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The Apostle Paul arrived in Athens from Berea, during his second missionary journey. Here, as Luke, the writer of the Acts of the Apostles, tells us, while waiting for Silas and Timothy to come from Berea, «his spirit was stirred in him, when he saw the city wholly given to idolatry» (Acts 17:16). And «disputed he in the synagogue with the Jews, and with the devout persons, and in the market daily with them that met with him»(v.17). Then, with some of the Epicurean and Stoick philosophers taking the lead, he was brought to Areopagus (Mars'hill), the Supreme Court of the city, and, perhaps, the most official place Paul, in all his ministry, ever had the opportunity to preach Christ and the Resurrection. Here he delivered his sermon on the «Unknown God», which has been characterized as a masterpiece of literature and rhetoric. And, as the case was every time the gospel was preached-and most likely is even today-his audience was trichotomized, for «When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked: and others said, We will hear thee again of this matter...Howbeit certain men clave unto him, and believed: among the which was Dionysius the Areopagite, and a woman named Damaris, and others with them.» (vv.33,34). We have the mockers, the indifferent procrastinators, and, thank God, those who clave unto Paul and believed.
On the bronze plaque, οn the top, the visitor who is familiar with the language of the New Testament, can read that famous speech.
Finally, it is worth noting that Athens was the only place where Paul, not only was not persecuted, but on the contrary, was given the unique opportunity from such a high and official tribunal, as Areopagus, to preach Christ and the resurrection. Thus the city justified its fame as the birthplace of Democracy, which, although at that time under Roman rule, and consequently significantly degraded, still maintained, however, a lot of her past glory and cultural heritage.
A few words about the altar with the inscription
«To the Unknown God»
According to Jerome, the inscription on the altar was not «to the Unknown God» but rather: «To the Gods of Asia and Europe and Libya, to a god unknown and foreign». Hardly, however, would anyone think this is the altar to which Paul, in his famous speech on Mars' hill, referred. Because, according to accounts given by Pausanias, there were altars with more or less similar inscriptions, as e.g. «To gods unknown and heroes», at the harbor of Munichia in Piraeus, at Olympia et al. Of these however two new elements come up: first, that the case was the genitive and second, that the number was the plural. But because Paul's purpose was not to speak of the many unknown gods of the Athenians, but rather of the One, the True and Living God, the Creator and Preserver of the Universe, he makes use of the singular number saying: «I found an altar with this inscription, TO THE UNKNOWN GOD.» Of course, the versions were many, but here we shall mention only two, which at the time were the most prevailing ones. When the Persians came against Greece, the Athenians sent Pheidippides to Sparta in order to solicit their help. On his way to Sparta, somewhere on Mount Parthenion, Pan, the ancient Greek god of the forests, shepherds etc., appeared to him and complained that the Athenians did not honor him and had built him no temple, not even an altar. However, he promised to help them against the Persians. And when the battle at Marathon started he appeared over the camp of the Persians, causing such a demoralizing terror, which has been called panic ever since, not only in Greek, but in most other major languages as well. After the victory the Athenians dedicated a temple and an altar to Pan and out of fear lest they would be faced with a similar situation again in the future, they had this altar erected and dedicated «to the unknown god». Another version says that when a terrible plague fell upon the city, Epimenides purged it and halted the epidemic by the following stratagem: He took a number of sheep, black and white, and putting them under the care of appropriate men, let them loose on Mars' hill. The order was, wherever the sheep would stop and lie down, there to be offered sacrifice «to the proper god». Thus the plague stopped, and the area of Mars'hill had ever since been full of anonymous altars.
For us these, and no matter how many other versions of the famous inscription, are of no importance. What matters and fills our hearts with wonder is the fact that, by divine dispensation, an inscription like that, in whatever particular mode, gave the theme to Paul, God's dedicated servant, on which to build the famous speech delivered on Mars'hill, preaching to that special audience Christ and the Resurrection, with the well-known results.