The Gospel According to St. Cleanthes and St. Epimenides

Posted: March 17, 2019 in Fred Anson, Hermeneutics, Mormon Studies

How Mormons Abuse Paul’s Use of Pagan Sources in Acts 17:28

A marble bust of Cleanthes

compiled by Fred W. Anson
The Gospel According to St. Cleanthes
One of favorite responses when a Mormon cites Acts 17:28 (“For in him we live, and move, and have our being; as certain also of your own poets have said, For we are also his offspring.”) is to simply ask, “Oh, and since you think that Paul was endorsing Cleanthes’ ‘Hymn to Zeus’ by citing from it in the latter citation (“ For we are also his offspring“)1 are you also suggesting that he was endorsing it as divinely inspired scripture?” Then I give them the entire poem. Here it is, with the text that Paul cited italicized for emphasis:

Hymn to Zeus
by Cleanthes (c. 300 – 220 B.C.)
O God most glorious, called by many a name,
Nature’s great King, through endless years the same;
Omnipotence, who by your just decree
Controls all, hail, Zeus, for unto you
Must your creatures in all lands call.

We are your children, we alone, of all
On earth’s broad ways that wander to and fro,
Bearing your image wheresoever we go.
Wherefore with songs of praise your power I will proclaim.

Look! yonder Heaven, that round the earth is wheeled,
Follows your guidance, still to you does yield.

Glad homage; your unconquerable hand
Such flaming minister, the heftless brand,
Wields, a sword two-edged, whose deathless might
Pulsates through all that
Nature brings to light;
Vehicle of the universal word, that flows
Through all, and in the light celestial glows
Of stars both great and small.

A King of Kings
Through ceaseless ages,
God, whose purpose brings
To birth, whatever on land or in the sea
Is wrought, or in high heaven’s immensity;
Save what the sinner works infatuate.

No, but you know how to make the crooked straight:
Chaos to you is order; in your eyes
The unloved is lovely, who did harmonize
Things evil with things good, that there should be
One word through all things everlastingly.

One word – whose voice alas! the wicked spurn;
Insatiate for the good their spirits yearn:
Yet seeing see not, neither hearing hear
God’s universal law, which those revere,
by reason guided, happiness who win.

The rest, unreasoning, diverse shapes of sin
Self-prompted follow: for an idle name
Vainly they wrestle in the contests of fame:
Others inordinately riches court,
Or dissolute, the joys of flesh pursue.

Now here, now there they wander, fruitless still,
Forever seeking good and finding ill.

Zeus the all-bountiful, whom darkness shrouds,
Whose lightning lightens in the thunder-clouds;
Your children save from error’s deadly sway;
Turn you the darkness from their souls away:
Vouchsafe that unto knowledge they attain;
For you by knowledge are made strong to reign
Overall, and all things rule righteously.

So by you honored, we will honor thee,
Praising your works continually with songs,
As mortals should; nor higher reward belongs
Even to the gods, than justly to adore
The universal law for evermore.

A bust of Epimenides.

The Gospel According to St. Epimenides
The first pagan source cited in Acts 17:28 (“For in him we live and move and have our being.’”) is Epimenides (c. 7th or 6th century BC). The passage is from Epimenides’ “Minos and Rhadamanthus”. Unfortunately, none of Epimenides’ works have survived, but thankfully a passage has been found cited in the Syrian lectionary Garden of Delights and in a 9th-century commentary on Acts by Isho’dad of Merv. Translated into English, it reads like this. And again I have italicized the text that Paul used for emphasis:

A grave has been fashioned for thee, O holy and high One,
The lying Cretans, who are all the time liars, evil beasts, idle bellies;
But thou diest not, for to eternity thou livest and standest,
For in thee we live and move and have our being.

By the way, the “O holy and high One” being referred to is Zeus, just so that there’s no misunderstanding. Clearly, this provenance is too complex to use effectively with Mormons in short, conversational discussions. However, you can refer them to the following article (which I used as my primary source for this section on Epimenides) for a full explanation if you wish to: “Lying Cretans and Unknown Gods: Allusions to Epimenides in the New Testament” on the “Is That in the Bible?” blog site.

The Gospel According to St. Paul
So with that background let’s consider how Paul actually used these pagan sources on Mars Hills, with the text discussed above italicized for emphasis:

Acts 17 (KJV)
16 Now while Paul waited for them at Athens, his spirit was stirred in him, when he saw the city wholly given to idolatry.
17 Therefore disputed he in the synagogue with the Jews, and with the devout persons, and in the market daily with them that met with him.
18 Then certain philosophers of the Epicureans, and of the Stoicks, encountered him. And some said, What will this babbler say? other some, He seemeth to be a setter forth of strange gods: because he preached unto them Jesus, and the resurrection.
19 And they took him, and brought him unto Areopagus, saying, May we know what this new doctrine, whereof thou speakest, is?
20 For thou bringest certain strange things to our ears: we would know therefore what these things mean.
21 (For all the Athenians and strangers which were there spent their time in nothing else, but either to tell, or to hear some new thing.)
22 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.
23 For as I passed by, and beheld your devotions, I found an altar with this inscription, To The Unknown God. Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you.
24 God that made the world and all things therein, seeing that he is Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands;
25 Neither is worshipped with men’s hands, as though he needed any thing, seeing he giveth to all life, and breath, and all things;
26 And hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation;
27 That they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after him, and find him, though he be not far from every one of us:
28 For in him we live, and move, and have our being; as certain also of your own poets have said, For we are also his offspring.
29 Forasmuch then as we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Godhead is like unto gold, or silver, or stone, graven by art and man’s device.
30 And the times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commandeth all men every where to repent:
31 Because he hath appointed a day, in the which he will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom he hath ordained; whereof he hath given assurance unto all men, in that he hath raised him from the dead.
32 And when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked: and others said, We will hear thee again of this matter.
33 So Paul departed from among them.
34 Howbeit certain men clave unto him, and believed: among the which was Dionysius the Areopagite, and a woman named Damaris, and others with them.

As the text clearly states, Paul’s audience was wholly pagan. Therefore, given the underlying nature of the citations combined with the nature of his audience, he clearly was simply using a common point of reference to make his point. As William MacDonald notes in his commentary:

17:28b To further emphasize the relationship of the creature to the Creator, Paul quoted from some of their Greek poets, who said, “For we are also His offspring.” This is not to be interpreted as teaching the brotherhood of man and the fatherhood of God. We are the offspring of God in the sense that He created us, but we only become sons of God through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.

17:29 But Paul’s argument continues. If men are the offspring of God, then it is impossible to think of God as a gold or silver or stone idol. These are shaped by art and man’s devising, and therefore are not as great as men. These idols are, in a sense, the offspring of human beings, whereas the truth is that human beings are the creation of God.
(MacDonald, William. Believer’s Bible Commentary (p. 1625). Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition)

To use a modern equivalent it was like when Billy Graham cited the secular song lyrics “What the world needs now is love, sweet love” (from a Dione Warwick song) and “The answer is blowing in the wind” (from a Bob Dylan song) to make his point in sermons during his 1969 Anaheim, California Crusades.2 In both cases, the intention wasn’t to endorse the sources, simply to establish a rhetorical connection with the listening audience from their cultural vantage point. To suggest anything more than that is exegetically unsustainable.

“Saint Paul delivering the Areopagus Sermon in Athens” by Raphael, 1515

NOTE
1 The other pagan work that’s often cited as a source for this latter citation is Aratus’ (c. 310-245 B.C.), Phaenomena from the opening lines which are as follows:

Let us begin with Zeus, whom we mortals never leave unspoken.
For every street, every market-place is full of Zeus.
Even the sea and the harbour are full of this deity.
Everywhere everyone is indebted to Zeus.
For we are indeed his offspring…
(Phaenomena 1-5)

That poetic text is, in my opinion, is too long and complex to use effectively with Mormons in a conversational type discussion, but if you would like to refer them to it, they will find a good English translation here (click on link).

Further, since it’s generally believed that Aratus and the other pagan sources that use the “we are indeed his offspring” were glossing on Cleanthes. Therefore, and in my opinion, it’s better to just go to the short and simple original source rather than those who quoted from him later.

2 I was at these crusades and I recall him using the lyrics something like this in his sermons, “Popular culture tells us that what the world needs now is love, sweet love. I couldn’t agree more because what we need now more than ever is the sweet love of the Savior.” He used the lyrics of the Dylan song something like this, “I agree with the singer who said that the answer is blowing in the wind. That wind is God’s Spirit. And if you’re listening, really listening, you will hear Him calling you to come to Him.” I’ve paraphrased both from memory, but to the best of my recollection that’s how I heard them used back in the day.

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