The Roman Cult of Emperor Worship

Many scholars see worship of the emperor as the background for the worship of the Beast in Revelation 13:4, 15-16; 14:9-11, 15:2, 16:2, 19:20, 20:4.  If this is true, then we need to know when emperor worship became an empire-wide phenomenon.  The standard view of Emperor worship found in many popular commentaries comes from William Ramsay, writing at the turn of the 20th century:

“…in no part of the world was there such fervent and sincere loyalty to the emperors as in Asia. Augustus had been a saviour to the Asian peoples, and they deified him as the Saviour of mankind, and worshiped him with the most whole-hearted devotion as the ‘present deity’.” W. Ramsay, The Letters to the Seven Churches (New York: Hodder & Stoughton, 1909) 115.

Julius Caesar allowed himself to be worshiped as a god, but his successor Augustus only allowed emperor worship outside of the city of Rome.  Augustus is known in some inscriptions  as  CAESAR DIVI FILIUS, Son of God, that is, Son of eternal Caesar.  Oaths were taken on the divine spirit of the emperor. His image was publicly adored. Worship of the image was a regular military duty.   Caligula was the first emperor to demand to be worshiped, he demanded that citizens everywhere bow to his statue.  Nero also claimed to be divine, although in neither case was there a requirement to worship the emperor.  As Augustus had been Zeus incarnate, so Nero was Apollo incarnate. Even Seneca called him as the long-awaited savior of the world.

Domitian took the title “lord and god” and ordered people to confess he was “lord and god” as a test of loyalty (Suetonius, The Lives of the Caesars, Book 8: Domitian 13).  Marital says the “beasts in the arena” hailed him as a god.  While this is clearly legendary, it does reflect a contemporary writer implying divine honors for Domitian.  Dio Cassius (Roman History 67.14)refers to Domition exiling a Flavius Clemens and his wife, Flavia Domitilla for “atheism.”  Atheism is the charge made against those who drifted into “things Jewish.” Dio Chrysostom reported that Domitan liked to “be flattered” as “master and god.”  Those who refused to flatter him in this way risked trouble. (In Oratorio 45:1, see also First Discourse on Kingship, 1.14-15).

How prevalent was the imperial cult in Asia Minor?  Of the seven cities mentioned in Revelation 2-3, five have imperial priests and altars (all but Philadelphia and Laodica) and six have imperial temples (all but Thyatira).  At Pergamum an imperial temple was established as early as 28 B.C.  The city was so central to the imperial cult that Revelation describes this city as having the “throne of Satan.”  In short, a Christian in Asia Minor could not avoid the Imperial Cult.

It was during the reign of Domitian when the imperial cult became a factor in unifying the empire in Asia Minor. The provincial cult allowed the Roman network of social obligations to be extended to virtually the whole population.  If you lived within the empire, then you were a social client of the Emperor and owed him supreme allegiance.  It is not hard to see, therefore, the struggle which Christians in the late first century would have showing allegiance to Rome – if that allegiance required worship of the Emperor, then the Christian must refuse or compromise their faith.

Some Bibliography:

Ethelbert  Stauffer, Christ and the Caesars. Translated by K. and R. Gregor Smith. (Philadelphia: The Westminster, 1955).

David A. deSilva, “The ‘Image Of The Beast’ And The Christians In Asia Minor: Escalation Of Sectarian Tension In Revelation 13” TrinJ 12:2 (Fall 1991) 185-208.

When was the Book of Revelation Written?

The majority of the early church assumed that it was under Domitian’s persecution that the book was written.  Irenaues said that John wrote “nearly in our generation”, at the end of the reign of Domitian.  All of the secular evidence for persecution under Domitian comes from after his reign. However, contemporary sources such as Tacitus, Pliny and Dio Cassius all imply Domitian persecuted Christians. In 1 Clement 1:1, written in A.D. 96, alludes to “the sudden and repeated calamities and reverses that have befallen us.”  1 Clement 4-7 contains several references which might be taken as either referring to the martyrdom of Peter and Paul or the present persecutions under Domitian.

John writing Revelation on PatmosS. R. F. Price (Rituals and Power, 197-198) argues the establishment of an imperial cult in Ephesus is the immediate background for Revelation 13.  He draws parallels between Dan 3:12, 18 (LXX) and Rev 13:7-8, 14-15, 18 and concludes the writer of Revelation is drawing a connection between the refusal of the three young men to bow to the idol and the presence of an imperial cult in Asia Minor.

Since all of the sources which describe Domitian as a megalomaniac who demanded worship as a god date from after his reign, it can be argued the later sources are painting the old emperor in a negative light (perhaps to paint Trajan in a good light.)  DeSilva disagrees, arguing instead that “Domitian valued cultic language as an expression of social and political relationships.”  This cultic language would have been imposed on the lower levels of society as a method of declaring loyalty to the state.  (“The ‘Image Of The Beast’” TrinJ 12:2 (Fall 1991), 199)

On the other hand, there are a number of recent scholars who challenge the assumption of Roman persecution as a background for the book.  For example, A. Y. Collins (Crisis and Catharsis, 69-73)  argues the book is more about problems within the church, especially with Christians being drawn into pagan worship, rather than an organized and systematic persecution of Christian by the Empire.  This is view has the advantage of taking the letters to the seven churches seriously (Rev 2-3).  In these letters, the problems arise from within the church and not from Rome. The problems revolve around how the churches in Asia Minor integrate Christianity and pagan culture. If there is a persecution theme in Rev 2-3, it is the same fraternal debated between Jews and Christians we see as early as Galatians.

In the end, however, I think that John is addressing how Christians can live in a culture that is thoroughly anti-Christian.  For the Jewish convert to Christ, this is easier since Jews were more or less used to finding ways to be separated from the paganism of the Greco-Roman world.  For the converted Gentile, things were much more difficult because their worldview simply accepted many of these practices as “normal.”

It is this problem which is most “preachable,” since American Christianity stopped asking how to remain separate from the world, hardly noticing how non-Christian categories of thought influence how we live our lives in Christ.  Perhaps we need to re-read the letters to the seven churches with this in mind.  (Let the one with ears hear?)