A Biblical Demonology – Part 4
Paul will take advantage of the situation using Greek rhetoric to get his point across.
Why did Paul intertwine Biblical allusions with quotations from Greek philosophers in his speech to the Stoics and Epicureans? He’s not performing a religious syncretism; he has no desire to mix the gospel with the great philosophical thinkers of the day. However, he does want to find some common ground with his hearers, and he does that by using his knowledge of Greek writings.
Having alluded to Jewish Scripture, he then finds common ground with the Stoics’ writings. He also introduces the quotations in verse 27 with the words “that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us”1—something alien to the deistic philosophy of the Epicureans but accessible to the Stoic mindset.
It is possible the first quotation in verse 28—“In him we live and move and have our being”—is attributable to Epimenides, a nod to the legend of the unknown god. The context of Epimenides’ poem is what Paul quoted in Titus:
A grave has been fashioned for thee,
O holy and high One,
The lying Cretans, who are all the time
liars, evil beasts, idle bellies;
But thou diest not, for to eternity thou
livest and standest,
For in thee we live and move
and have our being2
However, Paul may also be alluding to a hymn penned by the Stoic philosopher Cleanthes, the successor in Athens to Zeno, the founder of the Stoics:
Most glorious of the immortals,
invoked by many names,
Zeus, the First Cause of Nature,
who rules all things with Law,
Hail! It is right for mortals to
call upon you,
since from you we have our being,
we whose lot it is to be God’s image,
we alone of all mortal creatures
that live and move upon the earth.3
The second half of verse 18—“For we are indeed his offspring”—is commonly attributed to another Stoic philosopher, Aratus, a disciple of Praxiphanes, an Aristotelean philosopher and himself a pupil of Theophrastus who wrote Characters which we referred to earlier. While a disciple of Praxiphanes, Aratus met Zeno while visiting Athens.
Paul’s eruditeness would have appealed to the ears of the philosophers listening. Here is the excerpt from Aratus’s work:
From Zeus let us begin; him do we mortals never leave unnamed; full of Zeus are all the streets and all the market-places of men; full is the sea and the havens thereof; always we all have need of Zeus. For we are also his offspring; and he in his kindness unto men giveth favourable signs and wakeneth the people to work, reminding them of livelihood.
He tells what time the soil is best for the labour of the ox and for the mattock, and what time the seasons are favourable both for the planting of trees and for casting all manner of seeds. For himself it was who set the signs in heaven, and marked out the constellations, and for the year devised what stars chiefly should give to men right signs of the seasons, to the end that all things might grow unfailingly. Wherefore him do men ever worship first and last. Hail, O Father, mighty marvel, mighty blessing unto men.4
The context of these words, quoted by Paul in Acts 17:28, helps us understand things from the perspectives of both Paul and the philosophers who were listening. If the other quotation was from Cleanthes’ Hymn to Zeus, which I suggested may be the case, then the further mention of Zeus in this context is even more significant.
Zeus was the main god of the Stoic belief system. They identified him with the universe itself; however, not as a transcendent being, but immanent, immersed in nature itself.5 The other gods of their pantheon were manifestations or agencies of the one divine substance. However, if you read the excerpt above and insert “Yahweh” for “Zeus,” it’s not far from a good description of the God of Israel.
Paul had already said, “Therefore, what you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you.” (Acts 17:23 NASB). There was a semblance of understanding in the Stoics’ religion. They worshiped a god who presided over Creation but were ignorant of who that one true God was. It wasn’t Zeus, but it was someone like Zeus, only better, not immanent but transcendent and sovereign over all things, Jew and Gentile alike.
The probatio portion of Paul’s speech having ended, he now comes to his final appeal, the peroratio, beginning in verse 29. Paul’s closing argument is brilliant in its succinctness—“Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man.” (Acts 17:29). The central point of common ground with the Athenians is “we are indeed his offspring,” and therefore why do men insist on making gods out of metal and stone?
In saying this, Paul, as do the prophets of the Old Testament, subtly dismisses the idea that their gods had any real existence. While the Athenians may have considered there were invisible powers behind their idols, Paul reduces them to exactly what they’re made of— created matter and nothing more. The wider lesson for the Athenians was that their gods were immanent, part of Creation and constrained by it.
Paul hearkens back to his charge of ignorance (v. 23) in verse 30—“The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.” For two thousand years, Yahweh, God of Israel, concentrated His purpose in the Jewish people, but “we are also his offspring,” and now that call has gone out to the Gentiles. God wants all His children to know who He is and the gods they had been worshiping were figments of the imagination.
Paul’s final appeal after he was questioned about Jesus and the Resurrection forms a bookend with the beginning of his speech:
While Paul did not explicitly quote from any Jewish writings, as opposed to the Greek poetry he directly referenced, the words “he will judge the world in righteousness” are found twice in the Old Testament Scriptures. Psalm 9:8 may have been in Paul’s mind (for instance, he is doing what it says in verse 11—“Tell among the peoples his deeds!”), but it is more likely that Psalm 96 was the basis of his statement. The word “He will judge the world in righteousness” appears in verse 13, but the whole psalm is relevant.
For instance, verse 2 says, “tell of his salvation from day to day” which is what Paul was doing in Athens. He also followed verse 3—“Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous works among all the peoples!” The key verses, however, are verses 4-5. Before we look at those, consider the balance of the psalm. Verses 11-12, for instance, state the following:
These words express the transcendent sovereignty of Yahweh. All created things, in heaven and earth, give glory to God. So, even if the nations believed there was immanent supernatural power in the elements of creation, they ought to worship Yahweh instead.
The thrust of Paul’s message is summarized by verses 4-5:
Last month we looked at the word deisidaimonesteros, which Paul uses in verse 22—“I perceive that in every way you are very religious.” The word literally means “fear of demons” and expresses the Stoic religiosity and their devotion to the small gods of their pantheon. Here in Psalm 96, Yahweh is to be “feared above all gods.” Then, in verse 5, the psalm says those gods are “worthless idols.” However, the word used in the Septuagint (LXX) is daimonion—the plural for demons.
What are the implications regarding demons from this brief survey of Paul’s speech in Athens? To answer that question, let’s return to Deuteronomy 32, which formed a large basis of his remarks.
Just like in Psalm 96, this chapter alludes to the sovereignty of Yahweh throughout, beginning with the words “Give ear, O heavens, and I will speak, and let the earth hear the words of my mouth.” (v. 1) The heavens and earth are personified as if they are sentient beings, but, once again, subservient to the transcendent Creator. Verse 2 continues the theme, using elements of creation to express God’s control of all things.
The section Paul was probably thinking of in Athens includes the words, “They sacrificed to demons that were no gods” (v17). Here the term “demon” (Heb. shed, LXX daimonion) and “god” are put together, showing their intimate connection. After the children of Israel came out of Egypt, they “mixed with the nations,” “served their idols,” and “sacrificed their sons and their daughters to the demons” (Heb. shed, LXX daimonion)” (Psa. 106:35-37)—again, serving idols, or gods, and sacrificing to demons are put together as the same thing. So, in 1 Corinthians 10, Paul quotes Deuteronomy 32 with these words:
With the words “they offer to demons and not to God,” we see the allusion to Deuteronomy 32:17—“They sacrificed to demons that were no gods.” Paul demotes demons to the realm of idolatry, and since an idol is nothing (v. 19,) they have no real existence outside the figments of the imaginations of the superstitious.
Also, by asking, “Shall we provoke the Lord to jealousy?” (v. 22), Paul alludes to Deuteronomy 32:16—“They stirred him to jealousy with strange gods.” The connection with Paul’s speech in Athens is clear: biblically speaking, demons are nothing more than the made-up gods of the Gentiles.
There’s a further intriguing lesson from Deuteronomy 32 seen in the judgments poured out by Yahweh on those who worshiped false gods/demons. Verses 23-25 list those judgments, but when we dig a little deeper into the Hebrew, we see something remarkable.
For instance, the Hebrew word for “plague” in the judgment “devoured by plague” (v. 24) is reseph. Now it just so happens that Resheph was the name of a demon in the ancient world. He was a Canaanite deity of plague and war. The word translated as “pestilence” (Heb. qeteb) in verse 23 is also the name of a pagan deity.
the Holy Spirit of Yahweh was more powerful than demons
So, what’s going on here? This is not the only time that this phenomenon occurs in the Bible. Psalm 91 contains a list of things that might make one scared— “the terror of the night,” “the deadly pestilence,” and so on, and here too, the Hebrew words employed were also the names of ancient pagan deities.
The pagans of the day had gods of plague and pestilence, but what Yahweh does is use those very things they ascribed to their deities against them! He says, “I created these things; I am in control of these things; there is only one God!”
At the very least, the people would learn to put their trust in Yahweh instead of these other gods, understanding that He was mightier than all other gods. This was also the method used by Jesus when he cast out demons: showing the people that the Holy Spirit of Yahweh was more powerful than demons.
(Simi Hills Ecclesia, CA)
1 All Scriptural citations are taken from the English Standard Version, unless otherwise noted.
2 Lawlor H.J. St. Paul’s Quotations from Epimenides in The Irish Church Quarterly Vol.9, No.35. p180. 1916.
3 Thom J. Cleanthes’ Hymn to Zeus. 2005.
4 Aratus Phaenomena, translated by G.R. Mair.
5 Frede, D. (2003), Stoic Determinism, Cambridge University Press. pp. 201-202.