“To an unknown god” or “to the unknown God”?

I was speaking with a friend recently about the best way to translate the altar inscription that Paul saw in Athens, which he described in his speech to the Areopagus:

Agnosto theo

Should this be translated “to an unknown god” (as in the NIV, NLT, NASB, etc.) or “to the unknown god” (as in the ESV, KJV, NKJV, etc.)?

Greek grammar allows either translation, so the decision needs to be made based on context.  It’s doubtful that the Athenians, by putting up this altar, were saying, “We don’t really know the true God, but at least we know that we don’t know, so we’re putting up this altar to acknowledge that God.”  It’s much more likely that the Athenians were saying, “We’ve already got altars to all the gods we know, but in case we missed one, here’s an altar for that one, too.”  This suggests that “to an unknown god” is the correct translation of what the Athenians intended.

However, Paul seems to be taking advantage of the ambiguity in the Greek phrase and addressing the Athenians as if they had dedicated this altar to the true God, whom they were worshipping without realizing it.  “You are ignorant of the very thing you worship,” Paul says, “and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.”  He then introduces the Athenians to “the God who made the world,” who is “the Lord of heaven and earth,” and who sent Jesus and raised him from the dead.

So it appears that when the Athenians put up the altar, they meant it to say “To an unknown god.”  But when Paul read the inscription back to them in his speech, as far as he was concerned, it said “To the unknown God.”

Of course it’s impossible to capture this nuance in a single English translation, which has to say one thing or the other.  But comparing different translations gives us a window into the fascinating dynamic of Paul’s speech, in which he cleverly and creatively finds  common ground that allows him to introduce Jesus to yet another group of people.

For some follow-up thoughts on this topic, see this post.