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

Discussion in 'Exegetical Forum' started by A S, May 13, 2009.

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  1. A S

    A S 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,
    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:

    From his Acts 17 exposition here,
    PA045-- Ó Covenant Media Foundation – 1-800/553-3938

    Now according to Bahnsen,
    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,
    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.
  2. Contra_Mundum

    Contra_Mundum 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!..."
  3. MW

    MW Puritan Board Doctor

    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.
  4. A S

    A S Puritan Board Freshman

    What do you guys make of this,

    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?
  5. Contra_Mundum

    Contra_Mundum 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.
  6. Matthias

    Matthias 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.
  7. BobVigneault

    BobVigneault Bawberator

    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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