Worship in Ancient Religion
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.