In Acts 17:23, we read about Paul preaching to the Greeks at the Areopagus (Mars Hill). He begins his sermon by telling the assembled group that Athens must be a very religious town, because he saw an altar that had the inscription "To an Unknown God" (AGNWSTW QEW). What was Paul talking about?
It turns out that such altars did exist in Athens in the First Century (and one has even been found by archaeologists). They were created about 600 years before Paul's famous sermon, and the story of how they got there is interesting.
Athens fell victim to a plague in the Sixth Century BCE. People offered sacrifices to their gods (and Athens had many different gods), but nothing worked. In desperation, the city elders sent for Epimenedes, a philosopher who lived on the island of Crete. They told him their problem, and he gave it some thought.
Finally, he reached a conclusion. "Folks, your problem is obvious. You've prayed to all your gods and nothing has happened. We must assume that there's some god somewhere who hasn't been appeased."
The city fathers thought this was a reasonable conclusion. "So what should we do now?"
Epimenedes said, "We should build an altar to this god, whoever he (she?) is, and sacrifice to him."
"Good! We'll do it. Where should we build the altar?"
Epimenedes said, "Let's let the god himself tell us where. We'll do this: Take a flock of sheep and pen them up for the night. Don't let them graze. In the morning, they'll be hungry. At dawn, turn them loose, and keep an eye on them. The ones that start eating, we ignore. Watch for a sheep that doesn't eat. Wherever that sheep goes, that's where we'll build the altar and make our sacrifice, and that sheep will be the one we kill."
So that's what they did. As the sun rose, the city fathers were gathered at the sheep pen, and they opened the gate. The hungry sheep hurried out of the pen and wandered off in all directions, each one carefully followed by an anxious observer. But, to everyone's surprise, none of the sheep would eat anything! Every single sheep simply found a comfortable spot and lay down.
"I guess we're going to have to build more than one altar," said Epimenedes. And that's what they did.
They asked Epimenedes, "We have to put the god's name on his altar ... what name do we use? Should we make one up?"
"No, that would be a bad idea. We might insult the god. Just inscribe 'To an unknown god' on each altar."
And that's what they did. They made the multiple sheep-sacrifices, one at each altar,and the plague ended.
Question: Is it possible that this "unknown god" was ... God? What happens when people reach out in ignorance to the one true God?