Was Paul being sarcastic when he said in the "Sermon on Mars Hill":

So Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus and said, “Men of Athens, I observe that you are very religious in all respects.—Acts 17:22 (NASB)


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Acts 17:22-24 Then Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus and said, “Men of Athens, I perceive that in all things you are very religious; for as I was passing through and considering the objects of your worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. Therefore, the One whom you worship without knowing, Him I proclaim to you: “God, who made the world and everything in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands.

Paul's argument flows as follows:
You are very religious
Because you worship even the god you do not know
I proclaim to you the God you do not know
This God created heaven and earth

Several reasons argue against taking v22 as a sarcastic statement:
1: If the statement were sarcastic, the argument would not flow naturally to Paul's second point
2: The listeners, perceiving themselves as religious because of their many gods, would not have understood Paul's sarcasm if he was being sarcastic, and the use of sarcasm would therefore be ill conceived
3: Generally speaking, sarcasm is obvious in its context, and one needs strong reasons to assume someone is being sarcastic - such reasons are not found here
4: The statement about them being religious is true: they were devoted worshippers of several gods - they were simply serving the wrong gods. Sarcasm is the use of language which normally conveys the opposite meaning in order to convey contempt - the language Paul uses cannot be construed, by the definition of "religion", to convey any other meaning than the literal.

Whether Paul utilizes humor or irony later in the speech is another question. But there is no reason to read sarcasm into v22.

  • I love the Word of God, He is so beautiful, in all respects without spot or blemish..! The depth and breadth is truly magnificent...! More broad than a vast universe and more deep than tiniest atom..! Thank you for your kind answer, it warms my heart to hear that there is wisdom in the world. Looking forward to other great answers...Thanks again. Commented Nov 2, 2013 at 10:46
  • The question though does arise then from your answer. What do the scriptures teach regarding the nature of fallen man?.Christ called people the sons of the devil. Should we take that literally. Then we must conclude that mans religion is satanic. How is there any sense then that Paul was actually saying...'Look your worshiping God, but you dont know who He is? Can we worship God without knowing who He is? Possibly this fits into the doctrine of 'Common Grace', whereby we even as fallen men, experience God in common grace, but never understand who He is. So you are absolutely right? Commented Nov 2, 2013 at 14:09
  • I agree - we need to avoid the fallacy of taking everything literally, lest we end up trying to find a scientific explanation for the increased mass of the disciples' eyes in Mark 14:40. All I'm saying is we need to be very careful not to over-read sarcasm into texts, claiming that the text means the opposite of what it seems to say. Figurative expressions like idioms and metaphors, on the other hand, are a part of any language, and should be recognized and understood accordingly. Concerning the text in Acts 17, "religion" and "worshipping the true God" are not in Greek or English the same.
    – Niobius
    Commented Nov 2, 2013 at 14:47
  • Yes that's amusing. Science the life out of it. The Lord mocks the wicked. Sarcasm is a form of mockery. We know that He is righteous and understanding a little is difficult and I keep coming back all the time to this very thing, that when God mocks He is right and if there is any, of what we would call sarcasm, then it is right in nature and we must understand correctly from a point of conviction regarding Him who had no beginning, conviction that He is Holy and righteous even when we cannot understand, as in the case of the Eternal Predestination of God. Commented Nov 2, 2013 at 22:37
  • Kings 18:27 New American Standard Bible (NASB) 27 It came about at noon, that Elijah mocked them and said, “Call out with a loud voice, for he is a god; either he is occupied or gone aside, or is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and needs to be awakened.” Is this sarcasm or mockery? are the two the same or similar? Im begging to wonder? Commented Nov 2, 2013 at 22:46

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