Sunday, May 14, 2017

Acts 17.22-31: An Altar Like That

Note: This is where we started. The first lectionary-related post on this blog was Paul at the Areopagus. It's been three years - one full lectionary cycle.  We'll start work on the second cycle, certainly with different art and often with a different scripture than was explored the first time around. I hope the posts are useful for you. Thank you for checking in on Art&Faith Matters.

Easter 6A's Acts reading has Paul at the Areopagus, making a case that Yahweh-Jesus is the God whom the Greeks previously didn't know (Acts 17:22-31). He calls attention to an altar he had seen on his exploration of the city's worship sites. The altar is inscribed "to an unknown god" according to Paul. Then Paul relates that he has come to make this formerly unknown god a Known God.

In the Palatine Museum in Rome is an altar bearing an inscription to that cited by Paul in Athens. The inscription begins "whether god or goddess" (si deus si dea), a phrase indicating that the deity is unknown. Often there would be a request that followed ("Whether you are a god or goddess that rules over Rome, grant us..."). 

The wording on the altar, discovered in 1820, may have been an attempt to keep the identity of the local god a secret from enemies. If the god was unknown, the enemies could not call for divine intervention on their own behalf or call on their own gods to defeat the local gods. The inscription may have just been covering all the bases - no need to anger a god who has been forgotten. Whatever its origin, this altar (and there are others with similar inscriptions) helps us know a little more about what Paul might have been seeing.

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