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The Unknown God or Agnostos Theos (Ancient Greek: Ἄγνωστος Θεός) is a theory by Eduard Norden first published in 1913 that proposes, based on the Christian Apostle Paul's Areopagus speech in Acts 17:23, that in addition to the twelve main gods and the innumerable lesser deities, ancient Greeks worshipped a deity they called "Agnostos Theos", that is: "Unknown God", which Norden called "Un-Greek". In Athens, there was a temple specifically dedicated to that god and very often Athenians would swear "in the name of the Unknown God" (Νὴ τὸν Ἄγνωστον Ne ton Agnoston). Apollodorus, Philostratus and Pausanias wrote about the Unknown God as well. The Unknown God was not so much a specific deity, but a placeholder, for whatever god or gods actually existed but whose name and nature were not revealed to the Athenians or the Hellenized world at large.
Paul at Athens
According to the book of Acts, contained in the Christian New Testament, when the Apostle Paul visited Athens, he saw an altar with an inscription dedicated to that god (possibly connected to the Cylonian affair), and, when invited to speak to the Athenian elite at the Areopagus gave the following speech:
Acts 17:22-31 (NIV):
22 Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.
24 “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. 25 And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. 26 From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. 27 God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. 28 ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’29 “Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill. 30 In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. 31 For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”
Because the Jewish God could not be named, it is possible that Paul's Athenian listeners would have considered his god to be "the unknown god par excellence". His listeners may also have understood the introduction of a new god by allusions to Aeschylus' The Eumenides; the irony would have been that just as the Eumenides were not new gods at all but the Furies in a new form, so was the Christian God not a new god but rather the god the Greeks already worshipped as the Unknown God. His audience would also have recognized the quotes in verse 28 as coming from Epimenides and Aratus, respectively.
- van der Horst, Pieter Willem (1998). Hellenism, Judaism, Christianity: essays on their interaction. The Altar of the 'Unknown God' in Athens (Acts 17:23) and the Cults of 'Unknown Gods' in the Graeco-Roman World. Peeters Publishers. pp. 187–220. ISBN 9789042905788.
- Pseudo-Lucian, Philopatris, 9.14
- Philostratus, Vita Apollonii 6.3
- Pausanias' Description of Greece in 6 vols, Loeb Classic Library, Vol I, Book I.1.4
- Plutarch's Lives
- Tomson, Peter J.; Lambers-Petry, Doris (2003). The image of the Judaeo-Christians in ancient Jewish and Christian literature. Mohr Siebeck. p. 235. ISBN 3-16-148094-5.
- Kauppi, Lynn Allan (2006). "Acts 17.16-34 and Aeschylus' Eumenides". Foreign but familiar gods: Greco-Romans read religion in Acts. Continuum International Publishing Group. pp. 83â93. ISBN 0-567-08097-8.