Posted by: chuckbumgardner | July 6, 2010

“Most High God” in Acts 16

I’m reading through a very interesting new release: Moyer V. Hubbard, Christianity in the Greco-Roman World: A Narrative Introduction (Hendrickson, 2010).  In it, Hubbard makes an interesting observation regarding the demonized slave girl’s ongoing testimony to the apostolic team in Acts 16:17: “”These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation.”

Of course, at first reading, this seems to be a very clear description of Paul and company.  Perhaps the demons were somehow supernaturally forced to give unsolicited truthful testimony?  But Hubbard asks the perceptive question, “What would this phrase [“Most High God”] sound like to residents of Roman Philippi?”  Hubbard points out that while Jews would certainly and immediately associate “Most High God” with Yahweh,

“there is an abundance of archaeological and inscriptional evidence attesting to the worship of a pagan deity in this area known as Theos Hypsistos, ‘Most High God.’ . . . Dedicatory inscriptions to this deity, also known as Zeus Hypsistos, have been found in all quadrants of the Roman province of Macedonia, in neighboring Thracia, in Asia Minor, and elsewhere in the Greco-Roman world.  The inscriptional evidence indicates that the Macedonians in particular reverenced Theos Hypsistos, so much so that some scholars have speculated that the cult originated in this region.” (47)

Hubbard suggests that “the way of salvation” referenced by the slave girl could very well have been heard as “a way of salvation,” with “salvation” understood as well-being or rescue from hardship.  All in all, Hubbard believes that the message of the slave girl consisted of a “ferocious ambiguity.”  This potential ambiguity of content is of note in that I have usually thought of Paul’s rebuke and exorcism (Acts 16:18) as stemming from the source of the testimony — a demonic announcement (cf. Mark 1:34; Luke 4:41).  This is doubtless true, but Moyer is making a case for the content of the slave girl’s message being problematic as well.

Now, I have probably read something to this effect before — and forgotten it — for further research shows that Hubbard is proposing no new theory here.  Irina Levinskaya discusses the broader question of “the cult of the Most High God” in The Book of Acts in Its First-Century Setting, vol. 5, Diaspora Setting (Eerdmans, 1996), 98-104.  She is not sanguine about the position that Hubbard champions in his work:

The Gentile passers-by in Philippi, hearing the slave girl’s proclamation, could have various different ideas about Jewish religion and the Jewish Theos Hypsistos.  But they would not, I believe, have been thinking primarily in terms of their own pantheon and the pre-eminence of any one God within its hierarchy: these were not the associations that would have been conjured up by the name Theos Hypsistos.  The demon was exorcised by Paul, not because of the content of his proclamation, but because the Christian mission did not need allies such as these.  (100)

Levinskaya references the work of Paul Trebinco, most notably his “Paul and Silas, Servants of the Most High God’ – Acts 16:16-18,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 36: 51-73 (1989).  Hubbard appears to lean heavily on this work, referencing it himself and being in essential agreement with it.  In his article, Trebinco notes,

In Philippi, the term “the Highest God” must have been misleading.  In view of the pagan use of Hypsistos, the term would not have suggested that the referent was the Jewish God, unless that person was a Jew or a Judaizer.  There were many ‘Highest gods’ and a pagan hearer would understand the referent of the term to be the deity he or she considered supreme.  Hearers would not think of Yahweh. . . . Paul’s annoyance and consequent action were caused by the fact that the girl was confusing those to whom he was preaching.  His anger was aroused by the fact that she was exposing his own proclamation to a syncretistic misunderstanding. (60, 62)

Having only dipped into what appears to be an ongoing debate, at this point I concur with Witherington in favor of Trebinco / Hubbard:

One must be cautious at this point [the point of understanding the “most High God” terminology to be ambiguous and potentially misleading], however, because as Levinskaya . . . points out, the use of the “most high God” terminology is abundant in Jewish sources and inscriptions, and quite rare in pagan ones [a point which seems contrary to Hubbard’s assertion of an “abundance” of archaeological and inscriptional evidence].  Nevertheless, the lack of a significant Jewish presence in Philippi perhaps tips the scales in favor of a pagan use of the term here. (Ben Witherington III, The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary [Eerdmans, 1997], 495 n. 108)


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