The god to which Aratus originally referred (in the poem
quoted by Paul in Acts 17) would have been Zeus, because for many years Zeus was
regarded as the greatest god in the Universe. Zeus of course is Jupiter, one of
the brightest planets in the sky, and to the ancients was the most powerful of
all the known astral deities.
Who was the "unknown God" whose altar is described in Acts 17?
Background: after Hipparchus discovered the precession of the
equinoxes* (c 128 BC), the Greeks realized that there was "a hitherto unknown"
extremely powerful God, a God of gods who was not in the known pantheon of the
gods, but a God who upheld and had the power to move the entire Universe.
[* Footnote: The occurrence of the equinoxes earlier in each
successive sidereal year, caused by the gradual westward movement of the
equinoctial points along the ecliptic as the result of the change in direction
of the earth's axis as it turns around the axis of the ecliptic so as to
describe a complete cone approximately every 25,800 years: precession is the
result of the attraction of the sun and the moon upon protuberances about the
earth's equator: Webster's New World Dictionary.]
David Ulansey writes: "At the time Hipparchus made his
discovery, Mediterranean intellectual and religious life was pervaded by
astrological beliefs. It was widely believed that the stars and planets were
living gods, and that their movements controlled all aspects of human existence.
In addition, at this time most people believed in what scholars call 'astral
immortality': ie, the idea that after death the human soul ascends up through
the heavenly spheres to an afterlife in the pure and eternal world of the stars.
In such circumstances, Hipparchus' discovery would have had profound religious
implications. A new force had been detected capable of shifting the cosmic
sphere: was it not likely that this new force was a sign of the activity of a
new god, a god so powerful that he was capable of moving the entire universe?
Given the pervasive influence in the Greco-Roman period of astrology and 'astral
immortality', a god possessing such a literally world-shaking power would
clearly have been eminently worthy of worship: since he had control over the
cosmos, he would automatically have power over the astrological forces
determining life on earth, and would also possess the ability to guarantee the
soul a safe journey through the celestial spheres after death." [The Origins of
the Mithraic Mysteries: Cosmology and Salvation in the Ancient World]
So here we have the discovery of a new God, a God previously
unknown to their culture, a God about whom nothing had been written or
described, yet a God who, being outside the cosmic sphere, clearly must have had
power over all the other gods they had known, for their movements were well
known and constrained within the Universe (ie, the planets). This was truly a
God of gods.
In Act 17, Paul is on Mars Hill addressing the Greek
philosophers, who, being heavily into new ideas, had already erected an altar to
"The Unknown God".
Having been distressed that Athens was "wholly given to
idolatry" (v 16), in v 22 Paul challenges their exceptionally superstitious
behavior and worship, and draws their attention to the altar of the Unknown God.
It may be true that many people worshipped with a sort of blind "just in case"
manner, but this was not the real issue on Mars Hill. With one major exception,
these people were experts in the gods they worshipped, which is why they wanted
to hear Paul out (v 20) -- because he seemed to be preaching a new one. Remember
that Athens was the Cambridge University of the day, a place where all the
theories of the Universe were discussed and threshed out together, and any new
theory of the Universe from a newcomer like Paul would have been rather suspect,
but, considering they were well aware of the deficiencies in their own theories,
well worth a hearing just in case. And Paul did not exist in a vacuum either,
and would have had a reasonably good idea of who the various gods were, and what
the worship was all about.
So pointing to the altar (metaphorically speaking) of the
Unknown God, he says: "Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto
Note that the "God" is singular, and that Paul does not treat
this altar as their insurance for worshipping all the gods that they may
possibly have forgotten. Clearly he is telling them (and us) that the Unknown
God they were already worshipping was the very same God that Paul knew about,
and had been preaching about. The unusual and remarkable thing about their
worship was their ignorance; although they knew that the God must have existed
(or else why bother worshipping him), they didn't know who he was. They didn't
even know his name. But Paul seems to have known that this God was their GUT
(Grand Unified Theory) that would bring everything together, but the knowledge
of which so far had eluded them.
Paul wants them to understand he is going to reveal the truth
to them about this God so that they would know him. And he starts...
"God that made the world (cosmos, Universe), and all things therein, seeing that
he is Lord of heaven and earth..."
...by which Paul confirms that he is talking about the same
super-cosmic God realised post-Hipparchus, ie, a Lord of heaven (God of gods)
and earth, and, not just a mover in the cosmos, but in fact the Mover of it.
This God is the answer to life, the Universe and everything. Being such a
superior sort of God, he...
"dwelleth not in temples made with men's hands; neither is worshipped with men's
hands, as though he needed anything, seeing he giveth all life, and breath, and
All of this confirmed and built upon what they already
believed or suspected about this Unknown God who moved the Universe. Paul goes
"And hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on the face of the
(ie, he is not a tribal God, or even a national
"...and hath determined the times before
(he controls everything and it is all going according to
"...and the bounds of their
So far Paul is not only preaching the truth about God, but he
is also confirming things they already knew, believed or suspected about this
God they had discovered from the witness of creation, yet culturally and
historically didn't know anything about.
Next, as per the NIV: "God did this so that men would seek
him, and perhaps reach out for him and find him..."
In other words, God has built and ordered creation in such a
way that men might seek Him, and perhaps even stretch themselves so far outside
of themselves that they might even find God. Paul seems to be hinting that,
despite their recognition of their ignorance, in some ways they were getting
close... and now he, Paul, was here on Mars Hill to declare unto them the
revealed truth about this unknown God, and to preach his salvation through the
resurrection of the dead (v 31) (rather than ascent through astral
Paul then confirms this analysis, first with a profound
philosophical truth, and then by an explicit reference to a similar
philosophical truth they had already worked out for themselves...
"...though he be not far from every one of us, for in him we live, and move, and
have our being; as certain of your own poets have said, 'For we are also his
Now it may well be true that the poem was originally written
about Zeus. But by the time Paul was talking on Mars Hill, Zeus had been
dethroned. Jupiter (Zeus) could be seen most every night in the sky, moving
about through the cosmic sphere as planets are wont to do. But since Hipparchus
had discovered the precession of the equinoxes, clearly there was a new force to
be reckoned with who was Lord of Zeus, far above all principalities and powers,
the creator of both the gods and of man; and although hitherto invisible to
mortal eyes, by his power and existence had been evidenced by the things they
themselves had discovered...
"...because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath
shewed it unto them. For the invisible things of him from the creation of the
world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his
ETERNAL POWER and Godhead, so that they are without excuse" (Rom
And so Paul concludes his theme by introducing repentance, the
day of judgment, and the resurrection of the dead. Significantly, and suggestive
of another link with Romans 1, few of his audience were impressed. Some mocked:
and others said they would hear him again of this matter. But they were truly
"Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God (should have
been glorified), neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations,
and their foolish heart was darkened."
-- surely a reference to the Greek philosophers --
"Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools..."
Whether or not the poem was written about Zeus, by the time
Paul refers to it Zeus was not regarded as the supreme God (at least not by the
more advanced philosophers in Athens) because the Unknown God who moved the
Universe had supplanted Zeus. Yet the idea expressed in the poem was still true
insofar as it referred to the qualities of an ultimate God of gods who created
all things. So Paul could safely transfer the use it on Mars Hill, and the fact
he got away with it suggests that they had already done this
In any case, if it was Zeus and none other, then from Acts 17
we would have to conclude that Paul was teaching that Zeus was the God in whom
we live and move and have our being, and they would happily conclude that Zeus
was the God that Paul was preaching.
This cannot be true, however, because Paul was preaching all
about The Unknown God, and Zeus was very well known to them. (JP)