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Unknown God

UNKNOWN GOD

un-non', (agnostos theos):

In Acts 17:23 (St. Paul's speech in Athens) the American Standard Revised Version reads: "I found also an altar with this inscription, To AN UNKNOWN GOD. What therefore ye worship in ignorance, this I set forth unto you." the King James Version and the English Revised Version margin translate "to the Unknown God," owing to the fact that in Greek certain words, of which theos is one, may drop the article when it is to be understood. In the present case the use of the article. is probably right (compare Acts 17:24). In addition, the King James Version reads "whom" and "him" in place of "what" and "this." The difference here is due to a variation in the Greek manuscripts, most of which support the King James Version. But internal probability is against the King James Version's reading, as it would have been very easy for a scribe to change neuters (referring to the divine power) into masculines after "God," but not vice versa. Hence, modern editors (except yon Soden's margin) have adopted the reading in the Revised Version (British and American).

Paul in Athens, "as he beheld the city full of idols," felt that God was truly unknown there. Hence the altar with the inscription struck him as particularly significant. Some Athenians, at any rate, felt the religious inadequacy of all known deities and were appealing to the God who they felt must exist, although they knew nothing definite about Him. No better starting-point for an address could be wished. What the inscription actually meant, however, is another question. Nothing is known about it. Altars dedicated "to unknown gods" (in the plural) seem to have been fairly common (Jerome on Titus 1:12; Pausanias, i.1,4; Philaster, Vita Apoll., vi.3), and Blase (Commentary ad loc.) has even suggested that the words in Ac were originally in the plural. But this would spoil the whole point of the speech, and the absence of references to a single inscription among thousands that existed can cause no surprise. Those inscriptions in the plural seem to have been meant in the sense "to the other deities that may exist in addition to those already known," but an inscription in the sing. could not have this meaning. Perhaps a votive inscription is meant, where the worshipper did not know which god to thank for some benefit received. That a slur on all the other Athenian objects of worship was intended is, however, most improbable, but Paul could not of course be expected to know the technical meaning of such inscriptions.

See ATHENS.

Buston Scott Easton


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Bibliography Information
Orr, James, M.A., D.D. General Editor. "Entry for 'UNKNOWN GOD'". "International Standard Bible Encyclopedia". 1915.