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In Acts 17:22, there is the question of whether we should understand the word "δεισιδαιμονεστέρους" as "very superstitious" or as "very religious".

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. [Acts 17:22 KJV]

I keep finding mention in commentaries and discussions on the word that certain Greek writers used this word – or related words like "δεισιδαιμον" – both positively and negatively, but find it hard to evaluate such statements, because I have a hard time finding the excerpts from these writings.

Would anyone with access to (some of) these excerpts or writings be so kind as to cite or link them? I'm particularly interested in the supposed positive mentions of this word by certain writers, as the word literally means "to greatly fear demons".

Thanks a lot! God bless you all!

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  • Welcome to Biblical Hermeneutics! Welcome to Bible Hermeneutics.SE and thank you for your contribution. When you get a chance, please take the tour to understand how the site works and how it is different than others.
    – agarza
    Jul 19, 2022 at 15:13
  • If you are asking what the word means in the context of Acts 17:22 and in how Paul used the word, that would be on topic on this site. If you are widening the enquiry to cover non-biblical usage and non-biblical authors that would be off-topic, unless it was strictly in pursuit of the former.
    – Nigel J
    Jul 19, 2022 at 15:22
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    Firstly, thank you for the warm welcome @agarza! Secondly, I appreciate your concern, @NigelJ. I ask the question to determine the meaning of the word in Acts 17:22, to evaluate the arguments that are brought to the table in regards to the word in the passage. I don't really care about the other writings, other than the way they use the word. Also, thank you for the addition of the passage!
    – Blanck24
    Jul 19, 2022 at 17:10

1 Answer 1

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I believe Paul was saying that they were very religious. The idea of δεισιδαίμων is closer to "spirit-fearing", so for rationalists, this may be an insult, and for others it may be something like "god-fearing". I think it's less about two different senses of the word than two different attitudes toward those who fear and/or reverence the supernatural world.

Here is the BDAG[1] entry, which includes examples of laudatory usage. They recommend the translation in Acts of: I perceive that you are very devout people

δεισιδαίμων, ον, gen. ονος can, like δεισιδαιμονία, be used in a denigrating sense ‘superstitious’ (cp. Maximus Tyr. 14, 6f in critique of the δ. as a κόλαξ ‘flatterer’ of the gods μακάριος εὐσεβὴς φίλος θεοῦ, δυστηχὴς δὲ ὁ δεισιδαίμων [s. H. app. and T.’s rdg.]; Philo, Cher. 42; s. Field, Notes 125–27), but in the laudatory introduction of Paul’s speech before the Areopagus Ac 17:22 it must mean devout, religious (so X., Cyr. 3, 3, 58, Ages. 11, 8; Aristot., Pol. 5, 11 p. 1315a, 1; Kaibel 607, 3 πᾶσι φίλος θνητοῖς εἴς τʼ ἀθανάτους δεισιδαίμων) comp. for superl. (as Diog. L. 2, 132): δεισιδαιμονεστέρους ὑμᾶς θεωρῶ I perceive that you are very devout people Ac 17:22 (the Athenians as the εὐσεβέστατοι τ. Ἑλλήνων: Jos., C. Ap. 2, 130. Cp. Paus. Attic. 24, 3 Ἀθηναίοις περισσότερόν τι ἢ τοῖς ἄλλοις ἐς τὰ θεῖά ἐστι σπουδῆς).—DELG s.v. δαίμων. TW. Spicq.

I also recommend the TDNT entry[11]:

General expression for “piety,” the more precise sense varying according to the two constituents δείδω == “to fear” (ἔδεισα) and δαίμων. Thus δεισιδαιμονία may on the one side denote a “pious attitude towards the gods,” i.e., “religion,” and on the other “excessive fear of them.” In general, however, it is not used in the non-Christian world for “superstition,” i.e., fear of evil spirits, since the Greeks hardly see the radical distinction between gods and spirits, and could only have a poor sense of any such distinction. Yet there is sometimes present a certain fear of spirits.

Some examples of usages:

Negative sense

Philo: On the Cherubim, 42:

(42) But that we may describe the conception and the parturition of virtues, let the superstitious either stop their ears[5]

ἵνα δὲ τὴν ἀρετῶν κύησιν καὶ ὠδῖνα εἴπωμεν, ἀκοὰς ἐπιφραξάτωσαν οἱ δεισιδαίμονες τὰς ἑαυτῶν ἢ μεταστήτωσαν [6]

Philo, The Worse is Want to Attack the Better, 18:

For as it is of no use to study music in an unmusical manner, nor grammar without any attention to its true principles, nor, in short, any art whatever in a manner either devoid of art or proceeding on false rules of art, but each art must be cultivated on a strict obedience to its rules; so also it is of no avail to apply one’s self to the study of wisdom in a crafty spirit, or to the study of temperance in a nigardly and illiberal frame of mind, nor to courage rashly, nor to piety superstitiously, nor, in fact, to any other science which is in accordance with virtue in an unscientific manner.[5]

ὥσπερ γὰρ οὔτε μουσικὴν ἀμούσως οὔτε γραμματικὴν ἀγραμμάτως οὐδὲ συνόλως φράσαι τέχνην ἀτέχνως ἢ κακοτέχνως ἀλλὰ τεχνικῶς ἑκάστην ἐπιτηδεύειν προσῆκεν, οὕτως οὐδὲ φρόνησιν πανούργως οὐδὲ σωφροσύνην φειδωλῶς καὶ ἀνελευθέρως οὐδὲ θρασέως ἀνδρείαν οὐδὲ δεισιδαιμόνως εὐσέβειαν οὐδʼ ἄλλην τινὰ τῶν κατʼ ἀρετὴν ἐπιστήμην ἀνεπιστημόνως ἀνοδία γὰρ ὁμολογουμένως ταῦτα πάντα. [12]

Clement of Alexandria. Against the Hellenes, X:

Fishes do not fear demons, birds do not worship idols [13]

οὐ δεισιδαιμονοῦσιν ἰχθύες, οὐκ εἰδωλολατρεῖ τὰ ὄρνεα [14]

Positive sense

Xenophon, Agesilaus 11.8:

He was ever god-fearing, believing that they who are living life well are not yet happy, but only they who have died gloriously are blessed.[2]

Ἀεὶ δὲ δεισιδαίμων ἦν, νομίζων τοὺς μὲν καλῶς ζῶντας οὔπω εὐδαίμονας, τοὺς δὲ εὐκλεῶς τετελευτηκότας ἤδη μακαρίους. [3]

Xenophon Cyropaedia, 3.3.58

And they all devoutly joined with a loud voice in the singing, for in the performance of such service the God-fearing have less fear of men.[7]

οἱ δὲ θεοσεβῶς πάντες συνεπήχησαν μεγάλῃ τῇ φωνῇ· ἐν τῷ τοιούτῳ γὰρ δὴ οἱ δεισιδαίμονες ἧττον τοὺς ἀνθρώπους φοβοῦνται. [8]

Aristotle, Politics, 1315a.1

if they think that their ruler has religious scruples and pays regard to the gods, and also they plot against him less, thinking that he has even the gods as allies)[9]

ἐὰν δεισιδαίμονα νομίζωσιν εἶναι τὸν ἄρχοντα καὶ φροντίζειν τῶν θεῶν, καὶ ἐπιβουλεύουσιν ἧττον ὡς συμμάχους ἔχοντι καὶ τοὺς θεούς)[10]


[1] William Arndt et al., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 216.

[2] Xenophon, Scripta Minora, trans. E. C. Marchant, The Loeb Classical Library (London; Cambridge, MA: William Heinemann Ltd; Harvard University Press, 1925), 131.

[3] Xenophon, “Scripta Minora: Greek Text,” The Loeb Classical Library (London; Cambridge, MA: William Heinemann Ltd; Harvard University Press, 1925), 130.

[4] Flavius Josephus and William Whiston, The Works of Josephus: Complete and Unabridged (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1987), 801.

[5] Charles Duke Yonge with Philo of Alexandria, The Works of Philo: Complete and Unabridged (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1995), 84.

[6] Peder Borgen, Kåre Fuglseth, and Roald Skarsten, “The Works of Philo: Greek Text with Morphology” (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2005).

[7] Xenophon, Xenophon in Seven Volumes, 5 and 6, trans. Walter Miller (Medford, MA: Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA; William Heinemann, Ltd., London., 1914).

[8] Xenophon, “Cyropaedia: Greek Text,” ed. T. E. Page and W. H. D. Rouse, The Loeb Classical Library (London; New York: William Heinemann; The Macmillan Co., 1914), 298.

[9]Aristotle, Aristotle in 23 Volumes, Translated by H. Rackham., vol. 21 (Medford, MA: Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd., 1944).

[10]Aristotle, “Ed. W. D. Ross, Aristotle’s Politica” (Medford, MA: Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1957).

[11] Werner Foerster, “Δαίμων, Δαιμόνιον, Δαιμονίζομαι, Δαιμονιώδης, Δεισιδαίμων, Δεισιδαιμονία,” ed. Gerhard Kittel, Geoffrey W. Bromiley, and Gerhard Friedrich, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964–), 20.

[12] Peder Borgen, Kåre Fuglseth, and Roald Skarsten, “The Works of Philo: Greek Text with Morphology” (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2005).

[13] T. E. Page et al., eds., Clement of Alexandria, trans. G. W. Butterworth, The Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, MA; London: Harvard University Press; William Heinemann, 1960), 231.

[14] T. E. Page et al., eds., Clement of Alexandria: Greek Text, trans. G. W. Butterworth, The Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, MA; London: Harvard University Press; William Heinemann, 1960), 230.

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  • Thank you very much @Robert! Whether it is translated properly in the KJV (and the NKJV, and two Dutch translations that are akin to both) is what I'm currently investigating. I'm in the process of thinking it through, and your mentions helped me a lot, for it indeed is the case that particular Greek writers used the term positively, and, I've found, also negatively – e.g.: anastrophe.uchicago.edu/cgi-bin/perseus/…
    – Blanck24
    Jul 19, 2022 at 19:32
  • This means the word can be used both positively and negatively. I have noticed something important to the question of its use in Acts 17:22, however, and that is that all forms of the word in texts that I have been able to find in the meantime (particularly Xenophon en Theophrastus), besides Acts 17:22, lack the "τέρους"-part, which means either "very" or "too" (as in: "too much"). Does this apply to your quote from Josephus as well?
    – Blanck24
    Jul 19, 2022 at 19:46
  • I get what you're saying @Robert, though I certainly wouldn't say such an argument is decisive. After all, this same Paul addressed the Galatians as "foolish" and "being bewitched", while writing a corrective teaching, just to name one example. Surely it is not out of character for Paul to do something similar when standing before the philosophers of Athens. The truth can be insulting, to be sure, but speaking the truth bluntly can hardly be classified as a pointless insult. It is arguably untactful, but not pointless.
    – Blanck24
    Jul 19, 2022 at 19:51
  • @Blank24 - no "very" in Josephus, and the "very" does occur in Diogenes' Lives of Eminent Philosophers 2.132 where it is translated as "superstitious" --"He was also in a way rather superstitious"
    – Robert
    Jul 19, 2022 at 20:01
  • Thanks very much for checking that for me, and for the added reference of Diogenes; that's very interesting. What is the Greek that is translated as "most" in the passage from Josephus?
    – Blanck24
    Jul 19, 2022 at 20:04

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