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Commentary On The Apostle Paul’s Unknown God?

July 9, 2019

20181124_083303“Then Paul stood in the midst of Mar’s Hill, and said, Ye men of Athens, I perceived that in all things ya are too superstitious. For as I passed by, and behold your devotion, I found an alter with this inscription, TO THE UNKNOWN GOD, Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, Him declare I unto you.” (Acts 17:22-23).

How did a pharisee of pharisee’s have such a knowledge of Greek literature and it’s philosophical thought? A true Bible trivia question would be to find someone to name at least three of the pagan author’s sighted by the future Apostle to the Gentiles. Can the basic Bible reader even name one of the author’s Paul quotes from in his message on Mars Hill in Athens? But somewhere in his early years while living in the city of Tarsus and his journey to Jerusalem to learn at the feet of the great teacher Gamaliel he was to become the zealot for the law and battle the heretical teaching of the man from Nazareth. Somewhere within that time from of Tarsus o Jerusalem he was influenced by the Hellenism that had penetrated his home town of Tarsus. He became a strict follower of the Law and had left behind whatever influence the Greek culture had on his young life before he reached Jerusalem. The future Apostle Paul had read the works of these pagan authors he would quote from and he used them to teach and proclaim in his messages and letters the truth of the one true God and His Son Jesus Christ. But how did this zealot for the Torah and the strict life of a pharisee read such forbidden books in the first place so he could indeed become the Apostle to the Gentiles.

In his fiery message and proclamation in the City of Athens of the message of Christ the Rabbi Paul who stood by while Stephen was stoned was indeed quoting pagan author’s as if he they were second nature to him. The man called Saul of Tarsus was in my view a Hellenized Jew than he is given credit for being. True, he was a man totally devoted himself to the Torah but he also at some point in his early education he was introduced  to the Greek mind and mythology and it’s many branches of philosophy and it’s teachers. The home town of Saul was a Hellenized city. Saul could not have escaped it’s historical impact on the Jewish population in Tarsus. Saul could not have escaped the Hellenization of the Jewish people even if he tried and it seemed to be he really didn’t try to hard to not notice his fellow Hellenized Jews. The influence was there and the man knew his Greek language and audience and probably wrote in good and understandable Greek as well. He could not have escaped the Greek culture about his life in that city of Tarsus. If Gamaliel was the strict teacher of the Law then he did indeed influence the Apostle to the Gentiles before his conversion on that fateful road to Damascus. Both influenced the Apostle Paul for a future missionary and author of Scripture and salvation that is still felt today by his missionary travels. But who was this Gamaliel?

A brief aside via Jewish and Christian tradition. The man called Saul was quite possibly Gamaliel’s greatest student and defender of the Law; until grace knocked him off his horse as he viewed Damascus in the horizon. Who was this great Jewish sage and teacher Gamaliel? In the Jewish tradition of the man who influenced Paul? In the Talmud, he is portrayed as bearing the titles of Nasi and Rabban or our Master, as the president of the Great Sanhedrin in Jerusalem; it is disputed by some scholar’s that he ever held a senior title in the highest court in the Jewish world of defending the Torah in Jerusalem. Gamaliel has been thought of as one of the greatest teachers in all the annals of Judaism by the authority of the Mishnah. Other bits of information on this teacher of the then young Saul of Tarsus? Gamaliel’s authority on the important questions of religious law was suggested in the Michnaic brief notes in which ‘the king and queen’ ask for his advice about Jewish rituals. Who where these king and queen? The generally opinion is that it was either King Herod Agrippa I and his wife Cypros or King Herod Agrippa II and his sister Berenice. In classical rabbinical literature it is always contrasted with the school of Hillel to that of Shammai and only shows the gathering opinions of each of these opposing schools of Jewish thought on the Torah and Scripture over-all without mentioning the personal nuances and thoughts of those in involved in the debates and opinions of the rabbis. Oddly enough, these texts do not show that Gamaliel as being knowledgeable about the Torah or Scripture over-all let alone a teacher of Torah. This is the reason that Gamaliel is not shown as being part of the long chain of leadership of individuals who continued the Mishnaic tradition; the list simply mentions from Hillel to Johanan ben Zakkai. However, the Mishnah does mention Gamaliel’s writings of a few legal ordinances on the top of the Jewish community’s welfare and conjugal rights. Gamaliel defended from the Torah that the Law did protect women during divorce, that for the purpose of a woman remarrying that only one witness to the death of the first husband was needed for the woman to remarry. The Mishnah also has a single quote of his on religious scruples, “Obtain a teacher for yourself, keep yourself (on religious questions) far from doubt, and only infrequently give a tithe using general valuation.” Sounds like good advise. There are other various pieces of classical rabbinic literature that mentions Gamaliel that he sent out three letters/epistles, (Maybe where the Apostle Paul got the idea?). The epistles were sent out as notifications of new religious rulings, and they show Gamaliel in leadership of the Jewish leadership in Jerusalem for religious Torah observers; two went to the Jews of Galilee and the ‘Darom’ (Southern Judea), the third epistle went to the Jews of the Diaspora. What of the Christian tradition concerning this Jewish teacher of the Law and of the Apostle Paul? The Luke’s work, “Acts Of The Apostles” he introduces Gamaliel as a Pharisee and a well-known and respected defender of the Torah in the Book of Acts 5:34-40. The larger drama, (Acts 5:17-42), The Apostle Peter and the other apostles are described as being arrested for preaching Jesus and brought before the Sanhedrin and the elders of the people for the apostles reaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ after they were prohibited and warned to cease from doing. They didn’t stop and were arrested, (Acts 5:27-33). The Scripture account shows Gamaliel as coming forward and arguing against killing the apostles as they didn’t like what the Apostle Peter told them, he then reminded them of the not so long ago history of Theudas and Judas of Galilee and their failed attempts to over-throw the Romans from the land and of their fate, (Acts 5:34-37). Gamaliel stood up and spoke, “And now I sat unto you, Refrain from these men, and let them alone; for if this counsel or this work be of men, it will come to nought: But if it be of God, ye cannot overthrow it; lest haply ye be found even to fight against God.” (Acts 5:38-39).

The critics of the Apostle Paul, and there are many outside and even inside the Church, like to accuse him of being against learning or scholarship into non-Biblical works. They are simply wrong. Paul was a educated man of his time and didn’t live in a world where ignorance was a virtue; Jews value education far too much. A Jew like the Apostle Paul do not quote pagan author’s such as Plato’s Book Ten of his ‘Republic’, (The Great Architect of the Universe), or Greek playwrights of the Greek Golden Age of creativity and deep thoughts on the human condition such as Paul’s reference to Euripides in his ‘Hercules’, (As God really does not need anything if He is indeed God), Paul quoted the playwright Aeschylus from his play, “Eumenides, (Objects of worship). The Apostle Paul quoted the Cilician poet Aratus or Euripides of Crete when he quoted from his play, “Minos”,  ‘In Him we live and move and have our being…we are indeed His offspring’.The Apostle Paul didn’t just pull these quotes out of thin air. He knew them because he read them somewhere in his hometown of Tarsus. The Apostle Paul was a Jew to his core. He was a pharisee, from the tribe of Benjamin, he was a child of the Jewish Hellenization of the Chosen people who no longer lived in their once homeland of Israel. And all of this made him the Apostle to the Nations outside of the promises of God via Israel. He would proclaim the message of salvation via the Gospel of Jesus Christ to these Gentiles at Mar’s Hill by quoting their own philosophers and poets. I believe without the influence of that Hellenization it is questionable whether his message would have made such a greater impact on the Gentile World or it’s view if it’s own gods and philosophy about life and death. The pagan authors he quoted and referred to and spoke of his audience would have understood. Even in the short letter to Titus, (Titus 1:12), mentions the poet Epimenides’s comment on his fellow Cretans; that is where the line comes from that Paul quotes. The Apostle Paul knew his Greek/Pagan authors and audience and when and how to use them to point to the one true and only God of creation.

The Apostle Paul wasn’t against pagan learning but he saw it as being so far and away removed from the absolute truth and majesty of the God that they knew nothing about and the truth that was in Christ. The Apostle Paul was standing alone and surrounded by a crowd of mockers, pagans, and those Greeks and other nations who didn’t really have any real motive to understand what he was preaching from Mars Hill. But he preached and the message he preached has come down through the ages of human history as one of the greatest oratories in Athens and is today still remembered. The Apostle Paul was mostly dealing with would-philosophers of the school of Epicurus and the Stoics. Both mostly to it’s core preached that we should live today for tomorrow we may die and a very materialistic world-view of life and even death. What gods or a single God is needed would be one of their thoughts. The Apostle Paul saw the value of the pagan author’s to point to a much clearer and far more profound view and truth of that ‘Unknown God’ that they either ignored or simply paid lip service to was the one true God of the universe and creation spoken of even by their own philosophers and poets. As the Apostle Paul stated to these people of Athens who mocked and jeered, “For as I passed by, and beheld your devotions, I found an alter with this inscription, TO THE UNKNOWN God. Who therefore ye ignorantly worship, Him I declare unto. God that made the world and all things therein, seeing that He is Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands.” (Acts 17:23-24). So began the sermon that would echo down through the centuries as one of his greatest defenses of the God of the Torah and Scripture more profound than their own philosophies or poets could ever understand. But for the Apostle to the Nations to have preached as he did the man had to have some good knowledge of the works of the very pagans he was preaching to. He was a child of a Hellenized Jewish city. He was a child of the Torah and the history of his own people. He was the instrument God used to reach the Gentile nations via both worlds of his birth and learning.

The story of the Apostle Paul in Athens is the story of the One True God being preached to a very pagan city. The story recorded in Acts 17:15-34 is a confrontation between one lone Jewish rabbi with a message that their was one God and only one God and He sent His Son to die for the sins of the world and was resurrected from the dead after paying the full and complete price for the world’s sins. Paul had been literally dropped off in the capital of all that was Greek and Greek thought in the City of Athena, the goddess of wisdom, courage, inspiration, civilization, law, justice, and the list would go on. It was her city and she was worshiped. The Apostle Paul had to wait in the great and terrible pagan city of Athena for the the arrival of his fellow missionaries, Timotheus and Silas. This was the city were people came from all corners of the known world. Travelers, students, teachers came from all over the Roman world to see the glory that had once been Greece and it’s philosophies. People came to talk, “(For all the Athenians and strangers which were there spent their time in nothing else, but either to tell, or to hear some new thing.)” (Acts 17:21). It was the focal point of good talk and endless ideas and philosophies from those who came and stayed in Athens. It was a city of gods and goddesses and their worship. It was a cosmopolitan city of gods and ideas and people willing to listen or talk. This was the mass of humanity that the Apostle Paul found himself being surrounded by. The Apostle Paul was not idle in this mass of small Jewish community and the vast humanity of pagans, “Therefore disputed he in the synagogue with the Jews, and with the devout persons, and in the market daily with them that met with him.” (Acts 17:17). The Apostle Paul continued to reach out and preach to his fellow Jews; he never gave up on trying to reach his fellow Jews with the message of the Gospel of the Messiah. He also of course reached out to the citizens of Athens and their pagan worship, “Then certain philosophers of the Epicureans, and of the Stoicks, encountered him, And Some said, What will this babbler say? other some, He seemeth to be a setter forth of strange gods: because he preached unto them Jesus, and the resurrection.” (Acts 17:18). He was apparently reaching them on some level because the next thing we hear from the story, “And they took him, and brought him unto Areopagus, saying, May we know what this new doctrine, whereof thou speakest is? For thou bringest certain strange things to out ears; we would know therefore what these things mean.” (Acts 17:19-20). (Areopagus is Mars Hill). The Apostle Paul’s message was reaching and provoking reacts and inquiries into his message; yes the majority mocked but they also listened despite themselves. Who were these Epicureans and Stoicks? What was their basic philosophy that the Apostle Paul was preaching against?

What is Epicureanism? The basic definition it’s a system of a philosophy that is basically live today for tomorrow we may die. It’s a philosophy based upon the teachings of the Greek philosopher Epicuras of Lesbos, founded 307 B. C. Basically philosophy was atomic materialist-everything is made of atoms and nothing else is involved. His philosophy continued in his attack on the gods as a superstition let alone his attacks on divine intervention; gods existed but had no real concern with human affairs so don’t worry about them. The universe was made of small atoms and no gods need apply for his thinking in the big picture of life. Basically, pleasure was the greater good but with moderation. Pleasure is the true intrinistic goal of life and not worrying about the gods too much if they existed at all; they didn’t deny the gods existed but had no use for them. They sought peace of mind and knowledge and the important virtues of the human life. They felt indeed that life was meant to be lived in the here and now and pleasure was the chief goal of the good life; he wanted to be free of the gods and death by his philosophy of living for the chief purpose of daily pleasure within moderation. To quote from the philosopher himself, “When we say…that pleasure is the end and aim we do not mean the pleasure of the prodigal or the pleasure of sensuality, as we are understood to do by some through ignorance, prejudice or wilful misrepresentation. By pleasure we mean the absence of pain in the body and of trouble in the soul…” (Epicuras Letter To Menoeceus). Epicureanism rejects immortality; it has a belief in the soul but it’s philosophy is that the soul is mortal and material. Their philosophy can be summed up by the Epicurean Epitaph, “Non fui, fui, non sum, non curo”- I was not; I was; I am not, I do not care.”

Who are the stoicks? The philosophy of Stoicism was created during the Hellenistic era of Greek history and culture by Zeno of Citium in Athens in the early 3rd Century B. C. It’s a philosophy of personal ethics promoted by it’s idea of logic being central and it’s understanding of the natural world. According to it’s philosophy that as social beings and members of a society the path to happiness, (eudaimonia in Greek), for the human good and well-being is found in accepting the moment as it presents itself by simply not allowing one’s well-being to be controlled or manipulated by emotions or desires for pleasure or the fear of pain, but by using one’s logical thinking and actions to understand the world and society we live in and to simply treat others fairly and justly. Their philosophy and full teachings cane be summed up that ‘Virtue is the only good. for the complete human being and that external things-health, wealth, pleasure-are not good or bad in themselves, (adiaphora in Greek), but have value as ‘material for virtue to act upon.’ Alongside Aristotelian Ethics, the tradition of their philosophy was the major founding of Western virtue and ethics; until it was taken over by Christianity and it’s virtues and ethics of the Scriptures. The stoics felt and thought and preached that it wasn’t what a person said that was important as much as what they did and lived. To pursue and live a good life, one had to understand the rules and laws of the natural order of the universe and remember that everything was grounded and rooted in those laws of nature. The basic tenants of their philosophy was the development of self control and logic over the lesser parts called emotions and not letting them control the person. Another of their statements, ‘Virtue consists in a will that is in agreement with nature.’ and ‘To be free from anger, envy, jealousy.’ Another philosophical point, ‘Equals of other men, because all men alike are products of nature.’ Some well-known stoics would be Seneca, (4 B.C.-65 A. D.), who lived under the rule of the Roman Emperor Nero, (37 A. D-68 A. D), was a philosopher, statesman, and dramatist. The better well-known stoic was the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, (121 A.D.-180 A. D), who’s book, ‘The Meditations’ is still read.

These were the two major philosophies that the Apostle Paul was preaching Christ to. The Apostle Paul stood alone on that hill names after a pagan god of war. He stood alone against the pagan philosophies of those who mostly came to mock and argue with the Apostle Paul. He was in the city of Athena. Athens was known for it’s history, it’s culture, it’s philosophies and mostly for it’s Parthenon where stood a huge gold and ivory statue of the goddess Athena; whose shinning spear-point was visible forty miles away. It was one of the few glories of Greece left to an ancient culture that had given the world the early seeds of democracy. This was the city where elsewhere there were images, shrines, temples to the hosts of Olympus such as Apollo, of Zeus, Aphrodite, Mercury, Bacchus, Neptune, Artemis, the list would go on and on until there was one to the Unknown God for which the Apostle Paul preached about before this throng of humanity lost in their pagan sins of idol worship of gods made of stone, brass, and gold and silver and ivory and marble and all of them dumb and deaf to those who prayed to them. This was the glory that had been Greece and the Apostle Paul saw none of it except the idolatry of the people and it’s human cost into eternity. The Apostle Paul was greatly distressed by what he saw and he felt it to the very core of his being not just as a Jew but as a man preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He preached that there was more to life than their limited worldly philosophies and their gods. He preached Christ and His resurrection. He preached the value of human life in the present world of Athens and into eternity. His audience listened depending in their inclination and beliefs and reacted in kind. They even thought he was preaching different gods and reacted according to their thoughts on that. This was a hostile crowd that the Apostle Paul proclaimed Christ to. They mocked and they accused him of babbling what others had told him; something many did in Athens. The Apostle Paul stood alone against the gods of Athens and their worshipers and her philosophers. And the Apostle to the Greeks used their own literature and philosophers against them to preach a greater and more powerful message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ for their salvation. And to the Apostle Paul that was the only important message to preach to the citizens of Athens.


Bible (KJV).

The Search For The Twelve Apostles. By. William Steuart McBernie.

Saved Without A Doubt:Being  Sure Of Your Salvation. By. John MacArthur.

The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Acts 1-12. By. John MacArthur.

The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Acts 13-28. By. John MacArthur.

The Message Of Acts. By. John R. W. Stott.

The Message Of Ephesians. By. John R. W. Stott.

The Apostle: Life Of Paul. By. John Pollock.

Paul. By. Edgar Goodspeed.

The World Of Saint Paul. By. Joseph M. Callawaert.

Hellenistic Civilization And The Jews. By. Victor Tcherikover.

Paul: A Man Of Grace And Grit. By. Charles Swindoll.

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