Father Cornelius à Lapide, S.J. (1567-1637)
Commentary on Sacred Scripture

From St. Paul’s Discourse to the Athenians at the Areopagus

Acts of the Apostles 17:22-23

Exclusive English Translation


[ ] – square brackets: interpolations of the translator.

{ } – curly brackets: interpolations of the translator within square brackets.

( ) — parentheses: In the text (but not the footnotes), Lapide’s parenthetical remarks

‹‹ ›› – guillemets (double chevrons): editor Crampon’s quotation marks.

“ ” — quotation marks supplied by the translator.


Stans autem Paulus in medio Areopagi, ait: Viri Athenienses, per omnia quasi superstitiosiores vos video.

But Paul, standing in the middle of the Areopagus, affirms: “O Athenian men, I see that in all respects you [are], so to speak, rather superstitious.”

22. Quasi superstitiosiores. — Quasi [“so to speak” or as if or as it were] and the comparative degree adjective superstitiosiores [“rather {or too} superstitious”] soften the censure, whereas it would have stung more by calling them superstitious in the positive degree. St. Ephræm Syrus translates [the verse as], I see that you are immoderate in the veneration of supernatural beings;[1] for in Greek [the word that the Vulgate renders as superstitious] is δεισιδαίμων [deisidaímōn], which [means] δέδιε τὰ δαιμόνια [dédie tà daimónia], that is, he fears deities,[2] says [the exegete] Oecumenius. Take into account that δεισιδαιμονία [deisidaimonía], “superstition,” is often taken to an equal degree in a good [sense] for “religion,” as Plutarch comprehends in [his] book Περὶ δεισιδαιμονίας [Peri deisidaimonías, “On Superstition”[3]]; [likewise] Cicero, in his speech In Verrem 4 [“4th Oration Against Verres”] (when he says of the Sicilians that religion had taken possession of the entire province and had made its way to the minds of all Sicilians), and others. As a general rule, superstition differs from religion by a deviation from standard conduct, because it is a worthless and trifling religious feeling: ‹‹To be sure, those who for entire days kept praying and offering sacrifices so that their children might outlive them, were called superstitious, ›› says Cicero in [his] book De natura deorum [“On the Nature of the Gods”]. So also [thinks] Servius [the ancient grammarian]. He says, ‹‹Superstition gets its name from [the Latin adjective] superstes [“outliving”]; it is proper to old women, who on account of age remain alive after the death of many, and who are devoted to groundless matters; by wishing to be excessively religious, they become superstitious and thus lose their wits. ›› Hence a superstitious person is occasionally called religious, as in [the playwright] Terence’s [comedy] Heauton timorumenos [“Self-Tormentor”]: ‹‹As we all are foolish and wretchedly religious women.” Better, Lactantius [the Christian apologist], in book II, chapter xxviii, claims that superstition is said about those revering the surviving memory of the departed, as though of the gods, or about those who make their surviving parents objects of religious observance. Indeed, Isidore of Seville, in book VIII, chapter iii, of [his] Etymologiae [“The Etymologies”], says: ‹‹Superstition is termed almost as if [it were] an over-and-above [superstatuta] and unnecessary [superflua] observance. ›› Also, [the poet] Lucretius, quoted in the commentary of Servius on book VIII Æneidos [“of the Aeneid”], says it is the groundless fear of things standing above [superstantium], for instance, the heavenly and divine [things] that stand over us. Finally, Nonius Marcellus [the lexicographer] thinks [people] are called superstitious because they refrain from [supersedeant] other things because of religious worship of the gods, that is, they take no heed of [other things]; just as [they are called] “religious” [religiosos], in a manner of speaking “relinquishers” [relinquosos], because after having left behind other things, they devote themselves to sacrifices alone. More truly, St. Augustine, in his book De vera religione [“On True Religion”], at the end, thinks that religion takes its name from the gerund of religare [“a binding fast, a tying down”], since it is practiced ‹‹so that we, directing [our] course, with the angels’ help, to the one God, and binding our souls fast to Him alone, from which [notion] religion is believed to have been named, may be free from every superstition. Behold! I worship one God, the one beginning of all things and the one wisdom by which any soul at all that is wise, is wise: and the very gift by which things are blessed, any things whatever are blessed. Whoever of the angels loves this God, I am certain that he also loves me. Accordingly, Paul says: I see that you, O Athenians, in all circumstances are excessively religious and superstitious, since in all circumstances I see your gods, offerings, sacrifices, lights; however, in the first place, those deities are false; in the second, [they are] too many; in the third, [they are] unknown. For no man wisely worships that which he does not know and with which he is not acquainted. Therefore, I have come to this place in order to change your superstition into true religion, so that in place of false gods, you may acknowledge and worship the true [God]; in place of many [gods], the one [God]; in place of unknown [gods], the indisputable and known [God].

            St. Augustine, in book IV, De civitate Dei (“On the City of God”), chapter xxx, admirably says, ‹‹Let us thank the Lord our God, Who, by the deepest humility of Christ, by the preaching of the apostles, by the faith of the martyrs dying for the truth and living with the truth, has overturned these superstitions, not only in religious hearts but even in the superstitious temples by the free service of their own [people]. ›› Likewise, in book VIII, chapter xvii: ‹‹ Therefore, what reason is there, except folly and wretched error, that you should make yourself lowly by revering such a thing (Jupiter, Venus) whom, in life, you wish yourself to be unlike? And [what reason is there that] you should worship with religious awe [religione] one whom you are unwilling to seek to resemble, since the chief principle of religious belief [religionis] is to seek to resemble the [deity] whom you worship? ›› And in chapter xxiii, quoting Hermes Trismegistus, [4] who teaches that lifeless and insensible statues are not gods and consequently that worship of them will pass away, and who says: ‹‹Are you unaware, O Asclepius, that Egypt is the image of heaven, and also, more truly, [that] our land is the temple of the entire universe [mundi]? etc.  All their (the Egyptians’) holy reverence, about to pass away to no effect, will fail in its object. ›› Augustine adds below: ‹‹Whereby [Hermes Trismegistus] seems to predict our present-day time period, wherein the Christian religion, to the degree that it is truer and holier, is overturning more forcibly and more freely all lying fictions, in order that the grace of the Savior may free man from the gods whom man made and make him subordinate to the God by whom man was made.[5] ›› And furthermore, Plato, in the Timaeus, teaches that human souls blended by God the Artificer [Plato’s Demiurge] out of the same elements in the same mixing bowl [6] with the celestial souls, namely, the angels and demons. This being the case, we must beware lest we wish to be their slaves, to whom God and nature joined us as brothers.


Praeteriens enim et videns simulacra vestra, inveni et aram in qua scriptum erat: Ignoto Deo. Quod ergo ignorantes colitis, hoc ego annuntio vobis.

For passing by and observing your statues, I also found an altar, on which it had been written: To the Unknown God. What therefore you worship unknowing, this I proclaim to you.

Videns [“observing”]. — ἀναθεωρῶν [anatheōrō̂n, gazing up at], that is, looking upon and examining rather concentratedly.

Simulacra vestra [“your statues”]. — Simulacrum [statue, likeness, portrait], in ecclesiastical usage, is taken pejoratively for an image of a false divinity or for an idol. It is so called from assuming an appearance [simulando], because as a result of a yearning for the dead, a copy of them has been executed so that those who have already passed away might seem to live. Whence Plautus [writes in his comedy] Mostellaria [“The Ghost {play}”]: ‹‹I should judge [a man], when he is born, to be similar and to have a likeness [simulacrum]. ›› Thus, a simulacrum is an idol, because it pretends to be and falsely asserts that it is a divinity. Nevertheless, [the apologist] Lactantius, in book II, Institutiones divinae [“Divine Institutes”], derives simulacrum from simulating [simulando] that which is like [simile] the thing of which it is the image. But, in this case, that [etymology] should rather have to be said of [an unattested word-form] similacrum, on account of [the letter] i. [7]

            Inveni et aram in qua scriptum erat: Ignoto Deo [“I also found an altar, on which it had been written: To the Unknown God”] — So Lucian, in [the spurious dialogue] Philopatris [Gk. Φιλόπατρις ἢ Διδασκόμενος, “Philopatris or the Trained Man”], says that at Athens the Gentiles swore by the unknown [god].

            You will ask, who is this unknown God? First, St. John Chrysostom and more fully [the exegete] Oecumenius, whose words worthy of note I shall attach here, answer: ‹‹[Sources] report,›› says [Oecumenius], ‹‹that there are two reasons why among the Athenians “To the Unknown God” was written on the altar, seeing that some say the Athenians had sent Philippides [8] to the Spartans in the matter of bringing help when the Persians were leading their army into Greece. In the vicinity of Mount Parthenion, the apparition of [the god] Pan, produced on the path of their [viz., the Athenians’] messengers, reproached the Athenians because they were worshipping other gods, while they had paid no heed to him, and he promised assistance. And so, when they had obtained victory, they erected a temple to him and built an altar; and being attentive in the same way lest either the very same thing or something similar should happen to them if they were to neglect any God unknown to them, they erected that altar [viz., of Acts 17:23], inscribing [it]: To the unknown God, saying: If any other [god] still be unknown to us, this altar shall be erected by us in his honor, whereby he may be well disposed to us, although, since he is unknown, he is not worshiped. But others say that at one time a plague raged at Athens and so consumed them that they could not bear [the weight of] the lightest muslin fabrics. When thereupon they worshipped those that were considered gods among them, they experienced no support. And so, understanding that perhaps there was a certain God whom they had left without high esteem [and] who might have sent in the plague, they built up a new altar, and they inscribed [it]: To the unknown God. And when they had offered sacrifice, they were immediately cured. For that reason, Paul says that Christ Jesus is the God of all, [the One] Whom [Paul] said he was proclaiming to them. However, this is the complete inscription: θεοῖς Ἀσίας, καὶ Εὐρώπης, καὶ Λιβύης, Θεῷ ἀγνώστῳ καὶ ξένῷ [Theoîs Asías kaì Eurṓpēs kaì Libýēs kaì Theōi agnṓstōi kaì xénōi, “to the Gods of Asia, and of Europe, and of Libya, to the unknown and foreign God.] ››

            But, as [the ecclesiastical historian] Cesare Cardinal Baronius properly observes, at Athens there were many altars inscribed in the plural to unknown gods, but one in particular was inscribed ‹‹To the Unknown God.” Indeed, Paul maintains it.

            Second, [the theologian] Hugh of St. Victor, [the exegete] Nicholas of Lyra, and [the Jesuit biblical interpreter] Gaspar Sánchez, and also [the priest] Michael the Syncellus, in Laudes s. Dionysii [“Encomium of St. Dionysius the Areopagite”] think that the Unknown God at Athens was Christ crucified. For when Dionysius saw the eclipse produced at the death and on account of the death of Christ, he cried aloud: ‹‹The unknown God suffers in the flesh, and therefore the world is made indistinct in darkness, ›› says Syncellus. Therefore, [he says that] the unknown God is the suffering God, namely, Christ crucified. Indeed, the Athenians had erected an altar to Him in front of the other [gods], because they considered Him the Great God, for Whom nature had performed solemn expiatory funeral rites by means of a marvelous [astronomical] alteration and celestial mourning.

            Third, more probably Caesar Cardinal Baronius, [the Jesuit exegete] Jean de Lorin of Avignon, and others think that the Athenians learned from philosophers, from sibyls, perhaps even from the Jews that the true God was unseen, hidden, exalted, inaccessible, and incomprehensible, and on that account set up an altar to Him with this inscription: ‹‹To the unknown God. ›› Certainly, on that account the Hebrews said that God’s name Jehovah was ἄῤῥητον καὶ ἀνεκφώνητον [árrheton kaì anekphṓnēton, “a thing not said and a thing unpronounced”]. That is, a [name] that must not be spoken, as I have said at Exodus 6:3. Wherefore [the theologian] Clement of Alexandria, in book I of [his] Stromata [9] ix, and St. Augustine, in book I of [his] Contra Cresconium [“Against Cresconius {the Grammarian}”] teach that the Athenians worshipped the one, true God, albeit unknown to them. And St. Jerome, in chapter 16 of Ezechiel, says that the majesty of God was not unknown, at least dimly, to these Gentiles, as was not the case with the Jews using the ineffable four-lettered [tetragrammato [10]] name. Whence [writes the Roman epic poet] Lucan, in book II [of his Pharsalia]: ‹‹Judea’s [11] God about whom nothing is known [incerti]:›› that is to say, unknown. For Paul suggests that here the unknown God was the true [God], not some false one of the pagans’ gods, when he adds: ‹‹What therefore you worship unknowing, this I proclaim to you. ››

            You will say: Why, therefore, does [Paul] call them superstitious? I answer: First, because along with the unknown God they worshiped the statues of the pagans, and they regarded them as equal to Him, in conformity with [verse] 40:25 of Isaias: ‹‹To whom have you considered me similar, and made me equal? ›› Second, because they called Him unknown: for no one worships or loves that which he does not know. To be sure ‹‹ [there is] no particular desire for the unknown.[12]›› Third, because they truly had not known Him, as they were able and were under obligation [to do]. For they did not acknowledge that He is the creator of heaven and earth, the giver of rain, the harvest, the fruits [of the earth], and all things; that he is present everywhere; that our life and breath are in His hand: wherefore Paul instructs them about these matters. Lastly, the devil could lie hidden and conceal himself under the name of “the unknown God”; in the same way as [the Church historian] Nicephorus Callistus Xanthopulus, in book II [of his Historia ecclesiastica], points out, the Argonauts set up a statue to the divinity directing them, and afterward St. Michael the Archangel made known to Constantine the Great that he [the Archangel] had directed them. In such a way Christ, in John 4:22, accused the Samaritans: ‹‹You reverence what you do not know; we reverence what we know. ››

            A quite excellent passage concerning the unknown God appears in [the apologist] Arnobius of Sicca, in book I of Contra Gentes [or Adversus nationes, “Against the Nations,” i.e., pagans or heathens], before the midsection, with these words: ‹‹You are,›› he says, ‹‹the first cause, the center point and expanse of things, the foundation of all things whatever that are, infinite, unbegotten, immortal, perpetual, having no equal, Whom no bodily form outlines, [Whom] no contour of [the accident of] quality limits, free from [the accident of] quantity, without [the accident] of posture [situ], change of place [motu], and [the accident of] natural or normal physical adjuncts [habitu], about Whom nothing can be said or be represented by the expression of mortal men’s words; You Who in order that You be understood, [we] must be silent, and in order that wayward opinion may be able to search You out in the shadow, nothing absolutely must be muttered. O most high King, forgive the ones persecuting Your servants and, what is the special property of Your kindness, [forgive] the ones fleeing from the worship of Your name and religious observance. It is no wonder if You are not known; if You should be known, [that] is of greater wonderment. ››

And clearly Tertullian in his Apologeticus adversus gentes [“Written Defense against the Pagans {on behalf of Christians}, also called the Apologeticum”], in chapter xvii, says: ‹‹What we worship is one God, Who, by the word whereby He ordered [the Creation], by the intelligence whereby He arranged [it] in order, by the power whereby He was able [to do so], produced from nothing this mass with all [its] accoutrements of elements, bodies, [and] spirits as an ornament of His majesty. Whence also the Greeks have applied the name κόσμος [kósmos, “established system, good order, adornment”]. He is invisible, although He may be seen; imperceptible, although He may be manifested through grace; inconceivable, although he may be conceived by the human senses. To that degree, he is true, and is so great. But what can be seen in general, [what can] be perceived, what [can be] conceived is smaller to the eyes by which it is grasped and by the hands by which it is defiled, and the senses by which it is discovered. But that which is measureless is known to itself alone; this is what [13] renders God conceivable, while he is not capable of being conceived. For thus the power of His greatness presents [Him] to men [as] both something known and unknown. This is the whole of the offense of those unwilling to acknowledge [the Being] of Whom they cannot be ignorant. ›› St. Cyril of Alexandria, in book III, Contra Julianum (“Against [the Emperor] Julian [the Apostate]) relates: “Hermes Trismegistus says that God is indeed hard to understand, but impossible to reveal in words. The reason is that it is impossible to indicate the incorporeal by means of a body, and it is not possible for the incomplete to comprehend the complete, and it is difficult to compare the everlasting with a thing of short duration. Therefore, if any [man has [14]] an incorporeal eye [i.e., a soul], let [it] go out from the body toward the contemplation of the beautiful, and fly upwards and observe, seeking to gaze at not the shape, not the body, not the outward appearances but rather [gaze at] that which can make all things, that which is undisturbed, that which is still, that which is steadfast, that which is unchangeable, that which itself is all things and sole, that which is one, that which itself [is] from itself, that which [is] like to its very self and not like another. For He is all power itself, and you may not imagine that He is in anything, nor again that [He is], in a manner of speaking, outside anything. For He, being without limit, is the limit of all things, and He, who is comprehended by nothing, comprehends all things in himself. ›› And a little afterwards [Cyril writes]: ‹‹And to this, the most wise Xenophon [adds]: “Therefore, it is plain that he is great and powerful; He shakes and makes firm all things; but what sort of appearance [He has] is unknown, and he does not indeed seem to be a dazzlingly brilliant sun, and He does not seem to allow that He be seen distinctly: what is more, if anyone should shamelessly look at Him, he is deprived of [his] eyes.”[15]›› This [is what] Cyril [said].

            Simonides [the poet], having been asked by Hiero, the tyrant [of Syracuse], “What was God,” requested a day to think; presently a period of two days; then a period of four days; and afterward a period of eight days, etc. When the surprised Hiero asked the reason [for the delay], [Simonides] said, ‹‹Because the longer I reflect, the more unclear the matter seems to my mind. ›› So [writes] Cicero in book I of his De natura deorum [“On the Nature of the Gods”].

            Fourth, by [the appellation] “unknown God,” some interpret it [to mean] the God who will appear in the flesh, say, Christ about to be made flesh: for the Athenians were able to learn from the sibyls and the Hebrews that the Incarnation of Christ was about to take place, and [were able] to erect an altar to Him with this inscription: ‹‹To the Unknown God. ›› For Christ before the [Incarnation] was unknown to and unheard of by men. That [interpretation] is true, if the things that Hilduin, archbishop of Rheims, writes in his Vita s. Dionysii [“Life of St. Denis” [16]] are true. For he says thus: ‹‹During the time in which Paul had examined each altar and statue of the false gods, he found among the other altars one, above which had been written the inscription “To the Unknown God”; and Paul, having turned toward [Dionysius the Areopagite], questioned him, saying: “Who is that unknown God?” Dionysius [replied] to him: “Thus far, this very God has not been indicated among the gods, but he is unknown to us, and is to be present in an age to come. For he is the God Who is about to reign in heaven and earth, and His kingdom will not receive an end.” And so, Paul, by way of adding a comment, says: “Will he be a man or a spirit?” By way of an answer, Dionysius [said]: “True God and true man, and He will renew the universe; but still He is unknown to men, since His manner of life is with God in heaven.” And Paul says: “To you [Athenians], I preach that God to you, whom you name ‘the unknown.’ For he was born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate; dead, he arose for human salvation; ascending to the heavens, he sits at the right of God the Father: true God and true man by Whom all things have been made; and He will come in the end of the world as the judge of all things that are brought forth; Who is now known in Judea as God, and great in Israel is His holy name. On which account, recognize just now Him Whom you until the present moment considered unknown; because He is the only God, and exclusive of him there is no other; Who called us back to life from death at the price of His blood; Who joined together heaven and earth, namely man and the angels, in the unity of His kingdom; Who in His justice puts to death and in His mercy [pius] makes alive, Who closes, and no one opens, [Who] opens and no one closes.” ›› Hilduin adds below these and other words of Paul that Dionysius was converted, and inflamed with the love of Christ, especially when he saw a blind man given light by Paul. But the warrant for this story may rest with Hilduin; to some it seems apocryphal.

            With respect to the moral sense [17] of the words [Moraliter]: Learn at this passage the exaltedness of God by which He surmounts and surpasses the ranks of men and angels. ‹‹For he dwells in unapproachable light, Whom no man has seen and indeed cannot see (except through the mind’s and nature’s eyes and insight), ›› 1 Tim 6:16—particularly if we contemplate the Most Holy Trinity in the one indivisible unity of essence, if we reflect on the mystery of the Incarnation, of the Passion, and of the Eucharist. Wherefore Isaias [says] at 45:15: ‹‹Truly You are a hidden God, the God of Israel, the Savior: ›› And the Psalmist [says] at Ps 17:12 [Vulgate numbering]: ‹‹Who set up darkness [as His] hiding-place: ›› On which account, the Seraphim in Is 6:3 cry out “Holy, holy, holy. ›› Seneca the Younger, in book VII, chapter xxxi, of [his] Naturales quaestiones [“Investigations Related to the Physical Sciences”] gives two reasons. The first, he says, [is] “Because the subtlety and brightness is so great that human vision cannot perceive [Him]. ›› The second, ‹‹Because such great majesty has concealed itself in a holier hiding place. ›› Take into account a third [reason] from St. John Damascene: ‹‹ Their knowledge, ›› he says, ‹‹is what they are; but God is above existence itself. And, therefore, he is above and outside being known, because he is above essence.[18] ›› And a fourth [reason] is because in every direction He is infinite and immeasurable, whether you contemplate [His] substance or power or wisdom or other attributes. Listen to Seneca the Younger in book II of the Naturales quaestiones, chapter xlv: ‹‹Do you wish to call Him fate? You will not be wrong. He is the one on Whom all things are made dependent, the cause of causes. Do you wish [to call] Him Providence? You will speak correctly; for it is He by Whose counsel there is provision made for this world, in order that it may proceed undisturbed and unfold [its] actions. Do you wish to call Him nature? You will not go astray; for it is He from Whom all things spring, by Whose breath we live. Do you wish [to call] Him the universe? For He is everything that you see, attached wholly in his own parts and supporting Himself by His own power. ››

            The divine St. Dionysius, in chapter xv of [his] De caelesti hierarchia [“On the Celestial Hierarchy”] claims that God can be compared to the wind—better still, that he walks on the wings of the winds, on account of the force of [their] movement and quickening, and [their] swift and indomitable passing, and also the unknown hidden places of their quick-moving [19] origins and endings. And St. Augustine in book X, chapter vi of the Confessiones, says: ‹‹O Lord, I do love You. You struck through my heart with Your word, and I loved You. And indeed, heaven and earth and all the things that are in them: behold! on all sides they tell me that I should love You, and they do not cease to declare [You] to everyone in order that they [scil., the pagans] may be without excuse.[20] More deeply, however, You will have pity upon whom You will be merciful, and You will offer compassion to whom You will have been compassionate. Otherwise heaven and earth speak Your praises to the deaf. But what do I love when I love You? Not the beautiful form of a body, nor the ornament of time, nor the brilliance of light—behold! A pleasing thing to these eyes of ours—not the sweet melodies of delightful songs of all sorts, not the fragrance of flowers, ointments, and aromatic substances, not manna and honey, not limbs welcome to the embraces of the flesh. I do not love these things when I love my God: and still I love a kind of light, and a kind of tone, a kind of pleasant aroma, a kind of sustenance, and a kind of embrace when I love my God, the light, tone, pleasant aroma, sustenance, [and] embrace of the inner man: where a thing that [the accident of] place does not occupy is conspicuous to my soul; and where something that time does not carry off gives out a sound; and where something that the wind does not scatter gives off scent; and where something that voraciousness does not reduce has a savor.; and where something clings, which abundance does not rend asunder. This is what I love when I love my God. And what is this? I questioned the earth, and it said: It is not I: and whatever things that are in the [earth] acknowledged the same thing. I questioned the sea and the depths and the crawling things of the living creatures, and they answered: We are not your God; seek above us. ›› The [Roman compiler of anecdotes] Valerius Maximus saw this through a shadow in book II, chapter vii [of his De factis dictisque memorabilibus, “On Memorable Deeds and Sayings”]: ‹‹It is clear, ›› he says, ‹‹that whatever has been placed on the highest summit, after having been often used by lowly custom, is worthless. ›› And [the neo-Platonic philosopher] Iamblicus, in [his] Protrepticus [“Exhortation {to philosophy}”], chapter iii, says: “The knowledge of God is complete happiness.” Clement of Alexandria, in book V of the Stromata, quotes and praises these verses of Orpheus concerning God:

The One is perfect by himself; all things have been made out of the One. / And no [man] perceives Him / But He beholds all men. / I do not see Him, for a massive cloud has been set around [Him].

And [he quotes and praises the verses] of the Stoic [philosopher] Cleanthes, who portrays God in this way:

[He is] that which is orderly, invested with religious awe, sacred, /Just, self-commanding, seemly, and useful. / [He is] that which is austere, serious, always advantageous, / Free from fear, pain, and vexation, / Helping, pleasing, agreeing perfectly [pulchre] with Himself, / Illustrious, not haughty, forbearing and vigorous; / [He is] that which endures, and no one can resemble [Him].

This is the divine murkiness that St. Dionysius vividly represents in his book De mystica theologia [“On Mystical Theology”], chapter 1 ff., where he calls the highest ascending of the soul toward God ‹‹murkiness and light, ›› murkiness with reference to the soul, light with reference to God. From which, [the Dominican] Joannes Tauler, [the Dominican] Bl. Henry Suso, [the Augustinian canon] Jan van Ruysbroeck, and other contemplatives drew [their] tenets of contemplation on entering into the murkiness of God.

            Quod ergo ignorantes colitis, hoc ego annuntio vobis [“What therefore you worship unknowing, this I proclaim to you”]—that is to say, I am not the announcer of deities not previously known [novorum daemoniorum [21]], as you [Athenian philosophers] lay to [my] charge. On the contrary, I proclaim to you your God, and from the unknown [God] I make [Him] the known [God]. Hence it is clear that the unknown God at Athens was the true God, for otherwise Paul would have been under obligation to reject him and put in his place the true God, just as Emperor Constantine the Great transformed the shrine erected by the Argonauts to a safety-bringing divine power, and thereafter called the Sosthenium [22] [Gk. Σωσθένιον], into the Michaelium [Gk. Μιχᾳηλεῖον], that is, the Church of St. Michael, as Nicephorus witnesses in book VII, chapter i, inasmuch as St. Michael had aided the Argonauts, not Jupiter or other divine power, as the Argonauts supposed. Indeed, St. Michael, appearing to Constantine, affirmatively declared it.


[1] The Latin for “supernatural beings” is the genitive plural of post-classical word daemōn, transliterated from the Greek δαίμων (daímōn). In Mt 8:31, daemones (in the Vulgate), δαίμονες (in the N.T. Greek text), means “demons, evil spirits,” and in ecclesiastical language the word took on the special sense of “an infernal spirit.” However, in classical Greek, δαίμων usually meant “a divinity (god or goddess), a divine spirit, a spirit (incorporeal being), a class of supernatural beings superior to men (intermediary spirit between the gods and man), an inferior divinity, the influencing soul of a deceased person, a governing or tutelary or attendant spirit, an attribute of divine power not associated with any one god.” At times, it even was roughly equivalent to “irresistible fate.” The notion of “evil spirit, demon” most likely emerged from early superstitious belief and the later philosophers belonging to the Platonic school.

[2] The Greek word δαιμόνιον (daimónion), a derivative of δαίμων (daímōn), means “divine power, divinity, deity, spiritual power, god, evil spirit.”

[3] Translation of the conventional (i.e., Latinized) academic title De superstitione. In Latin, superstitio lexically denotes “excessive dread of the gods, unreasonable religious belief, scrupulous observance, irrational religious awe, credulity, superstitious practice or belief, obsessive piety.” However, like the Greek word it translates, δεισιδαιμονία (deisidaimonía), it sometimes has the positive force of “reverence of the godhead, religious awe, god-fearing, conscientious or dutiful veneration of divinity, respect for the supernatural.” Translations of the comparative adjective δεισιδαιμονεστέρους (deisidaimonestérous) of Acts 17:22 reflect this ambiguous, twofold, perhaps ironic, sense. For example: “too superstitious” (Douay-Rheims, KJV); “extremely religious” (CCD, New RSV, CSB, Goodspeed); “very religious” (NAB, NIV, NLT, ESV), “uncommonly scrupulous” (NEB); “over-religious” (Young); “scrupulously religious” (Knox); “somewhat superstitious” (ERV); “more religious than usual” (Linguistic Key to the Greek NT). Zerwick’s Analysis Philologica Novi Testamenti Graeci asserts that in this verse the adjective is surely used in a laudatory sense (hîc certe in sensu laudativo). The 1966 Jerome Biblical Commentary argues that in its positive degree the adjective means “reverently devout.” Note that in N.T. Greek idiom, the comparative adjective is frequently used in the true (“-est form”) as well as the elative (“very”) superlative sense (Zerwick, Biblical Greek; Moulton, Grammar of N.T. Greek.).

[4] I.e., “Thrice-greatest” Hermes, the legendary Hellenistic figure of the Egyptian god Djhuty or, in Greek, Θώθ Thōth.

[5] “Augustine…assumes that the man who predicted these things [viz., the victory of Christianity and the abolition of paganism] lived in the second millennium b.c….” (W. Scott & A.S. Ferguson, Hermetica, vol. iv, p. 181, n.1). W. Scott surmises that the author of the Greek original of the Latin Asclepius III, compiled around a.d. 280-290, was an Egyptian priest with a Hellenic education (vol. i, p. 77).

[6] Plato’s metaphor derives from the ancient Greeks’ (and Romans’) practice of diluting wine with water in a vessel (called κρᾱτήρ [krātḗr] in Greek, crātēr, crātēra in Latin) before consumption. Augustine, who did not know Greek, would have been familiar with the content of the passage on the fashioning of souls from Cicero’s translation (see Gk. text Tim., beginning at 41d 4; Cicero’s Lat. version at c. 11, §42).

[7] But, in fact, simulacrum and the verb simulāre are derivatives of similis, -e [de Vaan, Etymological Dictionary of Latin and the other Italic Languages].

[8] Often identified as Pheidippides. The source of the account is found in book vi.105.1-3 of the Historiae [“Histories”] of Herodotus.

[9] A transliteration of the Greek Στρώματα, “coverings,” a misreading for στρωματεῖς, stromateis, “patchwork, (literary) miscellanies.”

[10] From the Greek adjective τετραγράμματος, “of four letters.” In the original, unvocalized text of the Hebrew Bible, the personal name of God is written with four consonants: יהוה‎, d-hē-wāw-hē, YHWH (by scholarly convention now pronounced “Yahweh”). The vowel-less form יהוה‎, YHWH, is termed the Tetragrammaton (from the Greek Τετραγράμματον), i.e., “(the name, ὄνομα, ónoma) composed of four letters.” Insofar as pious Jews dared not utter God’s sacrosanct name, they substituted another word that they were allowed to pronounce, in most cases Adonai (אֲדֹנָי, ʾăḏōnāy, “My Lords,” a plural), originally a divine title. In the later vocalized Masoretic (rabbinic) Hebrew text, the supra/sublinear vowel signs (termed “points”) of a pronounceable name were overlaid (in accordance with fixed orthographic rules) upon the four consonants YHWH as a prompt to substitute “Adonai” when reading the text aloud. Non-Jews, unaware of Jewish observance, subsequently read the vowel points as though they belonged to the four consonants YHWH as a word. Thus, יְהֹוָה‎ was read yəhōwāh and mistakenly became “Jehovah,” a non-word in Hebrew.

[11] The translator has emended the Latin text, which reads nonsensically incerti natura Dei (“the nature of a God about whom nothing is known”). The reading natura has survived for centuries throughout the editions of this commentary, for the translator has found it as early as 1627 in a Lyon edition (Lapide lived from 1567-1537). A.E. Housman’s 1926 Latin text of Lucan’s epic poem reads at II. 592-593 “(Cappadoces mea signa timent et dedita sacris / incerti Iudaea dei…” (lit., “the Cappadocians fear my [viz., Pompey the Great’s] military ensigns and also Judea devoted to the rites of a god about whom nothing certain is known.” Housman does not register a variant natura in the critical apparatus. A much-reprinted 1643 Amsterdam Pharsalia edited by the humanist Hugo Grotius also prints Iudaea, and a 1614 English verse translation by Arthur Gorges renders the line “The Jewes, the unknowne God that serve.”

[12] A well-known and still-current saying taken from the poet Ovid’s Ars amatoria, “The Art of Love,” III.397.

[13] The Latin text reads an unintelligible quod vero inmensum est, soli sibi notum est hoc quod est: Deum aestimari facit etc. The translation reflects the reading based on modern editions of Tertullian (Oehler/Glover, 1851-3 and Becker, 1961): quod vero inmensum est, soli sibi notum est. Hoc quod est, (or Hoc est, quod) Deum aestimari facit etc. The unintelligible reading is also in the 1627 and 1672 editions of the commentary.

[14] The Latin text’s reading si quis, “if anyone,” rendering a patently wrong Gk. reading εἴ τις (eí tis), “if any” (found also in Migne’s Patrologia Graeca). The translator has adopted W. Scott’s sensible emendation εἴ τῳ (ei tōi), the dative of possessor, with an equative verb understood (Hermetica, vol. iv, p.198, l. 4 and n. 5) The Latin as printed leads to misreading the subjunctive verbs as dependent rather than independent (jussive) and inevitably to a fragment. To be sure, the textual blunder is more readily apparent in the Gk.

[15] Lapide cites the Latin translation of Cyril’s Greek text. The remark of Xenohpon of Athens (c. 430-355 BC) is a paraphrase, not a direct quotation, from his Memorabilia (4.3.13f.).

[16] Hilduin mistakenly identified the 3rd-century martyr St. Dionysius of Paris (St. Denis or Denys) with Dionysius, a member of the important governmental council of the Areopagus (Ἄρειος πάγος, “hill of Ares” or “Mars’ hill” of the KJV), in Acts 17:34.

[17] Early Biblical exegesis of the Middle Ages proposed four senses or levels of scriptural interpretation: the literal, the allegorical, the moral (sometimes called the tropological), and the anagogical. A moral interpretation is a figurative reading of the letter of Scripture from which one may form principles of action in this present life.

[18] See Migne, Patrologia Graeca, tom. xciv, Joannis Damasceni, tomus primus, Expositio accurata Fidei orthodoxae (“Exact Explanation of the Orthodox Faith”), lib. I, cap. iv, col. 800 B.

[19] The translator has emended the text. The reading nobilium (“(of the) well-born, famous, noteworthy, superior (things)”) is a printer’s or transcriptional error for mobilium, “(of the) capable-of-being-moved or quick-moving (things),” which has (astonishingly) survived editorial scrutiny throughout the publishing history of the commentary. (The translator has found the reading in the above-referenced 1627 and 1672 editions.) In addition to the patent absurdity of the reading nobilium in this context, the original Greek of Pseudo-Dionysius reads: κρυφιότητα τῶν κινητικῶνἀρχῶν καὶ ἀποπερατώσεων, very lit., “the hiddennesses of the setting-in-motion (or capable-of-causing-motion) beginnings and completions.”

[20] See Rom 1:20.

[21] See Acts 17:18: Novorum daemoniorum videtur annuntiator esse, Ξένων δαιμονίων δοκεῖ καταγγελεὺς εἶναι, lit., “he seems to be the announcer (proclaimer) of unheard-of (strange, unfamiliar, heretofore unknown, novel) divinities (spirits, deities, gods).  The noun daemonium (nom. sg. form) is a Latinization of the Greek word δαιμόνιον, daimónion. See note 2.

[22] The pagan temple was dedicated to Zeus Sosthenios (“the one saving in strength”).

Source: Commentaria in Scripturam Sacram R. P. Cornelii a Lapide, Editio Nova, Tomus Decimus Septimus: “In Acta Apostolorum”, ed. by Augustinus Crampon (Paris: Apud Ludovicum Vivès, 1874), pp. 323-327. Imprimatur 1857. Translation into English by Novus Ordo Watch.

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