The reading from the Acts of the Apostles presents us with St. Paul’s experience of Athens, one of the major cities of Greece. St. Paul was educated in Greek philosophy and was a Roman citizen, but his missionary journeys to Greece were probably his first actual experience of Greek culture and Greek society. He was on unfamiliar ground. Thoroughly Jewish, he had never ventured far beyond the bounds of the culture of Israel.
So when he notices that the Athenians have built a shrine to an “Unknown God,” he realizes, perhaps for the first time, that the Greeks are believers in something. They are not totally faithless.
St. Paul uses his discovery to his advantage and proclaims that their Unknown God is actually the God who created the heavens and the earth, the God who created all of human life and all of the material world.
Ancient religions tended to focus their attention on the various temples that were built to provide a place for the various gods and goddesses to dwell. However, St. Paul tells the Athenians that the Unknown God does not dwell in a Temple made by human hands. This in itself tells us how far St. Paul has come in his own faith development. As a Jew he would have regarded the Temple of Jerusalem as the dwelling place of God. Now he realizes that God dwells with and among the people.
Idolatry was, of course, the worst kind of sin in the eyes of the Jew. The first commandment asserted that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of Moses, and the God of Joshua and the Judges of Israel was the only true God. Worshipping other gods had been the cause of the downfall of Israel. The temples of Greece were filled with the images of the gods and goddesses of the Olympian pantheon. St. Paul fully expected to find these images in Athens. He was not, however, expecting to find an altar dedicated to the Unknown God. This discovery helps Paul to realize that even though he had been raised to believe that the Gentiles were godless, this altar proves that he was mistaken.
St. Paul’s experience is an important reality for us as well. Catholic Christians sometimes have negative thoughts about Protestant Christians, and vice versa. Christians tend to think in negative terms about followers of Islam, Buddha, Confucius, etc. However, if we, like St. Paul, would simply consider that these people are also people of faith, we might be able to appreciate what we have in common more than the things that differentiate us.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator