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The Politics of the Unknown God—Acts 17:16-34 (Alastair Roberts)

Raphael - St Paul Preaching in Athens (1515)

16 While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols. 17 So he argued in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and also in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. 18 Also some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers debated with him. Some said, “What does this babbler want to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign divinities.” (This was because he was telling the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.) 19 So they took him and brought him to the Areopagus and asked him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? 20 It sounds rather strange to us, so we would like to know what it means.” 21 Now all the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new.

22 Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. 23 For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. 24 The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, 25 nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. 26 From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, 27 so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. 28 For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’ 29 Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. 30 While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31 because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”


Facing a threat to his safety, Paul was moved away from Berea by some of the believers (v.15). Paul was in Athens alone, waiting for Silas and Timothy to rejoin him. No longer a major population centre—the population of Athens in Paul’s day was probably under 10,000—Athens still had considerable symbolic value on account of its continuing association with culture and learning.

Paul ‘was deeply distressed’ at the abundance of idols and images within the city. This reaction is a characteristically Jewish one: much that Paul says within this passage will reflect common Jewish polemics against idolatry. Consistent with the general pattern of his missionary work, Paul first focuses upon the synagogue, where he reasons daily with the Jews and with Gentile worshippers. He also speaks to the wider population within the marketplace.

Among the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers who encounter him the accusation is made that he is a babbler (or ‘seed-picker’) and proclaimer of foreign gods. These charges challenge both Paul’s spiritual authority and the right of the religion that he proclaimed to a place within Athenian life. Some commentators have suggested that the second charge—that Paul proclaimed foreign gods—arose from the misconception that ‘Resurrection’ (anastasis) was a female deity alongside Jesus. This charge also recalls that made against Socrates, a strategic allusion and association that might serve Luke’s apologetic ends.

Paul is brought to the Areopagus. Whether this was a situation resembling a formal trial or merely an attempt by a curious council to get a clearer understanding of Paul’s teaching is unclear. The softened form of the challenge to Paul might suggest the latter. Robert Garland has argued that there were three criteria for the introduction of a new religion to the city of Athens: ‘(1) the sponsor must claim to represent a deity; (2) he must provide evidence that the deity is eager to reside in Athens; and (3) the deity’s residence in Athens must benefit Athenians as a mark of its goodwill.’[1] In the speech that follows, Paul subversively addresses these conditions.

The manner of Paul’s speech provides evidence of his scholarly training. His opening reference to the extreme religiousness of the Athenians has an ambiguity that he will proceed to exploit. As a reference to the piety of his audience it could be regarded as a shrewd attempt to create a favorable impression. However, through his reference to the altar of the unknown God, Paul paints a picture of an excessive, superstitious piety. In the saturated market of Athenian idolatry, Paul identifies this monument to uninformed devotion as an object that epitomizes the religion of the city, a religion characteristic of the ‘times of human ignorance’ that he discusses in verse 30.

Paul declares the transcendence and sovereignty of God as the Creator of all things. This deity is related to all human beings and is involved in the life and destiny of the race. God’s engagement in and ordering of humanity’s life occurs in order that humanity might ‘grope for him and find him.’ Such a transcendent deity, who is reflected in humanity as his offspring, cannot appropriately be represented by inanimate idols of our own creation. Having introduced this transcendent, personal, providential active deity, intimately engaged in human affairs, Paul proclaims the end of the age of ignorance and groping in the darkness with the revelation of Jesus as the bearer of God’s salvation and judgment.

The religious marketplace of the Athenians may seem rather remote from that of the more secular world which we inhabit. However, we can learn much from Paul’s approach to the Athenians, particularly from Paul’s initial move. As Tomáš Halík argues, ‘the “altar to an unknown god” is precisely the most appropriate “topos” for proclaiming the Christian message.’ He claims:

I am convinced that if anyone wants to preach the Good News of the paradoxical God of the Bible, he has to find the “altar to an unknown god.” To speak about Christ at the altar to familiar gods would be blasphemy or risk even greater misunderstanding than on that occasion at the Athenian Areopagus.[2]

In our society and most particularly in the realm of politics, God is experienced as the thoroughly known god, the god who holds no surprises. In a recent statement, the UK Prime Minister, David Cameron declared that we live in a ‘Christian country’. This pronouncement, though welcomed in quarters, also excited appropriate concerns. In any comfortable alignment of Christianity and national heritage and identity, God is easily rendered familiar and unthreatening, a tame and mute idol to our patriotic values.

If anything, such civil religion is probably even more pronounced in the American political world, within which Christian values are routinely appealed to with the assurance that they align in all principal respects with a particular partisan agenda. ‘God bless America’ and ‘in God we trust’ can express the sort of divinely-sponsored patriotism that comforts through its rejection of any lingering uncertainty concerning God’s support of the American project. The thoroughly known god underwrites the national project and identity: this is the entirely domesticated god, who stands with us against all that is foreign and unsettling.

As both right and left seek to tie the deity to their cultural identities or projects, we must join with Paul in proclaiming the transcendent God, who stands above and orders all human affairs. Sustaining and upholding us in existence, closer to us than closeness itself, this God eludes all attempts to reduce him to an object of our mastery. Like Paul, we must locate the interstices in the captive webs of our cultural idolatries, declaring the identity of our God from these points and calling all to account.

Paul’s message at the Areopagus received a lukewarm response. His declaration of a God who lays claim to us in Jesus Christ—his revealed and appointed agent of blessing and judgment—cut entirely against the grain of speculative and superstitious religion. The listless Athenian preoccupation with hearing something new was answered with a demand for absolute commitment. The darkness of superstition was scattered by the dazzling light of divine revelation. The council desiring to cast judgment on a new religion found itself called to account before the bar of heaven. It is this same message that we are called to declare to the powers of our own age.


[1] Robert W. Wall, The Acts of the Apostles in The New Interpreter’s Bible: Volume X (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 2002), 245
[2] Tomáš Halík, Patience with God: The Story of Zacchaeus Continuing in Us (London: Doubleday, 2009), 116

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