September 2019

September 2019

Puzzling Passages of the Bible: Sacrificing to Zeus and Hermes?

For the last few months, I’ve covered several topics under the theme of “Basic Christianity.” This month I’m switching gears a bit and moving into a different series. I’m calling it, “Puzzling Passages of the Bible.” If you’re anything like me, pretty much every time you read the Bible you come upon puzzling passages, things that make you scratch your head and go, “Huh?” Many of these passages will remain a mystery to us until we enter into the blessed life to come. Fortunately, though, a lot of them prove to be a lot less puzzling after further study.

Our first “puzzling passage” is a strange event that took place in the Galatian city of Lystra. Galatia was a Roman province that sat pretty much in the middle of Asia Minor, in modern-day Turkey. It was there that St. Paul conducted most of his first missionary journey, recounted in Acts 13–14. The Galatian congregations that he founded on that journey, including Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe, were also the recipients of what I believe to have been St. Paul’s first epistle: the epistle to the Galatians. What concerns us now is something that happened to Paul and his colleague Barnabas while they were preaching the Gospel among the Gentiles in Lystra.

According to Acts 14:8–18, after Paul and Barnabas had been preaching for some time in Lystra, they encountered a beggar who had been born crippled. Paul miraculously healed the man, but the response of the people was not what you might have expected. Instead of glorifying Jesus and becoming Christians, the people concluded that Paul must be the Greek god Hermes, and Barnabas must be Zeus, his superior. The local priest of Zeus even brought oxen to sacrifice to them! The puzzling thing about this passage is: why on earth would there have been such a response to Paul’s miracle? Why conclude that these men must be Zeus and Hermes specifically?

The answer comes from ancient Greek mythology. According to the Roman poet Ovid, who recorded many Greek myths in his work Metamorphoses, there was once a city in Phrygia (near the territory of Lystra) which Zeus and Hermes visited, disguised as weary human travelers. As king of the gods, one of Zeus’s chief concerns was to make sure that people practiced hospitality, welcoming travelers and providing for their needs. He was testing this city to see if the people would offer him and Hermes hospitality, but house after house refused them. Finally they came to the humble dwelling of an impoverished couple name Baucis and Philemon (Paul’s epistle to Philemon is written to a man who had the same name and lived in the same region). This couple welcomed the travelers and entertained them generously, but simply, with whatever rustic fare they possessed. When Zeus performed a miracle, the couple realized that they were entertaining gods unawares, and begged for mercy, even trying to sacrifice their household goose to Zeus. The gods refused the sacrifice, though, and having destroyed the rest of the city, turned the humble cottage into an ornate temple to Zeus, richly blessing the couple that had hosted them.

Given this background, our passage becomes less puzzling. The people of Lystra had just encountered two weary travelers, whom they generously entertained. The travelers then performed a miracle. The natural response was to conclude that these travelers must be the same as those encountered by Baucis and Philemon! And just like the couple in the story, the people of Lystra tried to offer sacrifice to the travelers whom they supposed to be Zeus and Hermes. Paul protested and tried to preach the Gospel of the living God, but “even with these words they scarcely restrained the people from offering sacrifice to them” (Acts 14:18). The people were scared that if they didn’t honor Paul and Barnabas (or Hermes and Zeus) with the proper sacrifices, their city might be destroyed by the gods!

Hopefully this background helps to make this passage a little less puzzling as you read through your Bible. In the coming months I hope to offer some help with further puzzling passages!

God's Blessings,

Pastor Neuendorf