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