Unknown God

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In addition to the twelve main gods and the innumerable lesser deities, ancient Greeks worshiped a deity they called Agnostos Theos, that is: the Unknown god. In Athens, there was a temple specifically dedicated to that god and very often Athenians would swear "in the name of the Unknown god" (Νή τόν Άγνωστον Ne ton Agnoston).[1] Apollodorus, Philostratus and Pausanias wrote about the Unknown god as well.[2] 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.

According to a story told by Diogenes Laërtius, Athens was once in the grips of a plague and desperate to appease the gods with the appropriate sacrifices. Thus Epimenides gathered a flock of sheep to the Areopagus and released them. The sheep roamed about Athens and the surrounding hills. On Epimenides' suggestion wherever a sheep stopped and lay down a sacrifice was made to the local god of that place. Many of the gardens and buildings of Athens were indeed associated with a specific god or goddess and so the appropriate altar was constructed and the sacrifice was made. However, at least one, if not several sheep led the Athenians to a location that had no god associated with it. Thus an altar was built there without a god's name inscribed upon it.

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, and, when invited to speak to the Athenian elite at the Areopagus gave the following speech:

23"For as I passed by, and beheld your devotions, I found an altar with this inscription, TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you. 24God that made the world and all things therein, seeing that he is Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands; 25Neither is worshipped with men's hands, as though he needed any thing, seeing he giveth to all life, and breath, and all things; 26And hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation; 27That they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after him, and find him, though he be not far from every one of us: 28For in him we live, and move, and have our being; as certain also of your own poets have said, For we are also his offspring. 29Forasmuch then as we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Godhead is like unto gold, or silver, or stone, graven by art and man's device. 30And the times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commandeth all men every where to repent: 31 Because he hath appointed a day, in the which he will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom he hath ordained; whereof he hath given assurance unto all men, in that he hath raised him from the dead.

A reference to what has been called the "Epimenides paradox", in the New Testament Epistle to Titus 1:12 has been taken to confirm the Apostle Paul's familiarity with Epimenides, although the authorship of that letter is disputed, see Authorship of the Pauline epistles for details.

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