Agnōstos Theos

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AGNŌSTOS THEOS . The phrase agnōstōn theōn (nominative singular, agnōstos theos ) was found inscribed on Greek altars dedicated "to the unknown gods." The inscription had no mystical or theosophical meaning, but arose out of a concern for cultic safety: no one wanted to incur the wrath of gods whose names were unknown but who just might exist and be vexed by the lack of honors.

The meaning of the designation agnōstos is indeed ambiguous: it could mean "unknowable" or "unknown," depending upon the context. God could in fact be "unknown" without necessarily being "unknowable." Even from a philosophical standpoint, "unknowable" does not require an absolute or irreconcilable meaning. God can be unknowable by the ordinary means of cognition or by discursive reason yet still be knowable by means of divine grace in contemporary or mystical intuition. This semantic uncertainty beclouds our understanding of the ancient usage.

The distinguished philologist Eduard Norden (1913) attempted to show that the notion of agnōstos theos was foreign and even contrary to the Classical Greek spirit. The term did not appear until late in the Classical period, and then only in texts clearly under Oriental influence: Jewish, Gnostic, Neoplatonic, and Christian writings. Further, the expression would imply "a renunciation of inquiry" (p. 84) that would ill accord with Hellenic speculation.

Hellenic and Hellenistic Paganism

Most often, Greek gods are identified according to geographical location and function by epithets that thus remove these gods from the category of "unknown" gods. To be sure, the gods belong to a world distinct from that of men, and possess a natureimmortal and blessedthat eludes the grasp of human understanding, regardless of the anthropomorphic images that make them physically resemble their worshipers. In their cult, however, the Greeks were concerned only with the names and the spheres of action of these superior beings, for the purpose of invoking them with some degree of effectiveness. The phrase agnōstōn theōn was found on two altars observed by Pausanias, one at Phaleron, the other at Olympia. The apostle Paul employed the singular when citing the inscription on an Athenian altar as he argued on behalf of monotheism (Norden, 1913, pp. 5556). Still, there is no evidence of any cult rendered to an unknown god, nor to an unknowable one. The reconstruction that Hugo Hepding propounded for an inscription found at Pergamum that supposedly dealt with "unknown gods" was rebutted by Otto Weinreich (1915, p. 29). The Alexander Romance 1.33 attributes to the conqueror of Asia the erection of an altar "to the unknown god," but this detail lacks historical value (ibid., p. 28).

Philosophers have raised the question of the knowability or unknowability of God. Yet the famous statement from Plato (Timaeus 28c), often quoted and commented upon, addresses the ineffability of the creator god, which does not rule out that one might be able to conceive of him and to know him intuitively (Plato, Epinomis 7.342cd) or analogously (Republic 6.506e509a). Nevertheless in Parmenides (142a), Plato writes of the One who is "neither named nor known." The distinction between divine power that manifests itself to men and divine being that eludes them, just like the sun that one cannot look at without being blinded, is implied by Xenophon (Memorabilia 4.3.1314). Further, the distinction between existence and essence, common among Stoics, originates with Aristotle and perhaps with the doctrine of the Sophists (Festugière, 19501954, vol. 4, p. 16), yet the expression agnōstos theos still does not appear in these contexts. Damascius applies it to an Orphic text that appears to be among the most ancient: it had been quoted by Eudemus of Rhodes, a disciple of Aristotle. But Damascius rewrites Orphism in his own fashion. Even though born of the Night, this ineffable and unknowable god derives from Neoplatonism.

The Platonic tradition of the imperial Roman epoch limits the experience of the first god, ineffable and accessible, to the human intellect alone. Numenius (frag. 26) attributes to Plato the idea that only the demiurge is known to men, "while the first Intellect, the one that contains the name 'Being' within itself, remains totally unknown to men." Norden (1913) and H. J. Krämer (1963) discern Gnostic influences here. However, Numenius remains faithful to the Platonic concept of the Nous as the suprarational faculty of mystical contemplation, as well as to the idea of the Good, the greatest object of knowledge.

According to Proclus (Elements of Theology 123), "everything divine is ineffable and agnōston "; that is, by surpassing the range of language, the divine lies beyond the scope of discursive reasoning. Yet Proclus's entire body of work proves that he was seeking to know God. The Unknown Father of the Neoplatonist Martianus Capella corresponds to the First Intellect of Numenius and to the God of Plato. Like Albinus and Numenius, the Latin Neoplatonist seems to think that, thanks to the Mens (identical with the Greeks' Nous), the supreme god can be conceived through mystical intuition. Damascius starts by affirming the unknowability of God, yet specifies that it is necessary to empty one's intellect so that the subject can blend with the object by removing any barrier, through aphairesis.

In Hermetism several contradictory currents intersect. In principle, the All that is God "is perceivable and knowable only to himself" (Asclepius 34). Although he cannot be comprehended or defined, he wants to be known and thus makes himself known as God. It is entirely characteristic of the Good to be known and recognized, and to ignore him is impious. He becomes visible "to the intellect and the heart" through an interior illumination (Festugière, 19501954, vol. 4, pp. 241ff.). Indeed, one must become God in order to attain the happiness of this "gnosis," one must become "divinized" or regenerated.

Hellenistic Judaism

One of the earliest literal appearances of agnōstos theos is that in Josephus Flavius (Against Apion 2.167): Moses, he states, showed us that God is "knowable by his power, but unknowable in his essence." In saying this, Josephus was not relying directly on Jewish tradition. (The Septuagint makes no distinction between the existence of God, manifested by the created world, and his essence.) He refers instead to the "wisest of the Greeks Pythagoras, Anaxagoras, Plato, the philosopher of the Portico." The distinction was common among the Stoics, who derived it from Aristotle. It was employed whenever anyone would comment on the ancient philosophers (whence the reference to Pythagoras, Anaxagoras, and Plato).

Nonetheless, the Stoics tended to put more emphasis on the god manifested through creation. Taking a different stance, Philo Judaeus stresses in several places that it is impossible for man to grasp the invisible and incorporeal essence of God. Moses, after all, halted after being blinded by the divine beams. God made himself visible to Abraham, but man has no faculty of his own for experiencing the absolute being. The inaccessibility of the agnōstos theos appears to be more radical in the Jewish tradition than in most developed Hellenistic speculations. It cannot be said, however, that the notion of agnōstos theos itself is of Oriental origin.


The unknown god is a fundamental theme of gnosticism. During the second century ce, the teaching of philosophers upheld the divine transcendence by making a distinction between the Demiurge, perceptible in his cosmic creation, and the supreme Intellect, inaccessible to the human intellect. This distinction was furthered by the Gnostics, who perceived an opposition between the knowable and the unknowable. The transcendent god appeared to be a stranger to the universe, concealed from the creator god as well as from his creatures (Hippolytus, Philosophuma 6:33; Gospel of Truth 18.714). This is the Unknown Father or the Propator of the angels and archangels (Irenaeus, Against Heresies 1.19; 1.23.2). It is also the "good god" of Marcion"naturaliter ignotus" (Tertullian, Against Marcion 5.16.3). The Son reveals the Father whom "no one knows." According to the Valentinians, the Unknown Father makes himself known to the aeons by ways of Monogenes (his "only begotten"). In the beginning, the angels and archangels do not know who has created them, and their ignorance of the Father causes fear and terror among them (Gospel of Truth 17.916). Yet in arousing this inner crisis (which the Gnostics express in terms of a mythico-allegorical drama), this essentially forbidding transcendence of the Father forces them into a search for salvation through gnosis, through knowledge of the Unknowable (Jonas, 1963, pp. 257f., 404ff.). This gnosis of the agnōstos does not proceed directly by way of reason. Certain sects employed a ritual of initiation, or mystagogy (Tröger, 1971, p. 69): the Marcionites baptized neophytes "in the name of the Unknown Father." Yet in general it is God who reveals himself. Thus a Coptic hymn addresses God: "No one can know you against your will." Gnosis proceeds not from the knowing subject but from divine grace.


In his sermon to the Athenians (Acts 17:23), Paul claims that he is proclaiming to them the God whom they honor without knowing him. Paul emphasized the basic meaning of a dedication that was written in the plural (to the agnōstōn theōn ) in a way that was consistent with his doctrine of the mystery made known to men by the Christ. In the Clementine Homilies (18.18), Peter interprets Isaiah 1:31 ("Israel has not known me") in a way that rebuts the argument of the Marcionites: the Jews ignored the justice of the known God! Clement of Alexandria (Miscellanies comments on the unknown god of Acts by referring to Plato (Timaeus 28c). Yet the statement by Christ in Matthew 11:27 ("No one knows the Son except the Father, just as no one knows the Father except the Son") legitimized the Valentinian conception of the Unknown Father and might be seen as encouraging ignorance about God. Paul reproached the pagans for this ignorance, which he condemned as an unpardonable fault (1 Cor. 15:34, Rom. 1:20, Eph. 4:18, Acts 17:30). Christ had left men with no excuse for ignorance, since he was the visible image of the invisible God and the revealer of the divine mystery (Col. 1:15).

Nevertheless, the Fathers of the church were fond of quoting Plato in order to show that the philosopher urged pagans to seek out the unknown god. The Fathers would also set the religious knowledge of the lowliest Christian in contrast to the idle uncertainties of the learned. They also at the same time readily stressed the unknowability of God: he is known to us only through himself in all his grandeur; he is "beyond the understandable," incomprehensible, indeed beyond being in itself. Yet divine grace and the Word allow men to conceive the unknown. The patristic tradition is practically unanimous in recognizing Christ as a type of hierophant of divine mysteries.

There is, however, a line of thought of Neoplatonic inspiration that legitimizes negative theology. The hymn to God by Gregory of Nazianzus, improperly attributed to Proclus, proclaims him to be the "only unknowable" while still being the creator of all that are knowable. Synesius of Cyrene exalts the Unknown Father, unknowable to reason and ineffable. For Dionysius the Areopagite (Mystical Theology 2), it is a matter of knowing an "unknowing" (agnōsia ); in his view, Paul knew God as "transcending every mode of knowledge" (Patrologia Graeca 3.1073a). Thus Maximus the Confessor could write, "Even when known, he remains the Unknown." He is the Deus absconditus who, were it otherwise, would not be God.

See Also

Deification; Via Negativa.


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Robert Turcan (1987 and 2005)

Translated from French by Paul C. Duggan