Imperial Cult Worship

April 11, 2014

A book I have found helpful in understanding the background of Revelation is Imperial Cults and the Apocalypse of John: Reading Revelation in the Ruins, by Steven J. Friesen (pub Oxford). Friesen states:

The signal development, first manifest in the dedications of the Temple of the Sebastoi but reflecting broader trends in society was the use of neokoros as a technical title for a city with a provincial temple of the emperors. The power of this innovation was explosive. In a matter of years it changed the public rhetoric of empire in Asia. Within a century it had transformed the discourse of Roman imperialism in the eastern Mediterranean. From the late first century onward, the most prestigious self-designation that could be employed by a city in Asia was neokoros, indicating the presence of a provincial temple where the emperors and their relatives were worshipped (p.150).

Neokoros literally means one who sweeps and cleans a temple; one who has charge of a temple, to keep and adorn it. It came to designate a city which maintained a temple for imperial worship. It is a historical fact that cities competed for this “honor.”

G. K. Beale observes, “Revelation presupposes that Christians were being required to participate to some degree in the imperial cult (e.g., 13:4-8,15-17; 14:9-11; 15:2; 16:2; 19:20; 20:4). . . in the Apocalypse persecution arises because of refusal to worship the ungodly king” (NIGTC Revelation, p.5).

Smyrna Inscription, designating it neokoros. Photo by Leon Mauldin.

Smyrna Inscription, designating it neokoros. Photo by Leon Mauldin.

This inscription found in biblical Smyrna (see Revelation 2:8-11; Smyrna was one of the seven churches of the Roman province of Asia addressed in Rev. 2-3), in lines 3 and 4 designates Smyrna as neokoros of Sebaston [Greek equivalent to Latin Augusti]. Dr. David McClister says, “This inscription is known in the scholarly literature as Smyrna 162. It is an honorary inscription for Cl(audius) Aristophanes Aurelianus,  dated AD 193/235” [lines 1 and 2), and further, “It appears to me to have been a statue base honoring this individual for his leadership in the emperor cult.”


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