on Acts 17 :23
Beheld your devotions - Σεβασματα, The objects of your worship; the different images of their gods which they held in religious veneration, sacrificial instruments, altars, etc., etc.
To the Unknown God - ΑΓΝΩΣΤΩ ΘΕΩ. That there was an altar at Athens thus inscribed, we cannot doubt after such a testimony; though St. Jerome questions it in part; for he says St. Paul found the inscription in the plural number, but, because he would not appear to acknowledge a plurality of gods, he quoted it in the singular: Verum, quia Paulus non pluribus Diis indigebat ignotis, sed uno tantum ignoto Deo, singulari verbo usus est. Epist. ad Magn. This is a most foolish saying: had Paul done so, how much would such a begging of the question have prejudiced his defense in the minds of his intelligent judges! Oecumenius intimates that St. Paul does not give the whole of the inscription which this famous altar bore; and which he says was the following: Θεοις Ασιας και Ευρωπης και Λιβυης, Θεῳ αγνωϚῳ και ξενῳ, To the gods of Asia, and Europe, and Africa: To The Unknown and strange God. Several eminent men suppose that this unknown god was the God of the Jews; and, as his name יהוה was considered by the Jews as ineffable, the Θεος αγνωϚος may be considered as the anonymous god; the god whose name was not known, and must not be pronounced. That there was such a god acknowledged at Athens we have full proof. Lucian in his Philopatris, cap. xiii. p. 769, uses this form of an oath: νη τον αγνωϚον τον εν Αθηναις, I swear by the Unknown God at Athens. And again, cap. xxix. 180: ἡμεις δε τον εν Αθηναις αγνωϚον εφευροντες και προσκυνησαντες, χειρας εις ουρανον εκτειναντες, τουτῳ ευχαριϚησομεν ὡς καταξιωθεντες, etc. We have found out the Unknown god at Athens - and worshipped him with our hands stretched up to heaven; and we will gave thanks unto him, as being thought worthy to be subject to this power. Bp. Pearce properly asks, Is it likely that Lucian, speaking thus, (whether in jest or in earnest), should not have had some notion of there being at Athens an altar inscribed to the unknown God? Philostratus, in vit. Apollon. vi. 3, notices the same thing, though he appears to refer to several altars thus inscribed: και ταυτα Αθηνῃσι, οὑ και αγνωϚων Θεων βωμοι ἱδρυνται, And this at Athens, where there are Altars even to the Unknown Gods. Pausanias, in Attic. cap. 1. p. 4, edit. Kuhn., says that at Athens there are βωμοι Θεων των ονομαζομενων αγνωϚων, altars of gods which are called, The Unknown ones. Minutius Felix says of the Romans, Aras extruunt etiam ignotis numinibus. "They even build altars to Unknown Divinities." And Tertullian, contra Marcion, says, Invenio plane Diis ignotis aras prostitutas: sed Attica idolatria est. "I find altars allotted to the worship of unknown gods: but this is an Attic idolatry." Now, though in these last passages, both gods and altars are spoken of in the plural number; yet it is reasonable to suppose that, on each, or upon some one of them, the inscription αγνωϚῳ Θεῳ, To the unknown god, was actually found. The thing had subsisted long and had got from Athens to Rome in the days of Tertullian and Minutius Felix. See Bp. Pearce and Dr. Cudworth, to whose researches this note is much indebted.
Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship - There is here a fine paronomasia, or play on the words. The apostle tells them that (on their system) they were a very religious people - that they had an altar inscribed, αγνωϚῳ Θεῳ, to the unknown God: him therefore, says he, whom, αγνουντες, ye unknowingly worship, I proclaim to you. Assuming it as a truth, that, as the true God was not known by them, and that there was an altar dedicated to the unknown god, his God was that god whose nature and operations he now proceeded to declare. By this fine turn he eluded the force of that law which made it a capital offense to introduce any new god into the state, and of the breach of which he was charged, Acts 17:18; and thus he showed that he was bringing neither new god nor new worship among them; but only explaining the worship of one already acknowledged by the state, though not as yet known.
on Acts 17 :23
For as I passed by - Greek: "For I, coming through, and seeing, etc."
And beheld - Diligently contemplated; attentively considered ἀναθεωρῶν anatheōrōn. The worship of an idolatrous people will be an object of intense and painful interest to a Christian.
Your devotions - τὰ σεβάσματα ta sebasmata. Our word devotions refers to the "act of worship" - to prayers, praises, etc. The Greek word used here means properly any sacred thing; any object which is worshipped, or which is connected with the place or rites of worship. Thus, it is applied either to the gods themselves, or to the temples, altars, shrines, sacrifices, statues, etc., connected with the worship of the gods. This is its meaning here. It does not denote that Paul saw them engaged in the act of worship, but that he was struck with the numerous temples, altars, statues, etc., which were reared to the gods, and which indicated the state of the people. Syriac, "the temple of your gods." Vulgate, "your images." Margin, "gods that ye worship."
I found an altar - An altar usually denotes "a place for sacrifice." Here, however, it does not appear that any sacrifice was offered; but it was probably a monument of stone, reared to commemorate a certain event, and dedicated to the unknown God.
To the unknown God - ἀγνώστῳ Θεῷ agnōstō Theō. Where this altar was reared, or on what occasion, has been a subject of much debate with expositors. That there was such an altar in Athens, though it may not have been specifically mentioned by the Greek writers, is rendered probable by the following circumstances:
(1) It was customary to rear such altars. Minutius Felix says of the Romans, "They build altars to unknown divinities."
(2) the term "unknown God" was used in relation to the worship of the Athenians. Lucian, in his Philopatris, uses this form of an oath: "I swear by the unknown God at Athens," the very expression used by the apostle. And again he says (chapter xxix. 180), "We have found out the unknown God at Athens, and worshipped him with our hands stretched up to heaven, etc."
(3) there were altars at Athens inscribed to the unknown gods. Philostratus says (in Vita Apol., Romans 6:3), "And this at Athens, where there are even altars to the unknown gods." Thus, Pausanius (in Attic., chapter i.) says, that "at Athens there are altars of gods which are called the unknown ones." Jerome, in his commentary Titus 1:12, says that the whole inscription was, "To the gods of Asia, Europe, and Africa; to the unknown and strange gods."
(4) there was a remarkable altar raised in Athens in a time of pestilence, in honor of the unknown god which had granted them deliverance. Diogenes Laertius says that Epimenides restrained the pestilence in the following manner: "Taking white and black sheep, he led them to the Areopagus, and there permitted them to go where they would, commanding those who followed them to sacrifice τῶ προσήχοντι θεῷ tō prosēkonti theōto the god to whom these things pertained or who had the power of averting the plague, whoever he might be, without adding the name and thus to allay the pestilence. From which it has arisen that at this day, through the villages of the Athenians, altars are found without any name" (Diog. Laert., book i, section 10). This took place about 600 years before Christ, and it is not improbable that one or more of those altars remained until the time of Paul. It should be added that the natural inscription on those altars would be, "To the unknown God." None of the gods to whom they usually sacrificed could deliver them from the pestilence. They therefore reared them to some unknown Being who had the power to free them from the plague.
Whom therefore - The true God, who had really delivered them from the plague.
Ye ignorantly worship - Or worship without knowing his name. You have expressed your homage for him by rearing to him an altar.
Him declare I unto you - I make known to you his name, attributes, etc. There is remarkable tact in Paul's seizing on this circumstance; and yet it was perfectly fair and honest. Only the true God could deliver in the time of the pestilence. This altar had, therefore, been really reared to him, though his name was unknown. The same Being who had interposed at that time, and whose interposition was recorded by the building of this altar, was He who had made the heavens; who ruled over all; and whom Paul was now about to make known to them. There is another feature of skill in the allusion to this altar. In other circumstances it might seem to be presumptuous for an unknown Jew to at tempt to instruct the sages of Athens. But here they had confessed and proclaimed their ignorance. By rearing this altar they acknowledged their need of instruction. The way was, therefore, fairly open for Paul to address even these philosophers, and to discourse to them on a point on which they acknowledged their ignorance.
on Acts 17 :23
17:23 I found an altar - Some suppose this was set up by Socrates, to express in a covert way his devotion to the only true God, while he derided the plurality of the heathen gods, for which he was condemned to death: and others, that whoever erected this altar, did it in honour to the God of Israel, of whom there was no image, and whose name Jehovah was never made known to the idolatrous Gentiles. Him proclaim I unto you - Thus he fixes the wandering attention of these blind philosophers; proclaiming to them an unknown, and yet not a new God.