Priests of the Imperial Cult

July 28, 2011

There is much evidence that the Imperial Cult of Caesar Worship was thriving by the end of the 1st century and in the years following. This was the case with many of the cities mentioned in Rev. 2-3, cities where the Seven Churches of Asia were located. (By churches we do not mean church buildings, but seven congregations of Christians in the Roman province of Asia).

Priest of Imperial Cult. Izmir Museum (Smyrna). Photo by Leon Mauldin.

 William Barclay, in his Letters to the Seven Churches said,

Emperor worship had begun as spontaneous demonstration of gratitude to Rome; but toward the end of the first century, in the days of Domitian, the final step was taken and Caesar worship became compulsory. Once a year the Roman citizen must burn a pinch of incense on the altar to the godhead of Caesar; and having done so, he was given a certificate to guarantee that he had performed his religious duty” (Barclay.29).

For the Christian, there was (is) but one Lord, and that is Jesus Christ. But there was tremendous pressure to say that Caesar was Lord, and there were many consequences if one failed to do so.

On a personal note: I enjoyed teaching at Sewell Hall’s Young Men’s Leadership Camp Mon-Wed, surveying the Seven Churches (Rev. 2-3) and making use of lots of photos of the biblical sites.

Tonight my wife and I are in Toronto en route to Sudbury to do a series of Bible lessons there.

Click on image for higher resolution.


At Pergamum, Trajan’s Temple

May 11, 2010

As we continue to look at biblical sites, especially in Turkey, we want to call attention to some points of interest in Pergamum, located at modern Bergama.  Fatih Cimok writes, “The word Pergamum is thought to have been from a pre-Hellenistic tongue and meant ‘citadel’ or ‘stronghold'” (Pergamum, 2009 ed., p.7).

Pergamum has an interesting history.  In ancient times, it wasn’t just the city of Pergamum, it was actually the kingdom of Permamum, which extended from Bythinia to Cappodoccia.

Pergamum came under Roman rule in 133 B.C., when King Attlos II died. He had bequeathed Pergamum to Rome in his will. It was during Roman times that a temple was built and dedicated to Emperor Trajan and his adopted son Hadrian. Todd Bolen observes, “The Trajan temple was the jewel of Pergamum.”

Today’s photos depict some of the ruins of the Trajan temple. Restoration has been done by the German Archaeological Institute.  Click on images for higher resolution.

Tragan Temple in Pergamum. Photo by Leon Mauldin.

Trajan reigned A.D. 98-117, and Hadrian reigned A.D. 117-138.

Tragan Temple in Pergamum. Photo by Leon Mauldin.

Pergamum became a center for the Imperial Cult, for emperor worship. Cimok writes:

Having an imperial temple would also bring many visitors to a city like Pergamum during the festivals held for the imperial cult, and consequently economic benefits; thus the cities on Roman soil (including Pergamum and Ephesus) competed over building imperial temples. (Ibid.17).

More to come on Pergamum. See also our previous posts on Emperor Worship at Ephesus April 10,11, and 14.

Smyrna, the Poor, Rich Church

April 27, 2010

In Rev. 2 we have the letter to the church at Smyrna (modern Izmir).  This church received the shortest of the seven letters (Rev. 2:8-11), and it consists only of commendations.  Smyrna was one of the wealthiest cities of the Roman province of Asia, but the Christians there were poor; Jesus wrote, “I know your works, tribulation, and poverty (but you are rich)” (Rev. 2:9).   Their poverty may have been in large measure due to their unwillingness to compromise their convictions.  Christians who were exclusively loyal to Jesus Christ could not worship other gods, nor could they take part in emperor worship.  It may be difficult for us to imagine how pervasive idolatry was in the first century.  When the New Testament church came into existence, the residents of Smyrna had for centuries been worshiping the goddess Athena.  The ruins of her temple are pictured here:

Athena Temple in Smyrna. Photo by Leon Mauldin.

The goddess Athena was in fact widely worshiped. Her image below is in the Izmir Museum:

Image of goddess Athena. Izmir Museum. Photo by Leon Mauldin.

Imperial worship was deeply entrenched at Smyrna, the practice of burning incense to Caesar and saying that “Caesar is Lord.”   Here is an image of one of the priests of the Imperial Cult, representative of the men who served in such temples and expedited emperor worship.

Priest of Imperial Cult. Izmir Museum. Photo by Leon Mauldin.

Those who made up the church at Smyrna were told, “Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life” (Rev. 2:10). We learn that the faith that pleases God is based not on convenience, but on deep and abiding conviction.  What Jesus required in the 1st century He requires in the 21st century.