Divinities, demons, religiousness

Also some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers debated with him.  Some said, “What does this babbler want to say?”  Others said, “He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign divinities.”

. . .

Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. . . .

– Acts 17:18,22 | NRSV (emph. mine -bc)

In these verses resides a small matter in which I became interested after last week’s Acts class, taught by Dr. Paul Pollard.  First, a couple of requisites:

The antecedent of the word “divinities” (v18) is δαιμονίων | daimoniōn.
The antecedent of the word “religious” (v22) is δεισιδαιμονεστέρους | deisidaimonesterous.

I noticed that daimoniōn and deisidaimonesterous contain the same root.  And thus began a short chase.

Among many exegetical fallacies that may plague interpreters of the scriptures, there exists a “root fallacy” (spotlighted by  D.A. Carson) that deserves mention here.  The root fallacy “presupposes that every word actually has a meaning bound up with its shape or its components” (Carson, Exegetical Fallacies, 28).  The mere presence of the spelled-out root in the two words above does not guarantee that the two are related in meaning.  Carson also appeals to the English pairs pineapple/apple and butterfly/butter to show that component parts can have nothing to do with the meaning of the whole.

An etymological relationship with the English word “demon” might well perk up my neophyte ears and give me a hook, but I’d hasten to point out that the meaning of “demon” isn’t germane here.  It’s also an example of the “semantic anachronism” fallacy (Carson, 33).  One could amble or jog down a trail that led to a conclusion that Paul was speaking here of demons in the current-day-movie sense, but this would be an invalid exegetical move.

The use of both daimoniōn and deisidaimonesterous in the same Acts 17 micro-context, though, could be significant.  Stay with me for a minute to see whether I might or might not be onto something.

The word behind “divinities” could mean demons or deities or gods or demons or spiritual beings.¹

The word behind “religious” could have either a positive or negative connotation:  devout, religious, or superstitious. 

In this case, there seems to be little reason to think the latter term would be negative.  After all, why would Paul start with something inherently negative when seeking to reveal more of God to the Athenians?²  The more positive sense of “religious” rather than “superstitious” is supported both by our class’s teacher and by the BDAG lexicon, which was likely one of his sources.

What strikes me most is that Luke used deisidaimonia for “religious”/”devout” when he could just as easily have chosen threskos,³ perhaps some adjectival form of sebazomai, or another word.  The word in 17:22 is unique in the NT, occurring only once.  (The word also occurs 2x in Philo and 1x in the OT pseudepigrapha.)  Might Luke be showing some connection between [1] what Paul was accused of by the Athenians (being a proclaimer of some unknown divine beings) and [2] that which Paul in turn recognized that the Athenians were already doing?  Although the “root fallacy” warns us that no connection may be assumed, Luke’s having chosen these two words in relating the event may connect them.  Put more simply (pardon the transliterations),

  • Paul was accused of proclaiming foreign “daimons.”
  • Paul recognized that the Athenians were “daimon-observant” already.

I’ve made too much of this, but it piqued my interest.  Pollard agrees that the “root fallacy” notion suggests caution and also pointed out the lack of proximity between the two words.  (If they were found within the same verse or at least closer to one another, a verbal connection would be more likely.)

Pollard has further noted his interest in the fact that . . .

“Paul (Luke) used two words that commonly occur in the NT with different meanings from the normal.  One is daimonion (usually translated ‘demon’ but here as ‘divinity’) and the other, therapeuo (v. 25), usually is translated ‘heal’ in the NT but here must be translated by the meaning ‘serve.'”

He has certainly pinpointed a notable textual feature there, and I’ve begun to note Luke’s uses of therapeuo and iaomai, another word with overlapping meanings, also consulting lexicons.  One similar use of therapeuo occurs in the LXX, in Isaiah 54:17.

Taking it a bit further
It was pointed out that Epimenedes, in Cretica (ca. 600BCE) used the expression agnoston theon (not-known god) in arguing that Zeus was immortal.  As Paul addressed the Athenian philosophers on their soil and in their terms, he might have had this Greek literature in mind.  Archaeological evidence of altars to the “unknown deity” exists, to say the least.

Missiologically speaking, I wonder whether in our time we might act wisely toward Muslims by assuming a somewhat uncomfortable thing:  that the deity they address as Allah is God-not-yet-fully-known by them.

Why rhetorically assume Allah is not the creator God?  Assuming Allah is a label for the same creator might just serve as a bridge.  We might assume that knowledge of the identity of God is nascent and lacking, not categorically ill-conceived, in those who trace their faith-line back to Ishmael.  Not that I think Islamic and Christian theologies have much in common besides belief in one God, but one has to start with building a bridge somewhere.

It seems to me that Paul established a similar bridge by starting with the “not-known god” of the Athenians as he sought to reveal to them more about YHVH.

¹ So, the word daimoniōn is not inherently negative.  Himerius, a later writer, once prepended the adjective πονερ̀ος (evil, bad) to the word daimoniōn.  If daimoniōn were inherently negative, it would be as redundant as “feline cat” or perhaps “sugar diabetes” to say “evil daimoniōn.”  On the other hand, this Himerius text is from the 4th century CE, so the word could easily have shifted in meaning by then.

² The KJV rendering of deisidaimonesterous is “superstitious.”  That translation, now difficult to substantiate, could have resulted from not comprehending that daimoniōn (divinities) could specify either evil spirits or beneficent spiritual beings.  If you assumed the Athenians were limited in their spirituality to thoughts of evil demons (17:18), you might also have assumed they were incapable of anything other than superstition (17:22) related to said demons.

³ Although threskeia is used only rarely in the NT, Kittel notes that threskeia, threskos, and ethelothreskeia are common in extra-biblical Greek writings.  The neutral applicability of these terms in Greek culture of the time is another reason Luke might have chosen chosen a word from this cognate group, since the Athens incident was in a patently Greek context.


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