Was Paul “Greek”? Pt. 2

Giovanni Paolo Panini, Saint Paul Preaching in Athens, 1734.

This post is a summary of my peer-reviewed article “ ‘Our’ Poets at Athens? Reconsidering a Variant Reading in Acts 17,28”—access the full article with all Greek data here.

In the last post, I gave a basic introduction to the ways in which Paul can be seen as Greek, and how that identity fits within the complex world of identities in a cosmopolitan Greco-Roman society. I concluded that Paul certainly was Greek in important ways and surveyed very briefly the usual evidence brought forward to make the case. However, I also indicated that there may well be better evidence—direct evidence—for the case. The evidence comes in the form of a variant reading, which is an individual textual variant, in Acts 17:28.

Below is a modified abstract of my article on the topic, followed by a summary of the argument in the article and a relaying of its conclusion. If questions emerge from the abstract or summary, refer to the published article: it’s open access and well-documented enough to answer most general questions.


The first-person plural pronoun “our” in Acts 17,28 is a textual variant that deserves re-examination for its authenticity. If accepted, this part of the verse would read “even as some of our own poets have said,” and it would indicate that Paul identifies himself as a Greek, among the Stoics and Epicureans in the Areopagus, to whom he is speaking. Considering both internal and external evidence, as well as the history of the text-critical discussion on the variant, I argue that doubt is warranted regarding the usual/accepted reading of the second-person plural pronoun “your” in Acts 17:28, and that the importance of the variant reading “our” should be reconsidered.


In the article, I make an argument that takes its cue from an old comment by Brooke Foss Westcott and Fenton John Anthony Hort, in their critical Greek New Testament, one of the first major products of a kind of reasoned eclecticism (based on the work of previous text critics) in New Testament textual criticism, and something of a progenitor to major subsequent discussion, including, to a degree, the major modern critical editions: the UBS GNT and the Nestle-Aland texts.

The comment by Westcott and Hort is about the textual variant reading mentioned above. This is what they say:

Occasionally the variation between ἡμεῖς and ὑμεῖς is of much interest. Thus, though the limited range of attestation has withheld us from placing τινὲς τῶν καθ’ ἡμᾶς ποιητῶν [as some of our poets…] in the text proper of Acts xvii 28, there would be a striking fitness in a claim thus made by St Paul to take his stand as a Greek among Greeks; as he elsewhere vindicates his position as a Roman (xvi 37; xxii 25, 28), and as a Pharisee (xxiii 6).

Westcott and Hort, The New Testament, 1:310

In context, they dismissed alternate potential explanations, like that of itacism (the phenomenon of accidental confusion over vowels like υ and η), and in doing so made enough of a distinction in this case for their supposition to be picked up in the major critical reference by Moulton and Howard (Moulton – Howard, Grammar of New Testament Greek, vol. 2, 73).

These comments make the variant seem initially interesting, but the most recent critical editions show no signs of interest in it, and in fact dismiss it. Consider the comments of Bruce Metzger et al.:

[s]cribal confusion between ὑμᾶς [you pl.] and ἡμᾶς [us], which were pronounced alike, was common. It is scarcely likely that Paul would have represented himself as one of the Greeks

Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 2nd edn (Stuttgart, 2001) 406.

What changed? Westcott and Hort greatly valued one major early codex–Codex Vaticanus–over others, and this likely led them to seriously entertain this variant reading, as it is found there. Yet later text-critics (like Metzger) appropriately put this codex in a more subdued role than Westcott and Hort did. However, Westcott and Hort did not have one major witness which contains the variant they were interested in (the “our” reading), and which later text-critics did have. So, the issue might well remain the same, with changing sensibilities being balanced by new evidence. Dismissal on the basis of itacism seems to neglect the interesting history of the external evidence, especially because the witness that was discovered after Westcott and Hort (called Papyrus 74) is a very good witness.

The external evidence (the evidence in the earliest and best manuscripts) is evenly balanced and inconclusive. In the article, I go on to examine the papyrus mentioned above (Papyrus 74) and I consider whether or not itacism is present in that papyrus which might explain the variant. I conclude that it is not, on the basis of the scrupulous work of its editor, Rudolph Kasser.

I then consider an interesting pattern in the other pronouns of Paul’s speech in Acts 17:22-34, showing that this might support the view I’m taking, that 17:28 should read “our” rather than “your.”

I show, however, that the final analysis can be made by an appeal to background information of the kind I raised in the previous post. Below, I have pasted the final section of my article, which brings that information together in the context of this textual variant.

Paul as “Greek among Greeks”?

The external evidence is inconclusive, and the internal evidence with respect to itacism is inconclusive (implied to be such by Westcott, Hort, Moulton, and Howard), even while the language of the speech in Acts 17,22-34 might be suggestive for the variant reading of ἡμᾶς. At bottom, the adjudication of this variant reading seems to reduce to background knowledge of Paul’s identity and the relative expectedness of either ὑμᾶς or ἡμᾶς in this light. Metzger’s own position is clear, and is one of mere incredulity for ἡμᾶς when he says “[i]t is scarcely likely that Paul would have represented himself as one of the Greeks”[1]. I believe this incredulity is unwarranted. If Paul can appropriately be represented as a Greek (or Hellenistic in some important respect) on this occasion, then the scales may tip, however slightly, in favour of the ἡμᾶς reading. To this end, a number of considerations can be made.

The second citation in Acts 17:28, introduced by the variant unit under consideration, comes (directly or indirectly) from the Hellenistic poet Aratus (315-245 B.C.). Aratus, like Paul, was Cilician, being born in a small city near Tarsus called Soli. It was in Cilicia at Issus in 333 B.C. (west of Tarsus) that “Alexander won the victory that threw Asia open to the Hellenistic age”[2]. Both Aratus and Paul were thus born into a Hellenistic world.  F. F. Bruce considers this relation to be a potential explanation for the positive judgement of the first-person reading when he indicates that “[ἡμᾶς] may have been judged appropriate in the mouth of a Cilician, since Aratus, about to be quoted, was himself a Cilician, born at Soloi or Tarsus in 310 B.C.”[3].

Furthermore, by the time of Paul’s birth and early education there, Tarsus itself became a center of Greek learning, being a university city “whose people’s zeal for learning surpassed that of Athens or Alexandria”, while those centres of Greek culture and learning attracted more students and were more renown.[4] Thus, Colin Hemer remarks that “it may be best to explain Paul’s Greek culture, and especially his citation of his fellow Cilician, the Stoic poet Aratus of Soli (Acts 17:28), from his wider reading or his mature residence in Tarsus”[5]. This is not to indicate that Paul had a full-fledged Greek education, but only to state that he was born and educated to some degree in a very Hellenistic locale in Tarsus in Cilicia.[6]

Paul’s first language was thus very likely Hellenistic Greek, born as he was in a cultural centre of Hellenism, and raised as a Hellenistic Jew in the Hellenistic culture of the first-century Greco-Roman world. Paul spoke Greek, wrote in Greek, quoted the Greek scriptures, and quoted Greek authors (as did other Hellenistic Jews).[7] These considerations make the citation of Aratus on the lips of Paul in Athens not only believable, but perhaps expected.[8]

But could Paul have identified himself with his Hellenistic audience by way of citing a Hellenistic poet? Considering that this poet was a fellow Cilician, and given what is known about Paul’s place of birth, early education, and the reception of Aratus among other Hellenistic Jews, the affirmative seems highly possible. Furthermore, given the apologetic nature of the speech and Paul’s methods elsewhere, it may even be likely. Thus, Bruce seems wholly palatable to consider that while Paul can in one instance call himself “a Hebrew of Hebrews”, he may at the same time from another perspective be seen as a “Hellenist of Hellenists”[9]. Overall, is it thus really “scarcely likely” that Paul could identify as a Greek on this occasion [as Metzger said]? Far from scarce, it may be expected given what we know about Paul and given the setting and situation of this particular speech.

To entertain the ἡμᾶς reading from this cultural perspective is to entertain a greater appreciation of the Hellenistic world as formative for first century diaspora and Palestinian Jews, and in particular, it is to entertain the notion that this world forms a crucial part of Paul’s identity, and its authors furnish his cognitive environment. This may help to adjudicate the inconclusiveness of the external evidence and some of the internal evidence above, and is this not the light in which Westcott and Hort can be read, seeing as they did a “striking fitness” regarding the ἡμᾶς reading and Paul taking his stand as a “Greek among Greeks”? I suggest it is not at all inconceivable not only that Paul could have identified as such, but that he would have on such an occasion, given what else we know about him.


These two posts make something of a case for a high view of the reception of Greek thought and identity for Paul. He not only knew and had facility with Greek authors, but he may well have been happy to identify with his Greek culture in certain circumstances. For Christians, this is not merely a window into Paul’s apologetic method (as if the identification were feigned), but is rather indicative of the very broad and positive view of culture which many Christians have had down through the centuries. The examples are too numerous and exciting to list here, but they include Christians from all stripes who sought to situate all wisdom–whatever its source–in the light of Christian belief. Greek thought has always enjoyed pride of place in this tradition; “a brighter Hellas,” as it were. In doing so, perhaps the many have taken their cue from Paul in ways heretofore unappreciated.

I contend that if Westcott and Hort had Papyrus 74, they would have put the reading in the main text of their critical edition. If they had, it’s likely that the history of this variant would be reversed. Tenuous as the case may be for either side, the reading I’ve promoted here displays a consilience that the alternative does not.

[1] Metzger, Textual Commentary, 406.

[2] E. A. Judge, “Cilicia”, in Geoffrey W. Bromiley(ed.), The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, 4 vols. (Grand Rapids, 1979), 1:698.

[3] Bruce, Acts, 385. Aratus was perhaps born slightly earlier, in 315; cf. Michele Valerie Ronnick, “Aratus of Soli”, in Ward W. Briggs (ed.) Ancient Greek Authors, The Dictionary of Literary Biography 176 (Detroit, 1997) 37.

[4] See Strabo, Geog. 14.5.13.; C. J. Hemer, “Tarsus”, in Bromiley(ed.), The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, 3:735-6.

[5] Hemer “Tarsus”, 736.

[6] See Stanley E. Porter – Andrew W. Pitts, “Paul’s Bible, his Education and his Access to the Scriptures of Israel”, Journal of Greco-Roman Christianity and Judaism 5 (2008) 9-41. Furthermore, Paul’s being reared in Jerusalem does not indicate a flight from Hellenism; the Hellenistic influence on even Palestinian Judaism cannot be ignored; see especially M. Hengel, Judaism and Hellenism: Studies in their Encounter in Palestine during the Early Hellenistic Period, trans. J. Bowden (Philadelphia, 1974).

[7] Important for the present case, we find the same line from Aratus (Phainomena, 5) cited by Aristobulus, a Hellenistic-Jew, centuries before Luke and Paul (and which may well have been a source of Paul’s knowledge of Aratus); see Eusebius, Evangelicae Praeparationis (Oxford, 1903), 720. See the defense of the position that Luke cites this by way of Aristobulus in Edwards, “Quoting Aratus.” On Paul’s Hellenistic background in light of his broader cultural identity, see Stanley E. Porter, “Paul as Jew, Greek, and Roman: An Introduction”, in Stanley E. Porter (ed.), Paul: Jew, Greek, and Roman, PAST 5 (Leiden, 2008) 1-6.

[8] See Bruce, The Book of the Acts,NICNT (Grand Rapids, 1988), 333, 341, for a helpful discussion on the Hellenistic nature of the speech and its being an authentic representation of Paul.

[9] Bruce, Book of Acts, 340.

Again, this post is a summary of my peer-reviewed article “ ‘Our’ Poets at Athens? Reconsidering a Variant Reading in Acts 17,28”—access the full article with all Greek data here.


If you liked this post, subscribe!

Join 13 other followers

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s