The Emperor Cult and Christian Cannibalism

The Emperor Cult & Christian Cannibalism
Written by: Larry Elliott

Some silly notion of a future medical career prompted me to take 5 years of Latin by the time I graduated from high school – never mind that I faint at the close of traumatic events! One of the more interesting aspects of my Latin studies was the reading of mythology in general and it’s offspring, Roman Emperor Cult.  

We might start with the reminder that rulers of antiquity often ascribed to themselves the power and magnificence of deity – think Pharaoh. As Rome’s power expanded, their proconsuls and conquerors were seen increasingly as having divine authority. As early as the second century B.C. temples to “the Dea Roma” were erected to worship the deification of the Roman state and seen as a celebration of the Genius of man. It was, perhaps, an inevitable progression to then begin deifying the Emperor himself. After all, we have a long history of creating god in our own image (see Romans 1!!)

The average Roman was a superstitious believer in household gods as well as the more prominent power gods. In ancient mythology the distinguishing attribute of deity was power. The gods were often portrayed as petty, bickering, immoral tyrants. “Wisdom and morality in the highest sense hardly entered into his notion of a god at all. To the common man, therefore, the power wielded by the absolute ruler of a world-empire doubt-less appeared so inconceivably great that he had no difficulty in believing him the equal of any of the gods. If the essence of divinity is the possession of power, then surely the all-powerful emperor must be divine.” Henry Fairfield Burton, The Biblical World, Aug. 1912

Various emperors either promoted or permitted this worship as it was seen to unify the empire politically and religiously. The Roman Senate voted on the deification of emperors, often posthumously, bestowing the title of “divus” to deceased emperors. The beginnings of Roman emperor worship is often traced to Julius Caesar who, despite his “deity”, was brutally murdered by his friends!! Augustus generally rejected all divine homage at Rome but upon his death in 14 A.D. the Roman Senate voted to bestow upon him the title of “divus” and arranged for his worship.

Whether the emperor personally embraced the notion of his own deity or not is almost irrelevant as the inhabitants of the entire empire were required to pledge their loyalty to the state as a matter of course. This religious devotion was seen, most importantly, as political loyalty.

Herein lies the dilemma for devout Christians of the first century. How were they to respond to this overt worship of the emperor considering their newfound faith in the living Christ? How, indeed, were they to manage this demand that all who dwell in Roman lands bow to the emperor?

Christians “honored the emperor as ruler but declined to recognize him as a god. This distinction the Roman authorities refused to admit. They insisted that the worship of the national gods-and the emperor in particular-was the duty of every citizen and that to refuse was an act of disloyalty. Hence the mere profession of Christianity was regarded as a crime against the state. One who was accused of that crime might clear himself by the simplest act or word implying reverence for the gods or acceptance of the divinity of the emperor.” Henry Fairfield Burton, The Biblical World, Aug. 1912

There is an ancient letter written by Pliny the younger, Roman magistrate in Bithynia, to Emperor Trajan that gives some amazing insights into this 1st century dilemma. Emperor Trajan had ordered the detention and interrogation of Christians and Pliny dutifully complied, but his letter indicates he was a little surprised at what he found. We might well be convicted by what follows. Some excerpts from the letter and comments from the blogger:

“I placed two women, called “deaconesses,” under torture, but I found only a debased superstition carried to great lengths, so I postponed my examination, and immediately consulted you.” Credit Pliny for not continuing the persecution just because he could. All he found was a “superstition” that seemed inane. Give some thought to these faithful deaconesses!!

“…on a fixed day they used to meet before dawn and recite a hymn among themselves to Christ, as though he were a god.” Hmmm, a dawn meeting, recite a hymn and worship - seems pretty nefarious, doesn’t it?

“…binding themselves by oath to commit any (no) crime, they swore to keep from theft, robbery, adultery, breach of faith, and not to deny any trust…” Once again Pliny must be saying, “Oh great emperor, these folks seem to be model citizens, what is it you would like me to do with them?”

“This ceremony over, they used to depart and meet again to take food — but it was of no special character, and entirely harmless.” Does a 1st century potluck qualify as a capital offense? Of course, the rumor was that Christians eat babies! (remember, body and blood of Christ at Lord’s table) Pliny says the food was “entirely harmless.”

We would do well to emulate these 1st century believers who had “…a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame.” (I Peter 3:16)


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