"too superstitious", "very religious", or what? (Acts 17:22)

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Puritan Board Freshman
I have been wondering over the last few months what the correct translation of Acts 17:22 should be...

At the risk of oversimplifying, I think we have three basic options, but please let me know if there are more...

"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." - KJV

"And Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus, and said, Ye men of Athens, in all things I perceive that ye are somewhat superstitious." - RV

"So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: "Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious." Acts 17:22 - ESV

1. In Acts 17:22 is it "too superstitious?" (Paul could be offending his listeners in his opening statement...)
2. Or could it be "very religious?" (Paul could be complimenting his listeners' idolatry / spirituality...)
3. Or was it some sort of word in between these two meanings ie. "somewhat superstitious?" (Paul could be choosing a word with a double meaning, to leave his listeners wondering whether he was actually for or against them...)

Check out what Daniel Wallace, Author of Greek Grammar: Beyond the Basics, (which is the standard seminary textbook for second year Koine Greek), has to say from the NET Bible Notes on Acts 17:22,
tn The term *... (deisidaimonesterou") is difficult. On the one hand it can have the positive sense of “devout,” but on the other hand it can have the negative sense of “superstitious” (BDAG 216 s.v. *...). As part of a laudatory introduction (the technical rhetorical term for this introduction was capatatio), the term is probably positive here. It may well be a “backhanded” compliment, playing on the ambiguity.

(*Greek words had to be removed from the quote so that post could be submitted...)
Finally, what are the evangelistic implications of which it could be? (I am not saying that we are to base the foundation of our evangelistic approach to one passage of scripture... So feel free to bring in to the discussion other scriptures which support your views.)

Lastly, isn't it interesting that up until the 20th century practically every translation seemed go with the negative "too superstitious?" or a closely related variant. Ie. Wycliffe's New Testament has "vain worshippers", Young's Literal translation has "over-religious." Meanwhile, all the modern translations seem to go unquestionably with "very religious" without even a footnote! (Exception: NET Bible.) This makes me wonder how much our culture influences the way translation is done and how much culture affects the way we perceive the Bible...

-----Added 5/13/2009 at 11:44:31 EST-----

Here's Bahnsen's opinion:

"The term used to describe the Athenians in verse 22 (literally “fearers of the supernatural spirits”) is sometimes translated “very religious” and sometimes “somewhat superstitious.” There is no satisfactory English equivalent. “Very religious” is too complimentary; Paul was not prone to flattery, and according to Lucian, it was forbidden to use compliments before the Areopagus in an effort to gain its goodwill. “Somewhat superstitious” is perhaps a bit too critical in thrust. Although the term could sometimes be used among pagans as a compliment, it usually denoted an excess of strange piety. Accordingly, in Acts 25:19 Festus refers to Judaism, using this term as a mild reproach for its religiosity. It is not beyond possibility that Paul cleverly chose this term precisely for the sake of its ambiguity. His readers would wonder whether the good or bad sense was being stressed by Paul, and Paul would be striking a double blow: men cannot eradicate a religious impulse within themselves (as the Athenians demonstrate), and yet this good impulse has been degraded by rebellion against the living and true God (as the Athenians also demonstrate). Although men do not acknowledge it, they are aware of their relation and accountability to the living and true God who created them. But rather than come to terms with Him and His wrath against their sin (cf. Rom. 1:18), they pervert the truth. And in this they become ignorant and foolish (Rom. 1:21-22)."
From his Acts 17 exposition here,
PA045-- Ó Covenant Media Foundation – 1-800/553-3938

Now according to Bahnsen,
“Very religious” is too complimentary; Paul was not prone to flattery, and according to Lucian, it was forbidden to use compliments before the Areopagus in an effort to gain its goodwill.
So should I scratch this out in my Bible and write in "somewhat superstitious" (or something!)-- or at least as a foot note?

But then Bahnsen says,
“Somewhat superstitious” is perhaps a bit too critical in thrust.
I wish he would have said more about this. Why exactly is it too critical? Perhaps this is part of the apostolic response to idolatry? I fail to see how it is "too" critical... Now it will not make friends to speak like this, but when we consider the treatment in the old testament of idolaters within and without Israel... it does not seem overly critical, to me at least...

I think Bahnsen's opinion is very interesting, especially where he basically said we do not have an adequate term in the English language for the meaning of "deisidaimonesterou." He said, "There is no satisfactory English equivalent." Well, I am not yet a linguist, but I do know in basic linguistics 101 they teach that even though certain languages do not have certain words which other languages may have, the languages lacking certain words are not inferior languages because humans have the ability to create words if we need them to express a thought or idea that has previously been unexpressed. So, technically, assuming this (Chomskian) theory of linguistics is indeed correct, (...and Noam Chomsky has dominated the field for quite a while), we should be able to create a new word in the English language to express this thought of Paul, when he said "deisidaimonesterou" in Koine Greek. But we must first come up with a clear explanation and definition of this term. What does it mean? What was Paul thinking? HOW would we use such a term today in our English language, if one existed? Should we try to create a word to see if this works-- just for fun? Or am I completely missing the point? Honestly, I still am not quite sure what Bahnsen thinks deisidaimonesterou means because he mentions various possibilities in that quotation, but never really gives us a clear definition.

Maybe our Bibles should simply go with Bahnsen's literal translation, "fearers of the supernatural spirits”-- and leave the interpretation up to readers and preachers? Also, if this is indeed the literal translation, then WHY does the NASB (most literal...?) still render it as "very religious"?

I know I have a lot of questions in here... Please if anybody has some light on the subject-- PLEASE share it.


Pilgrim, Alien, Stranger
Staff member
If all the world's experts are somewhat diffident, unwilling to assert "it MUST mean this..." I don't think we are any more competent to claim certainty.

I think he was probably being studiously ambiguous. "Wow. I've been walking about your city, and {low-whistle} you guys are verrrrrry religious. I mean, I even found an altar to "the unknown God." Now, that's really covering your bases, people.

"Now then, listen up. Him you worship in ignorance, I now declare to you!..."


Puritanboard Amanuensis
J. A. Alexander considers the word was deliberately chosen as an equivocal expression that was descriptive of the Athenians and yet not likely to shock them at the outset of the discourse.


Puritan Board Freshman
What do you guys make of this,

And Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus and said, "Men of Athens, I observe that you are
very religious (‘superstitious’—King James Version) in all respects. (v 22)

What a mocking statement! If you want to get an intellectual, philosophical type mad, tell him
that he is superstitious. What an indignity! They pride themselves in being above superstition,
and so, by beginning with an insult, Paul is already needling them. He was a man who spoke
what God gave him, nor had he any concern for the consequences of that speaking as it pertained
to himself. That is apostolic, but if we are fearful, and walking and speaking in a guarded way,
and calculating what we shall say so as not to offend, or be misunderstood, then how shall we be
a mouth for God in confrontation with a hostile world? There is only One who can determine
what is appropriate in any given moment, namely, the Lord Himself.

For while I was passing through and examining the objects of your worship, I also found an altar
with this inscription, ‘to an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship in ignorance, this I
proclaim to you. (v 23)

We will never be able to identify, or confront the thing that is false, unless we can also say with
Paul, "This I proclaim to you." It is not enough to know about the truth; we need to be intensely
and intimately in the Life of that truth before we dare expose the lie. Paul’s statement may sound
arrogant, but it is his very boldness and incisiveness that are themselves a demonstration of the
God whom Paul was proclaiming. Paul taunted them with their superstitious, play-acting charade
about the ‘Unknown God,’ as if somehow it shows a respect and reverence, when really it was a
phony deceit.

Those Athenians may have worshipped their idols ignorantly, but we need to know that it was a
willful ignorance. They chose to worship a god who is unknown, because an unknown god
makes no requirement at all, and Paul saw right through it. The thing that sounds at face value to
be so spiritual—monuments with inscriptions to the Unknown God—is in fact a phony deference
that saves men from any excruciating demand of being in relationship with the God who is. They
prefer that He remains unknown, but Paul will not allow them that luxury. To know God as He
is, is to have a serious intrusion into your life that changes everything.

That is why my Jewish kinsmen and their Rabbis love to speak about ‘a higher power’ and ‘an
impersonal force in the universe.’ It sounds so spiritual, but will we congratulate them for that
kind of spirituality, or will we see how deceitful such a statement is? There is something in the
human heart, not just the Jewish heart, which likes to keep God at a great distance. The human
heart wants an impersonal God, because an impersonal God does not say, "Thou shall not
commit adultery. Thou shall love the Lord Thy God with all your heart." We need to see through
the deception of the human heart, and Paul was always conscious that this was an eternal
moment to whereby he could not spare them. His love was too great to flatter them, and
so He let them have it right in the face, because the truth is painful before it is glorious. True comfort
comes after we have been discomforted.

This preacher, Art Katz, is what got me thinking about the verse in the first place. He leans on the old "too superstitious." To me this sounds like solid preaching... But I want to know what you guys think. Is Katz being overly zealous or extreme?


Pilgrim, Alien, Stranger
Staff member
On the one hand, this Rev. is making a rhetorical point for his own audience. Fine.

On the other hand, does he really know how the Athenians "took" that statement? Does the Bible say they were insulted by the first words out of Paul's mouth? No, it actually says that they listened respectfully until he spoke about "ἀνάστασιν νεκρῶν," resurrection from the dead. So, I think he's pressing the term a little hard. Perhaps the word didn't carry such a stigma in those days; that could be a modern prejudice.

They had been curious about this "τὸν ᾿Ιησοῦν καὶ τὴν ἀνάστασιν," Jesus and Anastasia (Resurrection), and wondered what these terms or names were.


Puritan Board Junior
This is totally just my 2 cents, but I feel that in light of the context of the verses before and after acts 17:22 the use of "too superstitious" is the most fitting. I mean, the Athenians and the strangers that would spend there time either telling or hearing some new thing (acts 17:21) Religious people dont tend to be so wishy washy..thats what makes them religious. Then is verse 23, when he discusses the statue of the Unkown God it seems like this was erected just to cover all the bases. Religious people are more fanatical about whatever doctrine they hold to, whereas these people appear to be all over the map and trying to hold to EVERYTHING... this just seems more superstitious than religious.

However, its just an opinion I thought I would share.


I agree with Pastor Winzer about the purposely ambiguous meaning. We find in ourselves a temptation to create a distinction in meaning between 'religious' and 'superstitious' because in today's parlance the two words are very distinct. We view 'religious' as a more positive aspect of pious duty and 'superstition' as a negative aspect. It's my opinion that the difference is one of degree or intensity and not definition.

Even today, the definitions of these words find a point where they synthesize. Religion AND superstition describe an observance of duty to God out of obedience to His command or our love and gratitude. We 'do things' and we abstain from things out of a sense of obligation to God and the law. There is a point (and this can vary by conviction and devotion) where we can easily become excessive in our performance and zealousness.

The Prayer of Jabez book opened our eyes to how superstitious most Christians are.

So Paul looked at what the Athenians had in common with all men who translate transcendent belief into duty and action and creativity. James cautioned those who would get carried away with what we should DO by giving us a pure example: Take care of the widows and orphans. James was letting us know that religious activity/devotion to God must never do away with the 2nd great commandment. In trying to outwardly express the supreme value of God (the first table of the commandments) we might lose sight of what God values (the second table).
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