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Worship in Ancient Religion

May 10, 2011

In response to some comments and questions directed to my posting (4 May) on the term “monotheism,” I want to emphasize the particular importance of worship in the ancient religious setting.  For a variety of historical reasons, western scholars have tended to focus on religious beliefs, doctrines, and the terminology used to express them, and often have neglected worship.  I’ll try to be concise in making some observations, the cumulative force of which is this:  In the ancient religious environment worship was the key expression of what we mean by “religion”, and the key religious question was what, when and how you worshipped.  The following points are illustrative of this.

  • The dramatized narrative in Daniel 3 portrays the offence of the Jewish captives as refusing to worship any deity “except their own God”.  There is no creedal statement involved.
  • In the Maccabean crisis (as portrayed in 1 Maccabees 2:15-28), the question was whether devout Jews would or would not obey the command of the Syrian overlord to participate in sacrificial worship of the gods. 
  • In 1 Cor 10, Paul’s concern is primarily to discourage Christians from participating in worship of the gods. 
  • In Pliny’s account of his handling of those denounced to him as Christians, he says that he ordered them to partake of the sacrifice to the gods, to offer incense to the emperor’s image, and the curse Christ.
  • In the accounts of early martyrs, e.g., Martyrdom of Polycarp, the demand is that the Christian(s) partake in worship of the gods, not that they sign a doctrinal statement.
  • When ancient critics of Christians accused them of “atheism”, what they referred to was the Christians’ refusal to worship the gods.  In the ancient setting, to refuse to worship a deity was to deny the deity’s validity as recipient of worship.  That was ancient “atheism”.
  • In the eyes of ancients, the most distinguishing (and objectionable) feature of second-temple Jewish religion, and of emergent Christianity of the time as well, was the refusal to worship the gods, and the restriction of worship to the one deity of biblical tradition.
  • What scholars call “pagan monotheism” was typically positing one deity as principal over the others (“megalodaimonism”), the chosen deity often linked to a particular political regime and programme, or involved the idea that all the deities were expressions of a common divine essence.  In either case, it typically made little difference to the worship practices of pagans.  Certainly, in the Roman setting, there was no version of “pagan monotheism” that involved refusing to worship the traditional deities.  So “pagan monotheism” is categorically a different phenomenon than the religious stance of Roman-era devout Jews and Christians, and it is misleading to represent them as alike.

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  1. Another excellent post, Larry.

    While early Jews/Christians did not worship other gods, do you think they saw all those gods as imaginary statues, or perhaps real deities that just were not to be worshiped?

    I ask this because the Semitic divine council of El Elyon and sons is suggestive of this second concept. Israel was to only worship Yahweh, because he was the god/divine son assigned as their God. Job 1 shows that the writer of Job believed in such a divine group, as several of the sons of El (including the Adversary) went to challenge Yahweh. Would this same view still hold true in first century Judaism/Christianity?

    • We have to keep in mind that ancient Jewish religion was not static (or even uniform at any one period). So, e.g., the religious outlook and cultic practices on 7th cent BCE Judah were not the same as Roman-era Judaism My own heuristic concern has been to map accurately the stance and practice of devout Jews of the Roman (late second-temple) period, roughly 2nd cent BCE to 2nd cent CE.
      From the latter period, texts such as those from Qumran and NT references too suggest that the main concern of devout Jews was to deny worship to any putative deity other than the biblical God. Indeed, in this period the dominant idea seems to be, not simply that Jews should worship YHWH alone, but that everyone should, and that gentiles who worship other deities commit idolatry in doing so.
      That may be different from what looks like the view of some earlier Jewish texts, in which the concern is essentially that Jews should worship YHWH alone, and the other nations are allowed their own gods.

  2. Larry,

    Would creedal statement have functioned to maintain the identity of the deity worshiped in juxtaposition to other deities rather than try to “define” or “explain” a deity? In other words, would you say early Christians didn’t try to explain Israel’s God and Jesus’ relationship to him, but they were only concerned that Jesus’ identity was merged closely enough with Israel’s God that you knew to worship one was to direct worship to the other? Or did “creeds” (not large, ecumenical creeds, but something like 1 Cor. 15.-11) have more to them?

    I am trying to get my mind around the value of certain doctrine in relation to worship rather than for confession something about that deity.

    • The NT refers to “confessing”, typically Kyrios Iesous (“Jesus is Lord,” or perhaps “Lord Jesus”, e.g., Rom 10:9-10; 1 Cor 12:1-3), this forming the earliest stage/examples of a Christian “creed”. Christians from the earliest decades reverenced Jesus in the constellation of ways that I have enumerated in publications over 20+ yrs, but took some 300 yrs or so to elaborate doctrines in explanation and justification of this worship practice. Worship in the ancient world typically is portrayed as a response to an “epiphany”, a manifestation of a god, whether in a vision or whatever. Earliest Christians reverenced Jesus as unique plenipotentiary of the one biblical God because they believed that God had revealed Jesus’ exalted glory to them and now required them to do this.

      • It seems like confession was more about allegiance than affirming particular data.

      • I’d put it a bit differently. There are “data” involved in the confession “Kyrios Jesous”: That God has exalted Jesus to heavenly glory and that it is now God’s will that Jesus be confessed and reverenced as the one unique Lord and Savior. But I’d distinguish this from the more complex efforts of Christians later to engage questions such as how to reconcile reverence of Jesus with oneness of God, etc. These efforts drew upon intellectual/philosophical categories to engage these questions, and in the process produced what I mean by “doctrines”

  3. Your blog is outstanding. As a Christian and student of Scripture, I am fascinated that I am able to have a back-and-forth with a great scholar such as yourself.

    Would you say that worship is the outward expression or application of the inwardly formulated doctrine?

    • Worship of deities always involves some sort of conviction that they should be worshipped. But I’d reserve “doctrine” for more elaborated teachings and justification of religious views. For most people then and now, there is little by way of “doctrine” in their religion, but there are likely less articulated convictions that prompt their behavior.

  4. Thanks for this, Larry. I think we’ve been ruined to think that “worship” of Gods other than the one true God in scripture was merely some sort of intellectual assertion. Thanks for clarifying that the act of worship was as much political as “spiritual.”

    Also, I just finished your book “Lord Jesus Christ.” Excellent, engaging read–which is always a pleasant surprise for a scholarly text. Keep up the good work, and thanks again.

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