Acts 17:23
For 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.
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(23) I perceive that in all things ye are too superstitious.—Better, I observe you as being in all things more fearful of the gods than others. It is not easy to express the exact force of the Greek adjective. “Superstitious” is, perhaps, too strong on the side of blame; “devout,” on the side of praise. The word which the Athenians loved to use of themselves (theosebês, a worshipper of God) exactly answers to the latter term. This St. Paul will not use of idolators, and reserves it for those who worship the one living and true God, and he uses a word which, like our “devotee,” though not offensive, was neutral with a slight touch of disparagement. The deisidaimôn is described at some length in the Characters of Theophrastus, the La Bruyere of classical literature (c. 17), as one who consults soothsayers, and is a believer in omens, who will give up a journey if he sees a weasel on the road, and goes with his wife and children to be initiated into the Orphic mysteries. Nikias, the Athenian general, ever oppressed with the sense of the jealousy of the gods, and counter-ordering important strategic movements because there was an eclipse of the moon (Thucyd. vii. 50), is a conspicuous instance of the deisidaimôn in high places. The Stoic Emperor, Marcus Aurelius (Meditt. i. 16), congratulates himself on not being such a deisidaimôn, while he gives thanks that he has inherited his mother’s devotion (theosebes) (i. 2). The opening words would gain, and were perhaps meant to gain, the ears of the philosophers. Here, they would say, is one who, at least, rises, as we do, above the religion of the multitude.

As I passed by, and beheld your devotions.—Better, as I passed by, and was contemplating the objects of your worship. The English word appears to have been used in its old sense, as meaning what the Greek word means—the object, and not the act, of devotion. So, Wiclif gives “your mawmetis”—i.e., “your idols.” Tyndale, Cranmer, and the Geneva version give “the manner how ye worship your gods.” The Rhemish follows “Wiclif, and gives “your idols.”

I found an altar with this inscription, TO THE UNKNOWN GOD.—The Greek of the inscription has no article, and might, therefore, be rendered TO AN UNKNOWN GOD, as though it had been consecrated as a votive offering for benefits which the receiver was unable to assign to the true donor among the “gods many and lords many” whom he worshipped. So interpreted, it did not bear its witness directly to any deeper thoughts than those of the popular poly-theism, and stands on the same footing as the altars TO UNKNOWN GODS, which are mentioned by Pausanias (i. 1-4) as set up in the harbour and streets of Athens, or to the description which Theophrastus gives (as above) of the deisidaimôn as asking the soothsayers, after he has had a disquieting dream, to what god or goddess he ought to pray. Greek usage, however, did not require the use of the article in inscriptions of this nature, and the English translation is quite as legitimate as the other, and clearly gives the sense in which St. Paul understood it. Taking this sense, there come the questions, What thought did the inscription express? To what period did it belong? A story connected with Epimenides of Crete, who, as a prophet of great fame, was invited to Athens at a time when the city was suffering from pestilence, is sometimes referred to as affording a probable explanation of its origin. Diogenes Laertius (Epimen. c. 3) relates that he turned sheep loose into the city, and then had them sacrificed, where they stopped, to the god thus pointed out, i.e., to the one whose image or altar was nearest to the spot, and that “altars without a name” were thus to be seen in many parts of Athens; and it has been supposed that this may have been one of these altars, erected where there was no image near enough to warrant a sacrifice to any known deity, and as Epimenides is stated to have offered sacrifices on the Areopagus, that such an altar may have been standing within view as St. Paul spoke. Against this view, however, are the facts (1) that the narrative of Laertius names no such inscription as that of which St. Paul speaks, and rather implies that every victim found the god to whom it of right belonged, or else that the altar was left without any inscription; (2) that St. Paul’s language implies that he had seen the inscription as he walked through the city, and not that he looked on it as he spoke; and (3) that it is hardly conceivable that such an altar, standing in so conspicuous a place from the time of Epimenides, would have remained unnoticed by a thinker like Socrates. Jerome (on Titus 1:12) cuts the knot of the difficulty by stating that the inscription actually ran, “To the Gods of Asia and Europe and Africa, to unknown and strange Gods.” It is possible that he may have seen an altar with such words upon it, and that he rushed to the conclusion that it was what St. Paul referred to; but it is not likely that the Apostle would have ventured on altering the inscription to suit his argument in the presence of those who could have confuted him on the spot, and his words must be received as indicating what he had actually seen.

A passage in the dialogue of Philopatris, ascribed to Lucian, where one of the speakers swears “by the Unknown God of Athens,” is interesting: but, as written in the third century after Christ, may be only a reference, not without a sneer, to St. Paul’s speech, and cannot be adduced as evidence either as to the existence of such an altar or its meaning. An independent inquiry based upon data hitherto not referred to, will, perhaps, lead to more satisfactory conclusions. (1) The verbal adjective means something more than “Unknown.” It adds the fact that the Unknown is also the Unknowable. It is the ultimate confession, such as we have heard of late from the lips of some students of science, of man’s impotence to solve the problems of the universe. It does not affirm Atheism, but it knows not what the Power is, which yet it feels must be. (2) As such it presents a striking parallel to the inscription which Plutarch (dc Isid. et Osir.) records as found on the veil of Isis at Sais: “I am all that has been, and all that is, and all that shall be; and no mortal hath lifted my veil.” Whether that inscription expressed the older thoughts of Egypt may, perhaps, be questioned. Plutarch gives it in Greek, and this probably indicates a date after the foundation of the monarchy of the Ptolemies (B.C. 367), possibly contemporary with Plutarch (A.D. 46-140). (3) Still more striking, if possible, is the parallelism presented by an altar found at Ostia, and now in the Vatican Museum. It represents what is known as a Mithraic sacrificial group, connected, i.e., with the worship of Mithras, the Sun-god of later Persian mythology, a winged figure sacrificing a bull, with various symbolic emblems, such as a serpent and a scorpion. Underneath appears the inscription (Orelli, Inser. Gel. ii. 5, 000)—


It will be admitted that this expresses the same thought as the inscription which St. Paul quotes; that it is the nearest equivalent that Latin can supply for the “Unknown and Unknowable” God. The frequent recurrence of Mithraic groups in nearly all museums, generally without any note of time, but, in the judgment of experts, ranging from the time of Pompeius to that of Diocletian, shows the prevalence of this Sun worship throughout the Roman world during the early period of the empire. We have found an interesting trace of it in Cyprus. (See Note on Acts 13:14.) We may see its surviving influence in the reverence shown by Constantine to the Dies Solis in the general observance of that day throughout the empire. Other inscriptions, also in the Vatican Museum, such as SOLI DEO INVICTO (Orelli, i., 1904-14), show its prevalence. Our own Sunday (Dies Solis), little as we dream of it, is probably a survival of the Mithraic cultus, which at one time seemed not unlikely, as seen from a merely human standpoint, to present a formidable rivalry to the claims of the Church of Christ. It is, at least, a remarkable coincidence that the Twenty-fifth of December was kept as the festival of Mithras long before it was chosen by the Western Church for the Feast of the Nativity. It is true that De Rossi, the great Roman archæologist, in a note to the present writer, gives the probable date of the inscription in question as belonging to the second or third century after Christ; but the Mithraic worship is known to have prevailed widely from a much earlier period, and the church of San Clemente, at Rome, where below the two basilicas have been found the remains of a Christian oratory turned into a Mithraic chapel, presents a memorable instance of the rivalry of the two systems. On the whole, therefore, it seems probable that the altar which St. Paul saw was an earlier example of the feeling represented by the Ostian inscription, and may well have found its expression, with a like characteristic formula, among the many forms of the confluent polytheism of Athens. Plutarch (Pompeius) speaks of the worship of Mithras as having been brought into Europe by the Cilician pirates whom Pompeius defeated, and as continuing in his own time.

Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship.—Better, as expressing the connection with the inscription, What therefore ye worship not knowing, that declare I unto you. The better MSS. give the relative pronoun in the neuter. It was, perhaps, deliberately used, as St. Paul uses the neuter form for “Godhead” in Acts 17:29, and a cognate abstract noun in Romans 1:20, to express the fact that the Athenians were as yet ignorant of the personality of the living God. That any human teacher should have power and authority to proclaim that “Unknown God,” as making Himself known to men, was what neither Epicureans nor Stoics had dreamt of. The verb “declare” is closely connected with the term “setter forth,” of Acts 17:18. He does not disclaim that element in the charge against him.

Acts 17:23. As I passed by — Or, passed along the streets of your city; and beheld your devotions — Greek, τα σεβασματα υμων, the objects of your worship, I found an altar with this inscription, TO THE UNKNOWN GOD —

Because Paul here tells the Athenians, that the true God was he whom they ignorantly worshipped under this title, some learned men have supposed that the altar he speaks of was raised to the God of the Jews; concerning whose power, in the destruction of the Egyptians and Canaanites, the ancient Athenians had received some obscure reports; and that, because the Jews carefully concealed his name, and had no image of him, the Athenians erected no statue to him, but worshipped him under the appellation of THE UNKNOWN GOD. Others think this altar was erected by Socrates, to express his devotions to the only true God, (while he derided the plurality of the heathen gods, for which he was condemned to death,) of whom the Athenians had no idea, and whose nature, he insinuated by this inscription, was far above the reach of human comprehension. See Dr. Wellwood’s Introduction to his translation of The Banquet of Xenophon. Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship — Greek, ον ουν αγνοουντες ευσεβειτε, whom therefore ye worship, or, toward whom ye are piously disposed, not knowing him; him declare I — Greek, τουτον εγω καταγγελλω, him proclaim I, unto you — Thus he fixes the wandering attention of these blind philosophers; proclaiming to them an unknown, and yet not a new God; and alluding to their words, (Acts 17:20,) he seemeth to be a proclaimer of strange gods.

17:22-31 Here we have a sermon to heathens, who worshipped false gods, and were without the true God in the world; and to them the scope of the discourse was different from what the apostle preached to the Jews. In the latter case, his business was to lead his hearers by prophecies and miracles to the knowledge of the Redeemer, and faith in him; in the former, it was to lead them, by the common works of providence, to know the Creator, and worship Him. The apostle spoke of an altar he had seen, with the inscription, TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. This fact is stated by many writers. After multiplying their idols to the utmost, some at Athens thought there was another god of whom they had no knowledge. And are there not many now called Christians, who are zealous in their devotions, yet the great object of their worship is to them an unknown God? Observe what glorious things Paul here says of that God whom he served, and would have them to serve. The Lord had long borne with idolatry, but the times of this ignorance were now ending, and by his servants he now commanded all men every where to repent of their idolatry. Each sect of the learned men would feel themselves powerfully affected by the apostle's discourse, which tended to show the emptiness or falsity of their doctrines.For as I passed by - Greek: "For I, coming through, and seeing, etc."

And beheld - Diligently contemplated; attentively considered ἀναθεωρῶν anatheōrōn. The worship of an idolatrous people will be an object of intense and painful interest to a Christian.

Your devotions - τὰ σεβάσματα ta sebasmata. Our word devotions refers to the "act of worship" - to prayers, praises, etc. The Greek word used here means properly any sacred thing; any object which is worshipped, or which is connected with the place or rites of worship. Thus, it is applied either to the gods themselves, or to the temples, altars, shrines, sacrifices, statues, etc., connected with the worship of the gods. This is its meaning here. It does not denote that Paul saw them engaged in the act of worship, but that he was struck with the numerous temples, altars, statues, etc., which were reared to the gods, and which indicated the state of the people. Syriac, "the temple of your gods." Vulgate, "your images." Margin, "gods that ye worship."

I found an altar - An altar usually denotes "a place for sacrifice." Here, however, it does not appear that any sacrifice was offered; but it was probably a monument of stone, reared to commemorate a certain event, and dedicated to the unknown God.

To the unknown God - ἀγνώστῳ Θεῷ agnōstō Theō. Where this altar was reared, or on what occasion, has been a subject of much debate with expositors. That there was such an altar in Athens, though it may not have been specifically mentioned by the Greek writers, is rendered probable by the following circumstances:

(1) It was customary to rear such altars. Minutius Felix says of the Romans, "They build altars to unknown divinities."

(2) the term "unknown God" was used in relation to the worship of the Athenians. Lucian, in his Philopatris, uses this form of an oath: "I swear by the unknown God at Athens," the very expression used by the apostle. And again he says (chapter xxix. 180), "We have found out the unknown God at Athens, and worshipped him with our hands stretched up to heaven, etc."

(3) there were altars at Athens inscribed to the unknown gods. Philostratus says (in Vita Apol., Romans 6:3), "And this at Athens, where there are even altars to the unknown gods." Thus, Pausanius (in Attic., chapter i.) says, that "at Athens there are altars of gods which are called the unknown ones." Jerome, in his commentary Titus 1:12, says that the whole inscription was, "To the gods of Asia, Europe, and Africa; to the unknown and strange gods."

(4) there was a remarkable altar raised in Athens in a time of pestilence, in honor of the unknown god which had granted them deliverance. Diogenes Laertius says that Epimenides restrained the pestilence in the following manner: "Taking white and black sheep, he led them to the Areopagus, and there permitted them to go where they would, commanding those who followed them to sacrifice τῶ προσήχοντι θεῷ tō prosēkonti theōto the god to whom these things pertained or who had the power of averting the plague, whoever he might be, without adding the name and thus to allay the pestilence. From which it has arisen that at this day, through the villages of the Athenians, altars are found without any name" (Diog. Laert., book i, section 10). This took place about 600 years before Christ, and it is not improbable that one or more of those altars remained until the time of Paul. It should be added that the natural inscription on those altars would be, "To the unknown God." None of the gods to whom they usually sacrificed could deliver them from the pestilence. They therefore reared them to some unknown Being who had the power to free them from the plague.

Whom therefore - The true God, who had really delivered them from the plague.

Ye ignorantly worship - Or worship without knowing his name. You have expressed your homage for him by rearing to him an altar.

Him declare I unto you - I make known to you his name, attributes, etc. There is remarkable tact in Paul's seizing on this circumstance; and yet it was perfectly fair and honest. Only the true God could deliver in the time of the pestilence. This altar had, therefore, been really reared to him, though his name was unknown. The same Being who had interposed at that time, and whose interposition was recorded by the building of this altar, was He who had made the heavens; who ruled over all; and whom Paul was now about to make known to them. There is another feature of skill in the allusion to this altar. In other circumstances it might seem to be presumptuous for an unknown Jew to at tempt to instruct the sages of Athens. But here they had confessed and proclaimed their ignorance. By rearing this altar they acknowledged their need of instruction. The way was, therefore, fairly open for Paul to address even these philosophers, and to discourse to them on a point on which they acknowledged their ignorance.

23. as I passed by and beheld your devotions—rather, "the objects of your devotion," referring, as is plain from the next words, to their works of art consecrated to religion.

I found an altar … To the—or, "an"

unknown god—erected, probably, to commemorate some divine interposition, which they were unable to ascribe to any known deity. That there were such altars, Greek writers attest; and on this the apostle skilfully fastens at the outset, as the text of his discourse, taking it as evidence of that dimness of religious conception which, in virtue of his better light, he was prepared to dissipate.

Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship—rather, "Whom, therefore, knowing Him not, ye worship," alluding to "The Unknown God."

him declare—announce.

I unto you—This is like none of his previous discourses, save that to the idolaters of Lycaonia (Ac 14:15-17). His subject is not, as in the synagogues, the Messiahship of Jesus, but THE Living God, in opposition to the materialistic and pantheistic polytheism of Greece, which subverted all true religion. Nor does he come with speculation on this profound subject—of which they had had enough from others—but an authoritative "announcement" of Him after whom they were groping not giving Him any name, however, nor even naming the Saviour Himself but unfolding the true character of both as they were able to receive it.

Devotions; any thing unto which Divine worship and honour is given.

To the unknown God: it is storied, that in a plague time, when the Athenians had wearied themselves with their supplications unto all the gods of their country, they were advised by Epaminondas (a devout man amongst them) to erect an altar unto that god who had the power over that disease, whosoever he was; which because they did not know, and would be sure not to omit in their devotions, they erected an altar unto him under the name of

The unknown God. Some say, there was a more general inscription, To the gods of Asia, Europe, and Africa, to the unknown and strange gods; though the inscription the apostle mentions in the singular number, might be usual too: for the Athenians, who entertained all manner of gods, fearing lest there should be any which they had not heard of, for their greater security, as they imagined, would have an altar for such also. Now this unknown God, St. Paul says, which was worshipped by them, was the true God: for,

1. They had an apprehension that Christ was the true God,

whilst that wonderful eclipse at his death was

effectually considered amongst them. Hence it is said,

that Dionysius cried out, Deus ignotus in carne

patitur. Now the unknown God suffers in the flesh.

2. The God of the Jews, whose name the Jews took to be so

ineffable that they would not undertake to speak it, and

who was not wholly unknown to Plato and Pythagoras, and

who is truly invisible and incomprehensible, might upon

that account be thus styled amongst them.

For as I passed by,.... Or "through"; that is, through the city of Athens:

and beheld your devotions; not so much their acts of worship and religion, as the gods which they worshipped; in which sense this word is used in 2 Thessalonians 2:4 and the altars which were erected to them, and the temples in which they were worshipped; and so the Syriac and Arabic versions render it, "the houses", and "places of your worship"; and the Ethiopic version, "your images", or "deities",

I found an altar with this inscription, TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. Pausanias (p) speaks in the plural number of altars of gods, that were named unknown, at Athens; and so says Apollonius Tyanaeus to Timasion (q) it is wisest to speak well of all the gods, especially at Athens, where there are altars to unknown gods: it may be, there were altars that had the inscription in the plural number; and there was one which Paul took particular notice of, in the singular number; or the above writers may speak of altars to unknown gods, because there might be many altars with this inscription: the whole of the inscription, according to Theophylact, was this;

"to the gods of Asia, Europe, and Lybia (or Africa), to the unknown and strange god;''

though Jerom (r) makes this to be in the plural number: certain it is, that Lucian (s) swears by the unknown god that was at Athens, and says, we finding the unknown god at Athens, and worshipping with hands stretched out towards heaven, gave thanks unto him: the reason why they erected an altar with such an inscription might be, for fear when they took in the gods of other nations, there might be some one which they knew not; wherefore, to omit none, they erect an altar to him; and which proves what the apostle says, that they were more religious and superstitious than others: or it may be they might have a regard to the God of the Jews, whose name Jehovah with them was not to be pronounced, and who, by the Gentiles, was called "Deus incertus" (t); and here, in the Syriac version, it is rendered, "the hidden God", as the God of Israel is called, Isaiah 45:15 and that he is here designed seems manifest from what follows,

whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you; which could not be said by him of any other deity. God is an unknown God to those who have only the light of nature to guide them; for though it may be known by it that there is a God, and that there is but one, and somewhat of him may be discerned thereby; yet the nature of his essence, and the perfections of his nature, and the unity of his being, are very little, and not truly and commonly understood, and the persons in the Godhead not at all, and still less God in Christ, whom to know is life eternal: hence the Gentiles are described as such who know not God; wherefore, if he is worshipped by them at all, it must be ignorantly: and that they are ignorant worshippers of him, appears by worshipping others more than him, and besides him, or him in others, and these idols of gold, silver, brass, wood, and stone; and by their indecencies and inhumanity used in the performance of their worship: wherefore a revelation became necessary, by which men might be acquainted with the nature of the divine Being, and the true manner of worshipping him; in which a declaration is made of the nature and perfections of God, and of the persons in the Godhead, the object of worship; of the counsels, purposes, and decrees of God; of his covenant transactions with his Son respecting the salvation of his chosen people; of his love, grace, and mercy, displayed in the mission and gift of Christ to be the Saviour and Redeemer of them; of the glory of his attributes in their salvation; and of his whole mind and will, both with respect to doctrine and practice; and which every faithful minister of the Gospel, as the Apostle Paul, shuns not, according to his ability, truly and fully to declare.

(p) Attica, p. 2.((q) Philostrat. Vita Apollonii, l. 6. c. 2.((r) In Titum 1. 12. (s) In Dialog. Philopatris. (t) Lucan. Pharsalia, l. 2.

For as I passed by, and beheld your {m} devotions, I found an altar with this inscription, TO THE {n} UNKNOWN GOD. Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you.

(m) Whatever men worship for religion's sake, that we call religion.

(n) Pausanias in his Atticis makes mention of the altar which the Athenians had dedicated to unknown gods: and Laertius in his Epimenides makes mention of an altar that had no name entitled upon it.

Acts 17:23. Διερχόμ.] belongs jointly to τὰ σεβάσμ. ὑμ.

ἀναθεώρ. τὰ σεβ. ὑμ.] attentively contemplating (Hebrews 13:7; Diod. Sic. xii. 15; Plut. Aem. P. 1; Lucian, Vit. auct. 2; comp. ἀναθεώρησις, Cicero, ad Att. ix. 19, xiv. 15 f.) the objects of your worship, temples, altars, images (2 Thessalonians 2:4; Wis 14:20; Wis 15:7; Hist. Drag. 27; Dion. Hal. Ant. i. 30, v. 1; Suicer, Thes. II. p. 942).

ἀγνώστῳ Θεῷ] That there actually stood at Athens at least one altar with the inscription: “to an unknown god,” would appear historically certain from this passage itself, even though other proofs were wanting, since Paul appeals to his own observation, and that, too, in the presence of the Athenians themselves. But there are corroborating external proofs: (1) Pausan. i. 1. 4 (comp. v. 14. 6) says: in Athens there were βωμοὶ θεῶν τε ὀνομαζομένων ἀγνώστων καὶ ἡρώων; and (2) Philostr. Vit. Apollon. vi. 2 : σωφρονέστερον περὶ πάντων θεῶν εὖ λέγειν, καὶ ταῦτα Ἀθήνῃσιν, οὗ καὶ ἀγνώστων θεῶν βωμοὶ ἵδρυνται. From both passages it is evident that at Athens there were several altars, each of which bore the votive inscription: ἀγνώστῳ θεῷ.[65] The explanation of the origin of such altars is less certain. Yet Diog. Laert. Epim. 3 gives a trace of it, when it is related that Epimenides put an end to a plague in Athens by eausing black and white sheep, which he had let loose on the Areopagus, to be sacrificed on the spots where they lay down τῷ προσήκοντι θεῷ, i.e. to the god concerned (yet not known by name), namely, who was the author of the plague; and that therefore one may find at Athens βωμοὺς ἀνωνύμους, i.e. altars without the designation of a god by name (not as Kuinoel, following Olearius, thinks, without any inscription). From this particular instance the general view may be derived, that on important occasions, when the reference to a god known by name was wanting, as in public calamities of which no definite goal could be assigned as the author, in order to honour or propitiate the god concerned (τὸν προσήκοντα) by sacrifice, without lighting on a, wrong one altars were erected which were destined and designated ἀγνώστῳ θεῷ. Without any historical foundation, Eichhorn, Bibl. III. p. 413 f. (with whom Niemeyer, Interpret. orat. Paul. Act. xvii. 22 ff., Hal. 1805, agreed), supposed that such altars proceeded from the time when the art of writing was not yet known or in use; and that at a later period, when it was not known to what god these altars belonged, they were marked with that inscription in order not to offend any god. Against this may be urged the great probability that the destination of such altars would be preserved in men’s knowledge by oral tradition. Entirely peculiar is the remark of Jerome on Titus 1:12 : “Inscriptio arae non ita erat, ut Paulus asseruit: ignoto Deo, sed ita: Diis Asiae et Europae et Africae, Diis ignotis et peregrinis.[66] Verum quia Paulus non pluribus Diis ignotis indigebat, sed uno tantum ignoto Deo, singulari verbo usus est,” etc. But there is no historical trace of such an altar-inscription; and, had it been in existence, Paul could not have meant it, because we cannot suppose that, at the very commencement of his discourse, he would have made a statement before the Athenians deviating so much from the reality and only containing an abstract inference from it. The ἀγνώστῳ θεῷ could not but have its literal accuracy and form the whole inscription; otherwise Paul would only have promoted the suspicion of σπερμολογία. We need not inquire to what definite god the Athenians pointed by their ἀγνώστῳ θεῷ. In truth, they meant no definite god, because, in the case which occasioned the altar, they knew none such. The view (see in Wolf) that the God of the Jews—the obscure knowledge of whom had come from the Jews to Egypt, and thence to the Greeks—is meant, is an empty dogmatic invention. Baur, p. 202, ed. 2, with whom Zeller agrees, maintains that the inscription in the singular is unhistorical; that only the plural, ἄγνωστοι θεοί, could have been written; and that only a writer at a distance, who “had to fear no contradiction on the spot,” could have ventured on such an intentional alteration. But the very hint given to us by Diogenes Laertius as to the origin of such altars is decisive against this notion, as well as the correct remark of Grotius: “Cum Pausanias ait aras Athenis fuisse θεῶν ἀγνώστων, hoc vult, multas fuisse aras tali inscriptione: Θεῷ ἀγνώστῳ, quamquam potuere et aliae esse pluraliter inscriptae, aliae singulariter.” Besides, it may be noted that Paul, had he read ἀγνώστοις θεοῖς on the altar, might have used this plural expression for his purpose as suitably as the singular, since he, in fact, continues with the generic neuter τοῦτο.

On the Greek altars without temples, see Hermann, gottesd. Alterth. § 17.

ὃ οὖν ἀγνοοῦντες εὐσεβεῖτε, τοῦτο κ.τ.λ.] (see the critical remarks) what ye therefore (according to this inscription), without knowing it, worship, that (this very object of your worship) do I (ἐγώ with a self-conscious emphasis) make known unto you. Paul rightly inferred from the inscription that the Athenians, besides the gods (Zeus, Athene, etc.) known to them, recognised something divine as existing and to be worshipped, which was different from these (however, after the manner of heathenism, they might conceive of it in various concrete forms). And justly also, as the God preached by him was another than those known heathen gods (Romans 1:22-23; 1 Corinthians 8:4 ff; 1 Corinthians 10:20), he might now say that this divinity, which served them in an unknown manner as the object of worship, was that which he announced to them, in order that it might now become to them γνωστὸς θεός. Of course, they could not yet take up this expression in the sense of the apostle himself, but could only think of some divine being according to their usual heathen conception (comp. Laufs in the Stud. und Krit. 1850, p. 584 f.); but, most suitably to the purpose he had in view, reserving the more exact information for the further course of his address, he now engaged the religious interest of his hearers in his own public announcement of it, and thereby excited that interest the more, as by this ingeniously improvised connection he exhibited himself quite differently from what those might have expected who deemed him a καταγγελεὺς ξένων δαιμονίων, Acts 17:18. Chrysostom aptly remarks in this respect: ὅρα πῶς δείκνυσι προειληφότας αὐτόν· οὐδὲν ξένον, φησὶν, οὐδὲν καινὸν εἰσφέρω.

Observe, also, the conciliatory selection of εὐσεβεῖτε, which expresses pious worship. εὐσεβεῖτε, with the accusative of the object (1 Timothy 5:4; 4Ma 5:23; 4Ma 11:5), is in classical writers, though rare, yet certainly vouched for (in opposition to Valckenaer, Porson, Seidler, Ellendt). See Hermann, ad Soph. Ant. 727. Compare also the Greek ἀσεβεῖν τι or τινα.

[65] Lucian, Philopatr. 9 and 29, is invalid as a proof, for there the reference of the pseudo-Lucian to the Ἄγνωστος ἐν Ἀθήναις ι is based on this very passage.

[66] But, according to Oecumenius: θεοῖς Ἀσίας καί Εὐρώπης καὶ Λιβύης θεῷ ἀγνώστῳ καί ξένῳ. Comp. Isidor. Pelus. in Cramer, Cat. p. 292. According to Ewald, this is the more exact statement of the inscription; from it Paul may have borrowed his quotation. But the exactness is suspicious just on account of the singular in Oecumenius; and, moreover, Paul would have gone much too freely to work by the omission of the essential term Λιβύης (“the unknown and strange god of Libya”); nor would he have had any reason for the omission of the ξένῳ, while he might, on the contrary, have employed it in some ingenious sort of turn with reference to ver. 18.

Acts 17:23. διερχόμενος γὰρ: “for as I passed along,” R.V., through the streets, or perhaps “was wandering through”—Renan has passant dans vos rues, see also on Acts 17:16 above, and also on Acts 8:40. A.V., “as I passed by” does not give the force of the word, and apparently means “passed by the objects of your devotion”.—ἀναθεωρῶν: accurate contemplari, “observed,” R.V., only in later Greek, and in N.T. only in Hebrews 13:7, “considering with attentive survey again and again,” see Westcott, in loco: Weiss renders it here,, immer wieder betrachtend, cf. critical notes, cf. Diod. Sic., xiv. 109, and references in Grimm.—τὰ σεβάσματα: “the objects of your worship,” R.V., Vulgate, simulacra, the thing worshipped, not the act or manner of worshipping. The A.V. margin gives “gods that ye worship,” cf. 2 Thessalonians 2:4, where A. and R.V. both render “that is worshipped,” σέβασμα in text, and R.V. in margin, “an object of worship”; Bel and the Dragon, Acts 17:27, Wis 14:20; Wis 15:17.—καὶ βωμὸν: “I found also an altar,” R.V., i.e., in addition to those with definite dedications; only here in N.T., often in LXX, sometimes of heathen altars, Exodus 34:13, Numbers 23:1, Deuteronomy 7:5.—ἐπεγέγραπτο, cf. Luke 16:20; on the pluperfect with augment, Blass, Gram., p. 37, see critical note: Farrar, St. Paul, i. 542, takes the word as implying permanence, and perhaps antiquity, so in Speaker’s Commentary as of an ancient decayed altar, whose inscription had been forgotten; Mark 15:26, Revelation 21:12 (Hebrews 8:10; Hebrews 10:16).—Ἀγνώστῳ Θεῷ: “to an unknown God,” R.V.: all previous versions like A.V., but there is no definite article, although in inscriptions it was often omitted. For the existence of altars of this kind the testimony of Pausanias and Philostratus may be fairly quoted; Pausan., i., 1, 4 (cf. Acts 5:14; Acts 5:6), βωμοὶ θεῶν τε ὀνομαζομένων ἀγνώστων καὶ ἡρώων, and Philost., Vit. Apollon., vi., 2, σωφρονέστερον περὶ πάντων θεῶν εὖ λέγειν, καὶ ταῦτα Ἀθήνησιν, οὗ καὶ ἀγνώστων θεῶν βωμοὶ ἵδρυνται, see references in Wetstein, and cf. F. C. Conybeare, u. s.; Renan, Saint Paul, p. 173; Neander, Geschichte der Pfianzung, ii., 32 ff.; Wendt, etc. Baur, Zeller, Overbeck have maintained that there could have been no such inscription in the singular number as the plural is so much more in harmony with polytheism, although the last named admits that the authorities cited above admit at least the possibility of an inscription as in the text. To say nothing of the improbability that Paul would refer before such an audience to an inscription which had no existence, we may reasonably infer that there were at Athens several altars with the inscription which the Apostle quotes. A passage in Diog. Laert., Epim., 3, informs us how Epimenides, in the time of a plague, brought to the Areopagus and let loose white and black sheep, and wherever the sheep lay down, he bade the Athenians to sacrifice τῷ προσήκοντι θεῷ, and so the plague ceased, with the result that we find in Athens many βωμοὺς ἀνωνύμους, see the passage quoted in full in Wetstein; from this it is not an unfair inference that in case of misfortune or disaster, when it was uncertain what god should be honoured or propitiated, an altar might be erected ἀγνώστῳ Θεῷ. (It is curious that Blass although he writes ἀγνώστῳ Θεῷ in [312] thinks that the true reading must have been the plural.) To draw such an inference is much more reasonable than to suppose with Jerome, Tit., Acts 1:12, that the inscription was not as Paul asserted, but that he used the singular number because it was more in accordance with his purpose, the inscription really being “Diis Asiæ et Europæ et Africæ, Diis ignotis et peregrinis,” cf. the inscription according to Oecumenius θεοῖς Ἀσίας καὶ Εὐρώπης καὶ Λιβύης Θεῷ ἀγνώστῳ καὶ ξένῳ. But at the very commencement of his speech the Apostle would scarcely have made a quotation so far removed from the actual words of the inscription, otherwise he would have strengthened the suspicion that he was a mere σπερμολόγος. St. Chrysostom, Hom., xxxviii., sees in the inscription an indication of the anxiety of the Athenians lest they should have neglected some deity honoured elsewhere, but if we connect it with the story mentioned above of Epimenides, it would be quite in accordance with the religious character of the Athenians, or perhaps one might rather say with the superstitious feeling which prompted the formula so often employed in the prayer of Greeks and Romans alike Si deo si deæ, or the words of Horace (Epod., Acts 17:1), “At deorum quidquid in coelo regit”. There is no reason for the view held amongst others by Mr. Lewin that the inscription refers to the God of the Jews. But in such an inscription St. Paul wisely recognised that there was in the heart of Athens a witness to the deep unsatisfied yearning of humanity for a clearer and closer knowledge of the unseen power which men worshipped dimly and imperfectly, a yearning expressed in the sacred Vedic hymns of an old world, or in the crude religions of a new, cf. Max Müller, Selected Essays, i., p. 23 ff.; Zöckler, in loco, “Altar,” B.D.2; Plumptre, Movements of Religious Thought, p. 78 ff.—ὂν οὖν ἀγνοοῦντες, see critical notes. If we read for ὅν, we may render with R.V., “what therefore ye worship in ignorance”: Vulgate, quod colitis. The mere fact of the erection of such an inscription showed that the Athenians did reverence to some divine existence, although they worshipped what they knew not, St.John 4:22; not “ignorantly worship,” as in A.V., this would have been alien to the refinement and tact of St. Paul.—εὐσεβεῖτε: used here as elsewhere of genuine piety, which St. Paul recognised and claimed as existing in the existence of the altar—the word throws light on the meaning which the Apostle attached to the δεισιδαιμονία of Acts 17:22; in N.T. only in Luke and Paul, cf. 1 Timothy 5:4, of filial piety (cf. pietas), cf. Susannah, ver 64 (LXX), and 4Ma 11:5; 4Ma 11:8; 4Ma 11:23; 4Ma 18:2. “That divine nature which you worship, not knowing what it is” (Ramsay).—τοῦτον ἐγὼ καταγγέλλω ὑμῖν: in these words lay the answer to the charge that he was a σπερμ. or a καταγγελεύς of strange gods. ἐγὼ, emphatic; I whom you regard as a mere babbler proclaim to you, or set forth, the object which you recognise however dimly, and worship however imperfectly. Since the days of St. Chrysostom the verse has been taken as a proof that the words of St. Paul were addressed not to a select group of philosophers, but to the corona of the people.

[312] R(omana), in Blass, a first rough copy of St. Luke.

23. For as I passed by (along)] The word refers to the whole of the Apostle’s walk about the city.

and beheld your devotions] Better, “and noticed the objects of your worship.” (With R. V.) The verb is that which in the previous verse is translated “I perceive,” only that here it is strengthened by a preposition which gives it the force of “fully observe.” The Apostle had not only seen the statues but read the inscriptions. The noun can only mean “a thing that is worshipped” not “the act of worship” as is the sense of the A. V.

I found an altar] The Greek has an emphatic conjunction, which might be represented by “I found also an altar,” i.e. beside other things which I noticed.

TO THE UNKNOWN GOD] The original has no article and would be correctly rendered “To an unknown God.” But it is not always correct to omit the article in English because it does not appear in the original: here however it does not influence the meaning. When the altar was erected, it was in consequence of some visitation of which the cause was not apparent, and which could be ascribed to none of the existing divinities. We may conceive the Athenians speaking of the power which caused the visitation either as “an unknown God” or as “the unknown God” whose wrath they would deprecate, and, in an inscription, representing all that was intended without the article. We have abundant evidence of the existence in Athens of such altars as that to which St Paul alludes. But the words in which they are described generally run in the plural number, and speak of “the unknown gods.” Thus Pausanias (i. i. 4) describing one of the ports of Athens tells us that there were there “altars to gods styled unknown” and Philostratus in his Life of Apollonius says “at Athens there are erected altars for unknown gods.” There is a like allusion in (pseudo) Lucian’s Philo-patris, but it is doubtful whether that is not drawn from this passage of the Acts. And Jerome writing on Titus 1:12, says “The inscription on the altar was not, as Paul stated, ‘To the unknown God’ but ‘To the unknown gods of Asia and Europe and Africa, to unknown and foreign Gods.’ But, because Paul required to speak of only one unknown God, he used the word in the singular.” But it is better to suppose that St Paul saw what he says he saw, and as evidence that such an inscription was not improbable, we may quote the Latin inscription found on an altar at Ostia, now in the Vatican, representing a sacrificial group in connexion with the worship of Mithras, the Sun-god of the later Persian mythology (Orelli, Inscr. Gel. ii. 5000), “Signum indeprehensibilis dei” which is a very near approach in Latin to what the Greek inscription to which the Apostle alludes would mean. The word “unknown” must not be pressed too far into the sense of “unknowable,” because of what comes after. Paul says that “he is prepared to set forth to them that power which they were worshipping; in ignorance.” So though man by searching cannot find out God yet he would desire to teach the Athenians, what he says elsewhere, that “the everlasting power and divinity of God may be clearly seen through the things that are made” (Romans 1:20).

Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship] The best MSS. give the relative in the neuter. The better rendering therefore is What therefore ye worship in ignorance. (As R. V.) The A. V. seems to convey the sense that the worship was of an ignorant character: whereas what the Apostle intends to say is not any reflection on the nature of their worship, but only that they offered it in ignorance, and this he was ready to dispel. He accepts their religious character, takes his stand on their own confession that they are in ignorance about God, and so offers his teaching.

him declare I unto you] Of course in harmony with the previous clause the pronoun is here also neuter. “This set I forth unto you.” (As R. V.) In the verb which he employs the Apostle takes up their own word (Acts 17:18) when they said “He seemeth to be a setter forth of strange gods.” It is well that the similarity of word should be retained in the English.

Acts 17:23. Διερχόμενος, in passing through) Paul did not wish to stay long at Athens: he ordered Silas and Timothy as soon as possible to come to him; and yet before their arrival he left Athens: Acts 17:15-16, ch. Acts 18:1; Acts 18:5. Therefore he implies, that he has no want of something to do, even though the Athenians should not give heed to Paul. He shows by the fact itself that he is no “seed-picker.”—ἀναθεωρῶν, beholding) All things may serve the purposes of a wise man, whatever he may come across; but out of many he chooses out the best, as Paul refers to the one altar, dismissing other instances which he might have adduced.—σεβάσματα) works, founded for sacred purposes [gods worshipped, 2 Thessalonians 2:4].—ἐπεγέγραπτο, there had been inscribed) The Pluperfect, used courteously. To the Athenians of the existing age, when Paul spoke there, might be ascribed either a greater or less degree of ignorance, than to the authors of the inscription.—ἀγνώστῳ Θεῷ, To an UNKNOWN GOD) Not even was the article added by the Athenians. Diogenes Laertius says, “When the Athenians, at one time, suffered under a pestilence, Epimenides purified the city, and restrained the plague in this way: He took sheep of black and white fleeces, and led them to the Areopagus, and permitted them to go from it in whatever direction they pleased; instructing those who followed them, wherever the sheep lay down there to immolate them severally τῷ προσήκοντι Θεῷ, to the appropriate or peculiarly fitting God: and in this way the plague ceased. Accordingly from that time, and in the present day, it is certain that altars without a name, βωμοὺς ἀνωνύμους, are found throughout the districts (pagos) of the Athenians.” Pausanias says, that there were in Phalerum βωμοὺς θεῶντε δνομαζομένων ἀγνώστων καὶ ἡρώων· which words ought, it seems, to be so stopped as to make some to be θεοὺς ὀνομαζομένους, gods having names, others to be ἀγνώστους, unknown gods. Philostratus, 6. 2, says, σωθρονέστερον περὶ πάντων θεῶν εὖ λέγειν, καὶ ταῦτα Ἀθήνῃσιν, οὗ καὶ ἀγνώστων θεῶν βωμοὶ ἵδρυνται. Tertullian against Marcion, says, “I find that altars have been publicly set up (prostitutes) to gods altogether unknown, but it is an Attic idolatry.” The Greek Scholia bring forward this inscription, θεοῖς Ἀσίας καὶ Εὐρώπης καὶ Λυβίης, θεῷ ἀγνώστῳ καὶ ξένω. But they do not produce any witness of this inscription. Jerome, in his Comment. on the Ep. to Titus: “The inscription of the altar was not in the precise form which Paul asserted, To the Unknown God; but in this form, To the gods of Asia and Europe and Africa (Aphricæ); to the unknown and foreign or strange gods. But because Paul’s purpose did not require a number of unknown gods, but only one unknown God, he has used the singular number to show, that He whom the Athenians had thus designated beforehand in the inscription on the altar is his own God.” Comp. the note of C. Reineccius on this passage. On weighing all the data, and comparing them one with the other, it is evident that there was at first a certain one altar, having this inscription, To the Unknown GOD, namely, to that one Supreme God, the Founder of all things, inscrutable to mortals: and according to the pattern of this altar, which was erected according to the mind of the ancient philosophers, and not at variance with the enigma of Epimenides, the Athenians erected several others, dedicated to the Unknown God; until, as superstition always degenerates into a more corrupt form, some persons inscribed often one altar to the unknown gods conjointly, thinking that among so many gods they would find one God at least who would attend and be propitious. And it is to this that the employment of the Pluperfect, ἐπεγέγραπτο, had been inscribed, refers, viz. that Paul may intimate that the old form, to the Unknown God, is truer than the more recent forms, to the unknown gods. So Lucan, lib. ii., “dedita sacris Incerti Judæa Dei” Judea devoted to the worship of an Uncertain or Unknown God. The Philopatris of Lucian has these words: τὸν ἐν Ἀθήναις ἄγνωστον ἐφευρόντες, Finding the Unknown One, who is at Athens; which is a not obscure allusion to Luke. Gellius, B. ii. c. 28, mentions something not dissimilar concerning the Romans.—εὐσεβεῖτε, ye worship) A mild word, addressed to the Gentiles.—τοῦτον, Him) Paul fixes definitely the vague intention of the blinded Athenians. I preach or announce to you, saith he, One unknown, but nevertheless not strange (referring to their words, Acts 17:18).—ἐγὼ καταγγέλλω, I announce) whatever ye may think concerning me.

Verse 23. - Passed along for passed by, A.V.; observed the objects of your worship for beheld your devotions, A.V. (τασ` σεβάσματα υμῶν: see 2 Thessalonians 2:4); also an altar for an altar, A.V.; an for the, A.V.; what for whom, A.V. and T.R.; worship in ignorance for ignorantly worship, A.V.; this for him, A.V. and T.R.; set forth for declare, A.V. AN UNKNOWN GOD. There is no direct and explicit testimony in ancient writers to the existence of any one such altar at Athens, but Pausanias and others speak of altars to "unknown gods," as to be seen in Athens, which may well be understood of several such altars, each dedicated to an unknown god. One of these was seen by St. Paul, and, with inimitable tact, made the text of his sermon. He was not preaching a foreign god to them, but making known to them one whom they had already included in their devotions without knowing him. Acts 17:23As l passed by (διερχόμενος)

More strictly, "passing through (διά)" your city, or your streets.

Beheld (ἀναθεωρῶν)

Only here and Hebrews 13:7. Rev., much better, observed. The compound verb denotes a very attentive consideration (ἀνά and down, throughout).

Devotions (σεβάσματἀ)

Wrong. It means the objects of their worship - temples, altars, statues, etc.

An altar (βωμὸν)

Only here in New Testament, and the only case in which a heathen altar is alluded to. In all other cases θυσιαστήριον is used, signifying an altar of the true God. The Septuagint translators commonly observe this distinction, being, in this respect, more particular than the Hebrew scriptures themselves, which sometimes interchange the word for the heathen altar and that for God's altar. See, especially, Joshua 22, where the altar reared by the Transjordanic tribes is called βωμὸς as being no true altar of God (Joshua 22:10, Joshua 22:11, Joshua 22:16, Joshua 22:19, Joshua 22:23, Joshua 22:26, Joshua 22:34); and the legitimate altar, θυσιαστήριον (Joshua 22:19, Joshua 22:28, Joshua 22:29).

To the unknown God (ἀγνώστῳ Θεῷ)

The article is wanting. Render, as Rev., to an unknown God. The origin of these altars, of which there were several in Athens, is a matter of conjecture. Hackett's remarks on this point are sensible, and are borne out by the following words: "whom therefore," etc. "The most rational explanation is unquestionably that of those who suppose these altars to have had their origin in the feeling of uncertainty, inherent, after all, in the minds of the heathen, whether their acknowledgment of the superior powers was sufficiently full and comprehensive; in their distinct consciousness of the limitation and imperfection of their religious views, and their consequent desire to avoid the anger of any still unacknowledged god who might be unknown to them. That no deity might punish them for neglecting his worship, or remain uninvoked in asking for blessings, they not only erected altars to all the gods named or known among them, but, distrustful still lest they might not comprehend fully the extent of their subjection and dependence, they erected them also to any other god or power that might exist, although as yet unrevealed to them....Under these circumstances an allusion to one of these altars by the apostle would be equivalent to his saying to the Athenians thus: 'You are correct in acknowledging a divine existence beyond any which the ordinary rites of your worship recognize; there is such an existence. You are correct in confessing that this Being is unknown to you; you have no just conceptions of his nature and perfections.'"

Ignorantly (ἀγνοοῦντες)

Rather, unconsciously: not knowing. There is a kind of play on the words unknown, knowing not. Ignorantly conveys more rebuke than Paul intended.

Declare I((καταγγέλλω)

Compare καταγγελεὺς, setter-forth, in Acts 17:18. Here, again, there is a play upon the words. Paul takes up their noun, setter-forth, and gives it back to them as a verb. "You say I am a setter-forth of strange gods: I now set forth unto you (Rev.) the true God."

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