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What Was the Altar to the Unknown God?

“What was the Altar to the Unknown God?” (Acts 17:22-23)


The Apostle Paul’s second missionary journey took him to the city of Athens, Greece, which was the cultural center of the ancient world. There, distressed to see the city was full of idols dedicated to the false gods of ancient Greek mythology, he spent his days sharing the saving gospel of Jesus Christ in the synagogue, the marketplace, or wherever people would listen.

A group of Epicureans and Stoics invited Paul to the Areopagus, located high above the city. The Areopagus was where philosophers gathered for debates and discussions. Luke tells us in Acts 17:22-23 tells us that Paul stood up before those gathered at the Areopagus and began his speech with a point of reference from something he had observed at a place in Athens called “Mars Hill.” He used the theme of the “unknown god” to introduce them to the one true God-- the creator and lord of the universe that we Christians worship today.

Even though no inscription with this precise wording has ever been found in Greece, it is clear from ancient Greek literature that the Greeks were careful not to offend any “unknown gods” they weren’t aware of. The Greeks were polytheists, which means they believed in multiple gods and they wanted to ensure they wouldn’t fail to acknowledge any. Ancient sources mention the existence of various altars to unknown gods in Athens and also in Olympia (the birthplace of the Ancient Olympics).

The essence of the Apostle Paul’s message to the Athenians is the same one our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, gave himself while speaking to the Samarian woman: “You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews” (John 4:22).