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Paul’s Use of Pagan Literature

Did you know that several writers of scripture referred to or quoted other literature? This shouldn’t come as a surprise, since the Christian worldview allows a person to affirm truth wherever it is found. The Apostle Paul seems especially well read in this area and used authors his readers would be familiar with to connect with his audience or illustrate a point. Here are a few examples of pagan citations that have interested me over the years.

Epimenides of Knossos, a sixth century BC pagan poet who lived in Crete, seems to be one of Paul’s favorites.  In Acts 17:28, Paul is quoting Epimenides when he says, “for in him we live and move and have our being.”  Legend has it that this eccentric poet never quite blended in with his fellow Cretans, since he always wore his hair long.  Some even believe he was called on to stop a plague in Athens that led to the erection of an altar to “the unknown god” that Paul found centuries later.  Paul quoted him a second time when writing to his protégé, Titus.  Here affirmed another true statement by this poet who also called Cretans liars, evil beasts, lazy “bellies” (Titus 1:12).  

Aratus of Cilicia was a stoic who wrote in the third century B.C.   Paul quoted his work Phaenomena in Acts 17:28 with the line, “for we are also his offspring.”  Judging by the frequent citations in ancient literature, this seems to have been a very well-known document.  However, the phrase itself expresses a common Greek sentiment, and can also be found in a hymn to Zeus written by Cleanthes.

Menander was a 3rd century pagan playwright.  In I Corinthians 15:33 Paul quotes a line from him when warns his readers not to be deceived because “evil communication corrupt good manners.” In today’s vernacular, he is telling them that bad company ruins good morals.  Paul uses this line from a secular comedy to warn the Corinthian church to avoid false teachers who deny the resurrection.

Other citations can be found in scripture as well.  In 1 Timothy 6:10 Paul modifies a common proverb that “the love of money is the metropolis of all evils.” Forms of this Stoicism can be found in numerous ancient writings, including that of Democritus and Phocylides.  Additionally, the apocryphal book of Enoch is quoted in Jude 14.  While scripture records the life of Enoch, this specific book is pseudepigraphical.
It is interesting to see that biblical writers were both familiar with and comfortable quoting various writings and plays from nonbelievers.  Writers of scripture routinely used images, proverbs, authors, and sports illustrations that their audiences were familiar with in order to effectually communicate God’s truth.


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