Pagan quotes in the New Testament

  • This question is sponsored by Going Public

    Question 123, from ‘Sandra’

    I was told there were six pagan quotes in the New Testament. Can you list them?

    The New Testament was written in Greek, with many of the letters written in a multi-cultural society, so the fact that popular quotations from ‘pagan’ authors appear in the New Testament is unsurprising. What is more surprising for many people is to learn that phrases and words ascribed to Jesus himself often have ‘pagan’ roots and imply that Jesus was aware of contemporary pagan culture.

    Examples of this include the word ‘hypocrite’, which was usually used in the context of Greek theatre to mean ‘actor’. It is certainly a Greek (Hellenistic) word that owes nothing to the Jewish culture or faith. In The Cosmopolitan World of Jesus, author Carsten Peter Theide puts forward a thesis that Jesus may have been a theatre-goer, or was exposed to pagan culture in Sepphoris, an almost-exclusively Roman city next to Nazareth (op cit, chapter 2). Similarly studies have been made of gnostic or other religious words (e.g. ‘logos’) which appear in to have been appropriated by the authors of the New Testament.

    In Paul’s letters and recorded speeches, there are considerable allusions and references to pagan culture. When Paul recounts his conversion experience in Acts chapter 26, verse 13, he actually quotes a line from a play by Aeschylus [Agamemnon 1624]. It may be Paul was trying to impress the procurator Festus, which is why he uses the phrase “It is hard for you to kick against the goads” in addition to the words recorded in Acts chapter 9, verse 4 (“Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”).

    Paul used two pagan quotes in the hope of sparking a discussion at the Areopagus, recorded in Acts chapter 17, verse 28. The phrase “in him we live and move and have our being” is found in the poem Cretica, written by Epimenides in the 6th century BC, although in the poem the description is applied to Zeus.

    Paul then builds on this quote, adding “your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring’.” This is a direct quote from the Stoic thinker Aratus [Phainomena 5], although Aratus ascribes the origin of humanity to Zeus. What Paul is trying to do is confront idol-worship, be arguing if humans are ‘god’s offspring’, then god must be alive, not a statue. He uses the quote from Aratus to discredit idol-worship, before introducing his own view of who God is.

    The epistles attributed to Paul also contain some pagan quotes. In 1 Corinthians chapter 15, verse 33, he quotes a line from Euripedes’ play Aiolos (“Bad company ruins good morals”), and the line also appears in a play called Thais by Menander, who probably initially coined it as a maxim.

    In Titus chapter 1, verse 12, Paul warns Titus about the moral failings of the people Titus is living among on Crete, again quoting the poet Epimenides who says “Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons.” However, it’s worth pointing out the lie Epimenides referred to was the claim that Zeus was mortal, which was apparently believed on Crete.

    In summary, there are at least six references which can be attributed to pagan authors:

    Acts chapter 17, verse 8 – Epimenides
    Acts chapter 17, verse 8 – Aratus
    Acts chapter 26, verse 13 – Aeschylus
    1 Corinthians chapter 15, verse 33 – taken from Euripedes, and probably Menander
    Titus chapter 1, verse 12 – Epimenides

    There is also a reference in Jude, verses 14-15, which is a direct quote from the book of Enoch, although this should be regarded as a quote from an extra-Biblical (or apocryphal) work, rather than a ‘pagan’ author like those listed above. For a previous freelance theology article on the Book of Enoch, please click here.

    This question is sponsored by Going Public

    To find out how you could sponsor a question on freelance theology, email using the button on the sidebar.

    Posted on


    1. REAMR BUFE ALA Dec 21

      CAN you supply me please DIRECT LINK of:Acts chapter 17, verse 8 – Epimenides Acts chapter 17, verse 8 – Aratus Acts chapter 26, verse 13 – Aeschylus 1 Corinthians chapter 15, verse 33 – taken from Euripedes, and probably Menander Titus chapter 1, verse 12 – Epimenides – See more at:
      I NEED TO READ IT FURTHER to STUDY your research work–I’m amazed.
      ..your In CHRIST…shalom

    2. Jon the freelance theologian Jan 14

      A good introduction to this is The Cosmopolitan World of Jesus by Carsten Peter Thiede. ISBN 0-281-05508-4

    3. Ankh Jul 10

      Although the hate of paganism, Christianity has adopted so many pagan rituals and practices. Most of which people don’t even know about. I find that funny and ironic, as a pagan myself.

    1. Defending the Deuterocanonicals | Soul Device

    Leave a reply