It is a debate that goes for years (early years of the twentieth century), even today the existence of this inscription in the Acts (17:16, 22-23) considered to be so powerful of the reason and cause of the ancient Greek religion’s decline. In his trip, leaving from Cyprus, Paul reached Athens. Wondering around the city he felt extremely unwelcome because of the intense existence of ‘idols’, till he found an altar with this inscription, “to the unknown god” (eis agnosto theo), and at this very moment he knew that the pagan Athenians were worshiping the Christian god without known it. In this post, I am going to present briefly my opinion based of a years’ research and reading, I will gladly welcome your insights.

Athens in the years of Paul (c. 54-68) was considered to be one of the most extensively decorated city of the empire with shrines, public statues (Pliny mentions a number of thirty thousand!) and of temples. The religiosity of the Athenians was so far-reaching which was considered by many as superstitious (Petronius claimed that you can find in Athens more easily a god than a man). I want also to mention that the religious attitude of the ancient Greeks – even at the Hellenistic, Late Antiquity era – was to refer divinities and gods with their name as Bikerman correctly stated by contrasting Greek and Oriental – non-Greek – worship attitude (see E. Bikerman, ‘Unknown Gods’, in Journal of the Warbung Institute, vol. 1 no. 3, 1938; pp. 187-196). So my first question is why the Athenians will build an altar – or altars – to a god that they are unfamiliar with and especially when it was essential to know the god’s name and epithet?

The second question is about the altar “to the unknown god. Where it was and if there is some additional literary or archaeological evidence for it? It is known that Pausanias (i.1,4) and Philostratos (Vita Apoll., vi.3) are mentioning altars of the “unknown gods”. The problem here is simple: the use of plural instead of the singular. The altars described by Pausanias near the temple of Athena Skiras had an inscription and therefore dedicated to plural unknown gods and not just to one. It is also an evidence of the archaeological research in Pergamum where in 1909 an altar with the inscription “to the unknown gods” was uncovered. So even in his eminent work, Agnostos Theos, Eduard Norden (1913) considers seriously the fact that Paul speech at Areopagus was edited later on and so the Paul’s words were originally in plural (Norden, pp. 58 ff. see also Pfleiderer, Urchristentum, 2 Aufl., I, p 522).

Of course if we replace the singular with the plural in Paul’s words the meaning and argument’s power of his speech is just vanished! What is the possibility that Paul mentioned the altar “to the unknown god” to a highly educated and spiritual group of philosophers without their raise of objections against his argument? Quite big I presume. As we can see from the Acts, Paul was extremely careful of his words and actions. He even altered the notion of Jesus according to his audience: for the pagans was a hero (half man and god) who will bring protection and the judgment of God; and for the Hebrews was the messiah and / or the last profit of God (see Vittorio Macchioro, ‘Orphism and Paulinism’ in The Journal of Religion, vol. 8 no. 3, 1928, pp. 337-370). I believe that Paul did – if he delivered the speech – use the plural and not the singular, for that reason his argument failed.