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Unknown God

Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

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(Acts 17:23; Authorized Version and Revised Version margin ‘to the Unknown God,’ Revised Version ‘to an Unknown God’ [the absence of the article in Greek was common in inscriptions, so that either rendering is permissible])

It is often stated that light is thrown on this subject by an incident in the life of Epimenides as related by Diogenes Laertius (Epimen. i. 110). We are told that the hero, in a time of plagueat Athens, took white and black sheep to the hill Areopagus and let them loose. Wherever one of the animals rested, an altar was erected, in the supposition that the sheep was pointing to the god whose shrine was situated nearest to that particular spot. The reason for this procedure was that the people were ignorant as to which deity was offended, and they hoped in this way to ascertain which god they ought to propitiate in order that the plague might be stayed. Among the ancients such a dilemma seems to have been frequent (cf. at Rome, Aul. Gell. ii. 28; Horace, Epod. v. 1, Sat. II. vi. 20; see also Theophrastus, Char. 17). But the chief objection to this theory is that the altars are distinctly said to be ‘anonymous,’ which can only mean that they bore no inscription.

It is just possible that some such inscription as that in the text was afterwards added, but not likely. Nor are we helped by Jerome, who states (on Titus 1:12) that the inscription actually read, ‘To the gods of Asia and Europe and Africa, to unknown and strange gods,’ for such an altar could not possibly be that referred to by the Apostle. The main difficulty lies in the fact that no extant inscription exactly bears out the Apostle’s words; and yet there is sufficient evidence to lead us to suppose that he is correctly reported. For instance, Pausanias (I. i. 4) says that on the road from the Phaleric port to the city he had noticed ‘altars of gods called unknown, and of heroes’ (βωμοὶ δὲ θεῶν τε ὀνομαζομένων ἀγνώστων καὶ ἡρώων), which may quite well mean that he saw several altars bearing inscriptions similar to that mentioned by St. Paul, yet in V. xiv. 6 he speaks again of ‘an altar of unknown gods’ (πρὸς αὐτῷ δʼ ἐστὶν ἀγνώστων θεῶν βωμός). Similarly Philostratus (Vit. Apollon. vi. 3) says that at Athens are found ‘altars of unknown deities.’ It is, therefore, impossible to say with certainty whether such altars were erected ‘to an (or ‘the’) unknown god’ or ‘to unknown gods.’ The only passage where direct support is found for the words of Acts is in the dialogue of Philopatris-attributed to Lucian-where one of the characters swears ‘by the unknown god of Athens.’ But, as this work belongs to the 3rd cent. a.d., it may only be a quotation from this passage. The same objection is in part valid with regard to the Mithraic inscription of Ostia, now in the Vatican Museum; a sacrificial group is represented bearing the legend ‘the symbol of the undiscoverable god.’ The date of this is probably the 2nd or 3rd cent.; but, on the other hand, the Mithraic cult is a good deal older than that. The Greek word (ἄγνωστος) translated ‘unknown ‘possibly bears also the meaning ‘unknowable,’ though it is less probable. In this connexion we may compare a passage from Plutarch (de Is. et Osir. 9) which tells of an inscription on the veil of Isis at Sais. It runs as follows: ‘I am, and I was, and I shall be; no mortal has lifted my veil.’ Such suggestions as that there is a reference in ‘unknowable’ to Jahweh, who was spoken of by Gentile writers as ‘wholly hidden’ (Justin Martyr, Apol. ii. 10), or that such an altar might date from the period when writing was unknown, are quite fanciful and cannot be entertained.

Some writers, as F. C. Baur and E. Zeller, regard the whole incident as unhistorical, from the fact that the inscription is in the singular, whereas none such has been found, while the plural is more in keeping with the prevalent polytheism. At any rate there is an element of doubt in some of the references, and, had the writer so wished, he could easily have fallen into line in this matter. Even F. Overbeck admits that the above references allow the possibility of such an inscription. It is difficult to suppose that a mere romancer would have invented such a point; and, if St. Paul made any such reference, it is unthinkable that he would have been inaccurate.

Literature.-See the Commentaries on Acts; also E. H. Plumptre, Movements in Religious Thought, London, 1879, p. 78 ff.

F. W. Worsley.

Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Unknown God'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​hdn/​u/unknown-god.html. 1906-1918.
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