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A Biblical DemonologyPart 3

Last month, we looked at the initial reaction of the Athenians to Paul’s preaching. They thought, by teaching about Jesus and the resurrection, that Paul was talking about some new gods—or demons—that they had never heard of before. Paul will take advantage of the situation using Greek rhetoric to get his point across.
Read Time: 8 minutes

Paul starts with his exordium in Acts 17. Reading the opening of Paul’s speech in the King James Version, it doesn’t seem to begin on a good footing. He says, “Ye men of Athens, I perceive that in all things ye are too superstitious.” (Acts 17:22 KJV). However, the phrase “too superstitious” is translated in other versions, such as the ESV, as “very religious.”

In using this word, Paul employed the tactic of divide-and-conquer, just as he would do later with the Pharisees and Sadducees (Acts 23:6). To the Stoics who were listening, this would have been taken as a compliment. In contrast, the Epicureans might have agreed with the KJV rendering (while pointing the finger at the Stoics). The word itself is fascinating. In Greek, it is deisidaimonesteros and is defined as follows:

cptv. of deisidaimōn (fearing the gods); from deidō (to fear) and 1142; very fearful of gods, religious, superstitious.1

Someone suffering from deisdaimonia was devoted to the gods.

The lexicon defines it literally as “fearing the gods,” but you will notice the word daimon (demons) makes up part of the word, and again we see the connection between demons and gods. Religiosity (or what was to some superstition) in the ancient world was paying reverence to the gods/demons that dominated their lives.

Someone suffering from deisdaimonia was devoted to the gods. The noun form of the word also occurs once in the New Testament: “Rather they had certain points of dispute with him about their own religion and about a certain Jesus, who was dead, but whom Paul asserted to be alive.” (Acts 25:19).2 Here the word “religion,” deisidaimonia (translated “superstition” in the KJV), is used by Festus because that was one of the words used in the Greco-Roman world of the first century.

It is believed that Theophrastus, the successor to Aristotle, wrote his book, The Characters, around 300 BC. It is a collection of thirty sketches of people of undesirable characteristics, and one of his characters is someone who suffers from deisidaimonia (which is the actual Greek title of the chapter). It is well worth reading the whole section “The Superstitious Man”:

Superstition would seem to be simply cowardice in regard to the supernatural. The superstitious man is one who will wash his hands at a fountain, sprinkle himself from a temple-font, put a bit of laurel-leaf into his mouth, and so go about the day. If a weasel run across his path, he will not pursue his walk until someone else has traversed the road, or until he has thrown three stones across it.

When he sees a serpent in his house, if it be the red snake, he will invoke Sabazius,—if the sacred snake, he will straightway place a shrine on the spot. He will pour oil from his flask on the smooth stones at the cross-roads, as he goes by, and will fall on his knees and worship them before he departs. If a mouse gnaws through a meal-bag, he will go to the expounder of sacred law and ask what is to be done; and, if the answer is, “Give it to a cobbler to stitch up,” he will disregard the counsel, and go his way, and expiate the omen by sacrifice.

He is apt, also, to purify his house frequently, alleging that Hecate has been brought into it by spells; and, if an owl is startled by him in his walk, he will exclaim “Glory be to Athene!” before he proceeds. He will not tread upon a tombstone, or come near a dead body or a woman defiled by childbirth, saying that it is expedient for him not to be polluted.

Also on the fourth and seventh days of each month he will order his servants to mull wine, and go out and buy myrtle-wreaths, frankincense, and smilax; and, on coming in, will spend the day in crowning the Hermaphrodites. When he has seen a vision, he will go to the interpreters of dreams, the seers, the augurs, to ask them to what god or goddess he ought to pray.

Every month he will repair to the priests of the Orphic Mysteries, to partake in their rites, accompanied by his wife, or (if she is too busy) by his children and their nurse. He would seem, too, to be of those who are scrupulous in sprinkling themselves with sea-water; and, if ever he observes anyone feasting on the garlic at the cross-roads, he will go away, pour water over his head, and, summoning the priestesses, bid them carry a squill or a puppy around him for purification. And, if he sees a maniac or an epileptic man, he will shudder and spit into his bosom.3

Upon analyzing such superstitious behavior, we shouldn’t be so quick just to point the finger at the pagan world. Paul himself had come out of the very superstitious Pharisaical form of religion he grew up in and would have found a common theme between the Jews and Gentiles that he preached to—adherents treating religious rites as lucky charms. 

Paul took advantage of the Athenian superstition by virtue of one of the altars he found in the city:

For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, “To the unknown god.” What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. (Acts 17:23).

While it seems that Paul opportunistically took advantage of the “just in case”4 aspect of superstition, in which the Athenians made sure they had all their bases covered just in case they missed paying respect to one of the gods, there is also a historical legend surrounding the existence of several altars to the unknown god in Athens. The legend involves a man Paul quoted in the letter he wrote to Titus,5 Epimenides.

Athens was suffering from a plague, and a ship was sent to Crete to fetch Epimenides, who they supposed would know how to appease the god who had brought it on. His solution was to send a flock of sheep to graze around the area of Mars Hill, and wherever one lay down to graze, he instructed the Athenians to erect an altar to agnosto theo—the unknown god.6 Apparently, the plan worked.

Having concluded his exordium, Paul commences with the probatio part of his speech in verse 24. Paul speaks of “the God” (v. 24) in a monotheistic sense. While the concept of monotheism was alien to the polytheistic culture of the ancient world, “some philosophical trends in this era combined deities, moving towards a single supreme god.”7 So, his words were not completely novel, but still very distinct from the Stoic, and particularly Epicurean, philosophies. Notice the emphasis in his words:

The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man,  nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. (Acts 17:24-25).

Paul’s words are emphatic—“He made the world, everything in it being Lord of both heaven and earth, and he gives to all mankind everything.” Paul contrasts the supreme sovereignty of Yahweh with the limitations of the gods of the polytheistic world. As discussed earlier, those gods were immanent—in creation and constrained within the parameters of the manifestation of their power in the various elements or “control attributes” they represented. Walton summarizes the difference: 

In contrast, Yahweh is not just responsible for managing the cosmos, but is seen as the originator of its ‘control attributes’. In Mesopotamian terms, we would say that Yahweh causes the control attributes to begin functioning, as well as decreeing the destinies at every level. He is not within the system but operates from outside the system. The cosmic phenomena are not manifestations of his attributes, but instruments of his sovereignty. No control attributes have any autonomous existence.8

A modern-day manifestation of the same sort of philosophy connected with polytheistic theology can be seen in the “God of the Gaps” arguments. These arguments state that where there is a gap in scientific knowledge it means God is the cause.

God wants us to realize his presence

In a letter he wrote in 1944, Bonhoeffer wrote, “How wrong it is to use God as a stopgap for the incompleteness of our knowledge. If in fact, the frontiers of knowledge are being pushed further and further back (and that is bound to be the case), then God is being pushed back with them, and is, therefore, continually in retreat.

We are to find God in what we know, not in what we don’t know; God wants us to realize his presence, not in unsolved problems but in those that are solved.”9 The “God of the Gaps” argument sees God in creation, whereas what Paul said is that God is over all creation. His handiwork is seen in all things, but He is not like the gods of the pagan world, constrained within the confines of creation and absent when science explains how creation works.

Paul’s explanation of the unknown god does not contain any direct quotations from the Old Testament, and this has led some commentators to suggest the speech is purely Hellenistic in nature and appealing to the Stoics apart from the Bible. Of course, the speech is based on Bible teaching but is unusual with its lack of Old Testament quotations.

However, there is at the very least a very strong allusion to Isaiah 42 in the first part of his speech, and at least one allusion to Deuteronomy 32. The tenor of the speech is firmly based on the principles, outlined in part 1 of this series, from Isaiah and Deuteronomy 32, and it also is likely that Paul does make one very direct quotation from the Psalms right at the end of the speech.

It is probable that he had Deuteronomy 32 in mind when he said in Acts 17:26, “And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place.” Compare these words with Deuteronomy 32:8-9:

When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance, when he divided mankind, he fixed the borders of the peoples according to the number of the sons of God. But the LORD’s portion is his people, Jacob his allotted heritage.

Paul’s use of this passage is intriguing. Paul (along with Deuteronomy) acknowledges the disparate nations of the world, the goyim as the Jews collectively termed them, and that Yahweh’s nation has been separated out, the people of Israel. This would make perfect sense to the ancient Near East mindset. Each nation had its tribal gods, and Yahweh was the god of Israel. But notice how Paul continues his theme of the sovereignty of Yahweh. First, he says these nations came from “one man,” alluding to the Adam of Jewish Scripture, alongside the fact that Yahweh was the one who made all these nations and hence was sovereign over them. 

Richard Morgan,
(Simi Hills Ecclesia, CA)


1 Thomas, R. L. (1998). New American Standard Hebrew-Aramaic and Greek dictionaries: updated edition. Anaheim: Foundation Publications, Inc.

2 All Scriptural references are taken from the English Standard Version, unless specifically noted.

3 From The Characters of Theophrastus translated by R.C. Jebb, 1870.

4 Studies have found that even rational thinkers show superstitious behavior by doing things “just in case” there is some sort of magical connection between what they do and an outcome, for instance, if they don’t take their umbrella with them it will rain.

5 “One of the Cretans, a prophet of their own, said, ‘Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.’” (Titus 1:12).

6 Keener C.S. (2014). The IVP Bible Background Commentary New Testament. InterVarsity Press. p. 377. See also http://christiansincrete.org/news/to-an-unknown-god/

7 Ibid. p. 377.

8 Walton, J. H. (2006). Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. p. 98.9.

9 Bonhoeffer D. Letters and Papers from Prison edited by Eberhard Bethge, translated by Reginald H. Fuller (1997). Touchstone.

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