Why did Paul label the Athenians “too superstitious?”


by Shawn Brasseaux

The Apostle Paul has been censured for the words he preached in Acts 17:22 (King James Bible): “Then Paul stood in the midst of Mars’ hill, and said, Ye men of Athens, I perceive that in all things ye are too superstitious.” How could he be so “cruel,” so “insensitive” to the feelings of these prospective believers?

Here is an easy example of how modern Bible “scholarship” has employed human wisdom to soften the Scriptures. Man always endeavors to make himself look better than he really is, whereas God’s Word always takes a negative view of man. Bible translators, teachers, and preachers are thus always tempted to “tone down” any verses that may be perceived as “nasty” or “unfriendly.” Friends, if we cannot find the courage to preach all the words of God, then we are far better off shutting our mouths and saying absolutely nothing!

In Acts chapter 17, Paul is visiting Athens, Greece, the intellectual capital of the world in New Testament times. Read this excerpt: “[16] Now while Paul waited for them at Athens, his spirit was stirred in him, when he saw the city wholly given to idolatry…. [22] Then Paul stood in the midst of Mars’ hill, and said, Ye men of Athens, I perceive that in all things ye are too superstitious. [23] For as I passed by, and beheld your devotions, I found an altar with this inscription, TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you.”

As noted earlier, we want to concentrate on verse 22. Paul referred to these souls as “too superstitious.” It is an extremely long Greek word: “deisidaimonesterous.” Literally, it means “fearing more demons/devils than others.” In English, we would not say “too religious” because that is not as descriptive as “too superstitious.” The stronger word, the negative word, is “superstitious.” “Religious” obscures the wicked nature of the behavior. From God’s perspective, they were fanatics in heathenism. Remember, the city was “wholly [completely, entirely] given to idolatry” (verse 16). They had devotions, shrines, or altars dedicated to numerous deities. Yet, out of fear of perhaps overlooking a particular “higher power,” they added one particular memorial—a monument to “the unknown god” (verse 23). Had they not included this, they reasoned, that deity (if in existence) might possibly retaliate and punish them for their disrespectful negligence!

However, nearly every modern English version—including the NKJV—has the inferior reading “very religious” or “extremely religious” here. The offensive words “too superstitious” have been removed, so the thrust of Paul’s argument has been toned down (a mighty roar now a mere whimper). In the words of one English dictionary, to be “superstitious” is to “have an irrational fear of what is unknown or mysterious, especially in connection with religion.” This was precisely the problem of the Athenians: they dreaded a plethora of deities, including an “unknown god,” so it was much more than ordinary religion (paying homage to a known deity). The correct reading, the superior reading, is “too superstitious,” exactly as in our King James Bible. (Unless we are ungrateful for this light, and prefer the darkness of modern “scholarship.”)

If we would not fault Jesus for rightly calling unsaved people “hypocrites,” “blind guides,” “fools,” “vipers” (Matthew chapter 23); if we would not criticize John the Baptist for labelling lost people “vipers” in Luke chapter 3 (verse 7); then we should have no issue with Paul calling the pagan Athenians “too superstitious.” This is not brutal name-calling but rather a declaration of spiritual truth. Until lost people are told just how bad off they really are, until they come to the point of realizing they need to be saved from their sins, they have no ability to see the gravity of their situation. They must take care of their sin problem at Calvary (trusting Jesus Christ alone as their personal Saviour) or wind up taking care of it themselves in Hell and the Lake of Fire forever!

Paul would not have complimented or praised them for their careful pagan idolatry: “I have seen with my own eyes just how very religious you Athenians are!” (This is exactly the tone of the modern English versions in Acts 17:22.) We would expect a lost person, or a Christian thinking like a lost person, to speak such words. However, a Christian under the control of the Holy Spirit would condemn such behavior. It was far more than mere religion. It was extreme superstitious nonsense, as fear-based as a belief system could be. Paul took advantage of their agnosticism—their “without knowledge” of the one true God—and began to preach Jesus Christ to them. Yet, he never actually followed through with a clear Gospel message in Athens. Why? See our related study linked below!

Also see:
» Why did Paul not give the Gospel of Grace in Acts 17?
» Should we use the term “demons?”
» What are “curious arts?”
» What about those who have not heard?
» Why does the Bible say “Have no other gods before Me?”
» How do I know I am praying to the living God and not false gods?
» I believed the Gospel, so why do they not believe?