The Agora
Bible Articles and Lessons: U-V

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Unknown God

The god to which Aratus originally referred (in the poem quoted by Paul in Acts 17) would have been Zeus, because for many years Zeus was regarded as the greatest god in the Universe. Zeus of course is Jupiter, one of the brightest planets in the sky, and to the ancients was the most powerful of all the known astral deities.

Who was the "unknown God" whose altar is described in Acts 17?

Background: after Hipparchus discovered the precession of the equinoxes* (c 128 BC), the Greeks realized that there was "a hitherto unknown" extremely powerful God, a God of gods who was not in the known pantheon of the gods, but a God who upheld and had the power to move the entire Universe.

[* Footnote: The occurrence of the equinoxes earlier in each successive sidereal year, caused by the gradual westward movement of the equinoctial points along the ecliptic as the result of the change in direction of the earth's axis as it turns around the axis of the ecliptic so as to describe a complete cone approximately every 25,800 years: precession is the result of the attraction of the sun and the moon upon protuberances about the earth's equator: Webster's New World Dictionary.]

David Ulansey writes: "At the time Hipparchus made his discovery, Mediterranean intellectual and religious life was pervaded by astrological beliefs. It was widely believed that the stars and planets were living gods, and that their movements controlled all aspects of human existence. In addition, at this time most people believed in what scholars call 'astral immortality': ie, the idea that after death the human soul ascends up through the heavenly spheres to an afterlife in the pure and eternal world of the stars. In such circumstances, Hipparchus' discovery would have had profound religious implications. A new force had been detected capable of shifting the cosmic sphere: was it not likely that this new force was a sign of the activity of a new god, a god so powerful that he was capable of moving the entire universe? Given the pervasive influence in the Greco-Roman period of astrology and 'astral immortality', a god possessing such a literally world-shaking power would clearly have been eminently worthy of worship: since he had control over the cosmos, he would automatically have power over the astrological forces determining life on earth, and would also possess the ability to guarantee the soul a safe journey through the celestial spheres after death." [The Origins of the Mithraic Mysteries: Cosmology and Salvation in the Ancient World]

So here we have the discovery of a new God, a God previously unknown to their culture, a God about whom nothing had been written or described, yet a God who, being outside the cosmic sphere, clearly must have had power over all the other gods they had known, for their movements were well known and constrained within the Universe (ie, the planets). This was truly a God of gods.

In Act 17, Paul is on Mars Hill addressing the Greek philosophers, who, being heavily into new ideas, had already erected an altar to "The Unknown God".

Having been distressed that Athens was "wholly given to idolatry" (v 16), in v 22 Paul challenges their exceptionally superstitious behavior and worship, and draws their attention to the altar of the Unknown God. It may be true that many people worshipped with a sort of blind "just in case" manner, but this was not the real issue on Mars Hill. With one major exception, these people were experts in the gods they worshipped, which is why they wanted to hear Paul out (v 20) -- because he seemed to be preaching a new one. Remember that Athens was the Cambridge University of the day, a place where all the theories of the Universe were discussed and threshed out together, and any new theory of the Universe from a newcomer like Paul would have been rather suspect, but, considering they were well aware of the deficiencies in their own theories, well worth a hearing just in case. And Paul did not exist in a vacuum either, and would have had a reasonably good idea of who the various gods were, and what the worship was all about.

So pointing to the altar (metaphorically speaking) of the Unknown God, he says: "Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you."

Note that the "God" is singular, and that Paul does not treat this altar as their insurance for worshipping all the gods that they may possibly have forgotten. Clearly he is telling them (and us) that the Unknown God they were already worshipping was the very same God that Paul knew about, and had been preaching about. The unusual and remarkable thing about their worship was their ignorance; although they knew that the God must have existed (or else why bother worshipping him), they didn't know who he was. They didn't even know his name. But Paul seems to have known that this God was their GUT (Grand Unified Theory) that would bring everything together, but the knowledge of which so far had eluded them.

Paul wants them to understand he is going to reveal the truth to them about this God so that they would know him. And he starts...

"God that made the world (cosmos, Universe), and all things therein, seeing that he is Lord of heaven and earth..." which Paul confirms that he is talking about the same super-cosmic God realised post-Hipparchus, ie, a Lord of heaven (God of gods) and earth, and, not just a mover in the cosmos, but in fact the Mover of it. This God is the answer to life, the Universe and everything. Being such a superior sort of God, he...

"dwelleth not in temples made with men's hands; neither is worshipped with men's hands, as though he needed anything, seeing he giveth all life, and breath, and all things."
All of this confirmed and built upon what they already believed or suspected about this Unknown God who moved the Universe. Paul goes on...

"And hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on the face of the earth..."
(ie, he is not a tribal God, or even a national God)...

"...and hath determined the times before appointed..."
(he controls everything and it is all going according to plan)...

"...and the bounds of their habitation."
So far Paul is not only preaching the truth about God, but he is also confirming things they already knew, believed or suspected about this God they had discovered from the witness of creation, yet culturally and historically didn't know anything about.

Next, as per the NIV: "God did this so that men would seek him, and perhaps reach out for him and find him..."

In other words, God has built and ordered creation in such a way that men might seek Him, and perhaps even stretch themselves so far outside of themselves that they might even find God. Paul seems to be hinting that, despite their recognition of their ignorance, in some ways they were getting close... and now he, Paul, was here on Mars Hill to declare unto them the revealed truth about this unknown God, and to preach his salvation through the resurrection of the dead (v 31) (rather than ascent through astral spheres).

Paul then confirms this analysis, first with a profound philosophical truth, and then by an explicit reference to a similar philosophical truth they had already worked out for themselves...

"...though he be not far from every one of us, for in him we live, and move, and have our being; as certain of your own poets have said, 'For we are also his offspring.' "
Now it may well be true that the poem was originally written about Zeus. But by the time Paul was talking on Mars Hill, Zeus had been dethroned. Jupiter (Zeus) could be seen most every night in the sky, moving about through the cosmic sphere as planets are wont to do. But since Hipparchus had discovered the precession of the equinoxes, clearly there was a new force to be reckoned with who was Lord of Zeus, far above all principalities and powers, the creator of both the gods and of man; and although hitherto invisible to mortal eyes, by his power and existence had been evidenced by the things they themselves had discovered...

"...because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath shewed it unto them. For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his ETERNAL POWER and Godhead, so that they are without excuse" (Rom 1:19-20).
And so Paul concludes his theme by introducing repentance, the day of judgment, and the resurrection of the dead. Significantly, and suggestive of another link with Romans 1, few of his audience were impressed. Some mocked: and others said they would hear him again of this matter. But they were truly without excuse...

"Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God (should have been glorified), neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened."
-- surely a reference to the Greek philosophers --

"Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools..."
Whether or not the poem was written about Zeus, by the time Paul refers to it Zeus was not regarded as the supreme God (at least not by the more advanced philosophers in Athens) because the Unknown God who moved the Universe had supplanted Zeus. Yet the idea expressed in the poem was still true insofar as it referred to the qualities of an ultimate God of gods who created all things. So Paul could safely transfer the use it on Mars Hill, and the fact he got away with it suggests that they had already done this themselves.

In any case, if it was Zeus and none other, then from Acts 17 we would have to conclude that Paul was teaching that Zeus was the God in whom we live and move and have our being, and they would happily conclude that Zeus was the God that Paul was preaching.

This cannot be true, however, because Paul was preaching all about The Unknown God, and Zeus was very well known to them. (JP)

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