“You shall have no other gods before me.” –Exodus 20:3 (NIV)
From the beginning, God has always had competition.
For a place in the hearts of mankind, that is. Make no mistake, God has no contemporary. No other god rivals him. He is sovereign. He is omniscient. He is Alpha and Omega. He is everlasting. There are no other gods above him and it’s a shame he had to waste a commandment to inform us of that.
In the Old Testament, God’s competition was most often the fertility goddess Asherah and Baal. While Elijah won the battle with the prophets of Baal at Mt. Carmel, even the great King Solomon succumbed to foreign gods. The Book of 1 Kings tells this story, “For it was so, when Solomon was old, that his wives turned his heart after other gods; and his heart was not loyal to the Lord his God, as was the heart of his father David. For Solomon went after Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, and after Milcom the abomination of the Ammonites. Solomon did evil in the sight of the Lord, and did not fully follow the Lord, as did his father David.” (1 Kings 11:4-6). If the wisest man who ever lived fell prey, then it would not be surprising that ordinary people living in the Roman Empire would not know his place.
Cultures all over the Roman Empire were mostly polytheistic and the New Testament monotheistic nation of Israel was again influenced by other gods. It seems that they preferred quantity to quality. While the Jews had a magnificent temple in Jerusalem, other tributes to the Imperial Cult resided in other areas of Palestine. The Romans had a god for nearly everything imaginable and the Emperors elevated themselves to god status through the Imperial Cult. Some of them were revered and worshipped while some tried and weren’t. Caesar Augusts, for example, earned his “divinity” from the people. Domitian, on the other hand, demanded to be worshipped even though he was not necessarily respected.
The temple built by Herod the Great at Samaria was one of the grandest in the region. In Jewish Antiquities, the Jewish historian Josephus referred to the temple as one of the most renowned in the area in terms of size and beauty. Herod had it built in honor of Caesar Augustus. Among the Gentiles the Jews would not associate with were the Samaritans, in particular. In the Book of John, chapter four, though, Jesus did what was almost unheard of in the day when he traveled through the region instead of traveling around it. He obviously knew the Samaritans needed to be evangelized as well and this temple may be have been a symbol of why. Instead of worshipping in a temple dedicated to Jehovah, some of them may have been worshipping in a temple dedicated to a man, a man who represented a culture of paganism.
The city of Caesarea Philippi was located about 25 miles north of the Sea of Galilee. There is no record of Jesus actually in the city but Matthew 16:13 places him in the vicinity and it’s also where Peter gave his “great confession” in Matthew 16:16. A cave there was a shrine to the Greek god Pan, the god of the forest. His name was found in inscriptions cut into the escarpment of the mountain adjacent to the cave. Herod the Great had a white marble temple built in honor of Caesar Augustus. Herod Philip the Tetrarch enlarged and renamed Caesarea Philippi after Augustus and himself. These are just two examples of the Roman ego and paganism prevalent in Galilee during Jesus’s time. It would have been easy for Jesus to see people in the Empire putting so many material things above the worship of Jehovah.
Paul, and all the early apostles, encountered the same polytheistic culture and he followed Jesus’s Samaritan example. He went into these cultures, taught and established churches. Excavations across Asia Minor cities have revealed allegiances to Greek and Roman Gods and also to the Imperial Cult. For example, temples found at Pergamum honoring Greek gods Zeus (with a huge altar) and Dionysus, Greek goddesses Athena and Hera, and Emperors Augustus and Trajan can be found scattered all over the city. Fearful not to offend any gods, in cities such as Pergamum and Athens, alters were built to those “unknown Gods”. God’s letter to Pergamum in the Book of Revelation likely addressed not only Pergamum’s, but the entire region’s, imperial worship and probably their devotion to other pagan Gods.
Pergamum, which means “citadel” in the Greek, was well-planned. Situated prominently in the city was the city government, military, educational and religious institutions, which reflected the priorities of the city planners. Noted for its statuary, some statues honored the Imperial Cult. Pergamum was also detested by God in the Book of Revelation because Domitian roasted Antipas, the first martyr of Asia, in a bronze kettle. Revelation 2:13 reads, “I know where you live—where Satan has his throne. Yet you remain true to my name. You did not renounce your faith in me, not even in the days of Antipas, my faithful witness, who was put to death in your city—where Satan lives.” Temples to pagan gods and the Imperial Cult were intermingled with other civic and commercial structures so polytheism was the norm.
Paul also likely encountered a strong and established Imperial Cult and polytheism in the wealthy and powerful city of Antioch of Pisidia. There, he gave his first sermon to Gentiles (Acts 13). Located in eastern modern-day Turkey, the center of the city housed the Temple of Augustus and it included elaborate stone carvings. The temple to Augustus was just one of several cultic monuments Paul would have encountered in the city. The Temple of Augustus was also surrounded by other Hellenistic temples.
The principle deity of Ephesus was likely the Greek goddess of fertility and childbirth, Artemis. The temple in her honor at Ephesus was the first one in the Greek world to be built of marble. It was originally referred to as one of the seven wonders of the ancient world and it’s easy to understand why. The monumental building was 425 feet long and 220 feet wide with 127 white marble columns that measured 62 feet high and spaced less than four feet apart. It was considered the glory of Ephesus.
There was also a strong community of Artemis worshippers in Sardis, a Roman “temple-warden” city, where an impressive temple was built in her honor in the third century B.C. It was reconstructed multiple times by the Romans following the A.D. 17 earthquake and a separate flood. A tribute to the Imperial Cult, specifically Augustus and his wife Livia, were also found at the temple. Another less prominent Imperial Cult temple in Sardis is believed to have been built later in honor of Emperor Vespasian.
The city of Smyrna was selected from among eleven competing cities to house a Temple of Tiberius and be the first temple-warden city under Tiberius. A temple-warden city was one that built a temple to honor an emperor and the Imperial Cult. To signify its designation and devotion, the city erected a statue and minted coins to Tiberius, who was the emperor at the time of Jesus’s death. The city was destroyed by an earthquake in 178 A.D. and rebuilt but almost nothing of the New Testament city stands.
In the city of Smyrna, people pretending to be Jews were referred to as a synagogue of Satan in the Book of Revelation 2:9. Whether it was entirely because of the “Jews” or not, the city was full of residents who were devoted to the Roman Empire. In 26 A.D. the city petitioned the Emperor Tiberius to allow it to build a temple in honor of his deity. It had worshipped Rome as a deity since almost two centuries before Christ. John’s disciple Polycarp was martyred in Smyrna when he was stabbed to death.
The island of Samothrace, in the northwestern Aegean Sea, housed the impressive pagan “Sanctuary of the Great Gods”. Deities such as Demeter, Hermes, the Cabiri, Hades, Persephone and Venus were also worshipped on the island that was hostile to Christianity. Dining halls used for the worship of Demeter have been found there that were similar to ones used for the same purposes in Corinth. Paul likely landed on the island during his second missionary journey on his way to Macedonia.
Unfortunately, the times haven’t really changed. While we don’t necessarily build physical temples to our gods, we still move God down the divinity ladder. Like the Romans, we lack humility and love money, as examples. Those two sins alone are centuries-old and are alive and well even today.
What other gods do we worship today?
Were the Greeks and Romans much different than us?
Would you be willing to go into hostile environments for Jesus?