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Paul’s “Unknown God”

2010 Οκτώβριος 12
by Editor Group

Columnist: Kostas (Κώστας)
Adaptation and Translation: EvanT


Mars Hill (Άρειος Πάγος), Athens: a copper memorial plaque containing the New Testament passage about the "Unknown God".

"22 Then Paul stood in the midst of Mars’ hill, and said, [Ye] men of Athens, I perceive that in all things ye are too superstitious. 23 or as I passed by, and beheld your devotions, I found an altar with this inscription, TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you." (Acts 17:22-23) [1]

This testimony of Paul is quite famous. It has been used time and time again as proof of the presence of the Logos before the birth of Jesus and as proof of a prophetic anticipation of the ancient Greeks for the One and True God; the judeochristian Yahweh. But things aren’t quite as the apologists claim.

And this isn’t an arbitrary conclusion reached by a minority of non-believers, but a position supported by a significant percentage of specialists that have dealt with this subject.

"To the unknown god" or "to the unknown gods"?

Towards the end of Antiquity (1st to 3rd century CE) philosophical theories (especially the stoic ones) and the intense religiosity spawned the belief that no deity should be neglected and remain unworshipped. Even gods whose names or sphere of influence were unknown should not be ignored. These "unknown" gods were included in the extended Pantheon, forming a complete divine circle, often referred to as "all gods". For this reason a worship appelation was created for them and carved on altars during these latter years, apparently used only in the plural [2]. There are numerous examples:

α. Pausanias, Description of Greece, book 1 ("Attica"),1.4 (description of the area of the Phaleron area):

«[…] ἐνταῦθα καὶ Σκιράδος Ἀθηνᾶς ναός ἐστι καὶ Διὸς ἀπωτέρω, βωμοὶ δὲ θεῶν τε ὀνομαζομένων Ἀγνώστων […]» "[…] here there is the temple of Athena of Skyros and beyond it that of Zeus and also altars to gods called "the Unknown"[…]"

b. As above, book 5 ("Helia I"), 14.8 [i] (about the area of Olympia):

«[…] τὰ δὲ ἐς τὸν μέγαν βωμὸν ὀλίγῳ μέν τι ἡμῖν πρότερόν ἐστιν εἰρημένα, καλεῖται δὲ Ὀλυμπίου Διός: πρὸς αὐτῷ δέ ἐστιν Ἀγνώστων θεῶν βωμὸς […]» "[…] and about the grand altar I have just talked to you about, it is dedicated to the Olympian Zeus; and close to it there is the altar of the Unknown Gods […]"

c. In Pergamum in 1909 an offering inscription was discover, restored by archaeologists as follows:


d. Philostratus, Life of Apollonius, 6,3:

«[…] σωφρονέστερον γάρ τό περί πάντων θεῶν λέγειν καί ταύτα Ἀθήνησιν, οὐ καί αγνώστων δαιμόνων βωμοί ἵδρυνται […]» "[…] for according to the Athenians, it is wiser to speak of all gods and there [in Athens] are being built altars to the unknown demons* as well.[…]"

*In Ancient Greek the word "demon" is synonymous to "deity".

It is worth mentioning that even St. Jerome (the one that compiled the Vulgata latin translation of the Bible and honoured by the Orthodox Church on June 15th) was of the opinion that Paul in the case of this altar changed the plural to singular (unknown gods to god). And if that isn’t enough, he also eschewed the rest of the phrase, which read: "[…] to the gods of Asia, Europe and Africa, gods and unknown and foreign"[3]!

Jerome’s position was later repeated by Ecumenius, Bishop of Trikke, as well as Erasmus in his "In praise of foolishness":

«[…] ‘Εάν δέ τις πιστεύῃ κατά τι τόν πεντάγλωσσον εκεῖνον Ιερώνυμον, […] παρά τῷ θείῳ Παύλῳ και οἱ λόγοι τῶν ἱερῶν γραφῶν ἀντιφάσκουσι, καίτοι οὐδαμῶς καθ’ ἑαυτούς ἀντιφάσκοντες, ὅτε ἰδών τυχαίως ἐν Ἀθήναις τήν ἐπί τοῦ ναοῦ ἐπιγραφήν, “ἀγνώστῳ θεῷ”, ἔστρεψεν αὐτήν εἰς ἐπιχείρημα ὑπέρ τῆς χριστιανικῆς πίστεως, παραλείψας τους ἄλλους, δι’ ους περ ἐγράφη ἀπέσπασε δηλ. τοῦτο, Ἀγνώστῳ θεῷ, παραλλάξας καί τοῦτο ὀλίγον. Ἐπειδή τό ὅλον τῆς ἐπιγραφῆς εἶχεν οὕτω “Τοῖς θεοῖς Ἀσίας, Εὐρώπης καί Ἀφρικῆς θεοῖς αγνώστοις καί ξένοις” […]»[4] "[…] And if someone doesn’t believe that five-tongued Jerome […] or Paul the divine and that the Scriptures contradict themselves, they certainly do not contradict each other, because, when he happened to see in Athens the inscription "unknown god" on the temple, he turned it into an argument in favour of the christian faith, omitting the other [gods] it talked about, i.e. he extracted this, "the unknown god", having changed it a little. Because all of the inscription was like so: "To the gods of Asia, Europe and Africa, gods and unknown and foreign" […]"

Furthermore, it should not be overlooked that some believe that the passage from the Acts has been tampered with or was a later addition. This position, first supported by Norden, "was accepted some some, (e.g.J. Wellhausen, H. Lietzmann, R. Reitzenstein) while opposed by others (A.v. Harnack, Th. Birt, Ed. Meyer)"[5]. Another theory suggests that Paul’s singular number "was due to the text being corrupted or an error of memory"[6], while the magazine "Aexone" («Αἰξωνή»)(1951, σ. 132) suggested the theory that "the inscription was written in the plural, but in capital pre-euclidian letters, […] when the letter sigma (Σ) was still being written with 3 lines and the omicron (O) was also used instead of omega (Ω) and the /u/ diphthong (OY), so the discrepancy could have been due to Paul reading it wrong, because of a change in the letters of the attic alphabet, which had been happening for more than 500 years"[7].

Yes, but what does Lucian have to say?

This question raised by the christian apologists seems at first glance intriguing.

You see, in his work "Patriot" («Φιλόπατρις»), Lucian mentions the following oath:

«Νή τόν άγνωστον ἐν Ἀθήναις»
"in the name of the unknown in Athens"
and also a passage that seems to exonerate Paul:

«[…] ἡμεῖς δέ τόν ἐν Ἀθήναις Άγνωστον ἐφευρόντες και προσκυνήσαντες χείρας εἰς οὐρανόν ἐκτείναντες τούτω εὐχαριστήσωμεν ὡς καταξιωθέντες τοιούτου κράτους ὑπήκοοι γενέσθαι» «[…] as for us, we discovered and knelt and worshipped the Unknown in Athens, raising our hands to the sky in order to thank him that we were honoured to become subjects of such a state."

However, there is an important detail missing here: this work by Lucian is considered to be a PSEUDEPIGRAPH and is believed to have been written in the Middle Ages[8]! Naturally, if this is the case, quoting this passage automatically becomes void of any meaning.


There is however a testimony that doesn’t exclude Paul’s version! It’s impressive that this testimony is used both by Christians and the critics, both interpreting it in an unorthodox manner, since the former corrupt its real meaning and the latter interpret it unilateraly.

It is the testimony of Diogenes Laertius in "The life and opinions of those that prospered in philosophy" A (Epimenides), 110, wherein appears an explanation of the worship of the anonymous gods:

«Ὅθεν καὶ Ἀθηναίοις τότε λοιμῷ κατεχομένοις ἔχρησεν ἡ Πυθία καθῆραι τὴν πόλιν· οἱ δὲ πέμπουσι ναῦν τε καὶ Νικίαν τὸν Νικηράτου εἰς Κρήτην, καλοῦντες τὸν Ἐπιμενίδην. καὶ ὃς ἐλθὼν Ὀλυμπιάδι τεσσαρακοστῇ ἕκτῃ ἐκάθηρεν αὐτῶν τὴν πόλιν καὶ ἔπαυσε τὸν λοιμὸν τοῦτον τὸν τρόπον. λαβὼν πρόβατα μελανά τε καὶ λευκὰ ἤγαγε πρὸς τὸν Ἄρειον πάγον. κἀκεῖθεν εἴασεν ἰέναι οἷ βούλοιντο, προστάξας τοῖς ἀκολούθοις ἔνθα ἂν κατακλίνοι αὐτῶν ἕκαστον, θύειν τῷ προσήκοντι θεῷ· καὶ οὕτω λῆξαι τὸ κακόν. ὅθεν ἔτι καὶ νῦν ἔστιν εὑρεῖν κατὰ τοὺς δήμους τῶν Ἀθηναίων βωμοὺς ἀνωνύμους, ὑπόμνημα τῆς τότε γενομένης ἐξιλάσεως.» "When the Athenians were suffering from the plague, Pythia offered a prediction on how to cleanse the city. The Athenians sent a ship along with Nikias, son of Nikiratos, to Crete and summoned Epimenides; who came at the 46th Olympiad and he cleansed the city and stopped the plague in the following manner. Taking sheep, black and white, he took them to the Hill of Mars. There came to be healed whoever wanted and he ordered them to follow the sheep and, wherever they [stopped] and laid down, [at that spot] to offer sacrifice to the appropriate god· and thus ended the evil. From that time one can still find in the boroughs of Athens anonymous altars, in memory of that release [from the plague]."

Many apologists isolate the phrase "to the appropriate god" and… turn it into an inscription(!) presenting as almost identical in meaning to "to the unknown god" ignoring the fact that the text speaks of many appropriate gods; by definition DIFFERENT! Others reject by default any chance the pauline inscription being real, putting all the weight on the phrase "anonymous altars" and they interpret it unilateraly, without bothering with the fact that (according to the text) wherever the sheep stopped, an altar was erected to the appropriate deity of the area. This description could easily mean that the sheep also stopped at areas whose patron deities were unknown! It’s entirely possible that there WERE altars dedicated to an "unknown god"; not the unknown god the Christians imagine, but the unknown "appropriate" deity of the surrounding area!

Of course this is just one of the alternatives. It is equally possible that they bore no inscription and where (as Laertius says) anomynous! This alternative makes the case that the phrase was never encountered in the singular even stronger and things get even clearer. [9].

Regardless, one thing is certain. Even if, despite the doubts of the experts, the altar that Paul described existed, under no circumstance was it a prophecy about the One and True God of the Christians. Quite the opposite! And one need only ponder on what difference in symbolism there is between an altar to the Unknown God and a modern monument to the fallen Unknown… Soldier.


1  King James Version
2  Πάπυρος Larousse Britannica, τ. 1, σ. 660, λήμμα: «Άγνωστος θεός»
3  «Inscriptio autem arae non ita erat, ut Paulus asseruit “ignoto deo” sed ita: “Diis Asia et Euroae et Africae, diis ignotis et peregrinis”. Verum qia Paulus non pluribus diis indigebat ignotis, sed uno tantum ignoto deo, singylari verro usus est […]»
4 ... 000020.tkl (p. 135-136)
5  Πάπυρος Larousse Britannica, τ. 1, σ. 660, λήμμα: «Άγνωστος θεός»
6  Πάπυρος Λαρούς, 1963, τ. 1, σ. 233, λήμμα: «Αγνώστου θεού βωμός».
7  Ibid.
8  Πάπυρος Larousse Britannica, τ. 33, σ. 629, λήμμα: «Λουκιανός»
9  Εικόνα
On Rome's Palatine Hill a prechristian altar has been found with the following inscription:
In various apologetic websites this inscription is quoted as saying "To the Unknown God! In reality the text reads: "To either god or goddess". The rest mentions that the altar was restored by order of the Senate by Sextius. It is believed that either the altar had the inscription before it was restored or the deity to which it was dedicated had been forgotten by neglect.

Keep reading…

This article was originally published in the What is truth? (Τι εστίν αλήθεια;) blog in Greek. The article has also been posted in English on the «On the Way to Ithaca» blog and you can direct your comments there.

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