A recent class dealt with Paul’s speech to the Areopagus in Acts 17. A private question was asked me: was Paul critical or complimentary of the Athenians in the beginning of the speech? The class had mentioned that Paul was commending them, but the questioner had a KJV in front of him, and it looked like Paul was criticizing them. The KJV and the ESV of Acts 17:22 follow, so that we see the issue: are they superstitious or religious?
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. (Acts 17:22 KJV)
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)
If we bring in other translations, the ASV also has superstitious as well as some earlier English translations, but modern translations since 1901 fall on the side of “very religious” (NKJV, NASB, NET, NIV) or “extremely religious” (NRSV, CSB).
The Greek word in question is δεισιδαίμων (deisidaimōn, G1174). The classical Greek lexicon of Liddell, Scott, and Jones gives the etymology as “fearing the gods” and the definitions as (1) in good sense, pious, religious, (2) in bad sense, superstitious.1 The standard koine Greek lexicon of Baur, Danker, Arndt, and Gingrich notes both of these definitions, but comments on Acts 17:22 “but in the laudatory introduction of Paul’s speech before the Areopagus Ac 17:22 it must mean devout, religious.”2
The NET Bible contains many helpful footnotes with insights about translation issues. In its footnote on “religious” in Acts 17:22, they note: “The term δεισιδαιμονεστέρους (deisidaimonesterous) 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. δεισιδαίμων). 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.”3
Before we leave this question, I want to share J.W. McGarvey’s comments on this verse.
The audience were worshipers of demons, or dead men deified. Nearly all their gods were supposed to have once lived on the earth. They regarded it, therefore, as an excellent trait of character to be scrupulous in all the observances of demon worship. Paul’s first remark was not that they were “too superstitious,” nor that they were “very religious;” though both of these would have been true. But the term he employs, deisedaimonestirous, from deido to fear, and daimon a demon, means demon-fearing, or given to the worship of demons.4
I’ve already mentioned the Greek word, δεισιδαίμων (deisidaimōn, G1174). The word δαίμων (daimōn, G1142) is a part of this word. It does mean demon in its one occurrence in the New Testament in Matthew 8:31, but it was also used in Greek for gods and goddesses of Greek and Roman mythology. This word is related to the word δαιμόνιον (daimonion, G1140) which usually means demon in the New Testament, but in Acts 17:21 is rendered “gods” (KJV, NKJV, NIV), “divinities” (ESV), and “deities” (NASB). Paul would agree that pagans were worshipping demons (see 1 Corinthians 10:20 and Deuteronomy 32:17), but as much as I respect McGarvey, I think he is relying too much on the etymology of the word here rather than usage.
Paul appears to be seeking some common ground at the beginning of his speech in Acts 17 and does so by his quotations from Greek literature. Probability seems to favor understanding this term as a compliment rather than a critique in keeping the rhetorical expectation of a laudatory beginning while keeping in mind the NET footnote’s comment that it has ambiguity and may be a “backhanded” compliment.
1LSJ, p. 375, 2BDAG, p. 216, 3NET, see footnote with Acts 17:22, McGarvey, A Commentary on Acts of the Apostles, Acts 17:31.