Early Christianity and the Gods of Rome
IN A letter to the Roman Emperor Trajan, Pliny the Younger, the governor of Bithynia, stated: “This is the course I have taken with those who were accused before me as Christians. I asked them whether they were Christians, and if they confessed, I asked them a second and third time with threats of punishment. If they kept to it, I ordered them for execution.” As for those who denied Christianity by cursing Christ and worshipping a statue of the emperor and the images of the gods that Pliny had brought into court, he wrote: “I thought it right to let them go.”
Early Christians were persecuted for their refusal to render worship to the emperor and to images of various gods. What about other religions throughout the Roman Empire? Which gods were worshipped, and how did the Romans view them? Why were Christians persecuted for refusing to sacrifice to the gods of Rome? Answers to these questions will help us to deal with similar present-day issues involving loyalty to Jehovah.
Religions of the Empire
The variety of deities worshipped throughout the Roman Empire was as vast as its differences in language and culture. However strange Judaism might have seemed to the Romans, they considered it a religio licita, or recognized religion, and protected it. Twice each day in Jerusalem’s temple, two lambs and an ox were sacrificed for Caesar and the Roman nation. Whether these sacrifices appeased one god or many gods was irrelevant to the Romans. What did matter to them was that this gesture provided sufficient proof of Jewish loyalty to Rome.
Paganism in a variety of forms was prevalent in local cults. Greek mythology had gained wide acceptance, and divination was common. So-called mystery religions from the East promised devotees immortality, direct revelation, and approach to the gods through mystic rites. These religions spread throughout the empire. Popular in the early centuries C.E. were the cults of the Egyptian god Serapis and goddess Isis, the Syrian fish-goddess Atargatis, and the Persian sun-god Mithra.
The Bible book of Acts clearly portrays the pagan atmosphere surrounding early Christianity. For instance, the Roman proconsul of Cyprus kept company with a Jewish sorcerer. (Acts 13:6, 7) In Lystra local people mistook Paul and Barnabas for the Greek gods Hermes and Zeus. (Acts 14:11-13) When he was in Philippi, Paul had an encounter with a servant girl who practiced divination. (Acts 16:16-18) In Athens the apostle remarked that its inhabitants ‘seemed to be more given to the fear of the deities than others were.’ In that city, he had also seen an altar inscribed “To an Unknown God.” (Acts 17:22, 23) Residents of Ephesus worshipped the goddess Artemis. (Acts 19:1, 23, 24, 34) On the island of Malta, people said that Paul was a god because he had suffered no ill effects from a snakebite. (Acts 28:3-6) In such settings, Christians needed to be on guard against influences that could corrupt their pure worship.
As their empire grew, the Romans accepted new deities that they encountered as different manifestations of gods they already knew. Rather than eliminating foreign cults, the Roman conquerors accepted and adopted them. Rome’s religion thus became as varied as her multicultural population. Roman religious sensibilities did not demand exclusive worship. People could worship several different deities at the same time.
Supreme among Rome’s native gods was Jupiter, dubbed Optimus Maximus, the best and the greatest. He was thought to manifest himself in wind, rain, lightning, and thunder. Jupiter’s sister and consort, Juno, who was associated with the moon, was said to watch over all aspects of the lives of women. His daughter Minerva was goddess of handicrafts, professions, arts, and war.
The Roman pantheon seemed endless. Lares and Penates were family gods. Vesta was the goddess of the hearth. Two-faced Janus was a god of all beginnings. Each trade had its patron deity. The Romans even deified abstractions. Pax safeguarded peace, Salus health, Pudicitia modesty and chastity, Fides fidelity, Virtus courage, and Voluptas pleasure. Every act of Roman public and private life was thought to be subject to the will of the gods. So in order to ensure a favorable outcome in an endeavor, the appropriate god had to be propitiated by ritual prayers, sacrifices, and festivals.
One way to ascertain the will of the deities was to look for omens. Chief among these practices was the examination of the entrails of sacrificed animals. It was thought that the condition and appearance of these organs indicated whether the gods disapproved of or favored the enterprise at hand.
By the late second century B.C.E., Rome had come to identify her chief deities with those of the Greek pantheon—Jupiter with Zeus, Juno with Hera, and so on. The Romans had also adopted the mythology that went along with the Greek deities. These legends were by no means flattering to the gods, who had the same flaws and limitations as humans. For example, Zeus was depicted as a rapist and a pedophile who had sexual relations with mortals and supposed immortals. The shameless adventures of the gods—often wildly applauded in ancient theaters—gave devotees license to indulge their basest passions.
Likely, few educated people accepted the legends in a literal sense. Some interpreted them as allegories. This may account for Pontius Pilate’s famous question, “What is truth?” (John 18:38) It has been taken to express “a prevalent feeling of cultivated men, that the attempt to ascertain anything certain on these things is vain.”
The reign of Augustus (27 B.C.E. to 14 C.E.) saw the birth of emperor worship. Particularly in the Greek-speaking provinces of the East, many felt genuine gratitude toward Augustus, who had established prosperity and peace after a long period of war. People wanted ongoing protection by a visible power. They desired an institution that could overcome religious distinctions, promote patriotism, and unite the world under its “savior.” As a result, divine honors were bestowed on the emperor.
Although Augustus did not allow others to call him a god when he was alive, he insisted that the personification of Rome as a goddess—Roma Dea—be worshipped. Augustus was deified posthumously. Local religious sentiment and patriotism in the provinces were thus directed toward both the center of the empire and its rulers. The new imperial cult, which soon spread to all the provinces, became a way of expressing homage and loyalty to the State.
Domitian, emperor from 81 to 96 C.E., was the first Roman ruler to demand worship as a god. By his time, the Romans had distinguished Christians from Jews and opposed what was viewed as a new cult. It was likely during Domitian’s reign that the apostle John was exiled on the isle of Patmos for “bearing witness to Jesus.”—Rev. 1:9.
The book of Revelation was penned during John’s exile. Therein, he refers to Antipas, a Christian killed in Pergamum, an important center of emperor worship. (Rev. 2:12, 13) By then, the imperial government may have begun to demand that Christians perform the rituals of the State religion. Whether this was so or not, by 112 C.E., as indicated in the letter to Trajan mentioned at the outset of this discussion, Pliny was demanding that the Christians in Bithynia perform such rituals.
Trajan praised Pliny’s handling of the cases brought before him and directed that Christians who refused to worship Roman gods be executed. “However,” wrote Trajan, “where the party denies he is a Christian, and shall make it evident that he is not, by invoking our gods, let him (notwithstanding any former suspicion) be pardoned upon his repentance.”
Roman thinking could not conceive of a religion that demanded exclusive devotion from its adherents. Roman gods did not require it, so why should the God of the Christians? It was felt that worship of State deities simply indicated recognition of the political system. Therefore, refusal to worship them was considered treason. As Pliny found out, there was no way to force most Christians into compliance. For them, such an act would signify unfaithfulness to Jehovah, and numerous early Christians preferred to die rather than perform idolatrous emperor worship.
Why should this be of interest to us today? In some lands, citizens are expected to revere national symbols. As Christians, we certainly respect the authority of secular governments. (Rom. 13:1) When it comes to ceremonies involving national flags, however, we are motivated by Jehovah God’s insistence on exclusive devotion and the counsel of his Word to “flee from idolatry” and “guard [ourselves] from idols.” (1 Cor. 10:14; 1 John 5:21; Nah. 1:2) Jesus said: “It is Jehovah your God you must worship, and it is to him alone you must render sacred service.” (Luke 4:8) May we therefore continue to maintain our loyalty to the God we worship.
[Blurb on page 5]
True Christians give their exclusive devotion to Jehovah
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Early Christians refused to worship the emperor or images of the gods
Emperor Domitian: Todd Bolen/Bible Places.com; Zeus: Photograph by Todd Bolen/Bible Places.com, taken at Archaeological Museum of Istanbul
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Christians in Ephesus refused to worship the popular goddess Artemis.—Acts 19:23-41