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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Idolatry

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So deep-rooted was the Jewish hatred of idolatry, and so general had been the condemnation of the practice, that our Lord found no reason for insistence upon the generally accepted commandments on the subject. But soon as the gospel message began to be preached outside the pale of Judaism, the matter became one of the pressing questions of the day. Protests against the popular practice had not been wanting from the older Greek thinkers; Heraclitus, Xenophanes, and Zeno had all raised their voices against image-worship. But the popular mind was not affected by their teaching, and many were the apologists who wrote in favour of the established custom. It is not surprising to read (Acts 17:16) that, when St. Paul visited Athens, ‘his spirit was provoked within him, as he beheld the city full of idols,’ even though the statement is not strictly accurate. His whole training rendered him antagonistic to anything approaching idolatry; and in his letters the same feeling is expressed. No Christian was to keep company with idolaters (1 Corinthians 5:10 f.), who could not inherit the Kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 6:9, Ephesians 5:5). He reminds the Thessalonians that they had abandoned the old idolatrous worship ‘to serve the living God’ (1 Thessalonians 1:9). Yet from the Christian point of view there is only one God, and the true Christian cannot but recognize that thus ‘no idol is anything in the world’ (1 Corinthians 8:4).

But there are two aspects of idolatry which caused the greatest anxiety in the primitive Church.

(a) The decision of the Jerusalem Council as to the duties incumbent upon heathen converts contains the significant phrase, ‘that they abstain from the pollutions of idols’ (Acts 15:20), ‘from meats offered to idols’ (Acts 15:29). The command is intended as a comprehensive one, meaning that idolatry in every form is to be avoided; ‘participation in the idolatrous feasts is especially emphasised, simply because this was the crassest form of idolatry’ (A. Harnack, The Acts of the Apostles, Eng. translation , 1909, p. 257). But it was also the means of subtle temptation, which gave rise to a serious question. The probability was that most of the meat sold in the markets as well as that set before the guests at Gentile tables had been ‘offered to idols.’ What was the Christian to do? Was he to buy no meat? Must he refuse all such invitations? It must not be forgotten that the breach between St. Paul and the Judaizers had never been really healed. The partisans on either side were ever on the look-out for opportunities to widen it. The leaders did their utmost to heal the quarrel. Therefore, in dealing with the questions raised by the Corinthian Church, St. Paul was compelled to remember that he must not give any offence to the Judaizing section, which was evidently represented there (1 Corinthians 1:11 ff.), since he had acquiesced in the Apostolic Decree. It is true that this was only in the nature of a compromise, but its recommendations must be carried out as far as possible. On the other hand, the Gentile section of the community, which was responsible for raising the question, was in favour of a broad-minded view. And St. Paul’s dilemma was increased by the fact that his sympathies were with them. He lays the greatest stress, therefore, upon the principle that idolatry is wholly hateful and must be carefully guarded against (1 Corinthians 10:14). In the worship of Israel, to eat the sacrifices of the altar is to have communion with the altar. It is true that the idol is nothing, and the sacrifice therefore has no meaning, yet idolatry among the heathen is demon-worship rather than the worship of God; would they wish to have communion with demons? (1 Corinthians 10:15 ff.). It was all very well to shelter behind the fact that Christians really know that there is only one God; but all have not this knowledge: consequently the weaker brethren-that is, those who are perplexed and troubled by these questions-may be led into danger by our actions. Yet a compromise is possible. They are to buy what is offered, and eat what is set before them, asking no questions (1 Corinthians 10:28 ff.). If either the seller or the host say, ‘This has been offered to idols,’ whether in a friendly or a hostile spirit, the Christians must have nothing to do with it. It is all a matter of expediency and, in part, of love. God’s glory must come first; neither Jew nor Greek nor the Church must be needlessly offended.

(b) The second aspect of idolatry afforded even more grievous trials, and was eventually the source of serious persecution: it was the rise of Emperor-worship. It is not difficult to see that such a cult was almost inevitable under existing circumstances. There had always been a tendency among Greeks and Romans to deify heroes of the past, but the practice gradually grew up of erecting temples in honour of living heroes (Plutarch, Lysander, xviii.; Herodotus, v. 47). It was perhaps not unnatural that a cult of the all-victorious city of Rome should arise, and as early as 195 b.c. there was a temple in its honour at Smyrna. Taking all these facts into consideration, the development of the Imperial cult under the Empire was only to be looked for. After the death of Julius Caesar a temple in his honour was erected at Ephesus (29 b.c.), and it was only a step to pay a like honour to Augustus during his lifetime (Tacitus, Ann. iv. 37). Such men as Gaius and Domitian were ready enough to encourage the idea (Suetonius, Domit. xiii.). In the province of Asia the cult was hailed with delight, and the result, as touching Christians, is seen in the Apocalypse (13). Such a cult was bound to change the whole relationship between Christianity and the Roman power. As a general rule it would be quite possible to escape offending susceptibilities with regard to the worship of the older gods, but the new cult was so universal and so popular that it soon became fraught with grave danger for members of the Christian community. Antichrist had indeed arisen, and fierce warfare could be the only result.

Literature.-For the whole subject: J. G. Frazer, The Golden Bough2, 1900, also edition of Pausanias, 1898; V. Chapot, La Province romaine proconsulaire d’Asie, 1904; for (a): Commentaries of Heinrici (1896), Schmiedel (1892), Ellicott (1887), Stanley (21858), Robertson-Plummer (1911) on 1 Corinthians 8-10; and for (b): H. B. Swete, The Apocalypse of St. John2, 1907, pp. lxxviii-xciii; B. F. Westcott, Epp. of St. John, 1883, pp. 250-282; E. Beurlier, Le Culte impérial, 1891; G. Boissier, La Religion romaine, 1892, i. 109-186; G. Wissowa, Religion und Kultus der Römer, 1902, pp. 71-78, 280-289.

F. W. Worsley.


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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Idolatry'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdn/i/idolatry.html. 1906-1918.

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