Did You Know?
What was the altar to “an Unknown God” that the apostle Paul came across in Athens?—Acts 17:23.
▪ A number of ancient Greek writers referred to such altars. For example, historian and geographer Pausanias, of the second century C.E., stated that at Olympia, there was “an altar of the Unknown gods.” And the orator and philosopher Philostratus said that in Athens, “altars [were] set up in honor even of unknown gods.”
Third-century C.E. writer Diogenes Laertius recounts a tradition explaining the origin of “nameless altars.” The story, dating back to the sixth or seventh century B.C.E., relates how a certain Epimenides purified Athens of a pestilence. Diogenes writes: “He [Epimenides] took sheep . . . and brought them to the Areopagus; and there he let them go whither they pleased, instructing those who followed them to mark the spot where each sheep lay down and offer a sacrifice to the local divinity. And thus, it is said, the plague was stayed. Hence even to this day altars may be found in different parts of Attica with no name inscribed upon them.”
Another possible reason why altars to unknown gods were built, says The Anchor Bible Dictionary, was “the fear of neglecting to pay homage to some unknown god or goddess and thus either failing to procure the deity’s benefits, or incurring his or her wrath.”
Why did first-century Jews despise tax collectors?
▪ Tax collectors have never been popular. In first-century Israel, however, they were considered to be among the most despicable and corrupt of people.
The ruling Roman authorities demanded heavy taxes from the people. Roman officials collected land tax and head, or poll, tax, but they farmed out to the highest bidder the work of collecting dues on imports, exports, and goods passing through the land. Local businessmen thus bought the right to collect taxes in certain areas. As willing tools of the hated Romans, such individuals were deeply resented by fellow Jews, who regarded them as “traitors and apostates, defiled by their frequent intercourse with the heathen,” says M’Clintock and Strong’s Cyclopædia.
Tax collectors were notoriously dishonest, and they enriched themselves at the expense of their fellow countrymen. Some overestimated the value of the goods to be taxed and pocketed the profit, while others used false accusations to extort money from the poor. (Luke 3:13; 19:8) As a result, tax collectors were put on a par with sinners and, says The Jewish Encyclopedia, were “ineligible to serve as judge or even as a witness.”—Matthew 9:10, 11.
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An altar to an unknown god, Pergamum ruins, Turkey
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A Roman relief depicting a tax collector, 2nd or 3rd century C.E.
Erich Lessing/Art Resource, NY