leviticus 20:24; Numbers 13:17, 14:8, 16:13-14; Deuteronomy 6:3, 11:9, 26:9, 15, 31:20; Joshua 5:6; Jeremiah 11:5; Ezekiel 20:6]. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that biblical exegetes, from the ancient commentators to modern scholars, have understood this phrase as an obvious metaphor extolling the lush fecundity of the land assigned to the People of Israel. (Levine, Heaven and Earth, Law and Love: Studies in Biblical Thought, 46)
David J. Lorenzo (b. 1961) compares:
The characteristics of the Promised Land would be the obverse of those of Egypt and the wilderness, representing a transcendence of both. Unlike Egypt, the Promised Land would be the Hebrews’ own. Rather than working as slaves, they would live as a free people. And unlike the wilderness, it would be a rich land, one “flowing with milk and honey” [Exodus 3:8, 17, 13:5, 33:3; Leviticus 20:24; Numbers 13:17, 14:8, 16:13-14; Deuteronomy 6:3, 11:9, 26:9, 15, 31:20; Joshua 5:6; Jeremiah 11:5; Ezekiel 20:6]. There the Hebrews would have no need of Yahweh’s provision of material food in the form of manna, nor spiritual food in the form of Moses’ leadership. They would be free and self-determining within the boundaries of the Covenant. (Lorenzo, Tradition and the Rhetoric of Right: Popular Political Argument in the Aurobindo Movement, 157)
Margaret Feinberg (b. 1976) praises:
Nearly two dozen references throughout the Old Testament describe the Promised Land as a place “flowing with milk and honey” [Exodus 3:8, 17, 13:5, 33:3; Leviticus 20:24; Numbers 13:17, 14:8, 16:13-14; Deuteronomy 6:3, 11:9, 26:9, 15, 31:20; Joshua 5:6; Jeremiah 11:5; Ezekiel 20:6]...The promise that the land would overflow with “milk” suggests abundant pastureland for goats and cows while the mention of “honey” implies that the land was abounding in flowers and grass. Such a detailed portrait of a promise reveals something about the outrageously generous heart of God. He didn’t just want to end slavery for his people. He wanted to bring them out of the land entirely and into a new place that overflowed with provision. (Feinberg, Scouting the Divine: My Search for God in Wine, Wool, and Wild Honey)
Whatever the specific connotation “milk and honey” indicates, generally speaking, the land is good. Timothy R. Ashley (b. 1947) assesses:
These verses [Numbers 13:27-29] are probably a summary of the spies’ report. The general report was that the land was very good: it flows with milk and honey (zābat-hālāb ûdebaš hî). Although Numbers 13:27ff concentrate on the report to Moses (they recounted it to him, Numbers 13:27), the text makes clear that the report was in the hearing of the whole congregation (Numbers 13:26). (Ashley, The Book of Numbers (New International Commentary on the Old Testament), 239)
The idiom “milk and honey” serves as a powerful, concise slogan to motivate the people (Numbers 13:27). Stephen K. Sherwood (b. 1943) acknowledges:
The familiar image of a land flowing not with water but with milk and honey has a strong rhetorical effect. (Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy (Berit Olam: Studies in Hebrew Narrative & Poetry), 78)
Jonathan Kirsch (b. 1949) remarks:
Moses...had not been elected by anyone except an unheard and unseen God, and so far God has not deigned to speak to anyone other than Moses and his brother. Yet Moses had urged them out of the relative safety and comfort of Egypt into an empty and threatening wilderness, all on a vague promise that someday they would reach a distant land of “milk and honey” [Exodus 3:8, 17, 13:5, 33:3; Leviticus 20:24; Numbers 13:17, 14:8, 16:13-14; Deuteronomy 6:3, 11:9, 26:9, 15, 31:20]. Such rhetoric had surely been heard before among the poor and oppressed, and history assures us that it would be heard again and again through the centuries. (Kirsch, Moses: A Life, 219)
The phrasing provides concrete imagery of a better place. Robert Alter (b. 1935) envisions:
Beyond well-watered Egypt and the burning desert where uncanny fires flare, the new Israelite nation is repeatedly told of a third space, a land flowing not with water but, hyperbolically, with milk and honey [Exodus 3:8, 17, 13:5, 33:3; Leviticus 20:24; Numbers 13:17, 14:8, 16:13-14; Deuteronomy 6:3, 11:9, 26:9, 15, 31:20; Joshua 5:6; Jeremiah 11:5; Ezekiel 20:6]. This utopian space will be beyond reach for forty years, and in a sense it can never be fully attained. When the twelve spies enter it on a reconnaissance mission in Numbers, they confirm its fabulous fecundity [Numbers 13:25-27], but ten of twelve also deem it unconquerable [Numbers 13:31-33], calling it “a land that consumes its inhabitants” [Numbers 13:32]. As the biblical story continues through Numbers and Deuteronomy and ultimately on to the history of the kingdoms of Judah and Israel the land flowing with milk and honey will begin to seem something like the Land of Cockaigne of medieval European folklore, a dream of delighted, unimpeded fulfillment beyond the grating actualities of real historical time. (Alter, The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary, 303)
Despite its prominence in the Old Testament (Exodus 3:8, 17, 13:5, 33:3; Leviticus 20:24; Numbers 13:17, 14:8, 16:13-14; Deuteronomy 6:3, 11:9, 26:9, 15, 31:20; Joshua 5:6; Jeremiah 11:5; Ezekiel 20:6), the phrase “milk and honey” does not recur in the New Testament.

Dominic Janes notes:

J. Duncan M. Derrett [1922-2012] (1984) points out that the ‘land of milk and honey’ (Exodus 3:8-17 and Exodus 13:5) vanishes from the Christian tradition even as allegory. (Janes, God and Gold in Late Antiquity, 153).
The Promised Land gives the enslaved and later wandering Israelites a concept of a better future residence that provides a beacon of hope. It serves much the same function that heaven does to contemporary believers.

Reggie McNeal (b. 1955) relates:

The central act of God in the Old Testament is the Exodus, a divine intervention into human history to liberate his people from oppression and slavery. The decisive act of the New Testament is the divine intervention of God into human history to liberate his people from oppression and slavery...In both cases the deliverance is not just from something but to something. The Hebrew slaves were destined for the Promised Land, a land flowing with milk and honey [Exodus 3:8, 17, 13:5, 33:3; Leviticus 20:24; Numbers 13:17, 14:8, 16:13-14; Deuteronomy 6:3, 11:9, 26:9, 15, 31:20; Joshua 5:6; Jeremiah 11:5; Ezekiel 20:6]. Jesus promised his followers abundant life [John 10:10]. Included in that deal is heaven. (McNeal, The Present Future: Six Tough Questions for the Church, 12-13)
John M. Shackleford (b. 1929) correlates:
We can certainly identify with the Israelites wandering in the desert. It symbolizes our own travels through life, searching for the “Promised Land.” The Promised Land, the land of Canaan, is also an important symbol of all our hopes for the future. To me, the Land of Promise is symbolic of the spiritual dimension I look toward as a final goal. If this life on earth is a time of preparation, which I believe to be the case, then the Promised Land is the final goal of that preparation. It is a symbol for heaven, a spiritual dimension of happiness with our creator. (Shackleford, God as Symbol: What Our Beliefs Tell Us, 36)
The Promised Land is the future home of the Israelite nation. As few of them have any frame of reference to it, Moses enlists members from each tribe to survey its contents (Numbers 13:3-16). When they come back, the tag line “flowing with milk and honey” captures the imagination and instills resolve that a better home awaits (Numbers 13:27). Contemporary Christians hold a similar belief: There is always hope for a better tomorrow.

Why does God evoke the peculiar combination of “milk and honey” to encapsulate the Promised Land (Exodus 3:8)? Would the epithet have been different for a another group of people? What would the combination of milk and honey look like? What is the modern equivalent of a land “flowing with milk and honey”? What two resources would epitomize your ideal land; what items would use to categorize a land as very good? Where is your land of milk and honey?

The good news is that the land is indeed good (Numbers 13:25-27). But there is a problem. It is not the quality of the region but rather the inhabitants of the land (Numbers 13:28-29). The spies return with both a majority and minority report: Though they agree on the goodness of the land, they disagree on the proper course of action (Numbers 13:25-29).

Katharine Doob Sakenfeld (b. 1940) reports:

The spies return with their report to the leaders and the people. According to Numbers 13:25-29 they are agreed about the marvelous productivity of the land, which they describe as “flowing with milk and honey” (Numbers 13:27); and all are agreed about the strength of the inhabitants and the strong fortification of their towns [Numbers 13:28-29]. They are divided, however, as to the appropriate course of action. Caleb proposes to take the land at once [Numbers 13:30]. The others consider the task impossible and reinforce their conclusion by describing the Israelites as like grasshoppers compared to the huge people who live in that land “that devours its inhabitants” (Numbers 13:33). The image of a devouring land may be intended to dramatize the power of human forces living in Canaan, or it may be a reversal of the earlier claim about the fruitfulness of the area. In any case, the recommendation against proceeding to the land is evident. (Sakenfeld, Numbers: Journeying with God (International Theological Commentary), 85-86)
Rolf P. Knierim (b. 1928) and George W. Coats (1936-2006) dissect:
The weight of a spy report falls on the report produced by the mission. The spies return from their mission and make their reports to Moses and the people (Numbers 13:26). The report has two forms: (a) The land flows with milk and honey (Numbers 13:27). It thus corresponds to the promised land from the tradition (→Exodus 3:8). The expression, a way to emphasize the fertility of the land, is a typical epithet for the land and thus points to the position of the tradition about the fertile land in popular lore [Exodus 3:8, 17, 13:5, 33:3; Leviticus 20:24; Numbers 13:17, 14:8, 16:13-14; Deuteronomy 6:3, 11:9, 26:9, 15, 31:20; Joshua 5:6; Jeremiah 11:5; Ezekiel 20:6]. (b) The people are strong and large. The descendants of Anak are there [Numbers 13:28, 33]. The cities are fortified. And the result is a self-description that constitutes a firm example of a frightened resignation. The spies name themselves grasshoppers (Numbers 13:33). The report is thus both good and bad. (Knierim and Coats, Numbers (Forms of the Old Testament Literature), 186)
The discrepancy is embodied in two references in the spies’ report (Numbers 13:27, 32). Diane M. Sharon (b. 1948) connects:
The association of “a land flowing with milk and honey” in Numbers 13:27 with its antithesis, a land devouring its settlers in Numbers 13:32, also recalls the Lord’s desire to withdraw from personally leading the people to the ‘land flowing with milk and honey’ ודבש חלב זבת ארץ בדרך אכלך after the debacle of the golden calf, ‘lest I devour you on the way’ פן־ בדרך אכלך (Exodus 33:3). The metaphoric allusion in Exodus 33 to a connection between the land of milk and honey and the death of the people on the way is concretized and made explicit in the narrative of Numbers 13:1-14:45. But just as Moses intercedes successfully on behalf of the people in Exodus 33:12-17, so, too, his intercession in Numbers 14:11-38 mitigates the Lord’s wrath. (Sharon, Patterns of Destiny: Narrative Structures of Foundation and Doom in the Hebrew Bible, 204)
Unfortunately the bad news overshadows the good (Numbers 13:25-33). R. Dennis Cole (b. 1950) tracks:
The essential question regarding the land was whether it was good (hătôbâ) or bad (’im-rā‘a). When the scouts returned, they described the land as good, describing it as flowing with milk and honey [Numbers 13:27], a key phrase used throughout the Old Testament to characterize the quality and productivity of the Promised Land [Exodus 3:8, 17, 13:5, 33:3; Leviticus 20:24; Numbers 13:17, 14:8, 16:13-14; Deuteronomy 6:3, 11:9, 26:9, 15, 31:20; Joshua 5:6; Jeremiah 11:5; Ezekiel 20:6]. The tenor of the report, however, suddenly shifted from one of prospective prosperity to one of foreboding fear as the majority of the scouts announced the seeming insurmountability of the people and their heavily fortified cities (Numbers 13:28-29). This fear turned to rebellion when they described the land in terms of death, hence evil or bad, and described a potential return to Egypt as “good” (Numbers 13:31-14:4). (Cole, Numbers (New American Commentary), 210)
David L. Stubbs (b. 1964) laments:
The scouts return and give their report. They show the people the fruit of the land [Numbers 13:23], and their first words are that the land indeed “flows with milk adn honey” (Numbers 13:27)—that is, excellent for grazing milk-giving animals and filled with bees: a perfect land for people like the Israelites. But their concern and anxiety quickly overshadow their initial positive vision, as is apparent in their lengthy rehearsal of the inhabitants of the land—a traditional list of the peoples who lived in Canaan [Numbers 13:28-29]. (Stubbs, Numbers (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible), 128-29)
Modern psychological assessments of Moses have often concurred with the negative majority report, depicting the Promised Land as the leader’s unattainable conquest. Robert A. Paul analyzes:
If, as the midrashic tradition holds, the longing for Egypt was a longing for “incestuous unions”...then these scenes could be analyzed as representing a longing for the mother in whom the nurturant and erotic functions are as yet undifferentiated. Cast out from incestuous Egypt by virtue of the guilt incurred through rebellious patricide, Moses pursues the unattainable chimera of the “promised land flowing with milk and honey,” which will always remain out of reach [Exodus 3:8, 17, 13:5, 33:3; Leviticus 20:24; Numbers 13:17, 14:8, 16:13-14; Deuteronomy 6:3, 11:9, 26:9, 15, 31:20] . (Paul, Moses and Civilization: The Meaning Behind Sigmund Freud [1856-1939]’s Myth, 105)
A subtle, yet critical, clue to the spies’ bias is concealed in their opening statement. Richard N. Boyce (b. 1955) notices:
Their report starts out well enough, though they show some confusion as to who has sent them (“you” the congregation, versus “You,” God; Numbers 13:27). (Boyce, Leviticus and Numbers (Westminster Biblical Companion), 159)
It is God, not the congregation, who has sent the spies to investigate the land (Numbers 13:1-2). Concurrently, it will be God, not the congregation, who will secure the land. Omitting or forgetting God’s involvement in their mission is telling.

Further, God’s promise is the land, not a life of ease in the Promised Land. The promise is opportunity.

David M. Gunn (b. 1942) considers:

Yahweh is the “God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” [Exodus 3:6]; he has heard their cry, seen their suffering, and will deliver them out of Egypt into land flowing with milk and honey (Exodus 3:6-8, 15-17). Yahweh has seen suffering, affliction and oppression. But if he acts out of simple compassion, we are not told so. Nor is the emphasis of the speech upon the alleviation of the suffering (though the alleviation of course is implied). Rather the keynote is the covenantal promise of land, a land of milk and honey, and so perhaps a land in which to flourish. (David J.A. Clines [b. 1938], Gunn and Alan J. Hauser [b. 1945], Art and Meaning: Rhetoric in Biblical Literature, “The ‘Hardening of Pharaoh’s Heart”: Plot, Character and Theology in Exodus 1-14”, 82)
Acquiring the land will take effort. Calvin Miller (1936-2012) empathizes:
For generations God told Israel he would give them Canaan, a land flowing with milk and honey [Exodus 3:8, 17, 13:5, 33:3; Leviticus 20:24; Numbers 13:17, 14:8, 16:13-14; Deuteronomy 6:3, 11:9, 26:9, 15, 31:20; Joshua 5:6; Jeremiah 11:5; Ezekiel 20:6]. It sounded good until they went to pick up the gift and discovered people were already living in Canaan. So the gift required a great deal of effort from Israel. It is in this same sense that God gives us eternal life, only to have us discover that we must work out our own salvation (Philippians 2:12) and faithfully discipline ourselves to make our lives really count for God. (Miller, Fruit of the Spirit: Faithfulness: Cultivating Spirit-Given Character)
The Israelites’ greatest obstacle will not be the land’s inhabitants, regardless of their size. Richard N. Boyce (b. 1955) concludes:
God knows the greatest threat to this mission is not the people and the walled cities of this land of milk and honey, no matter how well “fortified” (Numbers 13:19). No, the greatest threat to the forward motion of this story is the fear ever welling up in the hearts of these travelers. God’s people were and still are more proficient at sitting and wailing, than at marching and praising. (Boyce, Leviticus and Numbers (Westminster Biblical Companion), 156)
Despite the consensus that the land is suitable, the negative report represents the majority opinion (Numbers 13:25-33). Consequently, the spies’ report ultimately reveals more about themselves than the land. The Israelites choose to focus on the heavily fortified armies rather than the heavenly promised land. As is often the case, the bad news proves easier to believe. The spies’ report serves as a reminder that nothing must overshadow the good news of God.

How would you have received the spies’ report (Numbers 13:25-33); what stands out to you? What more could the Israelites have asked for? Have you ever forgotten to factor God into your life’s equation? When have you struggled to characterize something as either inherently good or evil? When has bad news overshadowed the good?

“Time spent on reconnaissance is seldom wasted.” - Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington (1769-1852), Victor of Waterloo

Friday, September 19, 2014

The Unknown God (Acts 17:23)

In what city did Paul proclaim Jesus to be the “Unknown God”? Athens (Acts 17:23)

In one of the few episodes in which Paul is seen traveling alone, the apostle engages philosophers in Athens (Acts 17:16-34). He observes the city’s many idols and joins an ongoing theological discussion with a wide variety of participants including Jews, God-fearers, Epicureans and Stoics (Acts 17:16-21). Having piqued their interest, Paul stands to address the Athenians at the Areopagus (or Mars Hill), the center of Greek religiosity (Acts 17:22). The missionary famously seizes on a statue he had seen dedicated to an “unknown god”. (Acts 17:23).

Paul begins his speech by acknowledging that the audience is “religious” (ASV, CEV, ESV, HCSB, NASB, NIV, NKJV, NLT, NRSV, RSV), “superstitious” (KJV) or that they “take...religion seriously” (MSG) (Acts 17:22).

Notably, Paul takes a positive approach. Stuart H. Merriam (1924-2011) affirms:

In his opening remarks Paul reminded his audience of how religious they were and how he had noticed a statue with th inscription, agnosto theo, “to the unknown God” (Acts 17:23). This opened the way for Paul to declare the true God [Acts 17:24-31]. Wisely he did not denounce Athenian idolatry which would only have closed the minds of his hearers to his message. Paul was no iconoclast. He felt commendation was always better than condemnation. Provide the powerful antidote of the gospel, and in time and in its own way it would cleanse and reform society. (Merriam, Paul the Apostle: At the Edge by Faith, 105)
Paul intentionally opts not to begin his address by pushing his own beliefs (Scripture) or attacking the Athenians’ views (idolatry). Instead he seeks common ground.

Timothy George (b. 1950) recognizes:

Significantly, Paul did not begin his discourse by bashing the “false gods” of the Athenians, though elsewhere his preaching did result in iconoclastic riots (see Acts 19:23-41). He began instead by identifying that which was missing in the religious worldview of his conversation partners. The fact that the Athenians had built an altar to “an unknown god” (Acts 17:23) indicated that there was a real, if unfelt, sense of inadequacy, that Paul could address with the positive content of the Christian gospel. He did this by pointing precisely to the two places where God has made himself known to every person of every religious tradition, namely, the created order [Acts 17:24-26] and the human conscience [Acts 17:27-29]. He showed great sensitivity in quoting, not the inspired Old Testament, as he always did when speaking to Jews, but the pagan poets who were familiar to the Greeks [Acts 17:28]...He did not hesitate to use..non-Christian sources in his evangelistic appeal. But neither did he stop with this acknowledgment of common ground. (George, Is the Father of Jesus the God of Muhammad?: Understanding the Differences Between Christianity and Islam, 74)
Paul neither attacks the Athenians nor condescends because he has knowledge to which they are not yet privy. William H. Willimon (b. 1946) reminds:
When we proclaim the good news to the world, we do not claim that people who have not heard this news are bad people. They simply are those who have not heard this news. (Willimon, Peculiar Speech: Preaching to the Baptized, 89)
Not all have read the apostle’s opening remarks as accolades (Acts 17:22). Christoph W. Stenschke (b. 1966) scrutinizes:
F. Gerald Downing [b. 1935], ‘Freedom from the Law in Luke-Acts’ suggests that even according to some of the philosophic reasoning of the time the Athenians are far from truly religious: ‘Δεισιδαιμονεστέρους [“very religious”, Acts 17:22 NASB] may be an ironic remark that the Athenians are assuming something senseless in their supposition that an unknown deity would claim worship from anybody (senseless even in non-Christian standards), this concept would be a prime example of superstition [Acts 17:22-23]. What God, if he were one at all, would be content to be unknown and to receive such little attention? (49)...Observance becomes superstition when it suggests that God or gods demand some action that does no good to the community or the individual worshipper. Thus an unidentified God would not have an area of competence, therefore no benefits would accrue from proper worship (50). The idea that a deity will quickly take offence if the ritual is not punctiliously observed is impious...The Athenians with their (supposed) worry about offending a (supposed) unknown god are superstitious in this way’. Cf. also Polybius [200-118 BCE]’s assessment of superstition and his theory of its origin in Rome (The Histories VI.56): ‘...the Romans have adopted these practices for the sake of the common people...the ancients were by no means acting foolishly or haphazardly when they introduced to the people various notions concerning the gods and belief in the punishments of Hades...’, quoted according to Polybius: The Rise of the Roman Empire: Translated by Ian Scott-Kilvert [1917-1989], Selected with an Introduction by F.W. Walbank [1909-2008], Penguin Classics (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1979), 349, cf. XVI.12.3-11; Walbank’s introduction, pp. 24f; Folker Siegert [b. 1947], Kommentar, 311. (Stenschke, Luke’s Portrait of Gentiles Prior to Their Coming to Faith, 211)
The Athenians’ religiosity opens a door for the apostle (Acts 17:22-23). John MacArthur (b. 1939) assesses:
The Athenians had taken the first step toward knowing God in that they were supernaturalists [Acts 17:22]. It is obviously impossible for those who deny God’s existence to know Him, since “he who comes to God must believe that He is” (Hebrews 11:6). No one will search for a path to a destination they believe does not exist. And they must have believed there was a god (among all their deities) whom they did not know [Acts 17:23]. (MacArthur, Acts 13-28, 132)
Paul’s ministry in Athens is unique (Acts 17:16-34), not only because he travels alone, but because he speaks to a very different audience than he typically addresses. In some ways the philosophers are more educated than the average congregant; teaching them would be much like the difference between preaching in a church and a seminary in contemporary society. Still, in other ways, this assembly is far more ignorant as they are unfamiliar with the Hebrew scriptures. This presents its own unique set of challenges.

Robert N. Bellah (1927-2013) observes:

There is only one point in the New Testament, as far as I know, when the Gospel is preached to those entirely lacking in knowledge of the scriptures (most of the gentiles to whom Paul preached were among the sympathizers of the synagogue, so that Paul could presume what George Lindbeck [b. 1923] calls “biblical literacy”), and that is Paul’s famous address on the Areopagus [Acts 17:16-34]...In order to preach Jesus Christ and him crucified [I Corinthians 2:2] to the biblically illiterate Athenians, Paul must convince them of the fundamentally Jewish notion of a creator God who is Lord of all and who will bring the world to an end in a last judgment [Acts 17:24-31]. Only in that context does the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus Christ make sense. (Bellah and Steven M. Tipton [b. 1946], The Robert Bellah Reader 480)
Mikeal C. Parsons (b. 1957) and Richard I. Pervo (b. 1942) assert:
The audience may be ignorant, but their ignorance is far from invincible. No blindness has utterly corrupted pagan hearts, as Paul presently demonstrates. In due course he comes to the claim that all people descend from one person fashioned by God (Acts 17:26). A scrap of pagan poetry, “We are God’s offspring” (Acts 17:28) serves as the text. As in chapter 14, this is linked to an argument from the phenomena of nature [Acts 14:15], one which now explicitly buttresses the justification of a world mission by claiming descent from the one God. (Parsons and Pervo, Rethinking the Unity of Luke and Acts, 98)
Though he must begin where his audience is at, their shortcomings do not impede Paul. Loveday Alexander advises:
Accepting the reality of our audience’s conceptions doesn’t mean being bound by their limitations. Paul has to start by expanding his listeners’ view of God. (Alexander, Acts: A Guide for Reflection and Prayer (Daily Bible Commentary), 136)
Paul actually uses the Athenians’ ignorance to his advantage. G.C. Berkouwer (1903-1996) exposes:
Their unusual respect for deities is marked in that they leave not even the unknown deity unworshipped [Acts 17:23]. There was a strange paradox here. Worship assumes at least some knowledge, at least of the existence of the god. Paul makes use of this contradiction: “What therefore ye worship in ignorance, this I set forth unto you” (Acts 17:23). He comes to grips with the pseudo-religion of the Athenians by way of this altar. He does not mean to complete what they already possess of true religion. On the contrary, what the Athenians acknowledge as ignorance has a far deeper meaning for Paul. He makes contact with the Greek mind by way of the altar and the unknown god; but his point of contact is the ignorance of the Greeks. And he sees this ignorance more profoundly than the Athenians’ own acknowledgment of it would agree to. He calls the Athenians to conversion from this ignorance; to them it is a sign of real religion [Acts 17:24-31]. (Berkouwer, Studies in Dogmatics: General Revelation, 143)
Like all good speakers, Paul identifies his audience and adapts his strategy accordingly. Gerhard A. Krodel (1926-2005) informs:
The climactic speech of Paul’s missionary career to Gentiles has become the subject of much debate [Acts 17:22-31]. Martin Dibelius [1883-1947], whose brilliant study of this speech has greatly advanced our understanding, concluded that “the Areopagus speech is absolutely foreign to Paul’s theology, that it is in fact foreign to the entire New Testament.” (Krodel, Acts (Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament), 327)
Instead of his usual approach, Paul plays the part of a Greek philosopher. Nick Page (b. 1961) explains:
Paul is doing his best to be a sophisticated Athenian orator and not a provincial religious zealot. He never mentions Jesus by name. He talks about ‘the God who made the world and everything in it’ [Acts 17:24]. He even quotes from Greek poets: first from the sixth-century BC poet Epimenides [Acts 17:28] and then from Aratus of Soli in Cilicia [271-213 BCE], a third-century BC Stoic [Acts 17:28]. He does what good missionaries and evangelists have always done: he uses the language, the style and the cultural references familiar to his audience. (Page, Kingdom of Fools: The Unlikely Rise of the Early Church)
George A. Kennedy (b. 1928) agrees:
In terms that would be comprehensible to Stoics...Paul’s usual techniques of proof are adapted to a Greek audience...If Paul actually delivered a speech like this, he made a remarkable effort to carry the gospel to the gentiles in terms they might have understood. (Kennedy, New Testament Interpretation Through Rhetorical Criticism, 130-131)
Philip E. Satterthwaite concurs:
Paul’s speech in Acts 17:22-32 emerges as a textbook example of a deliberate speech: proem (Acts 17:22, seeking to secure audience goodwill) narration (Acts 17:23a, giving background); division (again a single proposition: I will tell you of this God you worship as unknown, Acts 17:23b); demonstration (God as incomparably greater than idols, Acts 17:24-29); peroration (Proverbs 17:30-31). As Robert Morgenthaler [b. 1918] notes, this is a speech appropriate to one of the rhetorical centres of the Graeco-Roman world. (Bruce W. Winter [b. 1939] and Andrew D. Clarke, “Acts Against the Background of Classic Rhetoric”, The Book of Acts in Its Ancient Literary Setting, 360)
Marion L. Soards (b. 1952) differentiates:
Instead of preaching the “latest novelty,” Paul takes shrewd line as he addresses his hearers—he starts by referring to one of their own religious shrines, an altar “to the unknown god” [Acts 17:23]. In his proclamation Paul is unlike Socrates [470-399 BCE], for he advocates nothing new; rather he clarifies the identity of the creator God (a deity that the Stoics would have known about) and ultimately relates the God of creation (who also sustains the world) to the resurrection of Jesus (Acts 17:18, 31). (Earl Richard [b. 1940], “The Historical and Cultural Setting of Luke-Acts”, New Views on Luke and Acts, 460)
After acknowledging his audience (Acts 17:22), Paul attempts to connect with them by seizing an opportunity that presents itself. He turns his attention to an inscription he had stumbled upon while surveying Athens (Acts 17:23). In a city that overflows with “gods”, the apostle capitalizes on a statue inscribed to an “unknown god” (Acts 17:23).
For while I was passing through and examining the objects of your worship, I also found an altar with this inscription, ‘TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.’ Therefore what you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you. (Acts 17:23 NASB)
Paul finds a concrete example that gives his listeners something with which they can latch onto while priming remainder of the discourse (Acts 17:23). In doing so, the missionary astutely generates interest and meets his audience where they are.

I. Howard Marshall (b. 1934) describes:

As proof of his statement [Acts 17:22] Paul relates how he had been observing the various objects of worship in the city; here again the word could be understood positively by the hearers, but at least to Jewish readers it would have a derogatory nuance (‘idols’; Wisdom of Solomon 14:20, 15:17). One such had particularly occupied Paul’s attention: a wayside altar with the inscription to an unknown god [Acts 17:23]. He eagerly seized on this inscription as a way of introducing his own proclamation of the unknown God. There was, to be sure, no real connection between ‘an unknown god’ and the true God; Paul hardly meant that his audience were unconscious worshippers of the true God. Rather, he is drawing their attention to the true God who was ultimately responsible for the phenomena which they attributed to an unknown god. (Marshall, Acts (Tyndale New Testament Commentaries), 285-86)
Paul’s observation will be developed into the speech’s theme (Acts 17:23-31). John J. Pilch (b. 1936) traces:
The speech that Luke crafted to insert in Paul’s mouth is, like all the speeches in Acts, a masterpiece [Acts 17:22-31]. His theme represented in the words, “Unknown,” “unknowingly,” and “ignorance” (Acts 17:23, 30) was a response to their suspicion that he was introducing “foreign” or “strange” notions (Acts 17:20). Paul’s focus is God, and how God ought to be properly understood...The aim of the speech was to guide the listeners toward monotheism. Jesus was not mentioned by name in this speech. (Pilch, Visions and Healing in the Acts of the Apostles: How the Early Believers Experienced God, 122-23)
Paul begins his speech with the familiar before venturing into new territory. When speaking publically, this is generally good practice. Richard N. Longenecker (b. 1930) analyzes:
Paul does not begin his address by referring to Jewish history or by quoting the Jewish Scriptures, as he did in the synagogue of Pisidian Antioch (cf. Acts 13:16-41). He knew it would be futile to refer to a history no one knew or argue from fulfillment of prophecy no one was interested in or quote from a book no one read or accepted as authoritative. Nor does he develop his argument from the God who gives rain and crops in their season and provides food for the stomach and joy for the heart as he did at Lystra (cf. Acts 14:15-17). Instead he took for his point of contact with the council an altar he had seen in the city with then inscription Agnōstō Theō (“To an Unknown God”) [Acts 17:23]. (Longenecker, Acts (The Expositor’s Bible Commentary), 271)
Paul takes the opening his circumstances provide, affirms his audience’s own religious language and uses it as a point of departure (Acts 17:22-23). Charles H. Talbert (b. 1934) educates:
Using the altar inscription as his point of departure, Paul says, “What therefore you unknowingly worship, I proclaim to you” (Acts 17:23b). This was a conventional technique in an argument: for example, Pseudo Heraclitus, Fourth Epistle, takes the text of an altar inscription that could be read in two ways as the point of departure for reflections on true worship. The selection of this inscription may have been facilitated by the fact that the deity of the Jews was sometimes called an/the unknown god: for example, Lucan [39-65], Pharsalia 2.592-93, says, “Judea [is] given over to the worship of an unknown god”; the Scriptores Historiae Augustae, “Claudius,” 2.4 speaks about Moses receiving a revelation from “the unknown god”; Josephus [37-100], Against Apion 2.167, says Moses represented God as one who in his essence is unknown. A Messianist Jew sees an Athenian inscription and takes it as his point of departure for a speech that will wind up attacking idolatry. Paul claims that, unlike Socrates [469-399 BCE], he is not teaching anything new or strange. What he proposes to do is not to tell them about a new deity but to acquaint them with the one already honored but not understood by them. Justin Martyr [100-165], 2 Apology 10.5-6, says Socrates in his teaching urged the Athenians to know the unknown god. Perhaps here is yet another Socratic echo. (Talbert, Reading Acts: A Literary and Theological Commentary, 161-62)
Like Paul, contemporary preachers ought to keep their eyes peeled, scavenging for items with which connect to an audience and better contextualize the gospel. Randy White (b. 1956) conceptualizes:
Like all good communicators he [Paul] was gathering intelligence while he was interacting. We learn something of his straightforward methodology for uncovering hidden forces in the city when, in speaking at the Areopagus, he referred to his first experience in Athens. He remarked mundanely, “For as I went through the city and looked carefully...” (Acts 17:23)...Paul got out in the city and looked, paying attention to things he saw. He knew that they had meaning and would give him clues that would help him connect with the city in a way that might bring a measure of transformation. (White, Encounter God in the City: Onramps to Personal and Community Transformation, 69)
Modern homileticians can also build upon the familiar. Fred B. Craddock (b. 1928) advises:
Most of those to whom we preach...need to recognize, and should recognize the message. If they don’t, it’s the fault of the preacher...It is part of the power of preaching that the people are familiar with what we’re saying. It is a mistake in preaching to disguise its familiarity. But that’s a part of the preacher’s ego—not to deal with the familiar. Somehow the familiar doesn’t seem powerful, somehow the familiar is just a no-no and there is a veering away from what is familiar and a sense that the power of preaching is in its novelty...The power in the preaching is for the people to say, “Amen.” And how can they say “Amen” if they’ve never heard it before? (Craddock, Craddock on the Craft of Preaching)
Avoiding the accusation of introducing yet another god into an already crowded pantheon (Acts 17:18-21), Paul draws attention to the statue of an unknown god (Acts 17:23).

David G. Peterson (b. 1944) comments:

The basis of Paul’s accusation was his careful observation of their ‘objects of worship’ (sebasmata; cf. Wisdom of Solomon 14:20, 15:17; Josephus [37-100], Antiquities of the Jews 18.344; II Thessalonians 2:4 [sebasma]). He had seen an abundance of statues and altars devoted to the worship of many gods, even coming across ‘an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD’ [Acts 17:23]. (Peterson, The Acts of the Apostles (Pillar New Testament Commentary), 494)

C.K. Barrett (1917-2011) examines:

διερχόμενος [“passing through”, Acts 17:23 NASB] here does not have the meaning that διέρχεσθαι sometimes...has in Acts. Paul was simply making his way through the city; as he went, he was looking carefully at religious objects. ἀναθεωρειν [“examining”, Acts 17:23 NASB] is a stronger word than θεωρειν (Acts 17:16); δϋστορειν...is stronger still. Idols struck the eye; Paul looked more closely at the σεβάσματα [“objects of worship”, Acts 17:23 NASB] . The word is derived from σέβας, reverential awe (Greek-English Lexicon: Revised Supplement 1587): something viewed with such awe; broadly, any object relayed to cultus. At Wisdom of Solomon 14:20, 15:17; Josephus [37-100], Antiquities of the Jews 18.344 the word is used of objects of idolatrous worship, and so it is here, though one such object will be found to point to, or rather to suggest, the true God. εὑρον [“found”, Acts 17:23 NASB] does not necessarily imply that Paul was looking for what he found—he came across. Among various religious objects, σεβάσματα, a βωμός is almost certainly an altar, though the base of a statue (Homer [800-701 BCE], Odyssey 7.100) is, in the context, not impossible. The statue would be an image of the unknown god [Acts 17:23]. The altar, or base, was inscribed. (Barrett, Acts 15-28 (International Critical Commentary), 836-37)
David W. J. Gill (b. 1946) relays:
As a focus for his speech to the Areopagus, Paul drew attention to an inscribed altar, ‘To an unknown god’, ΑΓΝΩΣΤΩ ΘΕΩ (Acts 17:23). Both Pausanias [110-180] and Philostratus [170-247] noted such altars at Athens. However Richard Ernest Wycherley [1909-1986] has suggested an alternate view that this was not an isolated altar, but perhaps rather a hero shrine, possibly linked to Mycenean tombs in the Agora area at which offerings were made in later centuries. Certainly these tombs were perceived in later centuries as being sacred. Thus it is quite conceivable that a hero-cult, or heroon, might have centered on one of the Bronze Age tombs surrounding the agora, and that it is this cult of an unnamed theos to which Paul refers. It should be noted that the altar was one of many objects of worship (σεβάσματα) (Acts 17:23). Although this word may merely reflect the numerous altars and visual images related to cult at Athens, it also resonates with the worship of the imperial family, usually in Sebasteion. (Gill and Conrad Gempf [b. 1955], “Achaia”, The Book of Acts in Its Graeco-Roman Setting, 446-47)
The idol reads to an “unknown god” (ASV, CEV, ESV, HCSB, KJV, NASB, NIV, NKJV, NLT, NRSV, RSV) or “The God Nobody Knows” (MSG) (Acts 17:23).

Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976) defines:

ágnōstos [“unknown”, Acts 17:23 NASB]...[is] found in the New Testament only in Acts 17:23, this word denotes “unknown” or “unrecognized.” The phrase “unknown God” does not occur in the Old Testament, though the heathen do not know (Psalm 79:6) and Israel does not know other gods (Hosea 13:4). The rabbis think the Gentiles have some knowledge of God but call God’s ways unknown. Neither the Greek nor Jewish world believes God is unknowable, though Plato [428-347 BCE] thinks he is inaccessible to the senses. An altar to the unknown God would simply imply uncertainty as to the god to which it should apply. Scepticism, of course, questions all knowledge, and Gnosticism thinks God can be known only supernaturally but Socrates [469-399 BCE], Aristotle [384-322 BCE], and the Stoics accept God’s knowability. (Gerhard Kittel [1888-1948] and Gerhard Friedrich [1908-1986], Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Volume I, 115-21)
Luke Timothy Johnson (b. 1943) connects:
There is a rhetorical play on the “unknown god” who is “unknowingly worshipped” [Acts 17:23]. The participle agnoountes also anticipates the “times of ignorance” in Acts 17:30. The verb eusebeō (“worship/reverence”) finds its only New Testament usage here and I Timothy 5:4; but sees eusebēs in Acts 10:2, 7 and eusebia in Acts 3:12. The verb is cognate with sebasmata in Acts 17:23. Paul’s “I am proclaiming” (katangellō), in turn, picks up the designation of him as a katangeleus [“proclaimer”, Acts 17:18 NASB]. (Johnson, The Acts of the Apostles (Sacra Pagina), 315)
There is a grammatical anomaly in the inscription (Acts 17:23). F.F. Bruce (1910-1990) divulges:
This God whom they venerated, said Paul, while they confessed their ignorance of his identity, was the God whom he now proposed to make known to them [Acts 17:23]. But he did not express himself quite so naturally, as if unreservedly identifying the “unknown god” of the inscription with the God whom he proclaimed. He used neuter, not masculine forms: “what therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you” (RSV). Since they acknowledge their ignorance of the divine nature, he would tell them the truth about it. (Bruce, The Book of Acts (New International Commentary on the New Testament), 336)
C.K. Barrett (1917-2011) determines:
Surprisingly, the masculine θεός is taken up as if it were neuter [“God”, Acts 17:23 NASB]...It is likely that the neuters are original; there was a double reason for changing them, the grammatical reason that the antecedent was θεός, the theological reason that Paul was understood to proclaim a personal, not an impersonal, deity (but cf. τὸ θειον in Acts 17:29). (Barrett, Acts 15-28 (International Critical Commentary), 838)
As a statue enshrined to an unknown god (singular) is otherwise unknown while dedications to unknown gods (plural) have been uncovered, some have suspected Acts of altering the altar’s inscription.

Hans Conzelmann (1915-1989) contends:

Paul’s use of the altar inscription as a point of contact with the Athenians is a purely literary motif [Acts 17:23], since there was no inscription in this form. Luke has taken up a type of inscription well known in Athens, and has altered it to suit his purposes. (Conzelmann, Acts of the Apostles (Hermeneia: A Critical & Historical Commentary on the Bible), 140)
This argument is ancient. Alister E. McGrath (b. 1959) reveals:
Numerous Christian writers of the early patristic period explained Paul’s meaning at this point [Acts 17:23] by appealing to the ‘anonymous altars’ which were scattered throughout the region at the time. Several (including Didymus [313-398] of Alexandria) suggested that Paul may have altered the inscription from plural (‘to unknown gods’). (McGrath, The Science of God: An Introduction to Scientific Theology, 79)
Charles H. Talbert (b. 1934) bolsters:
Jerome [347-420], Commentary on Titus 1.12, says, “In actuality, the altar inscription read ‘to the unknown, foreign gods of Asia, Europe, and Africa,’ not ‘to the unknown god’ [Acts 17:23], as Paul would have it.” To change a plural inscription to the singular for the sake of argument would not be unusual in antiquity. Philo [20 BCE-50 CE], On Sobriety 150, quotes Hesiod [eighth-seventh century BCE]’s Works and Days 289-92 in a monotheistic form by changing theoi (gods) to theos (God). (Talbert, Reading Acts: A Literary and Theological Commentary, 161)
The archaeological record has substantiated the existence of epitaphs to unknown gods. Lee Martin McDonald (b. 1942) catalogs:
No such altar has been found at Athens, but there are several indications that there are altars erected in honor of unknown gods (plural). The absence of any such find, however, is no evidence that none existed. Apollonius of Tyana, responding to the piety of a young man, said “...it is much greater proof of wisdom and sobriety to speak well of all the gods, especially at Athens, where altars are set up in honour even of unknown gods” (Philostratus [170-247], Apollonius of Tyana 6.3, Loeb Classical Library; similarly, see also Diogenes Laertius [200-250], Lives of Eminent Philosophers 1:110). In the second century A.D., Pausanias [110-180], while describing one of the harbors of the Athenians at Munychia, wrote: “Here there is also a temple of Athena Sciras, and one of Zeus some distance away, and altars of the gods named Unknown, and of heroes, and of the children of Thesus and Phalerus...” (Description of Greece 1.1.2, Loeb Classical Library). In describing the altars of Olympia, Pausanius again writes: “An account of the great altar I gave a little way back; it is called the altar of Olympian Zeus. By it is an altar of the Unknown Gods, and after this an altar of Zeus Purifier, one of Victory, and another of Zeus—this time surnamed Underground” (Description of Greece, 5.14.8, Loeb Classical Library). Although Paul speaks of an “Unknown God” (singular) there is considerable support for altars erected in antiquity to Unknown Gods (plural). Again, this does not mean that what is reported in this passage is incorrect, but only that presently there is no evidence of such an altar. The independent evidence, however, is enough to suggest that such altars did exist. (Craig A. Evans [b. 1952], Acts-Philemon (The Bible Knowledge Background Commentary), 119-20)
C. Kavin Rowe (b. 1974) footnotes:
There are...several references to the plural “unknown gods” (ἀγνώστοις θεοις, etc.). So far, the only strong possibility for the singular form occurs in Diogenes Laertius [200-250]’s account of Epimenides [sixth century BCE]. Epimenides freed the Athenians from a plague by offering sacrifice to the “local god” (θύειν τω προσήκοντι θεω) upon the Areopagus wherever the sheep brought in for the occasion happened to lay down (Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, 1.110). For a thorough review of the literary and inscriptional evidence, see especially, Pieter Willem van der Horst [b. 1946], “The Unknown God,” 19-42. (Rowe, World Upside Down: Reading Acts in the Graeco-Roman Age, 197)
David G. Peterson (b. 1944) defends:
Though no inscription specifically ‘to an unknown god’ [Acts 17:23] has been found in Athens... Any such altar could have perished, or its inscription could have become indecipherable through the ravages of time. Even in the singular, such a dedication implied polytheism — the need to acknowledge any god that might exist — but Paul used it to affirm monotheism. In their anxiety to honour any gods inadvertently ignored, the Athenians had displayed their ignorance of the one true God. (Peterson, The Acts of the Apostles (Pillar New Testament Commentary), 494-95)
Ben Witherington III (b. 1951) reviews:
The debate over whether or not there was any such thing as an altar to an unknown god [Acts 17:23] in Athens in Paul’s day has largely proved sterile, due to a lack of hard evidence one way or the other. It has been suspected that Luke or Paul altered the plural into a singular for apologetic purposes. Some scholars, such as Hans Conzelmann [1915-1989], have been wiling to be dogmatic about the matter. It is certainly true that thus far clear evidence of such an altar has not been forthcoming, though there is considerable evidence for altars to certain unnamed gods (plural) in antiquity...All relevant evidence of any kind postdates the first century. For example, Pausanias [110-180]’s Descriptions of Greece written in the third quarter of the second century A.D., speaks of altars of gods called unknown (1.1.4)...The especial relevance of this is that Pausanias the inveterate traveler says he saw these altars in Athens. It is worth asking what exactly Pausanias means. Does he mean various altars each dedicated to an unknown god, or altars each of which is dedicated to more than one unknown god?...Pieter Willem van der Horst [b. 1946] has rightly pointed out, after surveying all the relevant material in detail, “[w]hen Greek and Latin authors speak of βωμοι θεων or arae deorum they usually mean a number of altars dedicated to a number of individual gods (e.g. Homer [800-701 BCE] Iliad XI,808; Juvenal [first-second century CE] Saturae III,145), not altars dedicated to a plurality of gods.” As van der Horst says, it is thus logically and grammatically possible that Pausanias might be referring to altars each one of which was dedicated to an unknown god. Here the parallel texts in Pausanias that speak about altars for unknown heroes (6.20.15-19, 6.24.4, 10.33.6) may be relevant since there are certainly altar inscriptions which read “altar for a hero” of unknown name (Inscriptiones Graecae 2.2.1546, 1547). This may suggest that what Paul (or Luke) actually saw was an inscription which simply read “altar to a god,” since the god’s name or identity was unknown, and he added the explicatory term “unknown” [Acts 17:23]. One factor which may be thought to count against this reasoning is another text in Pausanias’s work (5.14.8) which clearly refers to “an altar of unknown gods” (αγνωστων θεων βωμος), and the wording here suggests that this is exactly what the inscription on the altar read, whereas in the previously quoted text it could be thought to be Pausanias’s way of describing the altar in view of the term “called.” The evidence from Diogenes Laertius [200-250] (Lives of Eminent Philosophers 1.110) and from Philostratus [170-247]’s Life of Apollonius of Tyana (4.3), both from the early third century, confirms that in Athens there were altars for unknown gods with both altars and gods being in the plural...The one relevant piece of archaeological data comes from an altar from the second century A.D. found in the precincts of the temple of Demeter in Pergamum in Asia Minor. Unfortunately, the inscription is broken off at the crucial point, but it appears probable in view of the number of letters per line and the fragment of a word we do have that it should be restored to read “to gods unknown (ΘΕΟΙΣ ΑΓ[ΝΩΣΤΟΙΣ]) Capito the torch-bearer [dedicated this altar].” The discussion by van der Horst shows that this reconstruction is very possible and was favored by three of the great experts in this century on Greco-Roman religion, A.D. Nock [1902-1963], Martin P. Nilsson [1874-1967], and Otto Weinreich [1886-1972]. Jerome [347-420] (Commentary on Titus 1.12; Epistle 70, Ad Magnum) suggests that Paul rephrased an inscription which originally read “To the gods of Asia, Europe, and Africa, to the unknown and foreign gods.”...What the above evidence does seem to establish is that there were altars to unknown gods (plural) in antiquity, and that they were especially known to have existed in Athens. What this evidence does not rule out is that there were also altars that read “to a god” or even “to an unknown god” [Acts 17:23] which archaeologists simply have not discovered yet. (Witherington, The Acts of the Apostles : A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, 521-22)
Many have addressed why such an idol would have been erected. In his 1913 book Agnos Theos, Eduard Norden (1868-1941) proposed, that in addition to the twelve primary deities and countless lesser gods, ancient Greeks worshiped a deity they called “Agnostos Theos” (“Unknown God”) which Norden dubbed “Un-Greek”.

F.F. Bruce (1910-1990) posits:

Paul may have seen an altar dedicated exactly as he says [Acts 17:23]. When a derelict altar was repaired and the original dedication could not be ascertained, the inscription “To the (an) unknown god” would have been quite appropriate. An altar on the Palatine Hill in Rome was rebuilt around 100 B.C. and dedicated “whether to a god or to a goddess”; the vagueness of the wording reflects ignorance of the divinity in whose honor it had first been erected. (Bruce, The Book of Acts (New International Commentary on the New Testament), 335-36)
A more common explanation is that the Athenians created a catchall deity as a precaution in the event a god had been inadvertently overlooked (Acts 17:23). One would not wish to unintentionally offend an as yet anonymous deity lest he punish his audience for their sin of omission. The unknown god then functions much like a god of fill-in-the-blank. It is like keeping a present wrapped in the event an unexpected guest appears on Christmas morning. The statue also functions like the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, whose own inscription reads, “Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God”. In short, the Athenians are hedging their bets.

C. Kavin Rowe (b. 1974) researches:

Altars to the unknown gods are usually interpreted as evidence of pagan anxiety not to neglect—and thereby anger—any god whatsoever. See Pieter Willem van der Horst [b. 1946], “The Unknown God” 27, for example, and Robin Lane Fox [b. 1946], Pagans and Christians, 38 passim, for the general context of “the gods’ own anger at their neglect.” From a different angle, Stephen Mitchell [b. 1948], “Cult of Theos Hypsistos,” 122, has noted that if—following Timothy D. Barnes [b. 1942]—Paul stood trial on the Areopagus, “he was standing directly in front of the cult place of Theos Hypsistos, the God ‘not admitting of a name, known by many names.’” Mitchell’s quotation refers...to the famous oracle inscription from Oenoanda (northern Lycia). (Rowe, World Upside Down: Reading Acts in the Graeco-Roman Age, 197)
Martin Dibelius (1883-1947) justifies:
The consecration to unknown gods may have been occasioned by the fear that, through ignorance, a god might be denied the homage which was due him; this fear, when found in places such as Athens, Olympia, and Pergamum—through which foreign traffic passed—seems not entirely unjustified and may even have been kept alive by stories of gods which had become maleficent. (Dibelius, The Book of Acts: Form, Style, and Theology, 103)
Ajith Fernando (b. 1948) concurs:
Conrad Gempf [b. 1955] points to a writing by Diogenes Laertius [200-250] that presents the practice of anonymous worship as a “safety precaution...The thinking was that if the gods were not properly venerated they would strike the city. Hence, lest they inadvertently invoke the wrath of some god in their ignorance of him or her, the city set up these altars to unknown gods (Diogenes 1.110-113).” Paul, then, is highlighting an acknowledged need of the Athenians, and he presents the God whom he proclaims as the answer to that need (Acts 17:23b). (Fernando, Acts (NIV Application Commentary), 475)
Christoph W. Stenschke (b. 1966) recreates:
Though the origin or reasoning behind this worship is not given, it can be reconstructed [Acts 17:23]. Rather than offend a deity forgotten or as yet unknown to them and risk retribution for such disregard, worship of the unknown god was established in precaution. There was ‘fear of anxiety that by naming one god instead of another their acts of worship would not yield the results desired. To be on the safe side, a Greek could use the formula “unknown god”’. This altar and its inscription indicated that even a god whose existence were dubious was worshipped, showing the uncertainty and confusion in which these Gentiles were. Worship of yet another god, though unknown, is not surprising in their polytheistic paradigm. (Stenschke, Luke’s Portrait of Gentiles Prior to Their Coming to Faith, 212)
William J. Larkin, Jr. (b. 1945-2014) relays:
Once when Athens was plagued by pestilence in the sixth century B.C. and the city rulers had exhausted all their strategies to abate it, they sent to Crete, asking the prophet Epimenides [sixth century BCE] to come and help. His remedy was to drive a herd of black and white sheep away from the Areopagus and, wherever they lay down, to sacrifice them to the god of that place. The plague was stayed, and Diogenes Laertes [200-250] says that memorial altars with no god’s name inscribed on them may consequently be found throughout Africa. Richard Ernest Wycherley [1909-1986] proposes, with some archaeological justification, that such altars may also have been raised to appease the dead wherever ancient burial sites were disturbed by the building projects of later generations (1968:621). (Larkin, Acts (IVP New Testament Commentary Series), 255-56)
Dean Flemming (b. 1953) penetrates:
It illustrates a common fear of unknown powers among the Greeks. Paul’s mention of the altar to the unknown God therefore identifies an underlying religious need of his audience [Acts 17:23]. At the same time, it picks up on the theme of knowledge, which is highly valued by the Greeks. The Athenians’ worship of the unknown serves as a springboard for Paul to launch into his evangelistic message about the one true God who is known because this God has revealed himself. Additionally, the reference to the altar inscription allows Paul to build credibility with his audience by removing the suspicion that he is trying to introduce foreign deities to Athens (cf. Acts 17:18): the God he proclaims is not entirely unknown to them. (Flemming, Contextualization in the New Testament: Patterns for Theology and Mission, 76)
These are just several of the reasons that have been given for the existence of a statue devoted to an “unknown god” (Acts 17:23). Ben Witherington III (b. 1951) reflects:
There are at least several possible scenarios which could have led to the erection of an altar to an unknown god [Acts 17:23]. First, as F.F. Bruce [1910-1990] points out, altars were frequently reused and rededicated, especially after a natural disaster or a war. If an altar was found partially destroyed, and the name of the god it was originally dedicated to was missing, it is very possible that such an altar would be rededicated either in the form “to a god” or even “to an unknown or unnamed god.”...Secondly, there is now some evidence discussed by Pieter Willem van der Horst [b. 1946] that God-fearers living in places like Athens or elsewhere outside of Palestine could have erected an altar to the god of the Jews with the inscription “to the unknown (or unnamed?) God” of the Jews. It must be remembered that to “many Greeks the god of the Jewish religion was definitely an unknown god par excellence because he could not be called by name and he had no image. If a God-fearing Gentile dedicated such an altar, then of course the inscription would have referred to a god, namely, the only one Jews and their Gentile adherents recognized. There is some evidence, admittedly late, that quotes Livy [59 BCE-17 CE]’s now-lost 102d book of his Roman History as saying about the god worshiped in Judea, “the god worshipped there is unknown.”...The word “unknown” could of course be a term used by a foreigner of a god that simply had a name unknown to him or her, or it could be an expression of doubt about the true name of a god, or it could be a word used to avoid misnaming a god since it was believed that to misname could bring the wrath of a god. In any of these circumstances, it is conceivable that there could have been a dedication to a particular unknown or unnamed god. Thus, van der Horst’s conclusion is fully warranted: “It is not improbable that there were altars with dedications in the singular, though it is likely that they were an exception to the rule, most dedications being in the plural.” (Witherington, The Acts of the Apostles : A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, 522-523)
Whatever impetus generated the object, its origins are immaterial to Paul.

Some have heard echoes of Scripture in the allusion to the unknown god (Acts 17:23). Hans-Josef Klauck (b. 1946) ascertains:

There is...a concealed biblical dimension present when Luke writes of the unknown god [Acts 17:23], since he is at the time the hidden God of whom Old Testament prophecy speaks: ‘Truly, you are a hidden God, O God of Israel, the saviour!’ (Isaiah 45:15). This inspires the prophet to hope that the Egyptians, Ethiopians and Sabaeans will come to Israel and confess: ‘God is with you only, and there is no other’ (Isaiah 45:14). The hidden God emerges from his hiddenness when he acts; he is made known in preaching and wants to be acknowledged by all, for otherwise judgement threatens. In terms of the narrative framework, we also discover that there is a gap in the Gentiles’ own structure of faith, a space left empty for ‘foreign divinities’ whom Paul is allegedly preaching (cf. Acts 17:18). But it is the Bible that supplies the matter to fill this. (Klauck, Magic and Paganism in Early Christianity: The World of the Acts of the Apostles, 83)
Eckhard J. Schnabel (b. 1955) considers:
The reference to the “unknown god” (Acts 17:23), understood in the context of Isaiah 45:15, 18-25, implies a censure of religious pagan convictions. The prophet Isaiah, after repeating Israel’s monotheistic confession, “Truly, you are a God who hides himself, O God of Israel, the Savior” (Isaiah 45:15), narrates a speech of Yahweh in which he seeks to convert the people to worshiping the one true God. If Israel’s God appears to be hidden and thus an unknown God, Yahweh’s words prove that he is indeed not hiding at all... (Isaiah 45:18-19...Isaiah 45:20-21)...This truth leads to an invitation...Turn to me and be saved...all the ends of the earth!...For I am God, and there is no other. [Isaiah 45:22]. (Schnabel, Paul the Missionary: Realities, Strategies and Methods, 174-75)
For Paul, the statue is merely a means to an end through which he can introduce the polytheistic Athenians to monotheism (Acts 17:23). The comparison serves only as a bridge; the idol represents an inexact correlation, if there is one at all.

Clinton E. Arnold (b. 1958) corrects:

When Paul says, “Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you” (Acts 17:23), he does not imply by this statement that they were already unconsciously worshiping the one true God. This merely serves as a means to raise for them the most basic question of life: Who is God? (Arnold, John, Acts (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary), 174)
Derek Carlsen (b. 1961) assures:
Paul does not say, the little bit the Athenians claimed to know about this unknown god was correct and now all he was going to do was increase their knowledge about him. Paul chose this particular altar because it was an excellent example of the Athenians’ bankrupt philosophy [Acts 17:23]. The Athenians, in having this altar, were acknowledging that even after their multitudes of idols and different deities, they were religiously unsatisfied and unsure. (Carlsen, Faith & Courage: Commentary on Acts, 400)
Pieter Willem van der Horst (b. 1946) resolves:
The quotation of the inscription functions as a way of introducing his [Paul’s] own proclamation of the unknown god [Acts 17:23]. ‘There was, to be sure, no real connection between “an unknown god” and the true God. Rather, he is drawing their attention to the true God who was ultimately responsible for the phenomena which they attributed to an unknown god’. The altar inscription enables Paul to emphasise the ignorance of his audience concerning the true identity of God. It is not only by ἀγνοουντες [“ignorance”, NASB] in Acts 17:23 that he stresses this point, but also and again in Acts 17:30 where he says that God has overlooked the times of their ignorance...Until the coming of the revelation of God’s true nature in Christianity men lived in ignorance of him. (Van der Horst, “The Altar of the ‘Unknown God’ in Athens (Acts 17:23) and the Cult of ‘Unknown Gods’ in the Hellenistic and Romans Periods’, Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt II,18.2 (1989), 1454)
John R.W. Stott (1921-2011) limits:
How...shall we interpret his statement that ‘what’ they were worshipping ‘as something unknown’ he was able to proclaim to them [Acts 17:23]? Was he thereby acknowledging the authenticity of their pagan worship, and should we regard with equal charity the cultus of non-Christian religions? For example, is Raimon Panikkar [1918-2010] justified, in The Unknown Christ of Hinduism, in writing: ‘In the footsteps of St. Paul, we believe that we may speak not only of the unknown God of the Greeks but also of the hidden Christ in Hinduism’? Is he further justified in concluding that ‘the good and bona fide Hindu is saved by Christ and not by Hinduism, but it is through the sacraments of Hinduism, through the message of morality and the good life, through the mysterion that comes down to him through Hinduism, that Christ saves the Hindu normally’?...No, this popular reconstruction cannot be maintained...N.B. Stonehouse [1902-1968] is right that what Paul picked out for comment was the Athenians’ open acknowledgment of their ignorance [Acts 17:23, 30], and that the ignorance rather than the worship is underscored...Moreover, Paul made the bold claim to enlighten their ignorance (a Jew presuming to teach ignorant Athenians!), using egō of apostolic authority, and insisting thereby that special revelation must control and correct whatever general revelation seems to disclose. (Stott, The Message of Acts (Bible Speaks Today), 284-85)
Paul’s negative appraisal of the Athenians’ idolatry is evident early in his speech (Acts 17:23). Mikeal C. Parsons (b. 1957) observes:
Within the compliment is an implicit criticism: that which you worship in ignorance, this is what I am proclaiming to you (Acts 17:23b). The Athenians had been worshiping an object, not a personal God, a “what,” not a “whom.” (Parsons, Acts (Paideia: Commentaries on the New Testament), 246)
This sentiment reverberates throughout Paul’s discourse (Acts 17:23-31). Loveday Alexander detects:
This conciliatory opening might be dismissed as a preacher’s play on words, but the whole tone of the sermon, though uncompromising in its condemnation of the practice of ‘idolatry’ (Acts 17:29), tends towards the recognition that the Zeus of the Greek poets and philosophers is the same as the creator whom Paul proclaims (Acts 17:24-28). The negative side of this debate surfaces in Ephesus, where the town clerk cheerfully defends Paul and his friends against the charge of being ‘sacrilegious and blasphemers of our goddess’ (Acts 19:37), despite Paul’s reputation as a scourge of idolatry (Acts 19:26). (Alexander, Acts in Its Ancient Literary Context, 197)
Paul routinely unmasks idolatry. V.J. Samkutty professes:
Luke exposes false gods and goddesses as he has Paul refer to an inscription to the unknown god at Athens (Acts 17:23), Demetrius and the town clerk affirm the deity of Ephesian Artemis (Acts 19:26-27, 37), the Lycaonians address Barnabas as Zeus and Paul as Hermes (Acts 14:12), and in Malta, the people claimed that the just vengeance of the gods (ἡ δίκη) brought punishment upon Paul, and later on they regard Paul himself as a god (Acts 28:4, 6). (Samkutty, The Samaritan Mission in Acts, 177-78)
Instead of false deities, the true God permeates Paul’s thought (Acts 17:23-31). John T. Squires (b. 1964) deconstructs:
The focus on the providence of God is...conveyed through the syntax of the speech [Acts 17:22-31]. The analysis of Paul Schubert [1900-1969] demonstrates the centrality of God’s actions in speech. The first period (Acts 17:24-25) establishes God as the primary subject of the speech, both through the relationship between God and humanity and through God’s activities in human history. God’s actions are the focus of the first half of the second period (Acts 17:26-27), God’s relationship to humanity of the second half of this period. In the third and fourth periods (Acts 17:28-29), although humanity (‘we’) becomes the subject, ‘the exception is only syntactical, not material, for Acts 17:28-29 deal as much (from the point of view of Luke) with the proper relationship between God and men as do the others’. The fifth period (Acts 17:30-31) returns syntactically to the primary subject, ὁ θεός [“God”, Acts 17:30 NASB], and thematically to the actions of God in history. The scope of God’s activity thus encompasses the whole of history, from creation to judgement, from breath to resurrection, with individual and cosmic dimensions, focussed on the central figured of the appointed man, Jesus. (Squires, The Plan of God in Luke-Acts, 73-74)
C.K. Barrett (1917-2011) defends Paul’s use of the unknown god (Acts 17:23):
It [Acts 17:23] must be understood as a preacher’s ad hoc way of introducing his theme, and it would be unfair to hold him bound to all the theological implications of his illustration. The Athenians (those of them who were religiously rather than sceptically disposed) reverenced a considerable number of gods. The preacher could have made a note of many other σεβάσματα [ “objects of worship”, Acts 17:30 NASB] bearing the names of particular gods; he picked out this god, whose name was not given because it was not known, as the one whom, to the exclusion of all the others, he intended to proclaim. (Barrett, Acts 15-28 (International Critical Commentary), 838-39)
N.T. Wright (b. 1948) adds:
Paul was not simply constructing a would-be theology out of bits and pieces of the local culture, in order, as the phrase goes, to discover what God might be doing in this place and do it with him. According to Paul, the main thing that God was doing in Athens was shaking his head in sorrow and warning of imminent judgment. (Wright, Acts for Everyone, Part 2, 88)
Though utilizing another’s beliefs as a point of contact is still good practice, Stephen P. McCutchan (b. 1941) cautions:
The major Christian seasons were transformations of pagan rituals into Christian expressions. The festival of Saturnalia was transformed into a celebration of Christ’s birth. Easter was an adaptation of a spring goddess festival. The cross was intended to be a sign of shame but was transformed into a sign of hope. Like Paul, these Christians knew that the false gods were “not gods” and therefore felt free to transform them into vehicles of faith. The danger for us, however, is that the reverse process is also possible. (McCutchan, Water from the Well: Lectionary Devotional for Cycle A, 154)
Paul’s missionary technique in interacting with the Athenians is exemplary and has been treated as a model (Acts 17:23-31). In fact, his reference to the unknown god (Acts 17:23) served as the primary archetype for missionary comparative religion in nineteenth-century southern Africa.

Craig S. Keener (b. 1960) briefs:

Many recognized Paul’s speech to the Areopagus as a model of how to relate to others’ beliefs without compromising one’s own Christian convictions [Acts 17:22-31]. Stoic thinkers could agree with most of what Paul said in the speech, although it was also biblical. Only toward the end of his speech did Paul go beyond dialogue and seek conversion, bringing up necessary and important points of difference. (Keener, Acts (Immersion Bible Studies))
Robert C. Tannehill (b. 1934) applauds:
Starting from a cultural value acknowledged by the audience enables Paul to engage them in the discourse [Acts 17:22-23]. Denying that this value has been realized within the present culture and calling for repentance turns this into a critical engagement [Acts 17:30]...The Areopagus speech may provide a helpful model of the delicate task of speaking outside the religious community through critical engagement with the larger world. A mission that does not engage the presuppositions and concerns of those being approached leaves these presuppositions and concerns untouched, with the result that the message, even if accepted, does not transform its hearers. The fundamental structures of the old life remain standing, and the gospel loses its culture-transforming power. Dialogue with outsiders may be risky, but the refusal of dialogue on cultural concerns results either in the isolation of the religious community or the compartmentalization of religion so that it does not affect society at large. (Tannehill, The Narrative Unity of Luke–Acts, A Literary Interpretation, Volume Two: The Acts of the Apostles, 215)
Stan May (b. 1956) applies:
Paul builds bridges of understanding by acknowledging their religiosity (Acts 17:22), quoting lines from Athenian poetry to communicate truth (Acts 17:28), using their logic to present his arguments, and employing one of their altars to point them to Christ [Acts 17:23]. Don Richardson [b. 1935] says that Paul understood the story of the altar to the Unknown God and used this tool to proclaim what they worshiped as unknown [Acts 17:23]...When missionaries do not develop an understanding of the culture and worldview of their target people group, they naturally tend to view their own culture as superior to the cultures of others. This tendency...is identified as ethnocentrism. The solution to ethnocentrism is to try to understand another culture in terms of its own values and assumptions and its members as fellow humans. (Mike Barnett [b. 1952], “Cultures and Worldviews”, Discovering the Mission of God: Best Missional Practices for the 21st Century, 386)
Paul meets the pagan Athenians where they are by taking their own statues and philosophers and using them to present Judeo-Christian monotheism (Acts 17:23-31). The apostle begins with a healthy respect for his audience’s position. Though not always followed, this standard should still be modeled today.

What sermons/speeches have begun with the localized observation of the speaker? What do the landmarks in your area reveal about the ideology of the region? What are the rhetorical benefits of Paul latching onto the statue of “the unknown God” (Acts 17:23)? What precautions do you take to insure that you demonstrate respect towards others’ beliefs? What analogies have you used to communicate your convictions? Where should interfaith dialogue begin? Are you familiar with the commonalities between your beliefs and competing ideologies? Do you speak differently to Christians (the initiated) than you do with non-Christians (the uninitiated); should you? What, if any, is the connection between the unknown god (Acts 17:23) and the one true God?

In recalling the Athenians’ concession to an unknown deity (Acts 17:23), Paul appeals to a basic human instinct to pursue meaning. Harry J. Aponte (b. 1935) evaluates:

Paul discovered an altar in Athens that the Greeks had dedicated to the “Unknown God’ (Acts 17:23). He believed he knew who that God was, but he spoke to the Greeks’ pursuit as to a universal human impulse. Consciously or unconsciously everyone is searching for an overarching meaning and purpose to pain and pleasure, life and death. Everyone has a spirituality. (Froma Walsh [b. 1942], “The Stresses of Poverty and the Comfort of Spirituality”, Spiritual Resources in Family Therapy: Second Edition, 127)
Lynn Allan Losie (b. 1946) enlightens:
Paul’s point of departure for his speech, using the altar “To a Unknown [agnôstô] God” to which he claims the Athenians show reverence “without knowing [agnoountes] (Acts 17:23)...picks up a theme in Stoic philosophy. On the occasion of the dedication of a famous statue to Zeus created by Pheidias at the Olympic Games in 97 C.E., the Stoic Dio Chrystostom [40-120] gave an oration in which he used the image of the god as a springboard for a discourse on “the nature of the gods in general, and especially that of the ruler of the universe.” The knowledge of this supreme god, according to Dio Chryststom, is “inevitable and innate in every creature endowed with reason, arising in the course of nature without the aid of human teacher and free from the deceit of any expounding priest.” Thus he asks, “How, then could they have remained ignorant [agnôtes] and conceived no inkling of him who had sowed and planted and was now preserving and nourishing them, when on every side they were filled with the divine nature through both sight and hearing, and in fact through every sense?” The Stoic philosopher Epictetus (c. 55-135 C.E.) echoes the same sentiment: “You are bearing God about with you, you poor wretch, and know it not!” In the introduction to his speech on the Areopagus, Paul thus builds a bridge to his audience, even in what may seem to be critical remarks. (Robert L. Gallagher [b. 1949] and Paul Hertig [b. 1955], “Paul’s Speech on the Areopagus: A Model of Cross-cultural Evangelism (Acts 17:16-34)”, Mission in Acts: Ancient Narratives in Contemporary Context, 229)
Their reverence for the “unknown god” indicates that the Athenians sense that there is something more (Acts 17:23). They simply do not know what it is. Paul attempts to fill in the gap, taking the Athenians from “general revelation” (Romans 1:16-25) to “specific revelation”.

Lynn Allan Losie (b. 1946) notes:

The speech on the Areopagus [Acts 17:22-31] acknowledges the existence of general revelation and uses it as the basis for an evangelistic appeal. Ironically, the “unknown god” [Acts 17:23] is, in fact, the God who is known. (Robert L. Gallagher [b. 1949] and Paul Hertig [b. 1955], “Paul’s Speech on the Areopagus: A Model of Cross-cultural Evangelism (Acts 17:16-34)”, Mission in Acts: Ancient Narratives in Contemporary Context, 232)
Alister E. McGrath (b. 1959) agrees:
The fundamental point being made is that a deity of whom the Greeks had some implicit knowledge or intuitive awareness is being made known to them by name and in full [Acts 17:22-31]. The god who is known indirectly through his creation can be known fully in redemption...On the basis of a detailed survey of the biblical material, it seems that a knowledge of God, however limited, is indeed presupposed. Yet there is no sign of any endorsement of the view that God can be known, fully and authentically, by any mode other than revelation. (McGrath, The Science of God: An Introduction to Scientific Theology, 79)
Cleophas J. LaRue (b. 1953) proclaims:
Without revelation we wouldn’t be Christians at all; we would be Athenians, like those whose altar Paul discovered outside Athens, inscribed, “To an unknown god” (Acts 17:23). Without revelation he would be to us an unknown god. But we believe that God has revealed himself, not only in the ordered loveliness of the created universe, but supremely in his Son Jesus Christ, and in the totality of the biblical witness to Christ. Without that revelation expressed in speaking – human speech is the model that God has chosen to indicate what is meant by revelation – without it we would know nothing of him. (Michael P. Knowles [b. 1956], The Folly of Preaching: Models and Methods, 115)
Some have argued that Jesus has been present in Athens (general revelation) and that Paul is merely unveiling him (specific revelation). Dandapati Samuel Satyaranjan (b. 1939) trumpets:
God is present in the presence of Jesus Christ in the midst of humanity in its exercise of faith in the world. He is like the ‘Unknown God’ unidentified in Acts 17:23. D.T. Niles [1908-1970] stresses the need to “uncover a presence which has been there even though unidentified; indeed, a presence that was forgotten and lost, if not denied.” Religious history speaks of the “known gods.” What is truly present is God who is “unknown”, who needs to be discovered. Therefore, Niles says, “It is the present tense, the way in which God is contemporarily present, which needs to be discerned and named. That this present tense has always been present is what makes the name of Jesus appropriate for it.” (Satyaranjan, The Preaching of Daniel Thambirajah (D.T.) Niles [1908-1970]: Homiletical Criticism, 81)
Karl Rahner (1904-1984), a leading Roman Catholic “inclusivist”, writes:
Human life does of itself present a kind of anonymous Christianity, which explicit Christianity can then interpret, giving a person the courage to accept and not run away from what one experiences and undergoes in one’s own life...This would be putting into practice what St. Paul said of his preaching: ‘What therefore you worship (really worship!) without knowing it! (as consciously and explicitly interpreted), that I preach to you.’ (Acts 17:23) (Rahner, Mission and Grace Vol. I: Essays in Pastoral Theology, 160)
When presenting Jesus to someone who has not yet heard of him, one might find that Christ is already there. Rob Bell (b. 1970) updates:
Have you ever heard missionaries say they were going to “take Jesus” to a certain place?...The issue isn’t so much taking Jesus to people who don’t have him, but going to a place and pointing out to the people there the creative, life-giving God who is already present in their midst...If you do see yourself carrying God to places, it can be exhausting...God is really heavy...Some people actually believe that God is absent from a place until they get there. The problem with this idea is that if God is not there before you get there, then there is no “there” in the first place. (Bell, Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith, 088)
Gerald O’Collins (b. 1931) expands:
As regards the universal presence of Christ, we can extend the language of Luke about ‘the unknown God’ (Acts 17:23) to speak of the unknown Christ who has been and is active everywhere, for everyone, and in the history of all cultures and regions—albeit often hiddenly. He may be unknown, but never absent. He has mediated revelation and salvation through particular historical events and persons, and continues to mediate to all the revelatory and saving self-communication of God...Many object to such a vision of Christ being truly present, but less visibly, in the lives of those who adhere to other religions. (O’Collins, Rethinking Fundamental Theology, clxiii)
Tony Campolo (b.1935) illustrates:
Billy Graham (b. 1918), at the 1987 Urbana missions conference, told about going to a monastery in China to talk to some Buddhists. When he got there, he saw one particular monk in deep meditation, and felt led by the Spirit to go and talk to the man about Jesus. With his translator, Dr. Graham opened the Scripture and explained the way of salvation, giving the details about what Jesus had done on the cross and how giving one’s life over to Christ would give a person eternal life...Dr. Graham could sense that this Buddhist monk was taking all of this in, and was so moved by it that there were tears in his eyes. He said to the monk, “Are you willing to invite Jesus into your life right here and right now as we pray together?”... The monk looked back at him in dismay and said, “Accept him into my life? I would accept him, but you must understand that he is already in me. He has been in me for a long time. I didn’t know all the things about him that you have just told me, but this Jesus that you have been telling me about is within me, and as you spoke, his Spirit within me was confirming everything that you said. I believe in what you said because the Spirit has convinced me that these things are true. I would accept him, except that he is already within me.”...That story left open this question: was Christ alive in that monk before Billy Graham ever got there? (Shane Claiborne [b. 1975] and Campolo, Red Letter Revolution: What If Jesus Really Meant What He Said?, 53-54)
Paul’s use of the statue of the unknown God allows for the possibility that God is active in the lives of people who do not yet even acknowledge God (Acts 17:23). Though no one has a complete picture of God and there are still aspects of the Christian God which remain unknown, thankfully, the one true God is knowable because God makes Godself known. Perpetually.

Why did the Athenians not know the one true God? Is there a divine spark in all of us that simply need be ignited? When did God become known to you? Do you think that you knew God before you formally met? Is God at work in the lives of those who do not profess Christianity; in other religions in and of themselves? To whom do you proclaim God to whom God is unknown?

“The mission and evangelism of the Church would be much more effective if we were better able to build upon that instinct for God...which is so widely dispersed in our society.” - Peter Forste (b. 1950), Bishop of Chester, 2003