The ancient world did not suffer from a lack of gods. All peoples around the ancient world had their national gods and even their local patron gods. For example, Athena was the patron goddess of Athens. On top of that, there were household gods. Almost everyone everywhere had some deity or group of deities to whom they prayed, offered incense, and perhaps even sacrificed (1). When Christianity arose on the scene, the earliest Christians continued advocating for belief in One God, the True and Living God of Israel made manifest in His Son, Jesus. What made Jesus special when set among the Greco-Roman gods was His love for humanity whereas the Greco-Roman pantheon used humans for its own end.
Ancient Greeks were known as seafarers in their earliest history (2). As such, they were exposed to various cultures and peoples by their travels. The preeminent Greek historian, Herodotus (c. 484–20’s BC) suggested that the Greek gods were actually imported from Egypt (Hist. 2.43). A distinction between the Greek gods and Egyptian gods was that the Greeks had fewer gods, but they were better defined than those of Egypt. Also, many of the Egyptian gods were animals, some of them being animals with human bodies. The Greek gods were depicted as humans, and humanism and anthropology are due in part to the Greeks trying to understand their gods as humans. The drawback to this is that the Greeks did not understand their gods as divine as we’d tend to view the matter. To put it another way, the tales of the gods showed little distinction from human behavior. The Lord God whom we serve is divine and doesn’t behave as we would, but calls us to behave as He does. Yet, the Greco-Roman pantheon behaved little differently from humans.
A survey of classical literature demonstrates that the gods of Greco-Roman society were not at all concerned with humanity for humanity’s sake, but for the sake of the gods’ entertainment and amusement. Sure, at times the gods would help the humans, but only if the humans first fed the gods’ egos’ through prayer and sacrifice. The gods were mostly viewed as powerful, and they were not esteemed as the Jews understood the God of Israel. To the Jews, violating divine law amounted to sin while to the Greeks, exceeding human limitations, or trying to outdo the gods, was pride—in Greek, hubris. The typical mindset about the gods was that they were powerful, and as such, the worshipper sought their favors so that they could utilize the gods’ power for their own end. However, if a human invoked one god’s power, it may be necessary that the human’s opponent invoke their own god’s protection or favor as well. At this point, the battle became a battle between the gods, and the winning party viewed the matter as their god having defeated their opponent’s god—Greek or otherwise. Therefore, many of the struggles between countrymen and rival nations were really a battle between the gods.
Some of the earliest dated information we have about Greek theology derives from the father of literature, Homer (c. 750–700 BC), and the ancient Greek poet, Hesiod (c. 700 BC). Herodotus wrote that Homer and Hesiod were the poets who described the gods for the Greeks. They gave them titles, offices, and powers (Hist. 2.43, 53, 145–46) (3), so to really understand the Greek comprehension of the gods, you’d have to read Homer and Hesiod.
By the time of the philosopher, Plato (c. 429–347 BC), all of Greece had been educated particularly by Homer (Rep. 10.606e–07a). Since Homer was the primer in education, the tales of the gods from Homer permeated throughout Greek culture from not only education but entertainment as well. Homer was so closely studied because he wrote about everything about a man (Xen. Symp. 4.6), so what was admirable was acquired for teaching and living as a virtue while what was unworthy was noted and discarded as a vice.
Hesiod wrote about how the gods, such as Zeus and others, were created from more ancient gods called “Titans.” The Titans sprung from chaos and darkness. Zeus later battled his father, Cronus, for control while Cronus had previously devoured all of his other children for fear that they would try to overthrow him. Doesn’t sound much like the actions of a god, does it? However, Zeus was hidden as an infant, and a bolder was wrapped in swaddling clothes for Cronus to devour. When Zeus grew strong enough, he devised a plan to defeat his father by liberating his siblings and enlisting their aid in the fight, which he did. He chose Mount Olympus as his dwelling, and once he defeated his father and the Titans, he became the chief god of the earth while his brother, Poseidon inherited the land and water as his domain, and their brother, Hades, became the guardian of the underworld.
As time passed, the gods became bored, so they created humans for their amusement. They had no particular affection for humans other than that they provided the gods with entertainment. The male gods would often rape women and the resulting offspring (demigods) were the heroes of Greece (e.g. Achilles). The fourth century church bishop, Athanasius (c. 300–73) wrote that humans learned their evil behavior from the gods’ behavior.
For from Zeus they have learned corruption of youth and adultery, from Aphrodite fornication, from Rhea licentiousness, from Ares murders, and from other gods other like things, which the laws punish and from which every sober man turns away. (Against the Heathen 1.26.2)
The gods also often fought against each other, which was the premise of Homer’s Iliad and the Trojan War. I love how John Mark Reynolds put it, “The intrigue and bickering of the gods on Mount Olympus rivaled that of the most dysfunctional household (4).” Of course, because the gods were so much like humans, they also needed sustenance from the chief God, Zeus.
Hesiod wrote that Zeus supplied the gods with their needs—nectar and ambrosia (Theog. 638–41). However, centuries later, the philosopher, Aristotle (c. 384–22 BC) believed that for a god to require sustenance meant that they could not be a god (Meta. 3.4). Furthermore, a true god should not behave like men and could not be made of material or share his sovereignty with other gods (Meta. 3.2; 12.6, 10). Aristotle’s thinking led him, and others before and after him, to believe that there must be a sovereign god who was even above the gods. However, the Greeks believed that this god was so far above the fray that He was unsearchable and unknowable.
The Greeks didn’t know who this God was exactly, but they believed that He existed. The theology and philosophy of the Greeks actually led up to the point of the gospel being a well-received message. After all, it answered a lot of the questions that philosophy couldn’t by divine revelation. Because God revealed the mysteries of the gospel, philosophy’s gaps were filled in. A reading of Plato’s Phaedo and Aristotle’s Metaphysics demonstrates just how close Greek thinking came to reasoning to the gospel. Yet, where reason couldn’t take the human mind, divine revelation filled in the gaps by the operation of the Holy Spirit.
Paul’s sermon in Athens preached the true God that the Greeks believed existed, but Who was unknown by them (Acts 17:22–31). As Paul went around the city, he saw a statue with the inscription, “To the Unknown God.” The Jewish philosopher, Philo (c. AD 40), noted that all searched for the God of Israel: “But if he is, whom all Greeks together with all barbarians acknowledge with one judgment, the highest Father of both gods and humans and the Maker of the entire cosmos … then it was necessary for all people to cling to him” (Special Laws 2.165). Paul’s sermon was to reveal to them that this God has made Himself known through His Son, Jesus. How? According to Paul’s sermon, by His resurrection (Acts 17:31)—the core of the gospel message (1 Corinthians 15:1–4).
Here’s how Paul made the Lord God known to the Greeks. First, he explained that our Father who created everything is Lord of heaven and earth. To the Greeks, Zeus was the lord of heaven while Poseidon was the lord of earth or land. The God of Israel revealed in the person of Jesus Christ had dominion over both heaven and earth thereby being higher and more powerful than Zeus and Poseidon. Some Greek thinking also conceded that the Supreme God could be Lord of all (Horace, Odes 1.12.13–18). Do you see how effective Paul’s preaching would have been? He knew their philosophies and likely their theologies.
Second, the Lord God needs nothing—not our worship, and certainly not nectar and ambrosia. The sacred Hebrew name of God in Exodus 3:14, in its verb form, means “to be.” The name denotes God’s self-existence. He depends on nothing, and everything that exists is because of Him—another point that Paul makes, but using a Greek poet.
When St. Paul journeyed to Athens he employed two pagan citations in Acts 17.28 that were respectively from Epimenedes and Aratus. St. Paul quoted from Epimenides not only in Athens but also in his letter to St. Titus (1.12). The line used in Acts 17, however, would go on to support his argument against idols since they lacked life whereas the true God was living, and it was “in him [that] we live and move and have our being.” The latter wrote the words that St. Paul quoted in relation to Zeus – that “we are indeed his offspring.” While used of a false god, St. Paul believed the sentiment to be one saturated with truth in relation to the true God that he preached to the Athenians. St. Paul agreed with Aratus’ conception of divinity up to a point. In each of these usages, St. Paul drew truths from pagan writers about divine matters. While he did not espouse all that they claimed, he found useful those truths that were actually truthful (5).
See just how clever Paul was? See just how even the Holy Spirit used him and pagan literature to preach the gospel to the Greeks? Anytime anyone says that all they need is the Bible, they aren’t altogether wrong, but it can be helpful to know the thinking of those to whom we preach the gospel.
Very much contrary to the thought that God was unsearchable, Paul preached that He was indeed searchable (Acts 17:26–27). Moreover, God was not limited to a temple or location as each nation had its own gods. Rather, wherever people were, they could seek God and be found by Him. With this information, all men everywhere were to repent. God had overlooked the times of ignorance, but now that Jesus had accomplished the divine purpose of God on earth, things changed.
Greek mythology is full of stories where humans were sacrificed to deities in their favor. Even Plato wrote about such acts in book VIII of Republic (565d–e) (6). Of course, other nations were notorious for such acts—the Egyptians having a reputation for sacrificing visitors to their land. However, while most civilizations demanded human sacrifice, Christianity is the religion where God forbade such. “And you shall not let any of your descendants pass through the fire to Molech, nor shall you profane the name of your God: I am the LORD” (Leviticus 18:21); “There shall not be found among you anyone who makes his son or his daughter pass through the fire” (Deuteronomy 18:10); “And they have built the high places of Tophet, which is in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire, which I did not command, nor did it come into My heart” (Jeremiah 7:31).
Some may retort that God demanded that Abraham sacrifice Isaac. However, God did not allow Abraham to do it and was testing him to see if he’d offer his son rather than actually requiring such. Also, the sad story of Jephthah sacrificing his daughter in Judges only pointed to the depravity of the nation that began in Judges 2:10 and that resounds throughout the rest of the book and its cycle.
Our Heavenly Father did not demand human sacrifice but willingly sacrificed Himself in the Person of His Son for us. He came out from among the demons who were taught to have been gods (cf. 1 Corinthians 10:19–21) and distinguished Himself from them by dying for His very creation, humanity.
In high pagan piety to be sure, particular gods could be praised as benign and generous, but it is hard to find references to any deities either loving humans of being loved by them in Roman-era pagan discourse … loving gods … did not figure in pagan piety (7).
Our God stood out precisely because He was not and is not an impersonal God who’s angry, but a caring, loving God who’s very much concerned with our sad state. To Him be glory, and power, and honor. Amen!
- There were atheists, as we understand the definition of the term, in antiquity as well (Cicero, On the Nature of the Gods 1.1), but the majority of people believed in gods.
- Edith Hall, Introducing the Ancient Greeks from Bronze Age Seafarers to Navigators of the Western Mind (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2014), 29–50.
- Cf. Plato, Phaedrus 274e.
- John Mark Reynolds, When Athens Met Jerusalem: An Introduction to Classical and Christian Thought (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2009), 25.
- Steven Hunter, “The Profit of Pagan Literature: Discernment as a Key to Liberal Thinking,” Journal of Faith and the Academy 7, no. 2 (Fall 2014): 6–18. I used the designations “St.” due to the prospective audience of the article, in case anyone wondered.
- See also Athanasius, Against the Heathen 1.25.
- Larry Hurtado, Why on Earth Did Anyone Become a Christian in the First Three Centuries? (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 2016), 125–26.