Zeus is indeed mentioned in the Bible, in the book of Acts: “Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul they called Hermes because he was the chief speaker. The priest of Zeus, whose temple was just outside the city [of Lystra], brought bulls and wreaths to the city gates because he and the crowd wanted to offer sacrifices to them” (Acts 14:12–13). This incident occurred during the first missionary journey of Paul.
Zeus was considered the highest of the twelve major Olympian gods of the Greek pantheon. As supreme head of pagan deities, Zeus was portrayed as the ruler of the sky and weather. He was often depicted brandishing a thunderbolt while ensconced on the throne of Mount Olympus.
The Greek poet Homer described Zeus as “the father of gods and men.” Other philosophers and poets have depicted Zeus as ruler and protector of all, the source of universal laws, defender of justice, sponsor of victory, guardian of hospitality, revealer of the future, issuer of good and evil fates, and savior of humankind. Zeus’s celebrity has inspired considerable art and literature.
In much of ancient mythology, Zeus is married to Hera (although, in some instances, he is matched with Dione). Through a string of affairs with other goddesses and human women, he fathers Athena, Persephone, Apollo, Artemis, Ares, Hermes, the Muses, Dionysius, and many others. The Romans associated Zeus with their god Jupiter.
The city of Lystra in Asia Minor, where Acts 14:8–18 unfolds, was home to a temple of Zeus. Zeus’s son Hermes, whom the Romans identified as Mercury, was the chief messenger of all the mythical deities and considered to be the god of eloquent speech. In mythology, Hermes and his father, Zeus, were known to travel together.
When Paul and Barnabas arrived in Lystra, they encountered an entirely Gentile community steeped in pagan idolatry. As they set out to minister to the people, Paul healed a lame man who had been crippled since birth. The crowds saw the lame man leap up and walk, and they naturally concluded that the gods were visiting them. They called Barnabas Zeus and Paul Hermes since he was the eloquent spokesperson of the team.
A local legend in Lystra claimed that Zeus and Hermes—disguised in human form—had visited the city once before and had been hosted in the home of an elderly couple. Believing they were experiencing a similar visitation, the priest of Zeus and the people of Lystra began to prepare a sacrifice to worship and honor the two apostles as their gods. When they realized what was happening, Paul and Barnabas tore their clothes in anguish and rushed into the crowd, shouting, “Friends, why are you doing this? We are merely human beings—just like you! We have come to bring you the Good News that you should turn from these worthless things and turn to the living God, who made heaven and earth, the sea, and everything in them” (Acts 14:15, NLT).
Attempting to bring light to their darkened thinking, Paul continued to preach the gospel. He spoke of God’s power in creation, His goodness, mercy, and provision. But the people of Lystra did not understand. Eventually, when some Jews from Antioch and Iconium arrived in town and began speaking against Paul and Barnabas, the pagan crowd turned on them. Instead of worshipping Paul, now they tried to stone him to death. Believing they had succeeded, they dragged him out of the city. As Paul’s missionary companions gathered around, God raised Paul. The next day Paul and Barnabas departed Lystra and went to Derbe, where their ministry efforts would prove to be more successful.