Although disturbed by the multiplicity of idols that adorned the ancient Greek city of Athens, the Apostle Paul was not so flustered as to miss the significance of an altar inscription “to an unknown god (theos)” and the opportunity it afforded to address their commonality (17:23). We know this God, Paul declared. The Greek Theos which is translated God here is not a name and it can be and is used to designate another god. Like the god to which the inscription pointed, God has no name. In the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament book of Exodus where Elohim meets Moses at the pseudo-burning bush, the self-identification Elohim gives Moses at Moses’ request is YHWH. YHWH literally translates it/he will be/is. It is not a name but designates and/or declares future and/or present existence. Hebrew Bible scholar Wil Gafney argues in her article “Reading the Hebrew Bible Responsibly ” in the Africana Bible, that Moses changed Elohim’s name to adonai, which is the patriarchal masculine LORD. But Paul equates or at least associates this “unknown god” with God who created the heavens and the earth and everything that inhabits both arenas (17:24). In that same verse, Paul further argues that this same God does not settle down (katoikeõ) in temples made with human hands. This lesson is both for the Athenians and for the first century Israelites (Acts 7:48). In the Hebrew Bible/OT God does indeed show up in the Tabernacle or tent of meeting constructed by the Hebrew children. And God meets God’s people in the first and second Temples. But God is not restricted to, confined by, or cemented to human-made structures. As somebody said “In him we live and have our being,” 17:28. God comes and goes as God pleases and transcends human-made structures.
Thus, within their constructed religious traditions humans have in common the inability to contain, restrict, or confine God. We have this in common regardless of our religious affiliations. For as 17:26 states God made all nations of human beings to settle down (katoikeõ) or inhabit the earth and we are bound to the earth and we have boundaries that designate where we live. We as humans have in common our limitations. But there was one named Jesus who shared our humanity and whose settling-down was temporary, and God raised that man (17:31).
Black women in the civil rights movement quoted this declaration in Acts 17:26 as a ground leveler. Because of the common humanity they shared with the people who disenfranchised them, they were willing to struggle for their right to register to vote and to cast a vote, unhindered. But of course, they did so against enormous odds as their oppressors continued to raise the bar requiring that blacks be able to read in order to vote despite the rear-view mirror restrictions against teaching slaves to read; requiring first generation black voters to have relatives who voted in previous elections; requiring blacks to copy verbatim and interpret the U.S. Constitution even when their oppressors did not, could not, and would not. Yes, convinced of their common humanity black women like Fannie Lou Hamer, Septima Clark, and Ella Baker taught educated would-be black voters to read the ballot, to recite the entire Constitution, to write or signify their names, and to persist in the face of imminent threats to their habitations, to themselves, and to their families.God raised Jesus. We believe God raised Jesus from the dead. The power of God exhibited in the resurrection is a reminder of our common humanity for like Jesus incarnate in human flesh we cannot transcend or defeat the grave. God raised Jesus. We must meet death face to face. We have this in common. But we have also in common the possibility of resurrection, which signifies the power of God to do what we as humans cannot do for ourselves. So we can dream big beyond the bounds of our habitations and our human limitations.